Sunday, 29 March 2015

Whitehorse - Leave No Bridge Unburned : Six Shooter Records

Back in 2012 the debut album of Whitehorse was one of this blog’s formative reviews. So it’s fitting to reflect on how both have grown in the last three years. Just as the blog closes in on 400 reviews, the evolution of Whitehorse as a recording entity develops into the making of an album capable of creating shockwaves throughout the Canadian and international community of ultra-creative roots music. LEAVE NO BRIDGE UNBURNED sees husband and wife duo, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, steer their sound in a vamped up direction, underpinning an avalanche of spectacular tunes with a firm rock undercurrent. The sheer immensity of precious tracks make this album an outstanding candidate for national acclaim and it would not be a surprise to see it get a Juno nod.

Like every great album, intrinsic qualities surface with each listen but right from the off a trio of outstanding pieces firmly plant the record at the core of your listening sphere. ‘Tame as the Wild Ones’ is a sumptuous waltz-infused tune designed to set your senses alight with a choral melody straight from a melted heart. As the record hurtles towards its forty minute conclusion, a pair of ‘real deal’ high octane rocking tracks launches the album into a stratospheric alt-country heaven. Take your pick between ‘Oh Delores’ and ‘The Walls Have Drunken Ears’, but both see the guitar fully take control with incredible effect.

Luke and Melissa participated in effective individual careers prior to forming Whitehorse and have only just let the door open to a multitude of session players after initially driving the duo via their own diverse guitar and percussion skills. Enlisting the production services of Gus Van Go has enabled a fuller sound to develop with the outstanding liaison and chemistry of Luke and Melissa still remaining the core ingredient. Additionally a couple of intense ballads just preceding the rocking finale show the duo at their harmonious best in the gorgeous ‘Dear Irony’ and the passionate ‘Fake your Death (and I’ll Fake Mine)’.

Although ingrained members of the Canadian music scene, Luke and Melissa hold a fascination for aspects of the American south and introduce plenty of moody gothic moments especially within the haunting beat of ‘Evangelina’. The album emerges out of a blanket of darkness with the stunning opener ‘Baby What’s Wrong’ showing glimpses that Whitehorse can rise to the level of the great male-female Americana duos, most notably the now no longer active Civil Wars. ‘Sweet Disaster’ sees Melissa lead on an unconventional love song heading straight in Luke’s direction. All songs are original compositions from Luke and Melissa with Gus lending a hand to three of them including the thumping ‘Downtown’ which raises the volume with the injection of some heavy soul and a stint from the farfisa organ.  

Leaving comments on the excellent two remaining tracks, ‘You Get Older’ and ‘The One I Hurt’, to the end is just a reflection of the sheer high quality of the others, although the former does stand out with a landscape inspiring bass line. In fact they play their part in making this one of the most exhilarating releases of the year so far and one that sets such a high standard in mixing infectious musical marvel with songs crafted to meet the approval of the most discerning ear.

Whitehorse’s development as a recording duo in the last few years has been impressive and LEAVE NO BRIDGE UNBURNED is a sonic delight successful in making a lasting impact. This is a record whose enjoyment of will only just commence at the conclusion of this high complimentary rave review.


Hannah Rose Platt - Portraits :Self Released

How refreshing to come across a young artist pursuing country music ideals without veering down the route of ‘quick fix’ pop-rock models. Hannah Rose Platt uses the combined beauty of her lyrical wisdom and wondrous vocals to populate a blank canvas of a debut record in remarkable and mature portions. Adopting a folk-tinged influence and finespun musical arrangements helps steer PORTRAITS, Hannah’s debut full length release, into the territory of lauded association and anointed acclaim. All twelve tracks etch a tantalising appeal across your mind, showcasing Hannah’s potential to develop into an influential songwriter, both in evidence on solo contributions and the nous to learn from the best.

Being hailed by Sid Griffin as a ‘young, north of England Emmylou Harris’ is an eye opening comment to introduce a female artist but such hyperbole is not so out of place. On a record simply but beautifully crafted, Hannah explores some deep seated concepts using guile, awareness and a flair for using the song writing medium to invoke some serious character studies. The bravest of Hannah’s eight solo and two collaborative writing efforts is the marvellous ‘1954’, taking on the subject of dementia with breath taking maturity. Further character based compositions reveal the ultimate daydreaming fantasy of ‘Dancer’ and emotional inter-family communication from behind prison walls in ‘Birthday Card’.

Every aspiring song writer will dig deep into the lavish well of relationships to form their subjects and Hannah delivers this wonderfully in a trio of tracks looking at the topics of regret, aftermath and reconciliation. ‘Half Way Home’ takes on the notion of turning back time to alter the future, while ‘Crumbs’ sieves through the remnants of a failed association. ‘The Doll and the Soldier’ is a metaphorical take on rekindling old times and is a co-write with Sophie Daniels. Likewise the track ‘(We’ll Say Goodbye) Tomorrow’ sees Hannah share penning duties with her co-producer Michael Bonagura to explore the decision to delay the inevitable for just one more night.

Hannah had the good fortune to take herself off to Nashville from her Liverpool base and enjoy its rich recording resources to make PORTRAITS. She also shows an intuitive inkling in what constitutes a good song when selecting the two borrowed tunes for the record. Vocally Hannah totally wipes the floor with Luke Bryan on her version of ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ bringing visions of a young Lee Ann Womack imposing raw emotion and countrified talent to the ubiquitous drinking song. Also honing in on a song co-written by Shane McAnally, one of the industry’s best, will do her song writing development no harm. Michael Bonagura’s ‘Little Screws’ is a delightful song to launch the dulcet tones of Hannah at the commencement of the album revealing a powerfully messaged piece, focussing on mundane reflection before exploding with the mortal trinity of ‘a needle, a gun and a rich man’s war’.

Hannah’s sweet and comforting vocals stretch the length of the record and are allowed to blossom courtesy of the subtle music arrangements infiltrating a multitude of string accompaniments, most notably fiddle and cello. As intimated, this record possesses all the hallmarks of that dream-laden aspiring singer-songwriter migrating to Nashville knowing that her agenda-free offerings will likely to gravitate more to the left field Americana world than the corporate radio obsessed moguls of Music Row. This is a massive complement to Hannah as her passion and drive to make glorious aromatic music, relieved of chasing artificial melodies, lends itself to an album of great substance.

Without any hesitation, endorsement of this near faultless debut work is forthcoming and PORTRAITS is as pure and natural an album you could wish to listen to. Hannah Rose Platt is a welcome addition to the UK music scene and proud accomplice to a record sealed to add value to your precious listening experience.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Kimmie Rhodes + Awna Teixeira - St. George's, Bristol Friday 27th March 2015

Question: What do Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Wyonna Judd, Gillian Welch, Cowboy Jack Clements, Joe Ely and Buddy Holly all have in common? Answer: They were all namechecked by Kimmie Rhodes last night during her Bristol show, reflecting the depth and breadth of her musical associations over the last thirty plus years. Of course Buddy Holly is the odd one out of not working professionally with Kimmie but, being the source of the Waylon story, a fellow original inhabitant of Lubbock Tx and one of her heroes, made his presence relevant. In fact Kimmie chose to end the show with a cover of ‘Raining in My Heart’ to cap a performance running deep in a wealth of classic country and immaculate song writing.

This beautiful hall now converted to a vibrant music venue hosted a one off double bill of two contrasting touring musicians reflecting a diversity of styles becoming encompassed under the Americana banner. While Kimmie is a certified Texas treasure born with the gift of Lone Star song writing sentiment, Awna Teixeira beautifully blends the nuances of Canadian and European folk to present a sound extolling in haunting brilliance. Although technically billed as opening for Kimmie, Awna’s set was just a mere 15 minutes shorter and if maybe the bulk of the audience were initially attracted to the more country sound, leaving enthralled by the essence of the ‘support’ was just shy of mandatory.

Both artists were touring in the duo format with Gabe Rhodes assisting Kimmie and Jay Speed doing likewise to Awna. The mother-son comments frequently flowed in the second half of tonight’s show, although Gabe’s value to Kimmie’s music is immense whether playing effective guitar in a multiple of styles or being more than tempted to make full use of the venue’s grand piano. Gabe was also a key architect on Kimmie’s latest and very impressive album COWGIRL BOUDOIR. Perhaps it was a solitary regret from the show that we only heard two songs off this record. While ‘Yes’ and ‘Worthy Cause’ are fine numbers, there is so much more on offer to enjoy on the disc and it could have easily filled another half an hour.

Awna did focus more on her latest album featuring amongst others, the title track ‘Wild One’, ‘Thunderbird’, ‘Away We Go’ and ‘Blue Heart on Your Sleeve’. Jay started and finished his supporting contribution on lap steel, with faint electric guitar adorning the mid-section. Although Awna’s solo career is gathering momentum, we remember her eclectic musicianship as part of Canadian roots combo Po Girl and tonight during her allotted 45 minutes we were treated to banjo, guitar and accordion. Whether reflecting on her Portuguese heritage, passionately campaigning for increased mental health awareness or celebrating the wonders of her surroundings, the latter captured in ‘Stargazer’, the composed Awna enthrals and entices with equal measure. One note to the venue would be to turn the sound up on the vocals a little, as it was quite tricky to listen to Awna’s inter song chat from an allocated seat towards the rear of this cavernous hall.

This situation was resolved for Kimmie’s set by finding a couple of empty seats nearer the front and there was no issue listening to her informative and entertaining tales punctuating a series of songs stretching across her back catalogue. There was a different take on the Buddy Holly/Waylon Jennings much told plane crash story, as well as Kimmie paying humble homage to her mentor Willie Nelson. This peaked with a gorgeous version of ‘Love Me Like a Song’ which was neatly followed by one of the first songs she recorded when re-locating to Austin at the outset of her career, the very Tex-Mex sounding ‘Contrabandistas’. Other songs sung during this engaging set with illustrious connections were ‘Love and Happiness’ (Emmylou Harris), ‘I Just Drove By’ (Wyonna Judd) and ‘God’s Acre’ (Gillian Welch).

On the plus side it was great witnessing two exceptional artists sharing a single bill but, with the inevitable frustration of seeing their sets cut in mid-flow due to time constraints. It’s a shame that no West Midlands venue was prepared to give either artist a solo gig especially as Awna was an integral member of the popular Po Girl. However fair play to St. George’s in Bristol for hosting a fine evening. No doubt both artists will be keen to continue to develop their presence in the UK in the future as Awna Teixeira will without doubt prosper by dazzling audiences with her exclusive take on roots induced Euro-Canadian Americana and there is little hesitation in hailing Kimmie Rhodes as the personification of ‘three chords and the truth’.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bella Hardy - With the Dawn :Noe Records

Just imagine emerging from a ravaging winter to be greeted by the new dawn of spring. Supplant that greeting with the beautiful cherubic tones of Bella Hardy and you’ll definitely be re-invigorated for the longer days of summer. A little imagination for this may be needed when living in the UK’s mild climate but bathing in the exquisite sounds from Bella’s new album is very real as WITH THE DAWN gets its timely spring release. Teaming up with producer Ben Seal and focussing on original material rather than exploring traditional song, reaps dividend for Bella who delivers a record saturated in soothing and stimulating sounds.

Her reign may or may not be about to end as the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year but in line with a prolific past, Bella once again charms and beguiles the listener with a collection of eleven songs spearheaded by a stunning lead off track. ‘The Only Thing to Do’ had its single release in January along with a striking accompanying video and branches out beyond any perception of an insular folk world to reveal a cheery persona wrapped in a satisfying palatable tune. Peel away the breezy melody of the opening track and the music gets far more explorative with the constant thread being Bella’s heavenly vocals, for me peaking on the exceptional ‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’.

Instrumentally, the banjo plays a significant role mainly in subtle portions, although often punctuated with profound blasts of brass courtesy of French horn, tuba, trumpet and trombone. At times you have to put a little effort in to get the musical nuances but the rewards are plentiful especially when the mind is de-cluttered prior to listening. Only on two tracks does Bella seek writing assistance, with the Ben Seal co-write ‘First Light of the Morning’ benefiting from a lengthy intro as though having a long stretch before an early rise. Bella has also teamed up with her great friend and performing colleague Cara Luft to pen a nature located home calling song titled ‘Time Wanders On’ to great effect.

The only song not to emerge from a period of song writing self-evaluation and reflection is the commissioned World War 1 piece ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’ part of a project focussing on the unsung heroes. This is in the folk standard tradition of recounting century old tales with strong messages and forms part of a group of songs on the album which grow fonder with each listen. Add to this the intimate and cosy ‘Gifts’ plus the haunting ‘You Don’t Have to Change (But You Have to Choose’) to present an album that fascinates throughout its 37 minute duration. As if to insert a little more mystique to the record, Bella chooses to end with the enticing and ironically titled ‘And We Begin’ which gives you one final moment to savour a finely tuned vocalist at the peak of her pristine powers.

WITH THE DAWN should be the centrepiece of Bella’s late spring tour, although she can also draw on material from six previous albums, quite remarkable for someone barely past thirty years of age. The folk world knows and loves Bella Hardy but if you do not frequent these circles then widening your listening repertoire to the new album will be the perfect introduction. The fabulous angelic vocals will transcend any genre dogma and musically this album will please both introspective folk students and casual listeners attracted to a major talent. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Devil Makes Three - The Rainbow, Birmingham Tuesday 24th March 2015

The genre conundrum surfaced last night at Birmingham’s Rainbow venue. Pete Bernhard, the frontman of The Devil Makes Three, vociferously proclaimed that they are not an American country band. This is a concept in line with the promoters who brought them to Birmingham and the earthy indie rock venue hosting them in a location where the city centre spills into the less salubrious inner city suburbs. However you only have to spend a couple of moments observing and listening to this trio to discover that they have a far greater synergy with the ideals of country music than much of the modern output so decried by Bernhard. What The Devil Makes Three do succeed at is delivering a near non-stop procession of high tempo acoustic roots music courtesy of banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass in the true tradition of the pioneers of country music and all the offspring strands.

This band, which is a trio at core but intermittently expanded to a four and five-piece during the show with the active participation of the techies, has been active in the US for well over a decade. Maybe the time was perceived right to expand their horizons and while this was certainly a debut Birmingham date, it is assumed an inaugural visit to the UK as well. Pete and his two colleagues, Cooper McBean (banjo/guitar) and Lucia Turino (bass), didn’t disguise the fun they were having on tour and those present enthusiastically reciprocated their affection.

The most striking way to describe the onstage sound mayhem is to liken the band to a stripped down version of the Old Crow Medicine Show, an act they have opened for in the US. Traditional roots music is a general label to attach to The Devil Makes Three with shades of bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and classic country spilling out of every note and song played. The bunch of songs selected to fill a ninety minute long set spanned the band’s four album recording-career to-date with a slight bias to 2013’s I’M A STRANGER HERE. From this, their most recent release, the standout songs energising the set included ‘Forty Days’, ‘Stranger’, ‘Spinning Like a Top’ and ‘Hallelu’. In fact there was a reassuring consistency about the songs stretching back to their 2002 self-titled debut album which launched the career of a band formed in Santa Cruz, California but originally from the far north eastern state of Vermont. A topic of amusement to the band has been much comment on why a group of musicians from New England play music more akin with the southern states. Bernhard counters this by implying ‘we’re just a collection of hippies and punks playing music we like’.

Cooper McBean brings a lot of traditional country influence to the band with much admiration for Hank Williams and Bob Wills, perhaps punks themselves in their day. He also added a vocal contribution in the form of a Roger Miller song and his constant switching between banjo and guitar kept the sound fresh. Another cover introduced by Bernhard was Elvis Costello’s ‘Lip Service’, a song originating in 1978 when it’s architect was spearheading a post-punk new wave movement and thus giving a good indication of The Devil Makes Three’s approach to music making. There is definitely a raw indie feel to their sound which explains adulation in the world of Americana music as opposed to the more polished mainstream.

The band’s awareness in the UK grew last year via a session on Bob Harris Country and a big push with this tour and further promotion will help them build on this momentum. Maybe a dual attack on markets will help as they combine well the raw vibrant sound of indie rock and a passion for real country. Regardless of labelling, getting acquainted with The Devil Makes Three is highly desirable either on record or more pertinently catching one of their live shows. The aura, energy and technique of this band need to be captured and diverted to influencing other sectors. 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Gretchen Peters - Birmingham Town Hall, Saturday 21st March 2014

While BLACKBIRDS continues to attract widespread critical acclaim, this evening’s show was a timely reminder of how brilliant HELLO CRUEL WORLD was and more importantly still is. This renaissance period of Gretchen Peters’ career in making these two fantastic records is spoiling fans across two continents as she continues to inject inspiring shots of fine musicianship into a rich song writing emporium spanning a lifetime. The power and emotion of the new record will without doubt have its day in the live arena in good time, thus spawning endless spine tingling moments such as savoured this evening when being totally absorbed by ‘Five Minutes’, ‘Idlewild’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Woman on the Wheel’, all from the 2012 eponymous album.

Much comment has been made of Gretchen’s 20 year love affair with UK audiences and the advancements made since. Even in the last decade the numbers attending her Midlands shows have more than doubled as she has progressed from several intimate gigs at The Robin in Bilston to tonight’s prestigious appointment at Birmingham Town Hall. Likewise the stage show has expanded in presence from just Gretchen with her guitar to this tour’s four-piece band. The piano and accordion playing of Barry Walsh has recently become a permanent fixture and it was a pleasure to once again be seduced by the sound of Christine Bougie’s lap steel guitar adorning both old and new songs. The progression on this tour was to enlist the services of Co. Down resident Conor McCreanor to cement the backfield with contributions on stand up and electric bass, also allowing Christine to periodically add percussion via a full drum kit.

The ambitious booking of Birmingham Town Hall paid off with a highly credible turnout and as expected by many locals, the luscious sonic surroundings suited Gretchen’s beautiful songs to a tee. Upon returning from the interval Gretchen temporarily shifted Barry off piano to deliver an awe inspiring, and fast becoming standard, slowed down version of ‘Independence Day’. On an evening focussing intently on Gretchen Peters post-2012, the only other delve into the back catalogue was the expected airing of ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, neatly located as the encore lead off song. To round off a night easily living up to the high pre-show expectations, Gretchen lightened the atmosphere with a full band rocking version of Rodney Crowell’s ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ and a jovial duet with Barry on the John Prine witty classic ‘In Spite of Ourselves’.

Photo by Gina Binkley
Intensity was definitely a theme for the opening set as Gretchen reeled off a near succession of tunes from the new album, unsurprisingly starting off with the title track ’Blackbirds’. Almost apologetically Gretchen commented on things getting better with this dark murder ballad out of the way which was not necessarily needed as the strength of the new record is in its raw and impassioned take on mortality. All but two tracks from BLACKBIRDS made their live Midlands debut and for me the sheer brilliance of ‘The Cure for the Pain’ made it the stand out song from this collection. As per usual Gretchen oozed with inter-song humility, appreciation and informed musings as typified by living up to the stereotype of burning houses in ‘The House on Auburn Street’ and the remembrance of forgotten victims as detailed in ‘Black Ribbons’.

With the sound of Barry’s piano playing becoming a pivotal part of Gretchen’s musical direction, he also took the opportunity to showcase his latest solo record SILENCIO and along with Connor and Christine duly entertained everybody with an instrumental titled ‘October Waltz’. Both Barry and Gretchen have been involved with Tom Russell’s upcoming major musical project and their friend was duly remembered with a version of ‘Guadalupe’, increasingly becoming a regular and popular live number.

While there are a significant number of people who have supported Gretchen’s UK adventures since their inception in the 1990’s, it is still an honour to witness the continual evolution over the last decade which has incredibly accelerated in recent times. The magic is going to be in watching and listening to the songs on BLACKBIRDS develop in their own live way and ultimately lead to Gretchen Peters raising that barrier of accomplishment even higher. It’s a challenge she continues to succeed at and many people are appreciative of her approach and take on music.  

Set List (order from memory) 

Blackbirds: When All You Got is a Hammer: Pretty Things: The House on Auburn Street:Guadalupe: Dark Angel: Black Ribbons: The Cure for the Pain 

Independence Day:Everything Falls Away: Nashville:The Matador: Woman on the Wheel: October Waltz: Five Minutes:Idlewild

On a Bus to St.Cloud:I Ain't Living Long Like This: In Spite of Ourselves

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Dan Walsh - Incidents and Accidents: Rooksmere Records

If you’re a banjo non-believer, stick around for a bit, read this review, check out the music of Dan Walsh and you may see the error of your ways. Far from having its origins in either the New World or the imperial Old, in fact it was brought to the Americas via African slaves; this iconic instrument has long established its position at the core of folk, roots and country music. While some will strum a few notes and chords on it, others take it under their wing and build a whole act on its beautiful twang. Midlands based artist Dan Walsh is definitely in the latter camp and is fast becoming acknowledged as being one of the UK’s finest exponents of banjo playing. His latest album brings more examples of flair as Dan reels off a high octane mix of instrumentals and songs, the latter a combination of both covers and originals documenting his life’s musings.

Drawing on an initial love of Scottish and Irish music, bringing in the Appalachian bluegrass sound  and experimenting with Indian classical music sees INCIDENTS AND ACCICENTS present Dan as  a versatile picker as he looks to build on his busy touring schedule with a record that can stretch his influence far and wide via radio and digital airplay. As a record, this album possesses sufficient twists and turns to keep the sound fresh and a surplus of twang-induced melodies to hook in a listener for repeat listens. While the seven songs are predominantly from the pen of Dan, his decision to cover Darrell Scott’s excellent ‘With a Memory Like Mine’ is a fine choice and highlights his knack of seeking quality influence which also includes Bela Fleck. Likewise the decision to team up once again with Canadian country singer Meaghan Blanchard on ‘Only Way to Go’ pays dividends in a subtle way.

The four instrumentals take a prominent and high profile place on the record with bluegrass being reflected in ‘Lost Rambler’. ‘Whiplash Reel’ sees Dan interpret his passion for Indian music, while ‘The Tune Set’ goes back to his Celtic roots with a trio of numbers bound together in a breathtaking six and a half minutes of banjo heaven. Fiddle and mandolin also feature as you would expect on a roots album with Patsy Reid adding the former on ‘Hermit of Gully Lake’.

When penning his own lyrics, Dan draws his influence heavily on personal feelings especially in the opening track ‘Time to Stay’ where he reflects on returning back to his Stafford home after a number of years away. This is probably the record’s standout number though running close with the Darrell Scott song. Additionally the album closer is about a personal observation on a trip back to his family’s native Ireland and the track ‘Dancing in the Wind’ keeps the door open for future pondering about Dan’s next musical move.

However the present and near future is about Dan Walsh continuing his assault on the folk, roots and Americana market and INCIDENTS AND ACCIDENTS is more than a useful addition to his armoury. To date the paths of Dan and I haven’t crossed despite our near regional proximity but this will be rectified at this year’s Maverick Festival. By then the record will be bedded in and a fair few festival goers will add him to their viewing schedule.