Tuesday, 7 August 2018

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Cambridge Folk Festival 50:20 (50 Words in 20 sets). Thursday 2nd August - Sunday 5th August 2018

The promtion behind Cambridge Folk Festival generated the MyFolkFest hashtag to coordinate online interaction in 2018, thus hitting home the assertion that festivals are very personal experiences. Large acts or smaller ones; Cash or First Aid Kit; Moreland or Smith were all questions to arise across the four days of this year’s renewal. First world dilemmas I know, but immersing yourself into a multi artist gathering, on a moderate scale to a degree, does require a thoughtful approach, even to the extent of the casual roam versus the meticulous planning.

For this look back at four sun-drenched days in the packed confines of Cherry Hinton Park, a project titled 50:20 was born. The challenge to write fifty words about twenty sets has been modified slightly as the number witnessed in their entirety on the two main stages came to eighteen. However, and in pursuit of that round number, who can resist a little summary of what stood out in the Den and the Club Tent, alongside the most mesmerising and uplifting way to end a festival.

So ahead of a few final thoughts, here in time honoured alphabetical order is the 50:20: 

Amythyst Kiah moved the furthest up my appreciation scale with a superb revealing set relished from a close up perspective for the first time. There have been previous promising glimpses, but nothing like letting an artist glide through a powerful performance in a way to truly demonstrate what they are. 
Birds of Chicago rolled into Cambridge with a full band in tow and a pedigree to shine in the rock ‘n’ soul vocal style. JT and Alli rarely fail to disappoint and their festival invitation proved an inspired choice. A set to whet the appetite for more shows next year. 
The delayed start to Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band did nothing to diminish an absorbing display of musicianship from a highly accomplished twelve-strong collaboration. If anything, it inspired Eliza to maximise the excellence in a concise manner and provide a snap shot of folk music in its triumphant form. 
First Aid Kit won the battle over Rosanne Cash on the back of their vibrant crest waving charge through the genre barriers. Johanna and Klara may well rock out in their headlining guise, but underneath they sparkle with marvellous songs and majestically join the eternal club of blissful sibling harmonies. 
Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys may be no strangers to many British audiences, but you can never fail to appreciate the energy, prowess and feel good vibes that flow from their performance. The Canadian Maritimes are proudly represented by Gordie and his shows will be forever welcome over here
Grace Petrie has waited a long time to get her fervent message over to a Cambridge audience, though not the toughest sell. The art of the protest singer will never die as long as artists like Grace pick up a guitar and let their heart run riot over the songs. 
Canadian, Irish Mythen, with the heritage in the first name, headed this year’s list of new discoveries with the most impassioned midday main stage set you could imagine. Marrying wit and critical political discourse in a powerful manner proved inspirational. Wrapping your message in an entertaining way wins the day. 
John Moreland or Patti Smith, no debate for many, but few regrets over choosing the man from Oklahoma. Heartbeat qualities evoke and naturally emanate from the artful song. This is real deal Americana in its rawest and most relevant form. A writing genius who finds the discerning listener’s sweet spot.
Thanks to Nick Barber for this picture
No dilemma seeing John Prine as this songwriting legend bridged his lengthy career with a set packed full of witty, insightful and just damn good tunes for the literate ear. The Sunday headliner came and conquered in the only way he knows. The songs of John Prine enrich the world.
The Den and the Club Tent are the life support locations of Cambridge Folk Festival, and its ethos to evolve. Thanks to Katie Spencer (pictured here), Paul McClure, Zoe Wren and Hazey Jane for proving the highlights of my many saunters over to the far-flung venues of the festival site. 
The star of Marlon Williams will soon shine brightly in the UK as it does across the world. Last year’s late night slot at SummerTyne was a mere aperitif for this full band show on the main stage. A voice for the ages, which travels as far as this Kiwi.  
The somewhat overused term folk super group is no hype when John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (pictured here) and Kris Drever hook up. Classy, polished and distinguished are the opening shots of the superlatives as they ensured the festival got an accomplished lift off on the increasingly popular Thursday evening presentation.
Guest curator, enormously dedicated archivist, supremely talented all-round musician and vocalist, it was easy to anoint Rhiannon Giddens as the star of Cambridge 2018. Whether delivering a stunning main stage set, thriving in surprise pop up locations or orchestrating the most absorbing of finales, her overall involvement was a triumph.
The trajectory of Robert Vincent continues to power forever upwards. Band shows now appear the norm and his material sits comfortably in a multitude of settings. There was an apparent toning down on the rock side for this set, demonstrating an artist adept at layering great songs in various ways.
Songhoy Blues is the ultimate festival band. Submerging into the rhythmical world of Mali blues is the best way to savour an act now establishing themselves on main stages across the land. Interaction, collusion and movement are optional, but empowering when applied in a setting of shared love and feeling.
Led by Georgia Shackleton, the simply identifiably titled The Shackleton Trio opened the main stage on Saturday with a fine display of folk music in its purest form. No thrills or deviations just highly crafted musicianship and beautiful vocals. A graceful launch into the frenzies of a busy festival day.
All the way from Austin Texas, Whiskey Shivers had the proud honour of opening Cambridge 2018 and ensured their raucous festival style met with rapturous audience approval. Covering The Cure and the Dixie Chicks showed their diverse influences, but this band was up for injecting plenty of good time vibes. 
With a booming voice, a steely gaze and a menacing prowl around the stage, William Crighton was one Aussie invite to hit you hard. Adjustment to the wavelength made, and he delivered a pulsating set of multi-layered folk music, evoking the spirit of the land, people and issues Down Under. 
Yola Carter is a highly talented British vocalist drawing praise from far and wide. An artist capable of mixing it with the best on the vocal scale, and moving into a position where her potential to evolve a career in this new singer-songwriter direction will get its opportunity to shine.
A spectacular rousing end to the festival with Rhiannon Giddens leading her invited guests of Amythyst Kiah, Yola Carter, Kaia Kater and Birds of Chicago in a glorious celebration of song that nearly brought a packed Club Tent down. A powerful parting shot of hope and staunch expectation of change. 

Personal maybe, enjoyable thoroughly, although regretfully the omnipresent power to see every act is yet to surface. 50:20 accomplished with painstaking accuracy and a shot of social media conciseness.

Cambridge Folk Festival is a legendary event that can call its own shots. In 2018, it well and truly took on the gender disparity that is a highlighted blight on musical landscapes across the world. One footnote was a wholly white audience belting out a black pride song as the festival clock struck 11 on Sunday evening. A blessed Rhiannon Giddens was pleasantly struck with the irony. Is there an elephant in the room, or is that for another day? 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

GIG REVIEW: Eilen Jewell - Biddulph Town Hall, Staffordshire. Wednesday 1st August 2018

Although appreciation for Eilen Jewell traces back to the 2007 album LETTERS TO SINNERS & STRANGERS, opportunities to see her live have conspired to leave this ambition unfulfilled. Finally, circumstances fell into place to make the trip up to the Potteries on the eve of the Cambridge Folk Festival and catch a show at Biddulph Town Hall. Her previous visits to the wider Midlands area have tended to concentrate on the eastern side with last year’s Nottingham date attaining sold out status during the run up. That show was on the back of her 2017 album DOWN HEARTED BLUES, which once again saw Eilen take a break from original music and explore another fascinating aspect of the roots world. The clue to the style is in the title and it was set to feature prominently this evening. The early and middle parts of 2018 has seen Eilen and her long time trio of travelling musical companions cram in as many dates around the globe as possible before once again embarking on a little family downtime prior to the promise of new original material.

Ahead of Eilen and the band taking to the stage, a well-populated hall enjoyed a short set from singer-songwriter, Lissy Taylor. Hailing from Stoke-on-Trent, but audibly schooled in Lexington Kentucky, Lissy eased into the opening role with a bunch of original songs taking their influence from a host of personal situations and surroundings. Her sound was drenched in country folk sentiment, and although Lissy herself used the word 'pop' in her self-introduction, the added feel was one of indie, albeit from a slow moody perspective. You could quite envisage the songs getting the atmospheric electric treatment. She had a similar statuesque poise on stage to Erin Rae, and a tempo that similarly hooked you into the groove. A southern twang had infiltrated the vocals, although there was no mistaking her roots between songs. Overall, an effective opening act with heaps of promise at her feet. A name to look out for in the future.

Flanked by band members, Jerry Miller (electric guitar), Shawn Supra (electric/upright bass) and Jason Beek (drums/percussion), Eilen Jewell set out to show why she has cut a highly respected career as one of the most innovative and exploratory artisans of American roots music over the last decade. A sleek and classy style breezed through an impulsive set stretching the breadth of her career, with more than a slight bias towards the most recent album.

Eilen’s love of the blues may not be in her DNA, but it is certainly in her soul. Starting her set with ‘It’s Your Voodoo Warning’, she frequently dipped into songs covered on the recent record such as the title track, ‘Nothing in Rambling’ and ‘Don’t Leave Poor Me’. Names that have clearly influenced her shared during the evening included Willie Dixon, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.

Such is the diverse aspect to Eilen Jewell’s music, the term ‘Americana’ as referenced by a pot pourri of American roots sounds could almost have been invented for her. Country music features strong and it was of no surprise to hear a Loretta Lynn song covered. In fact, ‘You Wanna Give Me a Lift’ was one of the tunes featured on her 2010 tribute album to the legend. ‘Heartache Boulevard’ and the requested ‘Boundary County’ also reflected this chosen style.

With the band that Eilen has assembled, good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll was always going to play a part. Plenty of upright bass was slapped by Supra alongside multiple scintillating guitar riffs and solos from the outstanding Miller. Beek had his moment in the sun towards the end when advancing from behind the drum kit to lead on the washboard, straight out of Columbus Ohio.

Outside her genre specific material, plenty of other old favourites thrilled the audience including the triple opening to the LETTERS album of ‘Rich Man’s World’, ‘Dusty Boxcar Wall’ and ‘High Shelf Booze’. When in full flow, few songs were better than a riveting foot tapping version of ‘Sea of Tears’. Perhaps when we just needed a helping hand down before heading home, Eilen ripped open her heart, and in solo mode accompanied only by harmonica and acoustic guitar she shone an adoring light on her daughter in the track ‘Songbird’. Quintessentially folk in the delivery style and likewise beautifully sung.

As indicated previously, this gig was on the eve of a return to the Cambridge Folk Festival. Not relevant regarding the Eilen Jewell tour schedule, but symbolic to the strains of musical variety that are likely to dominate this four-day event. The evening concluded on a note of mission accomplished. Nothing gained from harking back over lost opportunities, but fully blessed that the chance to finally see Eilen Jewell play live had been grasped, and this gig-going adventure become a little richer. If Emmylou coined the phrase ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, then why not evoke the alliteration ‘Boise to Biddulph’. Deepest Idaho and the Potteries interwove this evening. 


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Laven + Hannah Johnson - Spotted Dog, Birmingham. Monday 30th July 2018

The status of Texas country music is legendary and the fact so much of it crosses the seas in touring mode is an added bonus. Only in the last week, Austin icon Kelly Willis played a Midlands show and Steve Earle has been back in town adding to the proof that you can take the person out of Texas but… Maybe we are sliding down the scale a touch, but Rachel Laven is firmly in the camp such is the class, poise and songwriting acumen that pour from her stage demeanor. For her hour in the spotlight on this Birmingham return, the Lone Star shone brightly down on the Spotted Dog, not your usual state of play in Digbeth. Hooking up with Birmingham’s very own country music aficionado and keeper of the flame Hannah Johnson for this double bill was a sensible choice and those heading into Town for their Monday evening music fix were dealt a treat.

Hannah played the courteous host and opened up with a duo set alongside her Dad, Stewart, on Dobro. This slimmed down format is aiding his recovery from heart surgery earlier this year and there surely can be no better tonic than being able to play forty-five minutes of real deal country music to willing listeners. Apart from a couple of originals off the latest album SHAKEN, Hannah tended to focus her set on select covers, mixing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash standards with lesser known snippets from Iris DeMent and Skeets McDonald. Adding the Gillian Welch song ‘I Want to Sing That Rock ‘n’ Roll’ to the set was a good choice as well. Perhaps the future of Hannah does centre on maintaining a steady flow of original material that has formed at least a healthy part of her sets for a number of years. More waltz songs like ‘Morning Cocktail’ will serve up nicely.

Standing aside for Rachel to claim the limelight was Hannah’s parting shot for the evening (she will be back next week somewhere on the local circuit). As it is not every day that a sparkling singer-songwriter from San Antonio takes to the stage with a fistful of songs reflective of what has made her State’s music so compelling over the years.

Twelve months ago, Rachel played a lower key show in the city’s Blue Piano venue. This time the performance appeared a little more rounded, not just longer, but fuller with further revealing chat, a varied set list and some improvised collaborations. It helped that her latest record LOVE & LUCCHESES has been on heavy streaming rotation for the last few months. Hopes of walking away with a physical copy were dashed following a first touring batch sell out, but orders taken on the evening should yield their reward in a few days.

Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the album content was shared with a fair sprinkling of hardcore Americana music devotees in the audience. Good word gets around. However, this was not before Rachel paid her own tribute to Texas legend Guy Clark early in the set. Album favourites such as ‘Do You Dare’ and ‘The Moon’ sounded super live. The opening line from the latter – ‘even the lone star’s got a friend tonight’ is a corker. Two songs that escalated up the scale this evening were ‘Love & Luccheses’ and ‘Don’t Put Me in a Town’. Each had their origins explained to shed a vivid light on the compositions, which are both high class. The former is accompanied by the sentimental tale of a pair of boots being passed down the family line – quintessentially Texan –, while deriding a town for having more churches than bars provides fuel for a great country song.

Getting recommendations of other artists to check out is a norm from touring singer-songwriters and Rachel planted the name Walt Wilkins this evening. He is a fellow Texan who kindly allowed her to cut ‘Something Like Heaven’ on the album. For a more familiar song, Rachel was joined by Rebecca from the Rosellys and her mother (this year’s travelling companion) on backing vocals to knock out ‘Angel From Montgomery’. Ironic to the extent that the great John Prine plays a rare Birmingham show this coming Friday.

We got a further taste of The Lavens family band when mum Jana stayed on stage to sing lead on another song. It also does not take too many online clicks to find more about this band that is very much the forerunner to Rachel branching out as a solo artist. Rebecca, who has provided the link for Rachel to play UK shows for a couple of years, joined on several occasions to sing backing vocals as well. Alas, there was no extra musical accompaniment to Rachel's fine guitar playing. Fiddle and steel would sound great as evidenced on the record.

So, this evening’s choice of gig (and even though it was late July there were still alternatives on offer) ended up being an extremely enjoyable show. Two artists from two different backgrounds sharing a common bond of music we all love. Hannah Johnson gigs come round quite quickly, but we have to cherish each moment that artists like Rachel Laven leave their Texas home and stroll into a back room pub with an armful of top songs, all played, sung and presented wonderfully.

Rachel playing the opening track of the album with Sweet 'Shine & Honey


Monday, 30 July 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Emma Jane - Treasures: Self-Released

Emma Jane came to my attention in the summer of 2012 when the song ‘Sunday Monday Blues’ ascended to ‘track of the summer’ status. The subsequent years have seen her music flicker in and out, but now that is set to change with the release of a truly outstanding record, simply titled TREASURES. If there is a more distinguishable album released this year from a solo UK based artist then it will have to be very good to topple this gem. For this is a record that takes little time to find its way and successfully steers the listener through a minefield of emotion. Deeply personal and sourced from a ripped open heart makes the sort of music that resonates well here. Emma Jane has succeeded on multiple levels in making a record diverse in sound yet consistent in quality.

A powerful vocal set is used to an optimum level across the eleven tracks as the small team assembled to support Emma Jane set out on a journey to bring her original composed songs to life. Stopover sounds include rock, pop, soul, jazz, country et al, making genre association impossible. Not a bad open place to be, although you can never underestimate the value of promotional tags. UK Americana feels right in spasms, but not to the core, even if the content blows away most of the opposition in that camp. Labels aside, let us explore the peaks and summits that have made TREASURES an album to cherish.

A strong theme and inspiration across the album is the onset of personally family experienced dementia and its associated effects, presence and impact. The writing is in a subtle way as to allow the listener room for self-interpretation. Darkness mixes with light alongside hope in a mist of melancholy. Above all, the tunes are well-crafted efforts engaging the listener from the outset, even to the extent of steering them down an undulating path.

The album is bookended by two similarly slow pensive tracks, opening and closing the door on proceedings. The minimalist gospel-like opener ‘Where I’m Going’ sets the scene resolutely, framed by the explicit lines ‘the mind gives up or the body retires/once full of life but now I’m so tired’. Forty-five minutes later Emma Jane conquers the piano ballad world with the painfully, or maybe not, conclusive, ‘Drink You Away’.

If pressed for the moment when the record rides the crest of a wave, then the country leaning ‘Dreaming About You’ fits the bill. This feel good story song of unrelenting love is awash with classy guitar twang and a chorus that projects it to the peak. This is far from a country album on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and a substance emerges.

Pushing this track hard in the hooks galore gallery is the soulful ‘Breathe Slow’, a tip for us all sometimes. On the topic of tracks reaching out in the promotional sphere, ‘Paper Houses’ with its rock ‘n’ pop sentiment does a grand vibrant job. All while contemplating the metaphor ‘paper’ does not really equate to a great substance.

It is rather a breathless merry go round of sounds in the opening phase. ‘Lover Man’ with its piano opening strays into jazzy territory, while ‘In My Days’ is a straight up acoustically driven rock ‘n’ roller looking back in time and ensuring a dose of repetition in a song works wonders.

Three tracks, namely ‘Close’, ‘Don’t Settle’ and ‘Treasures’ fall into a rockier sounding realm. The former builds up slowly before Emma Jane ramps up the vocals into full-on mode. Always done tastefully, mind you. The latter of this trio acts as the upbeat climax to the record, just before we crash out in an alcohol haze.

‘Beyond the Rainbow’ completes the track listings and its popular appeal grows out of a well-constructed base. The eternally seeking title appears only in a first verse line as the cry of ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ resonates strongly at the end.

Strength is a feeling that emanates throughout from the vocal adaptations to the musical templates that house the songs. The hopscotch sounds are brought together in a common bond sourced from the inspiration. Emma Jane leads, and the listener is compelled to follow. An artist can ask no more than make a record that the listener believes in. TREASURES has done that and the music of Emma Jane is destined to not merely flicker on the horizon anymore.


ALBUM REVIEW: Sons of Bill - Oh God Ma'am: Loose Music

The fact that this album has been out for a month and lurking on my devices for a couple is symbolic of the time required to transcribe the sound and effect into an alternative medium. There are so many positive attributes to Sons of Bill especially for those sauntering into Americana from an indie background. A jangle laden rock feast that instantly finds its groove and proceeds to only marginally detour underpins their hazy wistful sound. Think tones of late 80s Manchester on a West Coast tour and you start to move in the circles of this five-piece combo out of Charlottesville Virginia, containing three Wilson brothers who are literally ‘sons of Bill’. OH GOD MA’AM is their fifth full-length release since 2006, in addition to a handful of EPs. They made inroads in the UK on the back of their 2014 album LOVE & LOGIC and the show in Birmingham the following year made my top 20 list of favourite 2015 gigs. Therefore, any subsequent new material was eagerly awaited.

The new record was released on Loose Music in the UK; a good fit for this type of band. It contains a neat round number of ten tracks deviating slightly in pace without losing any of the core appeal that rinses this type of music. Perhaps the lack of a top -drawer track made the identification process a little longer and thus coat hangers had to be constructed to split the forty-seven minute duration into bite size consumable chunks. Eventually, three tunes emerged to project the record further and away from the masses that occasionally submerge the listening process.

The first of these is the tender atmospheric opener ‘Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away’, which gently floats along inviting you grab it rather than forcefully imposing. Midway through the album, a more than decent melody brings ‘Easier’ to the fore, with Molly Parden (of Sam Outlaw association for folks in the UK) joining on vocals and getting full accreditation in the track listings. Just eclipsing these two for the ultimate golden moment is the memorable ‘Old & Gray’, successful in anchoring the closing stages of the record.

Away from this trio, the other seven songs tend to hit on a familiar path and conglomerate into an entity. ‘Firebird ‘85’ and ‘Good Mourning (They Can’t Break You Now’) represent contrasting speeds, albeit within the similar domain of twangy guitars and hazy vocals.

More up-to-date similarities to Sons of Bill come from the Co-Pilgrim/Dreaming Spires axis in the UK and Belle Adair, who had an album release earlier this year on Locke Records in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The general sound is highly suburban and one that finds its groove early on. You do need to tap into this zone to get the best out of Sons of Bill. Their style can be quite concealing and layers will need to be stripped away to hook up. One saleable trait of the record is that you do not need to be absolutely immersed into it. Casual play in the background or a car journey accompaniment can yield positive results.

Sons of Bill will embark on a series of dates in the UK and Europe in August and on past evidence, these are likely to be memorable occasions. In the event of not being able to attend one of these shows, escaping from the pressures of the modern world with a copy of OH GOD, MA’AM is a desirable pursuit as long as you develop the right mind set. Tune in, and few bands are as good as Sons of Bill in executing a mood-driven sound of escapist melodic rock bridging the past, present and future.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Steve Earle and the Dukes - O2 Institute, Birmingham. Saturday 28th July 2018

The past, present and future were all brought to the forefront as Steve Earle hurtled towards the conclusion of this latest UK tour; another successful one with the ‘mighty’ Dukes in tow. Fiddle, steel, bass, drums and lead guitar is a starter to get the juices going, especially when the practitioners are so good and the guy up front happens to be one of the legends of American music over the last thirty years. A full two-hour performance in addition to The Mastersons opening up and rapturous reports from the other gigs made this most recent Birmingham stop-off an opportunity ultimately unmissable.

The past stretches back in excess of thirty years and ‘Guitar Town’ sounds as fresh and vibrant as when it sprung Steve Earle to the masses in the mid-eighties. That and a raft of other standards from the catapult years inevitably drew the highest level of interaction. Who can resist the call and response to ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and joining in on the chorus line of ‘My Old Friend the Blues’. 2018 is indeed the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic COPPERHEAD ROAD album and the frenzied drum insertion leading to the title track’s instrumental climax still sends down shivers. The back-to-back Celtic drill of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ and ‘The Galway Girl’ competes with anything out of the emerald isle, especially when the fiddle loosens up and the pedal steel guitar trades for accordion. Steadfastly linking the past and the present is long-term Dukes bassist Kelly Looney, consistently caressing the stand-up on the folk and the electric on the rock.

The present comes in two phases: the current Dukes line-up and the latest album. Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson aka duo act The Mastersons may well have been official Dukes for more than half a dozen years, but there is still a frequent appreciative glancing smile from their leader. Probably still grateful that he persuaded such an accomplished pair to rejuvenate a touring/recording band that has temporarily been sidelined over the years for more personally focussed projects. Eleanor’s fiddle provides the folk, Celtic and country edge, while Chris is a sensational lead guitarist rising to the challenge to lift the rock stuff into a different stratosphere. The two newest members of the Dukes are very much installed in the present. Drummer Brad Pemberton joined in 2016 and has a prestigious CV including being part of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals for a while. He immaculately kept beat all evening and of course delivered that spine tingling ‘Copperhead Road’ moment. Ricky Ray Jackson is the type of pedal steel player that falls of the Texas assembly line, thus ensuring that the country sound never strays too far even when the pace picks up.

The present is also about the album SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW that was released last year and is the prime focal point for the 2018 Dukes excursions. The band fired off six straight tracks from the record before anybody took a breath. The only interlude being to salute the Californian firefighters prior to ‘The Firebreak Line’ and add a family element to ‘News from Colorado’. The pick of the new songs from both the opening segment and a few tossed into the rock finale just before the encore was the fiery title track and the melodic ‘Walkin’ in LA’.

Before we contemplate the future, a quick mention of three tracks. The inspirational spoken intro to ‘Jerusalem’ was a prelude to what to expect just before the curfew. Iris DeMent was given a shout out as the original duet partner on ‘I’m Still in Love You’, with Eleanor now ably stepping into her shoes. Ironically, Iris was on the same bill as Steve Earle and the Dukes at last weekend’s SummerTyne Festival in Gateshead. Finally, among a throng of Steve Earle-written tracks pushing nearly thirty in total there was room for one external cover and the choice of ‘Hey Joe’ was a wise one. It crowned a twenty-minute phase of the Dukes truly rocking out, perhaps to the extent of leaving the fiddle and steel trailing, as we headed into the obligatory encore. Glad to report that the old country sound returned as ‘Dixieland’ commenced the three-song extras.

Up to the final song of the evening, the focus had been entirely on the music. Frequently songs remained unintroduced as the band refused to yield a spirited and compelling momentum. Earle was effortlessly in control all evening, whether majoring on electric guitar, acoustic or mandolin. He was also clearly relishing every moment of being on stage. However, it was time to mount the sermon and preach what most Steve Earle fans expect and want to hear. A quick slaughter of the current political environment was followed by an announcement that the next record is going to be country and Political. 2020 is the expected release date and the topic is going to be based on addressing those natural allegiances of the left falling prey to the right. As his sixty-fifth year will be approaching then, there is likely to be no sign of the fire waning and therefore much unfinished business.The future awaits. 

From the thirty-minute opening support slot from The Mastersons, through the old favourites; the sterling musicianship and absorbing finale, every inch of this show at the O2 Institute in Birmingham was one to relish and savoured. You may have moments when Steve Earle is overshadowed in a crowded music industry keen to anoint any newcomer to the crown of a legend. Even some of his records may be inadvertently overlooked. This evening specifically, and in general the recent shows by Steve Earle and the Dukes are vivid reminders to what a great folk ‘n’ country, rock ‘n’ roll band they are and what a fantastic song writer Steve Earle is. Grab these moments while you can. The legends tag is still intact and yes… there is still unfinished business.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Letitia VanSant - Gut it to the Studs : Self-released

2016 delivered Carter Sampson and 2017 did likewise for Caroline Spence. Odds are quickly shortening that 2018 is the year that Letitia VanSant blossoms out of leftfield indie Americana to become a firm favourite on the back of a superlative album release. GUT IT TO THE STUDS has already sealed the triple mantle of memorable album title, cutting lyric and high plateau track, all that is left is enticing more folks to allow this record drape over them. The journey is destined to be a lengthy one. A February release got things underway in the US and a significant re-boot is set to occur when Europe, or more specifically the UK, formally joins the fray in August. Subsequent release dates from the original may be just focal points as the ease of the digital world frequently enables music instantly shared across the globe. If the reception gets close to the two artists mentioned in the opening sentence then Letitia VanSant will be a valuable addition to a scene bursting with sincere song writing music sparked by the immortal embers of folk-Americana.

GUT IT TO THE STUDS is the new album from this Baltimore-based artist, who has spent a considerable amount of time on honourable vocational excursions prior to deciding that the time is ripe to unleash a talent. This innate skill is to write, arrange and present a supreme concise selection of songs. Ones that range from the purposeful literal to spacious entities inviting the listener to deduce the end-point. Eleven tracks comprising of nine solo writes; one co-write and a smart cover keep you enthralled for forty-three minutes (or a timeless drift into an entranced zone if you discard the shackles of time).

One absolute guarantee is that this record will improve with each play. If over familiarity is a reviewer’s crime, then guilty to the first degree.

You can easily access Letitia’s thoughts behind the record online, but it is also has the invigorative presence to enable your own conclusion and meanings. Perhaps it is useful to understand the origin of album closer ‘Sundown Town’, which focusses on the racial divide far away from the suspecting world. The concluding line ‘we’ll watch others fight for freedom from the safety of our cells’ hammers home the feeling.

As drenched the record is with country, folk and Americana sentiment, it retains a message of hope throughout. This is born from imposing some element of control in the themes as demonstrated in the opening two tracks and crowning it with the inspirational ‘Dandelion’ as the end approaches. The latter scorns life in the opening verse with ‘it’s like your only purpose is to buy what they sell/ Toss your every precious penny down a bone dry well’. Only to close with ‘I hope someday we will be free’. All framed with the imagery of a single weed piercing the concrete.

While not taking anything away from the rest of the album, it is tough to dispute the opening two tracks soaring to the summit from the off. ‘Where I’m Bound’ obviously has autobiographical intent, but written in a way that it is free to be claimed. The title track sits in the #2 spot and nails the notion that sometimes we just have strip everything down and build it back up. The analogy of ‘Gut it to the Studs’ is prime time song writing. Both songs are delightfully sung and skilfully constructed with lasting choruses.

These first four tracks mentioned are listed in the solo write column that marks out Letitia as a top class lyricist. This is further enhanced later in the record with ‘The Field’: a track served up as a softly delivered lullaby. In a similar vein is ‘Sweetbay Magnolia’, the album’s sole co-write with David McKindley-Ward, who also acts as the main guitarist on the album.

The smart cover song selected is the Stephen Stills-written protest anthem ‘For What It’s Worth’, recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1966 and mirroring the activist nature that surfaces when Letitia’s background is discovered.

Back to the original content and ‘Come Sit By My Fire’ sells some hope in a midst of helplessness. The control element crops up again in ‘Taking Back the Reigns’ (not quite sure of the spelling intent here!) on a track where electric guitar moves the sound up a notch after fiddle plays a prominent role in the opening numbers.

The remaining two tracks are ‘Bluebird’ where the tone takes a turn down the sadness route, albeit with a title reflecting the gorgeous vocals, which flourish throughout. ‘Wild Heart Roam’ sees a slight diversion, with gothic undertones applying to a track that has to peddle hard to keep up with those leading the charge.

GUT IT TO THE STUDS is an absorbing album that sparkles with moving attributes from start to finish. It relays the best of country, folk and Americana in a delicately produced independent package far away from the soiled meddlers of a murky industry. Letitia VanSant has arrived on the scene in striking style to let her writing, music and vocals do the rest. In 2016 and 2017 Carter Sampson and Caroline Spence bloomed among a bouquet of established acts. In 2018 Brandi Carlile and Courtney Marie Andrews may have to make a little room for a new artist on the block.