Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Tom Russell - The Rose of Roscrae :Proper Records

Call it a ballad of the west, a folk opera or a masterpiece of musical theatre, Tom Russell’s latest epic THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE will audibly move, absorb and inspire any listener who dives headfirst into this pool of western folklore. The project may have been twenty years in the making but its fruition through a stellar cast, the wonderful merging of new and borrowed songs with archival field recordings and a story etching to be told, make it a lifetime piece of work from a prolific artist passionately dedicated to his cause. Time may dictate that ultimately a number of the songs will evolve into separate entities, although this should only occur once grasping their context and role within the brilliance of the project.

Quite simply THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE is built for the stage and Broadway has to be its ultimate resting place. However the interim is all about engrossing your mind in the story Tom tells and marvelling at how so many aspects of the West are woven into its soundtrack especially within the strapline theme of 19th Century Irish emigration. A brief synopsis of the story sees a young Irish lad flee his homeland in the 1880’s and head west for a cowboy life which is recalled through the words of the subject several decades later. We are introduced to many characters along the way, none more recurring than his first and true love, The Rose of Roscrae. Two versions of the title song appear in this body of work which spans two discs, is unsurprisingly billed as two acts and lasts a fulfilling two and half hours. Tom, who adopts the role of the main character known as John Sutton and often referred to as Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, masterly delivers the inaugural version with acclaimed Irish American-influenced songstress Maura O’Connell wrapping up proceedings with a stunning rendition of this superb song written by Tom, Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh.

Barry undertakes  a co-producing role on the record, while Gretchen takes her place amongst an amazing list of performers including Eiza Gylkyson, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Jimmy LaFave, Joe Ely, Ian Tyson, Jerry Douglas, and Gurf Morlix to name a mere handful. If you were to inevitably extract a number of tracks for isolated listening then obvious candidates would be ‘When the Wolves No Longer Sing’, ‘Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos’,’Doin’ Hard Time in Texas’ and ‘Resurrection Mountain’. However these songs form only part of the decorated canvas as field recordings from illustrious American historical figures such as Walt Whitman and Leadbelly, weave into the narrative courtesy of Tom and the outstanding use of soliloquys to thread the concept into an enterprising finished product.

The sheer educational impact of this record will see you researching further the life of St. Damien of Molokai, a Belgian missionary who the main character turns to in one of the many dark moments, thus removing any glamour of the cowboy life. Encounters with the landscape, original inhabitants and fellow migrants add a real life flavour to a tale which never loses touch with its Celtic roots. An eventual reunion with the Rose of Roscrae provides a stimulating finale free of stereotypical clich├ęs. With circle of life connotations, the overriding message is that the last frontier can be conquered despite the many obstacles and terrors. Tom’s unrelenting passion to present the reality of the West is a joy to share and how ultimately love, faith and spirit lead the way on the pioneering trail.

Tom’s cast of many includes the Norwegian Wind Ensemble who under the arrangement of Mats Halling delivers the soundtrack overture split across the opening shots of both discs/acts. Apart from obvious rambles around Texas (which includes a hair tingling patched up version of Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’) and New Mexico, the story also ventures south of the border. The songs ‘Guadalupe’, (another Gretchen Peters contribution) ‘Valentine de la Sierra’, ‘Poor Mother Mexico’ and ‘Gallo del Cielo’ provide the welcome sprinkling of a Latino sound with some splendid accordion from Joel Guzman.

In support of this monumental project, a 96 page book has been published providing full details on the songs, performers and background of which there is plenty to analyse within the 52 tracks. This accompaniment should perfectly supplement the listening experience and hopefully its UK availability will widen upon album release and ahead of Tom's tour. 

One thing for certain is that this piece of work is highly addictive and once you have scaled the hurdle of initial listen, the desire to keep returning is all consuming and the inhalation of newly discovered interpretations keeps the fire of interest roaring. If Western music is to get a deserved resurrection then Tom Russell is its keenest contemporary disciple and THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE will provide a marker for historical context and act as an outstanding arrangement of song, sound and prose.

Once this album is rolled out the consumer conundrum of entity versus song selection will determine its commercial viability. While the former is strongly advised, there is merit in the latter especially if it provides tangible rewards for its architect. Tom Russell tours the UK in the autumn and it will be fascinating to see how he presents the record alongside his enormous back catalogue. In the meantime critical reaction to the record will be keenly observed from the high ground of holding the opinion that THE ROSE OF ROSACRE is a magnificent piece of work.

The Kennedys - West: Self-released

It’s been an incredible 20 year journey for The Kennedys and 2015 promises to be an extra special anniversary one. Not only do Pete and Maura have solo albums about to hit the market, but a new duo record lands in the UK in April to give folks a timely reminder as to why this husband and wife team embody all that’s pure and cultured about Americana music. Whether dabbling in folk, rock or country, with either a contemporary or traditional twist, The Kennedys continue to impress and WEST tees them up for another, no doubt successful, tour of the UK in April and May.

Naming a record after a navigational point suggests a travelogue element within its content and WEST doesn’t disappoint when criss-crossing the American continent honing in on clear regional sounds. For artists who have been synonymous with their roles within Nanci Griffith’s backing band, it is pleasing to get another opportunity to check out their own compositions. The new album is packed with an abundance of interesting songs executed with fine precision whether focussing on Pete’s extraordinary guitar playing or Maura’s warm welcoming vocals. All but two tracks have surfaced from the song writing well of the pair with the exceptions being the John Wickes penned ‘Perfect Love’ and a tribute to John Stewart by covering ‘Queen of Hollywood High’.

These two songs represented the extremities of the album’s westward drift with the John Stewart song possessing all the class of the Californian song writing tradition and the other tune drenched in 12 string jangle reminiscent of that iconic west coast sound. Fans of The Kennedys will be well versed in the romantic story of them strategically re-igniting their relationship in Lubbock, Texas and they once again re-create the Buddy Holly sound in the fantastically alluring song ‘Locket’. On an album of endless highlights the lovely chorus adorning ‘Southern Jumbo’ hits a peak as this co-write wonderfully merges the two contrasting themes of southern cooking and Gibson guitars. While drawing influence from the nation’s steamier states, a pair of rockin’ roots numbers form a splendid mid album partnership. ‘Bodhisattva Blues’ possesses a heady mix of gospel and Doc Watson, while ‘Travel Day Blues’ is pure rock n’ roll, a playing style Pete excels at.

The Kennedys are a New York based band and are keen to explore a folk sound more akin to the north eastern part of the country. The two explicit offerings on the album perfectly suit Maura’s vocal style. With its theme of going back to nature, ‘Signs’ leads the record in an earthy direction, which turns more mystical with ‘Black Snake White Snake’. This dose of fantasia is inspired by the works of B.D. Love, a poet Maura further explores on her upcoming solo project. While the former is Maura’s only solo write on the album, there is an enhanced female presence and charm to ‘Sisters on the Road’. This track sees guest harmonies from a number of singers including folk artist Tracey Grammer.

On this self-produced record, Pete flits right across the instrument spectrum from his trademark guitar, through various other string work as well as the organ segments.  He is also the sole composer of the album’s intrinsically placed opening and closing songs. Title track ‘West’ gets the process underway with a nod in the sleeve notes to Woody, Willie, Hemmingway and Steinbeck, four highly appropriate travelling heroes. As if to make the record the perfect anniversary gift, the beautiful Everly Brothers inspired parting shot, ‘Good, Better, Best’ sees Pete seal his feelings for Maura in the art of song. The two remaining tracks perhaps suffer from being in the company of superior others but ‘Elegy’ and ‘Jubilee Time’ may well evolve over time or get further scrutiny by being added to the set list for the live shows.

Without resorting to the negative connotations of the term ‘easy listening’, WEST is a highly enjoyable album which is easy to listen to and enables you to appreciate the combined talents of Pete and Maura. The Kennedys also present an exceptional live show when they visit the UK and the extra ingredient of a fresh and vibrant new album bodes well for this year’s performances.

The Kennedys UK Tour Information

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.