Monday, 23 May 2016

Katy Rose Bennett - Songs of the River Rea : Self-released

Before addressing the quality of Katy Rose Bennett’s new album SONGS OF THE RIVER REA, two features immediately stand out: a set of songs based on Birmingham’s often hidden river and a Dreaming Spires presence. Of course Katy is the brother of Joe and Robin from Oxfordshire’s finest band and it is indeed Joe who lends his all-round music expertise to the project by assuming the production role. However you need the key components in place first and Katy skilfully provides these in the guise of eleven exquisitely crafted songs.

The River Rea has only a short existence of 14 miles, extensively buried under the city centre, yet still provides the inspiration for a savvy collection of interesting songs stretching the breadth of the roots spectrum in their unravelling. Katy is equally at home in delivering the songs in laid back mode as well as the upbeat numbers pulling away from the folk tinge and bordering Americana territory. The strength, tenacity and deep rooted appeal of the songs are a credit to Katy who is returning to the status of recording artist following a busy break. The story numbers grab your attention with a vice like grip, while the personal reflections reveal an individual fully comfortable in sharing her thoughts and feelings via the medium of song.

Apart from Joe’s general work across the record, which ensures a lo-fi Dreaming Spires stamp is left on the sound, and Robin’s flute contribution, the other name to jump out from the players is the presence of the ever-in-demand CJ Hillman playing pedal steel on one of the tracks. Perhaps a more prominent role is undertaken by the guitar skills of Phil Ward, present on most pieces, with a neat solo surfacing on one of the stand out numbers ‘Rusted Ring’. This is a song signposted for promotion of the album and vies for top spot with several other impressive candidates.

These include the wide reaching style of Katy’s writing which leads off with the sensory dominated opener ‘Cold November Day’. Stark references are aplenty in ‘Counting Kettles’, while ‘Jack & Ivy’ is rich in pure nostalgia and explicitly cracks the genre of emotive storytelling through song. There is a sense of joy surrounding the most personal song on the album and there is no holding back on the sheer emotion pouring out of ‘Driving Home’, all delivered in an upbeat style adorned with far from solemn steel.

The songs comprising this collection have evolved over the last decade and it was during this period when Katy first crossed my path as a performing artist when opening regularly for the acclaimed North American folk ‘n’ roots group Po Girl. These gigs were held at the Kitchen Garden Café and Katy recently returned to the venue to successfully launch this, her fourth album.

Two further tracks demand increased attention headed by the rousing finale ‘My Friend’, closely followed by the slightly funky and forever spritely ‘One Day’. These form significant parts of a record, heavy in variety and consistent in ear pleasing quality. Occasionally, local references creep into the lyrics and sit neatly alongside social observational comments ranging from football to daytime soaps. The whole entity of SONGS OF THE RIVER REA invites many repeat listens and continues to throw up intrinsic parts when the plays hit double figures.

Katy Rose Bennett should be immensely proud of this record and with a flow of good fortune it should reach the ears of many music devotees excited by the combined art of fine song and expert musicianship. The River Rea is destined to be a hidden feature of Birmingham’s landscape but SONGS OF THE RIVER REA may just surface to wider recognition.

Listen to Rusted Ring

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Lilly Hiatt - Royal Blue : Normaltown Records

A break up album – maybe, a relationship album – definitely, what is beyond doubt is that ROYAL BLUE by Lilly Hiatt is a totally absorbing record. This is the second full length release from the East Nashville based artist putting an independent spin on the family name. Lilly addresses the parental issue in ‘Somebody’s Daughter’ with the listener left in little doubt that she is ready to make a significant mark on the agenda of many discerning Americana music followers. This intoxicating record has a strong emotive undercurrent and flourishes at the point where powerful alt-rock meets the extreme edge of country music.

The twang comes in the form of stacks of ear pleasing pedal steel guitar prevalent amongst the onslaught of indie guitar anthems, mixed with synths and drums, thus leading to a record impossible to pinpoint its defining era. If a genre label is required, look no further than indie-Americana and those tempted by a touch of twang added to their rock will be hooked by the appeal. The first two tracks ensure this as ‘Far Away’ and ‘Off Track’ get the proceedings off to a soaring start. Gradually the pace fluctuates in tune with the message that Lilly wants to get over and some serious ballads emerge as the album rolls through its twelve tracks.

As you would expect from a Hiatt, the song writing is original, solo and rich in the substance of the intelligent word. The song title expertise peaks at the memorable number ‘Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick the Restaurant’. This is one of several tracks to have an asterisk against as stand-out potential, although like so many outstanding releases, the ultimate appeal is in the single play entity. The marketing team behind the record has issued ‘Get This Right’ as the promotional piece and they prove a shrewd judge.

The album may have been out in the US for a while under the progressive arm of Normaltown Records, but the eventual slated date for the release to the European market is June 3 to coincide with Lilly’s venture across the pond. In the run up, a Noise Trade sampler did make the title track available for fans to sample alongside the ‘B’ sides and ‘Royal Blue’ proves to be the perfect closer in making you hit the replay button or in the long run, yearning for Lilly’s next release.

Your Choice’ is the obvious ‘choice’ for those preferring their music toned down a little as this number is beautifully reeling in ballad and acoustic qualities. The general feel of this record is tilted more towards the rock side and done with an accent on quality while being in line with many of Lilly’s influences from this musical angle. This ranges from 70’s punk to alt-rock offering in the subsequent decades, though retaining a sophisticated Nashville edge which expands the potential into many camps.

Listeners will find the album sonically pleasing throughout with Lilly’s vocals adding a haunting and edgy side to the tracks. It will be interesting to see how she presents these songs live in the UK when playing a series of low key dates in June in mainly listening venues. Although I’m sure stripped back versions will reveal the true depth of their compositions and establish Lilly as a potential song writing force.

The multi-facetted approach in making an enduring album calling at many points has paid off immensely. ROYAL BLUE is a regal potpourri of indie-Americana and its intersecting sound presents Lilly Hiatt as a performer equipped to break out as a successful recording artist. Make sure you are present at the second stage of this sure to be a long and winding journey. 

Stephen Simmons - House Concert, Staffordshire

The location evolution may have been from house to garden, but the return of Stephen Simmons to a makeshift live venue in Staffordshire was still equipped with a generous offering of highly crafted songs. This visit saw Stephen in solo mode in contrast to last year when the Nashville based singer-songwriter was accompanied by Molly Jewell on keyboards. However the underlying depth and appeal of his songs remained intact as the evening panned out to be a revealing affair on the thoughts, musings and influences of a performer steeped in the art of the original song.

The inevitable arrival of late spring UK rain did nothing to dampen this outdoor gathering securely sheltered under the haven of temporary canvas. There was even a hint of rhythmic rain as Stephen meandered through pieces from his extensive back catalogue which will shortly be added to later this year. As usual with a Stephen Simmons show, there is no holding back on the engaging and affable chat which goes a long way to revealing the inner psyche of a singer-songwriter. The polite southern persona adds a cultured edge to the proceedings which periodically digressed to celebrating the works of the greats – Springsteen, Young, Clark, Williams and Browne. Yet the crux of the evening was the continual flow of self-penned efforts.

Country music is in the DNA of Stephen, born, bred and still resident in Tennessee. However the only trend Stephen chases is in pursuit of the ultimate song. This places him on the folk side of the country genre, and although circumstances dictate that we don’t see his band in the UK, you can quite envisage them rocking a joint in line with some of Stephen’s influences.

As indicated previously, a brand new album is in the can itching for a release and hopefully the extensive European wing of the Stephen Simmons appreciation society will get the opportunity to grab a copy when he plans to return to the region later in the year. One new song previewed during this show was ‘Colours Fade’ following some interesting and honest comment on the presence and significance of flags, especially in Stephen’s homeland ‘South’.

Politics, family influence and climate variations remained the theme of the evening as song after song was shared with an appreciative gathering – many familiar with Stephen’s work following multiple visits to this part of the UK. His style fits in well with the burgeoning home concert market, an important innovative development in the model of modern indie-artist survival. Among the sprinkling of covers played, Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ went down well, but I’m afraid from a personal perspective was second best to an absolute gem of a version of the Hank Williams classic ‘Wedding Bells’.

Highlights from the deliverance of well over twenty songs were spread across the pair of sets, starting with the opener ‘Parchcorn Falls’ and further exemplified by 'Spark', ‘Emily’s Eyes’, ‘Asheville Girl’, ‘Spinner of Tales’ and ‘Limavady Blues’. The latter had an appendix to the well told story of waking up in the wrong Irish hotel room and generally the inter-song chat was not littered with repeats that can be the trait of some long term visiting singer-songwriters.

This spring UK trip may have taken on an interim status, but the opportunity to submerge your senses in the live presence of Stephen Simmons’ music was an evening well spent. There was even a moment where you could have captured the very essence of the mystique surrounding a talented singer-songwriter. This, in a nutshell, brought a slice of the ‘South’ to a garden location in rural Staffordshire. 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Malcolm Holcombe - St.George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 13th May 2016

Gloriously imperfect and once seen never forgotten are two phrases which some up the enigma, Malcolm Holcombe. Whether listening to him live or a recording, a necessary adjustment is essential to tune into the music of surely one of the most distinctive performers from North Carolina to spread their message wide and far. An imperative view of Malcolm Holcombe is to treasure his importance to the genre of American roots music and revel in the notion of one man flourishing with the utmost non-conformity. This successful promotion bringing a slice of Americana to a corner of north-west Worcestershire could once again reflect in an act of engaging diversity and leaving the folks of Bewdley with a lasting memory.

For me this was a lengthy renewal after first seeing Malcolm play solo at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham several years ago. The vivid memory of a stool balancing – finger picking country blues guitarist has remained intact and the phenomena of this live performer is likewise in 2016. There were two main differences though: the chair rocking rarely surfaced and a rather useful slide guitar playing companion gave the overall music experience a more rounded glow. However still in place were the eccentric mannerisms, rambling stories and extraordinary ability to convey such inner soul drenched in a sound reminiscent of backwoods Appalachia.

It was a perceived brave move to bring such a distinct left field artist to a community setting, but the three figure turnout was a tremendous sight in this challenging age for original live music. It was understandable that Malcolm may not have been to the taste of some people, yet the overall vibe in St. George’s Hall was positive. It was pleasing to witness so many live music fans being prepared to open their mind.

Jared Tyler was the slide guitar player joining Malcolm on this UK tour which had the added bonus of a brand new CD in tow under the title of ANOTHER BLACK HOLE. Not that you get Malcolm in exploitive PR mode, just an artist playing music he believes in and is formed by the prime experience of life. The quips and ramblings were delightfully alluring whether combining the honesty and sinister side to drink, washing dishes for a living or offering a humorous difference between a motel and a hotel. The mood was a flickering shade of darkness as the gloss of modern life was left on the shelf.

The gruff vocal side of Malcolm Holcombe is an absolute understatement especially when compared to the occasional contribution from Jared. It is the perfect mode for the worn and weary style of his songs which demand total concentration, whilst rewarding such acts of dedication. In contrast to the depth of the song material, the music is a feast of simplicity with oodles of mighty picking filling the atmosphere.

In line with their previous presentations, the promotion operating under the banner ‘Music in the Hall’ enlisted the services of two local acts to give the evening a sense of variety, while underpinning the essence of music development. An enterprising young blues duo Two Doors Down took to the stage for the first half hour to be soon followed by a more experienced blues rock band named One Tree Canyon. The latter act filled their set with a mixture of covers and originals. Inevitably ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ assumed the role of standards, while a version of John Fullbright’s ‘Satan and St. Paul’ both intrigued and impressed.

The turnout and subsequently successful venture of promoting this style of music in a market town not too far from a major urban area continues to defy general trends and this is a testimony to the promotion. The booking of Malcolm Holcombe presented the opportunity for wider Midlands Americana music fans to catch up with this pure and authentic performer. The good news for the open minded is that Malcolm is in fine fettle, keeping his music true and honest, while ploughing an undeterred individual trail of ‘three chords and the truth’. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Carter Sampson - Wilder Side : Continental Song City

If Margo Price and Dori Freeman have turned heads with stunning album releases in 2016, they may have to shuffle along and make room for Carter Sampson. While the first two have a debut record as their common thread, WILDER SIDE is actually her fourth full release. However as this is the first time Carter’s music has crossed my path, it has all the freshness appeal of a debut record and thus the totally mesmerising effect of bowling you completely over. Carter’s voice is pure Oklahoma red dirt soul and refines its harshness to such an extent that being melted by the tone sends shivers down the spine. The ten songs that comprise this album are packed with memorable lines and are all accompanied by a delicate sound merging subtle twang with that of quintessential steel. This is a record designed for multiple plays and wearing it out will never dilute its endearing qualities.

Two key features of Carter Sampson and her new record jumped straight out when digging a little deeper. Firstly, she is yet another superb songwriter currently operating out of Oklahoma who is having their music promoted far and wide. Parker Millsap, John Fulbright and John Moreland are others brought to mind, with the latter singing backing vocals on some of the tracks. Perhaps it is Samantha Crain who could provide the travelling light as she regular leaves her home State for tours of Europe. Of course all classic songwriters from Oklahoma will always follow in the trail of Woody Guthrie. Referring back to the opening sentence in this paragraph, the other significant feature on the album was the production role of Travis Linville, a name immediately springing to mind due to his association with Hayes Carll.

Further research on Carter Sampson reveals her as the self-penned ‘Queen of Oklahoma’ and after having a healthy obsession with this record who can disagree. She tends to operate as a solo songwriter with only two songs on the album having a co-write status. Themes range from unsurprisingly the wide spaces of her home environment through a desire to embrace the landscape via travel, which can be extensive even within this segment of the USA. A common feeling from indulging in track after track is to quit what you’re doing and hitch along on this journey fuelled by amazing laid back vibes and highly descriptive memorable lyrics.

Once again, full commendation must be reserved for the optimum production handle on the sound giving the breathing space for the songs to flourish. From the unyielding opener and title track ‘Wilder Side’ flushing out the repeated line ‘Sweet Baby James singing on the radio’ to the marvellous mid-way number ‘Medicine River’ enthusing about the ‘Wichita Mountains’, the songs are a continual rich stream of engaging offerings. The classy and sassy ‘Highway Rider’ spars with ‘Everything You Need’, with its road connotations, for my stand out track, but this can fluctuate with numerous others on any of the multiple listens that the record demands.

At the start of this review a number of contemporary performers were name checked, but there is another which continually springs to mind upon each listen. Think – an indie Miranda Lambert stripped down to her raw components and the similarities will remain intact for the duration of WILDER SIDE as a relevant release, which from my perspective is going to be quite a while.

Continental Song City are putting this record out in Europe and there is certainly a growing market to appreciate the sounds which fully incorporate the seamless strands of folk, country and Americana. Perhaps venturing outside of her usual performing sphere could yield further riches for Carter, even if only from an experience angle. Folks in the UK would drool over such a voice and inspirational songs, meeting an insatiable demand for a little American escapism, while fully understanding that is the real deal life of the performer.

Just mentioning a few more tracks before signing off, ‘Take Me Home With You’ is an absolutely gorgeous song which anchors the second half of the album and is closely followed by the dulcet tones of the next up number ‘Wild Bird’. In fact there is not a single track which comes across as a lightweight effort with Carter and her tight knit team deserving every credit.

WILDER SIDE has catapulted itself to the upper echelons of this year’s releases and lifted Carter Sampson as an artist to take note of on the international scale. Sometimes the eventual engagement with an artist outweighs the time taken and this is one damn good Oklahoma singer-songwriter who has made a significant impression with a super album. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Cale Tyson - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 6th May 2016

Is there a sharper, wittier and cooler artist treading the country music boards than Cale Tyson? Fair enough the sample pool of live musicians in the UK is hardly comparable to the excesses of Texas and Tennessee. However If one exists, they have a heck of a marker to surpass in this Nashville based Texan signed to British label Clubhouse Records. Otis Gibbs coined the phrase: ‘there are only two things that matter in art: those who make it and those who receive it; everything else is an artificial filter’. You can be rest assured that standing six feet from Cale Tyson while watching him perform in awe for ninety minutes tonight in Oxford, there was distinctly no artificial filter to be seen. It was raw, real and riveting from start to finish. 

The live version of Cale Tyson is a major upgrade in 2016 thanks to a three piece band joining him on tour. This is starting from a lofty base of the impression Cale made last year when he toured as a duo with Pete Lindberg. Pete switched to drums on this trip with Andrew Hunt on bass and Brett Resnick, effectively playing lead on pedal steel, making up the quartet. Stellar Austin based pedal steel guitarist Geoff Queen mightily impressed when playing with Hayes Carll last week, but Brett took the twang to another plane with his performance this evening. It was a display of pure emotive bliss.

With his sculptured poise, voice born to sing the sad song and an unbelievable depth of lyrical prowess, Cale Tyson is living his destiny and taking a whole bunch of converts with him on this amazing journey. There are endless prefixes and tags to the genre of country music, but Cale literally trashes them all while reclaiming the heart and soul of its purest form. An endearing charisma surrounds his stage persona that grows during the show and crowns the golden stream of outstanding songs that just flow unfiltered from his guitar.

Earlier this year what was in effect a debut Cale Tyson album was released and CARELESS SOUL has wooed critics on all levels. Last year’s Clubhouse release was technically an amalgamation of two EPs and material from all his records featured heavily in tonight’s show at The Bullingdon, once again arranged by Empty Rooms Promotions. The sounds spanned the beat and tempo spectrum ranging from the rolling ‘Railroad Blues’ through to a stunning solo performance of ‘Not Missin’ You’ in the first encore slot. The presence of the band rose immensely on the faster songs and presents another opportunity to wax lyrical about Brett’s pedal steel playing. Cale perhaps comes more to the fore on the slower numbers, and the sadder the song gets, the more profound the connection between artist and listener.

In a satire drenched ninety minutes, Cale dismissed Andrew and Brett midway through the set to enable his duo role with Pete to be re-united and the execution of a memorable dual performance of ‘Travelling Man’ and ‘Oaxaca’. The first of these is a personal favourite and was thoroughly enjoyed, while the second managed to take the sad song genre to a new depth with its conclusion. On the topic of Cale Tyson tracks which stand head and shoulders above the rest, tonight’s airing of ‘Old Time Blues’ and ‘Somebody Save Me’ were utterly magnificent, paying dividends tenfold of any investment made to support his music.

There was plenty to enjoy in the show away from Cale’s recorded material. Andrew was given the opportunity to sing a song after the audience were informed that he is a member of the distinctly named Nashville Western Swing band Johnny Appleseed. Pete also chipped in with a version of the Merle Travis song ‘Nine Pound Hammer’. Brett just let his pedal steel do the talking! Before we transgress from the unrecorded material, ‘Abilene’ took us back to Cale’s Texas roots and the finale version of Micky Newberry’s ‘Why You Been Gone So Long’ closed a super evening on a positive upbeat note with all four band members in full flow.

Bringing the Cale Tyson story right up to date revealed a spread of several other songs from the new album including the title track ‘Careless Soul’, ‘Gonna Love a Woman’ and ‘Easy’. Inevitably the horns and brass didn’t cross the pond to replicate the soulful sound on the record and the opening track ‘Staying Kind’ was omitted from this show. Although the focus should be on what Cale and the band did and that beyond doubt was totally awesome.

A special mention also needs to be reserved for Oxford based American duo Loud Mountains which played a rather early opening slot due to the venue’s club night curfew. The duo showed plenty of promise with a useful toolkit to share music that can engage all ages. Their final song ‘Lethal Remedy’ was the pick of the originals played in the half hour set and who cannot fail to enjoy a well drilled cover version of Ryan Adams’ ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’.

Cale Tyson’s show in Leicester last year was a top five favourite from over ninety gigs attended. How high will the 2016 full band version be when the dust settles? A tough ask with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and the Dixie Chicks already in the books and several other giants looming. Yet this guy has something about him that often words cannot do justice, even the imperfections are utterly stylish. A Cale Tyson gig requires little objectivity, just a slice of your subjective mind. These shameless and bias musings are bound by a genuine honesty. The opportunity to engage is out there and the artificial filter of this piece should merely be a prompt. It’s a decision you won’t regret.