Friday, 22 May 2015

Slaid Cleaves - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmimgham. Friday 22nd May 2015

For those buying into the concept of absence makes the heart grow fonder, the fact that Slaid Cleaves unintentionally missed Birmingham off his previous touring schedule may have been a blessing in disguise. Slaid has always been well supported at the Kitchen Garden Café and for his triumphant return the house full sign was almost being dusted down. On an upgrade from his previous Birmingham dates, Slaid was this time accompanied by his sidekick Scrappy Jud Newcomb and together they reeled off a continual chain of popular tunes, well received by many long term fans populating the audience. Right from the opening chords of ‘Horseshoe Lounge’ to a poignant unplugged tribute to the late Ian MacLagan over two hours later, there was a distinctive Texas flavour from an honorary Texan now fully steeped in the Lone Star State’s poetic culture.

With no apparent set list visible it didn’t take long for the requests to kick in and probably nearly a third of the set were audience shout outs stretching Slaid’s memory acumen to its limit. Any doubts about immaculate recollection from his deep back catalogue vault were soon removed especially when dealing with ‘Borderline’ and his eight minute folk epic ‘Breakfast in Hell’. As the requests rolled in, favourite songs such as ‘Quick as  Dreams’, ‘Lydia’ and ‘Horses and Divorces’ rolled out leaving many Slaid fans content that the unfortunate wrong of missing the city last time had been fully rectified.

Last time Slaid toured the UK he was supporting his latest record STILL FIGHTING THE WAR and with copies to sell to those who had yet to buy the record, a number of tracks infiltrated the set with promotional intent. Amongst these was the fabulous ‘Texas Love Song’ which proved one of the pivotal high spots on the evening. The album version featured Terri Hendrix and she was one of many Texas musicians namechecked during the evening including Don Walser and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Slaid never fails to relay stories of his long term association with Rod Picott and two of their most popular co-writes illuminated the opening set in ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Broke Down’. The latter usually gets its introduction as the song which lifted Slaid up the inconspicuous ladder of muted fame. Like so many Americana artists out of Austin, Slaid was quick to be appreciative of the help Bob Harris had given them to make touring the UK a viable option.

Scrappy Jud’s contribution to the evening ranged from some serious twang emerging out of his slide acoustic playing to a baritone sound emanating from his second guitar. He also sang lead vocals on one of his own songs and backed Slaid on many others. The pair has developed that telepathic intuition required for a successful duo style and several songs were enhanced with the occasional fluid lead guitar breaks. Many lauded songs continued to flow from the floor as we were treated to ‘Cry’, ‘Wishbones’ and another crowd favourite ‘One Good Year’. Like so many artists operating at this level, there is not a single shred of indifference to the show, with such humility and gratefulness being a blessing for performers rich in talent, but forever denied that big break.

Slaid Cleaves is an artist content with his lot and gets much satisfaction in sharing his songs with enthusiastic and dedicated audiences where compromise is not an option. The songs are a pure poetic masterpiece of Americana landscape, observation and soul with their author perfectly at ease in using his gifts to entertain via the fruits of his craft. Tonight was a reminder that Slaid Cleaves is a sheer classy songwriter and we were promised no more Birmingham omissions from future tours.

Lucy Ward + Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Thursday 21st May 2015

Taste of traditional, primed in the present and locked in for the long term are three phrases that perfectly sum up the current career status of Kim Lowings and Lucy Ward. Of course the light of Lucy has shone a little brighter in wider circles, but they came together as kindred spirits to share the spotlight in the second instalment of the 2015 Stourbridge Folk Festival. Splendidly described by Lucy as a ‘bunker’, the cellar bar at Katie Fitzgerald’s pub in Stourbridge hosted this memorable evening which was sprinkled with the gold dust of song, sound, prose and passion. 

Local artist Kim dutifully and gracefully opened for the Derbyshire based guest as Lucy was afforded a couple of sets to spice up a serene start to the show. Not that Lucy refrains from her more composed moments, but the feisty side of an exuberant persona ignites the flame to illuminate her craft, art and message. The handover between artists was a precise piece of cultural exchange as Kim hit her vocal stride with ‘The Parting Glass’ before being almost instantly followed by Lucy announcing her arrival with flamboyant panache.

Both artists are in the throes of making that next record and took the opportunity to present a taster of the new material. Kim chose to share one of her more contemporary offerings with the track ‘Stay’ sounding immaculate on first listen and gave a hint that this new release is set to span the folk spectrum. ‘Connie and Bud’ and ‘Summers That We Made’ showed Lucy as being in fine fettle with the usual addition of inspired commentary being a fundamental accompaniment to each song, whether old or new.

Kim, predominately on her trademark mountain dulcimer, was as usual supported by her backing trio The Greenwood and together they weaved through a set of familiar tunes, many of which have featured on her album and EP. ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Off to Sea’, both originals, headed the list and it was good to hear ‘The Wonderful Mr Clark’ again. The title of her new album was announced as Historia with hopefully the press to begin before the dying days of summer fade away. There is a guarantee you will be hearing a lot of it as the year heads into its final months, so stay tuned for more from a talented artist succinctly capable of gift wrapping each song with her idyllic vocals.

The enhanced versatility of Lucy’s vocals has led to a Folk Singer of the Year nomination to follow up a Horizon award for emerging artist. These imposing tones were wonderfully propelled around this intimate setting in diversely presented songs such as the spritely ‘Old Brown Hen’, the traditionally inspired original ‘Alice in the Bacon Box’, the wonderful ‘The Last Pirouette’ and the popular ‘Velvet Day’. This last song closed her first set, one in which Lucy opted out of playing stringed instruments due to a slight injury. This led to a late call up for an old friend in guitarist Albert Widdowson. The minor hindrance did not duly affect a couple of tunes being bellowed out on the concertina and harmonium with this temporary situation providing a further opportunistic spark for Lucy’s expressive mode of song delivery.

The music of Lucy sways between the abstract and the earthy with the latter being intensely fuelled by her political stance, which like her music is a long way adrift from the centre ground. The prelude to the imposing pre-encore show closer ‘For the Dead Men’ paraded Lucy at her fiery best as well as the gratitude she showed to her hero Billy Bragg. This was perfectly captured in the WW1 tribute piece ‘Lion’ she wrote at Billy’s request when playing his choreographed Left Field stage at Glastonbury last year. This was much in a similar vein as the commissioned song ‘Creatures and Demons’, based on the famous Elizabeth Gaskell novel North and South. Just to cap the political leanings of the evening, Lucy couldn’t resist the request to cover Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ in light of that dark day of May 8.

While on the topic of covers, a warm and affectionate audience had little trouble adding backing vocals to a version of ‘First Cut is the Deepest’ and Lucy celebrated her temporary reunion with Albert by returning to a song from their musical past in ‘I Will’ by The Beatles. This brought a momentous evening to a close which thrilled both audience and artists alike.

Appreciation is forthcoming to the Stourbridge Folk Festival for presenting a show which went a long way in encapsulating the pioneering folk spirit of two artists stolidly representing their generation in the inspirational art of traditional and contemporary song. Erase the observational differences between Kim Lowings and Lucy Ward and it will reveal two artists bound by a drive to fulfil the calling of their gift.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Grant Langston - Hope You're Happy Now : California Roots Union

For every indifferent country music release filing out of Nashville, it doesn’t take too much searching to find a golden nugget elsewhere truly subservient to the heritage and prestige of the genre. California has frequently been a hotbed for country music, often in a revisionist capacity. Whether within the urban confines of LA or the less refined surroundings of Bakersfield, the Golden State possess a fine pedigree and this latest project under the banner of California Roots Union is a further leap in the right direction. Grant Langston has long been associated with the far west community despite being raised a true southerner and has successfully captured the melting pot of his influences in a recording career well into its second decade. HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY NOW is a slight diversion from his recent releases in overall style, but matches up exceedingly well in the quality stamp of authenticity.

Whereas two of his previous records, STAND UP MAN (2009) and WORKING UNTIL I DIE (2012) were driven by a prominent honky tonk sound, this time it’s a more melancholic Langston tuning into a sad song wavelength with many a thoughtful sentiment. This smashing and thoroughly satisfying album basks in swathes of pedal steel amidst a dozen alluring tracks showcasing an adroit song writer and musician with the nous to steer the ship through the rough seas of change to calmer traditional waters.

Photo by Duff Ferguson 
If you want a lesson in how to grab a listener’s attention with the first hook, Langston perfectly executes it with the marvellously memorable opening line ‘I bought us a couple of whiskeys, you look like you could use a drink’. The next three and a half minutes drip with absolute 24 carat country gold as ‘Drive’ nails the moment and delivers a song for all seasons, ages and time. Of course it would be remiss of you to quit after one song, but if you did stall, there is no finer stopping point. The wise amongst you will trawl through the next eleven tracks calling at several strategic highpoints to ensure the challenge set by the opener is not too daunting. The superb, almost part spoken, ‘Breaking Hearts’ is another sterling steel infested effort as is a stunning peak towards the album’s finale in the classic ‘I Work Too Hard’.

A significant slice of this record is played out on piano spreading that laid back California vibe to all and sundry in scintillating effect. This harks back to the golden age of singer song writing with substantial country twang adding up to a record relentlessly swimming around your mind with barely a few plays under its belt. ‘Don’t You Dare’ leads the way in the unashamed throwback stakes, while ‘Me and Margaret’ is a distinguished effort played out in a theatrical mode coupled with an upbeat mood. Occasionally, the record glides into a slightly rockier direction with a soft guitar groove underpinning ‘Born to Ride’ and a quainter tune in ‘Fading Fast’ housing the album’s prime guitar solo, while easing into a pool of tantalising twang.

From a man who once immortalised Shiner Bock and Vicodin into a never to be forgotten song title, the writing of Grant Langston had already been carved in vinyl. This latest release has taken its inspiration from the Willie Nelson concept album PHASES AND STAGES highlighting Langston’s desire to continually seek directional influence for his work and there is no better source than delving into the vaults of a master. HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY NOW serves as the perfect refuge for real country music seekers and confirms Grant Langston as one of the good guys who makes records to match the passion for his craft. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Police Dog Hogan - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 14th May 2015

Following a false start towards the end of last year, a West Midlands audience finally got the opportunity for find out what Police Dog Hogan are all about. Folks in the South of England and various other locations dotted around the country already knew that they are one of the hottest live bands on the UK roots circuit, so it was a case of getting up to speed. A highly credible turnout at the Hare and Hounds for a new band in town saw this multi-instrumental  assembly firing on all cylinders and fully eager to ride the waves generated by the band’s all-consuming rousing stage performance. This was Police Dog Hogan doing what comes natural and deliver a totally authentic high octane entertaining performance.

It has been around six or seven months since the band released their third full length album and many of the songs are quickly becoming embedded favourites in the set list. This is hardly surprising for a record richly populated with tunes reflecting their live presence. ‘From the Land of Miracles’, ‘West Country Boy’ and ‘Thunderheads’ head the fast flowing numbers from an album titled WESTWARD HO which frontman James Studholme informed those present was influenced by his own South West roots. Critics heralded the record as symbolically representing the strategic extremity of the British Isles and the last staging post before the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. You don’t have to exert too much energy in discovering the Americana context to Police Dog Hogan, to the extent that their very British slant on the genre has been presented to industry bods in Nashville.

While the band show little refrain in hiding their American heroes via covers of Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’ and the immortal Hank Williams classic ‘I Saw the Light’, it is perhaps their take on home grown observations that give Police Dog Hogan their identity. ‘Crackington’, ‘No Wonder She Drinks’ and ‘Fraserburgh Train’ all have distinct origins and what could be more British than the poignant ‘A Man Needs a Shed’. Maybe further Midlands gigs will get the crowd more actively celebrating the band’s ode to low class drinking in ‘Shitty White Wine’, but they were reciprocally vociferous in giving a helping hand to the cleverly written song ‘Burnt’.

For this evening Police Dog Hogan was operating as a seven piece unit with James (guitar/lead vocals), Tim Dowling (banjo) and Eddie Bishop (fiddle) assuming a more focal role. Shahen Galichian (accordion/harmonium), Michael Giri (drums) and Don Bowen (bass) each had their moments to individually shine in addition to a collective effort propelling the theory of the sum being greater. The numerous trumpet interludes from Emily Norris give the sound a finer touch and whose presence accentuates the band’s explicit diversity. The buoyant outlook of this part time band is a refreshing trait alongside a stage show awash with humour and just sheer gratefulness to share their passion with a paying public. The joviality peaked with a touch of Anglo-French rambling in ‘La Moutarde du Dijon’ and the desire of the band to evolve lay in a new song ‘Black Road’ thus showing a stated intent to continually update their song writing repertoire.

Enthusiastic local performer Rich McMahon was a popular choice to open the evening with a mix of covers and originals fuelled by a combination of Irish and Midland roots. This pro-active and purposeful singer-songwriter has forged a growing reputation on the local circuit and he no doubt gained a few more admirers from this three figure Hare and Hounds gathering with his brash brand of observational songs.

Now Police Dog Hogan has conquered the West Midlands, world domination is a less daunting prospect. In the meantime the band will continue to make forays around the country demonstrating the high value that can surface from the art of enterprising song and the extracted inspiration from roots instrumentation. This theory will be endorsed by each member of a satisfied Birmingham crowd and justify the decision of the Kitchen Garden Events team to promote the evening.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Don Gallardo - Hickory : Clubhouse Records

Apart from housing some very special UK music talent, indie label Clubhouse Records have an intuitive knack of exposing seriously good North American acts to refined markets this side of the pond. On the back of Leeroy Stagger a couple of years ago and more recently Cale Tyson, next up on the Clubhouse delivery wagon is the strikingly named Don Gallardo from Nashville, Tennessee. This cool and chilled singer-songwriter is beginning to gather momentum in the UK with national radio airplay and his new album HICKORY will resonate with connoisseurs who thrive on a subtle mix of classic and contemporary. The rise of Americana as a recognised genre is a media coat hanger for artists like Don, so that their talents can be displayed prominently in the shop window. Purchasing the smooth and slick sound of Don Gallardo will be one of your best value bargains of the year.

HICKORY is Don’s fourth full length release, but no doubt for many folks in the UK a first listen to his material. However there is a solid guarantee that this initial experience will be rewarded with distinct approval. Backed by an accomplished list of musicians, detailing the quality of their associations would be an exhaustive task, all thirteen original tracks ebb and flow through a golden stream of distinguished song writing fare. Perfect for lazing back on a warm summer’s evening, this scenario has been ordered for Don’s festival appearances on the proviso that the UK weather is open to requests. More guaranteed though is the listening pleasure garnered from playing this album at your leisure in one’s preferred format.

Upon each listen to this album (and there are many under the bridge), two tracks shine in a consistent light of excellence each time. ‘North Dakota Blues’ is a delightful folk tale with the usual dark patches, while ‘Banks of the Mississippi’ is a dip into one of the most fertile areas for Americana songwriters and Don scores highly with this aphotic composition. In a colourful contrast, a lighter background, including a touch of sax, accompanies ‘Angel on the Dance Floor’ where a Californian sound to represent Don’s roots is more prevalent.

This west coast feel also flavours the opening song ‘Down in the Valley’ which sets a laid back tone to become almost the soundtrack of the record. Such a soundtrack spans the Americana spectrum with a couple of top tunes calling at the country music truck stop to re-fuel with a bout pedal steel twang. These are namely the waltz induced ‘This Time’ and a lengthy heart breaking closer full of love and loss ‘Pearls’. While on the laid back trail, both ‘Midnight Sounds’ and ‘Will We Ever Get it Right’ possess a lounge jazz feel with the sax once again infiltrating the first and a fiddle giving the second an slight old time makeover in parts of the song.

On a record which draws contemporary comparisons with some of the less frantic Old Crow Medicine Show material and definitely shades of Drew Holcomb, it is surprisingly Simon and Garfunkel which come to mind when listening to ‘Carousel’. Talking of this era, or more specific the early 70’s, ‘When the World Wakes Up’ relays absolute imagery of the classic singer-songwriter cutting the mustard. This leads in neatly to Don’s tribute to one of the industry’s greats via ‘Ophelia, We Cry’ (Ode to Levon Helm’), with the immortal tribute line ‘you left us all so suddenly with no chance for goodbyes’ saying all there needs to be said. On an album rich in lyrical indulgence, the writing goes metaphorically deep digging in ‘Diamonds & Gold’. The final track to mention ‘Cup of Rain’ does likewise in a tender ballad extolling the virtues of sharing and protection showing that there is no shying away from sentiment, especially when done well.

While the two tracks mentioned at the start of the review still retain those ‘stand out’ qualities, there is so much else on offer to make HICKORY a ’stand out’ album itself.  Don Gallardo is a masterful artist perfectly equipped to interpret American roots music in an impressive style to totally engage the listener.

Alabama Shakes - 02 Academy, Birmingham. Wednesday 13th May 2015

Alabama Shakes are a band who explicitly display their roots and proudly take a slice of the Deep South with them wherever they play in the world. Tonight they may have traded the urban namesakes between their home state and the English Midlands, but there was an unmistakable aura of southern lore around the venue. The challenge is certainly on to find a finer rock n’ soul band on this planet especially one that has successfully permeated the UK mainstream. You could quite easily supplant the name Brittany Howard into the band’s title such is the dominant and imposing presence of a front person blessed with a spiritualist talent to deliver the most authentic soul and gospel you are likely to hear in a rock arena.

Following a flying visit to the UK, mainly for press purposes, earlier in the year, Alabama Shakes in their eight piece format are now rolling out a series of provincial dates to support their new album SOUND & COLOR, which has already sold in considerable numbers. A few more copies will shift off the shelf after catching the band in full flow and in the true tradition of a major live act, the songs take on a whole new dimension when transported from studio to stage. The torrential outpouring of pure emotion into each song is a gasping experience as she blazes through a heady mix of up tempo rock infused songs and others lifted straight from the sermon of Brittany Howard in all their soulful and gospel might.

The trio of guitarists including Brittany on a majority of the numbers play a significant part to form the sound, but the cream comes from the keys and organ creating that galactic feel of soul music swirling around in a sumptuous haze. The twin keys approach, a pair of backing singers and the resident drummer provided the final line up pieces that excelled collectively throughout and were fully supportive to Brittany exuding her powerful persona to the nth degree. This was a show of little chat, only a smattering of Brittany’s grateful humility, as the band steamed through an 80 minute set of songs from their two albums to date almost in equal portions.

From the debut album BOYS & GIRLS, the band elected to omit the popular tune ‘Hold On’, however this show was more about the entity of the radiated emotion than eulogising over individual songs. However to present some detail  ‘I Found You’ and ‘Rise to the Sun’ off this record raised the energy levels, while ‘You Ain’t Alone’ and ‘Be Mine’ were among the most intense numbers.

To put the live performance of Alabama Shakes into context, the lead single from the new album was perhaps one of the evening’s lighter moments with Brittany seemingly taking an emotional breather. This is no slur on ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ which was a good choice to court popular appeal,  but it’s dance-like beat and almost disco vibes fall short of Brittany at her incredible soulful pinnacle. ‘Dunes’, another popular track from this album, had an early airing in the set list  and in contrast to shows where the final song is a rousing anthem, this evening closed with a more low key effort in ‘Over My Head’ which reflected on the observation that this was a gig with a domineering focal point. Three other notable new songs to feature and worth a mention were 'Miss You', ‘Gimme All Your Love’ and ‘The Greatest’.

The evening got off to a blistering start with an exhilarating blast of Mali style blues rock groove. Songhoy Blues are a four piece band bringing the best of African electric rhythm aided by yet another expressive and effervescent front person capable of whipping up a docile crowd. It took barely two songs to hook in the gig early birds which gradually swelled to a sizeable proportion. Orchestrated participation matched the dynamism from the stage and this band are set to be an instant hit when they hit the UK festival circuit this summer.

There is going to be a lot more of Alabama Shakes in the UK this summer as well and this exposure will bring the power, guile and brilliance of American roots music to a wider audience. Make no mistake Brittany Howard does not play to a mainstream gallery and more pertinently on stage she sinks into a wonderful mire of transfixing soul, blues and gospel. That extraordinary lung sapping vocal pedigree sends shivers down the spine. While there may be a Brittany Howard in every church and hall in Alabama, there is only one pounding the international rock stage and one who also kills it every time she explodes into action.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 10th May

The term crossover can have a multitude of musical connotations, but when the two styles are folk and Americana the results are often quite positive especially when quality artists are at the helm of the execution. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have their roots firmly planted in the UK folk scene and possess a talent recognised by numerous national and regional awarding bodies, most notably BBC Radio 2. Their live shows never fail to impress and always unveil a heady mixture of pulsating musicianship and beautiful delicate song. This third appearance at the Kitchen Garden Café was business as usual for the duo who breezed their way through a pair of alluring sets.

Whether on Dobro, harmonica, stomp box or beat box, Phillip is an intriguing and original musician capable of holding the audience’s attention for lengthy periods. He orchestrates the harmonica with extraordinary effect leaving many in awe. The solo performance of ‘Underground Railroad’ is Phillip’s ace in the pack and goes a long way to justify the price of the admission alone. This ode to the blues strongly tilts the duo towards an Americana sound which is further enhanced by Phillip’s Dobro playing and several choices of covers. This particular show delivered a tribute to two female icons of American roots music in excellent versions of Gillian Welch’s ‘Wichita’ and Alison Krauss’s ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn’.

With her songbird vocals and adept violin and banjo playing, Hannah cuts the poise of a quintessential English folk songstress to add contrasting shades to the duo’s façade. Though diverse in their schemes, the chemistry of combo carefully settles blends and ultimately flourishes. The role of prominent vocalist and engaging communicator suits the warm persona of Hannah and she excels on the familiar favourite ‘Silbury Hill’ as well as on some newer material which augurs well for the duo’s upcoming new release. ‘Tonight’ and ‘Taxi’ were two of the fresh songs previewed and the signs are positive that the new record will match the success of the latest release MYND.

In the week of a disappointing election result, it is vitally important to gather a sense of resolve from the power of a protest song. ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike’ is a staple of any Henry and Martin performance and takes on a particularly local feel when played in the West Midlands. The story of a march between Bromsgrove and Halesowen in the 19th century has a timeless and powerful message which is emphatically and vociferously sung in the chorus of this song. This Midlands audience certainly didn’t let Phillip and Hannah down in the collaborative stakes.

Tales of the duo’s worldwide travels, which in 2015 has included flying visits to Japan and America, filtered into the show and each time seen live, you get to know a little more about Phillip and Hannah. By the time a version of ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ by James Taylor ended the show, an enjoyable evening of splendid and informative entertainment had once again been presented by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Without doubt this duo are well set for a long, successful and influential career, so here’s to more fine material, ingenious musicianship and the odd protest song to fuel the passion of hope.