Sunday, 26 April 2015

Cale Tyson - Introducing Cale Tyson: Clubhouse Records

Stamp marked with 100% authenticity and a fully paid up member of the heartbreak songwriter's ‘A’ list club, Cale Tyson is a mystical mirage of a golden age projected onto a contemporary canvas. Should country music need a saviour then the music of this Nashville based Texan announces its candidacy. The good folks at Clubhouse Records have unearthed a precious jewel to spearhead their real country preservation mission and this specially packaged album is an achingly brilliant collection of timeless original tunes. You can’t have a more explicit title than INTRODUCING CALE TYSON and 45 minutes after inserting this CD into your player, it is mission accomplished.

Technically this cleverly presented record is an amalgamation of Cale’s two Ep releases to date which merge into a fully-fledged style album for those hooking into the sound of an artist blessed with precise interpretative skills. Whether this aptitude for absolute re-creation is natural or nurtured by a lifelong schooling in classic country song writing, the result drips, drools and oozes with a lethal cocktail of sombre, longing and solo barroom odes. The seven tracks from HIGH AND LONESOME form the first part of the album and possibly provide the pick of the numbers which will sear your heart right from the opening listen.

Take your choice from ‘Old Time Blues’, ‘Lonesome in Tennessee’ or the evocatively titled ‘Honky Tonk Moan’ for standout track, but in all seriousness each of the magnificent seven is a priceless gem on their individual merit. Swaying between foot shuffling waltzes, pedal steel to die for and a vocal style drenched in a wonderful emotion sapping twang, the experience of immersing yourself into this record should contain a warning against reaching for the drinks cabinet.

The six tracks from the equally splendidly titled other EP, CHEATER’S WINE, inhabit the second part of this record and far from being intimidated, make a great case for rivalling the opening half. ‘Get out of Town’ and ‘Fool of the Year’ head the best from this section as the rich vein of Gram Parsons at his tear jerking country best is omnipresent through the sound and aura. The fact that Cale has written all these songs suggests the classic art of penning in the style of Williams, Parsons, Clarke, Nelson and Van Zandt is far from consigned to the past. The recording of this music has also benefited from some of Nashville’s finest players who have worked with esteemed artists such as Marty Stuart, Don Williams, Caitlin Rose and Andrew Combs.

While Sturgill Simpson has been ripping through the wider music world with a similar style, it has to be noted that Cale Tyson is a far less complex version, but equally compelling in his ability to extract every sinew of how country music is meant to be. Quite simply Cale is the real deal and this supreme collection couldn’t be better put together to enthral an audience thirsty for untainted, pure and iconic country music. The product, the championing and the opportunity are all in place to make Cale Tyson a welcome visitor to the UK and this record deserves every grain of adulation heading its way.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Bella Hardy - MAC Birmingham Friday 24th April 2015

The talents of Bella Hardy are well known within the folk world, so maybe it’s worth just opening this piece with a complementary word about her band which does an incredible job bringing the songs to life. Obviously it helps when you have the most gorgeous of voices to project the lyrics, but the subtle way in which two keys, piano, percussion, guitar, banjo and lap top melted into the songs was a highly impressive listening experience. Yes the word lap top is correct as Ben Seal added a digital touch to what is in essence a roots infused sound. When you factor in Bella’s fiddle playing to the mix of Ben (keys, lap top) Anna Massie (guitar, banjo), Tom Gibbs (piano, keys) and Tim Lane (percussion), the setting was perfect for an abundance of outstanding songs and tunes to flourish.

Bella was returning to the MAC in Birmingham just under a year since her last visit to the venue as part of the 30 shows project to celebrate her 30th birthday. This time the tour had the purpose of promoting the latest album, WITH THE DAWN, and in the week that Bella metaphorically handed over the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year crown to Nancy Kerr, she was in a buoyant mood to share the treasures from this excellent new record. Like all potentially great albums, the tracks require some intense initial listening, but gradually the enormity of their worth unravels in good time. Bella introduced ten of the eleven tracks to an audience enthusiastic in their appreciation and generous in their response to the album's availability at the merch table.

The album’s two opening tracks, ‘The Only Thing to Do’ and ‘First Light of the Morning’, also played a similar a role in this evening’s event which rolled out in the usual format of a pair of sets, with the second lasting a little longer than the opening 45 minute one. Having been fortunate to access a pre-release copy, it was wonderful to get a live confirmation that ‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’ is just as good in a theatre setting as it is on record. As per usual one track increased its level of appreciation with a live airing and on this occasion ‘Gifts’ came on leaps and bounds.

Of course the stories behind the songs are an integral part of any folk gig and Bella is as engaging as you could wish for. From the new album, we learned of her Canadian experience and a liaison with Cara Luft when introducing ‘Time Wanders On’. Maybe the most enlightening tale from WITH THE DAWN was the characters that painted a picture of The Great War from a female perspective in ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’. Listening to a raft of songs from this record live vastly raised its appreciation level and in time it is likely to rival her other widely acclaimed releases.

Herring Girl’ is one of Bella’s most popular older songs and, like herself, a previous award winner. Tonight’s performance was complete with the background story plus extra contributions from Anna and Tom. Other older songs to feature were the requested ‘Three Pieces of My Heart’, Bella’s offering to the Elizabethan Sessions project ‘Hatfield’ and the absolutely fantastic ‘Walk it With You’. This last song showcases her production versatility in a positive glow as it almost comes across with mature pop sensibilities. By the time Bella returned to her fiddle to play the specially written encore tune ‘Foolish Trouble Farewell’, everybody in the building had been given a stark reminder of why Bella is such a highly rated performer.

The thirties decade is likely to be just as productive for Bella Hardy as was her twenties. No doubt many collaborations, projects and traditional song gatherings will emerge to complement her natural talent for penning an original song. Continued work with Ben and her fellow players will further advance the appeal that will always centre round her beautiful vocal acumen. A significant majority of this Birmingham audience will testify to such a sentiment.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Aoife O'Donovan, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz - Biddulph Town Hall, Staffordhire. Thursday 23rd April 2015

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt may have sold more records when they got together for their TRIO project and The Highwaymen were certainly more advanced with their careers, but surely there cannot have been a purer collaboration of three independent artists than the one witnessed this evening at Biddulph Town Hall. Born from an impromptu performance at Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, the combination of Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins represents the cream of 2015 traditional revivalists, easily finding common ground to share their natural ability to sing, play and make beautiful music. Billed as the ‘I’m With Her Tour’, this celestial choir showed a glimpse of roots heaven in a 90 minute sonic shower free of any musical impurity.

In consecutive years all three have added an elegant sparkle to the Transatlantic Sessions roadshow, an effect magnified to sublime proportion when taking full possession of the centre stage. The slick manoeuvre between solo, duo and trio was blessed with magical harmonies and an innate knack of wonderfully blending the stunning vibes from fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar. All three solo careers were celebrated alongside a preview of the future and a respectful nod to the past.

This civic venue at the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands was nearly full to its seated capacity with folks willing to make lengthy journeys to experience this precious gathering. It didn’t take long for the ladies to get into their stride with a version of John Hyatt’s ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ kicking off proceedings. The rotation of songs took the standard format for these shows with alternating lead vocals flowing into a solo segment and all being strategically bound with spellbinding moments of delectable unison. This climaxed with all three stepping off mic for a perfect closing version of the Emmylou Harris gospel number ‘Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn’.

Sarah Jarosz is still riding the crest of a wave from her recent Grammy nominated album which formed the basis of her hugely successful UK tour last year. Her prodigious talent has produced many column inches buoyed by the banjo and mandolin prowess flavouring a wealth of beauteous songs. ‘Build Me Up From Bones’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Fuell the Fire’ were amongst her offerings this evening, all served with classical undertones adding finesse to popular tunes.

Aoife O’Donovan made massive strides as a solo artist with the release of the 2013 album FOSSILS, having spent a number of years as an integral member of Crooked Still. Guitar is her chosen piece of instrumental accompaniment in true folk tradition, seamlessly adorning a glorious vocal style radiating tones of aesthetic appeal. ‘Beekeeper’, ‘Red & White & Blue & Gold’ and ‘Captain’s Clock’ were the highlights of Aoife’s individual contribution, but the real soul of the evening existed within the collaboration.

Sara Watkins nonchalantly overcame brief technical difficulties to just unplug the fiddle and play it with a composed charm. Her increasing reputation as a prime fiddle player, both in solo projects and as a member of Nickel Creek, is well deserved and being positioned so close to such a breath taking demonstration was a joy to behold. Songs primarily sourced from Sara’s lead contribution included ‘You and Me’, ‘Be There’ and ‘Long Hot Summer Days’, all leading the way in popular attraction. Of course the essential instrumentals were filtered in periodically and Sara delivered her tune ‘The Ward Accord’ in fine style.

The chemistry and sheer enjoyment from the stage was evident for all to see, making this one special concert to attend. A further development from the evening was the revelation of an intention to record which is a prospect to savour later in the year. A new song believed to be titled ‘Hornets’ was introduced by Aoife and matched up favourably alongside a couple of exceptional covers unearthed by the trio. These were ‘A Hundred Miles’ by Gillian Welch and a Jim Croce song ‘Walking Back to Georgia’.

Eventually Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins will resume their own burgeoning individual careers, but not without leaving a major mark as one of the truly great American roots collaboration projects. The promised recording will create a souvenir of the magic, but the ultimate pleasure was being in the presence of three fabulous musicians sharing their treasures in divine portions.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Sonia Leigh + Sasha McVeigh - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 22nd April 2015

‘Mind the Gap’ was the tour headline with its connotations spanning style, sound and the Atlantic divide. However the evening was all about two fiercely independent artists bridging the gap between the signed and the unsigned world, whilst being totally united in a determined drive to plough through their own vision of music. This was life at the epicentre of the twenty-first century music model, spiced by crowd funding, social media, digital sharing and reaching out to connect with the fans. Rocking it all the way from Georgia, USA was the dynamic Sonia Leigh, being guided through these isles with a little help from the polished tones of Hereford-based UK singer-songwriter Sasha McVeigh.

This concluding date of their short, but action packed, tour anchored in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath and an enthusiastic audience gave this brief liaison a fitting farewell. In line with other shows on the tour, a couple of local artists briefly opened before Sonia and Sasha split the standard 90 minute headline portion into a pair of roughly even sets, each showcasing their respective and slightly contrasting careers to date. Perhaps aligned to this being the show closest to Sasha’s home town and the fact that Sonia needed to make a speedy exit to return to London, it was a case of the US first followed by the UK, although we all secretly knew the night wouldn’t end before some form of onstage collaboration.

This was the second time a Sasha McVeigh live performance was witnessed after she supported Lindsay Ell in the city around a month ago. The development between the two shows was the switch from solo acoustic to full band which included a three-piece combo of drums, bass and lead guitar. The three guys in the band also did the honours splendidly for both artists. Sasha is rapidly heading towards her debut album release in June and it was interesting to listen to a number of familiar songs in the new format. Two such numbers bookended her slot as she opened with ‘No Strings Attached’ and closed with a song, popularised by a live version on You Tube, called ’Mr Brown Eyes’. Sharing her passion, inspiration and dreams via affable audience banter and introspective song writing is a therapeutic outlet for Sasha and she disguises little pride in symbolising her song ‘Time of My Life’. The stand out songs from her set included ‘Someone to Break My Heart’ and ‘Crooked Road’, the latter being part of the ubiquitous section where acoustic ruled the roost again.

During this segment, Sasha delivered a superb version of ‘Jolene’. While on the surface covering such a popular and well-loved song is safe ground, it does leave a critical door open for wondering - do we as audiences need another one?. Having passed the critic test on this occasion, a medley of Zac Brown covers is not my preferred method of listening to fine songs and she did much better last month with an entertaining full version of ‘Chicken Fried’. First and foremost, Sasha is a song writer of unlimited potential and possesses a smart eye for maximising her appeal. It will be interesting to watch how the career of this talented artist evolves and in what direction it veers before ultimately settling.

In contrast to Sasha being technically at the outset of her recording career, Sonia Leigh is going through a period re-establishment after high level association This included mixing with seriously popular US artists, label contracts and the enviable status of co-writing such fantastic Zac Brown tracks as ‘Sweet Annie’ and ‘Goodbye in Her Eyes’. Without resorting to versions of these songs, Sonia spread her set right from the first single dating back to 2011 in ‘My Name is Money’ through to the current release of ‘Put it in Your Pocket’. Also with an eye to the future, Sonia introduced the sassy number ‘Booty Call’ with an intention to pursue a US issue of it, alongside a humorous invitation for anyone offended to leave.

Of course no one did leave as they were witnessing a high calibre charismatic performer who has made the most profound effect on me as any live act in the first four months of 2015. Armed with the most authentic of achingly resonant bruised vocals and possessing the raw emotion of post-punk new wave rock n’ roll, Sonia Leigh kicked ass for three quarters of an hour. Whether hitting the full throttle or powering into something slower but still intense, this dark and diminutive figure with the most delectable southern twang owned the stage with utmost authority. The itchy feet of genre restriction guides the style of Sonia, but it has to be said that the performance of ‘Bar’ was dripping in pure 24 carat country gold.

With all fairness to Sasha, following that performance was going to be a tough ask in these quarters, but she rose to the challenge in her own style. To conclude the evening, the gap was well and truly closed when Sonia bounded back onto the stage to deliver a duet version of ‘Summer of ‘69’ which brought the best out of all five core performers. ‘Mind the Gap’ as a concept tour may have ended, but a golden road lies ahead for Sasha McVeigh if she maintains her current trajectory of appreciation. Finally, can we please have more Sonia Leigh!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Paul Brady - The Vicar St. Sessions Vol.1: Proper Records

The gap may have been fourteen years but the wait for THE VICAR St SESSIONS VOL. 1 to emerge in a recorded format is over, much to the delight of the legions of Paul Brady fans. On the contrary, if you are yet to be acquainted with this highly acclaimed Irish artist then this new release will act as a fresh introductory opportunity. With this project being the snapshot of one month in the life of a performer back in October 2001, perhaps the use of the word ‘fresh’ is ironic. The decision to descend on Dublin’s Vicar St venue for a residency was ambitious at its outset, cautionary with its start, rampant in its promotion, before ultimately succeeding in its legacy.

In total Paul played 23 dates during that single venue run and this initial release, in what promises to be a series, evokes a little of the bristling craftsmanship that surrounded each night during the month. The obvious attraction of the thirteen tracks selected to populate Volume 1 is the sheer magnitude of the collaborating artists who ended up giving Paul more than a little helping hand in making the initiation a success. These artists ultimately queued up to work with a performer who at the time had already enjoyed a thirty year recording career, successfully moving between the styles of traditional Irish music  through to contemporary pop/rock, whilst making calling stops within the country and folk communities.

Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Curtis Stigers, Ronan Keating and Bonnie Raitt are all household names to feature on the record. Paul was happy to share the spotlight of his own songs alongside selected numbers from his guests. This is reflected in the chosen tracks for the recording which surfaces under the Proper Records banner. O’Connor’s ‘In This Heart’, Morrison’s ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and Stigers’ ‘Don’t Go Far’, all graced with the additional presence of Paul, make the cut. Standing mightily alongside these songs are Brady’s own ‘The Soul Commotion’, making a good case for the stand out track, and a piece he co-wrote with Carol King ‘Believe in Me’.

THE VICAR St SESSIONS VOL. 1 ends on a real high with Mary Black and Mauna O’Connell joining Paul for a rousing finale of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. This is one of the less smooth tracks on the album which is the appeal to many of a live record. With this in mind the bulk of the tracks do blur the lines between live and studio, so it down to the choice of the discerning listener. What is removed from the debate is the first rate musicianship running through the core of the record and the imaginative ease of being a privileged guest at each of these live shows.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Danni Nicholls - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 19th April 2015

The journey down MOCKINGBIRD LANE took a swift turn last night for Danni Nicholls as she began the live roll out of an album destined to reach its destination of widespread acclaim. Birmingham’s respected folk and roots venue, the Kitchen Garden Café, hosted the first date of Danni’s ‘Pre-Release Tour’ and it was a golden opportunity to see if the album tracks from the new record responded well to a stripped back delivery. The result exceeded expectations, but that was hardly a surprise from a highly crafted song writer capable of spinning a winning formula when pairing the tale with the melody.

The privilege of accessing a preview copy of the new material had whetted the appetite enormously and the consensus amongst the majority enjoying their inaugural listen was unanimous in the affirmative. Any trepidations of playing a venue for the first time were soon removed as Danni eased into a sweet groove of enlightening inter-song interludes to add considerable value to a continual stream of beautifully sung originals and the odd engaging cover. The latter started with a fine version of Randy Newman’s ‘Guilty’ as Danni paid tribute to one of her heroes, Bonnie Raitt, who also covered it. Three of the other covers were delivered in a part of the show where Danni reunited with an old playing partner from her Brighton days and the pair rattled through KD Lang’s ‘Ridin’ the Rails’, the popular Gillian Welch tune ‘Wayside/Back in Time’ and the usual nod to the Man in Black with the much covered ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ closing the well-deserved requested encore. All were impressively delivered off mic to add to the venue’s ambience.

Before we move onto the main purpose of the evening and the launch of the new record, Danni reminded those present why her first full length album was applauded so well when released in 2013. From the album of the same name, Danni gave an insightful background to the origin and legal issues surrounding ‘A Little Redemption’ with its quaint source dating back to a casual read about a local Suffolk Women’s Institute. Perhaps the most poignant story attached to the songs from this album was the pride flowing from Danni with regards to the dream scenario-turned to reality in covering Will Kimbrough’s ‘Goodnight, Moon’.

A decent proportion of Danni’s songs have surfaced from her trips to Nashville where she has had the good fortune to record both albums. One of the early favourites from the new record rose to an even higher plane of appreciation when played live as Danni filled every corner of the Café with pure Americana with the delectable ‘Leaving Tennessee’. Written on a journey from Nashville to Atlanta, the song was contrasted in its geographical sentiment when matched up with another from the new record, ‘Long Road Home’, with its final destination being her hometown of Bedford. Another immensely ear pleasing tune, ‘Travellin’ Man’, was unveiled as an old song finally finding a home on the album, where it acts as the perfect closer. The wonderful lyrics of ‘Beautifully Broken’ were given a timely reminder and Danni used the striking chorus of ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’ for an effective call and response piece of audience participation.

The pre-release nature of this tour meant the physical copies were not yet ready for sale but those signing up on the evening in advance were also given the pristine preview of three other tracks in ‘Back to Memphis’, ‘Between Forever and Goodbye’ and, in Danni’s opinion, the song ‘Sad Swan’ living up to the description in the title with its projection of emotion. Throw in ‘Dragons in the Distance’, ‘Hey There, Sunshine’ and ‘Bird of Paradise’ from the first album and we had an excellent comprehensive gig, rich in fine songs and packed with the indebted ideals of how American inspired roots music can be portrayed with English charm.

This was the first opportunity to catch a full Danni Nicholls show, to follow up witnessing a couple of festival sets and many listens to her back catalogue of two albums and two Eps. It is also important that Danni makes strides to take her music out of the South East to promote her talents to an audience that will surely grow. Midlands music fans will get another chance to see Danni when she supports Daniel Romano in Coventry next month and hopefully the second phase of the album promotion tour will see a further return to the area.

Let’s conclude however by returning to the present and reflecting favourably that we are certainly blessed to have a talented and affable singer-songwriter in Danni Nicholls showcasing our genre with the best of British. By matching the recorded and live material with equal high competence, an artist of absolute integrity continues to emerge. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Benjamin Folke Thomas - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Thursday 16th April 2015

PAs a regular listener and advocate of Michael Park’s The International Americana Music Show, there is no finer way to explore continental music that is infused with definable twang and heavily influenced by the reams of iconic roots music to emanate from the States. Sweden’s Ben Folke Thomas has been one such artist to be featured and his style of alt-country rock compactly fits within the ideals of the Americana genre. In support of his second record due out in May, Ben and his fellow Scandinavian band members are embarking on a wealth of UK dates and on the evidence of this Birmingham show, folks are going to be well enamoured with his bold vocal delivery, driving rhythms and engaging songs.

Ben is far from new to the UK scene, adopting almost Anglo status during his lengthy periods of residence, but the challenge has to be to expand out of the London scene and bang on the doors of provincial music nuts. This evening’s show at the Hare and Hounds did just that and those present were served a luscious portion of Ben’s ability to front a tight knit sound with panache, class and a touch of dry humour.

Apart from the sheer consistency of quality within the songs spanning his two albums, Ben’s band introductions made for one of those golden gig moments to lighten the intensity. The visual nature of the humour means you will have to attend one of Ben’s shows to fully appreciate it, so in a more conventional way we shall just commend the playing skills of Henning Sernhede (many guitars), Johannes Mattsson (bass) and Jonas Abrahamsson (drums).

Most of the songs from the new album ROGUE STATE OF MIND were featured in the set and made that instant impact when you feel a record is going to be a firm favourite. ‘Futile Blues’, ‘Broke Down Train’ and ‘Dream About You’ led the tracks from this new record with the most prominent first impression. By paying respect to his other album TOO CLOSE TO HEAR, Ben lifted two equally impressive numbers in ‘Love Somebody’ and the seemingly popular ‘Blues for You’.

While the band’s presence added real value, there was the usual solo slot which Ben used effectively to deliver ‘Married’ and he needed very little effort in extracting audience participation for the chorus of ‘Sex Addict’. The acoustic solo stance was extended to the final song of the evening when Ben kicked off a tribute to one of his song writing heroes, Warren Zevon, with an on stage version of ‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’ before finishing it unplugged, sitting in the audience and conducting a departing sing along. Prior to this, the band had signed off for the evening with another Zevon song, this time a rocking version of ‘Play it All Night Long’.

The opening slot for this gig was afforded to Ahab band member Dave Burn who used the thirty minute set to share songs, both old and new, accompanied by a multiple exchange of guitars. From his new solo EP, ‘Vans’ and ‘The Killer’ were enthusiastically received and enjoyed, while an older song from Ahab, ‘My Father’s Eyes’, was without doubt the most fetching number played.

2015 is shaping up positively for Benjamin Folke Thomas, with a national radio session lined up, numerous headline dates mingled alongside support slots for Beans on Toast and a handful of festival appearances, most relevant in these quarters a debut at Maverick in July. This first opportunity to catch Ben live and devote further time to his recorded material has been a worthy exercise. Quite rightfully, the move from the fringes into the spotlight is in motion.