Friday, 17 November 2017

Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black : Anti Records

When Mavis Staples was musically active at the heart of the Civil Rights era, she probably didn't envisage having to make this album in 2017. Regardless of the cause or mission, this icon of the gospel-soul world would have always found a suitable outlet for her talent. Ultimately, songs can only play a small part in repairing society’s ills, but when you have Mavis Staples in unison with Jeff Tweedy, the healing process is made a touch easier. IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK joins a lengthening list of albums dedicated to voicing a strong opinion against the wrongs afflicting the world and ensures the power of song carves its niche in the discourse of the day.

This album is the third collaboration between Staples and Tweedy, with the Wilco frontman being the architect of all ten songs to adorn the record. The Grammys have acknowledged their previous efforts to varying degrees and it would be no surprise if accredited acclaim came knocking again. The sound comes across as a slick and moving body of work with the guitar work forming the spine for the vocals to prosper. This latter element shows no sign of deterioration for a vocalist closing in on an octogenarian existence. Rock ‘n’ soul as a combined entity may have had its heyday in Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios in the late sixties, but the flames of Stax and Fame shine brightly throughout this record.

The focal point of this album is likely to be the title track, which rolls out as a classic seventies dance number, complete with backing singers and packed to the hilt with the message of a call for love. ‘If All I Was Was Black’ sits at position two in the running order, following the scene setting opener ‘Little Bit’, which sets down a marker by referencing a shot kid. As the album races to its concise thirty-five minute finishing line, the theme zooms out from the specific and takes a more philosophical view on issues of race and hate. Eventually, this record settles on a call for unity by healing the divisions; a notion best portrayed in ‘Build a Bridge’. A track itself built on the theme of ‘all lives matter’.

Throughout the duration, pivotal moments frequently pop up including the smooth duet between the pair on ‘Ain’t No Doubt About It’ and the defiant sentiment expressed in ‘No Time For Crying’. ‘We Go High’ heeds a call to ensure the forces of good maintain the moral ground, while ‘Try Harder’ carries the message of perseverance. Perhaps the most poignant song acts as the retrospective generating closer in ‘All Over Again’, a low key acoustic piece to add to the sound’s diverse appeal.

One assertion from many listens to this record is that it lands a soft punch in the protest stakes. This could be by pacifist design to enlist a degree of moderation to the brigade. There is no denying its accessible nature can spread the force of good and from a pure artistic viewpoint, it lands on the listener as a trademark blueprint of collaborative American roots music.

There is the danger of IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK falling only into the domain of the converted and maybe if there was a more forceful track then barriers could be broken. Primarily Mavis Staples, in conjunction with Jeff Tweedy, has recorded an album to put a late seal on a legacy that was probably already locked in. It does move the cause forward and that alone makes this a record to engage with.

www.mavisstaples.com

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Stray Birds - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 15th November 2017

It has been just over two years since The Stray Birds first caught my ear, and the subsequent evolution of their sound is now gathering pace. Essentially, a strong core of the band’s ethos will always be rooted in the old time roots camp. However, the transition to blend in a finely tuned country rock sound is taking hold to the extent of now being on the cusp of dominating their live show. Whatever style they adopt, a stark talent shines through, and a continual approach to have the UK on their touring horizon is reaping rewards in growing a fan base. This latest excursion from their US homeland has included a first Birmingham date, and a Hare and Hounds audience revelled in a performance still rising to a peak when time was called on a fabulous gig.

For those who have had the privilege of attending a previous Stray Birds show, the wandering thought from the early stages of the set was when the vintage single mic would be utilised. This format had become a trademark feature of Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench sharing their delightful musical talents with a live audience. Eventually it did take centre stage, albeit only for a pair of songs including a version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel #7’, a familiar inclusion into their live shows.

However, by this stage the mould had been cast in Oliver’s guitar playing, particular the electric model, stealing the show. This aspect of the performance had stiff competition from the exquisite fiddle playing from both Oliver and Maya, often part of the continual instrument switch between the pair that has been another popular trait to illuminate a Stray Birds show. During this array of superlative musicianship, Charlie continues to hold the bassline with the stand-up version and the ever-increasing presence of a drummer in the line-up keeps up the rock beat, with for this tour Sean Trischka parading the sticks and brushes.

Another key factor guiding the band towards acclaimed status is the strength of their original songs. The soul-pumping ‘Best Medicine’ and infectious ‘Sabrina’ keenly retain prime position in any Stray Birds repertoire and the versions heard first in Birmingham this evening further cemented this view. Two other songs to leap up the appreciation ladder from this show were Maya’s beautifully delivered personal piece ‘Birds of the Borderland’ and ‘Third Day in a Row’. The former stretches all the way back half a dozen years ago to when the trio set out on the recording road, while the latter proved an exceptional piece of divine riff-laden cultured rock to close the overall show on a significant high.

Casting the mind back to previous Stray Birds shows, the overriding resemblance of Maya’s vocal style to that of Gillian Welch never wanes from the mind when listening to the emotive way she portrays the depth of the songs. This always comes to a pinnacle when the band cover the roots standard ‘Make Me Down a Pallet on the Floor’; an old song probably best defined by Gillian’s version in recent times.

While the overall feel of this show lent heavily in a new direction, it was first hearing the MAGIC FIRE album last year, which raised the ear lobes to a jolt away from the sole domain of being an old time string band. Cracking tunes from that release, including ‘Shining in the Distance’, ‘Radio’ and ‘When I Die’, still play a huge part in promoting the record and were welcome additions to the evening’s set list.

This was an evening that began in fine style with a splendid opening performance from UK roots band SJ & the Flying Pigs. This Cambridge-based quartet proved the ideal opening foil for The Stray Birds with an array of catchy tunes predominately fuelled by the fiddle playing of Nicky Terry and voraciously led by bandleader SJ Mortimer. Their enthusiasm for the music of The Stray Birds also signalled a sound port of influence to call upon.

Alongside Stafford in 2015 and Oxford 2016, you can now add Birmingham 2017 as a key entry in the mental diary of The Stray Birds flexing their musical muscles to deliver a first rate show. Where they eventually find a niche is likely to be an enriched zone, and maybe the fusion of roots ‘n’ rock becomes the ultimate pedestal to place this band upon. An increasingly established position on the UK touring circuit for them raises the bar for top US bands of a similar ilk to follow. 




Monday, 13 November 2017

Blue Rose Code - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 12th November 2017

There are only certain artists that can get away with an opening live song as a tribute to a recently departed friend. This was certainly no warm up number for Blue Rose Code as Ross explained the circumstances to a packed Kitchen Garden audience, ensuring the faithful were with him right from the off. Further relevance for ‘Over the Fields (For John)’ opening the set was unravelled with a dedicated intent to play the new album in its recorded sequence. A brave attempt to re-enact an album that froths will all the trademark creative energy, which has defined the evolution of Blue Rose Code as a fluid outfit.

This was Ross Wilson’s second visit to the Kitchen Garden in just over twelve months. Last October he played a solo gig and gave a special performance extracting all the traits that make him such an innovative singer-songwriter. This time, in true Blue Rose Code pot pourri, the format was extended to a trio, though still a far distance from the double figure ensembles that present the operation in full flow. Fair enough, venue constraints play a big part, alongside other factors, but whatever the configuration there is no mistaking the outstanding attributes of an artist, now re-established as a Scot in exile.

In harness with guitar player Lyle Watt and Andy Lucas on piano, Ross set about delivering the bulk of THE WATER OF LEITH in the first part of the gig before reverting to some old favourites in the latter stages of the show. The highlight of this portion of the evening was the exceptional album closer ‘Child’, originally designed as a message to a younger Ross, but taking on a new focus in light of his impending fatherhood. This state perhaps had him more on edge than usual, but in a positive way. Without the lavish stringed arrangements, extended brass, ten-minute jazz instrumentals and the multi-lingual vocals of Kathleen MacInnes and Julie Fowlis, it was always a tough task to capture the true essence of a record. Yet the stripped down arrangements and accomplished musicianship of his trio partners gave an intriguing slanted view that spun the record on a different axis without losing any of its craft.

Highlights in the second segment of the show were the up tempo numbers ‘One Day at a Time’ and ‘Chasing Sunlight’, which brought a degree of animation to a crowd, who were probably quite content to just sit back and soak up the music on offer. Alongside the two earlier mentioned songs which bookend the new album, the other pick of the evening was another splendid airing of ‘Edina’. The local references to his Edinburgh upbringing have since taken on a new twist with Ross curtailing his long awaited return to settling in his homeland and reverting back to being ‘a Scot’ south of the border. For an artist who repeatedly is likened to John Martyn, we were left the closing gift of Ross covering the great man’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Know About Evil’. A suitable end to an evening bristling with homegrown artistry.

Reverting to a post gig play of THE WATER OF LEITH does draw a thick line between the recorded status and how it was presented this evening, but merits co-exist. This concisely defines Blue Rose Code, a loose amalgamation of sounds, formats and creative whims. Where Ross Wilson meanders to in the future is anybody’s guess. One final certainty is that it will be filled with boundless quality and continue to cement his role as one of the country’s leading all-round singer-songwriter, and wider musical talents. 


Friday, 10 November 2017

Kirsty Merryn - She & I : Self-Released

The new album from Kirsty Merryn may only be eight tracks and twenty-eight minutes long, but it is a gorgeous blueprint on how to deliver a record succinctly packed to the rafters with treasurable discoveries. This may well be classed by the authoritative sources as one of the leading UK folk albums of the year when the dust settles, and few disputes are offered here. Apart from Kirsty’s pristine vocal prowess, the amazing notion from listening to the album cold is that this is not a dip into the world of the traditional song. Such is the magnitude of Kirsty’s compositions, folklorists in centuries to come may well class these songs as important as those passed on by word of mouth.

The big clue is in the title, and gender focus is at the core of SHE & I. The eight tracks are dominated by a female character at the centre of the story. These possess a fluctuating level of historical importance, ranging from the well-told story of Grace Darling in ‘Forfarshire’ to the unknown woman featured in ‘The Birds are Drunk’. Kirsty’s horizons also wander from the deeply personal in ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’, with a focus closer to home, to a leap across the ocean to tell the story of Annie Edison Tyler in ‘Queen of the Mist’. Familiar name? if not, buying this album and adopting some investigative skills will broaden your horizon.

Kirsty is joined by two vocal collaborators in Steve Knightley and Luke Jackson on a couple of the tracks. However, the biggest compliment to pay is her voice blossoms best when in solo mode where its unblemished attributes can totally own a song. Knightley's impact does not end with his vocal part as he has been Kirsty’s biggest advocate, including inviting her to open for Show of Hands on a run of UK cathedral dates. Ultimately, Kirsty’s music, whether in her instrumental, vocal or writing skills, will stand alone on their merits and every indication is that this will be at a high elevation.

Picking out a standout track is a tricky choice, but the piano led piece ‘An Evening At Home in Spiritual Séance’, not surprisingly featuring Kirsty in solo mode, would comfortably fit on any shortlist. If pushed to pick one though, ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’ is a strong album defining number and highly influential in the opening track position.

Regardless of how the narrative plays out, Kirsty Merryn has staked a claim to be a rich exhibitor in contemporary folk music. Elegance and a natural beauty to her music frame an album weighing strong in traditional charm. SHE & I is an impressive catalyst for projecting the talents of an artist destined to court and attract widespread appeal. 


The Lost Notes - Run free Right Now : Self-Released

While roaming the world digitally for romanticised music has long been an influential source, occasionally it is worth pulling your horns in a touch to check out what is happening under your nose. Birmingham based band, The Lost Notes have been knocking on doors around the local scene for a while, often getting opening slots for overseas touring acts. With most of these artists being of a folk/Americana/acoustic tilt, this local combo have proved an ideal fit with their authentic approach to stripping innovative lyrical-laden music down to an agreeable form. Now it’s the turn of The Lost Notes to take on the role of a recorded outfit with the release of a debut album titled RUN FREE RIGHT NOW.

Essentially, the album rolls out with eleven self-penned tracks plus a bonus of two offered in an alternative format of a live version and vocal remix. ‘Bobby’ is one of these tracks, with a live recording captured at the Tower of Song, and probably sits at the summit of the album’s appeal when conclusions are drawn on a track-by-track analysis. The band revolves around a core of Ben and Lucy Mills sharing vocal duties alongside Oli Jobes seemingly being the prime instrumental architect. Lucy takes vocal lead on ‘Bobby’ before the trademark harmonies kick in, and is the band’s singular stab at writing a traditional country ballad. As intimated, this album does not settle on a signature sound, but the impressive attributes of this number provide food for pondering.

Essentially, The Lost Notes comes across as a jaunty upbeat outfit, expressing itchy feet across the acoustic spectrum. A light hearted approach  underpins the initial appeal of the music, although issues do emerge in songs like ‘Banker’s Blues’ and ‘Leader of Men’, whether tongue -in- cheek mode or not. Spritely opener ‘Green Grass’ does possess some philosophical undertones if you choose to delve deeper, but the overall vibes is that of it being unconditional music leaving the listener at their entire leisure to how they take the offering.

Other tracks that score highly include the initially impressive ‘Take My Hand’, the harp blowing bluesy effort ‘Stone in My Shoe’ and ‘I’ll Wait Until the Sunrise’; the latter came more to the fore after seeing The Lost Notes support the Wild Ponies at a recent gig. Frequently, they perform in a streamline trio, but studio-wise the sum is expanded into a full band operation including bass and drums. This format occasionally gets a live outing and this will certainly be the case when the album gets its full launch at a headline show in early December.

Living the dream is a commendable place to be, whether recording an album or composing written reviews. Letting the breadth of your talents roam free, seeing where they lead and enjoying the journey is the perfect idealistic stance. RUN FREE RIGHT NOW is the sum of a journey that comes across as one being enjoyed. The Lost Notes have also crossed the boundary to where a record can do the heavy lifting in lieu of continual gigging and it possesses an entertaining streak to ensure the journey keeps right on. 





Steph Cameron - Daybreak Over Jackson Street : At The Helm Records

The magnitude of the sophomore album from Canadian folk artist Steph Cameron is that each play opens another window on the world of a lyricist on top of their game. DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET had its Canadian birth in the spring and, with a helping hand from UK label At The Helm Records, it now takes flight across the Atlantic to mesmerise European audiences. This record may take a while to grasp, but the journey is a mighty satisfying one.

While there is a degree of complex sophistication in Steph’s approach to song writing, an air of simplicity underpins the sound. This is a raw as acoustic sound as you could possibly get from a studio album. Without access to any credits, all you basically hear is Steph; her guitar and occasional harmonica, but that is sufficient to portray the worth of a high tensile record. With the UK release heralding a significant change in the seasons, you do feel the starkness of a Canadian winter running through the sound. Albeit, the homely vocals and perception of the guitar being a comfort blanket does ensure a warm glow permeates the cold.

There is a strong folk revivalist feel to this record, thus cementing a sound akin with the street songs that represent the northern part of the American continent. With a fair proportion of UK folk vocalists heading into neo-classical territory, there is an opening for the more grounded singer-songwriter and the music of Steph Cameron fits the bill.

The eleven tracks that form this album cover a diverse band of themes, moods and subjects. Any song analysis has to begin with the two-minute masterpiece of social commentary, which opens the album. ‘Daybreak Over Jackson Street’ doubles up as the  title track and the coat hanger upon which to file this album in your mind. Whatever you take from the record as a whole, the melody adorning the lines ‘I tried to leave, I tried to run – They  got me on the stunt I done’ is worth the admission price alone.

Elsewhere, the tracks settle in little pockets. A dose of melancholy resides in the hard hitting and punchy ‘On My Mind’ and the narrative character-heavy ‘Richard’. Of course, sad songs = happy listener. Disagree – and you’re probably in the wrong place. However, Steph does make room for a little light and ‘Little Blue Bird’ opens the door to some feel-good relief. Later in the track running order, ‘Sing For Me’ relights the flame of positivity from an idealistic standpoint.

The song that probably travels the furthest to epitomise the record is ‘Winterwood’. Apart from the obvious seasonal connotation and maybe autobiographical slant with Steph’s home town of Saskatoon being referenced, its perceived radiance of peace in solitude may resonate with singer-songwriters ploughing a lonely furrow in pursuit of their art.

Of course, every album needs a decent selling hook and ‘Young and Living Free’ does the job here with a high degree of class. A pertinent, pondering closer suits this type of ‘thinking’ record and ‘Peace is Hard to Find’ slots in neatly with its traditional feel and more than a nod in the melody direction to ‘Shady Grove’. All that is required now is a nostalgic epic, and at five minutes long, the lyric laden ‘California’ conforms to type. ‘You Oughta Know By Now’ and ‘That is What Love Is’ complete the line-up and synchronise perfectly into the album’s ambience without veering too much into comment territory.

On the day that this album is released in the UK, news surfaced of dates over here in the New Year. This will be the perfect opportunity for the artist to furnish the listener with further thoughts on influence and interpretation. In the meantime, the pedigree status of DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET will ensure the music of Steph Cameron gets a warm reception overseas. An album to savour for all those smart enough to check in. 

www.stephcameron.com

Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 9th November 2017

The Kitchen Garden is a well-renowned venue for its conducive acoustics, and it accrues praise almost each time an artist sets foot in its interior. Over the last decade, many fine nights have been enjoyed in this suburban Birmingham venue, but from a sound perspective, few come close to eclipsing what was heard when Angel Snow and Ida WenØe came to town for a very special gig. 

While artists and sound team are not doubt quick to salute each other, the stars were certainly aligned this evening, whether your ears were tuned into the vocals, electric or acoustic guitar. The sum of these parts led to a gig that rampantly surpassed expectation and projected both artists to a new level.

Angel Snow has had a presence in the UK for a few years and has been previously seen in a joint touring role with both, Ben Glover and Matthew Perryman Jones. Maybe it was seeing her for the first time in this venue (although it was not her first show here) that proved the catalyst, but she used her time in the spotlight majestically to cast a spell over the audience with a bunch of beautifully crafted songs. Perhaps, it may have been the solo limelight in the billing coupled with the placidity of the setting, which illuminated the treasures of a precious gift, but there was a special ambience that could never be captured by digital means.

The nature of the set up for this Angel Snow tour meant that the indie-electronica fuelled vibes of her latest album MAGNETIC had been left at home in Nashville. This was no challenge for an accomplished artist to strip down a group of songs that are strong in organic appeal before any trappings are added. In the past, Angel has had the fortune to work alongside some seriously impressive Nashville luminaries and listening to another live version of ‘Lie Awake’ re-affirms the wise decision Alison Krauss made to cut it for her PAPER AIRPLANE album.

Most of Angel’s set revolved around the new songs though, with ‘Vienna’, ‘Disguises’ and ‘I Need You’ rising to the top of the appreciation list. The latter proved the sole outing for the electric guitar, which was a pity as Angel’s delicate strumming extracted the most exalted of simple low spun sounds. The compensation was the near perfection of the acoustic alternative, combined with a vocal skill that allowed each song to blossom. As Angel guided the audience blissfully through around a dozen ear-pleasing songs, a state of mesmeric fixation was not difficult to slip into. This shed the music of Angel Snow in a new light and created anticipation for more.

Joining Angel for this tour is the highly impressive Ida WenØe, and as far as openers are concerned, this supporting performance was easily the highlight of any gig year. Ida was afforded a generous extension to the normal half hour opening slot and gloriously filled it with a fascinating display of addictive alt-folk music from a pan European perspective. Being of Danish origin and currently a resident of Berlin (at the moment anyway) only provides a brief narrative introduction for an artist who possesses the most alluring of performing styles. Right from the opening lines of her first song ‘Changing of the Seasons’, from the current album TIME OF GHOSTS, the audience was captivated by a performer blessed with expert playing skills, an affable demeanour, a fine voice and a raft of delectable songs. Her self-penned tribute to Leonard Cohen was a treat and a majority of the audience unaware previously, had now warmed to a new artist.

From a small acorn on the gig horizon, a splendid evening of artistic superiority flowered, bloomed and blossomed. The Kitchen Garden was at its best, and so was the music of Angel Snow and Ida WenØe. If music is the voice of the soul, the live version spoke loud this evening.  

www.angelsnow.net



www.idawenoe.com