Monday, 9 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Maverick Festival in Twenty Songs - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th July 2018

One thing that unites all Maverick artist invitees is an acute capacity to write or interpret a meaningful song. Dependent on preferred style, these strip back to acoustic mode or frequently acquire layers of instrumentation to present lavishly. Dawes famously implied that underneath all the content, mere folk songs reside. So as the Maverick Festival moved into its second decade of existence, why not tell a story of the weekend through a prism of twenty songs that reverberated around the confines of Easton Farm Park.

For once, the Suffolk weather for Maverick weekend was widely shared across the UK as the great heatwave of 2018 rolled on. The contrasting improvised performing locations on the site benefited both sun and shade seekers alike. Maybe our guests from down under and the sultry southern states wore a wry grin while performing, but you cannot deny us our precious time in the sun. Weather aside, and the perception of ‘names’, the music on display cut a fine tune and showed why our often indescribable sounds flourish positively away from the distant hype of the populist masses.

Inevitably, anybody attending the festival is going to form their own memories. Omissions from this list are unscientific, just a case of practical realism. From a primary prospective, the ears pricked with some resemblance of relevance and identification before each song hurriedly slipped into the mental briefcase. The wonderful worldwide web comes to life in the aftermath, but that may sometimes not be enough. So applying the business phrase of ‘errors and omissions excepted’, here in near random order are the songs that defined my Maverick 2018.

Danny and the Champions of the World inspired many in the Barn late on Saturday evening with the delightfully optimistic ‘Never Stop Building (That Old Space Rocket)’. You cannot beat a wave of idealism, especially when delivered by the ‘best live band in Britain’. Giving their ‘greatest ever performance’, just like Swindon the evening before, sometimes you can search for top headliners across the Americana landscape and realise they are just under your nose. Spending most of the time on electric guitar, Danny was clearly up for a good rocking time with the full Champs line up. This headline set saw the latest honorary Champ grab a piece of the action with Hannah Rose Platt joining Danny on stage for an acoustic duet of 'Don't Walk Away'. Good, but still in the slipstream of the 'rocket'.

There is not an endless supply of cover songs emanating from the Maverick stages across the weekend, apart from the occasional tribute collaborations that pop up. One exception on the outdoor Southern Sounds stage on Saturday lunchtime was a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ delivered by Nottingham based outfit The Most Ugly Child. Who can resist a number from an iconic artist who wrote the song junkies anthem ‘For the Sake of the Song’. The band spearheaded by Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison were in rip roaring honky tonk form all set and proved a timely reminder why their latest album COPPER & LACE met with so much press approval when released early last year. A wise and sound choice to allow folks to bask in the sunshine to some good music. 

A promise that this will be the last weather mention, but the pull of including ‘Rain in the Rock’ by The Danberrys was too good to resist for irony alone. On the back of missing their Birmingham gig the night before, every effort was made to catch Dorothy and Ben’s set. You had to be a festival early arrival to see them as they were the second band in the Barn on Friday teatime, but the half hour of smashing roots music the pair delivered made it a worthwhile time investment. The Danberrys have played Maverick before and a growing association with the UK from this Nashville based duo will probably see them return again in the future. The song is taken from their 2013 self-titled album and they are definitely worth seeking out when they tour our shores again. 

The next song comes from the first of two Scottish singer-songwriters who made the long trek south to play the ‘In the Round’ presentation on the Friday evening. This was arranged by the AMA UK and in fact, the second invitation extended to Steve Grozier to play one of their events this year. Steve showed his growing pedigree, with the song ‘Porcelain Hearts’, taken from the most recent EP titled A PLACE WE CALLED HOME being the selection here. He was also one of many artists to play a session song or two in Leader’s Live Lounge, which will air on Meridian FM over the coming weeks. This is fast becoming an extended essential feature to keep the festival flame burning as we head deeper into July. Many Maverick artists value this enhanced exposure. 

Roseanne Reid joined Steve for the Songwriters in the Round slot with Jeffrey Martin and followed a similar route with the ensuing radio session too. Recommendations for Roseanne’s music are starting to come thick and fast. The backstory will quickly unveil, but there is a unique way in which she exhales her songs that makes a distinct impression. Expect things to move rapidly when the Teddy Thompson-produced debut album gets out and maybe the chosen song here, ‘Kingdom Come’, will make an appearance. Maverick may well have been at the early stages of something special. Either way, Roseanne came across as a respectful unassuming character ready to build an organic career and share a passion for her love of writing songs. What the festival is all about. 

We will stay on the Peacock stage, and the site of the songwriter’s event for a song that hails from the traditional pool. Bonnie Bishop was one of the most eagerly anticipated artists when the line-up was revealed and she did not disappoint across her two festival appearances on a fleeting twenty-four hour visit to the UK. Bonnie performed a magnificent version of ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’ in the collaborative slot before going on to impress further with a fuller length set later in the Barn. She promised to return to the UK in the autumn and eyes will be peeled for these dates. There were no surprises from Bonnie Bishop. Just confirmation that she is an immensely talented artist heading on the right path. One adept at spinning the styles of folk, roots, soul and blues in a country song writing direction. 

Back outside and a band that opened up the proceedings on Saturday morning. Luke Tuchscherer brought his band the Penny Dreadfuls to Maverick and ensured there was going to be no gentle easing in to the day’s music. Luke has recently released his latest album PIECES, a self-admitted confession to return in some part to his rockier days with the Whybirds. The song chosen for this review is ‘Sudden Getaway’ from the new record. Although this was a loud-ish start to the day (Terra Lighfoot raised the decibels on this stage later), the new material blended in well with the older songs, with perhaps the sound moderated a little. A successful way to rid any Friday night excesses. This was a working trip back to the UK for Luke from his new home in the US and I am pretty sure he will continue to remain in touch on a professional level. 

As we approach the half way mark of these twenty songs, let us head down under for three artists making it an Aussie Maverick. Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes led the contingent with a return to the festival after proving a huge success in 2017. This time his appearances stretched the breadth of the event, including multiple slots and collaborations with his compatriots. The chosen song had to be ‘I Hope That I’m Wrong’ from the new album SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC, containing the most stunning line to open a track this year, easily surmounting to Isbell proportions. Check it out and the other work of Lachlan Bryan as well. My voice is not alone. Probably the artist that epitomises the spirit of Maverick the most from the 2018 alumni. 

Joining Lachlan on this trip is Imogen Clark who on the surface represents a slightly different strand of roots music. There is an element of leaning towards country pop territory in terms of style and content, but this is done in a controlled way that represents her youthful outlook and breezy persona. The pick from her songs is ‘High Tide’ taken from a solo set on Saturday tea time in the Barn and can also be found on her recent album COLLIDE. Imogen’s extended influence came in the form of a cover of Linda Rondstadt’s ‘You’re No Good’ finding its way into the Aussie farewell extravaganza held on the Moonshine stage on Sunday lunchtime. The talent from Imogen was indisputable and the avenues her vocals went down suggested an artist capable of many things in a bright future. 

Husband and wife duo The Weeping Willows completed the Aussie trio for Maverick 2018. Consisting of Andy Wrigglesworth on multiple guitars and Laura Coates on vocals, they really came to prominence on Sunday morning via mini sets in Leader’s Live Lounge and the pop up Travelling Medicine Show stage alongside appearing with Imogen and Lachlan at the Aussie finale. Their folk and roots style with a solid old time bluegrass feel resonated highly and from a short array of songs repeatedly heard on Sunday, the yet to be recorded ‘House of Sin’ made the cut here. Before we bid farewell to our friends from down under, a quick shout out to bassist Shaun Ryan from the Wildes making it an excellent quintet for this trip.  Fingers crossed that all three acts can return to the UK at some point in the future. 

Ten songs down; ten to go. A time to take a breather and reflect on selected artists not to make this cut. Sets by Dylan Earl, Southern Avenue, the Dan Webster Band and Terra Lightfoot were dipped into, as was the BJ Cole Hawaiian pedal steel exhibition on Saturday afternoon. Artists such as Arkansas Dave and Amelia White will no doubt have their day. All Maverick artists ascend to a special status and make the event a success. Not forgetting the fabulous setting and the amenable inhabitants of Easton Farm Park.

Back to the songs and an artist who has serious praise surrounding me from every angle. Hans Chew had forty minutes in the Barn on Saturday evening, so decided only a couple of his lengthy songs/musical pieces will suffice. It was easy to see where this praise came from as a mesmeric presentation of experimental music came to the fore. Different, but a true maverick. Sources told me the the first song was ‘Open Sea’ from his latest album so that is the selection nailed. Hans decided that major electric guitar and minor keyboard work was going to be the format for the Barn. Literally minutes from completing this set, he hopped over to the conventional piano in the Moonshine and the party continued. Hans Chew had arrived at Maverick and more personally bang into my sphere. 

Country music at Maverick is usually there in spirit only, so it was time this morphed into an earthly form. At last Ags Connolly had an invite and hopefully, the three-song segment as part of the AMA UK Songwriters in the Round is a blueprint for a return, this time on the main bill. ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’ is a trademark Ags song and would make many song cuts, not just this brief sortie around a festival weekend. In the burgeoning UK ‘country’ scene, Ags Connolly is a true maverick, so it is about time that the link is made. The set with Bonnie Bishop and Robbie Cavanagh was the pick of the songwriter part. They interacted well and used the full extent of the forty-five minute slot to share common bonds found in their different styles. 


Circumstances on the day dictated that attention might have been elsewhere when Curse of Lono took to the outside stage at 4 o’clock on Saturday Those electing to choose the music were treated to another impressive performance from a band quickly escalating the ladder of live accomplishment. The highlight of this set came towards the latter stages when equally good news spread around the site. ‘Pick up the Pieces’ is a lively focal track for a band driven through the keys and making a comfy home in the Americana context that zooms in on their form of alternate rock. A good choice to return to the festival after last year’s guest AMA UK slot. 

Joining Curse of Lono on the outdoor stage was another band getting an extended invite to return to the festival after showcasing the year before. The Grande made the trip from Liverpool and gave a solid display of tightknit alt-country rock that feasts profitably in any decent festival setting. The song ‘Open Heart’ came across as a decent number deserving of a warranted mention. Post festival research identified it as an old song from a 2011 album, but there is more recent material to check out this band. They are the type of act that thrives on the Saturday afternoon at Maverick where those hunkering down on the Green tend to get fuller sounding performances than what tends to drift around the festival from the other locations. 

Let us flip back from Saturday lunchtime to Friday teatime and a performance from Jonathan Byrd that set the tone for any weekend interaction. This accomplished country folk artist from Chapel Hill North Carolina is a perennial tourer to the UK and packs venues up and down the land. It may have been his first visit to Maverick, but this firm favourite at folk festivals got the pulse running with an a Capella performance of ‘Poor Johnny’. Aided by his talented sidekick Johnny Waken, who improvises with your bog standard diy saw, in a musical way mind you, their duo act is once seen never forgotten. If you have not seen Jonathan Byrd before, he is well worth checking out. He seems to tour every other year or so and a good time is guaranteed. Folks at Maverick can now concur. 

There will be plenty of new converts to the Jeffrey Martin fan club after his multiple performances across the weekend. This was a singer-songwriter metaphorically and literally sweating out his songs. We get spoilt with artists like these getting persuaded to share their innate talent with British audiences. After seeing Jeffrey play a couple of sets, there was a late change to the song pick with ‘The Middle’ standing out from his final stage spot as the curtain was being drawn on another successful festival. The theme of this song with the ‘middle’ being a good place to be is poignant, especially if you can define your own middle.  Apart from his songwriter's set, all Jeffrey's performances were in conjunction with his touring companion Anna Tivel.

Like her touring partner, Anna also hails from Portland Oregon, an increasingly fertile part of the US for creative artisans. There may well have been contrasting elements to their vocal style and song delivery but both artists are diligently immersed into the sanctity of the song. Anna adds fiddle to her repertoire with it casting a velvet cloak over her softly spun songs. An emotive piece inspired by her father making a recovery from an unusual health affliction moved into the song selection spot with ‘The Lines and the Tide’ available for all to enjoy on her 2016 record HEROES WAKING UP. Maverick folks enjoyed what others had witnessed across Anna’s tour and fingers are crossed that this can be expanded to other parts of the country when she returns in the future. 

Maverick is ideal for discovering new artists or at least checking out briefly known ones in a live setting. Midlands based transatlantic duo A Different Thread made an inaugural trip to this Suffolk gathering and grasped the opportunity to share a bunch of tunes across three different platforms. The Leader’s Live Lounge session and a short performance on the Travelling Medicine Show stage were the added bonus to playing a fuller set in the Barn on Saturday afternoon. A new song written by co-member Alicia Best (fiddle/percussion/vocals) called ‘The Potters Field’ emerged as the pick and represented all that is intriguing and fascinating when Americana saunters into the world of mysterious folk music. Robert Jackson unites with Alicia to rally around the duo format excelling on guitar and harmonica.

The Goat Roper Rodeo Band had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday afternoon, and an energetic set of acoustic driven old time tonk music sent everybody home in a celebratory dancing mood. This Welsh trio also had an equal honour of opening the Barn stage on Friday late afternoon so it was a double celebration for a band returning to Maverick after a few years widening their live presence elsewhere on the UK summer circuit. Interestingly, the song that struck a chord was one of the fewer slow numbers in ‘Don’t Believe in You’, which was ironic listening to just as about to depart a festival that you have believed in since first making the long trek down to Suffolk nine years ago. Amidst the Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans booked to play, there will always remain a core of homegrown talent. 

This song-focussed review began with a personal festival highlight and concludes with a performance that deserved equal billing. Advance warning that the Cordovas were good proved an accurate assessment as they played a scorching headline slot on the outdoors Southern Sounds stage. A blistering set blew away the Easton Farm Park dust leading the pigs behind the stage to rouse from their slumber into some frenetic activity. This was exhibitionist country rock at its finest dealt by a band deciding that forty five minutes requires no talking just a relentless flow of fine music. The song choice finally rests on ‘Southern Rain’, partially distinguished by its recognisable chorus. In fact, any of the tunes could be picked as it was a set to remember and living proof that ‘known names’ are not necessarily the sole route when putting together a successful festival line-up.

Cambridge may have Americana pedigree in 2018, while Black Deer and Long Road start up with a bigger budget, but can they eclipse the subtlety and romance of a festival defying the odds on many fronts. Eleven years is a feat in itself for an operation that evolves slowly and courts a loyal following. A firm fixture that would be missed if it floated away is a sound enough reason to plough on and provide a valuable platform for like-minded fans to mix freely with like-minded artists. Maverick is about the music, the artists, the fans, the ambience and... oh yes the song. 

Friday, 29 June 2018

ALBUM REVEIW : Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes - Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music. Self-released

If first impressions carry a large weighting then Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes set off on the right footing. Parading their wares on the outside stage at last year’s Maverick Festival proved an instant hit with many folks and the scene was set to make serious inroads into the UK country and Americana community. It can sometimes be perplexing assessing a non-US act taking inspiration from a land many thousands of miles from home, but this does not preclude a successful re-enactment especially with any pseudo content banished. Further proof of Lachlan Bryan’s impressive tilt into the genre lavishly displays right across his new album, strikingly titled SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC.

The relevance of this artist hailing from Australia is one that you can choose to apply or not, although characters and surroundings from his homeland play a significant part in the record. The secret to this release, his fourth since commencing recording under this name in 2009, is the honest and straightforward way he goes about tackling the song subjects. To provide some content to the style adopted, think more along the singer-songwriter route with a slice of fiddle and steel casually added to spice up the array of ballads. The song writing makes you sit up right from the off with the high impact line ‘women, do what you must, cos there ain’t a man in this world you can trust’ that leads you into ’I Hope That I’m Wrong’. From that moment, you are caught in the web of a writer with plenty of sense to contribute to a progressive agenda.

Throughout the twelve song-fifty one minute playing time, there is plenty of engaging content to absorb. Like many of the better records currently around, this album is not designed for the quickly discarded pile. Interesting snippets and facets will continue to emerge after endless plays, though listening will never sink into a chore as an affable façade is painted to the vocals and soundtrack.

To place the album on safe ground, tracks one to seven barely have the width of a song sheet between them when deciphering potential stand out candidates. In line with the thought-provoking title and cover photographs that throw up a million potential story angles, two of the opening half a dozen songs roll out as duets with female singers Shanley Dell and Lindi Ortega. The former leads off on ‘The Basics of Love’ a song with more than a casual reference to the Waylon Jennings classic ‘Luckenbach Texas’. The more familiar Lindi, to fans in the UK anyhow, helps on ‘Don’t You Take it Too Bad’ as we delve deeper into traditional country music territory. This style is replicated in 'It Tears Me Up (Every Time You  Turn Me Down)' with added fiddle making an appearance.

Piano ballads frequently pop up across the record as evidenced by ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ in the early stages and ‘Someone You Know So Well’ at the end. ‘Careless Hearts’ possesses the strongest chorus hook, while if you fancy a little waltz ‘Stolen Again’ will oblige. The key story telling song on the album appears in the #2 slot with the starkly titled ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man’; a song that you will probably go back to a few times to grasp. In the midst of this song, the album title appears as a lyric to shed some light on possible meanings.

Elsewhere ‘In New York’ is a descriptively inspired experience piece complete with the obligatory guitar solo. This heads a trio of tracks in the final throes of the album including the quietly mindful ‘Peace in the Valley’ and a dose of personally injected twang into ‘The Cemetery Near My Home Town’.

There are times when listening to Lachlan Bryan reminds me of Cale Tyson, with the stripped out southern twang of course. Such association scores high in my book and SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC is a most welcome entry to the music collection. 2018 sees Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes return to the UK for a run of shows including a re-appearance at the Maverick Festival. No newbie surprises are expected this time, just an accomplished set from a top rate artist bringing an impressive batch of new songs to the party. Good stuff is heard and felt in this album and fundamentally that is all that matters when connecting an artist to a listener. 


Wednesday, 27 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Lucy Ward - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 26th June 2018

It has been a contrasting couple of days at the Kitchen Garden. On the rebound from a two-night sold out ‘residency’ by Beth Nielsen Chapman it was normal service resumed as Lucy Ward bounded back into Birmingham to stoke up some fire and fury in folk fans. It is a credit to the venue that such diverse nights can be successfully staged. Some may say – tongue in cheek – that this night reflected the soul of the venue, but the gig platform is a spacious zone. This zone is vibrantly consumed when Lucy Ward sparks a feisty passion and exudes an offbeat enthusiasm. This is folk music in its purest form, give or take the frequent strum of the guitar and ukulele or the odd squeeze of the concertina. As linear, controlled and structured the two previous evenings were, tonight was a return to the maverick ramblings of a left field performer purveying hypnotic powers to lure her audience into a wonderful world of traditional fantasy and gritty political resistance.

Starting with an ode to social injustice via a version of ‘The Trapper and the Furrier’ to ending with the most moving of war futility songs in ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, it is impossible not to join the fight, in a passive sense mind you.  As good as Eric Bogle’s song is, Lucy herself has matched the sentiment with her own stunning classic ‘Lion’. If she never writes another song again (for illustrative purposes only) this has the power and credence to live as long as the futility of war itself. Despite listening to this song on countless occasions, the opening line of ‘Tear the white linen from his sheet lad/ He won’t be sleeping in this bed tonight’ hit  hardest tonight.

Since last seeing Lucy play live at the Jinney Ring Folk Festival in 2016 a lot has happened in the world. Probably, more so for Lucy with the birth of her first child, and subsequently the inspiration for song writing on a more personal and sensitive level. The most recent development has been the release of her fourth album PRETTY WARNINGS. More temperate songs such as ‘Sunshine Child’ and ‘The Sweetest Flowers’ are now added to her catalogue and were shared with the audience tonight. Other newbies on the agenda included the philosophical ‘Cold Caller’ and a soon to be crowd favourite singalong ‘Lazy Day’. Another new addition to the set list from previous shows is a cover of Bowie’s ‘Drive In Saturday’, introduced from the angle that you cannot completely serenade a toddler with songs about death and murder.

As intimated previously, politics (of the correct persuasion) plays a large part in Lucy’s outlook and she is always open to a frank exchange of ideas. Her song ‘Bigger Than That’, with its dig at the ‘I’m alright Jack’ generation has put her on the map and its raucous delivery this evening re-enforced the message.

On an alternative songwriting front, an unreleased song titled ‘The Quickening Clock’ made an appearance and had its origin of being a commissioned piece for an Open University sustainability project explained. As ever with Lucy’s work, it looks at some of life's critical issues from the most acute of angles.

Just a brief mention of three other familiar tracks added to the main sets. ‘Alice in the Bacon Box’ opened the second half just as everybody returned from a breath of fresh air on a warm and humid evening in the middle of the current, and rare, British heatwave. ‘King Willie’ saw Lucy in vibrant form hammering out the traditional, while ‘Creatures and Demons’ is one of the best tracks from her 2015 album I DREAMT I WAS A BIRD.

Opening up the show on the evening was a splendid half hour slot of a Capella vocal harmony from the local casual quintet Women in Folk, featuring Kitchen Garden regular Katy Bennett. A diverse selection of songs ranging from familiar pieces such as ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ were mixed with an obscure Hawaiian song and one sung in Georgian. This obviously inspired the watching Lucy, who invited two of the group on stage for the encore to join her in a version of ‘John Ball’.

The work of Lucy Ward continues to make her one of the most engaging and rewarding performers on the UK folk circuit. Tuning in is required, but art is far more satisfying and long lasting when the listener has to invest a little. Long may the fire burn in her songs, outlook and quirky stage demeanor. A long road lies ahead and certain music has a strong part to play. 

www.lucywardsings.com

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Beth Nielsen Chapman - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 25th June 2018

The creaking wooden staircase, stone floor and bricked interior of the Kitchen Garden have witnessed a seemingly lifetime of musicians share their craft over the years. Many nationalities have brought a variety of music styles, all tightly bound by a vision to connect with an audience on the most intimate levels of interaction. Throughout this period, a soul has formed and a special bond has adhered between those laying their money down and those accruing the crumbs. The venue has become a triumph of content over message, a refreshing state of play in these superficial times. However, when Beth Nielsen Chapman anoints it as the “Bluebird Café of the UK”, then maybe it is time the message had at least a day in the sun.

To say that this two-night sold out stint by one of Nashville’s most revered songwriters moved the goalpost of the Kitchen Garden is an understatement. A change in dynamics was the order of the evening as a dedicated audience filed in to experience a Beth Nielsen Chapman show in a totally new format. The perfect platform for candidness discarded the shackles of a theatre set up, and an artist with a vivid story to tell sparked to the occasion.

When the term ‘An Evening with..’ is added to the bill, the blueprint need look no further to what rolled out between 8:15 and 11:00 tonight. Take out the ubiquitous twenty-minute break, and being short-changed was nowhere to be seen. Whether you wanted a bucketful of songs stripped back to their unfiltered origin or warm chat that breezed across a sultry evening, the menu was extensive and lavish. Even the most informed Beth Nielsen Chapman fan would have been hard pushed not to discover at least some aspect of a new nugget from this absolute baring of the soul.

To what extent she dips into these extensive autobiographical moments is unclear. Yet she thrived, projected rays of satisfaction and positively feasted from the loving surroundings. The visual enhancement of a projected slideshow added a personal touch. The lengthy chat, which was always going to prevail, was interspersed by songs played from the piano and the guitar. This was not a time for a band or even duo accompaniment; it was about one songwriter expressly displaying why their creative flow has capitalised in the cutthroat world of commercial entertainment.

Only recently, the excellent radio show Leader’s American Pie broadcast an hour-long interview where Beth delved deeply into the song writing process. Facets of this appeared during the evening especially towards the end when a Q & A segment further fueled the adrenalin. The bulk of the night probably lent more towards the sentiment rather than the technical. The backstory of loss, illness, recovery and triumph over adversity holds more sway in the paid environment.

A fascinating insight to the evening was piecing together the traits to why Beth Nielsen Chapman has succeeded in a world where similarly talented artists fall by the wayside. Obviously, an enormous wealth of innate song writing skill is in place, but many know that this is not necessarily the sole guiding light. The high degree of professionalism and a strong ability to communicate shone through. You can assume that there were few open doors left unexplored as exemplified by the diverse amount of projects diligently presented during the show. When the hits dried up, these projects assumed momentum.

The format of this show was chronologically linear, which can sometimes be in contrast to the random nature that often spontaneously radiates from an artist. The presentation was in line with a measured and calculated approach that is suggestively deduced from up front observations. None of these assertions cast any shade on the aura that surrounded Beth Nielsen Chapman and that you were not in the presence of a performer taking the meaning of ‘acclaimed’ and ‘respected’ to its intended level.

This evening was not about any surprises in the musical content. All the usual suspects were there from the country music cuts to the Radio 2 favourites. For somebody of such a high profile, the narrative is largely known as well. What defined this show was the adaptation to the surroundings and the perceived switch in dynamics. All coupled with the stark exposition of what a fine songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman is, with all the components neatly packaged for display.

Inevitably, the Kitchen Garden will re-discover itself and Beth Nielsen Chapman will continue on a journey, now well past hall of fame status. For two nights only, the world order was reversed and it was fascinating to experience it. A little shake up is refreshing and shows like this create an indent in the mind. You can only surmise to how venue and artist will recall this show, but the UK’s answer to the Bluebird Café is not a bad start.


Monday, 25 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Beardy Folk Festival (Saturday Only) - Hopton Wafers, Shropshire. Saturday 23rd June 2018

From small acorns, the saying goes, but playing a small part at the outset of what could prove a fruitful journey is a decent place to be. Hopton Wafers is a sleepy location on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border and now can add the location of the Beardy Folk Festival to its claim to fame. A gently sloping walled garden rectangular amphitheatre provides the natural landscape to house a smart diversity of UK acts representing a broad range of folk music styles. Whether the organisers have opted for a touch of irony, or an attempt at stereotypical reclamation in naming their operation, tapping into a winning formula suggests that more has gone right than wrong in treading the tricky waters of festival promotion.

The caveat to such an analysis stems from only attending the Saturday of this three-day event, but adopting a ‘speak as you find’ approach reaches a favourable conclusion. A slick operation presented nearly twelve hours of continuous music from thirteen scheduled performers. This was utilised from a slightly elevated main stage at the base of the arena and a small acoustic stage sensibly located within the beer tent. A gorgeous June day did not present a test of the British summer frailties, allowing a concentrated full focus on the music – give or take the odd break for refreshments of the body and mind. The artists featuring on the Saturday ranged from the very familiar to the soon to become familiar, albeit from a highly personal perspective. Prospective styles included finely tuned interpretations of both Scottish and English folk rock, a bi-partisan approach to the traditional and contemporary outlook, and a transatlantic nod to the realms of alt-country and bluegrass. All artists were bound by integrity and a desire to perfect their chosen craft.

Jaywalkers
The very familiar came in the guise of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood making a twenty- mile trek from the edge of the West Midlands. Kim has been watched in a host of local venues over the last few years and now a festival main stage can be added to the list. There was an element of equality in the presentation of all main stage acts getting an hour-long set, so none of this thirty to forty minute lunchtime slots to make way for the headliner egos. Kim used her time to highlight a fair spread of recorded material and a selection of songs saved solely for the stage. Song accompaniment included the trademark Appalachian mountain dulcimer, more recent leaning to the acoustic guitar and the ever-impressive vocal solo. Set peak choices came from ‘The Littlest Birds’, ‘Bold Riley’, ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’...- ok no need to name every song! They’re all good. Kim was the only artist to be afforded slots on both stages, and used her half hour set in the beer tent to strip back a different set of songs and test a couple of new ones out on the audience. Interestingly, these were both delivered from the acoustic guitar and saw her writing take a socially conscious path. No doubt, more will surface on the extent of this direction in good time.

From the highly familiar to the totally new (to me anyhow) and a few thoughts on the Joshua Burnell performance as the increasingly powerful sun beat down on the lunchtime drinkers. Assisted by a six-piece full backing band and taking more than a leaf out of the sixties/seventies folk rock pioneers  blueprint, Joshua served up an impressive selection of mainly traditional tunes. A striking look blended in well with the blissful tones of the Hammond organ in full flow, and a set to linger long in the memory unraveled. An enthusiastic and innovative fan base fanned the flames long after the set finished and ensured that this artist made the largest leap on the day from the unknown.

Joshua Burnell Band
Back to the familiar and a first opportunity to catch UK alt-country rockers Orphan Colours live since giving their debut album a glowing review earlier in the year. A six-strong combo led by Steve Llewelyn and Dave Burn, previously from acclaimed band ahab, powered through a riveting set as the sun finally began to sink and injected a major degree of energy into the event at an opportune moment. Sporadic sax akin to the E-Street band in full flow mixed with the widely used three part harmonies as a barrage of impressive songs such as ‘Goodnight California’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Start of Something’ successfully made the journey from the record to stage.

The biggest surprise on the day was north-west based folk and bluegrass band Jaywalkers springing from a known name not heard to the architects of a set that fought ferociously to be considered the best of the day. They contributed to the moment when the entire chill out vibes were in place. The trio of Mike (mandolin), Lucy (upright bass) and Jay (fiddle) played a sublime mix of old time inspired tunes interspersed with notable originals and a few diverse covers including giving ‘Big River’ and ‘Tainted Love’ a bluegrass makeover. No longer do this band remain just a name on a listings page; the perfect example of good music finding the right ear over time.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood
You can now detect the rotating nature to this review as we switch focus to the Saturday headliners Skerryvore with an air of recent familiarity. This Scottish folk rock band with a fervent outlook have been operating for well over a decade outside my periphery, but this changed when challenged to review their latest album EVO. Having bought in to an exceedingly good array of heady folk rock anthems and feisty fiddle, pipe and whistle tunes, an early opportunity to catch their high-octane live show was relished. The only blip to the smooth running of the main stage saw a fifteen minute delay to the band strutting their stuff, but to be fair sound checking an eight-piece band in a limited time is a challenge. Nobody cared that it was 10:45 when they bound onto stage. Thus illuminating an arena that had been generally passive all day soaking up the good music alongside the rays. Afforded not a minute more than Urban Folk Quartet almost eleven hours ago, the guys wasted little time in delivering a pulsating interactive set, spearheaded by the pair of striking anthems leading the way off the new album in ‘Live Forever’ and ‘At The End of the Line’. Skerryvore delivered without dispute what it says on their tin and everything about the way they concluded the day was first class.

Skerryvore
A quick jump back to a name new off the page on the Beardy Folk line up and the performance of Sinnober on the acoustic stage just as another pint of the local Hobsons brew beckoned. However, you did not need a drink to appreciate this duo that travelled up from Frome in Somerset to play a neatly packaged bunch of original songs decked out in a contemporary lilt. What marked out this pairing of Sebastian and Natalie Brice on acoustic and electric bass guitar respectively was the highly crafted nature to their songs, strongly rinsed in an air of instant familiarity. In contrast, they were an absolute new name to me and the epitome to how the off-piste locations at a festival can often lead to a fruitful discovery. A new album is in the works and it is certainly something to check out in the future.

The previously mentioned Urban Folk Quartet kicked off the Saturday programme on the mainstage as the clock struck noon. They were unfamiliar to the extent that I have never seen them live or heard their music before, but one quarter of this musical alliance is the very familiar Dan Walsh, seen, heard and reviewed on numerous occasions. This was no meek introduction to the day, as these four noted musicians know how to work a festival crowd and spill out a spritely set of instrumentally fueled folk and roots music. Banjo, fiddle, mandolin and other assorted stringed instruments dominated here and set the agenda for a continual streak right through the day.

A conundrum exists whether to place Richard Digance in the familiar or unfamiliar category. The latter prevailed based on not previously seeing this veteran entertainer play a festival set. The mid-afternoon slot proved ideal, as a placid audience were content to just sit back and enjoy various shades of humour alongside a selection of instantly appealing songs. Anecdotes, quips and poignant reflection liberally interspersed the music as this specifically generation-focussed set held its own among the more progressive and youthful elements. Yet Richard Digance has a story to tell, takes pride in a lifelong love for folk music and smoothly created yet another distinctive mark on a festival.

Orphan Colours
Inevitably, moments arise during a twelve-hour festival day when normality takes hold and the mind needs re-energising. While a breather was had, the crime of casually watching Jim Moray perform from a distance led to not getting the best out of the performance. Having seen him play on numerous occasions, the music is best enjoyed in an absorbing state, but it was a case of next time, which you know with Jim Moray, would not be too long. Eric Sedge has been touring with Richard Digance, and his acoustic stage set got a hefty recommendation from his colleague. Casually dipping into it revealed a highly capable singer-songwriter. Likewise, duo Fly Yeti Fly held your attention for a brief stint in the shade without any plugging and particularly caught the ear with an engaging story of a mermaid and merman. It would not be a folk festival without at least one! Johnny Walters and the Savoy and Tom Malachowski completed the acoustic stage offering, but a little socialising and some fine food won the moment during their appearances.

Obviously, a perception of success can only be expressed from an outsider’s viewpoint without any insight to the books. Hopefully, Beardy Folk can achieve a renewal in future years and continue to grow an audience to ensure a healthy balance exists between customer experience and event viability. The summer festival scene is a crowded place, but get it right and success will come. Long may this corner of the Midlands countryside be a staging post for that fascinating joy of exploring the familiar and unfamiliar in a serenely located multi-artist gathering. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kim Richey - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 19th June 2018

Early into her first set, Kim Richey commented that the configuration of the Kitchen Garden partially reflected the world famous Bluebird Café in Nashville. This was apt to the extent that seeing her play that iconic venue back in 2016 re-ignited an immense appreciation for such a measured and accomplished talent. In contrast to an evening where the limelight was shared with fellow songwriters Matraca Berg, Don Henry and Bill Lloyd, Kim reverted to her de facto solo touring mode and injected a stark reminder of the many fine songs to have surfaced from her deep creative well over the years.

2018 is shaping up to be a significant year for this artist originally hailing from Ohio, but more than making a mark a couple of states further south where the good and great in music gather. EDGELAND, her first studio album in five years, has accrued heaps of attentive praise since emerging in the spring on the Yep Roc label and a raft of dates supporting Gretchen Peters in the UK has seen a re-raising of her profile across the pond. A few extra well-attended solo dates have been tagged onto this trip and we learned on the evening that a return in the autumn is planned as well.

For this Birmingham show, a city that has hosted Kim on numerous occasions in the past including the recent Town Hall Gretchen gig, the standard twin forty-five minute set rolled out. While this was probably the minimum requirement in length, the substantial standard of the songs and performance on display far outweighed the modest outlay.

Similarly to many artists witnessed, Kim grew gradually into her role, while perfecting the vocal tones to match the casually strummed guitar. The background chat and informative stories were restrained into optimum territory leaving sufficient breathing space for the song structures to be savoured. It was easy to compare the new material against its more established siblings, and you can comfortably imagine ‘Pin a Rose’ and ‘Chase Wild Horses’ being as loved as ‘Those Words We Said’ and ‘I’m Alright’ in years to come.

While these songs currently represent the cream at the bookends of the Kim Richey career timeline, the set list this evening also picked out a handful of gems from the interim years. ‘Chinese Boxes’, ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ and ‘Thorn in My Heart’ are far much more than album title tracks and sounded as good as ever on the night. The latter assumed the role of show opener ensuring the audience quickly found that captivating zone.

It may sound slightly ingenuous to proclaim a cover as the highlight to a singer-songwriter’s show, but this exception is tough to dispute. Before closing the show, Kim spoke about her Opry debut many years ago, and how she tentatively selected a cover as her third song choice. While hearing Kris Kristofferson sing ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ live a few years ago was a moving moment, there has admittedly been far superior vocally delivered versions of this timeless classic. Add Kim Richey to this lengthy list now after experiencing the intensity and focus she gave it for three minutes of bliss to close the evening on a high.

Scanning back over the thirty years of Kim Richey’s career reveals an artist held in the upmost esteem by both industry insiders and fans with an acute ear to the quality song. Whether serving up songs for the big hitters in her formative Nashville years or carving out a performing niche spanning far from the confines of Music City, a rewarding career has ensued; one with plenty more fuel in the tank on the evidence of the current record. Periodically, UK fans have been blessed with these songs in their unfiltered transparent state and this evening’s show at the Kitchen Garden staged the latest renewal in a fitting way.


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Danni Nicholls - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 10th June 2018

There is precedence to a Danni Nicholls album having multiple lives and the scene is set for a repeat process now that the songs are in the can for the next album. The cycle may still be in the embryonic untitled stage regards the upcoming album, but tracks are beginning to emerge in a live setting. Fresh out of a latest stateside stint to bring the songs to near fruition, she has undertaken a few dates around the country to break them in gently. Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden has hosted Danni on a couple of previous occasions and it was a posse of familiar faces greeting her for this latest visit. Grander stages will feature ahead as the record nears release, but it is good for the new songs to be road tested and it can be unequivocally stated that treats are on the way to fans new and old.

A distinct theme characterised the two sets Danni played this evening. The bulk of the new material featured after the break, following a widely spanned selection in the first set from a recording and performing career fast approaching a decade in the spotlight. Old tunes like ‘Time’ rubbed shoulders with some of her finest to date such as ‘Beautifully Broken’, while joined by the recurring Randy Newman cover ‘Guilty’ and a live favourite in ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’. Not forgetting the gorgeous 'Between Forever and Goodbye' and the scene setting opener 'Long Road Home'.

As popular and much loved as these songs are, the long awaited new material created a sense of anticipation. Permeating the offering in the opening set was the first positive sign that the future is bright with a Birmingham premiere for ‘Hopeless Romantic’. It does not take many listens to a Danni Nicholls track to admire its appeal and there was no evidence in this trait being lost.

After the break, and an opportunity for folks to fill in their gaps of any missed album purchases, Danni was more forthright and informative about the next album, even if it means we still have a little time to wait before it reaches the market in the recorded format. Five further tracks were given an early airing, although one was vaguely familiar as ‘Ancient Embers’ did feature in the show here twelve months ago. Fingers were crossed at the time that it may make the cut for a future record and the faith appears to be repaid. A little was learned about the writing process and it was no surprise to hear that Danni has teamed up with Ben Glover for a couple of co-writes. ‘Texas’ and ‘Wild is the Water’ had the Ben Glover mark all over them especially the second one; although Danni’s effortless presentation style will soon assume ownership. They certainly came across as songs from a wider canvas on first listen and maybe a drift away from the fairly tight periphery that has reflected her writing in the past.

The other two new songs heard in the second set were ‘Power to Leave’ and ‘Losing It’. The first was revealed as another co-write, this time with Austin-based artist Jaimee Harris, while the other had not developed any introductory patter yet. True to form, the introduction of the new songs served tonight went a long way to suggest that another acclaimed album is going to emerge.

There was still time for plenty of old favourites as Danni never fails to play a comprehensive show when afforded the opportunity. ‘Beautiful Game’, ‘Back to Memphis’ and ‘Hey There, Sunshine’ will never outstay their welcome, and while the lengthy introduction to ‘A Little Redemption’ was shelved, the sentiment of this upbeat jaunty number is never lost.

Cover-wise, this was an evening free of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, but what better way to end the gig than Danni playing her version of Will Kimbrough’s ‘Goodnight Moon’. A heady mix of sharing humility while crafting a beautiful rendition.

In contrast to Danni’s previous shows at the Kitchen, an opening act was added to the bill and it was good to catch the music of Kathryn Marsh and Dave Sutherland again in the guise of their duo format: Ashland. During the half hour slot a varied source of appealing songs were shared with the audience, ranging from ones Kathryn has given a new lease of life to the odd cover and original from Dave. It proved a gentle start to an evening wholesomely defined by its intimacy and respect for the serenely delivered song.

Danni herself has been busy on the support front in recent times including playing fruitful opening slots for Shakin’ Stevens, Angaleena Presley, and most recently, The Secret Sisters. At the end of this current run of shows, the focus will switch to the next batch of dates later in the year, which she will surely headline with a big fanfare, and give fans an opportunity to take the new material home in some kind of recorded format. Since first coming across the music of Danni Nicholls back in 2010, it has been repeatedly stated that few if any match the strength of her style, at least this side of the pond. It is in the realm of ‘Americana’ that offers the best fit for her music and conditions are now set for a continuation of the growth and affection previously enjoyed. This show at the Kitchen Garden was merely the aperitif for a lavish banquet about to be served.