Thursday, 14 December 2017

Sofia Talvik - When Winter Comes - A Christmas Album : Makaki Music

Maybe it is the scar of Bono’s infamous 1984 line healing or a timely visit from one of those Dickensian spirits, but a record clambering for room in the crowded seasonal market has burrowed into one’s mind to conjure up a few end of year thoughts. Original Christmas music can often present a crossroads for those artists tempted to indulge in it, either pop down the safe populist route or score some points with an alternative stab. It does not take too much deduction to expect someone from a folk-Americana slant to adopt the second stance and this collection from Sofia Talvik resides firmly in this camp. Regardless to where you stand on this type of themed music, the offering from this Swedish singer-songwriter is rather impressive and well equipped to soothe any cynics in the room.

This album has been a project ten years in the making, with Sofia maintaining a self-pact to write a new song each winter that attempts to throw a light on some of the less salubrious issues associated especially within a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. On the surface, a proliferation of titles containing the words: winter, cold and Christmas does suggest a little drift into cliché status, but the old adage of ‘do not judge the contents by the cover’ has never been more pertinent. What the album does reveal is a hour-long exhibition on how to blend a vocal style packed with glowing warmth into the sombre instrumental triangle of soft piano, morbid cello and haunting pedal steel. Yes, the subject content does focus away from a joyous tendency, exactly what would expect from titles such as ‘When It Rains on Christmas Day’, ‘Cold, Cold Feet’, ‘Clothe Yourself for Christmas’ and ‘A Carol for the Lonely’.

While a Nordic charm adorns these tracks, you cannot escape the Americana influence that has formed an artist who spends a large degree of her touring days stateside. Perhaps, this is the ultimate appeal alongside spending a captivating hour soaking up the ambient nature of these songs. Obviously, the shelf life of such a record is limited, but with it taking a decade to surface in this collective format, filing it away in a convenient place for retrieval in twelve months’ time should just be a small part of the preservation process.

Outside this seasonal release, Sofia Talvik is a highly active touring and recording musician, best known in the UK for the release of her 2015 album BIG SKY COUNTRY. Mainly, though it is continental Europe and USA that has been the geographical focus for her music, but you never know motives may change. There is ample evidence on this record to suggest there is a great deal more to come in conventional surroundings.

Whether WHEN WINTER COMES – A CHRISTMAS ALBUM opens the door for a deluge of seasonal releases to spark a response is highly unlikely. However, this Sofia Talvik album has found a chink in the armour and its blessings, sentiment and elegance have been embraced. So at a time when many of the favourite releases of the year are given one final spin to confirm their position on the annual wrap, there may just be a slight deviation into a record that adds a touch of credence to a maligned genre.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Robert Vincent and Dean Owens - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 4th December 2017

United by a record label; united by the rhetoric of song and now united in planting the roots firmly in the ever-popular songwriters’ round. Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are far from novices on a UK circuit that branches out from a core of Springsteen, Dylan and Young. Their latest venture is to team up with the Worry Dolls for a Roots in the Round tour that leaves Nashville out of the title, but is forever tinged with the song writing spirit that epitomises Music City. Midway through this string of early winter UK dates, the guys set about appearing in a couple of duo-only gigs; more roots in the semi-circle than the round. Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden has seen its fair share of highly crafted singer-songwriters pass through the brick-walled interior in 2017 alone, but sufficient room was made for a couple more, and our two protagonists perfectly fitted the bill.

At The Helm Records is the operation responsible for Robert’s award nominated 2017 album I’LL MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS and if the wheel of fortune pays heed, similar acclaim may await Dean’s upcoming release SOUTHERN WIND, likewise a debut effort on this South Coast-based label. Both records offered material for this evening’s show as each artist set about stripping down a bunch of songs to expose their raw bones to a respectful audience. While there was ample synergy in how these two songwriters ply their trade, significant markers of differentiation enabled this show to flourish without the feel of a procession. Dean has a far more literal side to his art and a grounded vocal style greets the subject of his compositions on a platform of terra firma. In contrast, there is more flair to Robert’s style. This begins with a vocal range that cuts a rock thrust amidst material that appears to veer further in an abstract direction. Both artists were refreshingly candid about their influences that frequently were born from a deep personal experience or feeling.

It was no surprise in deducing Robert’s acoustic version of ‘Demons’ being the prime moment of the evening. Although it was closely followed by, ‘I’ll Make The Most of My Sins’, which seemed to evolve as a country piece when all the full-band faculties were stripped out. Probably the pick of his older songs was ‘The Passage’, and it was of added interest to get an insight to the origin of ‘The Bomb’.

An older song, with a combination of personal connections, titled ‘Man From Leith’ came out tops when reflecting upon Dean’s contribution, which amounted to around eight rotated songs in a brace of sets. It also bodes well that two new picks from the upcoming album, ‘Southern Wind’ and ‘Last Song’, came across as impressive live efforts, the latter constructed in association with legendary Nashville operator Will Kimbrough. Dean was the keener of the pair to invite the inevitable audience participation, with this number in addition to ‘Lost Time’ presenting opportunities for folks to offer a muffled accompaniment.

On an evening where the cast had to re-adjust to their temporarily slimmed down tour set up, there were certainly no complaints in hearing more Robert Vincent and Dean Owens, especially as Birmingham has not been on their touring horizon in recent times. What we were privileged to witness were two outstanding exponents of filtering the ware of their creative inspirations through the precious medium of song. Rob especially has spent a fair amount of time with his band this year and this solo show spun his music in a new and welcome light. Dean often ventures south from his Scottish base in solo mode, but you never know, the new album may present band opportunities this side of the border in the New Year.

Three key North American legends were namechecked in the opening paragraph, but lately, and in sad circumstances, Petty has been the go-to cover in the last month or two. ‘Learning to Fly’ may have lacked the Worry Dolls harmony vocals, but it crowned an enjoyable evening. Conclusively sealing a view that Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are two singer-songwriters fit to enrich any scene that they frequent.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation - New Cloud in Motion : Invisible King

The first advisable rule for making an album grab a listener’s attention is to toss in a memorable opening track. Obviously, this needs to be followed up with the remainder of the content being of a similar quality; a feat that has been achieved with the brand new album from Scottish –based singer-songwriter Willie Campbell. Along with the assembled ensemble billed as The Open Day Rotation, this artist -more specifically from the Outer Hebrides- has produced an extremely engaging and accessible album that never veers off a high plane highway. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION greets the listener with a striking sky image on the cover before unleashing a dozen original tracks in a mature transition from artist to listener. Perhaps by design, not an album for genre purists, but definitely one for those possessing an open ear.

For descriptive purposes, take this record as a fringed-pop piece of adult contemporary rock, moulded into a package that would appeal to fans exploring the outer edges of folk, country and Americana. Where the record does score high is on the plentiful supply of chorus friendly melodies, occasionally heading into anthem territory, but never coming across as trend-chasing efforts. Willie’s experience working with Craig Wiseman in a Nashville song-writing role around a decade ago is certainly evident in the standard of song construction. The superior level of Music City song writing is indisputable in its ability to meet the needs of different markets and its imprint is found on these songs.

This album’s strength is that most of the tracks could be singled out as the focal point, but for me the two strongest are the superb and engaging opener ‘Mary Rest Your Head’ and the character-led high tensile metaphorical ballad ‘Winter Late in Spring’. The latter ends on a subtle twist and indicates a depth to the writing.

Throughout the duration of the record, which gets close to the hour mark, the fullness of the band sound makes a significant mark. An organ/sax input adds spice to ‘Going Through the Motions’, while the cello gives a sombre folk feel to ‘Circles’. If you want a connotation for these two tracks settle on The E Street Band meets Blue Rose Code. In other words, contemporary working class America with a classic Scottish twist.

While Willie takes control on a majority of the vocals, he does stand aside for Fiona McLeod to adopt the lead on ‘Toxic & Sweet’. The feel of this track raised comparisons with Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers, who made a similarly excellent album a couple of years ago. There is a slight switch in the overall tempo in a couple of tracks towards the end of the album especially in ‘What We Are Now’. Interestingly, the key feature of this nostalgia-inspired song is the line ‘mortality hit me at 30’. Oh for the thought!

Critically, this is an album free of formula, despite coming across as an easy ear friendly listen. It succeeds in drawing in those who make an enquiry into its worth and prospers by holding their attention. One possible amendment could have been slicing ten to fifteen minutes off the listening time and thus making the quality ultra-focussed. To Willie’s credit, I would not know where to make the cut.

While this album falls into the sizeable category of acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriters, to name Justin Currie, Roddy Frame and Ross Wilson to get the list underway, it is packed with credentials to spread far from the domain of its homeland. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION does not indulge in a populist chase, but with the prevailing winds of good fortune, it will resonate with many people who it comes into contact with. Whatever your prior experience of Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation, the songs enrich the listener and make this a late candidate when considering releases that have made a significant effect in 2017.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Emily Barker - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 26th November 2017

Back in January, the gig year began with a show featuring Emily Barker, and it was a pleasure to welcome her back to the Midlands area as part of a tour that has formally put a seal on her latest album. Although songs from SWEET KIND OF BLUE were previewed on that last visit to the nearby Worcestershire town of Bewdley, which was in a duo format with Lukas Drinkwater, the assembled band format for this Glee Club date gave the tracks the deeper sound that they warranted. Emily Barker is more than the sum of any record she has released and remains one of the most fascinating artists on any circuit that embraces her style. This may be a style forever tinkered with, but a gold leaf streak has been consistently threaded within her releases.

Emily is no stranger to The Glee Club and wasted little time in reminding folks how she has become a valued artist who constantly seeks to explore the wider canvas of contemporary roots music. ‘Dear River’ opened her ninety-minute set and still sits on the pedestal of her recorded tracks. No doubt, fans will proclaim the widely acclaimed ‘Nostalgia’, but from my perspective that comes a close second to the sound that gave her most credence to being classed as an Americana artist. There is an argument for the best not being served up first in a live outing, but the harmonium to electric guitar intro perfectly set up the breaks and melodies that make this track such a pleasure to hear time and again.

The architect of this harmonium to guitar part was Pete Roe, who proved the busiest person on stage during the evening. As well as this segment, he excelled on the keys, which is such an integral element of the soulful direction that Emily explored on the new record. This was also in addition to the thirty-minute opening set he played to warm up a Sunday evening crowd almost caught out by the 7:15 start. After this brief stint in the limelight, Pete settled back into the supporting role alongside regular bassist (both stand-up and electric) Lukas Drinkwater and Rob Pemberton on drums. Together they proved the perfect foil for Emily’s songs to flourish, in tune with her own guitar and harmonica playing.

In addition to the two older songs previously mentioned (with ‘Nostalgia’ getting its accustomed Wallander connected story), a memorable version of ‘Ghost Narrative’ from the 2013 DEAR RIVER album was among the pick of a set list, which eventually ran to seventeen pristinely delivered songs. Inevitably, it was the tracks from SWEET KIND OF BLUE that proved the spine of this gig, with the title number being given renewed vigour in light of its live version.

This album was Emily’s metaphorical and literal trip down Memphis way and a lauded attempt to capture a sound swinging from the dark bluesy tones of  ‘Sister Goodbye’  to the right up-to-date groovin’ vibes of ‘If We Forget to Dance’. While the album itself has taken a while to settle within my listening repertoire, the songs possessed a strong feel in the live arena with these two tracks  being the pick of the new material alongside the rather gorgeous ‘No. 5 Hurricane’. Maybe the upbeat material would have felt more at home on a late night Friday or Saturday than early Sunday evening, but the notion of ‘inside I’m dancing’ could not have been truer.

There was still time for Emily to excel in the encore when she strolled back on stage to deliver a perfectly executed unaccompanied version of ‘Precious Memories’. This ensured the evening had one more hairs-standing moment before everyone dispersed into Birmingham city centre for an early finish. Of course, we know that she will be back, but what may not be so certain is what style is next on her agenda of discovery. Soul, folk, Americana, lo-fi indie and cinematic ballads have previously caught her ear, and maybe there is further mileage in the traditional country sound that inspired the Applewood Road project. Whatever course she undertakes, the quality stamp mark via her talent and astuteness will be proudly displayed.

Debate may exist when considering the overall impact of the Emily Barker shows in Bewdley and Birmingham this year. In my opinion, the fullness of the latter won hands down, and another example surfaced of a live show illuminating an album that perhaps needed a little nudge. 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Lucy Rose - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Tuesday 21st November 2017

Regardless of what has happened in the past or may do in the future, 2017 will go down as the year Lucy Rose released the most adorable album and took all its divine beauty on the road with her. SOMETHING’S CHANGING also possessed an intriguing backdrop fuelled by an artist asking some of the most fundamental questions as to their creative existence. Therefore, it was no surprise to see Lucy in a candid frame of mind as she set about sharing some of her craft with a packed Glee Club audience. Amidst the lucid concerns and musings, the subliminal art of serving a record in a format that defined its personal intensity was plain to see.

It helped that the couple of hundred souls cramming into the venue’s main room created the pin drop atmosphere required to savour the album’s subtle brilliance. However, this presented the evening’s first conundrum as Lucy came across between songs as being slightly unnerved by the surroundings. This did not affect any of the songs’ pristine delivery, but further suggested an artist seeking an identity. This assertion is made without any prior experience of a Lucy Rose concert; yet sampling the production found on her previous two albums would suggest a more upbeat environment. One hope from a personal angle is that Lucy enhances the tentative steps that she has taken in the new direction and grows fully into the role. The vocal style, song writing sentiment and subtle production are all in place to make evenings like this a regular occurrence.

Lucy was joined for this tour by four other flexible musicians, with segments of violin being most pertinent to the feel of the new record. Lucy herself shifted between guitars and piano, the latter the accompaniment to the set’s standout moment in ‘Second Chance’ and an old song. ‘Our Eyes’, which was introduced as a stripped down version of a previously highly produced track. This was also the band responsible for the new album, so they were finely tuned in their roles to ensure the presentation was precisely shaped. Therein laid a similar thought to another accomplished artist heard live recently, in finding a differentiation between a studio and stage version. To some, a seamless ear is an expectation, while others prefer to find some distance between the different formats.

Apart from, by memory, the entirety of the new album being played, the set occasionally delved back into the past catalogue to serve up numbers like ‘Middle of the Bed’ and ‘Like an Arrow’. These by encouragement were given the pin drop exclusion and gained enthusiastic responses. By admission, I attended solely because of the new record, but it was difficult to gauge the extent of this across the room. Obviously, the response was rapturous at the end, although the general feel was a little different to when other artists, especially from overseas, play this type of music. Like all the questions being pondered, time will be adjudicator, especially in where Lucy finds the next inspiration for future projects.

It is always good though to focus your mind on the present and listening to songs like ‘Floral Dresses’. ‘Moirai’ and ‘Find Myself’ in this situation was an absolute pleasure. Aside from a slight sense of identity issue, Lucy was frank with the inspiration for her current direction and this was best summed up with the album’s closing track ‘I Can’t Change It All’. Maybe in the future similar inspirational ideas will crop up just like a South America trip did for 2017.

To add to the evening’s presentation, a singer-songwriter from Leighton Buzzard by the name of Charlie Cunningham entertained the gathering with a batch of self-penned material. A prominent vocal style matched with some intuitive guitar playing, crowned with a mini Flamenco piece, eventually placed his performance in the credit column. He was certainly an artist who thrived in the pin drop atmosphere and possessed the talent to carve out a niche on any circuit he frequents.

While it will be fascinating to observe how Lucy Rose creatively evolves in the future, the existing memories of this year’s precious album will always remain, alongside the evening in Birmingham when its heart and soul were beautifully shared. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens - Town Hall, Birmingham. Sunday 19th November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens has to be one of the most vibrant and dedicated advocates of American roots music currently active in the public eye. Throw in an extraordinary talent that spans the artistic spectrum and you have a sure fire way of ensuring your message gets across to expanding audiences. Spare seats were at a minimum in the Town Hall this evening as Rhiannon and her band set about ensuring this return to a Birmingham venue ended up a resounding success. In contrast to a recently seen gig at this venue, this show went beyond the ninety minutes set mark, thus maximising the diversity that bubbled in the musical presentation. Whether celebrating original British Isles emigration to the Carolinas or a revival of Cajun/Creole culture in the sixties, the quality and absorbing nature of the music beamed in harmony with the venue’s ever manoeuvring lights.

The crowning moment of Rhiannon’s post-Carolina Chocolate Drops work has been her latest album FREEDOM HIGHWAY, and the fruits of this ambitious project have really come to life on this current UK tour. There has been moments since the record’s release in February when it struggled to make a similar impact to her solo debut TOMORROW IS MY TURN. This was purely from a personal perspective and one significantly altered since returning to the record in the run up to the tour followed by witnessing the album act as the cornerstone of the live show.

For this tour, Rhiannon has surrounded herself with all the key architects of the album. Its co-producer, and frequent Transatlantic Sessions participant, Dirk Powell flanked Rhiannon to her left on everything from fiddle, guitar to piano and accordion. To her right was long-term band mate Hubby Jenkins, adding to the sound some sterling electric guitar work and occasionally the inventive bones percussion. Behind the front three were two other players on the studio album in the guise of Jason Sypher on bass and Jamie Dick on percussion. Whether in perfect unison or individual flair, the effect from this fine band of musicians provided the perfect framework for a bunch of traditional and original songs to flourish.

Peaks to the show were plentiful to consider, but the mid-set duo of ‘Water Boy’ and ‘We Could Fly’ lay the marker down for any other segment of the evening to follow. The strains of Rhiannon’s vocals on the former, a tribute to Odetta, left the audience gasping. This took her talents to a new height alongside the banjo, fiddle and creative nous to dig deep into the past to illuminate the world of folk music.

While on the subject of vocal prowess, Rhiannon was frequently joined by her sister, Lalenja Harrington, which included a slice of sibling gospel harmony on one song. Just to ensure the authenticity of the new album was relayed on stage, Rhiannon’s nephew Justin Harrington appeared, to re-enact his spoken word part on ‘Better Get It Right The First Time’ and give the proceedings an ultra-contemporary edge.

If you wanted a pointer to the significance of Rhiannon’s archivist work, the introduction to ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ was the starkest evidence. Frequently, we were reminded that the battles of one hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago are not quite over, validated further by references to her homeland since January 20 2017. Ultimately, the evening wished to balance the inevitable melancholy of digging deep into a history of struggle with a perpetual hope. This was best initiated in a cover of Pop Staples’ ‘Freedom Highway’ as the pre-encore stomping closer, and a dual cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Lonesome Road’ and ‘Up Above My Head’ to bring the overall evening to a sumptuous close.

This was an evening that began two and a half hours earlier with an opening set by Canadian roots artist Kaia Kater, complete with banjo and a bundle of growing charisma. This was actually the second of three Birmingham visits for Kaia in a six –month period. Back in the dying embers of the summer, she impressed with a set at Moseley Folk Festival, and is due to return for a headline show at the Kitchen Garden in February. You have a feeling this artist is going to develop neatly in the slipstream of Rhiannon Giddens on the evidence of the work she has produced and is likely to in the future.

The future is also looking rosy for Rhiannon, especially with the role she has been offered of guest curator for next year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. Part of this will lead to her unveiling some new talent on a UK audience and signals a desire to re-acquaint oneself with this mid-summer extravaganza of roots music. However, this Birmingham Town Hall show was all about the present and the eventual showcasing of Rhiannon Giddens as a world-class artist on a stage that she totally owned. American roots music could not be in better hands than this interpreter, revivalist and all round exceptionally talented artist. 


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.