Friday, 30 January 2015

Gem Andrews - Vancouver : Barbaraville Records

The most profound attribute to this album is that numerous listens lead you to have a 100% belief in the music of Gem Andrews. It may have its roots in both the north east and north western parts of our land but any transatlantic drift westwards still retains that ultimate streak of Englishness. A touch of irony for an album titled VANCOUVER which is quite distinctly a movable feast of moody country and cutting folk, all sprinkled with a fragrance of Americana.

While still a songwriter in development, Gem has assembled a collection of original compositions and cleverly selected borrowed tunes to what evolves into a lyrical emporium of darkness and melancholy. An eleventh hour check of 'who wrote what' revealed Gem as the source of possibly the strongest track on the album in ‘Crimson Tide’, best described as wondrous tale of fading love sung with deep passion within an impeccably structured song. This and the other five tracks to surface from the creative writing well within Gem’s head, heart and soul introduce a songwriter of emerging talent. Whether basing a song around revelations discovered in ‘Your Father’s Diary’ or following a path of helplessness and hopelessness in ‘Dead Weight’, Gem explores some of life’s darker sides thus displaying her natural gravitation to the expansive genre of folk Americana.

One person whose belief in Gem right from the outset of this project has been unrelenting is respected musician Martin Stephenson who handled production and other technical duties on the record. Another key player to feature is Nicky Rushton who lent a couple of songs in the form of the tearjerker ‘Mother Dear’ and the pure heavenly tones of ‘Ten Thousand More’ alongside piano and harmony vocal contributions. The Gabriel Minniken-penned ‘Please Forget Me’ takes the record in a classic country direction and once again Gem displays a vocal style akin to how these songs are meant to be performed - drenched in pure emotion and sincerity. The other song Gem borrowed is ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ from the vaults of Canadian folk legend sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Musically the album follows a simplistic route which allows the songs to flourish with the best interludes being an elegant thread of fiddle adding a sombre layer of sadness with delightful enormity across a majority of the tracks. Namechecking Townes Van Zandt, Nancy, Emmylou, Neil Young, Johnny and June in the opening number ‘Calling’ lays the groundwork of where Gem’s influences exist and this spirited launch track perfectly sets the tone of the album. By the time we reach the finale and the title track ‘Vancouver’, there is an absolute guarantee you will be under the spell of Gem’s mesmerising music.

At just over half an hour, you are left feeling that there is so much more to come from Gem Andrews especially in her original material. However by being plentiful in joyous moments, even those of a darker persuasion, VANCOUVER lays down a marker of what Gem can do in interpretation, presentation and song writing. Although this her second record, having a quality release to promote is an empowered starting point for an artist and Gem Andrews can hopefully exploit this in raising her own profile in markets eager to savour this sound.

Try before you buy

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 27th January 2015

Each year a dreary British winter has a ray of spring hope with the Celtic Connections Festival and the Transatlantic Sessions tour. The knock effect of these two twin events embedded north of the border is the sprinkling of touring artists who seek a few dates in the more southern locations of these isles. Obviously the Transatlantic project hits a number of English cities in force in February, while artists such as Cahalen Morrison and Eli West call at numerous venues on their trek to Glasgow’s melting pot of majestic music. So for the first time, the duo hailing from America’s Pacific North West, found their way to the south Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath to showcase their talents to an anticipated Kitchen Garden Café audience.

Eli West
Cahalen and Eli have been attracting praise for a while now and it was good to embrace their brand of roots music close at hand. An unassuming and humble duo, the pair predominately let their songs and music do the preaching, or to be more precise the compulsive pickin', taking the sound of banjo, guitar and mandolin to all four corners of the café and beyond. We have experienced, here in the UK, numerous examples of roots music flourishing from the states of Washington and Oregon, and whether exploring the depths of bluegrass, old time country or folk music, the pair enhanced this theory with their Birmingham debut.

Cahalen Morrison
Following the standard format of a couple of 45 minute sets, the performance was based around the latest album which sees a rich seam of stunning instrumentals, cleverly curated covers and outstanding originals merge into a melange of masterly music. The twin standout numbers of the evening were the pick of each set, with the classic country sounding ‘Natural Thing to Do’ just edging ‘Pocket Full of Dust’ in the honours stakes. A couple of other tracks from this album, out last year and titled I’LL SWING MY HAMMER WITH BOTH MY HANDS , which impressed were ‘James is Out’ and the dual instrumental of ‘Ritzville / Steamboats on the Saskatchewan’.

The striking duo had an impressive poise on stage. Eli with his more heightened stature held court all evening on acoustic guitar, while Cahalen swayed between playing banjo to open each set before switching to mandolin. Whether in harmony, duet or solo, their voices ached with the toil of rural old time music, a style seemingly to flow through their veins, heart, soul and spirit. Cahalen did pay respect to his south western desert upbringing with the song ‘Down in the Lonesome Draw’ which semi-autobiographically traced his gravitation north.

Cahalen appeared to be the architect of most of the originals, although the pair was keen to represent the work of others right across the roots spectrum. Alongside the bluegrass standard ‘Kentucky Girl’, they also covered Norman Blake’s ‘Church St. Blues’, a song given a similar treatment by UK act The Carrivick Sisters at the very same venue a couple of years ago. The more contemporary folk sounds of Townes Van Zandt were celebrated in a version of ‘Bar Room Girl’, while ‘Voices of Evening’ by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard graced the show’s final moments.

With all the charm of a brace of musicians dedicated to their musical passion, Calahen Morrison and Eli West bade farewell to some new found fans and thus headed north to seek more eager partisans of high class roots music. A couple of new songs, including one untitled, previewed a prosperous future for the duo and a number of UK return visits are planned starting with the Shetland Folk Festival in May. A duo once seen, heard, experienced and enjoyed but not forgotten is a celebratory parting message and worthy alongside a thanks for popping into Birmingham. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Porchlight Smoker - Water Into Sand : At The Helm Records

The phrase ‘water into sand’ may represent a radical transformation but the album of the same title by Porchlight Smoker eases along the roots spectrum with a far more sedate transition. While never settling on a single sound, the album retains a high impact to effortlessly make a case for instant projection up your listening list. After synchronising the title of their second album ‘2’ with its chronological status, WATER INTO SAND sees the Brighton based quartet tackle that all important third album with gusto, craft and guile to produce a super release fully encompassing the diversity of the band’s make up.

Folk, Americana, bluegrass, old time and traditional country are labels pretty much relevant to this album with the classic combo of lyrics, sound and vocals expertly reflecting these styles. From the quintessential English sound of the South East, through the Celtic influence of Eastern Scotland via the wide open spaces of Wichita Kansas, the original locations of Porchlight’s core elite feature heavily in the directional influence of WATER INTO SAND. Whether covering the Jimmie Rodger’s standard ‘Waiting for a Train’ or recording an original road song based on the semi-iconic border-to-border route ‘US75’, American themes and styles undoubtedly run through the record, which is obviously primarily influenced by Kansas native band member Scott Smith, He has also enlisted the services of a couple of compatriots back home and he used his co-write with Carl Clark ‘Mary Mary’ to open the album alongside a composition from Jeff Pickering, who also played pedal steel on his song ‘Instead

Fred Gregory shares his musical duties with the other increasingly acclaimed Brighton based band Hatful of Rain and the contributions he makes to Porchlight are just as profound. In fact his delightful fable-like song ‘Man in a Boat’ takes the honours as the album’s most memorable track with a tale of a fishing trip gone wrong told in stunning and effective simplicity. Fred has also written three more songs for the album in ‘A Day in Mid-July’, the heartfelt ballad ‘If I Had a Way’ and the closing track ‘I Don’t Mind’. The latter is the most eye (or more technically ear) opener of this trio with an almost late sixties rock vocal style attaching itself to a banjo led backbeat.

As you would expect from an album rich in roots influence, mandolin, double bass, dobro, banjo and lap steel take most of the lead in underpinning a sound, with occasional interludes from fiddle, accordion and harmonica. In fact the guys let the music do the talking in the form of the album’s sole instrumental, and the Steve Bell composed, ‘Cleaner’s Rag’. Steve, who hails from Dundee, is likely to be the album’s Celtic advocate and his song ‘Maria Kennedy’ has all the wonderful traits of a Scottish folk ballad. Whilst an original tune wrapped up in a familiar sound, the positive spin to this song, which deserves its ranking amongst the album’s finest numbers, is it’s a credit to Steve’s skill at honing in on a popular style. As well as penning ‘US75’, a long way from Bonny Scotland mind you, he also wrote the remaining song ‘Homeline’, to conclude this eleven-strong assembling of impressive compositions and tunes.

Although not featuring in the writing credits, Scott Warman plays a great role in keeping the sound together with percussion and double bass duties alongside vocal pieces. In fact the diverse vocal input of all four band members is core to the album remaining fresh and an integral factor in describing it as versatile and cohesive with an abundance of unique contributions. At this point it is worth mentioning the technical role of Al Scott, who also was at the helm of Hatful of Rain’s fine album last year, and the band’s link up with the Brighthelmstone team for the release of the record.

With its jingling roots soundtrack, the members of Porchlight Smoker are the architects of a sincere bunch of songs delivering a timeless essence of transatlantic impressionism. Interspersed with inspired individualism and held together by carefully constructed creativity perfectly sums up WATER INTO SAND. Album number three just could be the magic number to lift Porchlight Smoker to the heights that their talents warrant.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Blair Dunlop - Cookley Village Hall, Worcestershire Sunday 18th January 2015

The true test of an artist flourishing at the mid-level of the industry is the flexibility to adapt to a variety of formats and surroundings. After excelling with his band last year, including a cracking Birmingham date, Blair Dunlop showed at this village hall gig how to conduct a solo show with enlightenment, flair, wit and an abundance of skill. It was almost a year to the day since Blair played the very same venue alongside his illustrious father, but this evening Ashley Hutchings was consigned to a few mentions as his son oozed with heaps of confidence and panache.

With the help of something old, traditional, borrowed, newish and very new, Blair entertained a committed audience with a twin pair of symmetrical sets, reflective in both their length and quality. Not only pulling material from his two albums to date, this extended slot of a solo Blair saw more background chat about the songs which perfectly complemented the occasional outbreaks of dry impish wit. A precious constant across both sets was the lauded guitar playing which expertly adorned a pair of non-Blair tunes, the traditional 16th century harp piece ‘Si Bheag Si Mhor’ and the more contemporary Richard Thompson masterpiece ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.

Alongside what are now becoming old Blair Dunlop favourites, ‘Secret Theatre’ and ‘Blight and Blossom’, both from the album title of the latter, some of the songs from his ‘newish’ album (2014’s HOUSE OF JACKS) got an insightful airing. These included the generational club songs ‘45s (C’69) and ‘45s (C’14)’ alongside the philosophical ‘Chain By Design’ and the demo-like titled ‘Fifty Shades of Blue’. The track ‘Song of Two Bridges’, also from the latest album, is actually an Ashley penned song, one of the best on the album and it returned to the scene where it was sang live by the pair last year.

The evening was brought about by some local enthusiasts with the help of the Shindig organisation operating under the wider Live and Local banner showing how quality roots music can be promoted right into the heart of our rural communities. Alongside the two Blair dates, the same venue successfully entertained Canadian fiddle and roots supremo April Verch in 2013. All have been reasonably well attended with turnouts the envy of some places promoting gigs in more populous areas.

It was noted when seeing Blair play with his band last year how a more Americana rock sound was mixed with his undeniable folk credentials, and during this show he referenced the influence the West Coast sound has had on him. This culminated during the evening in a cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ and an example of the self-exploration that seeps into Blair’s music. Having officially documented the latest album as ‘newish’, Blair chose to share a couple of newer songs which are earmarked for the next release, although this is very much in its embryonic state and likely to materialise in 2016. Of the pair previewed, ‘Castello’, based on his Italian experiences, made the more profound early effect, without doing the fine ‘First World Problems’ any disservice.

While the seeds of the next album are growing, 2015 will no doubt see a very active Blair Dunlop still promoting HOUSE OF JACKS and appearing solo, with the band and perhaps a few surprise collaborations. Upon closing the evening with a requested version of ‘Flandyke Shore’, Blair promised the other request, any Bob Dylan song, when he returns to Cookley again. One thing for sure is whatever the talented Blair Dunlop puts his hand to will be a success and this consummate performer is certain to continue to prosper in the future.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes - East By North West : Self Released

Quite often the origins of folk coverage on this blog are a live show and its endearing impact. True to form the names of Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes first crossed my path back in the halcyon summer days of August 2014 and to be more precise, The Den stage at Cambridge Folk Festival. Supported by ace pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole, Raevennan impressed in an exciting set of multi-genre music and for the final number had invited Tracey on stage to sing an accompaniment. Spring forward a few months and the pair confirm their partnership with the release of the excellent full length album EAST BY NORTH WEST.

Named after the pair’s home locations at the time of Lowestoft and Manchester, the record contains eight originals and an arrangement of an existing poem. Collectively it hangs together with a thread of beautiful vocals, crafted musicianship and a natural chemistry for collaboration. The project had its own origins in a chance meeting between the pair at a residential music gathering organised by the Unthanks and its fruition could become one of the surprise hits of 2015. The contrasting backgrounds of the pair range from Tracey’s decade long recording career and experience of working with the likes of Thea Gilmore to Raevennan’s spritely, energetic enthusiasm to harness her talents into successful recordings.

Musically the album possesses its own contrasts best typified in the haunting stripped down rendition of the Patrick Kavanagh poem ‘On Raglan Road’ and the ravishing addictive upbeat number ‘Fire in My Heart’. The former oozes with pure spiritual class and is arranged within the traditional tune ‘The Dawning of the Day’, while the latter bounces into almost pop territory yet captures some fine musicianship into a song supported by a strong and catchy chorus refusing to be dislodged from your brain.

Along with their pristine vocals and joint musicianship (Tracey adds piano and percussion to her guitars while Raevennan focusses on string instrumentation), the pair are joined by several other acclaimed players such as Mike McGoldrick supplying flute on the opening track ‘Coming Home’ and Belinda O’Hooley adding accordion to ‘I’m Gonna Get Myself in Trouble’. The opener sees Tracey reference her home town of Manchester with warts and all nostalgia, while the other track is another of the co-writes and breezes along with a toe-tapping tempo and contains the wonderful adjective ‘asinine’ to send you rushing to your dictionaries.

Peacemaker’ and ‘In the End’ are strong songs adorned in the opening stages by enticing dobro giving the album a couple of moments of pure Americana to garnish the general folk structure and substance to the record. The soaring lyrics of folk standard ‘To the Sea’ inject a feel of positivity into the writing and it is re-assuringly uplifting for a genre which can have its darker moments. Likewise the two remaining tracks preach an ode to longevity and hanging on with ‘Blood and Bone’ being there to the ‘bitter end’ and ‘As Good As News’ preaching to ‘never give up, never surrender/times like this, don’t let it defeat ya,’

Both artists have followed this ethos after periods of creative inactivity and the result is a duet record perfectly designed to enthral the listener. EAST BY NORTH WEST will move you, excite you and first and foremost entertain you. Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes knew they had something creative in common and the lucky recipients are those who engage with this superb record. 

Miriam Jones - Between Green and Gone : Miriam Jones Music

Essential criteria when putting your head above the parapet of the deluge of singer-songwriters is to possess a vocal style to raise eyebrows. Such a style need not be flawless as one expressing the wornness of life can perfectly fit the mood of the song, especially on compositions digging deep into one’s inner thoughts. Miriam Jones is an artist who eased through an endless list of submissions with an album giving an enriched listening experience and presenting a performer equipped with the tools to make an impact in a crowded market. BETWEEN GREEN AND GONE is a fascinating collection of a neatly packaged set of ten songs, sharing an equal trait of similar length and effect but blessed with leaving a favourable impression.

A sprinkling of releases have previously appeared under the name of Miriam Jones, a Canadian native who has been settled in the UK for a number of years. However this one may be your introduction to her as an artist and it has been capably assisted by Simon Edwards who previously has worked with artists such as Fairground Attraction and Billy Bragg. The album had an extensive preview at the back end of last year when Miriam had the good fortune to support Roddy Frame on his UK tour and sales of the CD were extremely popular, even selling out at the Birmingham date. Well the wider public can get their hands on the album in a variety of formats after its February 2nd release date.

With so much inner inspiration there is no room for covers and the track listing is piled high with songs of high merit exemplified by the tingling effect of the chorus blessed number ‘Warning’ and the build-up qualities to ‘Unknown’. Musically the album is underpinned by a variety of guitar styles and decorated with some blissful organ work adding a smattering of soul. ‘Cracks’ is a song that fits into this category and makes a strong case for the honour of first among equals.

On an album extracted from the depths of the writer’s soul don’t expect a barrage of explicit lyrics, more a subtle blend of feeling and thought thus retaining an extremely personal presence. After 37 minutes the album tantalisingly departs leaving its calling card of stark effect and cultured elegance with the ironically titled song ‘Stay’. While this is yet another album where the effect of listening in its entirety exceeds lifting stand out tracks, the slight epic structure to ‘Given All’ at least deserves a descriptive mention.

Released under the auspice of Miriam Jones Music suggests a self-released status which is a common occurrence in today’s modern music model and one where there is an ever increasing blur between such records and those churned out by major labels. While there has to be commercial considerations in every professional release, the purity and substance of many self-released records demonstrates a strong underbelly to the market. Helping to spread the word of these artists and this type music is a precious commodity to maintain this strength and support performers such as Miriam.

The music of Miriam Jones is definitely up the street of people who are fans of the mature folk style female singer-songwriters that honed their skills in country music before blossoming under the Americana banner. BETWEEN GREEN AND GONE has that double edged appeal of instant impact coupled with a growing tendency for some of the tracks to evolve over time. Ultimately Miriam Jones has made an excellent record capable of mixing with the best of its genre. 

Sample and Pre-order/order the album here

First Aid Kit - Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday 16th January 2015

In the week of their Brit award nomination, the supremely sublime Soderberg sisters showed that the mainstream might just be heading in the right taste direction. In the intervening couple of years since First Aid Kit last played a more intimate Birmingham venue, their international bandwagon has gathered pace cutting across both genre preservationists and more casual observers, residing for one evening only at a sell-out Symphony Hall. With a sound effortlessly floating between the alt wings of folk and country, while being briefly injected with a spiced up dose of pop and rock, the stage show of Johanna and Klara is awash with heavenly harmonies, memorable melodies and a reminder of the compulsive purity of roots music.

 The four piece stage line up may be symmetrical in its stance but much of the First Aid Kit sound is driven by the atmospheric dulcet twang of the pedal steel and who better to display his maestro talents than Melvin Duffy, one of the UK’s foremost exponents of the instrument. With the solid backfield of Duffy and Niclas Lindstrom on drums holding court, Johanna (keyboard) and Klara (acoustic guitar) had the liberty to explore the depth of their prodigious musical ability, schooled in Stockholm but now increasingly strengthened by a Stateside presence.

2014’s mega cool album release STAY GOLD had to virtually share equal billing with THE LION’S ROAR in the set list but that is far from a hardship with the near identical quality of both records. The ninety minute stage time hardly fluctuated in the magical experience of an absorbed audience gratefully gorging on the rapid song flow. ‘The Lion’s Roar’ perfectly set the scene as the clock struck nine and there was no finer way to send a crowd home happy than being serenaded with the signature tune ‘Emmylou’.

From the latest album, the delectable ‘Stay Gold’ had an early airing, perhaps while the band were getting into full stride, but ‘Master Pretender’ and ‘My Silver Lining’ were presented in full glory. ‘Heaven Knows’ was always a prime finale candidate and it duly rocked as the filling in a three song sandwich encore. In giving a nod to their past and present influences, the girls interpreted the work of others on two contrasting occasions. Their recent liaison with Jack White in his Nashville studio led to a cover of ‘Love Interruption’, thus providing the evening’s rock induced moment with Melvin ditching the pedal steel for more conventional electric guitar. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ was given the First Aid Kit treatment in the encore as the sisters recalled the time they sang the song in front of Paul Simon in Stockholm.

Few present would argue about the show’s golden moment as Johanna and Klara bravely came to the front of the stage and delivered a stunning unplugged version of ‘Ghost Town’ to the respectful audience. This proved to be the only tune lifted from their debut album THE BLACK AND THE BLUE but it held its place against the more popular material that has evolved since First Aid Kit spread their wings far and wide. As the Swedish sisters go from strength to strength, they gave an opportunity for a UK artist at the outset of her career to open the shows on this current tour. Bringing her eclectic style from Croydon to the stage of Birmingham’s most prestigious venue was a long journey for Kimberly Anne but she enthusiastically grabbed her thirty minute limelight opportunity to share the breadth of her undoubted musical talent.

The bar for the 2015 gig year has been set high by this eagerly anticipated First Aid Kit show which failed to disappoint. Though still young in years, the acclaimed Soderberg sisters have created a distinctive sound that resonates right across the music spectrum with the mouth-watering prospect of much more still to come. Right now, First Aid Kit make music the right way and long may that continue especially with the pedal steel guitar being king.