Friday, 15 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jason Ringenberg - Stand Tall : Courageous Chicken Music (Out in the UK 15th March)

It may be closing in on forty years since Jason Ringenberg broke the seal on a charge to music fame, but fans, folks and insiders still lend an ear to the issuing of new material. That time is now upon us as STAND TALL signals the end of a major hiatus of solo recordings (bar the Farmer Jason output) and a lengthy period since a Scorchers name appeared on an album. Of course, the live presence of Jason and the Scorchers and the solo shows of Jason Ringenberg flicker on and off the horizon, with the latter getting a renewed focus in light of a record that sparkles with the old magic. ‘Godfather of Americana’ and ‘architect of cow punk’ never lose their relevance as the new album reasserts a stance that country music works well when given a makeover fuelled by the energy and passion of an alternative edge.

STAND TALL is a meaningful mix of originals, covers and classic re-works, all bound by a commission to seek inspiration in Sequoia National Park in northern California. From the opening strains of an instrumental under the banner of the album title to an obscure Dylan cover in the guise of ‘Farewell Angelina’, Ringenberg resonates with an attentive listener, blending the curious with the informative, while never losing sight of recording a good solid accessible song.

Early spins of this record led the listener in the direction of ‘God Bless The Ramones’ and subsequent plays refused to relinquish this track as being at least the most ear catching moment. We head back to the early eighties in more ways than one as Ringenberg recalls a moment when his Scorchers went on the road opening for The Ramones, deciding that you might as well make a song in the style of the subject. Splendid listening, more so if you have a soft spot for a bygone age.

Although a significant proportion of the new songs sprung up in the surroundings of the Californian residency, some had a more direct link to the environment such as the explicitly titled, ‘Here in the Sequoias’ and the follow on track ‘John Muir Stood Here’. Sequencing also plays a part in the album’s midriff as the story song ‘I’m Walking Home’ immediately follows a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’, the former written on the way to Bristol VA/TN and the second a product of the legendary recordings in this iconic country music town.

Early in the album (specifically bridging the opener and the Ramones stand out) sit a pair of tracks that demonstrates Ringenberg’s songwriting still at its sharpest. Both ‘Lookin’ Back Blues’ and ‘John the Baptist was a Real Humdinger’ inject a stimulus into the proceedings in a way that Jason Ringenberg has perfected for many a year. No matter how much rock ‘n’ roll figures in the sound, the country element remains steadfast, culminating in a style that flourishes with a hearty vigour.

To conclude a brief skirt around the eleven tracks, Ringenberg salutes the work of others on two more numbers. ‘Almost Enough’ is a jaunty rhythmic dip into the songwriting skills of Hugh Deneal, giving the album another song to both savour and get your teeth into. Wrapping things up is a version of a song Jean Shepherd put her mark on, and Jason Ringenberg also does justice to ‘Many Happy Hangover to You’.

There is barely a moment on STAND TALL where Jason Ringenberg makes a false move. The unique sound and style ensures no straying into the wastelands of irrelevance, and thus any desire to hark back too much to the halcyon days of Jason and the Scorchers. This album is a timely reminder to what a good artist we have in our midst. Expect no half measures when Jason Ringenberg is in recording mode and the fruits of this latest endeavour unveil as a highly enjoyable listen on many fronts.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Larkin Poe - Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 11th March 2019

Larkin Poe are a band seemingly existentially embedded into their blues- rock phase. This signifies a major shift since the Lovell sisters first came to prominence overseas and the subsequent early years of the Larkin Poe incarnation. The last time they toured significantly away from their US base the evolution was underway, with the KIN album turning the dial up in terms of sound. Since then, heady times have swept along Rebecca and Megan leading to the release of two heavily blues biased records and plenty of vivid association with many major names of the electrified guitar world. However, you can primarily appear online to fans overseas for only a limited period and retain interest, therefore the time is right for Larkin Poe to once again reach out and expand the live performances.

The Glee Club in Birmingham played host to the touring four-piece set up on the second date of a UK tour; a trip that will also take in continental Europe alongside plans to visit Australia and the Far East. The stature of Larkin Poe has grown to such an extent that 3-400 capacity venues are close to selling out. In turn, the sibling led outfit ensured that those choosing them for their live music fix had the treat of a scintillating display of blues infused roots rock ‘n’ roll.

Those already au fait with Larkin Poe will identify Rebecca as the guitar playing exuberant mouthpiece and Megan as the unassuming queen of the slide guitar. These roles were at the forefront of this evening’s show as the band stormed through a hundred minute set incorporating strong originals, classic covers and more than the occasional nod to the pioneers of blues. Most notably, those who helped take it into the mainstream.

It was an evening of serial namechecking, and blues aficionados are not going to disagree with referrals to Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Lead Belly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The latter was the subject of the show’s most pleasantly surprising moment when Rebecca introduced a brand new song in honour of the great man titled ‘Laurel Land’, in fact one played first time to a live audience and sounding rather good.

Extraordinary sibling chemistry was awash all evening through vocal harmonies, spine tingling co-ordinated solos and sincere chat. There was even a slight nod to their folk and bluegrass past when Rebecca swapped her guitar for a long-loved banjo to play a couple of tunes against a semi-rock background.

Vocally the band, especially Rebecca, seemed to have ascended to another level. Old classics like ‘Black Betty’, ‘Preachin’ Blues’, ‘John the Revelator’ and ‘Come on in My Kitchen’ were belted out with a resounding vigour. If you wanted any proof that these are proud Georgia girls putting their stamp on contemporary southern rock then look no further than ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, one of the tracks shared from their recent VENOM AND FAITH album.

The show was not all entirely about the current phase of Larkin Poe as the band dealt the popular older track ‘Mad as a Hatter’ in response to the important theme of recognised mental health issues, one close to them as a family. This was probably the one serious moment on the evening as the tone generally circulated in celebratory proportions on the back of finally playing again in front of fans in the UK, a country that has provided long-term support.

Opening the show this evening was a duo from Bristol called Foreign Affairs, who delivered a thirty-minute set that went down well with a sizable portion of the audience. They joined this tour straight from appearing at the Country-to-Country Festival in London. Opportunities will also present to widen their appeal when continuing to open for Larkin Poe on dates both at home and in Europe.

At the triumphant end, it was clear that Larkin Poe had duly enthralled a roomful of fans, likely old and new, ensuring that spending a Monday evening supporting live music is still kind of a rock ‘n’ roll thing to do. Rebecca and Megan Lovell proudly wear the badge of carrying the torch for American roots music and few would disagree that they carry it off in fine style. It was good to have them back touring the UK and while the future of this ever-evolving band is difficult to predict, the present is serving them well.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 6th March 2019

Eighteen months have elapsed since Angel Snow last played the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham and changes were very much at a finely tuned minimum as she returned to play one of the opening dates on her latest UK tour. On the upgrade side, last time’s solo performance grew into a duo as Angel teamed up with English guitarist Joe Wilkins to provide the perfect stringed accompaniment to her supremely crafted songs. Additionally, a set of new tunes began the journey from artist to listener as she introduced her latest record, an EP titled ARROWS. Whether Angel delivered her signature song, ‘Lie Awake’, from nearly a decade ago now, or brand new numbers like ‘Maze’ and ‘Window Seat’, the shear magnetic quality was unyielding and matching the magnitude of a blue chip blueprint.

On her previous visit, which doubled up on the touring front with Danish singer-songwriter Ida Wenoe, Angel split the guitar duties between acoustic and electric, with the latter contributing to the evening’s atmospheric ambience. This time Angel handed all the electric duties to Joe and his subtle excellence ensured each of the songs had a coating of the most mindful of soundtracks. Left to concentrate on acoustic guitar and generous inter-song chats, the vocals never sounded better using the combination of slight amplification and venue acoustics to induce a state of blissful serenity to those in listening distance.

Running through a set of songs dated old and new, highlights joining the aforementioned Angel Snow classic (for those uninitiated ‘Lie Awake’ was cut by Alison Krauss on her PAPER AIRPLANE album, but each rendition by the originator seals the ownership) included ‘I Need You’ and a mesmerising version of ‘Vienna’ just the before the closing moment came. Fact is the high quality plateau never lowered all set.  

One conundrum occurring each time Angel Snow plays a live show is why this Franklin resident (the one just south of Nashville) has not been more prolific on the recording front. In turn, she probably remains an untapped talent to a wider audience, a situation that contradicts the enormous impact she has on those aligned with the hypnotic vibes of her songs in full flow. However, fate follows certain paths and at least being able to savour these songs in intimate settings on what is becoming a regular basis is a blessing.

The notion of leaving the audience wanting more was perhaps taken a little to the extreme during this show with a playing time of sixty minutes (without a support) probably short by a quarter of an hour in the eyes of most people. The impeccable performance left the overall show in the credit column, but maybe some pondering thoughts generate when assessing the balance between content and customer investment, the latter in both cost and time.

These Angel Snow shows do rather tiptoe into the gig landscape, but the impact of the evening resonates in the aftermath. This Kitchen Garden return was a triumph of substance over hyperbole and those attending had the pleasure of a fixated musical experience.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Lucy Kitt - Stand By : Wineberry Records (Out on March 22nd)

Lucy Kitt is an Essex-based singer-songwriter who successfully finds the acoustic groove and sweet spot on this, her debut full-length album. Honing in on a classic country folk sound, brevity and simplicity are key drivers as she guides the listener through half an hour of diligently constructed engaging songs. Comparisons drawn from the golden age of West Coast folk rock music spring out from not just the basic sound but the profile and self-projected image panning out from the album cover. You feel you know what is going to transpire before the first track plays and STAND BY duly lives up to expectation on a number of fronts.

All ten tracks forming this album originate from the pen of Lucy and pose the standard musings that you have come to expect from songwriters digging deep into their inner self to extract the art of song. Like so many of her ilk, these songs are likely to come more to life in a live format where artist interpretation and inspiration forms an integral part of the show. It is likely that Lucy has played many gigs since she first picked up a guitar a few years ago and the boost of now having a significant record available for folks to take home will only reap positive rewards.

The challenge any acoustic record has is muscling in on your personal listening time when the intense competition of a wide world at your fingertips can crowd it out. There is a slow burning element to this album completely taking hold, but ever-escalating maturity embeds the strong appeal that draws from the succinct vibes. Perhaps the inclusion of a song with a killer chorus or melody could have provided greater impetus in enhancing its impact. However, not decrying what an album could have been and complimenting the positives carries this record over the line and one firmly placed in the credit column.

Four tracks worthy of a mention include rhythmic opener, and title piece, ‘Stand By’, which blends into the superb subsequent number ‘Said and Done' and stakes are raised a little later in the forceful song ‘Devil’s Luck’. The pinnacle moment on the record occurs deep in the second half when Lucy twists the notion of ‘Little Country Song’ to fire back a response.

From first chord to last, Lucy Kitt throws her heart and soul into STAND BY and relays proof that a condensed sound can evolve into a strong and commendable product when the right adjustments are applied. Touring the socks off this record, if practical, will provide extra sustainability, allowing it to resonate with country, folk, Americana and general acoustic music fans far from her South East base. This is an album worth taking a punt on if you get your kicks from music of this persuasion. Lucy Kitt has obliged with a fine record to keep the wheels of an iconic style rolling

Monday, 4 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly - Changeable Heart : Pure Records (Out March 15th)

Contemporary folk music is awash with recording duo acts, frequently spanning the gender configurations. Some of these are longstanding, while others pop up in a collaborative project. This crowded arena will have to make room for at least one more in 2019 as familiar names: Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly emerge as next off the rank to steer into this territory. These two talented performers have trodden very different paths in recent times, but the fate that has seen them team up could quite conceivably be one of the instinctive highlights of the calendar year. Their debut release CHANGEABLE HEART hits the market in mid-March ahead of live dates. Of course, the term debut suggests there may be more to come, and on the back of the quality of this album that would be welcome.

However, let us not race too ahead of ourselves, especially as Ruth Notman has been away from the recording scene for an extended period following a decision to pursue a medical career instead of singing professionally. Whatever her motives, the input given this album signals a timely return and plenty will welcome this renaissance. There is a vague recollection of seeing her play at the Big Sessions in Leicester over a decade ago, in the days where she emerged as a prodigious talent. A notion backed up by listening to her golden vocals shine brightly on this record.

In contrast, Sam Kelly has been a permanent feature of the folk scene for a number of years, cropping up in numerous formats, projects and recording outlets. Often his work has veered into the world of traditional song, to the extent that the 2017 album he recorded with his band The Lost Boys entirely lent in this direction. Therefore, it is of little surprise that material from these sources features prominently on the new record, although away from the bigger picture you are able to chunk the content into smaller compact packages.

It would be wrong to start any mini in-depth analysis of this album away from the two original pieces. The title track, ‘Changeable Heart’, co-written by Ruth and Sam, stands out as the record’s beacon, and sparkles as a good a standard duet as you are likely to hear in recent times. Adopting specific roles and perspectives, both voices merge from two into one to make this a worthy standout. The other original is one credited solely to Ruth, and ‘As You Find Your Way Home’ sees her vocals take full control.

At the back end of a record that succinctly does its job across thirty-seven minutes, there are two cover songs getting a modern makeover to reinforce the magnitude of their message. ‘School Days Over’ by folk legend Ewan MacColl is an evocative coming of age piece, with Ruth and Sam doing it justice on this record. Likewise, a version of Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’ freshens up the impact of a song that retains relevance even if locations change.

The remainder of this album rests on the work of that prolific writing credit, ‘traditional’. The two that strike a chord most here are the Ruth-led ‘Caw the Yowes’ and Sam vocally excelling on ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’. Closely following these include album opener ‘Bold Fisherman’ and mid-placed ‘My Lagan Love’, both finding their feet within the mood and tone of the record. While there will no doubt be many folklorists dissecting the versions curated, put in context of the Notman-Kelly arrangements few faults are found here, even if themes and styles of ‘The Cunning Cobbler’ and ‘Young Brian of the Sussex Wold’ do not really court much appeal in my listening sphere.

At the helm of this project is respected musician Damian O’Kane, widely known for his work with wife Kate Rusby. Inviting Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly into the realm of their operation has proved an astute decision, further sealed by the stature of CHANGEABLE HEART. Indisputably, an album that furthers careers regardless of their existing starting points, and one set to create a stir in the folk community as a minimum.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Cheley Tackett - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 1st March 2019

There may have been no clinking glasses, incessant chat and blending machines mixing margaritas, but Cheley Tackett accepted the challenge of the less than daunting and placid St. George’s Hall Bewdley instead of the more raucous venues frequented back home. Some American performers acknowledge a minor unease at the extreme politeness of many joints in the UK hosting touring artists, yet this was one Nashville guest delighted to grab the chance of spreading her music. Granted the opportunity to play shows over here with a helping hand on this occasion from compatriot musician Hannah Aldridge was an opportunity not to waste, and across a seventy-minute playing time those attending this latest Music in the Hall presentation learnt a lot more about Cheley Tackett: the songwriter, the performing artist and the person.

Any critique of her stage performance has to begin with one undeniable and underlying fact: Cheley Tackett is country music to the core. Not folk, nor Americana or non-descript singer-songwriter, but the epitome of somebody born to strap on a guitar and pour her guts into simple songs, taking the literal rather than metaphorical route. No more than twenty years ago or even less this artist would have a mainstream tag, but in these glistening excessive corporate times of molding female country artists into a model of Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, the ilk of Cheley Tackett are marginalised – give or take the odd Ashley McBryde breaking through.

The irony of the last name is that Cheley has worked with her in the recent past and she was namechecked during this show alongside others worked with, most notably Randall Clay. He and Cheley worked together on the unifying song ‘The Healer’, one of a select bunch of numbers shared with this Bewdley crowd, no doubt many listening to her for the first time.

Looking back at Cheley’s recording catalogue, releases span almost twenty years with a handful of songs heard this evening including ‘Sky is Falling’, ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ and ‘Fried Chicken’ dating back to a 2005 album. Bringing things up to date, songs from 2017’s BUCKEYE album (a suitable title for an Ohio native) proved popular choices with the aforementioned Clay co-write joined by tracks like ‘$2 Bill’, and two of the three standout moments from the set in the murder ballad ‘My Best Dress’ and the feel good pre-encore number ‘Magic Still Happens’.

The other highlight is a song that means a lot to LGBT activist Cheley Tackett with the ‘Right Side of History’, apart from being a proudly commissioned piece, still raising money for those young people from her community facing serious issues such as homelessness and discrimination. You get the impression that Cheley has had to fight hard to survive in the cutthroat world of Nashville, with the odds on many fronts stacked against her. However, you sense she is no shirker and a brazen confidence and steely persona give her songs a tough coating to transmit profoundly from feisty performer to receptive listener.

Opening the show this evening was the Ryan Sparrow Band, a local Midlands-based four-piece outfit erring on the side of experimental indie rock flushed with a dark moody persona. Ryan Sparrow was seen live playing solo a couple of years ago, but the addition of bass, drums and a rather impressive innovative lead guitarist took his act up several notches. The sound filling the hall from their set was maybe a little different to what regulars are used to on these evenings, and the polar opposite to the single acoustic guitar of the main act. Yet it went down well and spiced up a rounded evening of fine entertainment.

Finesse was probably one word not associated with Cheley Tackett, but we witnessed a thoroughly passionate heart-on-sleeve artist channeling every sinew of her talent into songs that tell the simple story of real life. This is how country music is best represented and artists like Cheley Tackett are worth more than any array of pseudo acts masquerading under a pretense of ‘three chords and the truth’. Music in the Hall took a chance in this booking; Cheley Tackett took a chance in venturing overseas and many audience members took a chance in offering up their Friday evening. All parties were handsomely rewarded.
"Right Side Of History" By Cheley Tackett

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Katie Spencer - Weather Beaten : Self-released (Out March 1st)

Greater minds than the average Joe have lauded the guitar playing skills of Katie Spencer, but you do not need to ascend to aficionado status to know that you are listening to something special. This applies to seeing her play live on an increasing number of dates that are beginning to grow as her star shines brighter on the folk and acoustic network, or at least listening on record. The latter is set to take off in new directions with the release of a debut full-Length album. WEATHER BEATEN is just the fillip Katie Spencer needs to broaden a horizon that is starting to branch out more from her Humberside base.

Previously, there was the GOOD MORNING SKY EP which started to open doors for Katie with its five tracks leaving the desired effect of the listener wanting more. Now the output has doubled, the promise moves a lot further down the road to fulfillment. From start to finish, the 38-minute playing time takes the listener on a mesmerising journey, while encapsulating them in a chilled out evocative zone. Choose the listening mode at your leisure, as this album gains traction whether you are on your daily commute or find a relaxing few moments when the rest of life can park up.

Katie Spencer largely comes across as a lone operator as this spills out from the ten tracks. Nine have their writing and arrangement credited to Katie on her own, with the tenth a solely arranged traditional song. The latter appears to be a local tale titled ‘Spencer the Rover’, mainly deduced from Yorkshire references in the words and not any family connection. There are three other musicians credited with working on the album, with the most prominent of these being occasional flute and clarinet interludes to break up the incessant, yet compulsive guitar input.

For those who like to absorb their minds in song lyrics, the musings of Katie will prompt many strands of head scratching thought. Extremely metaphorical and frequently pure poetry, interpretations to the listener can be quite abstract, but without doubt, inspirations and meaning will likely surface in the live setting. Some tracks are quite minimalist in their whole presentation such as opening number ‘Incense Skin’, while the most profound message found in her writing exists in ‘You Came Like a Hurricane’. This song has featured in her sets for a while and probably ranks alongside ‘Hello Sun’ as the two songs to spearhead the album, although this record is not necessarily a contest to pitch tracks ahead of one another. Either way, analysis of light and dark in the latter makes this personifying tilt an intriguing listen.

After many plays a light bulb moment occurred during album closer ‘The Hunter’, with serious thoughts turning to how much of this record sounds like Laura Marling at her transfixing best. Moody vocals blending with deft guitar playing resulting in a haunting mellowed haze easing from art creator to art receiver with very little in between.  The baton of Katie Spencer’s WEATHER BEATEN now passes to you.