Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Lewis & Leigh - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 13th February 2017

Literally a few days after one transatlantic music event in Birmingham finished, another took place on a much smaller scale with this evening’s gig at the Kitchen Garden CafĂ©. Only last Thursday the city’s Symphony Hall duly hosted a fine bunch of musicians spanning the breadth of the British Isles and the United States. This evening it was the turn of Mississippi native Alva Leigh and Welshman Al Lewis to cement the special relationship with a musical presentation in the guise of their award winning duo act, Lewis & Leigh.  

The other link between this evening’s sold out gig and the Symphony Hall was the latter’s role in boosting the duo’s profile in the city when they supported Deacon Blue there a couple of months ago. Without doubt a few folks were inspired to attend on the evidence from that evening, while further impetus was gained when news spread of their double award win at the recent UK Americana celebration. One of these accolades was for their debut full length album and the entirety of GHOST had a full airing during this show which formed part of a current UK tour.

Prior to Lewis & Leigh taking their place in the spotlight, local singer-songwriter Chris Cleverley grasped another opportunity to raise his status as one of the region’s emerging folk artists. He played an engrossing extended opening set sharing an ingrained passion for music of a considerable depth. A range of songs covering the traditional, cover, new arrangement and original angles kept an attentive audience transfixed, aided and abetted by an intrinsic finger picking style. The intensity only occasionally dipped, mainly with an entertaining tale of failed debauchery, but it was amongst these tense moments where the set peaked with the song ‘But Thinking Makes It So’. This was a result of Chris’s involvement with the Company of Players project, established to honour the recent Shakespeare anniversary. The song was inspired by the Bard’s take on mental health and whets the appetite for what other songs came out of this project to view England’s literary heritage through the eyes, ears and minds of a bunch of this country’s brightest young folk music talent.

While it is relatively straightforward to capture the style of Chris, Lewis & Leigh tend to be a little introspective in the way they project their music. The most redeeming feature is the vocal harmony and the way both voices interchange within the song. This initially came to prominence in ‘What is There To Do’, credited now as the first Lewis & Leigh song and to be found on their inaugural EP recording NIGHT DRIVES. We were reminded that the third anniversary of Lewis & Leigh as an official duo had just passed and it has definitely been an upwardly mobile trajectory of accrued praise for the pair.

Musically, via Alva’s keyboards and Al’s guitar, the sound adopts a low key approach with only a fractional deviation into upbeat territory. Even a cover of The Smiths’ classic album track ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ gets the first gear treatment. Ironically the opening phrase of this song title was lifted for the lead off track from the new album, with ‘There is a Light’ and its follow up piece ‘Rubble’ neatly fitting into the early stages of the set. These proved to be highlights of a time on stage that just edged over the hour mark.

Throughout the performance, the Kitchen Garden audience was in their usual impeccable listening mode; an essential state to enjoy the essence of Lewis & Leigh. This environment of placidity was kept intact right up to the point when the evening was signed off with ‘The 4:19’, fast becoming the duo’s signature song, more so in the light of its recently acquired award winning status.

There is an element of simplistic sophistication around the sound of Lewis & Leigh which suggests the duo have a keen ear on making songs with the potential to possess an ever widening appeal. This will continue to serve them well as emerging opportunities to advance their career will inevitably appear. A sold out Birmingham audience fully appreciated the talent on show and the fit between artist and venue would be tough to better with many other combinations. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Turnpike Troubadours + Robert Vincent Band - Thekla, Bristol. Friday 10th February 2017

They came from west of the Mississippi where the music starts to get as rugged as the impending landscape and a little more outlaw in outlook. To be more precise, Oklahoma is the home state of the Turnpike Troubadours, but for one evening only the roaming nature of their surname landed in the hull of a ship in the west of England. This six piece outfit have no doubt played many interesting venues in their decade-long existence. Now they can add the Thekla, surely not just one of Bristol’s quirkiest venues but that of the whole UK, to a comprehensive list of places to reverberate to their raucous sound.

By stretching the increasingly common weekend 10 PM live music curfew to it absolute limit, Evan Felker and his merry band of compulsive rockers ensured the Turnpike Troubadours lived up to every ounce of their projected proclamation as a treasured live act. Whatever follows these music curfews up and down the land, it cannot come close to what early bird revellers experience when bands like this hit town.

An encouragingly impressive turnout greeted the headliners who have the stage drive and passion to convert a rare European excursion into a regular part of their touring empire. Mixing country music in its purest form with the raw energy of punk propels the Turnpike Troubadours into a powerful live outfit, ready to blast any venue with the glorious edge of a rough diamond. For a riveting ninety minutes, the holy rocking sextet of fiddle, steel, bass, lead, acoustic and drums drove song after song to a multitude of differing beats and accelerator settings, all in the true style of American roots.

Prior to the touring boys strutting the stuff, early arrivals were greeted by some home grown talent in the shape of the Robert Vincent Band. Armed with songs from his brand new album, Robert has grasped the opportunity to support Evan and the guys on these UK dates and provides the perfect foil. Operating at a pace a few notches down from the Turnpike Troubadours, little time was wasted in delivering a selection of the new songs. These were from more of a traditional rock angle tinged with a sensibility that takes the sound into introspective territory. There is an obvious transatlantic influence that puts Robert into the mist of Americana, while feel free to challenge the sad song agenda at your peril.

The full band format gives Robert’s songs a more rounded live airing which suits efforts such as ‘So in Love’, ‘November’ and ‘Dancing with Devils’. Those familiar with his music will no doubt be aware of his signature song ‘Demons’, the usual set closer and sounding just as good this evening as the previous time he was caught live in this format, at Maverick Festival last July.

There was an enhanced buzz around the ship when the headliners appeared especially among an enthusiastic gathering at the front of the stage ready to embrace each note and word from their favourites. The range of material was evenly distributed between the latest three studio albums including the self-titled one released to critical acclaim in 2015. One of the prime songs from that record also excelled in the live arena with the line ‘you can have a nickel out of my last dime’ heralding a smile each time you listen to ‘Down Here’.

Going back an album further, ‘Gun, Smoke’ Lies’ was probably the pick from 2012’s GOODBYE NORMAL STREET with other songs like ‘Morgan Street’ and ‘Blue Star’ featuring early in the set as the band were hitting their straps. While the word ‘loud’ was a representative feature, pedal steel and fiddle had sufficient space to prosper. The fixated and absorbing presence of Evan Felker as lead vocalist and band focal point grew as the show progressed. The results were exceptional when he commandeered the solo spotlight on the odd moment, with ‘Diamonds and Gasoline’ proving a show highlight. This was the title track of the band’s 2010 album with ‘1968’ and a version of ‘Long Hot Summer’s Day’ lifted from that record proving vociferous crowd pleasers. On another occasion where the band explored the song writing world of others, bassist R.C. Edwards took over lead vocals to sing a song introduced as ‘one taught in Oklahoma kindergartens without the communist bits’. The relevance of ‘This Land is Your Land’ rises with each passing day of 2017.

Up to now, getting into the Turnpike Troubadours has been largely through their recorded material, but this appreciation has doubled with the live exposure. There may have even been a number of casual converts through this UK tour who took a gamble on the band’s reputation and were handsomely paid back. For these and seasoned fans alike, they all witnessed a full on display of raucous outlaw country music, held together by a strong song writing spine and blossoming in an ideal Friday night setting. Long may the Turnpike Troubadours keep the UK on their tour horizon. 


Friday, 10 February 2017

Transatlantic Sessions - Birmingham Symphony Hall. Thursday 9th February 2017

Tift Merritt 
A recurring thought during this show was how incredible and blessed each guest artist must feel with an extensive backing band of this stature playing on their songs. Probably the most redeeming feature of the annual touring Transatlantic Sessions show is the collaborative excellence, and once again this was on full show as the extravaganza returned to Birmingham. From a personal perspective it was the case of a fresh renewal after missing last year’s show following a run of four straight years. No significant changes affected the core of the presentation, other than an opportunity to see three outstanding American guest performers adding their own distinct styles to the show.

The sum of the parts will always prevail in the Transatlantic Sessions and for me the wonderful highlight of the evening was a full accompaniment celebrating the life of the late Guy Clark with a moving rendition of his classic cut ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’. At this moment all five special guests – Tift Merritt, Jim Lauderdale and John Paul White plus this year’s British Isles invitees Eddi Reader and Karan Casey – converged at the focal point of the stage to pay the most fitting tribute to a wonderful songwriter.

Depending on your preferred access point into roots music, the intrinsic highlights may differ, but there was rarely a misplaced moment of musical marvel. Whether it’s the fired up fiddle faction of John McCusker and Aly Bain or the twang-led input courtesy of Jerry Douglas and his band of compatriots, the elaborate Symphony Hall was awash with the sound that has bound the roots fraternity of both lands together over at least a couple of hundred years. For me the Dobro of Douglas is the key pivotal sound, probably adding an adhesive edge to a majority of the songs forming this year’s set.

Jim Lauderdale
Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a brand new album out right in the middle of your Transatlantic Sessions guest appearance. During her four songs in the spotlight, Tift Merritt took the opportunity to share some of her new record STITCH OF THE WORLD. While the new songs will take a time to bed in, there was a stunning reminder of her outstanding back catalogue, with the delivery of the soulful ‘Good Hearted Man’ on piano proving the pick of the quartet. Jim Lauderdale was the other artist with a record hot off the press. LONDON SOUTHERN is a very quick follow up to Jim’s 2016 album and is set to maintain the momentum of this highly esteemed stalwart of the Americana scene. However like Tift, it was one of his older tunes which stole the moment with ‘Headed for the Hills’ probably surfacing as the most crowd pleasing song of the evening.

In contrast, John Paul White’s latest record is around six months old, but BEULAH was the long awaited post-The Civil Wars release from an artist who admitted he had rather enjoyed an extended time away from the spotlight at home in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The good news for his fans is that the hiatus didn’t become permanent and the swampy sound that emanates from this new set of songs was an essential part of the aura that circulated around this pristine environment. ‘I’ve Been Over This Before’ was the pick of John Paul’s twin-song sets complete with a backing vocal trio of the highest order. In line with the tribute angle to this show, John Paul paid his own respects to Ray Price with a delightful version of ‘Crazy Arms and Heartaches’ complete with the atmospheric tones of accompanied pedal steel giving the proceedings a very country flavour.

John Paul White
At this point it’s pertinent to also add that Jim celebrated the work of Ralph Stanley with a gospel number, another legend who has recently departed. On the other hand, Willie Nelson keeps going on and hopefully his current bout of missed shows through illness doesn’t escalate. Therefore Scottish singer Eddie Reader’s version of Willie's ‘Back to Earth’ was a tribute to a living legend and ranked highly alongside another of her offerings, this time a little closer to home with a nod to Rabbie Burns. Eddie has been a regular contributor to the Transatlantic Sessions over the years and her appearances are always greeted with enthusiasm for this much loved performer on the Scottish and wider UK folk music scene. 

Joining Eddie as the home representative (providing you view music as ignoring boundaries and borders) was Karen Casey from Waterford who like Tift utilised the piano well for a couple of her songs. This ensured there is always a Celtic element to the touring show. Although regular contributor John Doyle is always there to help a hand in this quarter and duly stepped forward from his backing role to sing one song.

Not quite, but nearly a regular to the touring show is American banjo/guitar player and vocalist Dirk Powell. He was invited a couple of times to share a song. ‘Waterbound’ was recalled from seeing him on this very stage a couple of years ago and ‘Motherless Children’ ensured that no serious music show is devoid of relevant political content in 2017. Dirks' partner for the evening on the US side lines was the ever present Russ Barenberg on guitar and mandolin.

Any reflection of a Transatlantic Session show would be remiss without acknowledging the contribution from this stellar assembly of gifted musicians. Joining Aly and the two Johns from the home ranks were regulars: Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, Donald Shaw, Danny Thompson and James Mackintosh. A packed Symphony Hall suggested the thirst for this regular early February post- Celtic Connections gathering shows no signs of abating. As long as the commitment of Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas to mastermind and co-ordinate the project remains, the infinite list of willing guests will ensure this event continues to flourish within the established format.  

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Amanda Rheaume - St.George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 3rd February 2017

Canadian artist Amanda Rheaume was in a buoyant mood as she played the penultimate date of her current UK tour at a packed St. George’s Hall in Bewdley. The aptly named Severn Sessions is fast putting this North Worcestershire riverside town on the music map for touring artists of a country and roots persuasion. Amanda was the latest invitee and determined to ensure the locals had a memorable evening, with her vibrant style of music straddling the country-folk-pop point of genre convergence. The turnout is beginning to attract out of towners as well, as word gets around that artists of Amanda’s level of accomplishment continue to raise spirits on this monthly Friday evening gathering.

For this latest leg of Amanda’s European excursions, a trio format is in tow with Anders Drerup (electric guitar/pedal steel guitar) and Anna Ruddick (bass) providing a valuable role in ensuring the recorded material gets the best possible live treatment. Songs stretching back across her three studio albums formed the set list accompanied by a couple of distinguished covers sharing the breadth of Amanda’s undoubted influences.

The success of the evening revolved around the strength of the songs and the precision execution which saw Anders playing-expertise showering a radiant glow on Amanda’s bold mission of sharing her music. Straight from the opening bars of ‘Get to the Part’ from the latest album HOLDING PATTERNS, a soaring standard of engaging professionalism was displayed and refused to yield until the closing cover of Stevie Nicks’ ‘Landslide’ was concluded. Whilst in more recent times Natalie Maines has put her own stamp on this song, Amanda’s version, with the able vocal assistance of Anna, ensured every inch of its elegance was intact.

The current sound of Amanda is more focussed on the country pop tinge with the pedal steel proving an addition to the last time she was witnessed live. This was on the very first UK tour back in 2014 when her previous album KEEP A FIRE was heavily featured in the set. Songs from that release were kept to a minimum this time, but it was an absolute pleasure to hear a personal favourite in ‘Passed Down the Line’ make the cut. Going back even further in time, ‘Better Days Ahead’ from the 2011 album LIGHT OF ANOTHER DAY proved to be one of the show’s  livelier numbers, aided and abetted by audience participation which needed little Friday evening encouragement.

As earlier mentioned, Amanda has a recent album to feed a majority of the set list from and the band did a sterling job in ensuring they had a substantial airing. Amanda was in her usual communicative mood to ensure the audience were well informed with many song inspirations. By the end of the evening songs from the record such as ‘Red Dress’, ‘The Day the Mountain Fell’, and ‘Dead Horse’ left much more of an impression than just a fine tune.

As with an ever increasing bunch of fellow Canadian artists of a similar ilk, Amanda’s prime strength lies within her song writing capabilities and perhaps the subliminal message from covering the John Prine classic ‘Angel From Montgomery’ is that she is prepared to learn from the best. Of course an effervescent stage persona helps communicate the music which is maybe a more vital component when taking original music into community settings. Regardless of Amanda’s considerable strengths, the rapturous reception given at the end sealed the approval and demonstrated a good time was had by all.

Aligned with the community nature of this Severn Sessions series of shows, a youth act in the guise of local school girls, Grace Winterburn and Abby Foxall under the name Melody Blue and rock blues trio, the Mark Leedham Band, provided the support for Amanda. This continues to ensure that enhanced focus remains on the Bewdley music scene and goes a long way to help establish a viable structure for artists such as Amanda Rheaume to successfully play their music thousands of miles from home.

Over the last few years, Amanda has put in a considerable amount of leg work in realising an ambition of making her career a success overseas. Having first come across her music at the outset of this adventure, it is refreshing to see a thriving performer. Canadian artists like Amanda Rheaume have a valuable role in exporting their art to broaden the horizon of music lovers around the world. Few folks in Bewdley would disagree after witnessing this performance.


Friday, 3 February 2017

Darlingside - The Glee Club, Birmingam. Tuesday 31st January 2017

The tastemakers have been in overdrive lately proclaiming the talents of American folk band Darlingside. Over in the UK, a widely praised performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year set the tongues wagging, and bringing things right up to date, involvement with the Celtic Connections event has coincided with a wider tour of venues around the country. What cannot be disputed is the ear of the tastemakers as the exquisite harmonies, impeccable timing and intrinsic musicianship were on full display as this four-piece combo called into Birmingham’s Glee Club.

The venue’s main room hosted Darlingside on their first visit to the city and while far from full to its capacity, an orderly layout housed a decent midweek turnout. Observing the audience’s response revealed an enthusiastic gathering, many of whom were familiar with the music and savouring the opportunity to listen to the music in a semi-intimate setting.

Prior to the main attraction taking to the stage, fellow Boston based artist Dietrich Strause served up an aperitif of compactly delivered middle line American folk music with a keen ear on Greenwich Village revivalist tendencies. This was not Dietrich’s first visit to the city as he supported UK artists’ Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker at the Red Lion Folk Club in the latter part of last year. Like then, he delivered a highly palatable performance. Although he is the proud curator of a new album, the most striking song of his set came from an older release. ‘Jean Louise’ was the title of the track and who can resist a cleverly constructed number on a To Kill A Mockingbird theme.

In the style of many contemporary retro sounding acts, Darlingside choose the single microphone amplification which involves a twisted degree of shuffling especially when the vocals continually switch between the four members. Don Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji, Harris Paseltiner and David Senft are the constitutional parts of the band; the personification of a rolling first among equals. 

Instrumentally, soft electric guitar does play a part but it is the acoustic vibes of mandolin, violin, cello and acoustic guitar that define the sound. However this does play second fiddle to the vocal construction which is the overall explicit feature of being exposed to the music of Darlingside.
Thinking along the lines of Simon and Garfunkel with a touch of Crosby Stills and Nash will lead you into the vocal sonic room of Darlingside. Of course this heavy slant on a lighter vocal sound will need some adjusting to if you like things on a rougher more rounded scale, but there is no escaping that Darlingside exploit their style rather well.

From an outsider’s perspective this show was as much about experiencing the musical ambience of Darlingside rather than the micro detail, hence a patchy recollection of song titles and general themes. They can be explored fuller in their latest album BIRDS SAY of which the instantly memorably titled ‘Harrison Ford’ obviously stood out. A more recent EP, WHIPPOORWIL also lingered in the memory with the song ‘Fourth of July’ held back for the encore and upholding the theory of saving the best ‘til last.

Darlingside have the talent potential to scale almighty heights in the music world and not be shackled by genre convention. Their style has reached this level before and the same could happen again. Maybe an evening in Birmingham on the last day of January will be looked back on as one which housed a band destined for greater things. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Most Ugly Child - Copper and Lace :Self-Released

There’s no holding back East Midlands country roots band The Most Ugly Child as they power their way through a debut album of promising stature. COPPER AND LACE unravels itself as twelve enterprising tracks frequently varying in tempo but rarely deviating from full-on mode. The brainchild of Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison, this six-piece combo have accumulated the sum of their parts to show that home grown honky tonk can flourish with the right intent. 

Despite the obvious temptation to call on some great traditional country tunes, the band have bravely opted to almost entirely go down the original's route with the only popular cover being a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’. To the credit of Daniel and Stevie’s individual writing, it is their compositions which give the album a mighty push in the direction of demanding serious attention.

Ironically it is a song written by a fellow purveyor of contemporary British honky tonk music in Daniel Meade which kicks the album off in a rousing style. ‘What Might Have Been’ lingers around as one of the leading tracks and the duet vocal style of Daniel and Stevie are reminiscent of the songs emanating from the My Darling Clementine project.  As you would expect from this type of music, fiddle, pedal steel and the general acoustic sound rules the roost and the whole team in The Most Ugly Child set up have played a part in making this an appealing album to sit back and enjoy.

After a couple of up tempo numbers to get you into a foot tapping mood, the beat slides down the scale as the ballads take over. The first of these, ‘Roses’ possesses a Celtic feel to the impression it leaves, linking the musical amalgamation of the old and new world. As the album gathers momentum we hit the ubiquitous drinking, marital breakdown and general songs on the side of melancholy. ‘Long Gone Woman Blues’, ‘The Bottle & the Fall’ and ‘Just Another Lesson in Pain’ leave little to the imagination.

While the pace of appreciation is maintained throughout the record’s duration, a couple of gems are kept under wraps until the final two slots, as the overall high value of the release is affirmed. ‘Queen of the Honky Tonk’ takes you on a thoughtful journey reflecting well Daniel’s writing style leaving a cracking song in its midst. By ending on a note of originality in the wonderfully sentimental ‘My Pony’, the band has crowned the proceedings with a slice of commendable song writing.

Whether tackling the duets, solo vocal pieces, upbeat and slower songs, an explicit sound fires up the record and the general straightforward approach adopted is free of nuance and subtlety. COPPER AND LACE is entirely accessible and adds a vital component to the band promoting their unassuming style which without doubt would be highly energetic in a live environment. The Most Ugly Child will probably find a welcoming home in the hearts of folks susceptible to an intoxicating dose of traditional country music, with the UK’s Americana circuit being a likely destination. One certainty is those that seek out this record will be richly rewarded. 


Curtis Grimes - Undeniably Country : LonelyRiver/Independent

Having had its US release at the back end of 2016, UNDENIABLY COUNTRY by Curtis Grimes is getting aimed at the UK market in the midst of interesting times. This eight track mini album needs no clues in its direction and sets out a stall of dogged determination. In 2017 the UK market is increasingly split between new country pop and progressive Americana, quite often leaving the straight down the middle explicitness of 90s mainstream country struggling to find a voice.

You don’t have to look too far from the title to infer that Grimes is pushing to be a mouth piece for such a voice and there is no holding back on the values he holds dear. These lean heavily on the traditional side of the genre, but rather than telling stories, the lyrics set out to re-affirm a culture, stance and way of life. Familiarities with the staple content of country songs when Jackson and Strait ruled the roost are aplenty on this record, as is a desirable soundtrack awash with lashings of fiddle and steel. On several occasions the modern mainstream is earmarked as enemy number one especially on the cleverly composed ‘Ten Year Town’.

Grimes leaves you in no doubt where he stands on the subject of religion, a massive appreciation of Hank Williams and a traditional well documented song writing view of living in the South. Maybe such an approach leaves the content open to criticism outside its core, but all the songs are heartfelt, incredibly well-composed and capture a magical sound that makes country music an idealist appeal around the world.

Curtis Grimes has been described as a Lone Star troubadour to reflect his Texas base and calling. You can also imagine these songs flourishing in live environments around the small town settlements across his homeland. The aura of this analogy transfers to the recorded format leaving a potential interaction with an overseas country music fan base that perhaps yearns for a simpler sound reflecting past associations. 

UNDENIABLY COUNTRY opens the door to a pondering moment for distant nostalgia and totally frames a soundtrack heavily responsible for seducing fans far and wide.