Sunday, 18 March 2012

Rachel Harrington and the Knockouts Courtyard Arts Centre Hereford Thursday 15 March 2012

Rachel Harrington has toured the UK and Europe extensively over the last few years, mainly promoting her brand of country folk alongside a co-performer. On one such tour she was accompanied by ex-Lindesfarne UK folk legend Rod Clements and on a couple of occasions by fellow Pacific North West resident Zak Borden. However in 2012, Rachel has taken a different stance by developing a project based around a four piece all girl honky tonk band to hone in on her core musical love of traditional old time country music. This has led to the creation of Rachel Harrington and the Knockouts and they look set to meet the approval of the dedicated fan base that frequent the live venues up and down the country which actively promote touring US musicians from the Americana genre.

On the third night of the UK leg of this tour, the girls were delighted to be greeted by a sold out sign at the plush Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford. Over the next two and a quarter hours, the audience were treated to a comprehensive show where Rachel impressively fused a showcase of their new album with some of the familiar songs from her three previous full length releases. Apart from a couple of her older number which Rachel performed solo, the stage presence of percussionist Aimee Tubbs, bassist Moe Provencher and fiddle player Alisa Milner added considerable value to a varied set of old and new songs. The new songs all came from the recently recorded Knockouts self titled CD while the others were a mix of covers and ones from Rachel’s solo back catalogue.

In line with the all girl nature of the collaboration, it was no surprise for the cover songs to be chosen from the work of some of the legendary female country performers. Patsy Cline’s ‘Turn the Cards Slowly’, Kitty Wells’ ‘Honky Tonk Angel’ and Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City’ were all celebrated by the Knockouts, with the latter seeing Rachel stand aside and let Aimee Tubbs take lead vocal. All the girls unashamedly professed their adulation to Loretta Lynn and her influence was very much heard on the material from the new album. ‘Makin’ Our House A Honky Tonk’, ‘Love Him Or Leave Him to Me’ and ‘Wedding Ring Vacation’ could all have easily been lifted from an era where the pioneering women began to make their mark in country music. Another memorable number from the all originally penned new record was the slightly tongue in cheek ‘Hippie In My House’ which raised a smile from the appreciative audience.

When delving into her back catalogue Rachel chose a mix of songs where the Knockouts sound enhanced their delivery, especially ‘You’ll Do’ and the re-titled ‘Moonshine Boy’ while some of the more thought provoking numbers such as ‘Goodbye Amsterdam’ and ‘Building A Mansion’ were played solo. The latter recently gave her national recognition in songwriter circles with an award nomination and invitation to play at the renowned Merlefest in North Carolina.

As with her previous UK shows, Rachel chose to end the evening with the gospel tune ‘I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted’ which in true country tradition was sung with all four girls off mic, assisted only by Alisa’s fiddle and the audience being invited to help with the chorus line. This was the perfect end to what was probably the best Rachel Harrington produced show to date and a hope that this collaboration isn’t confined to a solitary album and tour.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Civil Wars HMV Institute Birmingham Tuesday 13 March 2012

It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for Nashville based duo, The Civil Wars culminating with a couple of Grammy Awards at the recent prestigious U.S. music ceremony. This success and critical industry acclaim has certainly generated an element of hype that the duo are about to attempt to live up to on their current inaugural headline UK tour. Ticket sales have been going really well for the band, championed by Bob Harris on his national country music show, and now was the opportunity for the UK live audience to give their verdict.

The historic Digbeth Civic Hall in Birmingham was the venue for the opening main show of the tour, a place now better known in music and commercial circles as the HMV Institute. The show had been upgraded from the 600 capacity Library to the main auditorium and this cramped hall was full to the rafters by the time Joy Williams and John Paul White came on stage around 9.00.

The band may have only a solitary album to their name and no new songs to showcase, but over the next hour and a quarter, aided by a couple of exceptional covers, they truly captivated the crowd with their spine tingling harmonies. The HMV Institute may be used to a more raucous sound from the normal indie performers but on this evening there was an utmost silent respect during the songs delivered by just one acoustic guitar and two incredible vocalists. It wasn’t all silence though as the mixed age group crowd really hollered their approval after each number.

The set list from the couple was relatively simple as they journeyed through the tracks off their ‘Barton Hollow’ album. It was no surprise that the most promoted songs, the title track and ‘20 Years’ got the best reception. Each track from the album was executed sublimely especially when both Joy and John gradually slipped their vocals to and fro the mic. The only break from John’s excellent guitar playing was on ‘C’est La Mort’ when Joy displayed her keyboard skills. Apart from the two most popular songs, the best album track of the night was the country waltz inspired ‘Forget Me Not’, an enjoyable tune elevated to new heights on the stage. Another memorable song on the evening was ‘From this Valley’, a number not on ‘Barton Hollow’ but sure to feature on future recordings.

The inevitable encore saw the duo delve into their covers repertoire and fans who have followed their career online so far were not surprised to see the performances of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’. Both covers did their originals proud with the former becoming a You Tube phenomena with an extraordinary amount of hits.

The band are due to continue their short UK and Ireland tour with a number of sold out gigs before taking a summer break for Joy’s other challenge of bringing a child into the world. However following the recent UK release of ‘Barton Hollow’, they are scheduled to return to the UK in the autumn and it’s looking likely that their Midlands date on this tour, Warwick Arts Centre, is due to sell out months in advance.

UK rising ‘new folk’ stars Matthew and the Atlas, from the Mumford and Sons stable, adequately opened the show but they were only ever going to be a warm up for The Civil Wars bandwagon that continues to justify the hype.

Photo courtesy of William Kates.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Gretchen Peters Robin 2 Bilston Wednesday 7th March 2012

By her own admission the success of her current album ‘Hello Cruel World’ has taken Gretchen Peters aback especially as there has been numerous other studio ones since the outset of her recording career in the mid 90’s. To celebrate the critical acclaim that the album is getting, she is making it the centre piece of her current extensive UK tour by playing the eleven track collection of fine songs in their entirety. Therefore the sizeable Robin 2 crowd were treated to a more different than usual Gretchen Peters show that left room for only a handful of the popular songs that had helped her forge a loyal UK following over the last decade. However the reaction the new songs got from the audience suggested a full appreciation of the whole ‘Hello Cruel World’ project and the acknowledgement that this is probably a career defining record.

As with her previous solo promoted show at the Robin 2, Gretchen was accompanied by her husband Barry Walsh, whose keyboard and accordion skills are becoming an integral part of the Gretchen Peters experience. For this tour the duo are transformed into a trio with the highly talented Canadian session musician, Christine Bougie adding her multi instrumental rhythm skills to the mix. In particular the lap steel gave an atmospheric edge to the conventional sound of acoustic guitar and keyboard.

The unusual feature of this show was its highly structured nature as Gretchen elected to play the songs in album order, a feature becoming more popular in the UK as bands tour to celebrate anniversaries of iconic albums. To those already familiar with the album, it created a slightly predictable experience but on the positive side it was a wonderful opportunity to soak up the intimacies and subtleties of the record, all supplemented by informative dialogue accompanying many of the tracks. It is not unusual to have a song’s listening experience enhanced by a live version and in this particular show, ‘Five Minutes’ and ‘Little World’ fell into that category, thus elevating a fine album into an almost complete one. Although ‘Woman on the Wheel’, The Matador’ and ‘Dark Angel’ will always remain the stand out tracks.

After ‘Little World’ brought the album to a close, Gretchen handed over the reins to Barry and Christine as they performed an instrumental from his ‘Paradiso’ album titled ‘Koblenz’. The immediate return of Gretchen to the stage left only a short period of time to play some old songs and on this occasion she chose ‘Secret of Life’, ‘Guadalupe’, ‘To Say Goodbye’ and the highly popular show closer ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’. Although it was a little disappointing that ‘Independence Day’ gave way to an impromptu tribute to the late Davy Jones with a cover of ‘Last Train to Clarkesville'.

Gretchen has split the support duties on this tour and the Bilston show benefitted from a lively country oriented opening slot from Canadian singer-song writer Lynne Hanson. However this night was all about ‘Hello Cruel World’ and the obvious positive impression it left on the audience.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Kim Richey Birmingham Glee Club Thursday 1st March 2012

It has been a number of years since Kim Richey experienced the trappings of a music career backed by a major label, and the ensuing hit records, but she seems perfectly settled in the relaxed environment of playing solo in small venues. The Studio room in Birmingham’s Glee Club provided an intimate setting for Kim to open her current UK tour and over the duration of her hour and a quarter set she delivered an accomplished performance to an audience almost packed to its small capacity.

Studio albums have been a touch thin over the last ten years for Kim but the two opening songs of the evening reminded the audience of her two most recent releases. Both songs were the albums’ title tracks, starting off with ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ and followed by ‘Chinese Boxes’. Despite opening with these relatively recent numbers, Kim tended to delve into her back catalogue for a majority of the songs which was a little disappointing, mainly due to the plethora of excellent tunes on the ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ album. However this was only a minor criticism as there were plenty of quality older songs performed and well received by those present.

Due to it being the first night of the tour and the usual effects of jet lag, especially after a journey from Australia briefly touching down in the States, Kim took a few songs to get into the rhythm. Although by the time old favourites like ‘I’m Alright’ and ‘Come Around’ were sung, any negative effects of the travel were completely shaken off. Probably the best song of the main set was the popular number ‘Those Words We Said’ from her self- titled debut release in 1996. A song covered and performed regularly in the UK by Eve Selis. Many of Kim’s songs were in true singer-song writer tradition interwoven with tales of being a travelling musician. One in particular recounted an entertaining evening playing to a group of cowboy and indian enthusiasts, half way up a mountain in Switzerland.

The evening was brought to a close with her version of the classic Kris Kristofferson song ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ preceded by a story of how this choice emanated from the pressure of delivering a country classic at the Grand Ole Opry. To her credit it was a very moving version and, whilst still being on the fringes of the country movement, proved she can easily hold her own in the genre, should she desire.

Having seen Kim previously perform at the Maverick Festival a couple of years ago, it was good to get more exposure to her, even though a few more songs off ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ would have rounded the evening as would have a little less guitar from the venue’s sound system which slightly distorted some of the louder numbers. This was not a problem for the evening’s support act; a singer-song writer from Scotland named Yvonne Lyon. Her mellow folk oriented tunes delivered from a piano and acoustic guitar set the scene for the evening perfectly as well as her confident banter with the audience. This was despite being involved in a road accident on her way down to Birmingham from Scotland that very day. However in a true entertainer’s spirit – the show still went on.