Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Terri Clark - The Glee Club Birmingham Tuesday 26 June 2012

To borrow that much used cliché from our stateside cousins, there is one word which describes this Terri Clark solo acoustic gig – awesome. It was a little out of the blue when this short four-date inaugural UK tour was announced in February but for those who have followed Terri’s career from the heady days of Nashville stardom to her more recent mature independent direction this was not an opportunity to be missed. The Glee Club in Birmingham’s Arcadian Centre, with its smallish capacity of a couple of hundred, was the perfect venue for Terri to test the water of a live UK following and the intimacy of witnessing an’ A’ list country superstar was the privilege of those fortunate to be present. For well over an hour and a half, the colourful and charismatic Canadian (Albertan to be more in tune with her provincial pride) treated the audience to a wonderful country fuelled journey from the dreams of growing up in Medicine Hat through the early years of Nashville emergence right to the recent events of a parental loss and how she dealt with it via her music.
The tour was billed as the promotion of her most recent album release, ‘Roots and Wings,’ but surprisingly only three tracks from it were performed during the set, although Terri intimated she enjoyed the freedom of improvisation when her stage companions consist only of a pair of acoustic guitars. However she rarely omits the opportunity to recall the lasting impression of her late influential mother through a performance of the song ‘Smile’ from this album with the temporary solemn mood change that she admits can affect her differently from show to show. It was perceived that the respectful nature of a listening British audience made tonight’s airing more poignant than usual. The other two tracks from ‘Roots and Wings’ were ‘The One’ and ‘Beautiful and Broken’ thus we were left with the hope that many of the other fine numbers on this record may feature on a future visit.

Seasoned followers of travelling country, roots and Americana artists respect and enjoy the stories that intersperse the songs on these acoustic evenings and Terri’s entertaining tales were seamlessly delivered, many given a finger pickin’ accompaniment. An account of her early Nashville years lead onto a regular feature of her acoustic shows with the Tootsies medley, a tribute to her tip playing days at Music City’s iconic venue. On this evening we had the pleasure of her versions of The Judds' ‘Girls Night Out’, Barbara Mandrell’s ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool’, Ricky Skaggs’ ‘Country Boy’ and, from Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn’s ‘One’s On The Way’. The constant covering of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ can be a touch tiresome from some UK acts seen but Terri can be forgiven for her humorous rendition to conclude the medley.

With such a rich vast catalogue of material dating back to her self-titled main label debut album recorded in 1995, Terri can’t fail to impress with her selections but there is always going to some disappointing omissions. She had previewed the songs, ‘Just Wanna Be Mad’, which opened the show, and the Mary Chapin Carpenter co-written ‘No Fear’ during her appearance on the Bob Harris Country Show, therefore it was no surprise to hear those. The popular sing-along singles ‘Better Things To Do’ and ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ were perfect fits for the show’s climax where Terri eventually raised the crowd interaction to levels she is more used to back home. Of the more unusual songs chosen, Terri reflected a little regret in not releasing ‘I Just Called To Say Goodbye’ as a single from the ‘Pain To Kill’ album. The encore comprised of the bluesy standout track from ‘The Long Way Home’ album, ‘Gypsy Boots,’ with the impressive acoustic version, admitted by Terri to being superior to the full album cut, bringing the crowd to their feet for one final appreciative time.
With the full band lined up to join Terri for the continental leg of this tour, a media market more responsive to this type of country music, it will be interesting to see how Terri develops this  international phase of her career. Free from the commercial pressure of chasing US radio airplay, she will surely reap the rewards of cultivating the commitment of an albeit limited UK market but also an ideal platform to further her own ambitions of intimately sharing the fruits of her burgeoning solo song writing ventures.  However on this evening, which will need to go a long way to be equalled, she can be forgiven for not singing ‘Is Fort Worth Worth It?’ as long as she promises to return to the UK for a second visit in the near future.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Jamie Kent - Navigation The Collective Music Group

In these ever changing times of music industry economics, the constant search for new viable funding models occupies the time of up and coming artists as much as the song writing and producing. U.S. singer-songwriter Jamie Kent is one such artist seeking ways to solve the finance conundrum and he believes he may have discovered a potential solution by democratising his work. As a result of assembling a group of fan backers known as The Collective who have a varying degree of input into his career development, Kent has been able to create, produce and release his sophomore album ‘Navigation’. This collection of diverse songs from New England native Kent covers a lot of bases and has the potential to attract a fair degree of mainstream support if it lands in the right marketing hands.
The album springs into life with a decent  pop acoustic number titled ‘Changes’, also selected as the first single, which explodes mid song when Kent’s fine guitar strumming intensifies. The first half of the album continues to jog along with a string of fairly standard songs the majority of which are self-penned by Kent, although by now the sound has moved in a soulful direction with the Hammond organ influenced  The Fear’, ‘Hold On’ and title track ‘Navigation’. Kent is not inhibited in experimenting with a wide of variety of musical instruments producing a sound that crosses many genre boundaries. Whilst it can be a safe move not to too compartmentalise your music, it does risk the potential of being rejected by specialists and left to compete in the shark pool of popular music.

The second part of the album sees the continued drift away from the acoustic folk sounds of the earlier tracks and a move in a funkier direction with the introduction of trumpet, trombone and saxophone. Throughout the whole album, Kent’s soulful vocals with a strong Caribbean influence flavour the songs to perfectly complement the multitude of sounds and it’s no surprise when a soft reggae beat emerges in the latter tracks. These include the only cover song on the album, Eddie Grant’s ‘Drop Baby Drop’, a track also featuring a guest alto saxophone performance from Charles Neville (of The Neville Brothers).  Another distinguished guest appearance is from Jon Graboff (Ryan Adams and the Cardinals) on pedal steel but this is fairly low key and will slightly disappoint those in search of a more alt-country feel to the album. The most lasting instrumental performance on the record is the Hammond organ playing from Beau Sasser, whose presence resonates across the bulk of the tracks and is probably the sound that defines the album.

Without decrying the song writing skills of Kent, the strength of the album lies within the musical arrangement that has successfully fused so many influences and sounds. It is not clear where the album will head outside of Kent’s own intense touring schedule but his brave move to seek a 21st Century post conventional recording contract funding model deserves a modicum of success.

Al Rose - Sad Go Lucky Monkey Holding Peach Records

If you’re on the lookout for music that is the total antithesis of pop then the sixth album from Chicago based singer- songwriter Al Rose is perfectly designed to meet your needs. ‘Sad Go Lucky’ is a deep eclectic album that while being a touch indulgent has a sophisticated feel that will probably only have limited appeal outside connoisseurs of Americana music. However those listeners prepared to dig deep will reap the rewards from repeated plays with each listen being a voyage of discovery as you grasp the complexity of Rose’s song writing style. A quick glance to the homepage of Rose’s website will give you a flavour of his artistic pretentions with some iconic imagery of 20th Century American culture setting the scene for those exploring his work for the first time.
This twelve track strong album contains plenty of five minute plus songs to test the stamina of a casual listener but his hard hitting and complex lyrics are expertly supported by the usual array of sounds that you will find on any Americana recording. Therefore don’t be surprised to hear the banjo, dobra and pedal steel featuring prominently alongside trombone, piano and cello. The soul of the album resides within the third track with Rose’s scathing attack on modern day culture where he spares the condemnation of no technological fad in ‘They Lowered the Bar Again’ along with the use of some colourful lyrics. The banjo gives a traditional country feel to ‘The Day Before the Infamy’ and ‘Scorpion Hills’, while there is a hint of Celtic influence to the opening and title track ‘Sad Go Lucky’.

Perhaps the most curious and surprising track on the album is ‘Daddy Doncha Do Me’ where completely out of the blue, Rose launches into a three minutes toe tapping rock n’ roll tune that while being out of context on the album has an infectious quality that could see it added to an alternative playlist of upbeat feel good music. As if to reassure the listener that this is no throwaway pop record, Rose chooses to follow that up with the excellent country chill out track ‘On the Shelf’ before ultimately closing the album with the stamina testing eight minute piano-led ‘Sneaky Feelings’.
The work of Al Rose is always going to be for specialist music lovers with an acquired taste but those prepared to take time out and give the album respect will be appreciative of the way he blends the traditional sounds with his acclaimed wordsmith qualities.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

CS Nielsen - Man of the Fall Melo 008

It doesn’t take long when listening to this album to conjure up images of the ‘Man in Black’ and it’s certainly more circa Rick Rubin than Sam Phillips. In this current climate of a wealth of Johnny Cash imitators and impersonators, to produce a sound so similar to that of one of America’s music icons does risk attracting a little contempt but it would be unfair just to class this record as another tribute act. Firstly, all but one of the recordings are from the pen of singer-songwriter CS Nielsen, and rather than fall back on another lazy cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, the only non-original track covered is an old Scottish Borders folk song which gives the album an element of variety just as it develops a little one-paced feel about it.
You sense the sound and direction of this album within the opening track when Nielsen references Luke the Drifter, a recording pseudonym of Hank Williams, and that eternal country music road known as the Lost Highway. A few killing, road and train songs later you get the drift of the journey Nielsen wants to take you on and this man, whose initials refer to his nickname of Country Stig, is proof that good quality country music can come from the somewhat surprising source of Denmark. The authenticity of Nielsen’s vocals coupled with the usual array of string-based instruments gives this album an element of credibility that matches up well with similar artists from the traditional sources of country music.

Border Blues’, a fugitive murder song, opens the album and sets the pace for the first half a dozen tracks which have a dark melancholic feel to them. The title track ‘Man of the Fall’ seeks to personify the post summer season without celebrating its vibrant colour while the self-explanatory ‘Road Song’ focuses on the futility rather than the freedom of perpetual travel. These and several other songs showcase Nielsen’s artistic creativity to craft a song with thoughtful and incisive lyrics while choosing apt moments to make iconic roots music references such as Johnson’s #61 and #49 and Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’. However just as a little mid-album monotony seeps in, and this recording surpasses the hour mark, the traditional folk rendition of ‘Black Jack Davy’ and piano accompaniment to ‘A Stones Throw Away’, freshens up the sound. Soon after, the melancholy returns culminating in the final track ‘Nothin’ But’ containing lines such as ‘The party is over and it’s time to pay the cost’, ‘scar of experience’ and ‘massacre of innocence’. 

Just as there is a hint of sadness in Cash’s final recordings, CS Nielsen, a man half his age, has perfectly captured that mood with an album that contains some of the vital ingredients of a fine country record. Along with a laudable recommendation, it is suggested that a listening of this album is followed up by reaching for a more positive record from your collection just to put everything back into perspective.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Lucy Wainwright Roche - Hare and Hounds King's Heath Birmingham Wednesday 13 June 2012

Photo not taken at gig
Lucy Wainwright Roche has always shown an independent streak, right from the day she elected to pursue a conventional teaching career rather than instantly ride on the crest of being part of a family with a rich musical heritage. Even now when the genetic pull of exploring her inherent talent has led to the journey from classroom to microphone, she is determined to strike out alone and plot a very individual route to success and recognition. So five years on from the career changing decision, Lucy is still prepared to jump on a plane and be content to singularly undertake a week long low key UK tour, not really knowing what response she is going to get. Yet on the evidence of this penultimate show in the upstairs music room of a suburban Birmingham pub, greater awareness on a much larger scale is surely not too far in the future.
Over the course of the evening, Lucy grew in confidence as she entertained the handful of regular concert goers present with a standard two half set comprising of a selection of both self written songs and carefully selected covers, of which virtually all have appeared on her three short releases to date. It was not surprising that her most recent record, the 2010 album simply titled ‘Lucy’ , featured prominently with the opening track ‘Once In’ chosen to be the first song of the evening. Also featuring in the first half from this album were ‘October’,Starting Square’ and a song inspired by a never to be forgotten personal experience of a date ending in a London hospital, hence the song title ‘Accident and Emergency’. After previous visits to the UK, Lucy should really know about the generally reserved nature of British audiences, but she attempted to generate some participation with her version of Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’. By contrast, prior to showcasing her one new, yet to be titled, song of the night, she recounted a tale of an audience fight breaking out the previous evening at her Manchester show.

There is no doubt that Lucy possesses all the qualities to be another top notch performer from the New York folk scene. Her classical style vocals have a captivating edge to them that blends perfectly with her simple but effective guitar playing. While her thoughtful and illustrative lyrics brings to life the stories and places that she yearns to portray with the aid of her gifted song writing skills. This really came to the fore in the second part of the show when she performed probably the two best songs of the evening , ‘Statesville’ and ‘Open Season’, the latter displaying her soft spot for the fading glory of Coney Island in her native Brooklyn.
Despite the independent nature of Lucy’s route to success, she does make numerous references to her family and on this evening apart from mentioning her appearance in Birmingham a few years ago with her father, Loudon Wainwright III, she includes the song ‘Runs in the Family’ in her set. This was written by her Aunt Terre, a member of highly successful vocal group The Roches along with Lucy’s mother, Suzzy. Also, prior to introducing the song ‘Poison’, she tongue in cheek made reference to some of the family politics that arises which is surely inevitable in such a pool of intense talent.

The folk standard ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ also made an appearance in the second set before Lucy chose to end the show with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ which showed her desire to mix the old with the contemporary in order to create a blend of folk rock with a traditional feel to it. Those present were appreciative of the evening’s entertainment presented by Lucy and maybe they might just take time to savour the intimate setting as this young lady definitely has the talent to take her career to a lot higher level.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Mandolin Brothers - Moon Road Fortune Records

This six-track well produced and impressively packaged EP from the Mandolin Brothers benefits enormously from the input of several experienced Austin based musicians and creates a finished product that fairs well against some of the continental European offerings you come across. This Italian band have been sporadically active with their releases over the last decade but the ‘Moon Road’ EP recorded and launched in 2010 shows what they can be capable of with a little assistance.
The six-piece band led by ‘’Jimmy’’ Ragazzon doesn’t appear to have any brotherly family links on the surface and a mandolin only appears on two of the tracks but you might as well have a memorable  country name if you’re going to try and crack that market. As a band they produce a tight close knit sound that leaves you in little doubt what they’re trying to achieve and what direction they’re heading, with it definitely being more Texas than Turin. However you’re always going to be in fine hands by enlisting the assistance of Reckless Kelly’s Cody Braun.

All six tracks are Mandolin Brothers’ originals with Ragazzon having a writing input on each one with perhaps the two stand out songs being the slower numbers ’49 Years’ and ‘Moon Road’ where the reflective song writing subjects match the tempo of the tunes. ’49 Years’ with its fiddle interludes ponders the advancing years of the character who seeks solace with their guitar while ‘Moon Road’ uses lap steel effectively in a song dedicated to a ‘lovely’ daughter. These two songs slot in as number’s two and three on the EP, sandwiched by two more upbeat tracks that have a country rock tinge to them. ‘Hold Me’ opens the album with a driving feel to it while ‘Old Rock and Roll’ has a sound that encompasses the title. The final two tracks, ‘Dr Dreams’ and ‘Another Kind, are where the mandolin appears with the latter being your archetype war protest song, a subject not always tackled in mainstream country music.
While this collection of songs doesn’t warrant delving into the band’s back catalogue, the credibility given to the short recording by the Austin based musicians will certainly add some relevance and create further interest should the Mandolin Brothers develop this project with a full length release some time in the future.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Cara Luft Bishop Auckland Town Hall Wednesday 6 June 2012

Photo by Robby Ballhause
Not taken at gig

The strong touring presence of the flourishing Canadian folk and roots music scene continues to go from strength to strength as Alberta born and raised artist Cara Luft returns to the UK for a month-long promotion of her new CD culminating in an appearance at the annual Canada Day celebration in London in early July. After the unfortunate scenario of being unable to attend either of the Midlands gigs on this tour, an opportunity to catch her show at Bishop Auckland while on a short break in the North East was one not to be missed and ultimately a very rewarding experience. Cara’s two-set show formed part of a small monthly gathering of folk fans in the Town Hall bar of this County Durham market town and her brand of rock infused folk and roots music entertained those present who were probably more used to the rich vein of local artists participating in the art of performing traditional music. Accompanied only by the exchange of guitar and banjo, along with a catalogue of quality songs and an effervescent personality, Cara showed why she is a valued and respected member of this music movement.

Although the bulk of the night was to be devoted to the songs from her new record titled ‘Darlingford’, Cara chose to open the evening with ‘There’s a Train’, a track from her previous album, ‘The Light Fantastic’ and the up tempo strumming that accompanies this song set the tone for what we would expect for the rest of the evening. There are certainly elements of her rock influences in a playing style that sets her apart from other artists in the genre and this adds a little originality to her interpretations of traditional music. Other tracks played from this 2008 album in the opening set were also of a similar style, these being ‘No Friend of Mine’ and ‘Black Water Side’, the latter paying tribute to the diverse interpretations of a traditional song by Bert Jansch and Jimmy Page .
A strong and enlightening feature of a Cara Luft show is the vivid background stories that introduce many of the songs and, with a new album to promote, there was no shortage of fascinating ones on this pleasant June evening. Therefore during the first half of the show we learnt of Cara’s right wing fundamentalist aunt, the subject of ‘Idaho’ and of the US/Canadian border crossing unintentional smuggling saga that became the origin of the popular audience participation favourite ‘Charged’, of which a live version appears on the new album and a You Tube clip featuring prominently on her website. Perhaps the stand out number from this segment of the evening was the new song ‘My Darling One’ with its infectious chorus line.

After commencing the second set with the song ‘Holding On’, so new it’s yet to appear on any record, Cara chose to focus solely on the new album with such numbers inspired by Canadian UN humanitarian Romeo Dallaire whose experiences in war torn Rwanda were reflected in a song simply titled ‘Dallaire’, while a more personal relationship was recounted in ‘House on Fire’. Cara loves to delve into traditional music and followed her rendition of the old English folk song ‘The Ploughboy and the Cockney’ in the first set with an interpretation of ‘He Moved through the Fair’ in the second. However there was time for one final twist as the encore consisted of a banjo rework of rock classic ‘Sweet Child of Mine’, a light hearted feature of Cara’s sessions back home with this much maligned but beautiful traditional instrument.

There are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy a delightful musical evening in the company of Cara Luft as she continues to extensively travel the UK this June including appearances at the fantastic Maverick festival at the end of the month, and investing a little bit of money and time will certainly not see you disappointed.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Various Artists - I Like It Better Here-More Music From Home Hemifran

Having recently reviewed the latest themed compilation release from Swedish based label Hemifran, comparisons were always inevitable when presented with an immediate opportunity to check out one of their previous collections from last year. Whereas their latest release took a few listens to appreciate the depth and quality of some of the recordings, there was no such delay with grasping the artistic merits of this album, the second of a two-part series based around the concept of the ‘home’. This was probably due to the down to earth country sound of a majority of the tracks which was more in tune with the album’s theme rather than the inner deep thoughts surrounding the follow up collection of secular hymns.
As synonymous with their other compilations, well respected artists from America share the platform with their European counterparts and it’s a credit to the latter that the quality is seamless throughout the album. Also, in line with other Hemifran collections, ‘I Like It Better Here – More Music From Home’, to give the album its full title, allows the artists the opportunity to offer the listener, via the sleeve notes, a little background to their choice of song and this adds to the experience of exploring the stories behind these eighteen tracks. Thus we learn about the home coming vision that Fayssoux experienced in her song ‘Golightly Creek’, a number co-written with East Nashville’s finest Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, as well as the inspiration Annie Keating drew from the ‘Water Tower View’, the title and subject of her contribution written in the early days of settling in New York City. The quality of any album is always going to be enhanced with the inclusion of a  Kimmie Rhodes track and she doesn’t disappoint with her number ‘I Just Drove By’ especially as she took several years to perfect a song that was instrumental in opening many doors for her. A couple of other U.S. contributions that warrant further artist interest are ‘Calling Me Home’ by Austin based duo Christine Albert and Chris Gage, while the much travelled pairing of Fur Dixon and Steve Werner light up the early stages of this album with ‘Little Paradise’.

The European take on this record begins with a transatlantic collaboration where West Coast song writing veteran Jack Tempchin, of Eagles ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ fame, provides one of his songs – ‘You Only Live Once’ – for Swedish artist Citizen K to record under the tribute name, Smashing Tempchins. Slowhand and Little Green also supply more home grown input for the Scandinavian hosts with their fine interpretations of Americana music while Britain is represented by Dean Owens’ upbeat feel good catchy number simply titled ‘Good’ and the bluesy contribution ‘Welcome Home’ from Hey Negrita. There is a mysterious ending to the album with a prolonged silence after the listed final song ‘When I Go’ by Henrik af Ugglass followed by an encore-like treat of one decent unannounced track before a rather out of context rap-like mix to bring the album to its conclusion.

With this release, Hemifran continue to do a grand job of showcasing and promoting some serious talent that warrants further exposure especially in the UK and this album goes some way to raising the profile of this music. All that’s needed now is to continue to back trawl through the Hemifran collection and see if their previous compilations match up to the high standards of this excellent well recommended album.