Saturday, 29 September 2012

Alvin Lee - Still On The Road To Freedom Repertoire

Artistic integrity over commercial success has been a dilemma for musicians for as long as the pioneering entrepreneurs found a way of taking music to the masses. While the former is often the route to greater credibility in industry circles, it must be a brave decision for one to shun the limelight and all the trappings derived from commercial success. English rock/blues guitarist Alvin Lee is one performer that took this brave decision in 1972 as the knock-on effects of a Woodstock performance elevated his band Ten Year After into the rock arenas of the world and in his own perception, at the mercy of the industry sharks. His breakaway album, aptly titled ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM, started an alternative lower key career that while still colluding with some of the rock icons of the day including Stevie Winwood and Ronnie Wood, left Lee short of similar acclaim in the eyes of the ordinary public.
Many years later and now in the twilight of his career, Lee has recorded a philosophical and reflective album, appropriately titled STILL ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM that in some way has re-assured him that the correct decision was made all those years ago. For those new to the work of Alvin Lee, and there are probably many, this thirteen track self written recording is an excellent example of accomplished roots rock and ample evidence of an artist being true to himself and preserving his artistic credibility. Over the course of three quarters of an hour you will immerse yourself into an abundance of guitar driven songs that leave you in no doubt that you have just spent time in the presence of a master.

The album bursts into life with an opening track named after the title of the album ‘Still on the Road to Freedom’ and the rock overtures of this song set the scene for a body of work that will eventually incorporate many styles of guitar inspired music including acoustic, rock ‘n roll, blues as well as straight down the middle pure rock. A couple of tracks into the album you have the very 60’s feel to the song ‘Midnight Creeper’ with its Hammond organ contribution, which epitomises the steady rise of Lee’s standing during this critical decade in the evolution of rock music. One of  the album’s personal favourite tracks is the blues infused harmonica laced sound on ‘Save My Stuff’, a style Lee returns to later in ‘Blues Got Me So Bad’ . Another highlight of the record is ‘I’m A Lucky Man’, a rock n’ roll flavoured number that illustrates the influences Lee must have had in his formative years of listening and being inspired by popular music. On a couple occasions, the vocals of Lee take a back seat as he lets his guitar skills have the centre stage to themselves with a pair of instrumentals. ‘Songs of the Red Rock Mountain’ and ‘Down Line Rock’ are the two aforementioned tracks with the former a more tranquil piece that glides you through its listening. The range of guitar sounds expands further with the acoustic nature of ‘Walk On, Walk Tall’.
To demonstrate the reflective side of this album, there are echoes of Woodstock in ‘Back In ‘69’ with its references to protest songs, both past and present, and Lee chooses to conclude the collection of songs, which have been four years in the compilation, with a version of the old Ten Year After song ‘Love Like A Man 2’. The sleeve notes which Lee has penned suggest a satisfaction in how his career has panned out and might just serve as an inspiration to an artist today which may be in the fortunate position to face the same choice he had to make forty years ago. So even if you are a latecomer to the work of Alvin Lee, check this album out for yourself and see an example of an artist preserving their own artistic integrity.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Patrick Crowson - A Mile Past The Deadend Hop Hollow Music

Patrick Crowson certainly doesn’t do things in small measures and shows no fear in going intensely down his chosen route. The eleven tracks on his latest album release A MILE PAST THE DEADEND take around an energy sapping 70 minutes to evolve and while there are glimpses of merit in the soft dry melancholic sound from his guitar, you are left waiting for that stand out track to make true connection. There are elements of the album where you get mesmerised by the hook of the relaxing soothing sound but the intensity turns the listen into a demanding experience. A large dose of patience, stamina and a desire to uncover the next Dylan may be required to fully grasp the concept of this record.
Originating from Illinois USA, the limited online presence of Crowson seems to be the domain of Swedish based backers Hemifran who have some very fine under rated US artists in their posse. There are ambitious references to Dylan, Kristofferson, Van Zandt and Newbury in his press and maybe Crowson is destined to follow the path of the latter two with a patient wait for recognition, although he hopes it won’t be post-humus. If there’s a hidden gem in this body of work, the depth is probably a little too buried for a casual listener, many of whom have drifted away by the time the third track finishes, 30 minutes into the album!

On a positive note, you can envisage the live presence of Crowson, with his stripped down acoustic sound in an intimate setting, being an altogether different experience where you can get to know the artist and further grasp the intricacies of his passionate desire to interpret roots-influenced acoustic music. Also on track nine on the album, ‘Mark the Drifter’,  there are significant gear changes in his vocal delivery that do give some welcome relief and a glimpse to what else he may have to offer.
So while it is difficult to recommend this record on the basis of a couple of lengthy listens, you just never know that maybe one day we are returning to this body of work to uncover the roots of a genius, Just like we do with Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Rose Redd - Yardbird Jazz Club Birmingham Sunday 16 September 2012

Rose Redd performs at the Yardbird
Imagine the scene. You’re enjoying a well deserved drink in a lively bar after a busy day perusing an abundance of artists invited to participate in a city centre arts festival. Amongst the constant hum of this bar, a young acoustic singer-songwriter takes to the stage to deliver her short set. Over the next half hour, your ear gets increasingly drawn to the sounds emanating from this performer as they rise to the challenge of the environment and leave a lasting impression of wanting you to explore further. Fast forward eight days to another bar where the young performer returns to the stage, this time, with your undivided attention, you have all your first thoughts confirmed and you realise that you’ve just discovered a special talent.
This is an honest appraisal of the introduction to Rose Redd, an eighteen year old young artist from just outside Wolverhampton who is embarking on a musical career that has the potential to turn many a head and borrow many an ear in a similar manner to the account recalled above. Her powerful awe inspiring vocals, supplemented by proficient guitar playing are the perfect tools to indulge her passion of interpreting both existing song and that which she composes from tapping into her creative soul. The captivating and alluring result from her musical delivery demonstrates an ability to cross genre boundaries and showcase the enchanting power of song.

This half hour set in Birmingham’s Yardbird Club was part of a evening of versatile music headlined by an act called Artmagic and Redd used the opportunity to promote a number of her own compositions alongside a couple of covers that demonstrate one angle of her musical influences which are to say the least diverse from one such young in years. The maturity of her lyrical output has evolved by delving into her inner sanctuary from what has been self-described in parts as a tortured past and she will not be the first artisan to seek solace and rejuvenation from the art of song. The depth of self-penned songs performed on the evening, such as ‘Girl With A Broken Heart’ with the heart warming story of her feelings for the subject , the highly philosophical ‘Curtain Call’ and the account of failed relationships in ‘Perfectly Useless’, are all the hallmark of a highly promising singer-songwriter. The latter is set to become her signature tune with an imminent single release following significant input from established producer Gavin Monaghan of which the much anticipated finished version will signal an ambitious attempt to infiltrate the playlists of the radio medium.
At the moment the online exposure of Redd’s music is confined to a series of well produced ‘You Tube’ videos including an impressive rendition of the Rolling Stones ‘Wild Horses’, which compares well alongside other versions of this much covered song such as that of highly acclaimed American artist Gretchen Peters, a regular visitor to the Midlands. The two covers chosen for this evening’s performance were the highly popular ‘Numb’ by Linkin Park and Skunk Anansie’s  Weak’, both representing the rock side of her influences. There are a number of other inspirations from the world of rock and pop name-checked in her online profile amongst who are Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. It would certainly do no harm in further exploring these artists and their influences to get greater exposure of the great American songbook and the positive effect it would have on her craft.

The two other songs that completed the seven-number set were also originals and it’s anticipated that these two, ‘The Storm’ and ‘Feeding the Need’ can hopefully join the others on some format of recorded release in the future to expand her music from the live circuit to a far wider audience. Yet the great appeal of Rose Redd’s music is the intimate surrounding of an acoustic set and that which was performed at the Yardbird is another example of a talent beginning to flourish.
‘A girl, a guitar and a passion for live music’ is a wonderful succinct self-evaluation of Rose Redd and a keen eye is recommended to be kept on the burgeoning career of this talented young lady.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lowlands and Friends Play Woody - Better World Coming Gypsy Child Records

To commemorate the centenary of his birth, Woody Guthrie has been the subject of several projects in 2012 that contribute to maintaining the tradition of one of the great American songwriters of the Twentieth Century. To demonstrate that Guthrie is not totally the domain of English speaking countries, Italian based roots rock band Lowlands have invited a selection of their friends to record a tribute album BETTER WORLD COMING which ensures the European markets are not left out of the celebrations.
Lowlands are led by British born singer-songwriter Edward Abbiati and since their formation in 2008 have recorded a series of albums that have received favourable reviews from some of the genre’s esteemed publications. Amongst the host of guests invited to contribute to the recording is Jimmy Ragazzon, the leader of fellow Italian band The Mandolin Brothers who have recently been increasing their awareness in America and have had their latest album reviewed on this site. This Woody Guthrie project by the five-piece Lowlands and their many friends was recorded during a busy period for the band especially as they have an autumn release lined up for their next batch of original songs.

The songs of Woody Guthrie really need no introduction and are in plenty supply especially as a majority of the ones Lowlands have chosen were not on the ‘very best of’ album released in this country a couple of years ago. Perhaps the bravest decision Lowlands made on this album was to not record the Guthrie classic ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in its simple format choosing to feature short piano clips of the tune as an intro and outro and sampling a portion of it in the track ‘Hard Travelin’. Whether this works is open for debate but the iconic unofficial anthem of the American working man surely warrants the utmost respect in any Guthrie interpretation. Of the other tracks chosen ‘This Train is Bound For Glory’, also featured on Pete Molinari’s latest piece of work, is a personal favourite. Most of the interpretations are fairly straightforward and give a little taster of the work of Guthrie.
It’s difficult to recommend this collection of Guthrie appreciation as a must-have addition to your music library especially if his work is already there but there is certainly merit in Lowlands introducing the great man to uninitiated members of their fan base.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Water Tower Bucket Boys + Lincoln Durham Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Tuesday 11 September 2012

On nights like these you really wished the live music public of Birmingham would embrace some of the exceptional less well known US acts that make the commitment to physically export their talents to venues in this country. Promoters World Unlimited are increasingly seeking out quality Americana acts and established venues such as the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath are prepared to make room in their indie-dominated schedule to host  these artists but often the missing link is an enthusiastic crowd to give them a warm welcoming reception. The two artists who showcased their talents on a shared bill this evening were regular UK visitors the Water Tower Buckets Boys, who played a nearby venue around eighteen months ago, and the inaugural trip overseas of Texas based multi-instrumentalist Lincoln Durham. To be fair to both acts, they played a couple of storming sets that far outstripped the modest lukewarm environment that provided the backdrop to their performances.
Lincoln Durham. Photo not taken at gig
Lincoln Durham opened proceedings with an electrifying (well predominately acoustic) demonstration of dust n’ dirt Texas blues in true tradition of those who have produced a blue bonnet sound from the barren landscape of the Lone Star state. With the support and backing of the widely respected figure of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lincoln has managed to blend perfectly the raw sound of his plethora of stringed instruments with the thoughtful song writing that is often an inbred trait of travelling Texas musicians. Never dwelling on one instrument, Durham fidgeted from fiddle to electric to acoustic and even played a couple of tunes on a contraption comprising of a cigar box for a body and a broomstick for a neck, in his own words – true Bo Diddly style. Throughout each change he expressed a passion for care and though beset by a couple of technical hitches, produced a spellbinding sound which complemented his gravelly vocals that carried all the hallmark of his mentor. With the added sound of the ubiquitous harmonica, this was a display of pure Texas soul music straight from an intense performer, who with a touch of work on audience rapport can make great strides in the world of Americana music. Notable tracks performed on the night from his debut album THE SHOVEL vs. THE HOWLING BONES were the stunning ‘Last Red Dawn’ , the engaging ‘Clementine’, ‘How Does a Crow Flow’ and the Texas drifter song ‘Mud Puddles’. Lincoln Durham is definitely one to watch on the live circuit.

Water Tower Bucket Boys
The Water Tower Buckets Boys are currently in a state of rebranding. When they return to the studio and the road again in the New Year they will be known simply as Water Tower. So they took their swansong with the more distinctive band name as an opportunity to both celebrate the past songs that have often featured on previous UK visits with a selection of numbers set to be an integral part of the band’s re-launch. Both old and new tracks all carried the mark of the bands frenetic bluegrass/indie/punk/roots style with the odd pure country tune thrown in. ‘Crooked Road’, ‘Fromage’ and the instrumental ‘London Breakdown’ were amongst the tracks played from their popular 2010 release SOLE KITCHEN. ‘It’s Wrong’, ‘Don’t Look Back’, The Tide of Time’ and show closer ‘Anthem Song’ were all new songs aired during the evening and look set to feature on forthcoming releases.

In sync with the line up on this tour, the boys are retaining their four-piece make up with Jason Oppat on drums and rousing harmonica, joining the established trio of Gordon Keepers – stand up bass, Josh Rabbie – guitar/fiddle and Kenny Feinstein – guitar/mandolin. The latter two share most of the vocal duties with the wit of Kenny being an essential part of the on- stage chemistry. Other notable songs performed on the evening by this tight knit quartet were stomping bluegrass number ‘I’m Working on a Building’, ‘Cocaine’ and the Townes Van Zandt song ‘’White Freightliner’.

Both acts deserved a far better turnout and more enthusiasm than this Birmingham audience gave them and thus it becomes more imperative that artists like these are increasingly actively promoted and the word is spread that quality live music is being delivered to our doorstep.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Jason Plumb and the Willing - All Is More Than Both Soccermom Records

There are a host of bands operating under the often ambiguous term ‘Americana’ that firmly plant their roots in the country rock movement that spread across the continent in the 1970’s. Forty years on, their music is a little bit too experimental to be absorbed into mainstream rock and pop but they manage to carve out their own niche within the realms of specialist radio and a buoyant live circuit. Jason Plumb is one such artist that possesses these traits and evidence is in ample supply within the content of ALL IS MORE THAN BOTH, the fifth album he has released since branching out from Canadian band, The Waltons, a number of years back. With the aid of his four-piece backing band, The Willing, the record is full of a wealth of tracks containing well constructed melodies and, although a little on the safe and conservative side, can reward listeners prepared to allow it several listens.

Jason Plumb has had a long association with Ed Robertson, the front man of fellow Canadian rockers The Bare Naked Ladies who have had success in taking this type of music into the mainstream and on this record the pair collaborated to co-write the second track ‘Losin’’ which is made more memorable with a hint of banjo added to the finished product. The infiltration of many sounds that have a long time affiliation with the wider world of Americana music help to give the album a feel of diversity with an influx of session musicians adding lap steel guitar, saxophone, Hammond organ, harmonica and the trusty banjo to many of the eleven tracks. Of these sounds, the lap steel that Julie Bougie supplies to the dream-infused slow beat number ‘Under a Gun’ makes it one of the record’s highlights, closely followed by the harmonica opening Plumb provides to the track ‘On a Chain’. The best of the rest are the fetching chorus on ‘Falling Star’, the lively guitar riffs of album opener ‘First Time’ and the anthem-like feel to the closing number ‘Naturally (It Ain’t Up To Me), a suitable conclusion to a collection of songs, all underpinned by a core rock sound.

As intimated earlier, Plumb undertakes the majority of the writing tasks but you don’t get a feel of the depth of the lyrical content through several listens and this is not helped by the omission of a lyric sheet within the CD pack. The album also lacks a knockout track that could force itself onto any playlists and into the attention span of a casual listener. As with a wealth of acts churning out this style of music, the live presence is probably the luring appeal but it does have merit as a whole album entity and can find a niche in that wide span of sounds banded within the term ‘Americana’.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Jeff and Vida plus suport from The Toy Hearts Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Tuesday 4 September 2012

Over the last couple of years, Birmingham based band The Toy Hearts have developed excellent relations with Nashville based duo Jeff Burke and Vida Wakeman. As an appreciation for regularly hosting them in Music City, the perfect opportunity for an act of reciprocal kindness was presented when the duo announced a short tour of the UK and Ireland. So with the assistance of a support slot as well as summoning up a reasonably sized audience, the act known simply as Jeff and Vida was given a warm second city welcome and the opportunity to thoroughly entertain those present in the upstairs music room of the Hare and Hounds pub in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath.
The Toy Hearts  Picture not taken at gig
The appetizer of what developed into a three section evening saw The Toy Hearts, operating as a four piece band minus a fiddle player, deliver an half hour support set that consisted of a spectrum of songs covering their busy career to date. With a higher profile Birmingham date upcoming, the band decided to steer clear of their recently released album WHISKEY, playing only the song ‘Pass the Jack’ from this record. Their current project pays homage to the country sub-genre of western swing so they decided to mainly draw songs from their bluegrass catalogue which was more in line with the style of Jeff and Vida’s music. Old favourites ‘Carolina’, ‘When I Cut Loose’ and ‘The Captain’ were amongst the handful of songs aired with an often repeated thought about the latter, that this quality song has the potential to be cut by an ‘A’ list artist one day.
Once striding onto the stage after a short interval, Jeff and Vida didn’t take long to win over the crowd, a handful who had seen them live at a nearby venue a couple of years ago. There are very little complexities surrounding the stage show of this couple who don’t shy away from the influence of their New Orleans past even though they now reside in the more practical city of Nashville, Tennessee for country/bluegrass artists. Vida Wakeman handles most of the song writing, makes the more prominent vocal contribution and confines her pickin’ to an acoustic guitar. Jeff Burke on the other hand is a far more versatile picker constantly switching from mandolin to acoustic guitar and making occasional but memorable vocal appearance such as the Jimmy Rodgers style yodelling in ‘Come Back Home To You’. He also demonstrated a passion for old time music with a version of the Delmore Brothers ‘Pan American Boogie’.

Jeff and Vida  Photo not taken at gig
Jeff and Vida haven’t been prolific album releasers over the last few years with their latest one being the 2009 SELMA CHALK and on this Birmingham appearance Vida delivered fine vocal performances of ‘Heartache Train’, ‘Sharp as a Knife’ and ‘Sugarcane Blues’, all tracks found on this excellent record. The duo are also keen to pay respect to the giants of bluegrass and played a two-tune medley of Bill Monroe’s ‘Gold rush’ and ‘Big Mon’, a couple of songs into their set. As you would expect from artists in this genre, the stories accompanying the songs were not in short supply as we were given the background to the inspirations and sources of such songs as ‘Oh Fire’ and the set closer ‘Road to Abilene’. Probably the strongest song of the evening saw Vida put on her ‘straight down the middle good ole country hat’ and use her southern drawl perfectly to deliver a number that is thought to be titled ‘Someone Else Is Always Loving You’ – a well crafted and delivered song anyway.
As we were promised at the interval, The Toy Hearts returned to the stage for the finale as they orchestrated a bluegrass jam with their American guests. The two acts interchanged lead and vocal duties on a number of well respected covers such as bluegrass standard ‘I’ll Stay Around’, Gillian Welch’s ‘Miner’s Refrain’ and Ernest Tubbs ‘Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin’. The mutual respect and shared love for this type of music was very much in evidence and the glow of enthusiasm from the stage radiated through the audience. The collaboration between Jeff and Vida and The Toy Hearts seems set to continue in the future and there is optimism that a platform in Birmingham, UK may be shared again.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Justin Townes Earle Rescue Rooms Nottingham Friday 31 August 2012

It’s been four eventful years since Justin Townes Earle was watched by just eight paying customers at the delightfully named Marr’s Bar in Worcester. A humble persona and commitment to playing high quality American roots music had him earmarked as someone to develop a successful independent career and not just be the son of a legend, with an iconic middle name. In the subsequent years, there has been four acclaimed albums, numerous visits to the UK, consecutive emerging artist recognitions at the Americana awards (strange but true), a brief return to rehab and a vastly increased fan base in this country. On this, his second trip to Britain in 2012, the Cosmic American promotion booked him for the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham and the Friday night slot in this lively venue attracted a couple of hundred punters of varying demographic composition. They in turn witnessed a very different Justin Townes Earle to the one who made tentative steps to crack the UK market a few years back. He has evolved musically from one, Nashville influenced, with a country sound to record and tour with a heavy blues dominated album. Striding onto the stage for this solo show in a Woody Guthrie-esque attire of peaked cap and austere suit, he looked a million miles from music city as he continues a quest to find the soul of American roots music. His vocal talents and guitar playing are perfectly at home at this blues pit stop on his journey and ninety minutes later the sizeable crowd gave him a positive reception of approval of which his still humble persona was appreciative.
Justin Townes Earle will probably face a lifelong battle to conquer the demons of his flawed past but the positive vibes from creating fine records will go some way to helping him and his latest release NOTHING’S GONNA CHANGE THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT ME NOW is providing the focal point of this current bout of shows. He opened the performance with probably the standout song on that album ‘Memphis in the Rain’ and concluded the main segment of the evening with a stunning version of the Lightning Hopkins classic ‘Automobile Blues’ which also features on the record. Out of the other tracks from this release included in the set, ‘Won’t be the Last Time’, ‘Movin’ On’ and ‘Maria’ were probably the most memorable. Though stories surrounding many of the songs were a lot sparser than previous Earle gigs, the latter of this trio was preceded by a tale of the conflicts between songwriters and their loved ones.

The relationship between Justin and his father, Steve, has often been difficult and on this particular evening there were several negative references. The introduction to the tribute song to his mother ‘Mama’s Eyes’ from the MIDNIGHT AT THE MOVIES album reminded everybody of his absent father during the early years. Also from that album, the track ‘They Killed John Henry’ was accompanied by a statement proclaiming his grandfather, a far greater man than either his father or he would ever be. You do get a sense of a complex and flawed character when seeing Justin live but many a musical genius has emerged from such minds and the depth and creativity from his song writing is heading in this direction.
Some of the best songs performed on the evening came from the HARLEM RIVER BLUES album where Justin stopped off in New York on his journey from country to blues. The title track, ‘One Night in Brooklyn’ and ‘Wanderin’’ are all welcome additions to any Justin Townes Earle set list. The live version of ‘Harlem River Blues’ was slowed down from the one on the album but its tremendous chorus hook line holds any performance of this song together.  As indicated earlier we didn’t have the American music history lesson that has been such a fascinating feature of previous shows attended and this was highlighted by launching straight into the encore number, a version of Bo Carter’s ‘Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me’ which would surely have some story surrounding its selection.

The musical development of Justin Townes Earle is very much work in progress and who knows where his talents will take him next. The good news is his UK fan base is growing and eagerly wait for the next stopping point on this journey through American roots music. This should convince him to continue to bring the fruition of his development to the UK on an ongoing basis.