Sunday, 30 December 2012

The David Latto Band - The David Latto Band Self released

You only have to scratch the surface of today’s instant digital and online music industry to find some real gems of substance. The advance of genre and sub-genre music continues to gather pace tempting people to make that satisfying switch from consumers to connoisseurs. This debut full length album from Scottish based outfit The David Latto Band is a prime example of how the infused sounds of country, roots and Americana has the potential to permeate the mainstream and raise the stakes of popular music.
This self titled ten- track release has been a while in the making but the finished product should be a treasured addition to the collections of those with Trans-Atlantic musical leanings. The band structured around the core of David Latto and Gavin Brady has expertly embraced the arrangements of traditional stringed instruments and interwove them with well written contemplative songs. The result is an amalgam of sensitive ballads and driving acoustic numbers paying homage to the spirit of pure Americana.

David and Gavin supply the vocals, guitar, lap steel and banjo work for the album as well as the song writing credits for nine of the ten songs. The odd one out being the delightful Herb Pedersen penned ‘Wait a Minute’, a song also covered by those two East Nashville alt-country purveyors, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper. The impressive recording has been enhanced by the drums of John Alexander, bass of Atholl Fraser along with the ubiquitous fiddle, dobro and mandolin input from Jim Hyndman.
After a standard scene setting opener ‘Like I Feel Tonight’, the record steps up a notch with the up tempo number ‘Byway Man’ with its attention turned towards the iconic traveller. The third track titled ‘Wronged’ is the most interesting composition on the album. A banjo inspired slow number about revenge with a slight hint of sinister connotations. Banjo is heavily featured again on the reflective song ‘Rollin’ On’ while lap steel comes to the fore on the country ballad ‘Song You’ll Never Hear.’

Two of the record’s more memorable tracks are situated in the second part of the album. ‘Black Horse’ is a fine well constructed ballad with strong vocals and chorus. ‘God, I’m Drinking Tonight’ is the perfect finale song and ensures the album tackles that essential country ingredient – drink. This bluegrass inspired song leans heavily towards the fiddle and impressively builds up to a crescendo to bring the curtain down on an enjoyable album.
Hopefully the band will be in a position to venture south of the border and treat fans to some live performances of this album. You can attach a whole host of labels to it – country, alt-country, Americana, bluegrass – but ultimately it should just be classed as a good record.
                                          Byway Man

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Top 10 Gigs of 2012

 Top 10 Gigs of 2012

1 - Terri Clark Glee Club Birmingham

To see an ‘A’ list country singer in an intimate setting was a fantastic experience. The announcement to tour was a surprise but Terri lit up the Glee Club with her songs, stories and personality. An evening to be treasured and worthy of top spot for this year.

2 -  Eve Selis Robin 2 Bilston

Eve has toured many times but the combination of a full band, finest album to date and a growing turnout made this a memorable evening. The sound was excellent with Eve’s vibrancy and vocals filling the venue. Excellent support too in Berkely Hart.

3 – My Darling Clementine Hare and Hounds Birmingham

The album, HOW DO YOU PLEAD grew on me in the second half of the year and the live performance of it by Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish was definitely one of 2012’s highlights. The show was well put together with an excellent band and of course the most wonderful retro duet performance.
4 – Good Lovelies St. Mary’s Church Ross and Wye

The church acoustics and the harmonies of this fantastic Canadian trio were well and truly suited during this show on their UK tour. Always eager to get off mic they effortlessly gave a superb performance especially in their interpretation of ‘Hallelujah’.

5 – The Civil Wars HMV Institute Birmingham

Harmonies were definitely the theme of the year and the performance by John Paul White and Joy Williams with just a single acoustic guitar was mesmerising. They demonstrated all the hype surrounding the album was real. May not be repeated though.

6 – The Secret Sisters Glee Club Birmingham

There is something special about siblings and country music. The Rogers sisters had that impressive chemistry of timing and harmonies to deliver a brand of music that can take traditional music forward. The capacity audience eagerly await their return in 2013 with new material.

7 – Rachel Harrington and the Knockouts Courtyard Arts Centre Hereford
Long time UK visitor Rachel came over in 2012 with a new band, new album and a new sound. This interpretation of all-female honky tonk music was a breath of fresh air on the Americana scene. Rejuvenated some older material as well.

8 – Gretchen Peters Robin 2 Bilston
Gretchen spent the whole of 2012 on a crest of a wave with her career defining album HELLO CRUEL WORLD. Her shows were well attended and the systematic approach to airing the entire record ensured maximum exposure for this fine release.

9 – Los Pacaminos Robin 2 Bilston
There is a tendency to view this part time collaboration as light hearted but when they put their minds to it they can almost create the perfect live music experience. The Robin 2 show this year was by far their best to date.

10 – Jason and the Scorchers The Musician Leicester

Influential country rocker Jason Ringenberg brought his 30th anniversary tour to the UK this year and demonstrated to a lively audience what an outstanding inspiration he has been. It was loud and raucous but extremely roots reflective.

The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Thursday 20 December 2012

Although The Toy Hearts spend ever increasingly more time on the road, their hometown Christmas show has become a set feature over the years. The Birmingham based band have used several venues around the city to host their festive bash and this year they elected to return to one of their regular haunts. The Hare and Hounds is a lively suburban music venue comprising of a couple of upstairs rooms and, on this busy pre-Christmas evening,  the band had to settle for virtually selling out the smaller, yet still sizeable room. 
Georgette Jones      Image not from show

In line with other previous hometown shows, The Toy Hearts are keen to share the evening with other like minded acts and on this occasion they persuaded Georgette Jones to join them for a short set. Georgette has family links in the Midlands after marrying Birmingham born pedal steel player Jamie Lennon and couldn’t resist the opportunity for them both to perform on this holiday visit from their Nashville home.

Georgette and Jamie joined the band on stage for the final half hour of the evening with a short set list not surprisingly featuring a selection of family favourites. From her mother’s side came the popular Tammy Wynette classics ‘Stand by Your Man’, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’ and ‘Apartment No.9’, while father George wasn’t left out with ‘The Race Is On’. With the festive season almost upon us, the audience were treated to a delightful version of ‘Silent Night’ before Toy Hearts vocalist Hannah Johnson returned to the fore to end the night on a country note with a cover of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’.

While the enjoyable conclusion to the evening provided the cream, the real substance of the show was The Toy Hearts set which saw them focus almost entirely on their latest album WHISKEY. Having followed the band for a number of years, it has been interesting to see them evolve from a bluegrass outfit to one that’s more inclusive of the wider Americana movement. The new album is heavily biased towards the Western Swing sound and this proved the theme for this evening’s set. With the bluegrass influence put to one side, Stewart Johnson reverts from his usual dobra and banjo to concentrate solely on the triple neck steel guitar, an instrument central to a sound popularised by Bob Willis in 1930’s Texas. It has to be said that this has vastly enhanced a Toy Hearts live show.

The Toy Hearts     Image not from show
In fact Bob Wills is far more influential in the Toy Hearts current mode rather than their traditional source of inspiration, Bill Monroe. Two Wills numbers included on the WHISKEY album ‘Ridin’ on Down’ and ‘I Hear You Talkin’ were played on the evening along with the instrumental ‘Twin Guitar Special.’ Modern day swing is not left out with Wayne Hancock’s ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs’ featuring on both album and set list.

The band fronted by the Johnson sisters, Hannah on mandolin and Sophia on guitar, demonstrate that they are not just fine interpreters of old time music. They have self penned a considerable portion of the WHISKEY album with ‘Bring on the Swing’, ‘Mary Jane’ and ‘Stutter Blues’ all featuring on the evening. Having listened extensively to all four of the band’s albums to date, apart from a couple of old favourites notably ‘Montpellier Street’ and ‘The Captain’, WHISKEY is by far their most accomplished collection of songs and is the perfect theme to an enjoyable live performance.

The Toy Hearts are temporarily re-locating to their spiritual home of Austin, Texas for the second half of 2013. Hopefully the intended six month visit will mean another Birmingham homecoming show in a year’s time. While the extended trip will aid the band's development, they are very much needed in the UK to promote their brand of country music and many fans will eagerly await their return.

                                          The Captain - The Toy Hearts

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Gary Quinn - This Cowboy's Heart

A widespread trait of the UK country scene is the demand for artists to include an abundance of covers in their live shows. While there is certain merit in interpreting the songs of others, the true health of any genre is defined by the creative development of original material Therefore it is commendable when an artist takes this progressive stance and ventures out with a selection of new songs, especially when they themselves have been immersed in the covers scene. On the evidence of this five-track EP titled THIS COWBOY’HEART, Greater Manchester based Irishman Gary Quinn has the talent to carve out a successful career as a credible singer-songwriter, collaborator and artist brave enough to showcase new songs.

In line with some of the finest Music Row output, Gary has demonstrated the knack of crafting a well constructed song that sublimely fits so well with the array of instruments providing the authentic country sound. Repeated plays of the opening and title track ‘This Cowboy’s Heart’ confirm an outstanding song that is adorned with a wonderful melodic chorus accompanied by complementary keyboards, guitar and pedal steel, all telling the simple tale of the iconic cowboy.

The danger of such a strong opening track is it sets a too high standard to follow but Gary has made an admirable attempt to match the heights of this outstanding number. ‘Keep on Playin’ has a more up tempo beat to it with a catchy chorus that will embed itself into the mind of regular listeners. In contrast to the pace of this song, Gary shows his worth has a ballad composer with the next track, the heartfelt ‘He Don’t Show Her Anymore’. Once again the chorus is a striking feature of a song that ticks plenty of boxes from the country music repertoire.
The ballad theme continues with ‘Tin Man’ a number that explores the world of a certain late thirties Hollywood blockbuster to act as an analogy for the message of this song. ‘Live Each Day’ is an ideal closing track with its uplifting message and consisting of gentle verses leading into a rousing chorus. Like all songs in the collection, the opportunity to hear them live should be an enhancing experience and regular festival goers at Wolvestock and Americana will get the opportunity next summer.

In the meantime Gary Quinn continues to hone his craft with a repeat involvement in the Nashville songwriter’s circle that makes regular visits to the UK and this should aid his future development. THIS COWBOY’S HEART is surely a mere taster and hopefully a signal for further original material to emanate from this fine country singer-songwriter and his co-collaborators.
                                          He Don't Show Her Anymore


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Daniel Pearson - Mercury State

It has often been mooted that periods of austerity can spawn a burgeoning of creative talent directly involved in capturing the moment of the times in song. Woody Guthrie will always be associated as the voice of the Great Depression while closer to home Weller, Bragg and acts like The Specials rose to prominence as musical commentators on the British economic upheaval of the early eighties. It may be a touch premature to anoint Daniel Pearson as the spokesperson for the ongoing difficulties we are currently enduring but his second album MERCURY STATE is an excellent attempt to define the dark era that continues to blight individual’s lives.

Gritty, industrious and unreservedly melancholic, this 9 track 32 minute collection of original material will resonate with many and has the potential to launch a genre of austere, hard hitting singer-songwriter realism. In tune with the times by using minimal production, Daniel has successfully blended a range of guitar and keyboard sounds to his thoughtful lyrics to create a body of work that will meet the needs of folk, indie, Americana and country fans who yearn for a dose of real life, reflective truth in their music.
The album bursts into life immediately with the emotive acoustic guitar inspired ‘Factory Floor’. The song written like a plea of ‘why me’ repeatedly asks “what more could you want from me” and sets the tone for an avalanche of thought provoking numbers. The second track ‘Promises’ contains more electric guitar and a stance of attacking those who lead or more appropriately – mislead. The third song is a lovely ballad titled ‘I Still Believe’ with an effective piano intro and a slightly more positive message of clinging onto a chink of light.

The self explained title ‘Hard Times’ accompanies a more electro rock tinged track before the album’s stand out song appears, to define the message of the record. The metaphorically named ‘Rat Race’ may echo the Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers song blasted out by The Specials in the summer of 1980 but in 2012 Daniel Pearson uses the metaphor to highlight family breakdown , tough times and re-possessions, all ironically supplemented by the line “raised as the son of a working man”.
Keyboards and guitar are once again mixed in the balled ‘All is Not Lost’ while the light indie rock anthem-like number ‘Medication’ calls for a little reprieve and a plea to give us a break. ‘Old Friends’ contains a hint of Americana while ‘Lights’ is the perfect atmospheric curtain closer with a touch of twang as Daniel seeks solace by “finding hope in simple chords”.

This is definitely a heavy release and not for the faint hearted but contains more depth than a lifetime of X- Factor wannabes. Shallow pop fans should steer clear while serious music connoisseurs should invest at least 32 minutes of their life in listening to the profound message of this recording.
                                          Daniel Pearson - Factory Floor

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Laurie Levine - Bridge House Theatre Warwick Saturday 8 December 2012

Having reviewed Laurie Levine’s latest album SIX WINTERS a couple of weeks previously, the opportunity to catch one of her live shows, on this her inaugural UK tour, was not going to be missed. So it was a return to the Bridge House Theatre in Warwick which was also the venue for the first gig of the year in January when they hosted Canadian singer-songwriter, Ruth Moody. The theatre, located within the exclusive Warwick School, has started to showcase a few folk and roots artists with the added bonus of hosting shows on a Friday and Saturday night, evenings which most venues restrict to pop and rock acts. Therefore the scene was set for Laurie and her musical partner, Jessica Lauren to demonstrate live what extremely fine artists they both are.

Unfortunately the counter attractions of a December Saturday night impacted upon the turnout but in a positive way the re-location to a makeshift stage in the foyer added to the intimacy of the show and like true professionals both musicians gave exemplary performances of their creative talents. It was quite remarkable that South African Laurie had only teamed up with UK based Jessica in the last couple of weeks as their onstage presence came across as seamless thus enabling Laurie to give a more effective and rounded rendition of her music.
Spread across a couple of roughly 45 minute slots, Laurie set out to offer a mix of songs from the latest album, her previous recording LIVING ROOM and to introduce a series of new material that will surely be featured on any future release. After opening with a couple of these new songs, Laurie soon launched into some of the standout tracks from the SIX WINTERS album. The previous album review had earmarked the title track as a superb number and its live airing didn’t disappoint along with the wonderful ‘Beautiful Loser’ and ‘Where Have You Gone’. Throughout these songs, Laurie switched between her acoustic guitar and banjo, effectively supporting her distinct vocal style that was such an appealing component of the album. Out of the new songs previewed in the first half, ‘Everyman’ was the one which made the greatest initial impression.

After the interval, Laurie resumed with the SIX WINTERS opening track ‘Oh Brother’ before focussing  a little more on her older album by featuring the impressive ‘Kites’, ‘Advance’ and ultimately closing the show with ‘Tonight’. The between-song banter increased in the second half possibly after adjusting to the slightly surreal surroundings. Earlier in the show Laurie had intimated to her country/Americana influences and true to her beliefs she included the slowed down version of ‘Ring of Fire’ after the break. Having previously listened to this recording on the SIX WINTERS album, it once again re-confirmed a view on how a cover should add value to the original and this one definitely does.
While the focus of the show was very much on the musical output of Laurie, a special mention needs to be reserved for Jessica. This multi talented musician with a jazz/blues/world music background contributed keyboard, harmonica and auto harp amongst others to give the show a more authentic roots sound as well as providing backing vocals. You never know on a future visit a touch of dobra and lap steel may be added to enhance the timeless country and Americana feel to the live performance of these fine songs.

This penultimate show of the tour may not have had the greatest turnout but this initial visit has been about spreading the word. Laurie Levine is a new name to most people on the UK circuit but she has been a very welcome visitor and hopefully will continue to cultivate her presence in this country. Her talents have been well appreciated and generally the reviews have been positive. We look forward to enjoying more from her in the future.


Annie Dressner - Strangers Who Knew Each Other's Names

Annie Dressner may be a new name to a lot of people but on the evidence of her debut album STRANGERS WHO KNEW EACH OTHER’S NAMES this situation may be soon set to change. This impressive offering from a singer-songwriter who has recently re-located to the UK from her New York home is a collection of enchanting songs that will hook you in from the very start and keep you enraptured throughout its duration.
The sound created from Annie’s distinct and unique vocals coupled with the varied musical accompaniment has an alluring wide appeal that will engage with fans right across the spectrum of roots music. Much deliberation about the style has drawn a conclusion to a mix of the orthodoxy of Lucy Wainwright Roche and the distinct sound of Caitlin Rose. Fans of modern folk especially that emanating from the New York scene will find some appeal in the album. There is also a sufficient hint of twang in the sound to engage those who like their Americana music a little less rounded and classical. Overall the mesmerising vocals of Annie will leave a lasting effect once their spell has been cast upon you.

The opening track titled ‘Fly’ will instantly lure you in and grab your attention that will remain throughout the 38 minutes of the album’s duration. It is difficult to argue against this track being the stand out one, although it is closely rivalled by the excellent ‘Cigarette’ with its lovely scene setting intro before launching into some effective guitar work.

Those on the lookout for a hint of left field country/Americana will enjoy the subtle twang of ‘September’ and the various traditional string sounds added to the impressive ‘Hardy Boys’, another of the album’s better tracks. Those who prefer their singer-songwriters to have a more indie guitar driven sound will be drawn towards ‘Find Me’, all in all demonstrating the eclectic nature of this record. The final song of this eleven track collection ‘How Am I Supposed To Be’ is the perfect concluding number with its low key simple guitar enabling you to drift away in a state of satisfaction.
Other tracks worth mentioning are the homage to the iconic New York neighbourhood ‘Brooklyn’ and the title track which is a tuneful number containing some fine guitar work. On the surface, the lyrical content is worth exploring but this would be greatly enhanced by the online availability of a lyric sheet to accompany this download.

The tools are in place for Annie to create a niche in any number of different scenes. She is hitting the road in the New Year and will be worth seeing to complement the listening of this fine and recommended album.
                                          How Am I Supposed To Be

Kris Kristofferson - Birmingham Town Hall Wednesday 5 December 2012

Photo not taken at gig
With the years advancing, many country music fans have grasped the opportunity to catch the legendary performer Kris Kristofferson on this rare visit to the UK. Although he is now in his 77th year, the evidence of this sold out show at the elegant Birmingham Town Hall suggests there is still plenty left in the tank. Accompanied only by a single guitar, and being briefly joined on stage by his banjo playing daughter Kelly, the singer-songwriter/actor/legend gave a relentless performance of virtually non-stop hits that captivated an audience determined to savour every moment.
The voice may be a little worn but then again that was never one of Kristofferson’s major attributes and probably why so many of his songs were taken to greater heights by others. The guitar playing was a little inconsequential and a mere side dish to the performance but then again much of country music is constructed around the infamous ‘three chords’. However it is that third element of a singer-songwriter -the song - that has elevated Kristofferson into the stratosphere of not just country music but to the industry in general.

The chiselled Texas-born performer, who made his name in Tennessee before being embraced by the movie moguls of California, cuts an impressive figure on stage and despite being afflicted by the perennial cold that always seems prevalent in travelling US artists, delivered a brace of 45 minute sets that satisfied the cravings of his loyal fan base. For an artist with a lifetime of industry tales to tell, there was surprisingly little banter from Kristofferson. Only a couple of the many songs sung were introduced but the repeated outbreaks of applause during the first few lines for most of them suggested the audience needed little introduction.
Highlights of the first set included performances of two of his most famous songs which had considerable crossover success – ‘Me and Bobby Gee’ and ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’. Also from his vast back catalogue came ‘Here Comes That Rainbow Again’ and ‘Casey’s Last Ride’. ‘Nobody Wins’ saw a brief comment applauding Obama’s recent election victory while two other notable inclusions in the opening part were ‘El Coyote (the Lonesome Coyote survives)’ and ‘Johnny Lobo’.

It was very much the same after the break except for the short period when he was joined on stage by his young daughter, Kelly. They sang a handful of duet numbers with the most memorable being ‘The Pilgrim Chapter 33’. Kelly’s banjo playing enhanced the tunes performed and while the harmonies were not exactly top drawer, you could forgive this brief moment of family indulgence. Either side of Kelly’s appearance, the hits continued to roll including ‘Jody and the Kid’, ‘Silver Tongued Devil and I’ and ‘Billy Dee’. Increased crowd appreciation was in evidence for another of his most popular songs ‘For the Good Times’ and the one which eventually brought the evening to a close ‘Why Me’.
However for me, seeing Kristofferson live for the first time, the evening was all about one song. I had always considered the Johnny Cash version of ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ to be the best but the pleasure of listening to Kris Kristofferson deliver his most famous composition live was a pure humbling experience. It ranks easily amongst the very best live songs enjoyed in person and rounded off an evening that in reality may not be witnessed again.
                                          Sunday Morning Coming Down

Sunday, 2 December 2012

2 - Porchlight Smoker Dead Reckoning

The recently released 2nd album by Brighton-based band Porchlight Smoker is a wonderful example of how to combine a cross-Atlantic roots sound yet still sound fresh, original and primed to carry the baton of traditional music into the future. The record, given the simple and appropriate title ‘2’, is a comprehensive amalgam of cleverly selected interpretations of existing recordings and self-penned tracks that indicate the positive contribution the quartet of talented musicians can make to this style of music. The essential harmonies required for this sound are in place and combine well with the usual collection of instruments you would expect to find on a roots record. The result is a 14 track album that can be fully embraced by fans of roots music from old time country, through modern Americana to those appreciative of traditional folk from the British Isles.

The quartet formed in 2006 is extremely prominent and active especially in the South of England. Along with much of the promotion, Scott Warman holds the sound together on double bass while Fred Gregory contributes guitar and mandolin, as well as doubling up as an integral member of fellow Sussex-based band Hatful of Rain. He also takes credit for a number of the original songs along with Steve Bell who includes accomplished banjo playing in his musical artistry. Scott Smith completes the line up as the provider of the indispensable lap-steel as well as adding a touch of clarinet. All four share vocal duties and together they perfect the fine performing of all 14 tracks.
These tracks are neatly packaged in a 50-50 split of originals and covers with the latter being an interesting selection from across the roots spectrum. In honour of those inspirational pioneers of country music, the band’s take on the Carter Family’s ‘Lulu Walls’ is a definite highlight of the record. The same genre but fast- forwarded 40 years is represented by the band putting their own stamp on Merle Haggard’s ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’. The work of Dylan is celebrated in a cover of ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ while we are transported back to these shores with a traditional sea shanty titled ‘Haul Away Joe’. Perhaps the most interesting song selection is to explore the work of Bob Marley whose presence suggests a synergy between the folk/roots music of the Caribbean with that of North America and northern Europe. A banjo, mandolin and double bass-inspired version of his ‘Stir It Up’ is a worthy addition to this collection of quality of songs.

The potential danger of including a host of dominant covers on an album is that they can overshadow the band’s own material. The guys have strategically structured the track listing to mix up songs from different sources. Gregory’s ‘Old Bray Road’ opens the album while Bell’s instrumental ‘Steve’s Jacket’ neatly splits the strong concluding trio of Marley/Dylan/Haggard  tunes to give the listener a taste of what creative talents the band have up their sleeves. The core of the record comprises of a chain of originals headed by the folk-driven tale ‘Flowers on the Sea’ and including probably the record’s best original, the catchy harmonica laced ‘Dig Down Deeper’.
Porchlight Smoker is definitely a band to keep tabs on in the forthcoming year. Their brand of roots music is inclusive to a wide range of fans and in 2 they have an excellent record to exponentially grow their list of admirers. So enjoy their well constructed original material and broaden your musical experience with their carefully selected interpretations.

                                          Hey Maya

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Bobby Wills - If It Was That Easy On Ramp Records

After spending a number of years in essence serving a country music apprenticeship, Canadian artist Bobby Wills finally believes he has a record that may permeate the mainstream market. However in realisation of how tough it can be to crack the corporate driven Nashville labels and their tight collaboration with country radio, Bobby and his team are prepared to widen their appeal and have included Europe as a target audience for future development.
IF IT WAS THAT EASY is in effect the second full length release for Bobby Wills but the team assembled during its production has ensured that the final finished package is a top notch effort with a quality sound that should be the signal to alert the big guns. The album is a straight down the middle good ole country record that has a sufficient modern touch to its creation to sit comfortably amongst the leading lights of the Music Row- centred country music community. At a compact ten tracks long and just shy of 40 minutes running time, Bobby has managed to cover most bases of country music content while managing to leave the listener longing for a little more. This is a great trait of any record.

Apart from the vocal and guitar-playing talents of Bobby, a major asset of this record is the production and writing skills of three stalwarts of the Nashville and Muscle Shoals scene who in the past have worked with such illustrious artists as Reba McEntire, George Strait and Faith Hill. This team headed by producer Michael Pyle and including both Walt Aldridge and Wade Kirby have worked as a unit with Bobby on all ten original tracks, sharing the writing credits between them.

Like so much of country music, the strength of many of these songs is the innate ability to take a real life emotion and weave it into a simple but effective tale. The opening track, ‘Show Some Respect’, which has also been subjected to initial promotion, is a neatly linked chain of personal observations all underpinned by the moral of the title. This style and topic has served Brad Paisley well in the past and Bobby’s attempt is equally laudable. Another impressive number on the album is the metaphorical ‘Ceilings and Floors’ with its theme of desiring a better life for your off-springs. The title track ‘If It Was That Easy’, that concludes the album, remarks on the struggles incurred when striving to fulfil your dreams which could almost be autobiographical for Bobby.
As you would expect from any country record, the ubiquitous cheating song is included and from a personal point of view, the cleverly titled ‘Did My Back Hurt Your Knife’ is the most enjoyable track of this collection. Combined with the smart lyrical input of Wills/Pyle, the song is held together by a sound that, while remaining fresh, harks back to a more traditional era. The second song earmarked for promotion off the record is ‘Somebody Will’, an uplifting track benefitting from increased guitar amplification and rousing backing harmonies. Despite committing a ‘grammar crime’ in its title, ‘Done Quittin’’ slows things down sufficiently to impress with echoes of a touch of Kenny Chesney influence.

Bobby Wills has definitely made a valiant attempt in creating a record that will fit perfectly in the mature sound often featured in elements of mainstream country music and its associated radio stations. The rest is down to the marketing men and probably a large element of good fortune. However regardless of the level of success attained on the way, this album will definitely swell the fan base of Bobby and help him in finding his own niche in country music. There is certainly a market in the UK waiting to appreciate his talents.
                                                      Show Some Respect

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Laurie Levine - Six Winters 2Feet Music

For a nation with a sizable portion of their population possessing northern European roots, there is surprisingly little known about the South African music scene that embraces a traditional sound emulating that from both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, this is about to change as Laurie Levine sets out on a journey to leave the warmth of a southern hemisphere summer and promote her brand of folk/roots to a new but surely appreciative audience about to descend into the long dark northern European winter. On the evidence of this recently released album (new to the UK although debuted in South Africa in 2011), aptly titled SIX WINTERS, the wait for spring may just feel a little shorter as connoisseurs of fine music have a highly accomplished new record to add to their listening collection.
While the record draws much of its influence from the American roots music of Appalachia, it would be inappropriate just to label it another Americana release especially for an artist who has moulded an original sound in her native South Africa. The distinct vocals of Laurie gracefully adorn each well constructed and intelligent track while the musical accompaniment comprises of a virtually complete set of sounds you would expect from a recording of country roots music. Pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, accordion et al are subtly integrated into each track to give the album a traditional feel that will inevitably draw comparisons with the rich heritage of Americana-influenced music.

SIX WINTERS is the third full length album from Laurie and is available in both a standard 12-track format as well as a deluxe edition containing three extra songs including a couple from an earlier release and an acoustic number called ‘Dear Johnny’. All but two of the tracks are solely credited to Laurie with the exception being ‘Heaven’s Door’, co-written with fellow band contributor Lize Wild, and the solitary cover ‘Ring of Fire’. While the inclusion of the latter is usually somewhat clichéd, it is to the credit of Laurie that her radically slowed down version adds value to the original.
It is almost rude to mention a cover first when a talented singer-songwriter has packed their album with so many delightful original compositions so let’s quickly move onto the highlights of the record. Several repeated listens have probably earmarked the title track as the album’s defining moment. ‘Six Winters’ has a fantastic chorus structure that implants the song firmly in your mind with a little elegant violin to ease it to its conclusion. The banjo introduction to ‘Where Have You Gone’ sets the scene for another fine track that peaks with a memorable chorus. The rhythmic and haunting ‘Oh Brother’ opens the album with a subtle backbeat and effective backing harmonies supporting the listeners introduction to Laurie’s enchanting vocal style. There is a timeless feel to the closing song of the standard album; the very appropriately named ‘So Long Farewell’ a simple but extremely effective sing along number accompanied by lightly flavoured banjo picking. The bookending of the track with a gramophone style crackle adds to the traditional atmosphere that the song is evoking.

The lyrical content of most of the tracks implies an enormous depth to Laurie’s song writing and they certainly invoke the flipside to highly explicit story telling. They are best explored on a personal basis and in sync with the melodies that Laurie and her musical collaborators have created to support them. The strength of this album is the amalgam of the sophisticated song writing and simple arrangements, all held together by the striking vocal style of Laurie.
So welcome to the UK, Laurie Levine, with the live performance of this album being eagerly anticipated. It may also signal an influx of artists from the perhaps soon-to be discovered rich seam of South African talent showcasing their interpretation of Americana–style, folk and roots music.

                                                               Oh Brother

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bob Cheevers - Smoke & Mirrors Back 9 Records

For an artist who has written over 3000 songs and is perennially on the road, you get the distinct impression that Bob Cheevers doesn’t do things in small measures. Therefore it is of little surprise that his latest release sees the veteran performer deciding not to go down the route of recording a straightforward album, instead taking the double option and including 23 tracks split over 2 discs. As expected, SMOKE & MIRRORS is a twin record full of self-penned songs that reflect the observations, wanderings and thoughts of this well-travelled singer-songwriter.

For those unaware of the work of Bob Cheevers, take the vocal sound of Willie Nelson and the imagery of Tom Russell and you start to get to the crux of what this troubadour is all about. Raised in Memphis on a diet of Presley and Cash, graced the mainstream of 60’s LA, lulled into the industry mechanics of Nashville before finally settling in the creative hotpot of Austin, Texas, Cheevers has well and truly lived the American music dream. The close proximity of his roots to the Mississippi has infiltrated the delta sound into his bloodstream and this core influence is a constant theme to his music.
Although you can conjure up the image of Cheevers and his guitar meandering from town to town, when in the studio he does not refrain from experimenting with a plethora of instruments that you would expect from an archetypical American roots recording. However despite the input of piano, accordion, pedal steel, mandolin etc, the dominant feature of the majority of tracks is the forceful vocals, part sung/part spoken but always ensuring you actively listen to each word attentively.

In sync with a subject dear to the heart of fellow Texan resident Tom Russell, the West and all its imagery and harshness  is covered in the tracks ‘Days In Death Valley’ and ‘Is It Ever Gonna Rain’. Similarities to Russell’s work also appear in one of the album’s best tracks, ‘Vaya Con Dios’ as Chevers skirts the Tex-Mex border with a sound vastly enhanced by some soothing accordion playing. The song ‘Texas Women and Their Diamonds’ enables Cheevers to comment on his adopted state while his blues roots really come to the fore on ‘North of Baton Rouge’.
This is an album that you will probably never tire of exploring and each listen will certainly throw up something different to consider. From disc 1, given the title ‘Smoke’ early listens will draw you to an amusing tale about the joys of taking a more than passing interest in the ‘Girl On The Evening News’ and how she illuminates a mundane day. On disc 2, unsurprisingly titled ‘Mirrors’, the track ‘Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby’ sees Cheevers re-write their tale from a different perspective while sampling some of the sounds from the Lennon and McCartney masterpiece.

These are just a few personal observations from this extensive selection of Bob Cheevers compositions. The recommendation is to seek the album out yourself and it is guaranteed you will discover a different interesting perspective each listen. Better still check out one his live shows when he frequently tours the UK. He regularly plays small unsuspecting venues, so you never know; he may turn up down your local, a definite upgrade from the ubiquitous Karaoke wannabe.

                                Is It Ever Gonna Rain

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tift Merritt - Traveling Alone Yep Roc Records

Throughout her career, Tift Merritt has always come across as an artist with an independent streak. Not one to be tied down, the North Carolina born singer-songwriter has numbered France and New York City amongst her places of residence and frequently has not been in a position to be dictated to by major labels. This hasn’t prevented her from recording four previously acclaimed albums that have all possessed the promise of her ultimately becoming one of the most influential exponents of female singer-songwriter Americana music. With this background, the title and themes to the newly released 5th studio album TRAVELING ALONE are subtly appropriate especially as the project was initiated without any label in place. This has been corrected by hooking up with Yep Roc Records and together they have a fabulous set of songs for Tift to continue her progression to esteemed levels.
While the experiences of the songs reflect her inner thoughts, it has been far from a lonely adventure and Tift has assembled some fine musicians to assist her, all under the stewardship of producer Tucker Martine, who has previously worked with The Decemberists. Amongst these is Eric Heywood and his extensive Pedal Steel input is far more prevalent than what has been featured on Tift’s previous recordings and thus a drift away from the metropolitan sound towards that more aligned with her southern rural roots. It is only towards the latter stages of the album when the more extensive overtures of electric guitar take hold in tracks such as ‘Spring’ and ‘To Myself’. However the soul of the record is very much in the opening songs which have the potential to become stalwarts of her set list in years to come.

The title track ‘Traveling Alone’ is set to become the record’s flagship song and central to its promotion. The beautiful vocals of Tift accompanied by a light acoustic guitar sound are the prominent features of this song which reflects her emotional state at the outset of making this record. The second track ‘Sweet Spot’, especially in the opening bars, resembles her classic composition ‘Broken’ from the ANOTHER COUNTRY album and sees the introduction of the steel sound which creates a sweet and tuneful relaxing ambience. ‘Drifted Apart’ continues to contribute to this atmosphere which peaks in the mid album number ‘Too Soon To Go’ with its splendid chorus hook leading you to regularly hit the repeat button. TRAVELING ALONE is an album that doesn’t create an aura of loneliness and this is exemplified by the steel-laden song ‘Feeling of Beauty’ with its repeated line “if it’s alright by you, I’ll stay on another couple of days” and the theme of the previously mentioned standout track ‘Too Soon To Go’, suggesting a reluctance to move on.
Like so many eminent Americana artists, the independent non-conformist spirit of Tift Merritt will always place her on the peripheral of the mainstream. However her ability to make music that blends the traditional and the new with exquisite vocals and appealing songs will continue to ensure plenty of industry praise is lavished. TRAVELING ALONE is further evidence that Tift Merritt is continuing to make progress on the ultimate career journey towards influential status.

                                         Tift Merritt - Traveling Alone

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Polly and the Billets Doux - Kitchen Garden Cafe Kings Heath Birmingham Tuesday 13 November 2012

The band in full flow at the quaint Kitchen Garden Cafe
While Polly and the Billets Doux are a band that doesn’t court any specific genre loyalty, having witnessed one of their live shows they are definitely an act to look out for if your interest lies within roots music with an Americana tinge. Armed with a couple of EPs and a debut album, the band has steadily been making inroads into the industry with their own brand of stripped down melodic music. Led by the enchanting vocals of Polly Perry, the band successfully manages to dovetail the rhythmic tones of light percussion and double bass with an interchange of acoustic and electric guitar. This blend of string-based sounds perfectly supplements their collection of strongly constructed songs that are equally enjoyable either on record or in a live setting.

Having been initiated in the delights of their recordings, there was little doubt that they would be effortlessly transported and embraced by the brickwork acoustics of the Kitchen Garden Café in the eclectic Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath. So this proved to be the case, as Polly and the Billets Doux joined the growing list of highly respected roots artists to grace the Café’s intimate surroundings. This was accomplished by drawing on a collection of tunes from their previous releases and previewing a very impressive blues-influenced number titled ‘Money Tree’, which left a tantalising thought to what may appear on their next album.

From their 2010 debut album FICTION, HALF TRUTHS AND DOWNRIGHT LIES the South west based quartet opened with ‘I Would Ask’  and the audience didn’t have to wait long before the soulful ‘Follow My Feet’, probably the band’s finest song to date, had them tapping their feet. ‘Back to Earth’ and ‘To Be a Fighter’ were also featured from this record while the classy country-waltz number ‘Lead Me On’ was a perfect choice to close the show.

Of the other songs selected for the set, the band opted for the catchy ‘Hold Fast’ and ‘Hymn Song’ from their current EP released earlier this year. Also chosen was their 2011 single ‘Cry Cry’ with the song that supported it on the digital release ‘Sycamore Ships’ along with ‘Head of Steam’ from their debut EP of the same name. All these songs are well worth adding to your music collection, although genre classifying them may prove a touch difficult.
The vocal talents of Polly Perry have already been mentioned but another impressive feature of their show is the harmonies provided by double bassist Dan Everett and the source of the effective lead guitar input, Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen. Quietly behind the scenes keeping the whole sound on track is Neil Perry on drums and percussion. Together they have formed themselves into an impressive four-piece band that have created favourable impressions in influential places and hopefully will continue to make music in the future that continues to stretch boundaries while being true to a traditional sound.

                                                          Hold Fast

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Matraca Berg - The Assembly, Leamington Spa Sunday 11 November 2012

Photo not taken at gig
The fact that Matraca Berg has fully rehabilitated her creative talents and is writing exceptionally well crafted country songs again is welcome news to lovers of this music right across the globe. Those in the UK have the added benefit of Matraca now actively promoting her material over here with a long awaited headline solo tour to build on the success of her valuable contribution to the Wine, Women and Song project. Although there was a decade- long wait for an album of newly recorded material after 1999’s LYING TO THE MOON AND OTHER STORIES, the brace of recent releases has presented Matraca with the perfect set of songs to raise her UK profile as a performer in her own right and not just a Hall of Fame songwriter who the cream of 90’s Nashville regularly turned to for material.
This short eight-date tour saw Matraca return to some of the venues she has shared with Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss on her previous trips, but the turnout on this Sunday evening at the elegant Assembly in Leamington Spa suggested she still has a little way to go to match the popularity of these regular UK visitors. Matraca herself commented that they may have overdone the size of the venue. However on the evidence of the high quality performance put on by Matraca and her musical partners, David Henry and Jason Goforth, it shouldn’t take too many more visits to attract the numbers her talent warrants.

It was of no surprise that the show was almost entirely devoted to the material from 2011’s THE DREAMING FIELDS and the recently released LOVE’S TRUCK STOP. The title track from the latter launched the set and this was immediately followed by ‘Her Name Is Mary’, ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ and ‘Waiting on a Slow Train’. As is usual from a well renowned singer-songwriter, most songs are accompanied by stories surrounding their origin and on this evening we delved into the world of prostitution with ‘Magdalene’ and the Gulf oil disaster with ‘Black Ribbons’. All these are outstanding tracks from the latest album.
Having listened extensively to both albums recently, the live performances of four tracks from THE DREAMING FIELDS slightly tips the favour towards this release. The memorable melody of ‘You and Tequila’ demonstrated why mainstream Nashville still has one eye on Matraca’s output, with it being a massive hit for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter a couple of years ago. ‘Oh Cumberland’ has always been a personal favourite and its appearance on the set list was one of the show’s highlights. The story accompanying the song was the homesickness, Nashville born and bred Matraca felt when being exiled to LA during the years when she was under the wing of the big labels. The informative evening also saw her explain how uncomfortable she felt being moulded into a country star and, when eventually dropped, how she sought solace in the alt-country Americana movement that embraced her in the late 90’s. Another live highlight from this album was the touching personal account of the effect of war on those left behind which heralded her performance of ‘South of Heaven’ on which she opened up her emotions for a short moment.

This UK visit has seen Matraca briefly team up with husband and member of the highly acclaimed Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jeff Hanna but on this evening her musical collaborators were just David Henry on various guitars and Jason Goforth on Lap Steel as well as some other mysterious  instruments, one resembling a telephone. They together supported Matraca’s highly capable vocal skills and acoustic playing, all being effectively supported by the venue’s outstanding sound system.
The evening ended with a short reminder that Matraca is much more than her two latest albums. This included her version of the song that paid the bills in its day - 1997 CMA Song of the Year ‘Strawberry Wine’, the requested ‘Lying to the Moon’ and a little self-indulgent tribute to Neil Young with a cover of his ‘Old Man’. This left those present perfectly satisfied with the evening’s entertainment, which included an opening set from local singer-songwriter James Foley. Also it created an air of optimism that the numbers can be swelled the next time she visits by spreading the word that Matraca Berg is an artist definitely worth catching live.
                                                  Live version of Oh Cumberland

Friday, 9 November 2012

Sandi Thom - Robin 2 Bilston Wednesday 7 November 2012

Photo not taken at gig
The evolution of the second phase of Sandi Thom’s professional recording career is taking good shape on the evidence of this blistering show at the Robin 2 club in Bilston. Having witnessed her six years before opening for the Dixie Chicks on their last visit to these shores, she was then riding very much on the phenomena of being the face of the Internet music revolution and all the trappings that accompanied those indulgent days. However just over half a decade later and the pop/folk sound has been shelved, being replaced by the influences of blues/rock, with guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa becoming a central figure, both career wise and on a personal basis.
Having been on the positive side to the reaction of Sandi’s chart topping hit ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker…’, it has to be confessed that her career slipped off the radar in the intervening years. However the re-surfacing of her presence via the Americana music media brought Sandi back into the spotlight of an audience that was ready to embrace her new sound. This culminated in an impressive current release, FLESH AND BLOOD, which is fast becoming a personal 2012 favourite by blending a raw blues edge with a more rounded guitar-led Americana sound to a selection of high quality songs.

This new album is the title of the tour currently bringing Sandi back to the UK from her now Californian base and despite recently upgrading her US nationality status; she seems destined to keep Britain, and especially her native Scotland as an important market for her new brand of music. With a more acquired sound than her pop/folk origins, the venues selected on this tour, such as the Robin 2, will be realistic options for her to reach her audience. The reasonable sized gathering for a Wednesday night seized the chance to listen to a live airing of the new record and accompanied by her impressive band, Sandi thoroughly entertained those present in her 90 minute set.
A couple of tracks from the new album kicked off the set with ‘Help Me’ and ‘I Owe You Zero’ and ‘Stormy Weather’ also appeared midway through the slot. However the two stand-out songs from FLESH AND BLOOD, featured on the set list were performed towards the end of the evening. The title track, currently being subjected to extra promotional release, closed the main slot with the highly emotional Buffy Saint-Marie song ‘Big Ones Get Away’ providing the perfect antidote to the majority of rock- infused fast paced blues inspired numbers.

Sandi does not hesitate to dip into her past and now plays a revamped ‘I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker…’ complete with sax and enhanced guitar. She also makes reference to her time spent in Tooting by dedicating the track ‘The Human Jukebox’,from her debut album, to a wonderful character in a pub who managed to combine excessive alcohol with immense vocal talent. The album which heralded Sandi’s change of direction MERCHANTS AND THIEVES was also represented by a couple of numbers including ‘Heart of Stone’ and the barnstorming ‘Runaway Train’, that ensured the evening ended on a musical high.
For this tour, Sandi has assembled a talented band headed by excellent session guitarist Steve Down, who definitely wears his guitar heart on his sleeve. Bassist John Bird and percussionist Craig Connet provide the essential rhythm section while the versatile Mike Flame effortlessly switches between keyboard and sax. Lindsey Cleary supports Sandi with backing vocals while the main lady herself contributes acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice finding its true home in singing the blues.

Blues guitarist and vocalist Lisa Mills, of Deep South origin and residence but with strong West Midlands links, was afforded a lengthy opening slot with the highly experienced and acclaimed Ian Jennings supporting her on double bass. They were fully appreciated by the knowledgeable crowd and were an ideal warm up before the rejuvenated Sandi Thom showed the Midlands concert goers that her musical evolution is progressing very nicely indeed.
                                          Sandi Thom - Flesh and Blood