Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Corb Lund - Cabin Fever New West

The remote Rocky Mountain cabin that Corb Lund selected as the location to write the material for his latest album was an inspirational choice as the creative fever generated has evolved into yet another fine collection of songs that should cement his position as one of the leading lights of Canadian country music. The Albertan balladeer has maximised his wonderful ability of mixing catchy choruses and quirky lyrics with a range of musical styles to tackle a host of contrasting subjects, all supported by a backdrop of the west and its wide expanse.
Cabin Fever’, the seventh  studio album by Lund, leads off with an adequate track titled ‘Getting Down on the Mountain’ which is enhanced by a hint of banjo, before bursting into life with the stomping ‘Dig Gravedigger Dig’ , a tongue in cheek sing along number featuring a repetitive but infectious chorus. There are many similarities in the song writing styles of Corb Lund and Hayes Carll and the invitation given for the latter to duet on the distinctive road song ‘Bible on the Dash’ was a perfect fit and a take on religion that the Texan has experimented with before on the popular ‘She Left Me For Jesus’.

The excellent fourth track ‘September’ showcases the tender side of Lund’s lyrical qualities where a beautiful western feel to a sound, evoking images of the Rocky Mountains, supports a longing for a love trapped between the rural west and the big city east. Not surprisingly this outstanding track has already been highlighted for further promotion with a single release. Lund returns to this slower style later on the album with the steel accompanied sad regretful reflective number ‘One Left In The Chamber’. In contrast, Lund is also capable of creating a fine rock n’ roll/rockabilly sound and the album contains two tracks that expertly demonstrate this. ‘Mein Deutsches Motorrad’ celebrates a passion for German motorcycles, as per the translation, while ‘The Gothest Girl I Can’ sees Lund use a driving bass to hark back to his punk roots.
The rural Alberta background of Lund comes to the fore with the western swing influenced ‘Cows Around’ while an album of his wouldn’t be complete without some reference to those custodians of the west with ‘(You Ain’t A Cowboy) If You Ain’t Been Bucked Off’ supplying the subject content on this release. The western package is almost complete with the yodelling introduction and interludes added to the distinctly titled ‘Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner’.

That other essential ingredient of a country record also makes its appearance in a couple of tracks. ‘Drink It Like You Mean It’ is a conventional but still enjoyable traditional drinking song while ‘Pour ‘Em Kinda Strong’ concludes the album in an evocative aggressive style laced with sad overtures.
Those fortunate enough to catch Corb Lund on his very brief visit to the UK at the end of June would have had the privilege of a live preview of this excellent bunch of songs. However the rest of us at least can comfort ourselves with repeated listens on our various musical devices while we wait, hopefully, for a more comprehensive future visit to give this record the airing it deserves.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Turnstile Junkpile - Everything is Cheaper Than It Looks Requisite Nasty

This debut album from the wonderfully named Turnstile Junkpile is recorded proof that retro can be progressive as they have created a piece of real deal Americana in the true spirit of Parsons mission to fuse and Van Zandt’s intention to provoke thought. There is no denying that ‘Everything is Cheaper Than it Looks is an unashamedly attempt to rekindle the flame of ‘Cosmic American Music’ but the timeless quality of this style towers above many other music forms and still retains a strong relevance today.
The four-piece London based band named after the Townes Van Zandt song ‘Turnstyled, Junkpiled’ is led by Mat Clark and capably assisted by colleagues Lawrence McNamara, Ben Sumner and Dave Shaw on the usual array of string and percussion instruments you would expect on an album like this. Banjo and the twin steel sounds of pedal and lap, combined with that of standard guitars will always enhance a recording when played well and there is ample evidence of this being the case on this rookie release. Another reason for the appeal of this mini album is the thought provoking lyrics, all originally self –penned by Mat Clark, that let you draw your own interpretations without consisting of a load of pretentious claptrap.

The seven track album launches into life with the up-tempo number ‘Time is Running Out’, a quality opener which could be construed as addressing the issue of mortality. There is definitely more of a rock feel to the second track ‘This Isn’t What We Signed Up For’ especially with some of the guitar solos which assist a song appearing to evaluate a feeling of frustration. The slower third track, ‘Wishing Well’ is fast becoming one of my personal favourites and this country flavoured song which makes comment on those using faith to take short cuts demonstrates the effective use of banjo and steel. The banjo, that much maligned traditional instrument, supplies the opening bars to the jaunty number ‘How How How’. This song explodes into life in the latter stages with the powerful rhythm and blues sound emanating from a combination of harmonica and banjo.

‘Zanzibar’ has a more conventional rock sound with a leaning towards the influences of the southern states while the banjo-led sixth track ‘In the Morning’ is a tale of seeing things in a different light served in a slower folk style accompanied by some delightful steel and effective backing harmonies. The closing and title track ‘Everything is Cheaper Than It Looks’, once again has the banjo featuring subtly in the background with the lyrics painting a vivid image of retail in a bygone age.

Without any reservation this is a fine album and hopefully the positive reaction it will surely receive will inspire the band to further develop their creative talents in a continued alt-country/Americana direction.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Chris Smither - Hundred Dollar Valentine Mighty Albert/Signature Sounds

Veteran folk-blues singer-songwriter Chris Smither has endured a roller coaster 40 year recording career and his recently released 12th studio album 'Hundred Dollar Valentine' suggest that this 67 year old is in fine fettle and currently experiencing a high. The peaks of his musical associations with Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall have been interspersed with fallow periods where the drink took hold. This has probably held Chris back from widening his exposure but he remains a highly respected figure within the industry.

This eleven track collection of original recordings, the first of Smither's career, meanders along a roots-infested path creating a vision of a solitary figure strumming his way through life regardless of whether anybody is listening. Yet those who take time out can immerse themselves into the hazy atmosphere created by the sound which induces a state of reverie and take a relaxing break from the hectic real world.

 The album starts with a jaunty little number possessing the record's title track, before opening out to combine a selection of slow bluesy songs such as 'What It Might Have Been' and 'I Feel the Same' with the clever inclusion of more up-tempo numbers that take the album in an alternative direction. Possibly the finest song on the album, track four 'What They Say' wakes the record up from its slumber with a fiddle inspired beat complementing the ever present harmonica and acoustic guitar A few tracks later the sound is repeated with an upbeat blues tinged number 'Make Room For Me' that you could envisage originating in 50's juke joint.

Throughout the album, Smither's gruff, effortless, laid back vocals give the record that extra rootsy feel and although he cut his cloth in the folk clubs of New England, the sound is very similar to Malcolm Holcombe who specialises in creating the imagery of his native backwoods North Carolina. The comparisons with Holcombe, who frequently visits the UK, increase with the final track when Smither delivers an uncut version of one of his older songs 'Rosalie' with the, intentional or not, sound affect rocking chair at the end giving an impression of front porch blues. This triggers memories of Holcombe continually rocking on a wooden chair while performing at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in Birmingham a few years ago.

There is a place for this album when you feel like drifting away and perhaps absorbing a little bit of melancholy but be prepared just as you fall under its spell; Smither has that knack of injecting some life back into you. Just like a lot of roots albums, it would be enormously benefited by a live experience as well.

Americana International - Newark Showground Friday 6 July to Sunday 8 July 2012

The tried and tested formula of the Americana  International is the key to the success and longevity of this festival as once again thousands of enthusiasts flocked to the wide open spaces of the Newark Showground on the first full weekend of July. The term Americana can have many different interpretations but for the 32nd straight year this self-professed lifestyle event blends several strands of music with the grandeur of the automobiles, motor cycles and elaborate recreational vehicles that form a vision of post-war American culture. The music is a mere snapshot of what has originated from the U.S. over the last fifty years and is centred around mainstream country, rockabilly and the wide spectrum that formulates the term rock n’ roll. The vast range of artists on show from both sides of the Atlantic encompass highly credible acts and those who steer their talent in an imitative direction but provide a mixture to entertain an all-age inclusive crowd in an affordable way.
It has to be said from a personal viewpoint, a fair proportion of the acts are of mere passing interest, but, as on numerous previous visits to this three day festival, there are usually around a dozen artists that have sufficient merit to warrant further scrutiny. Some are noted beforehand while you normally have the usual festival experience of an unexpected artist raising their own profile in your live music appreciation. The Friday of this year’s festival did take a while to ignite, and not just due to the presence of the loathsome wet weather afflicting yet another summer outdoor activity, but by the time the three earmarked bands took to the main stage, the rain clouds kindly took their content elsewhere.

Bayou Brothers share their passion of Zydeco and Cajun
The first of what turned out to be a San Diego double header saw the Bayou Brothers deliver their interpretation of Cajun, Zydeco and blues in a rare festival serving of this style of Americana music. Though originating from the sunshine state, the band led by accordion playing vocalist John Chambers have fully embraced the Louisiana sound and put on a show that couldn’t fail to impress those who perhaps were looking for a little deviation from pure guitar based music. The added entertaining feature of a rubboard, expertly demonstrated by Judy Seid, assisted the band in playing tunes such as ‘Chilli Momma’, ‘Alligator Waltz’ and the ever popular ‘Toot Toot’. The set saw a little mid-way deviation where the blues element of their performance surfaced through the delta inspired voice of highly respected guest, Lazy Lester. His interpretations of ‘Scratch My Back’ and ‘You Better Listen’ left you in no doubt of the credentials of this Hall of Fame nominee.  The link between the Bayou Brothers and the next artist was the Eve Selis Band bassist, Rick Nash who doubled up to help out his fellow San Diego residents.

Eve Selis in fine voice again.
Eve Selis is a regular visitor to the Americana International and her 2012 full band tour conveniently included successive weekend festival shows at the Maverick in Suffolk and here in Newark a week later. Having witnessed three appearances of this band in a week, though there were contrasts in the set list, the high quality of each performance was easy to compare. The opening track ‘Rubber and Glue’ and ‘Russellville’ were restored to the set and once again the vast majority of the numbers were from the recent ‘Family Tree’ album which is continuing to flourish with every listen, both live and on record.  Eve’s fantastic personality absorbs a festival crowd and she never misses an opportunity to win over new admirers.  The surprising omission from the set of ‘Ballad of Kate Morgan’ denied drummer Larry Grano his moment of vocal fame but his percussion skills are an essential element of the numerous strong songs such as ‘Heart Shaped Tattoo’, ‘One Day At A Time’ and ‘Stop The Train’. So a personal live farewell to Eve and her band this year but  good to be left with the memories of ‘Don’t You Feel Lonesome’, ‘Witness to Your Life’ and ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’’, all songs added to a personal 2012 summer soundtrack.
The main stage closed on the Friday evening with a performance from respected UK country band The Diablos. This is one of the few bands witnessed from the British club scene that has made an impression and they mix original material with interesting covers such as the Allman Brothers instrumental ‘Jessica’. The band’s standout track was ‘Truth and Consequence’, a number one on the UK Hot Disc Country Chart. If there were a few more bands around like The Diablos, the club scene may be a little more appealing.

Ellie Dibben duetting with PJ Proby
The first act on the Saturday to be of interest was the curiosity surrounding the re-appearance of fourteen year old Ellie Dibben on the main stage. Although her set last year was not witnessed, the promoter Chris Jackson was sufficiently impressed to ask her back and perform with her fellow young band. While her age recalls memories of Leann Rimes creating a stir back in the nineties with versions of ‘Blue’ and ‘Cattle Call’, to make observed comparisons would be a little unfair and inaccurate. However there was no problem with Ellie’s vocal skills as she constructed her set around the songs of country teen idol, Taylor Swift. While the label ‘country’ horrifies many when interpreting this type of music, it is important to assess how the genre is going to evolve. To me the bigger problem is not the output from the young Nashville acts which can find its own niche but some of the blatant de-countrified mixing occurring in certain markets. It will be interesting to see how Ellie’s career develops but she is receiving guidance from industry stalwart, PJ Proby who joined her on stage for a duet of ‘Ready, Set, Don’t Go’.

Claire McArthur and Paul Bain of Raintown
On the theme of contemporary country music, much interest was centred on the next band up, the ambitious Scottish based duo Raintown who were making a rare UK live appearance. Apart from various successful bridge building visits to Nashville, the band have produced a highly competent debut release titled ‘Hope in Troubled Times’ which has signalled a drive to take their UK twist on this strand of music to an elevated level and hopefully infiltrate the mainstream. The duo’s live performances are constructed around the infectious harmonies of co-singers, Claire McArthur and Paul Bain who used the forty five minute set to showcase the album almost in its entirety. It’s always useful to include a couple of popular covers into a festival appearance and Keith Urban’s ‘Somebody Like You’ was their contribution alongside a merging of ‘Jackson’ into their own crowd pleaser ‘Love's Got a Hold on Me’. The strength of songs such as ‘Light the Fuse Up’, ‘Ship of Fools’ and the sing along closer ‘Just One Kiss’ will serve Raintown well in their quest to become the UK’s answer to Lady Antebellum. While the British club scene is probably not the best vehicle to develop their live show, it is hoped they can address this conundrum and be more of a live presence throughout the UK as their talents merit it.

Two artists with a pure rockabilly/rock n’ roll background created a fair amount of interest on the main stage as the Saturday evening approached. Si Cranstoun, with his brand of light easy listening rock n’ roll pop thoroughly entertained the crowd, swelled by many visiting from other areas of the festival site, and was duly rewarded with the longest line all weekend at the merchandise tent. Mary Jean Lewis returned to the festival after her impressive set last year and added fuel to the theory that musical talent is in the genes, although she humbly accepts a lower profile than her more famous mother, Linda Gail and uncle, Jerry Lee.

Stacie Collins
There is always a danger of a schedule clash at any festival and on Americana’s Saturday evening, the performance of Stacie Collins on a portable stage located on the back of a truck in front of a sprinkling of admirers won over the viewing of established U.S. country band Confederate Railroad on the main stage. In a festival where the country element rarely drifts off a narrow path, the injection of the honky tonk rock n’ blues raucous sound of Stacie and her band gives you a little insight of what goes on in the clubs and bars in Nashville away from Music Row. Once Stacie freed herself from the constraints of the portable stage, she went on to give a dynamic performance that has been the hallmark of her UK shows over the last couple of years. There were no surprises in a set comprising of songs from her two recent albums and a couple of covers that celebrates the history of country and southern rock. The restoring of, personal favourite, ‘Lucky Spot’ to the set after its omission from her recent Leicester show was most welcome but all the Stacie Collins standards were there including ‘Ramblin’’, ‘Baby Sister’, ‘Hey Mister’ and the rock ballad ‘ It Hurts to Breathe’. By the time the band ended with their usual closer ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, those present were almost as exhausted as Stacie. Roll on her continued UK visits in the future.
The theme of country and southern rock was continued into the early hours of Sunday morning as Modern Earl, a band with a heavy US/European influence, followed Stacie onto the makeshift stage in this distant covered venue. The four piece band led by Chris ‘Earl’ Hudson delivered a rousing set and managed to create a sound that overcame some of the acoustic difficulties of this adapted location. Quality songs from their recent record, included in the performance, mirrored common themes such as ‘Blame the Bottle’ and ‘Country Love’ while their heritage and influences were reflected in the state anthem ‘Rocky Top Tennessee’ and festival favourite ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.

The seventy five year old legendary ambassador of country music, George Hamilton IV, has made the Sunday morning gospel tinged slot his own at the Americana Festival. With his charming tales of living an unconventional life as a country singer – one wife for fifty years- and mixing with many figures of Nashville royalty, George takes you on a sentimental journey while inspiring those up early with traditional songs such as ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘I Saw the Light’. This was a perfect antidote to a night of country rock and a strong reminder of what makes up the broad church of country music.

It has been previously mentioned that most festivals spring a surprise and the 2012 Americana personally confirmed why Brian Hughes has such a respected reputation and stands clear head and shoulders above most UK country acts. Finally catching up with his live performance definitely ranked high up alongside some of the touring artists witnessed and created an impression that he may be a little constrained by the UK scene. The strength of his song writing is one of his major assets and there is indication of this being recognised in the wider country community. Brian throws open his influences to the vast landscape of Americana music and makes no secret of his massive respect for Bruce Springsteen and the impact upon his music. His live festival version of Levon Helm’s ‘The Weight’ was probably the best cover of the whole weekend and he backs this up with some wonderfully constructed tracks from his self-penned latest album ‘My Kind of Paradise’ including ‘Damascus Road’, ‘When All is Said and Done’ and ‘God Bless Friday Night’.

Gene Watson
The late Sunday afternoon slot on the main stage is usually reserved for an established veteran mainstream country performer and this year’s occupant perfectly fitted that description. Gene Watson has been making country records for over fifty years and was a major star in the industry in the seventies and eighties. The fact that this era just pre-dated the New Traditionalist movement, which altered the landscape of country music, suggests where Watson’s sound resides and the laid back countrypolitan ambience from his performance resonated well with those in attendance. He is a fine singer who in someway defines an era and the wealth of country hits he performed including numbers ones’ ‘Paper Rosie’ and ‘Fourteen Carat Mind’ gives credence to his standing in the industry. He paid tribute to the great Merle Haggard with a version of ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down’, although the Hag will probably leave a greater legacy than Watson. Although he has lived in Nashville for many years the Texas drawl of his upbringing was detected when he reminisced of beating the legendary and fellow Texan Ray Price to a hit with the Dave Kirby song ‘Memories to Burn’. The two hour slot allocated for Watson also saw a guest appearance from Jerry Kilgore, who is supporting him on this short UK tour. Apart from promoting his new album ‘Telephone Texas’, Kilgore wooed the crowd with the George Jones classic ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. As the popular Watson departed to sign copies of his new CD, a re-recording of the hits, for his faithful following, the scene was set for the main stage to change direction and the return of San Antonio’s finest export of Honky Tonk Texas country rock ‘n roll, Two Tons of Steel.

Kevin Geil from Two Tons of Steek
This four piece band spend fifty one weeks of the year plying their trade around the dance halls, honky tonks and music venues of south Texas but having been plucked out by promoter Chris Jackson for some international exposure, are now making their third straight pilgrimage to the festival. They warmed up for their main stage slot with a late night Saturday blast in the sound flawed George Stephenson Hall and hit the straps running the following day by opening with three songs from their excellent 2009 album ‘Not So Lucky’. The title track of this album, ‘Cryin’ Eyes' and ‘Wanna Dance’ immediately got the enthusiastic crowd, swelled by visitors from the rockabilly dominated Alpha Stage, going. The fast pace rarely relented over the hour and a quarter set with the crowd participation number ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ and the very appropriate for elements of this alcohol fuelled festival 'Bottom of the Bottle , both proving popular. Lead singer/guitarist Kevin Geil did slow things down with the sentimental number ‘You Know’ but this was only a temporary reprieve as normal service returned with a sinew bursting version of fellow Texan, Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’. These guys are fast becoming festival favourites and a 2013 return would prove to be a popular move again.
This annual immersion into a low regulated corporate free-festival is a highly enjoyable experience and though some may consider it a little limited and slightly clichéd view of Americana music, buying into the ideals of the promotion enables a modest personal investment to be amply rewarded. After an uncertain period with the venue’s hosts, plans are already at an advanced stage for next year’s event and precedence suggests a sufficient diet of quality artists will be presented to satisfy the desire of those attending mainly for the music.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Eve Selis - Robin 2 Bilston Wednesday 4 July 2012

Eve Selis Not taken at gig
‘She lit up the sky that 4thof July’ may have had a different meaning when Gretchen Peters wrote this line for country standard, ‘Independence Day’, but with a little literary licence it would also be a perfect way of summing up this rousing performance by Eve Selis and her six piece band on yet another rainy night in Bilston. After witnessing Eve breeze into the UK the previous weekend with an impressive set at the Maverick Festival, expectations were high that an extended timeslot on stage could surpass this performance and the fairly well attended Robin 2 audience weren’t disappointed. For almost an hour and three quarters, those present were treated to a near-complete airing of her most recent, and in my opinion finest to date, album ‘Family Tree’ with the added extras of some old favourites and a couple of popular covers .
The lively and enthusiastic Eve made an early appearance on stage when introducing their very special guests who kindly accepted the invitation to make the long journey from southern California to accompany her on this segment of their UK tour. Berkley Hart is the straightforward stage name for country-folk duo Jeff Berkley and Calman Hart and the presence of such an accomplished act has the potential to raise their profile in the UK and maybe themselves becoming regular visitors to these shores in the future. The standard of their banter, musicianship and song writing far exceeded the norm you would expect for a support slot and they seized the opportunity to showcase around half a dozen tracks from their sixth and most recent album ‘Crow’. They played safe with a version of the Pete Seeger hit ‘Little Boxes’ to open the slot but showed the depth of their talent with the self composed ‘I Still Dream in California’ and the poignant ‘My Name Is Sam’.

It’s been a while since Eve has brought over her full band but in 2012 finances have allowed this and in addition to regular musical partner Mark ‘Twang’ on guitar, her stage presence was enhanced by ‘Cactus’ Jim Soldi also on guitar, Rick Nash on bass, Sharon Whyte on keyboard and accordion and the multi tasking drummer Larry Grano. This rockier and fuller sound inspires Eve to elevate her strong vocals to a different plateau where the combination of blues and soul influence helps transform the songs from recording studio to an exhilarating live performance.

In a change from her festival set, Eve opened this performance with the song ‘Any Day’ from her latest album and by the time the evening was concluded with a rousing version of ‘Stop The Train’, a further nine tracks to be found on this record were superbly delivered and it’s difficult to perceive anybody present who didn’t possess the album, leaving without a copy. Most of the tracks on ‘Family Tree’ are original recordings where Eve has had some influence on their composition with the main exceptions being Lori McKenna’s excellent song ‘Witness To Your Life’ and the Leonard Cohen standard ‘Hallelujah’. Their fine version of the latter was almost the equal of the Good Lovelies stunning acapella performance in Ross on Wye recently but while delivered in a conventional manner was certainly no second rate X-Factor- like cover. Eve was joined on stage by Calman Hart to sing the country waltz influenced title track of the new album, mainly because ‘Family Life’ started out as an incomplete tune stumbling around his head until given a new lease of life with the band’s input.  One improvement that would have enhanced the evening is the inclusion of some pedal steel especially as this is by far her most country sounding album and the live version of ‘Don’t You Feel Lonesome’ was crying out for this accompaniment.
Berkley Hart Not taken at gig

Away from ‘Family Tree’, the old favourites ‘Heart Shaped Tattoo’ and ‘Ballad of Kate Morgan’ made their usual appearances with drummer Larry Grano contributing his vocal piece to the middle verse of the latter. This was not to be the last of his vocal stints as he amusingly sprang from behind his drum kit to once again make a solo contribution, this time to one of the evening’s concluding numbers, the sing along traditional classic ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. ‘Cactus’ Jim Soldi comes into his own on the band’s version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and his guitar skills also excel on pre-encore number ‘One Day At A Time’. The oldest song from her recorded back catalogue performed on the night also warrants a mention, with the Cajun sounding ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’’, a song from her 2002 album ‘Do You Know Me’ , coming over really well.
Eve has been a frequent visitor to the Robin 2 over the last few years and this, as well as being the most attended , was probably her best performance at the venue yet. So the band and their guests may have been 6000 miles from their home celebrations  on this 4th of July but the rainy skies of Bilston were certainly lit up as the culture of American roots music continues to flourish in the UK.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Random Canyon Growlers - ...Dickey Ain't Got All Day The Henhouse Recording Studio

Before you listen to any of their music, the Random Canyon Growlers have already succeeded in grabbing your attention with such a vivid name that conjures up wonderful images of an old time traditional mountain band skilfully plying their trade around isolated rural communities. Therefore it is of little surprise that these visions gain further clarity as you absorb the musical content of this debut album from the five piece band who has found inspiration in their adopted Rocky Mountain home.
The band is the brainchild of two musicians who followed their dreams and relocated from Vermont to Idaho in pursuit of their musical spirit. The resultant album, equally wonderfully named –‘ …Dickey Ain’t Got All Day’, is recorded proof that Jamie Drysdale and David McMeekin, along with founding bassist Matt Donovan, have captured that soul and added evidence that old time/bluegrass music is now in the safe hands of the next generation. With the classical combination of fiddle, double bass, acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin to accompany the creative arrangements and incisive lyrics, this comprehensive sixteen track album deserves the honourable complement of holding your attention right from the opening bars of Drysdale’s fast pace driving number ‘With You Beside Me’ to its conclusion with McMeekin’s ‘Mercy’.

With such a rich history of influence to draw from, the guys have tactfully paid homage to their heritage by carefully interpreting the work of four legendary performers including Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers. Their version of the latter’s ‘Dark as the Night’ is one of the album’s better tracks along with the song ‘Born To Be With You’ borrowed from the catalogue of prolific songwriter Don Robertson. However the real strength of this album is the twelve self-penned songs split almost evenly between Drysdale and McMeekin including the co-written ‘Guilty as Murder’. There is virtually an interchange of their individual songs through the album’s progression with the only instrumental being Drysdale’s ‘Mad River Breakdown’. The usual subjects of this type of music are explored such as Drysdale’s ‘Moonshine Train’ and the wonderful tale McMeekin wrote about addressing your fears on returning to your roots in the song ‘Afraid To Go Home’.

The good news for us British followers of this strand of roots music is the band is intent on taking their music overseas to pursue a wider audience. With this desire they have already planned a UK and Ireland tour in October and the opportunity to experience this very fine recording live, no doubt delivered in traditional style around a single mic, will not be one to miss. In the meantime seek out this record and celebrate the successful baton passing of old time traditional bluegrass roots music to the next generation.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Susan Cattaneo - Little Big Sky Jersey Girl Music

After years of partial involvement in the music industry, New Jersey born performer Susan Cattaneo decided to immerse her into a fully fledged recording career in 2009 and the drift westward from her east cost upbringing is reflected in a search for her musical soul via a trawl through America’s heartland. Her first couple of full length albums reflected a move from general Americana towards country and this journey has continued with the release of this smaller seven-track record that contains all the hallmarks of a 21st Century Nashville production. The feel is very much contemporary and if falling in the right hands could lead to some radio airplay and the rich pickings that may follow such a direction. If you like your country, traditional, rootsy, raw and authentic then this is probably not the album for you but on the other hand, the slick Nashville way of slightly blending those sounds into the background and still retaining a country feel has presented Susan with the opportunity to pursue the ever growing markets for this strand of modern music.
The reason for the lack of tracks on this album is unsure but those who have previously enjoyed her music may also be slightly disappointed by its title track being lifted from her 2011 release as well, albeit with a more souped-up production. ‘Little Big Sky’ – the song – has been promoted as a single since the turn of the year and is a slightly clichéd account of escaping city life, drinking sweet iced tea while sitting on a front porch swing. The country theme is also explored in the quintessential reflective song ‘Pennies on the Rail’ which is probably the album’s standout number. Of the other tracks, ‘Spare Parts’ does take a slightly different direction with a more rock-oriented sound and the vocals possessing a greater edgy feel to them.’ Let the Music Deliver Me’, the album’s opening track is your prototypical modern Nashville production where if you listen carefully you can detect some fiddle and steel. The ballad-like number ‘Alice in Wonder’ with its references to Lewis Carroll’s classic doesn’t really work and adds little value to this short record. The album’s final track ‘Better Day’ is a piano-led show closer that manages to do its job well.

Susan has previously had some success in Europe and while this fairly safe, conservative release is in line with what’s being churned out from Nashville’s major labels, the home market could be a little too crowded, leaving probable opportunities more likely this side of the pond again. Susan has spent time in Italy amongst other countries promoting her music and could do worse than explore opportunities this side of the channel as well.

Maverick Festival Easton Farm Park Suffolk Saturday 30th June 2012

It surely can’t be a coincidence that my third straight year of visiting the Saturday of the Maverick festival would yet again be blessed with glorious sunshine especially in a summer littered with record rainfall. Perhaps it has something to do with the finest annual assembling of country, roots and Americana artists on UK soil that is somehow granted the privilege to perform in a perfect setting each year. So once those omnipresent rain clouds had cleared during the 175 mile drive to this tranquil Suffolk location, the stage was set for the relentless procession of high quality gifted musicians purveying the fruits of their creative craft.

Circumstances dictate that only the Saturday of this festival can be attended, so for me this year there was sadly no Corb Lund or Emily Barker who no doubt gave fine performances during the Friday evening slots that launch the weekend. Also the opportunity for the Sunday morning chill out with the remaining artists participating in the closing gospel brunch is missed, but the soul of the festival resides in the 12 hours plus of pure entertainment that embraces the Saturday. Even then it is maybe next time for such acclaimed artists as Amelia Curran and Rose Cousins as well as the several other dedicated acts that committed no other indiscretion than having a schedule clash with another top class performer and that is always the downside to assembling such an impressive cast of participants. Most of the artists making the final cut of my extensive featured list had been witnessed live before but a festival would not be complete without that experience of elevating a first time seen artist into the upper echelons of your live appreciation list.
Sarah MacDougall
Sarah MacDougall, the opening artist of this linear review, does not fall into this category as she gave a fine intimate performance at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham a couple of years ago. On that occasion she was in collaboration with a fellow Canadian artist, but as this year was literally a whirlwind couple of days UK trip, she elected to play solo and used her 40 minute pre-noon Barn slot to play a series of songs from her most recent release ‘The Greatest Ones Alive’. Sarah’s brand of Canadian folk is inspired by a decision to seek a near isolated residence in the Yukon territory of her homeland and you get a sense of this environment with the songs selected for this set such as ‘Permafrost’ and ‘Cold Night’. The small lunch time gathering helped her along by accepting the invitation to participate in the chorus of ‘It’s a Storm?’, although the best song of the set ‘We’re All Gonna Blow Away’ also has sing-along credentials to its composition.

Scott Poley and Cara Luft
The festival is centred on three stages with the accurately named Barn hosting acts throughout the duration of the day while the outdoor Maverick Stage shares billing with the Peacock Café following an early evening switchover. The outdoor stage was beginning to bathe in the most welcome afternoon sunshine by the time Cara Luft took to it with her newest musical collaborator, British artist Scott Poley. Cara was just coming to the end of an extensive UK tour promoting her new album ‘Darlingford’ and it was not surprising to see most of her set comprise of songs from this record. With festival appearances having a limited time allowance, alluring stories that accompany the songs of artists such as Cara are regrettably curtailed but the strength of tracks such as ‘Idaho’, ‘Only Love Can Save Me’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ support their performance well. In line with the banjo workshop she was involved with later, Cara used the opportunity, as previously done in other gigs during the tour, to demonstrate her twist on rock classic ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ with this much maligned instrument. The mood and essence of Cara’s performance would have probably been more suited to the Barn but she signed off this UK visit leaving good memories after catching her live a couple of times over the last month.

 Amy Speace is not an artist who has come across my radar before but that situation was rectified following her mid afternoon slot in the Barn. Hailing from New Jersey but now residing like so many in Nashville, Amy is certainly slanting towards the folk side of the Americana spectrum and can number the legendary Judy Collins amongst her admirers. In fact a song featuring in Amy’s set, the impressive ‘Weight of the World’, gained further prominence by being covered by Collins who has taken a keen interest in her career. Like so many artists on view, Amy is in the UK to promote a new album and used her set to preview a couple of songs from the upcoming release ‘Land Like a Bird’ including ‘Ghost’ and ‘Vertigo’. Amy uses her natural charm to portray the model of a folk-inspired singer-songwriter and she recalled a tale of spending hours with other artists at festivals across the U.S before launching into ‘It’s Too Late To Call It a Night’, a song written with Jonathan Byrd who visits this country for an appearance at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival later in the summer. She’s spending most of July in this country opening for Alejandro Escovedo and is definitely an artist to explore further.

Hatful of Rain
Maverick is not just a vehicle for travelling American and Canadian musicians to highlight their talent; it is also very serious about promoting a select band of UK acts that provide a British slant to this type of music. The four piece band Hatful of Rain specialise in old time music with a blend of British folk and Appalachian bluegrass and having recently discovered their debut album, catching the band’s afternoon set was earmarked as a priority once the schedule was announced. In true old time style the band delivered a storming mix of self-penned and traditional tunes with the shared vocal duties of Chloe Overton and Phil Jones perfectly complementing the delightful sounds emanating from their array of string-based acoustic instruments. Most of the songs came from the recently released debut album ‘Way Up On The Hill’ with Chloe’s vocals featuring prominently on the emotive title track and Phil stepping to the fore to deliver the infectious upbeat reflective number ‘Rockin’ Chair Daddy’. The combination of cleverly constructed songs and toe-tapping fiddle tunes saw Hatful of Rain meet the high expectations derived from their new recording and they should really aim to take these songs around the country to a greater audience. You never know, we might get the chance to hear their version of Gillian Welch’s ‘Caleb Meyer’, a song beaten by time on this appearance.

During this very busy day, two established artists were only afforded partial set visits but this is by no means a slur on their performances just the constraints of fitting 24 hours of music into 12 hours. Jason Ringenberg was one of the pioneers of alt-country in the mid 80’s and on this solo UK visit he likes to mix rock ‘n roll stories, Hank Williams’ covers and taking audience requests for old Scorchers numbers, a band he is bringing back to this country in October. Similarly to Ringenberg, Michael Weston King has been making good quality music for many years and is currently receiving well deserved recognition for his My Darling Clementine project where along with his wife, Lou Dalgleish, he celebrates the iconic days of some of country music’s great male-female duets. This full band show entertained those present and is something to try and catch during its numerous performances up and down the country.

The final two acts performing on the outdoor stage, which closes prematurely at 6-30, were watched in their entirety. First up was four piece Canadian band, Ladies of the Canyon, who were virtually parachuted into this country from a European tour and used this flying UK visit to test the market. The four female members delivered their brand of easy listening light country rock via a couple of acoustic guitars, double bass and tambourine creating a sound that captures the mood of the origins of their name, the iconic Joni Mitchell album and its connotation of 70’s California. Apart from the explicit revenge song ‘Billy Blasko’, the most memorable moment from the band’s set was their version of the Robbie Robertson song, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, covered by amongst others, The Band and Joan Baez.
Eve Selis
In contrast to the Ladies of the Canyon, the eagerly awaited re-appearance of Eve Selis accompanied on this tour by her six-piece band brought the afternoon to a fitting climax with a vibrant set of country fuelled roadhouse blues rock. Flanked by two expert guitarists in Cactus Jim and Marc Twang, Maverick and UK regular Eve uses her effervescent charisma to deliver a strong hour-long set of tracks from her new album ‘Family Tree’ sprinkled with some old favourites and a familiar cover with added relevance. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is hardly the most original Cash song to play but when Cactus Jim, with four years experience of touring with the Man in Black, takes control you can hardly fail to be impressed. Marc Twang, Eve’s long time and usual musical partner, was not to be outdone with some skilful slide guitar work on ‘Water Off a Duck’s Back’ from the new album which is probably their finest work to date. You could almost sense a guitar duel taking place of which the enthralled crowd were not going to complain, although there was time for accordion player Sharon White to add value to the old favourite ghost tale ‘The Ballad of Kate Morgan’. This performance, ultimately the highlight of the day, was a taste of what we are likely to expect as the band proceed through their two-week UK tour.

Carrie Rodriguez and Luke Jacobs

As the evening activity moved to the delightfully titled Peacock Café, with its beautifully designed artist backdrop, there was time for one more visit to the Barn to catch the performance from the fiddle playing singer-songwriter Texan Carrie Rodriguez who is currently working alongside guitarist Luke Jacobs. This young lady has to be one of the most talented musicians on the Americana circuit and she did not disappoint those present with a combination of new and old songs that has seen her skills harnessed by some of the industry’s respected figures such as Chip Taylor and Mary Gauthier. From her 'Seven Angels on a Bicycle' album she played the title track, ‘I Don’t Want To Play House Anymore’, ‘50’s French Movie’ and ‘Got Your Name On It’, while from her new album due to be released later this year, ‘Lake Harriet’ came over as a really strong track. Excuse the pun but while playing’ second fiddle’ to Carrie, Luke  Jacobs supported her well with both acoustic and lap steel guitar. The new album is definitely one to look forward to as well as Carrie’s continued commitment to promote her music in the UK.
More time has been spent in the Peacock Café on previous Maverick visits but this year only two artists were witnessed, although when you are in the presence of the contrasting styles of Otis Gibbs and Gretchen Peters for nearly two hours you know the festival organisers are doing something right. The reputation of Otis Gibbs as the epitome of the travelling American folk singer continues to grow as he undertakes his annual extensive jaunt around theses isles leaving memories of real life tales recounted in the spoken and sung word sealed with his humble signature of ‘thanks for giving a damn.’ As usual he opens with ‘Small Town Saturday Night’ and closes with the spine tingling ‘Karluv Most’ the Czech name for Prague’s landmark Charles Bridge. In between Otis pays tribute to a late friend in 'Something More' and introduces the audience to a couple of songs from his new album ‘Harder Than Hammered Hell’. As he left the packed Peacock Café stage to a rousing applause, this was not to be the end of his night’s work.

Gretchen Peters and Otis Gibbs duet on Wild Horses
Unlike many other festivals, the Maverick doesn’t really have a headline act, summing up the egalitarian nature of the artists invited, but highly respected Nashville based singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters appeared at the top of the promotional information and was selected to close proceedings in the Peacock Café around 10.30. This second 2012 visit to the UK with husband and co-performer Barry Walsh followed a highly successful spring tour promoting her critically acclaimed album ‘Hello Cruel World’ and is designed to bring her work to a wider audience through a string of festival appearances. With a set containing  many of the masterful songs from this album such as ‘Woman on the Wheel’, ‘Matador’, ‘Five Minutes’ and ‘Idlewild’ , a fair number of the audience were already familiar with these songs and long standing admirers were treated to a version of, what is considered her UK signature tune, ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’.  Although the tight schedule restricted encores during the day, Gretchen’s enthusiastic audience were treated to one more number with  a song which is becoming a feature of both her own and ‘Wine, Women and Song’ shows , a rendition of ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones ably assisted on partial duet by the invited return to the stage of Otis Gibbs. Spring 2013 tour dates are already announced by Gretchen and we eagerly await her next career development.
With the closing of the Peacock Café, it was just left to the Barn to bring the whole successful day to its conclusion with a blistering performance from Austin royalty and long time alt-country legend Alejandro  Escevado and his band the Sensitive Boys. Without being too familiar with his body of work, the let your hair down rock-infused sound certainly raised his profile within my sphere of awareness and impressive tracks such as ‘Bottom of the World’ written about the live music capital of the world – Austin, Texas, and ‘San Antonio Rain’ created a desire to further seek out his material. This includes an imminent album release called ‘Big Station’ of which the title track was included in the set.

As the band came to the end of their encore cover of the Rolling Stones ‘Beast of Burden’, the time had come to leave Maverick 2012 and hope that the apparent success of the festival is matched by the all important financial reckoning. The attendance seemed in line with previous years and with the added proof that the sun does shine on Maverick Saturday, surely the scene is set for a re-staging  of the day when country, roots and Americana assembles in a small farm in Suffolk.