Thursday, 19 December 2013

Top 20 Albums of 2013

There has been many wonderful albums to cross my path in 2013, some submitted for review while others were confined to just listening pleasure. With an unashamed and vain attempt to join the throngs of end of year best lists, here is the twenty records that left the most impression. Enjoy….

1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

A blueprint country album which preserved the integrity of the genre amongst a wave of change. The song writing talent of Brandy has already been mined and whether or not the riches are extended further, the treasures of this exceptional debut release have an ingrained sustainability to pave the way for a prosperous future.

2. Danny and the Champions of the World – Stay True

This release saw Danny draw on many influences and re-define Americana as not just a rock oriented genre. The result was an outstanding amalgam of sounds pioneered by a country soul feel which meant the album had an instant gratifying effect that time couldn’t diminish.

Album Review

3. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

The saviour of Music Row may be a strong accolade but the Nashville elite picked a winner to throw their enormous marketing weight behind. Insightful, infectious and ingenuous sum up this release that had the added bonus of serious UK promotion. A talent to be nurtured and preserved.

4. Jason Isbell – South Eastern

The blossoming and maturity of a long established talent is the legacy of an album with that much over used cliché of containing ‘not a bad track’. The path to Americana iconic status is there for Jason Isbell to follow and the pleasure of his journey is there for us all to enjoy.

5. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

The power and the beauty of the duet is an intrinsic value of country music and there was no better example of this art form in 2013 than the long awaited debut effort from these two valued husband and wife members of the Texas music community.

6. Billy Bragg – Tooth and Nail

There has always been a potential for Billy Bragg to exploit further the rich seam of country and Americana influence that has flavoured some of his material over the years. 2013 saw the lifting of all inhibitions to produce an album that had the intelligentsia of that genre drooling.

7. Tim McGraw – Two Lanes of Freedom

This giant of country music engineered a release that distanced itself away from the Nashville elite and allowed him to set his own agenda. The result was a record that reached out to all corners of the country genre and raised his level of respect to someone who can lead rather than follow.

8. Travellin Rose – Cinderella Dreaming

A breath of fresh air to the UK country music scene and an album that refused to fade into the distant memory. All the components of a very fine country record with a traditional stance were in evidence and it laid the foundation of a talent that has the potential to flourish in the future.

9. Emily Baker – All at Sea

A sterling effort from a singer songwriter who succeeded in merging a combination of transatlantic influences into a piece of work which gave a glimpse of acoustic heaven. A refined treasure that Emily can be very proud of.

10. Brad Paisley – Wheelhouse

The eponymous career album is still in the can but this latest offering from one of Music City’s most respected artists contained enough evidence to suggest the peak is not far off. A continuation to push boundaries within the genre is the defining feature of this satisfying release.

11. Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose

An album that probably did the most during the year to bridge the widening chasm between mainstream country and Americana music. The signs are there that Ashley is continuing to be this unifying influence with a song writing talent and vocal style to reach out across the divide.

12. Audrey Auld – Tonk

A hard hitting album with instant appeal and a lot of attitude leaving you in no doubt that the flame of feisty female flair is alive and kicking on the buzzing peripheral of Nashville, Tennessee. Also a reminder that the rest of the English speaking world can serve up a hearty portion of honky tonk.

13. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

Take three of the finest female young talents in Nashville and free them from the pressures of individual success. The result was a fun, breezy and an uninhibited release which managed to match commercial viability with artistic merit.

14. Ashleigh Flynn – A Million Stars

Another album which succeeded in meeting the Americana ideal of drawing influence from a multitude of roots sources and importantly showcasing that female artists can do this as laudably as some of the male counterparts of this style which tends to dominate the establishment appreciation.

15. My Darling Clementine – The Reconciliation?

Following up ‘How Do You Plead’ was a monumental task for this UK duo which continues to gather critical acclaim from many quarters of the music press and it is to Michael and Lou’s credit that the second instalment of classic duet country didn’t disappoint.

16. Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils

An end of year country, roots and Americana list is not complete without a classical offering of sheer vocal beauty and there was no finer exponent in 2013 than Aoife O’Donovan’s debut solo effort which attracted deserved plaudits and justified the decision to go alone for this release. 

17. Jamie Freeman Agreement – 100 Miles from Town

A prime example of how we can compete over here with the best over there. Multiple music genres went into the ingredients but let’s leave labels to one side for a minute and just reflect that Jamie produced a damn good album with all the hallmarks of a lengthy shelf life.

18. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

The golden collaboration of the year, which had the industry gasping, drooling and rushing out the accolades. For once the critical acclaim was not mistaken and both these highly respected artists rose to the challenge of proving that their best recording days are far from behind them.

19. Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo – Dear River

A slight nudge in the Americana direction came up trumps for Emily with a record that took the vibes up a notch without losing the folk structure and elegance. The record, which sounded even better live, further demonstrated the versatility that will keep her a prominent performer on the UK scene.

20. Natalie Maines – Mother

The record that Natalie always wanted to make saw a welcome return for one of the finest band vocalists of the last 20 years. The style may have divided opinion but the unmistakable vocal quality reminded everybody that her recording hiatus had been far too long. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Top 10 Gigs of 2013

A record number of gigs were attended in 2013, although even this fell short of the totals accumulated by some hard core music enthusiasts that I met during the year. As part of the annual reflection process, here are the top ten that for some reason or another hit the mark.

1. My Darling Clementine – Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 2nd October

Having successfully followed up their debut album, Lou and Michael took the My Darling Clementine project to even greater heights with a sublime live demonstration of how to keep traditional country music relevant in the 21st Century. This slick and awe-inspiring show perfectly succeeded in capturing the moment leaving a sweet memory of how an excellent recording can be brought to life in dance halls around the country.

2. Caroline Herring – The Hive, Shrewsbury Friday 1st March

Amongst a wealth of great singer-songwriter exponents caught live during the year, it was the heartfelt sincerity, engaging anecdotes and beautifully crafted songs of Caroline Herring that appealed most when leaving an endearing indelible mark. The intimate setting of a packed Hive created the ideal environment for the southern folklore tales of Mississippi-born and bred Caroline to leave their homeland and enrich the minds of those present on this treasured evening.

3. Gretchen Peters – Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove Monday 1st July

In a post Glastonbury haze, Gretchen brought the UK curtain down on Hello Cruel World with quite easily the best performance witnessed from her many Anglo shows. The settled combo support of Barry and Christine, not forgetting the memorable duet with Ben, has allowed Gretchen’s talents to lavishly flourish and the ease of this performance felt so comfortable in the surroundings of this neat and tidy Midlands venue.

4. Billy Bragg – Birmingham Symphony Hall Sunday 24th November

‘Americana is country music for those people who like The Smiths’ quipped Bragg who despite his onstage protestations made a significant step westwards with his album and stage show this year. The perfection of this evening was embodied in how he combined the explicit nature of this direction without losing any of the vigour and passion that defines his music, political and passionate ideals.

5. Carrie Rodriguez – Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury Sunday 25th August

The talent oozing from Carrie during this performance had the sold out crowd in this vintage venue totally absorbed into the sounds of west of the Mississippi. With Luke playing a stellar supporting role and an impromptu encore jam with Mark Erelli and Barnstar, the magical moments of her fabulous fiddle playing, gracious vocals and inventive songs found a perfect home for the evening.

6. The Band Perry – Institute, Birmingham Friday 29th November

With unabated choreographed brashness, the valued torchbearers of New Country showed the way of inter-generational connection and the uncanny knack of capturing the enthusiasm of a hungry fan base which may need just a little steering. The high ranking of this evening has set a benchmark of what is expected from The Band Perry and set out the standards required for their important future role.

7. April Verch Band – Cookley Village Hall, Worcestershire Sunday 13th October

When taking roots music back to its core, is there a need for anything plugged in? April took her brand of music straight into the heart of a community in a far off land requiring only her fiddle, classical vocals, infectious songs, exhilarating step dancing and two talented sidekicks. This evening was a trip to a bygone age and as pure as you could wish. Surely the observant Robert Plant sitting in the back row appreciated the authenticity which totally defined this show.

8. Stacie Collins – The Musician, Leicester Saturday 25th May

In what is now becoming an annual East Midlands show, Stacie exceeded the high standards of her previous appearances with an electrifying display of raucous, roadhouse, country rock and blues. It’s loud, explicit and enthralling but Stacie never loses that Music City trait of adding a little tradition and sophistication as well as pushing boundaries without abandoning respect.

9. Dale Watson – The Bullingdon, Oxford Friday 1st February

The memory of a double bass totally disintegrating with strings pinging everywhere highlights the enthusiasm and passion which Dale and his Lone Stars gave to this show. Never short on opinion on the direction the genre is developing, Dale knows his position, is not going to budge and his adoring fans love him for that. This first opportunity to catch him live was a delight to behold.

10. Lucinda Williams – Birmingham Town Hall Wednesday 26th June

In a year of redemption, a late decision to give Lucinda a second chance after a lukewarm show a couple of years ago was possibly the most rewarding of the year. From start to finish she alleviated previous prejudices and re-established her position as one of the most highly rated artists in the Americana genre with a fabulous live performance now in the memory bank. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Top 10 Festival Sets of 2013

Between the summer months of June to September, 14 days were spent soaking up the atmosphere at 7 festivals spanning the Atlantic. Out of the many artists’ sets witnessed, the selections detailed below provide a snapshot of the experiences most enjoyed and all had that extra personal appeal to take a rightful place in the 2013 roll of honour.

1. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – Calgary Folk Festival  Sunday 28th July

This well respected iconic husband and wife duo of Texas music came together in 2013 to record an exceptional album which they brought to life on a makeshift stage at the flood stricken Calgary Folk Festival in July. From Kelly lending her vocals to the superlative ‘9999999 Tears’ to Bruce showcasing his classic song writing skills with the much loved ‘Travellin’ Soldier’, they lived up to the high expectations with a performance to cap a truly memorable 4 day festival in this resilient Canadian city.

 2. Hannah Lou and Trevor Moss – Maverick Festival Saturday 6th July.

The art of sharing a single microphone was captured astutely by another husband and wife duo during a set which once again illuminated a small festival gathering. The cohesive and evocative style from 2 voices, 2 guitars and a single tambourine had a special feel to it which confirmed the promise previously surfacing within earlier album and live reviews. The experience of sitting right up to the stage enabled a captivating transmission of this talent and a 40 minute exposure of pure bliss.

Full review of the Maverick Festival

3. Alabama Shakes – Calgary Folk Festival Thursday 25th July

The sheer emotion, vitality and passion of an Alabama Shakes live show is a treasure to be in the company of and when the exertions of Brittany Howard see the trademark glasses removed then you know the impressive front person of this southern blues, rock and soul band is giving her all. It may have been a standard performance from this highly rated band, who had consistently wooed festival goers on both sides of the Atlantic, but it brought to a memorable first day close, a festival literally resurrected from the ravages of a great flood only weeks before.

4. John Fulbright – Calgary Folk Festival Saturday 27th July

The talents and song writing maturity of John Fulbright have garnered serious recognition in the Americana world since the launch of his Grammy nominated album. Tours of the UK have raised his profile over here but for me his lunch time set at Calgary went a long way to explaining why this native of Oklahoma is destined for a long and successful career. Whether on guitar or piano, the mood created by John made this set an unforgettable experience.

Full review of the Calgary Folk Festival

5. Dennis Ellsworth – Maverick Festival Saturday 6th July

Dennis Ellsworth has won over many fans during his venture to create a foothold in the UK over the last year. Headline gigs, support slots, album launch and working alongside Clubhouse Records artists have all helped Dennis in his quest, but his year was surely topped with this outstanding Saturday evening set in the Barn superbly assisted by BJ Cole on Pedal Steel with Paul and Barbara Spencer completing the impromptu band line up.

6. Terri Clark – Big Valley Jamboree Sunday 4th August

Having been privileged to saviour an intimate acoustic Terri Clark show in Birmingham last year, the pleasure has now been extended to a full band set in her home Canadian province of Alberta. There was a retro feel to the time on stage as she treated her local fans to a celebration of a near 20 year-long hit making career. Nostalgia was on the menu and no-one at this premier country music festival was going to complain.

Full review of the Big Valley Jamboree

7. Redlands Palomino Company – Palmfest Saturday 1st June

Although periods between seeing this band live have been lengthy, it literally only takes a few songs to get back into them and realise what an exceptional act on stage they are. On a celebrated day of what the UK can deliver in terms of Americana music, Alex, Hannah and the boys showcased our  scene to be in a very healthy state with a performance of energy, wit and damn good country flavoured rock.

Full review of Palmfest

8.Tim McGraw – Big Valley Jamboree Sunday 4th August

Having starting the year a little indifferent to this country superstar, circumstances dictated to seeing him perform twice in 2013. Aided by an eponymous career album release, McGraw toned down the rock stature and sound he extolled in London, to come across more as a country performer at a location a little closer to his home. Not quite the find of the year but an artist who grew enormously in appreciation after listening and understanding him further.

9. Del Barber – Canmore Folk Festival Monday 5th August

The last minute detour to this Rocky Mountain festival was a rewarding experience and led to the discovery of this Canadian troubadour who caught the eye with a quality amalgam of country folk song writing and engaging storytelling. Record deal developments and a brief incursion into the UK market will hopefully raise Del’s profile over here as he certainly left a favourable impression at this picturesque location.

Full review of the Canmore Folk Festival

10. The Be Good Tanyas – Moseley Folk Festival Sunday 1st September

This performance on ‘folk’ day at Birmingham’s premier music festival confirmed to me the long standing appreciation and deserved reputation this band have on the Canadian and wider roots world scene. It has been well documented that their February Midlands performance fell short on expectation in certain quarters but Frazey, Trish et al were on top form to bring the year’s festival watching to a close.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Susan Cattaneo - Haunted Heart Jersey Girl Music

When Susan Cattaneo’s previous album LITTLE BIG SKY was reviewed here last year, there was a lack of clarity in where the music was heading and the subsequent effect of her talents not connecting with a truly appreciative audience. It is glad to report that there are no such blips with her latest release as HAUNTED HEART is an excellent well-directed album that has the potential to catapult Susan straight into the welcoming arms of the Americana community.

While strong reservations existed as to whether the country pop direction and chasing the hit was the appropriate outlet for Susan, the melting pot of sounds such as country, blues and rock lend a perfect accompaniment to her thoughtful song writing and versatile vocal acumen. Susan hasn’t done herself any harm in securing the services of a stellar line up of assistance whose resume extends from working with Lori Mckenna through Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale right to Mary Chapin Carpenter. Under the guidance of Lorne Entress, HAUNTED HEART is a delectable assortment of tunes tipping its hat to a style where steel sits alongside keyboards and electric guitar mingles with mandolin.

Susan has every right to be proud of this lauded collection of self-penned material which provides a stimulating 55 minutes of listening pleasure. Taking away the bookending opening prelude and closing unlisted bonus track, the remaining 13 songs each have their own defining characteristic and where better to start than the twin pair of country standards, ‘Queen of the Dancehall’ and ‘How a Cowboy Says Goodbye’. Tracks like these by contemporary artists such as Susan Cattaneo are essential to moderate the evolution of modern country music to ensure traditions are adhered to. An album of likeminded songs wouldn’t go amiss in many quarters but Susan’s style is far to varied to be constrained by a single genre and this diversity is best exemplified by the jazz/blues tones that illuminate the outstanding title track ‘Haunted Heart’ . This number oozes with sophistication, of which a similar adjective can be applied to the soothing number ‘Revival’.

Photo by Jyoti Sackett
A native of the North Eastern US and graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Susan has successfully managed to combine these classical influences with the rural experiences of spending time in Arizona. The more earthy side to her music surfaces in the rootsy guitar led blues number ‘Worth the Whiskey’, a subject content obligatory to an Americana album and one which Susan rises to the challenge to roughen up her style. The multifarious angles of the record head towards conventional rock in the track ‘Barn Burning’ where keyboards and electric come to the fore. While lots of artist similarities are mooted in the various press coverage, a more rounded vocal style of Eve Selis springs to mind with some of the rockier tracks. ‘Lies Between Lovers’ is another song falling into this category.

On a softer note, Susan shows that she can also be the Queen of the Balladeer with ‘Done Better’ just shading ‘Memory of the Light’ in this style of song. As the album heads towards its conclusion, the slower pace takes control as the gentler ‘Ingenue’ leads into the more uplifting ‘John Brown’, although both tracks have a strong vocal presence which possibly exceeds their melodic qualities. On the subject of melodies, they are probably at their strongest on the album’s third track ‘Lorelei’, which is the perfect follow up to what is effectively the opening number ‘Abide’. You only need to listen to a few bars of this track to get a feel that Susan is moving in an alternative direction.

Once an artist has produced a really strong product, the challenge of promoting it is slightly alleviated. Susan Cattaneo has succeeded in the first part and, with any justice in the music world, the wider Americana community will do the rest by acknowledging the deep qualities which warrant HAUNTED HEART hopefully being her most successful and respected record to date.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Jitterbug Vipers + The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham Sunday 1st December 2013

Having made an all-to-brief visit to Austin, Texas a few years ago, it wasn’t too difficult to absorb yourself into the psyche which made this alternative oasis ‘the live music capital of the world’. So whenever exports from the capital of the Lone Star State hit your town, it’s best to expect the unexpected albeit usually with a high quality guarantee. Upon their return from a six month stint in Austin, Birmingham based The Toy Hearts have wasted no time in extending  the invitation to share the talents of the Jitterbug Vipers with a UK audience. In line with several previous evenings over the past year, the band played host to their guests and shared a bill at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath.

For the record, the Jitterbug Vipers are a four piece band specialising in creating a sound that swept through the jazz rooms of prohibition era America but the challenge is how to put into words the ambience and mesmeric atmosphere which emanated from their interaction during the hour-plus long set. Amidst a scene of onstage eccentricity and joviality, the audience were seduced by a sound split between smart originals and ongoing standards which provided a taster of an era where legalised drugs reigned supreme over outlawed alcohol and gambling.

However before we were immersed into the vibes of viper jazz, The Toy Hearts announced their return to a home town crowd with a staple and well executed set of that other great musical sound of Austin, Texas – western swing. With a mixture of self-penned tunes and covers from that genre spanning the decades, the trio of Hannah, Sophia and Stewart Johnson have hit on a style which has seriously moved their live show forward. The promise of new material recorded during their extended Austin visit was delayed a little longer. However while this is highly anticipated, the reproduction of songs from their recent CD WHISKEY and carefully selected covers still retain that embedded ability to showcase the high quality sounds from Stewart’s triple neck steel guitar, Hannah’s mandolin and Sophia’s, on this occasion, electric guitar.

With a reasonably sized audience in the venue’s smaller music room suitably entertained by one strand of Austin music, the stage was set for the quartet of Sarah Sharp (vocals), Masumi Jones (drums), Francie Meaux Jeaux (bass) and Slim Richey (guitar) to take you on a journey of discovery deep into an inner world where artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were central figures. The mood inducing sultry vocals of Sarah are the cornerstone of a Jitterbug Vipers’ set and she extends her talents to co-writing the original material, all of which appear on the latest record PHOEBE’S DREAM, incidentally also produced by her. A touch of eccentricity flanked Sarah in the guise of married couple, Slim and Francie. We learned that they had been married at least 13 or 14 times as well as owning a large piece of land in the wide open spaces of West Texas costing a mere $5. Perhaps the most intriguing and entertaining member of the band was Masumi who added a sheer infectious joy and radiant aura to her percussion role as well as some impromptu off mic yells.

Photo by April Miles
The Vipers excellent new album PHOEBE’S DREAM supplied all the original material for the set with the elegant ‘Viper Moon’, entertaining real life tale ‘Dangerous’ and the humorous ‘Stuff It’ leading the way. Alongside these and other tracks from the record, we learned about the vocabulary and the ethos of this period as well as the origin of one of the evening’s covers ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’ and its name change from the original one of marijuana. The other classic interpretations from this iconic era of American music included a Billie Holiday number ‘Billie’s Blues’ and the much loved ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, made popular by Bessie Smith.

Aside aspects of the Jitterbug Vipers attempting to live up to the motto of ‘Keep Austin weird’, this band certainly put on a memorable show which grew in stature with each song and story. The judgement of The Toy Hearts, and a few others who have championed this act, certainly paid off. The purchase and playing of PHOEBE’S DREAM is proving to be the perfect night cap following an enthralling experience of seeing the Jitterbug Vipers live.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Band Perry - The Institute, Birmingham Friday 29th November 2013

The bandwagon of new country rolled into Birmingham this evening as The Band Perry made the second city their first stop on the UK leg of the Pioneer World Tour. An enthusiastic and committed crowd gave the Alabama raised sibling trio a warm reception with Kimberly endearing the locals by perfecting the art of hometown pronunciation. Mutual love was certainly on the menu as an action packed eighty minute set confirmed the reputation of The Band Perry as being one of the hottest live acts surfacing out of the Nashville majors.

The fast paced evolution of modern country music always has the potential to exasperate the chasm that has always existed within different strands of the genre. The Band Perry have anchored their style securely to the radio friendly and arena fraternity but have an underpinning substance to broaden their appeal and reach out to those who prefer the package a little less gift wrapped. While the stage presence and song delivery from their two studio albums to date rotated between unabated brashness and genuine heartfelt sincerity, the slick yet high octane performance brought the material to life in a way that met the full approval of this mixed aged audience.

The evening was not short of pop/rock overtures as the trio backed by a four piece touring band opened their set with ‘Done’ from the latest album and closing the two-song encore just over an hour and a quarter later with a rip roaring cover of Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls'. From a personal point of view the gig got into the groove from the second track ‘Night Gone Wasted’ and from then on Kimberly orchestrated the moods from the lower key ‘All Your Life’, concluded with a sampling of ‘I Will Always Love You’, to the rousing ‘I am a Keeper’ and its lively follow on track ‘Forever Mine Never Mind’.

The segment of the show where Kimberly and her brothers, Neil and Reid, shared the roots of their act with the audience went a long way to defining the important role The Band Perry have to play in driving a new generation. The trio of ‘Pioneer’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘End of Times’ couldn’t help but captivate those present at this well attended gig which hopefully demonstrated to promoters that more mainstream touring country artists should add Birmingham to their UK itineraries. As well as sharing the pride of their musical Alabama upbringing, the siblings also acknowledged the influence previous UK audiences had in the ultimate naming of their sophomore album PIONEER which has proceeded to be a very successful venture for The Band Perry.

As impressive as this heart rendering trio of songs was, the current pivotal sound of the band is to step up the pace and there was no finer example of this during the evening than the current US radio smash ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’ which in my opinion serves as a perfect example of their mass appeal. Just prior to the encore we had a reminder of the excellent writing talents of Brandy Clark who had a prominent role in the composing of the popular ‘Better Dig Two’. However for many of the crowd, the anticipated highlight came soon after the band returned to the stage and Kimberly didn’t need to extend the invitation for some vocal assistance to ‘If I Die Young’. At this point of the evening there was an increasingly sad realisation that a personal favourite ‘Independence’ wasn’t going to make the set cut.

Despite this irritating omission, the evening was a resounding success and The Band Perry are living the dream of being an influential act capturing the moment and spearheading a fruitful path for the cross mass appeal sector of the country music genre. As long as artists like The Band Perry are the leading lights of new country then evolution need not be viewed too negatively and the spirit in the title of the PIONEER album can continue to set the agenda. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Billy Bragg - Birmingham Symphony Hall Sunday 24th November 2013

Thirty years after launching his recording career, plus a few more engaged in performing, Billy Bragg has lost none of the firebrand passion that has decorated his music, song craft and mission to spread the word of justice. The wrath was even extended to music journalists who the exiled Barking Bard, had taken exception with for being accused of turning country with his latest album TOOTH AND NAIL. Billy duly responded by demonstrating the twang he has always possessed, albeit an Essex variety, in a rendition of his 1992 single ‘You Woke up My Neighbourhood’. This set the tone for an evening where nostalgia sat comfortably alongside the very Americana-feel to the new material.

Despite the sly dig at some music critics, TOOTH AND NAIL is a far-from-subtle and excellent Americana album which has raised Billy’s profile significantly amongst those with a country leaning. As well as extensive touring stateside, which has earned respect from the alt-quarters of Music City, Billy has enlisted the services of a fine up and coming UK multi guitarist in Chris (CJ) Hillman who demonstrated his expertise on pedal steel, Dobro, conventional and B-Bender guitars to bring to life the magical sounds of the current album.

Circulating the lavish surroundings of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall were the delightful tracks – ‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore’, Goodbye, Goodbye’, ‘Chasing Rainbows’ and ‘Handyman Blues’ from this album. Also featured from the release were the ramped up ‘The Reckoning’ which in true Billy Bragg-tradition warned against the far right infiltrating the working classes and the Woody Guthrie penned ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’. The latter portrays the highly respected humility Billy has for the legendary and iconic American troubadour whose relevance in modern times shows no sign of abating. The link between Guthrie and the wider Americana sound peaked with a superb version of ‘California Stars’, as this song put together in association with Wilco proved an adept vehicle for Hillman’s B-Bender to sparkle.

However this two and a quarter hour set was not just confined to his transatlantic inspirations as Billy treated the loyal and partisan crowd to the songs which have defined his career, all interwoven with the political rhetoric that is as engaging as it is virtually a trademark of  his live gigs. So amongst a combination of macro and micro politics, the audience sang along to old favourites such as ‘New England’, ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’. Probably the most poignant song from his back catalogue to grace the set was a solo version of ‘Between the Wars’ as the four piece backing band, which had integrated so well with the selected songs, gave way for Billy to provide a slice of acoustic ambience.

The anecdotes, stories, pleas and rallying calls were ultimately too frequent to feature explicitly in a concise review but, as well as taking on board the ultimate enemy of cynicism, the tale of an encounter with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in California was ranked high on impact. It ultimately led into a version of Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’ and best exemplified the link between Billy’s twin passion for music and protest.

By the time the audience filed out of the hall with their ears still ringing from a  finale including ‘Power to the Union’ and the closing ‘Great Leap Forward’, there was perhaps one moment of Bragg brilliance from earlier in the evening to reflect on. His description of Americana as ‘country music for people who like The Smiths’ wonderfully captured the essence of a misunderstood genre. The spirit of such a movement has always resided within the soul of Billy Bragg and, with or without the twang; the onward march of his poetry, music and passion is still in full stride. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Hidden Trail Records Presents...'Hidden Brighton'

In these days where the Internet has made the world a much smaller place, it is often easy to fail to notice some great music right on your doorstep. With this in mind it is worth noting the ethos, passion and motivation behind the latest project unveiled by Hidden Trail Records The people behind this fairly new venture have scoured their home town of Brighton and its surrounding areas to identify and champion a number of local artists. The result is a 13-track compilation titled HIDDEN BRIGHTON which, as the implicit title indicates, aims to reveal to a wider audience some under the radar acts plying their craft around the town.

The album draws on a multitude of styles encompassing beautiful harmonies, melodic guitar pieces both acoustic and electric, tranquil folk, distinctive vocals and raw indie. The collection is delicately presented to seduce open minded connoisseurs and even if all 13 sounds are not to your taste, the probability of connection with a significant number is high. With the profits of this laudable project going to a local Sussex charity Grace Eyre supporting greater independence for people with learning disabilities, the best approach is to buy the package and then settle for honing in on your preferences.

There has been a growing connection between this blog and Brighton during 2013 including album reviews of Emily Baker and Jamie Freeman, festival musings about Hatful of Rain and a visit to Palmfest in June. That early summer trip took in a Self Help Group gig and the very same combo has donated an alternate demo version of ‘Kings’ to the record. All other artists are unsurprisingly new to me and no doubt to any other out of town listeners. Three tracks that immediately caught the ear were ‘Arrows’ by The Raving Beauties, ‘A Word to the Wise’ by Ellie Ford and Kokopelli’s ‘How to Be’. The former has some cool harmonies wrapping themselves around an infectious guitar sound, while the latter possesses a distinct aching vocal style which oozes roots authenticity. The quiet mellow folk tones of Ellie have that soothing influence which burrows deep into your soul and suitably curls up to implant its tranquillity. The 5 track EP SHOW NIGHT IN is a worthy extension into the world of Ellie Ford.

Perhaps the true legacy of this record for people outside Brighton is take a little more interest in your own local scene as you are likely to find some gems much nearer to home than always seeking offerings in distant lands. In the meantime, give HIDDEN BRIGHTON a chance and as well as backing a good cause, the revealing of an undiscovered talent which enriches your music appreciation is more than likely to occur. 

Track Listing:
Shine - Kill Moon
Sleeptalking - Hella Better Dancer
Arrows - The Raving Beauties
Thinking Above My Station - Flash Bang Band
The Cracks - The Standard Lamps
Kings (Alternate Demo) - The Self Help Group
Last Drive - The Hundredth Anniversary
Seventeen - Woodland Blue
Chalk It Up - Fiona Sally Miller
A Word To The Wise - Ellie Ford
A millioN winterS - tiNhearT
How To Be - Kokopelli
Swamp - Us Baby Bear Bones