Sunday, 30 June 2013

Leeroy Stagger - Truth Be Sold Clubhouse Records

By exploring the roots of rock and fusing some exceptional guitar work with a bunch of songs that possess a stand-alone enduring quality, Leeroy Stagger has delivered an album to push the boundaries of alt-country rock. Right from the crashing chords of opener ‘Memo’ to the heartfelt strains of the fantastic closing ‘Jackie’, TRUTH BE SOLD is a high quality record. It will resonate immediately with those who approach Americana music from an alternative/indie background although there is sufficient diversity in its appeal to reach out across the genre.

Once again apologies for applying the term Americana to a Canadian musician but this expanding genre is an all encompassing home for any artist willing to pursue a path of interpreting roots music in a contemporary style. Leeroy has been doing this for a number of years since being introduced to country music during his British Columbia upbringing and this release, his 9th album in a prolific decade, gets right to the heart of putting a rock stamp on such high calibre songs.

For the UK promotion, Leeroy has teamed up with Clubhouse Records and this seems an excellent fit, with a similarity to some of the label’s other acts such as Dreaming Spires and Redlands Palomino Company. Their ethos of making no compromise music in a style that switches effortlessly between spine tingling acoustic ballads and vigorous up tempo numbers is true to an artist tipped to be a leading light in North American roots rock n’ roll.

Apart from the fabulous closing track, the depth of his ability to touch your soul in a softening manner is experienced in the exquisite ‘Celebrity’ where gorgeous backing harmonies decorate a cautious tale of fame. Along the same lines, ‘Break My Heart’, with its haunting pedal steel, adds a graceful touch to the atmosphere as does the temperate tones of the slightly solemn ‘Sold Me Down the River’.

For the more amplified numbers ‘Mister’ is hard to top with its gritty subject delivered in an appropriate vocal style laced with an element of anger. Although the slightly anthemic ‘Cities of Fire’, with a dose indie rock, runs it close and will surely be a firm live favourite when Leeroy takes this album out on the road. The more conventional rocker, with enhanced guitar solo, ‘Goodnight Berlin’ has a solid beat and is neatly slotted in as the album’s second track after the rousing opener. ‘Have a Heart’ is another track that meets the rock criteria and drives the album towards its sensational concluding number. Of the remaining tracks, ‘ESP’ starts off slowly before picking up pace mid song while ‘The Other Half’ admittedly does struggle a little to make its presence felt amongst the multitude of impressive tunes.

The album was recorded in Portland, Oregan under the stewardship of Grammy winning producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos). Fellow guitarist Evan Uschenko and percussionist Nick Stecz share the writing credits with Leeroy on all eleven tracks although some of these were extracted from the vault of distant demos. UK fans both new and existing will get the opportunity to hear this impressive record live when the full band play a series of shows throughout July. Both this album and the subsequent live shows will add value to any Americana fans listening experience.

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Saturday, 29 June 2013

Court Yard Hounds - Amelita Sony Columbia Music

Imagine the scenario of a triple bill show featuring Natalie Maines, the Court Yard Hounds and the Dixie Chicks. Unlikely maybe but with all three entities of the ‘Greatest ever country act’ currently active, it’s not out of the realms of possibility. A new recording by the Dixie Chicks, who are headlining a series of Canadian festivals this summer, is another long shot given the recent musical direction of Maines and now the new Court Yard Hounds album but the fact Natalie, Emily and Martie are making new music is a joy to treasure.

For their sophomore album under the Court Yard Hounds banner, not forgetting their pre-Natalie Dixie Chicks days, the Erwin sisters have once again turned to producer Jim Scott to successfully steer the AMELITA project to its release. Better known by their married names, Emily still keeps the famous Texan musical family name of Robison after her divorce from Charlie and has taken lead vocals on all but one of the eleven tracks. The trademark fiddle of Martie Maguire which took a little backseat as the Dixie Chicks searched for a post-incident direction is back with a vengeance and she has also stepped up her writing input with a major contribution.

The renewed optimism that Emily reveals in the press release snippets is endemic to the sound of the album which breezes along with a carefree attitude. The sound is rooted in the fabric of Texan music with enough sophistication to court some mainstream or Americana radio airplay but even if the path was clear, it is not really a release to match the ideals of country radio.

The prelude to the album is a four song EP release featuring the lead off track ‘Sunshine’ which sets the tone for an album packed with positive vibes. Title song ‘Amelita’ is also previewed on the EP and this well constructed effort has its rightful place as part of the outset of this album. By the time the third track ‘The World Smiles’ smothers your senses, the record’s flavour has been consumed sufficiently to leave its mark. The vocals of Emily have responded well to the responsibility of lead status and although the overall band sound probably defines the record, their presence on songs such as ‘Aimless Upward’ suggest a calling has come after years in the shadow of the charismatic Maines.

Group guitarist Martin Strayer teamed up with Martie to co-write the solitary track which she takes lead vocal on ‘A Guy Like You’, a more mellow offering laced with the sound of Emily’s Dobro. ‘Rock All Night’ ,a strong candidate for stand out track, steps up the momentum with enhanced fiddle and some fine organ work driving it along in a soulful manner. Follow on track ‘Phoebe’ is a song with a strong message that with the aid of banjo and frantic fiddle picks up its pace midway through to hurtle to a satisfying toe tapping conclusion.

‘Divided’ is a little bit of a bridging song between this pair of upbeat numbers and the delightful ballad ‘Gets You Down’ which with a gentle injection of pedal steel creates an atmosphere of serenity amidst a slightly sombre message. The pace contrast carries through to the conclusion of the album where ‘Watch Your Step’ paves the way for the carefully selected and parting message of closer ‘The Road You Take’, perhaps an overriding summary of the personal and musical decisions made over the last few years.

With the Dixie Chicks legacy intact, the path is clear for both Natalie Maines and the Court Yard Hounds to make their independent mark. The world of country and wider Americana music is the richer for their creative presence and AMELITA is an excellent record to further the careers of Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Lucinda Williams - Birmingham Town Hall Wednesday 26th June 2013

Photo not from gig
Without a new album to promote on this tour, Lucinda Williams had a relatively free hand to liberally reflect upon her thirty five year recording career. On the back of an all request show at the recent Gateshead date, there were plenty of track suggestions from a Birmingham Town Hall crowd awash with adulation. Although, no doubt, a few personal favourites were omitted, the set list Lucinda decided upon could hardly be faulted and met the approval of both stalwart fans and more casual observers.

By drawing on material from seven of her albums along with a pair of quality covers and new songs, Lucinda served up her brand of roots music laced with a vocal style that aches through the multi genre heartland of a nation defined by its sounds. Whether offering an outstanding country duet with sidekick Doug Pettibone in ‘Jailhouse Tears’ or capturing the depression era vibes via Skip James ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, you had your music senses continually  stretched. Throw into the mix the urban grit of Springsteen’s ‘Factory’ and the good honest rock n’ roll of ‘Honey Bee’ then the aurora from a lifetime spent searching for the musical soul of a land couldn’t fail to engulf the minds of those present.

Perpetually switching between acoustic and electric guitar, Lucinda seemed more at home with the amplified version which interacted well with Pettibone’s lead and pedal steel. With no need for percussion, the trio was completed by David Sutton on bass and together they spoiled the audience right from the opening strains of the Mary Chapin Carpenter cut ‘Passionate Kisses’ to the Grammy winning closer ‘Get Right with God’. From a personal point of view, this collaboration connected more than the conventional rock set up that supported Lucinda on a previous Midlands date a few years back.

The between song banter was succinct enough to get a flavour of each track and though an essence of warmth will always struggle to emanate from the stage, the passion, honesty and confidence reflects a songwriter who can comfortably reside with some of the Americana music icons. When you can call on tracks from a gold selling album as good as 1998’s CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD then you start off on the front foot and Lucinda did so on five occasions during the evening. While ‘Joy’ and ‘Drunken Angel’ were met with instant approval, the gig’s stand out track was the evocative ‘Lake Charles’, the Louisiana hometown of Lucinda, although much of her time has been spent in Houston, Austin, Los Angeles and Nashville.

After lengthy bouts of album inactivity in the 80’s and 90’s, they seem to come on a steady regular basis now. The couple of new songs aired during the evening including ‘Everything but the Truth’ featured in the new Lone Ranger movie, indicate the creative well of Lucinda’s writing talents is far from dry. Whether any future release can match the highs of CAR WHEELS… is probably unlikely but the continued activity of Lucinda, now in her sixth decade, both recording and touring will ensure her legions of UK fans are kept satisfied.

Earlier it was intimated that a previous Lucinda Williams gig had something missing. Four years from that Leamington Spa show, full redemption was now complete and an important and integral artist of contemporary US roots music now possessed her rightful place in the upper echelons of my live music experience. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Peter Bruntnell - Retrospective Loose Music

It would be interesting to ascertain whether single artist compilation albums sell more copies to their existing fan base or to new customers sampling their music for the first time. Obviously this forms part of a double spearhead marketing strategy for both artist and label, although the ultimate aim probably lies in the widening of appeal. Released on the Loose Music label, his latest home, RETROSPECTIVE does what it says on the tin as Peter Bruntnell takes a contemplative look at his eighteen year recording career in this extensively packaged offering. For his existing admirers, this collection will need little introduction with the only re-recorded track being ‘Played Out’ with the new version featuring Brit award nominee singer-songwriter Rumer.
Any subsequent reviews will probably render surplus to the purchase decision making of existing fans, but for the uninitiated they could lead to the door of one of UK mature music scene’s best kept secrets. Peter has been plying his trade in the alt-country movement on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly two decades. However this often below the radar genre is continually acquiring new followers especially those from the indie scene requiring a little sophistication and country fans on a left field journey of discovery. The music of Peter Bruntnell will appeal to both these parties with its versatile guitar orientated sound and dark moody vocals wrapping themselves around intelligent yet slightly pensive songs.

Instant gratification is not on the menu in this seventeen song collection that comfortably spans the hour, yet its absorbing qualities will soak deeper into your mind with each listen. Once hooked there may be a temptation to delve into the eight albums which supplied the tracks in almost democratic precision, although quite easily this well packaged album may act as a sufficient indulgence until a release of new material appears.
There’s a fine line between some of the delicate acoustic numbers and where Peter amps up a more rousing electric sound but there is also a vein of consistency in the often introverted vocals which add to the mystique of the songs. Killer melodies are not the order of the day but the haunting and cultivated aurora to the songs will resonate with deep thinking music seekers.

This collection has more an entity feel than possessing stand out tracks but if you insist on a little sampling first ‘I Want You’, ‘Have You Seen That Girl Again’, and ‘By The Time My Head Gets to Phoenix’ will whet your appetite.  Although if you decide to take only one track to your heart then go no further than the magnificent ‘Here Come the Swells’.

The tags Americana, alt-country, alternative and country rock have been attached to Peter Bruntnell in the past and this is enhanced by his association with and respect from such lauded genre artists as Son Volt, Richmond Fontaine and Lambchop. However Peter will continue to be a free spirit bound by no rules just an inbred remit to make good music. So if you rate yourself as a serious fan of left field music and are not yet acquainted with Peter Bruntnell then RETROPSECTIVE is the opportunity to move the tag of best kept secret to someone else.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Cara Luft - Kitchen Garden Cafe, King's Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 18th June 2013

There are certain moments attending gigs when all the ingredients are blending so well that you wish the whole experience could be bottled and savoured for future consumption. In what was certainly one of the highlights so far of this busy year, Cara Luft managed to create such a moment with her subliminal mix of high quality musicianship, enchanting stories, well crafted songs and engaging personality. When you throw into the pot the enhancing input from musical sidekick Scott Poley and the magical atmosphere of a near full Kitchen Garden Café, the desire to seek ways to capture the atmosphere intensifies. Those present will always have the memory while others hopefully can visualise and perhaps experience for themselves one of Cara’s UK shows, which are likely to proliferate in the future.

With a pedigree background from a family steeped in folk music back home in Canada, Cara has managed to evolve a sound that pays respect to the traditional song from both sides of the Atlantic. However as well as connecting with folk fans, the contemporary twist from her song writing expertise as well as banjo and guitar playing reaches out to the wider Americana fan base and you can’t go wrong with the subtle Dobro playing which Scott adds to equation. For nearly two hours, spread across a pair of sets, this value for money evening met and surpassed expectations from witnessing Cara live last year.

Perhaps the only slight drawback was the absence of some new material but plans are in place to rectify this in the near future. In the meantime the fantastic album DARLINGFORD which despite only just getting a European release, has been in the collection of many of Cara’s fans for over a year, was a worthy source for most of the material populating the set list. Within the first half a dozen songs, firm favourites such as ‘Idaho’, ‘Charged’ and ‘My Darling One’ were featured with the latter two subject to the first of several invited audience participations that graced the evening.

Occasionally, Scott would step aside to allow Cara to take the spotlight where we could focus intensely on her musicianship especially the claw hammer banjo playing skills. However his presence on acoustic guitar, Dobro and backing vocals took the show to an elevated level from what Cara was able to deliver solo when witnessed and reviewed last year. The jovial interaction between the duo increased after the break as tales were recounted of their German adventures and on a more sombre note Cara spoke about the background to the song ‘Dallaire’ and its relation to the Rwanda atrocities. Despite this brief thoughtful interlude, the vibes filling the brick-walled venue echoed with an air of positivity, best exemplified on ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’.

Those Kitchen Garden Café regulars attracted to its traditional offerings were delighted with ‘The Ploughboy and the Cockney’, of which Cara proudly enthused that her version is only accompanied as a recording with one by Maddy Prior, and the slightly re-arranged ‘He Moved Through the Fair’. Americana enthusiasts, who associate Cara via her tenure as part of the Canadian super group The Wailin’ Jennys, could relate to the imagery of her description and adventures from travelling either side of the 49th Parallel as well as a vocal style that varied from classical folk to a slight twang more commonly found in our visitors from across the pond.

The parting shot from this excellent show is the mouth watering prospect of some of Cara’s future projects including the ABC of Canadian Music with Awna Teixeira from Po Girl and Brandy Zdan from Twilight Hotel, along with some promised new recordings. If either of these matches the high standard of both this evening’s gig and the DARLINGFORD album then we are in for a real treat.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Sara Petite - Circus Comes to Town Self Released

With a vocal style which aches country, Sara Petite is not a singer out to appease the middle ground. Having fallen straight for her voice when first hearing Bob Harris play material from DOGHOUSE ROSE a while ago, this was an artist that could do no wrong in my book. That 2010 album and its two predecessors were quickly acquired and, after a brief lull, it is great to re-acquaint with her music through this follow up release. CIRCUS COMES TO THE TOWN is very much in a similar mould to the previous records with a clutch of rip roaring numbers interspersing a gentler roots sound, all characterised by that unmistakeable voice wrapping itself around genuine country songs.

Geographically and commercially, San Diego based Sara is a great many country miles away from the centre of the industry in Nashville, Tennessee but this need not detract from the authenticity of the sound emanating from her band. However with the current sea change of a more traditional style from female performers, you never know the call may come but in the meantime Sara isn’t going to spend any time worrying, just plying her trade relentlessly on the west coast and the frequent UK visits. Unfortunately these trips do seem a little low key at present but not without hope that someone may pick up on the talent and increase her awareness in the UK.

Weighing in with thirteen tracks just shy of forty minutes long, the album immediately gets into its stride with a classic cheating song, hitting all the right notes lyrically and musically. The pace of this opener ‘Perfume’ is ramped up with the following number, the country rockin’ ‘Movin’ On’ which metaphorically conveys the message that an artists’ lot is to never stand still. With all but one of the tracks a solo Sara Petite write, her lyrical brilliance is highlighted in the third number ‘Barbwire’ , incidentally the album’s only co-write, with the unforgettable line ‘she’s got barbwire around her heart’. Only in country music could such explicit imagery capture the message of a song.

The thoughtful title track ‘Circus Comes to Town’ shows the more tender side to Sara’s style and aligns a number of life issues to aspects of a circus. No country album would be complete without the ubiquitous drinking song and Sara truly delivers a heartfelt account of turning to the bottle to alleviate your problems. Although the title of the song, ‘Drinkin’ to Remember’, slightly misleads its message of drinking to forget. The up tempo guitar riffs that accompanied much of her earlier material return with a lyrical tirade against the subject of ‘The Master’. The retro feeling number ‘If Mamma Ain’t Happy’ is launched with a backbeat-supported intro before developing into a foot stomping rousing tune with a sing along gratifying chorus.

The band sparkles on ‘Scarlett Letter’ with some great guitar work accompanying yet another melodic chorus with seems to be Sara’s forte. While ‘Forever Blue’ shows the sombre side of her writing but still managing to retain a memorable haunting chorus, ‘Someday I’m Gonna Fly’ is the perfect feel good response and breathes an air of optimism to the album’s final tracks.  A common trait of a lot of country records is to have an appropriate closing number that has an element of finality to it. ‘Ashes’ fits the model perfectly for this album and concludes a record which will embed a fulfilling memory in your mind.

There may be a touch of sass and an acquired taste to her style but make no mistake Sara Petite is a very fine country artist and deserves a greater profile. CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN is a welcome addition to her back catalogue and will do her career prospects no harm. 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Slaid Cleaves - Still Fighting the War Music Road Records

As a story telling songwriter, Slaid Cleaves is up there with the greats of his adopted home state Texas. Over the last decade a series of masterful albums have originated from the pen of Slaid who ventured south west from his Maine origins around twenty years ago and has also been keen to expand his horizons overseas with a multitude of visits to the listening venues of the UK. STILL FIGHTING THE WAR is another highly engaging collection of songs from the fiercely independent Slaid and over the course of its 45 minute duration, your mind will be enriched by an artistic exposure to some of the issues surrounding contemporary America.

While much of the album’s focus is on the opener and title track ‘Still Fighting the War’, where Slaid has teamed up with Texan legend Jimmy LaFave to tackle the thorny issue of post conflict trauma, attention is immediately drawn to two tracks co-written with Rod Picott. Both ‘Rust Belt Fields’ and ‘Welding Burns’ were originally standout tracks on Rod’s 2011 album named after the latter. With Slaid and Rod being long term friends from their shared north eastern background, it is no surprise that there is a strong nostalgic feel to these two songs. In fact the theme surrounding ‘Rust Belt Fields’ could almost be a soundtrack to the current economic dilemma facing the West with a drain of wealth and resource flowing uncontrollably towards the emerging world.

The collaborations arranged on this excellent album strengthened specific songs with Harmoni Kelley McCarty featuring on ‘Whim of Iron’ and the acclaimed Eliza Gilkyson adding value to ‘In the Rain’. One of the albums most ear pleasing tracks ‘Texas Love Song’ has a vocal contribution from Terri Hendrix and is a wonderful yet slightly quirky homage to the Lone Star State. Texas is also name checked in the follow on track ‘God’s Own Yodeller’, a vocal exercise which Slaid partakes in from time to time and thus immerses himself further in the musical culture of the west.

High spots from the remaining tracks include’Go for the Gold’, a delightful gospel effort which is drenched in an emotional and uplifting country sound and has the potential to become a popular staple of Slaid’s live shows. ‘Hometown USA’ gives you a pure dose of real deal Americana and invites you to peer into the world of destiny for its characters. However each of the thirteen tracks whether supported by simple acoustic or with a fuller band sound, carry the trademark lyrical excellence of Slaid and demand your unrelenting attention to soak up their comprehensive nature.

Photo by Karen Cleaves
There is no particular structure to this record and it will be equally effective on shuffle, although the closing ‘Voice of Midnight’ does have an exit feel to it. In fact you can mix and match any of Slaid’s recent releases and the seamless song writing strength will weave them all together in a concoction of real life imagery. STILL FIGHTING THE WAR is business as usual for Slaid Cleaves and you get the feeling there is still half a lifetime of well crafted perceptual songs still to come.

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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Eve Selis - Robin 2 Bilston Wednesday 12th June 2013

Americana UK 2012
For a decade now, Eve Selis has had a regular touring presence in the UK. The appeal to leave the sunshine of San Diego behind can’t be in the British weather but the warmth of the reception the UK fans give her more than compensates for this, almost making it a home from home. The Robin 2 and Eve have been good to each other over the years and to reward the loyalty of the sizeable midweek turnout, this evening’s performance was as good has been witnessed over the years.

Without the advertised presence of a supporting act, there was the added bonus of a longer performance by Eve and her band with a pair of sets spanning over two hours. Having just flown in from a date in the North Atlantic outpost of the Faroe Isles, there was no rustiness on this opening night of the UK leg with Eve hitting her stride straight from the off with the excellent rendition of the Lori McKenna tune ‘Witness to your Life’. Although the band line up was one down from last year’s visit, the core guitar maestros Marc ‘Twang’ Intravaia and ‘Cactus’ Jim Soldi continue to excel including a majestic duel in the mid section of Johnny Cash’s ‘Passing Through’ which just preceded the interval. It would be discourteous at this point not mention the bass of Rick Nash providing the essential rhythm for the lead duo.

With a key life milestone approaching, there is absolutely no let up in the energetic charisma that defines an Eve Selis stage performance, although she admitted the recovery may take a touch longer. A review once described her voice as bruised from the excessive dose of early year’s rock, although a more accurate observation is its rounded maturity that rises to the challenge of powering the fabulous songs from her back catalogue. Most of the old favourites were belted out in a country rock/roadhouse blues style from the nostalgic ‘Russellville’ to the rousing ghost inspired ‘Ballad of Kate Morgan’ with the usual vocal contribution from drummer Larry Grano.

Maverick Festival 2012
There was still a bias towards material from her most accomplished album to date FAMILY TREE which is fine by me including the country hit that never was ‘Don’t You Feel Lonesome’ and the storming ‘Stop the Train’ which brought the second set to a scintillating close. While Eve and Marc have been the architects of an abundance of fine songs over the years, many containing memorable hooks, they don’t refrain from paying respect to some of the past’s great tunes. Two regular fixtures in their set have become ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Hallelujah’, the latter crowning the finale with a spine tingling version climaxing to a crescendo – truly heavenly stuff.

Like all independent acts, the search for the next record is always a challenge and this evening saw the band preview a couple of songs from the EP they have recorded with fellow San Diego residents Berkley Hart. This duo provided the support  on last year’s tour and their recent collaboration with Eve and Marc led to two songs which made this evening’s set cut ‘Just Don’t’ and ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’. Both are available on the evolutionary Band Camp platform and sounded really good.

We really are spoilt by the annual early summer appearance of Eve Selis and long may this continue. She holds a special place in the hearts of her fans over here and has established a niche on the UK Americana circuit. If you haven’t been caught by the bug of the effervescent Eve yet, then seeking her out must be made a priority. 

Bonnie Raitt - Symphony Hall, Birmingham Tuesday 11th June 2013

For an artist who gets name checked so many times as a source of inspiration, the work of Bonnie Raitt hasn’t crossed my path in the past as often as it should have. However following the release of last year’s Grammy winning album SLIPSTREAM and the UK leg of a worldwide tour to promote it, great strides have been made to rectify the situation. Although a strong counter attraction existed in the presence of Neil Young at the nearby LG Arena, there was barely a spare seat to be seen in the Symphony Hall as Bonnie and her band set about answering the question in her own words ‘whether she still has it’. Nearly two hours later, the multiple standing ovations after the main and encore set firmly gave a positive response, which probably was never really in doubt.

The influence and widespread appeal of Bonnie’s talent lies in the way she effortlessly glides across the genres of American roots music without settling into any formulaic groove. The term Americana sits very neatly within the realm of Bonnie Raitt although within few minutes into the performance she referenced the term as a ‘little discourteous’ to the origins of much of her music – the African continent and the British Isles. However towards the end she lauded the movement of the same name which has done so much in recent years to keep great roots music alive.

Of course Americana was the category which saw SLIPSTREAM earn Bonnie her tenth Grammy and this excellent album was well represented in the batch of songs played during the evening. The carefully selected tracks from it conveyed the sheer quality of the record, from the opening number ‘Used to Rule the World’ through to Dylan’s ‘Million Miles’. The personal highlight of those chosen was the Louden Wainwright/Joe Henry composed ‘You Can’t Fail Me Now’, although this one was run close by ‘Marriage Made in Hollywood’ which had featured input from Paul Brady in its writing.

The whole evening was awash with Bonnie referring to artists she had worked with, covered or just held in great esteem including James Taylor, John Hiatt, Elvis Presley and a special reserved mention for Mick and Keith. She admitted to not being a prolific songwriter and added an impromptu version of Taylor’s ‘Rainy Day Man’ to the encore set amongst a host of other tunes penned by some of America’s finest including the wonderful ‘Angel from Montgomery’. Whilst being a John Prine original, Bonnie emotionally dedicated this version to her mother.

A consistent blues theme existed throughout the evening, although this was probably best exemplified when organ/keyboardist Mike Finnigan took over vocals for a sensational version of ‘I Got News for You’. In sync with the blues style, Bonnie indulged in a little bit of Philadelphia soul and also proved she could really rock n’ roll with a closing number previously made famous by Elvis ‘A Big Hunk o’ Love’. In between, the ballads showcased Bonnie’s voice at its best including the delightful ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ which was recently revived with a version by Adele.

Bonnie, now in her sixth decade, heaped continual praise on her band led by guitarist George Marinelli and containing a rhythm section of James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson on bass and Ricky Fataar on drums. However much of the attention surrounded Mike’s outstanding keyboard/organ sound which provided the backdrop to so many of the songs. Despite the immense pride in the success of SLIPSTREAM, Bonnie knew the expectations of songs from her forty-year back catalogue with ‘Something to Talk About’ and the self-penned ‘Come to Me’ being amongst those well received.

With this first long awaited taste of seeing Bonnie Raitt live, it was obvious to witness why this consummate performer has inspired and influenced so many artists that have followed in her footsteps. There was ample evidence that plenty more is yet to come and she is sure to remain a leading light for those artists engaged with furthering the cause of Americana music. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Gas Food Lodging - Robin 2, Bilston Wednesday 5th June 2013

With such a splendid name, you could only ever associate a band called Gas Food Lodging with Americana music. The iconic sign liberally sprinkled across the freeways, highways and interstates of the USA had its slogan captured in celluloid with the 1992 movie of the same name and several years earlier alternative rock band Green on Red used it as the title of their 1985 album. It is the chain reaction from that band which brings you to the present day.

Green on Red was the band where Chuck Prophet cut his cloth prior to a successful solo career and one of Chuck's biggest fans is the Gas Food Lodging founder Dave Griffiths. During the recent Hare and Hounds gig where Chuck made his triumphant return to Birmingham, a series of events led to Dave joining him on stage for one of the final numbers.The influence of Chuck and other giants of American music as well as the Rolling Stones has inspired Dave to form a band to reflect this style and inject some original material into the abundance of covers that can be called upon,

Since their formation in late 2012 when Dave teamed up with veteran drummer Pete Robinson, who has a wealth of country rock experience, and bassist Pete Taylor, Gas Food Lodging has set about establishing themselves on the Midlands gig circuit. This latest support slot alongside popular local blues rock artist Ian Parker at the Robin 2 in Bilston was an opportunity to show their talents to a sizeable midweek audience.

Although eventually the aim must be for singer songwriter Dave to introduce more self-penned material into the set, all but one song performed on this evening was a cover and from the sources you would expect knowing his influences. After opening with a version of Ronnie Self's 'Waiting for the Gin to Hit Me' the band then went on a Chuck Prophet spree with a pair of tracks from his solo career and two Green on Red numbers. The latter, 'Time ain't Nothing' and 'Two Lovers (Waitin' to Die)' were unfamiliar to me but came across well. On the other hand the two Chuck tracks were also sung by the acclaimed US alt-country rocker in his recent gig. 'Left Hand and the Right Hand' is one of the standout tracks from the TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL album while 'You Did' is a very popular Chuck Prophet live number. To the band's credit all the versions of these songs had merit and paid the utmost respect to the original.

To conclude this fine bands's short set, Dave introduced the audience to one of his original songs 'Too Much' which reflects on the impact of technology today before completing their warm up slot with a version of Dylan's 'Forever Young'. As with all songs played during the set, the band impressed with the neat co-ordination of bass, lead and percussion while the clear vocals ensured the quality of the songs was conveyed to the attentive and appreciative audience.

It's early days for Gas Food Lodging but if they work on some more original material, the potential is there to   develop the band and add impetus to a Midlands Americana scene. A keen eye will definitely be kept on this group in the future.

Check out their version of Time Ain't Nothing

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Maverick Festival Preview Part 3 - UK Artists

As well hosting a wealth of great talent from the USA and Canada, the Maverick Festival is gaining a reputation for providing a platform to showcase many UK artists who are keen to add a transatlantic flavour to their musical influences. In the concluding feature of this three part series, attention turns to the home grown performers gracing the authentic agricultural surroundings of Easton Farm Park on the first weekend of July.

Over the last twelve months many of these British artists have been covered on this blog, either via a release or live review, and a wonderful opportunity has been presented to catch up with them all in a single location. Some of these are no strangers to Maverick and there is no finer starting point than to check out the progress of old time influenced roots band Hatful of Rain.Since witnessing their festival appearance last year, this four piece combo who  effectively fuse folk and bluegrass with a sprinkling of Appalachia essence have continued to win many plaudits and will use their slot to preview a whole batch of new material which is subject to an upcoming release. After gaining the approval of the influential Bob Harris via a weekend session,  the band are looking to take their live show further afield from their south coast base and this will be another opportunity to connect with new admirers.

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While still on the subject of the sole champion of Americana music on national radio, Porchlight Smoker also benefitted from getting some Bob Harris airplay over the winter, this time on the country show. Their album ‘2’ received approval here with a favourable review and its good mix of original, traditional and well known cover songs will no doubt enthuse a festival audience. Apart from sharing a geographical similarity with Hatful of Rain, both bands utilise the skills of Fred Gregory who is up for a busy weekend.

It is great that Maverick have been able to capture a more nationwide feel to their line up by inviting the David Latto Band down from Scotland. The self titled debut release from the band won plaudits from this review and their brand of Americana will very much comply with the ideals of the festival. The review closed with a hope that they would venture south and it is great credit to the organisers that the opportunity to hear their original material live has been arranged.

Danni Nicholls
In the review of Danni Nicholls’ excellent debut album A LITTLE REDEMPTION the Maverick Festival was referenced as the source of her discovery and it is with immense delight that she returns in 2013 to give this fine release a further deserved plug.  It will be interesting to see how Danni interprets this record which had such a good band support during its Nashville recording, However the strength of the songs will no doubt ensure they will flourish in any format.

This UK review would not be complete without acknowledging the innovative festival move of allowing Clubhouse Records to take over the Peacock Café on Friday evening and present a revue of some of their acts. Amongst these include Redlands Palomino Company who have been firm live favourites for me over the years, re-enforced with their recent excellent set at Palmfest. The same applies to Mad Staring Eyes who despite being an unknown quantity to me also impressed on the same bill. The revue also contains several other acts which are eagerly awaited to be caught live including The Cedars and Troubadour Rose. These artists represent a different take on UK Americana and their acclaim has been growing from many trusted sources.

Carrivick Sisters
It has been admitted that the set of perennial Maverick invitees Police Dog Hogan always seems to have been missed on previous visits to the festival but having reviewed LAND OF MIRACLES towards the back end of last year that must be corrected this time. On the other hand there will be an opportunity to catch a number of acts that have only recently been witnessed live but all warrant an extra viewing, subject to clashes, on this busy weekend. The Carrivick Sisters gave an exceptional performance of old time folk and bluegrass roots music when co-headlining with Blair Dunlop in Birmingham in March and add Maverick to their string of in-demand festival appearances. On the back of their impressive slots at Palmfest earlier this month, both Jack Day and Danny George Wilson will surely meet the approval of festival goers with their solo sets, although the latter will have fond memories of playing the outside stage a few years ago with his Champions of the World band.

So that concludes this three-part series, although in addition to the Canadian, American and UK artists featured there are numerous other acts appearing of which details can be found at Just prior to the launch of the festival on the Friday evening, the newly formed American Music Association UK organisation will hold its inaugural conference on the site thus giving the members an opportunity to discuss the potential for genre growth. This bold move to replicate the success of the original US model aims to draw on the expertise and passion from different facets of Americana music to help formulate a strategy. The high quality of acts on show at this year’s Maverick Festival suggests a healthy product is already in place to be promoted.

Artists listed are scheduled to appear as per the festival website at time of posting. This may be subject to change.

Maverick Festival Preview Part 1 Canadian artists

Maverick Festival Preview Part 2 US artists

Americana Music Association UK

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Kennedys - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 4th June 2013

Following the heartfelt story of their destined meeting many years ago in Lubbock, Texas, it was no surprise that The Kennedys finally paid tribute to their hero Buddy Holly with the closing track of the pre-encore second set during this evening's gig. However before the New York based duo delivered a storming version of ‘Not Fade Away’ to climax their ‘Eight Miles High’ guitar medley, a sizeable Kitchen Garden Café crowd was treated to an excellent interpretation of Americana music.

The duo of Maura and Peter Kennedy are no strangers in Birmingham due to their association with the shows of Nanci Griffiths, and the Kitchen Garden Café welcomed a few first time visitors who will hopefully return to the venue in the future. Over the duration of two hours, those present enjoyed a comprehensive collection of The Kennedys music, best summed up by the graceful vocals of Maura and the proficient guitar playing of Pete. This included a combination of carefully selected covers and some fine original material, the latter main focussing on the new album CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW.

From this latest release, the duo performed the joyous number ‘Happy Again’, ‘Cradle to a Boat’, ‘I’ll Come Over’ and possibly the best of this quartet aired during the evening, ‘Marina Dream’. Copies of the new album proved popular purchases during the interval as well as last year’s RESTROPECTIVE  which is a concise collection of the duo’s finest material. Old favourites such as the requested ‘River of Fallen Stars’ ,the re-collection of that Lubbock meeting many years ago ‘Half a Million Miles’ and Maura’s fantastic Patsy Cline styled ‘Shadows with the Lonely’ were all well received.

As well as their masterly self penned songs, The Kennedys are very keen to celebrate the work of other songwriters to the extent that they issued a whole album of covers SONGS OF THE OPEN ROAD in 2006. That album was represented mainly in the second half when they performed a cracking version of the late Dave Carter’s ‘Gypsy Rose’, a John Stewart song titled ‘Jasmine’ and also adding another notch to the growing 2013 list of Gram Parsons covers with the ever popular ‘Sin City’. The country of their hosts was not forgotten with the traditional song ‘Matty Groves’ getting The Kennedys’ folk treatment and the fab four’s ‘A Day in the Life’ gracing the two song encore segment.

In line with the term ‘Americana’ decorating their promotional leaflet, The Kennedys deliver a truly eclectic brand of music reflecting country, bluegrass, folk, rock and the Bossa Nova style as in the New York inspired number ‘9th St. Billy’. Like so many songs performed during this enchanting evening, an entertaining tale acted as a prelude to its playing. No singer-songwriter show would be complete without these anecdotes, with Pete and Maura’s extensive industry experience providing a fertile source for such added value.

By the time the humble and highly appreciative duo crowned their performance with the thoughtful, all or nothing – multi religion gospel song ‘Stand’, both existing and new Kennedys fans had been treated to an exemplary exhibition of Americana music. Nights like these are precious and the duo left a favourable impression which many present would no doubt like to re-live in the not too distant future. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Palmfest - The Palmeira, Brighton Saturday 1st June 2013

One of the aims of the newly formed Americana Music Association UK body is to provide a nationwide focal point for the different participants in the industry. On the evidence of the performing artists on display at the second annual Palmfest in Brighton, there is no shortage of fine talent plying their trade on the circuit thus giving enormous credibility to this country’s ability to compare favourably with the high quality touring acts.

This single day feast of Americana music is the fruition of the passion, endeavour and investment from the team at Brighthelmstone Promotions and they certainly delivered a slick continual stream of bands and solo performers that each put their own stamp on the varied styles of the genre. From the lone guitar of local singer-songwriter Tandy Hard opening the outside acoustic stage to the raucous roots rock of Danny and the Champs supplying a barnstorming finale some twelve hours later, a further twelve artists gave an exemplary performance of song writing, musicianship and that essential trait of giving everybody present a damn good time.

Before a more in depth analysis of the artists present, this long trip to the south coast also took in a couple of other music related activities a day earlier. No visit to the East Sussex area for a country, roots and Americana fan would be complete without taking in the delightful Union Music Store in Lewes. This little oasis is part of the wider music related activities of Stevie and Jamie Freeman and even on a quiet Friday with no in-store performance there is a lovely ambience amongst the instruments, memorabilia and almost personalised music collection. One of the couple’s other music related activities is to produce and manage local bands and one such act was witnessed later that evening in The Brunswick Pub back in  Brighton. The Self Help Group delivered an exhibition of spine-tingling three-part harmonies in their performance that straddled folk and Americana in a west coast laid back style. While their songs had quirky origins there was nothing peculiar about the innate talent on display to deliver a sound that melted your senses in an appetising way.

House of Hats
Back to Palmfest and while the sound was generally a little more amplified than the previous evening, there were still some gorgeous harmonies on show starting with House of Hats who was first up on the main stage situated in the Palmeira pub which was completely hired out for the day. This popular local band was on maybe a little bit too early for most of those attending but they nevertheless gave an accomplished performance and set a high standard for the subsequent acts to follow. With each performance alternating in sync between the indoor and outdoor stages, the next artist playing in the June sunshine was an exceptional young local talent going by the name of Stevie Ray Latham. His 25 minute set of folk/blues material revealed a maturity far exceeding his young years with a vocal style that embedded perfectly into this style of music. The songs were no three minute throwaways and his album due out on the promoter’s own label is one to look out for.

A further three acts played the outside stage which concluded just as the warm sunshine began to subside. Jack Day was another young singer songwriter proving he is the real deal with a sound reminiscent of the acclaimed Texan Ryan Bingham. Lucky Jim performed as a duo with as good as musicianship as was seen all day with some fine guitar pickin’ and soothing cello. Robert Vincent made the long journey south from the North West to headline the acoustic stage, although he has a long connection with the Brighton area. In the last twelve months the stock of this singer songwriter has risen considerably with a highly rated album and an invite to play on the peripheral of the Country 2 Country Festival at the O2 Arena.  The class, style and confidence were self evident in Robert’s set.

Back indoors, a trio of bands with differing styles entertained the growing numbers that turned up during the afternoon. From London, Mad Staring Eyes impressed with an interesting combination of flute, pedal steel and acoustic guitar. Like so many artists appearing here, they are also lined up to play at the upcoming Maverick Festival and are an outfit well worth exploring further. The Caves ramped up the volume with their high octane version of roots rock which would ultimately set the tone for an up-tempo evening. Society was probably the band that raised their profile most to me on the day with their pleasing brand of classic country rock that would definitely hold up against fellow stateside practitioners. Exploring this band further is a must.

To launch the evening segment which effectively merged into the afternoon one, Small Town Jones, a band very dear to the promotion gave a fine performance to lay the ground for the headline quartet to ignite the atmosphere now swelled by sizeable numbers. Redlands Palomino Company are a band that I have followed on and off for half a dozen years seeing them live at many locations around the country. Backed by bass, drums and luscious pedal steel, husband and wife duo Alex and Hannah Elton-Wall, once again interchanged vocals, humour and general mischievousness to deliver a stunning rendition on how alt-country should be played. Hopefully their continued association with Clubhouse Records will lead to more recorded material.

Dreaming Spires
The Dreaming Spires were introduced as ‘everyone’s favourite new band’ and true to the form established  in their brief but flourishing career as a separate band, the Bennett Brothers Joe and Robin gave a scintillating performance of Americana fused guitar rock n’ roll. They sampled a few new songs with some popular tunes from their debut album which will hopefully be followed up in due course. In a day admiringly almost devoid of cover numbers, you have to grant the Spires permission to sample Parsons’  ‘Sin City’ in their song of a similar name.  

The Bennett’s were to later return to their roots as honorary Champs, but not before veteran roots rocker Peter Bruntnell stormed the festival with an hour long set to raise the intensity and appreciation level. This stalwart of the UK alt country scene has an impending release titled ‘Retrospective’ about to be issued by Loose Records and was another artist intrinsically linked to the promoter and their varying operations. No sooner had Peter left the active audience breathless with an exhilarating performance then the stage was quickly prepared for Danny George Wilson to shed his solo tag for the evening and introduce the horns, drums, bass, pedal steel, electric, acoustic and keys of Palmfest’s ensemble of the Champions of the World. The barnstorming performance by this much sought after collaboration was the perfect way to end a lengthy but ultimately rewarding day.

The success of this high quality assembly of some of the UK’s finest alt country, Americana and roots rock talent was unquestionable from an audience perspective and hopefully a viable one for those involved with its staging. You never know, the growth of the AMA UK may eventually lead to this type of day being more nationally available in the future and not just the domain of the southern portion of our country.