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.