Monday, 26 August 2013

Carrie Rodriguez - Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury Sunday 25th August 2013

One of the delights for touring American artists is the opportunity to play in some of the increasingly quirky venues that are beginning to host live music on an intimate basis. You can now add to this list the rather splendid Henry Tudor House in Shrewsbury which no doubt pre-dates the European discovery of the New World and proved a popular stopping off point for Carrie Rodriguez on her latest tour of these isles. The decision to go head to head with the town’s popular folk festival on a Bank Holiday weekend didn’t deter the organisers and a sell out audience fully justified the decision to embrace the talents of an artist bestowed with immense beauty, vocal, fiddle playing and song writing ability.

Carrie is no stranger to the UK with many previous visits in differing formats but she now seems settled in operating as a duo with Luke Jacobs who worked closely with her on the latest album GIVE ME ALL YOU GOT. Not surprising, this fine release featured prominently in the set with the evening of Carrie and Luke being solely on stage bookended by the album’s opening and closing tracks ‘Devil in Mind’ and ‘I Don’t Mind Waiting’. After the latter was beautifully performed, the audience had a treat of the duo being joined on stage for an impromptu jam with US bluegrass band Barnstar who had just been playing the nearby festival. Two members of the band aided Carrie with a banjo/fiddle instrumental before the entire ensemble led by esteemed singer-songwriter Mark Erelli joined the duo for a rousing finale of the Hank Williams standard ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’.

There is surely no finer fiddle player on the Americana circuit than Texan born and bred Carrie, although Amanda Shires and Kendel Carson run her close, and even when she occasionally picks up the guitar you get the feeling that this is a mere interlude until the fiddle returns. The interaction with Luke whether on electric, acoustic, harmonica or lap steel, is an endearing quality of their show of which you can throw into the mix a range of top songs comprising both originals and well-interpreted covers. The latter included the sublime John Prine track ‘Unwed Fathers’ and the song which catapulted Tammy Wynette to the top of the charts ‘I Don’t Want to Play House’.

To have a stand out album track enhanced with a live performance is no mean feat but Carrie and Luke pulled that off with ‘Lake Harriet’ from the latest record. Also from this release ‘Sad Joy’ came across well, as Carrie introduced it with a heart warming story of an encounter at a Ray Lamontagne concert. The impressive vocals of Carrie exude class into the songs and when Luke stepped forward to sing an original titled ‘Margarit’ which put a little bit of country into the opera, he displayed a talent that had been hidden away on their previous UK visit. The pair also previewed a first airing of a new song potentially titled ‘Trouble’ which looks set to feature on a new release in the future.

The appreciative crowd in this elegant music room housed in the loft space of this historic building thoroughly enjoyed the two-set show and those who were previously aware of Carrie could sample a spread of music from across a number of her albums. The 2006 SEVEN ANGELS ON A BICYCLE proved a popular source for songs including the Mary Gauthier co-write ‘Absence’ and the title track inspired by the loss of a close friend. Regardless of the material, Carrie is blossoming as a performer and the inventive way she interprets country, roots and Americana music is a joy to behold.

Long may venues such as the Henry Tudor House spring up to host a style of music which will no doubt remain undiscovered to the masses but still retain a breathtaking quality to treasure and nurture carefully. Carrie Rodriguez is a valuable and established member of this scene and it is of sincere hope that many more people will enjoy her continued visits in the future. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Audrey Auld - Tonk Reckless Records

There may be no Honky in the title but Audrey Auld’s new album TONK has plenty in the content. Right from the outset, this latest release from the Nashville residing Aussie sets out to be a blueprint of how traditional country music can be made relevant in the 21st Century and Audrey succeeds in this mission. While it is unlikely to turn many heads in the Music Row establishment, those artists under their wing who have explored country roots in recent recordings could do no worse than look to TONK for inspiration and guidance of how to interpret the past.

Long since recording her first album back in Australia nearly a decade and a half ago, Audrey has made the US her home and while absorbing all the appropriate country sounds, still injects a striking antipodean accent into her songs to enhance their roots authenticity. Checking in at a rapid 41 minutes, the fourteen tracks of TONK spans the repertoire of traditional country served with a voice ranging from tear jerking sweetness to an earthy bitterness. The style is uncompromising and organic with a touch of humour added both lyrically and in the outtake nature to some of the songs.

Audrey has won over many plaudits in the wider country music community and is valued as highly as a song writer as she is a recording artist. In fact her composition ‘Next Big Nothing’ was one of the stand out songs on Sunny Sweeney’s fabulous debut album HEARTBREAKER’S HALL OF FAME. All but two tracks off TONK are self penned with the exceptions being Willie P. Bennett’s ‘Crying the Blues’, a song which does what it says on the tin, and the harmony driven ‘Sweet Alcohol’.

Logic would suggest commencing the song analysis with the gospel-esque opener ‘Bound for Glory’ but it is impossible to remove from your mind the coarse, brutal, ruthless yet hilarious ‘Rack Off ' which hurls a stream of abuse while driven along by a rockabilly backbeat straight out of the 50’s. The deadpan Aussie twang accompanying this song achieves more than any southern backwoods drawl could do. Humour is in abundance in the final track ‘Bury Me at Wal-Mart’ where some old time pedal steel gives an unlikely romantic tale a western swing feel.

However these type of songs are not necessarily representative to the overall feel of the record which rotates from a sweet waltz reflecting upon Nashville’s ills ‘Lonely Town’ to the sultry ‘Kiss Me’. As you would expect the usual array of instruments is present including the fiddle influenced ‘Broken Hearted Woman’ and some sublime pedal steel adding decorum to ‘Yes Best Left’.

With country music steeped in a history of feisty women, it is unsurprising for Audrey to approach this angle in both the lecture-like ‘Drinking Problem’ where the subject is told some home truths of what the real problem is and ‘Your Wife’ a construed possible homage to the female pioneers of the 60’s. The twin tracks in the middle of the album titled ‘Nashville  #1’ and ‘Nashville  #2’ offer different slants on Music City, the first a little ode with a slight rockin’ groove and the second a waltz-like chasing the dream piece. The other track on the album not yet mentioned is ‘Siren City’, one of the numbers commencing with an improvised chuckle to provide that live recording feel.

Plans are hopefully in motion for Audrey to visit the UK sometime next year and the material from TONK will connect both with some of the more traditional customers and Americana connoisseurs searching for a resurrection of the soul of country music. However this exceptional album shouldn’t just be directed at specific groups as its paradigm of country values will spread out to anybody with a fleeting interest in the genre.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Drew Holcomb & the Neigbours - Good Light Magnolia Music

It doesn’t take too long to get into the DNA of Drew Holcomb, just listen to the lyrics of ‘Tennessee’, the lead single and stand out track of his latest album GOOD LIGHT. Being raised in the western extremes of the state didn’t do him any harm, as it doesn’t any budding musician growing up in music soaked Memphis, and now residing in the creative hotspot of East Nashville means the full force of the volunteer state’s musical heritage flows through his veins.

Like so much of Nashville’s output outside music row, Drew Holcomb opens his heart to a wide range of influences from rock, country, soul and blues. The added spice of Drew’s own singer-song writing acumen ensures this album is as representative of the current alt-country Americana scene as you are likely to come across. GOOD LIGHT almost saunters into easy listening territory when first unveiled to your ears yet possesses an unyielding substance to ensure it’s no quick fix.

Weighing in at 44 minutes and twelve songs, the album is Drew’s sixth effort and prior to its August 26th UK release has gained much critical acclaim in his native US. His touring and recording band The Neighbours also includes his wife Ellie but she is currently scaling down her involvement to pursue other musical and family interests so when Drew hopefully brings the record to the UK in the New Year there may be an altered line up. What listeners will get from the live and recorded versions of GOOD LIGHT are articulate lyrics, clear constructed songs and generally classic organic singer-songwriter fare.

Drew’s lengthy association with many leading lights of this type of music such as John Hiatt, Ryan Adams, Avett Brothers and Robert Earl Keen has clearly had a positive impact. The general leaning is towards the slightly toned up ballad interspersed with numbers such as the jaunty ‘I Love You, I Do’, breezy album opener ‘Another Man’s Shoes’ , the harmonica laced blues/rock-style title track ‘Good Light’ and the soulful  ‘Nothing Like a Woman’. However whether its these sound interpretations, the tender duet ‘The Wine We Drink’ or slightly sombre closing number ‘Tomorrow’, which does cling onto a little hope, the result is a similarly satisfying close-on four minute listening experience.

‘I was born here and raised here and I’ll make my grave here’ is the line from the excellent ‘Tennessee’ that probably defines the album. Drew Holcomb has taken advantage of living and breathing the state’s finest gift to the world – its music, and feels humble enough to commit this admiration to song with the added ingredient of a little bit of essential pedal steel. There has been many a song title referencing the state spanning the Mississippi to the Smoky Mountains and this effort ranks commendably with the best of them.

GOOD LIGHT is an album worthy of accessing, scrutinising and ultimately enjoying. Drew Holcomb may be absorbing the influences of others but it surely won’t be long until it’s vice versa and this still relatively young singer-songwriter will be laying down the markers for future generations.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

April Verch - Bright Like Gold Slab Town Records

Each year the Transatlantic Sessions project arranged by Jerry Douglas and Aly Blain assembles a world class collection of roots artists from either side of the pond and surely it can’t be too long until they unveil the talents of April Verch to a wider UK audience. Regular sessions’ invitee Bruce Molsky has had a long association with April and makes several key contributions to her new album BRIGHT LIKE GOLD due for release in the UK on September 23rd.

This multi-talented singer-songwriter, fiddle player and step dancer from Canada’s Ottawa Valley is a veteran of many recordings though definitely not in years and the latest record is a balanced exemplar of old time influenced yet progressive fiddle and bluegrass tunes. From her very early formative years, April has been exposed to a style of music which remains true to its core even when it flickers in and out of the wider musical trends of the day. The endearing quality of BRIGHT LIKE GOLD is that in its diversity the album succeeds in reaching beyond the technically initiated and will resonate with those who see the fiddle as an essential ingredient of any musical ensemble.

A deep breath will be required before diving into this twenty song hour long album but the roughly 50-50 split of instrumentals and vocal tunes is distributed accordingly to keep your ears alert throughout the listening experience which far from drags. Just to allow you to take a break from the extensive educational experience, April does justice to the Loretta Lynn standard ‘Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’’, a song from a music genre which she wholeheartedly endorses.

Her regular sidekicks which double up as both recording and touring partners, Cody Walters and Hayes Griffin, are also key architects of BRIGHT LIKE GOLD. The latter’s western swing composition ‘Foolish Heart ‘ is one of the record’s highlights and generally their banjo, bass and guitar work blend intrinsically with April’s virtuoso fiddle playing. As well as the contribution of Bruce Molsky which includes a fabulous fiddle duel on ‘Evening Star Waltz’, April has managed to secure the services of legendary American bluegrass maestro Mac Wiseman to duet on her self-penned ‘The Only One’ and provide a majestic vocal performance on ‘My Home in the Sky’.

Though a proud citizen of Canada, April ventured south to Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music to formalise her education and exploring the talents of this young lady will enhance yours. It is definitely worth accessing the extensive online bio especially to grasp a further understanding of the differences between Canadian and Appalachian fiddle playing. The vocal style of April is far from classical and differs a little from the pristine tones of Alison Krauss but it dovetails the multitude of acoustic sounds perfectly and exerts extra emotion to her self-penned songs such as ‘Broken’ and ‘Sorry’.

 Accolades, awards and appreciation have flooded April’s way in her homeland and if not put off by the extensive content BRIGHT LIKE GOLD could help expand her UK awareness outside a niche market. Therefore this is almost a plea to experiment with the album and challenge your mind and attitude to buy into the work of April Verch and her band of collaborators. The October tour to some of our more low key venues is another opportunity to connect and either way, disappointment will not be on the agenda.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Brandy Zdan - Lone Hunter Cavalier Recordings

The relative sparse landscapes of Manitoba and Texas are fertile breeding grounds for many visionary singer-songwriters who turn to their deep creative mind to unearth the fruits of their labour. Therefore it is not surprising that Canadian multi instrumentalist, singer-song writer Brandy Zdan honed her craft in Winnipeg before reaping the network support of that hotbed of fine music, Austin to enhance and develop her career. The latest stopping off point for this versatile artist is a debut six-track solo mini album LONE HUNTER which is being released to coincide with another new venture, the ABC of Canadian Music.

With a voice to rival any of the current outstanding folk output from the city labelled ‘live music capital of the world’ the self penned tracks captivate, haunt and tease your senses aligned with a sound perfectly in sync with the mood of the songs. Percussion, steel, gentle electric and soft acoustic are expertly arranged by experienced producer George Reiff (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Band of Heathens, Lincoln Durham) to contribute to a brief but satisfying 22 minutes of listening pleasure.

Album opener ‘Mourning Dove’ hooks you in with a mesmeric intro and tantalises with a potential explosion that doesn’t materialise. The melting and tender tones of ‘O Where’ decorated with sublime steel make no effort to take you anywhere but on a dreamy path of bliss. Once in a state of tranquillity ‘Does Everything Break’ will continue to soothe the senses as the vocals enter a phase of maturity to suggest a change in tone is imminent.

Blood as the Ink’ provides an injection of pace to remove any aspect of complacency as amplification leads the album into a more intense and determined direction. Title track ‘Lone Hunter’ resumes the relative sobriety with a realistic thought of ‘we all die alone, we all turn to smoke’. The fond recollections of ‘I Remember When You Used To Love Me’ leave a strong imprint on your mind as the album fades into the distance, with a feeling that there has been something special in this short experience.

With a career spanning Juno nominations in Canada as part of Twilight Hotel and supplying the six string, lap steel and accordion input for Austin based female super-group The Trishas, the next phase of Brandy’s live work will engage UK audiences. By teaming up with fellow Canadian and established UK tour artists Awna Texeira (Po Girl) and Cara Luft (solo, Wailin Jennys), Brandy Zdan forms an integral part of the ABC of Canadian Music project which hits our shores in October. The material from LONE HUNTER will certainly enhance the show and is worth every penny of the modest outlay when available on September 9th

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Foghorn Leghorn - Not Before Time Slammer Records

The irony of the title lies within the band celebrating a 21st anniversary with only their third release but this belies the standing the guys behind Foghorn Leghorn have in the London roots music scene. After successfully running the My Grass is Blue club night for a number of years including perfecting the fruits of their talents with the cream of the south’s alt-country establishment, the band have unleashed a bunch of raw yet honest songs on the wider listening public and NOT BEFORE TIME will alert more people to the passion and expertise bubbling under in the capital.

While the sound is all banjo, fiddle, mandolin and Dobro, there’s hardly a mountain stream or hollow in sight, just the life and soul of the streets of London. Either side of the only non-original track, the Bill Evan’s composed instrumental ‘Petersberg Gal’ which marks the record’s centre point, lies the democratic writing of band members Eamonn Flynn, Andy Dore, Kevin O’Neil, Paul Fay, Tim Kent and Chris Clarke, who also holds down producing duties. Flynn is the key architect for several key songs amongst the original eleven including the impressive opening two numbers ‘Pizza Boy’ and ‘Tube Trains’, as well as probably the track pivotal to the record’s second half ‘Madelaine’.

With the album racing along at a frenetic pace in true bluegrass style, the slower numbers do have an increased effect especially the classy closer ‘Brother Oh Brother’, the heart warming ‘Either or’ and a possible candidate for stand out track ‘Runner Up’ which definitely has country credentials. Regardless of the songs's pace, all pay utmost respect to the authenticity of a sound bestowed with purity and integrity.

There must have been some special nights at The Betsey Trotwood during the conception of this welcome addition to the UK Americana scene and maybe, with the focal point of NOT BEFORE TIME, opportunities may arise to roll out the sound around the country, in perhaps a revue format. There is a sure need for some of the more urban areas of Britain to re-connect with the true values of music and this album by Foghorn Leghorn will play its part.

The Carrivick Sisters - Over The Edge Self Released

OVER THE EDGE by Devon sibling duo The Carrivick Sisters is an unblemished release that will appeal to both traditional folk fans and those who like their music flavoured with a sprinkling of Appalachia Americana. There could not have been a more appropriately named location for its recording at Pure Records Studio as this is  likely to be an aesthetically pleasing record as you’re likely to hear all year. The delectable musicianship melts into the crystal vocals which see both Laura and Charlotte in harmony as well as sharing lead.

The stories and tales around this collection of twelve songs have become a central feature of their live shows over the past year so it is good to finally get them attached to a recording to aid their further enjoyment. Having first coming across the duo at the Moseley Folk Festival a couple of years ago, their prodigious talent is now beginning to blossom and this new record, their 5th release, is unrivalled in their back catalogue.

Charlotte tends to focus more on the guitar input as well as adding the banjo and mandolin touch while Laura majors on the fiddle with a switch to Dobro on a couple of tracks. The bass of John Breeze backs all tracks while piano, electric guitar and percussion making fleeting appearances. As well as appearing live with the sisters, rising folk star Blair Dunlop adds harmony vocals to a pair of songs including the excellent ballad ‘The Moon’, which forms part of an inspiring album opening.

High standards are set right from the off when the girls put to song a true tale of an ultimately futile protest against the building of the Headland Hotel in Newquay back in the 1890s. The top quality song writing in this cleverly titled number ‘Over the Edge’ is a recurring theme throughout the album which sees the sisters, either solo or in tandem, pen the lyrics to nine of the twelve tracks as well as composing the two instrumentals ‘Making Horses’ and ‘Slap on Eleven’. The sole traditional offering is ‘Pretty Fair Damsel’, their take on an old American song.

Like all good song writing albums should have, a lyric sheet accompanies the CD and the press release includes a very informative song-by-song background analysis from the girls which enhances the listening experience and may have even have found a useful home within the package itself. The appreciation of the Carrivick Sisters extends from the vocals, music and lyrics to the background and influence of their craft as well as the evolving live experience which continues to develop progressively.

As far as the stand out track is concerned, the superb ‘Outside Time/Salamander’ makes a strong case with a vibrant fiddle piece tagged onto the end but is shaded by the enchanting ‘If You Asked Me’ which features early in the album. This wonderfully constructed up tempo song deals with the realistic side of love and its sound and style is very reminiscent of The Good Lovelies in full flow.

Although the Carrivick Sisters are regularly active on the live circuit, their planned shows will no doubt feature this October 7th release up to the end of that month and no doubt beyond  OVER THE EDGE has the quality to reach out to a wide audience and highlight why the Carrivick Sisters are great ambassadors for roots music originating from both sides of the Atlantic.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Canmore Folk Festival - Alberta, Canada Monday August 5th 2013

When presented with the option of spending the final day of my Canada trip in downtown Calgary or at the last day of a folk festival in the Rocky Mountain town of Canmore, there really wasn’t a contest. So a return trip west up Highway 1 to enjoy the music was undertaken in a location that was quite stunning.
In a similar set up to the Calgary Folk Festival albeit on a much smaller scale, the Canmore festival consisted of a main stage providing the focus for the second part of the day with smaller outer stages hosting a series of jam style workshop sessions in the first part. After scanning the schedule and being unable to attend the first two days, I immediately sought out a couple of sessions containing artists who had already played their main set earlier in the festival.

Having reviewed all but one of the Juno nominated Traditional and Folk solo albums this year, the odd one out was the ultimate winner WE HAVE MADE A SPARK by Rose Cousins. So it was good to catch Rose’s dual session with David Francey and his band. Although it was a brief experience, to hear songs from the album such as ‘One Way’ and a new song called ‘Stray Birds’ helped make the detour to Canmore worthwhile and hopefully there will be further opportunities to see her if she returns to the UK in the near future.

Thankfully the festival survived this monster
Great Lake Swimmers are an Ontario based folk rock band who have previously visited Birmingham in the UK and having not seen them before, their session with Jim Cuddy was also attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Jim was to feature later, as the highly respected member of Canadian country rock outfit Blue Rodeo had the honour of closing the festival with his own band. Just prior to the main sets getting underway a keen eye was directed towards the direction of a hat clad country folk singer from Manitoba who brought attention to himself on a crowded session stage with some engaging stories and an endearing sound.

That particular artist was Del Barber from Winnipeg who later in the evening captivated a main stage audience who were just recovering from a Rocky Mountain downpour that threatened to have an adverse effect on the remainder of the festival. The appeal of Del, who is due to tour the UK in September to support Justin Currie, is in the delightful road stories of being a travelling musician and the simplistic way he transfers them to well crafted songs.  Comparisons were immediately drawn to Otis Gibbs from Wannamaker, Indiana who regularly entertains audiences up and down the UK and both artists are the personification of the country music cliché ‘Three Chords and the Truth’. Hopefully Del will be featured in more detail in the future.

One artist who is a perennial visitor to the UK is Canadian folk blues maestro Matt Anderson who had already been pencilled in for a live blog feature in the autumn prior to seeing his well received set at the Canmore Folk Festival. The performance by this imposing vocal presence with a mean picking style was mightily impressive especially when playing songs such as ‘Coal Mining Blues’, ‘So Long Now’ and crowd participating ‘Round and Round’. A week after the passing of guitar legend J.J. Cale was remembered by so many artists at the Calgary Folk Festival, Matt was determined to pay his own respects and he duly did with a great version of ‘Magnolia’. When joined by other fellow artists on stage for a concluding version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’, the appetite for savouring more of Matt Anderson when he comes to the UK was definitely whetted.

As previously mentioned the Jim Cuddy Band closed out the festival on what was a National Canadian holiday, although I am afraid, despite his standing, the impact was a lot less than that of Del or Matt. It would be remiss not to give credit to a fine blues artist in Tom Williams who bravely entertained the sodden crowd struggling to shelter from the deluge of driving rain amidst a temporary thunderstorm that rumbled up the valley before passing over the festival site.

However this was only a minor blip on an impromptu day that proved a fitting end to a trip to Alberta which had already taken in the Calgary Folk Festival and the Big Valley Jamboree. Despite not being on the same scale as these two events, the people of Canmore are very proud of their long established annual folk festival and it continues to prove popular to visitors and locals alike. The oxygen of these festivals ensures the tradition of roots infused music is preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Big Valley Jamboree - Camrose, Alberta, Canada Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th August 2013

Five months after commencing his Two Lanes of Freedom Tour at the O2 Arena in London, the latest stop for Tim McGraw, as he criss-crosses the North American continent, is the wide open spaces of Camrose, Alberta and a Sunday night headline slot at the 21st Big Valley Jamboree. Having been fortunate enough to attend the weekend segment of this four day festival during my summer holiday to Canada, it can be confirmed that this excellent album which was virtually being previewed in London is sounding better than ever and the lesser half of the McGraw/Hill partnership is in fine fettle as one of country music’s great contemporary entertainers.

More of Tim’s closing set later which brought the curtain down on a festival which the organisers like to combine the cream of Nashville talent with both up and coming and established Canadian artists. Having kicked into gear on Thursday evening, the festival was already in full swing upon my Saturday morning arrival. According to those present on Friday, The Mavericks, fresh from a number of UK dates, performed an amazing set while Alan Jackson did what he does best and entertained his hordes of fans in his own inimitable style. From the organiser’s perspective the challenge was now to cope with the fevered masses determined on partying on down to Luke Bryan and perhaps more importantly the weather holding out.

Although the surrounding festival site housed plenty of western themed attractions and a couple of low key songwriter tents, the heartbeat of the jamboree pulse is in the main arena which hosts six acts each day. First up on Saturday lunchtime was a young female solo Canadian artist known simply as Tennile. It is always difficult to open a sparsely populated area designed to cope with 25000 fans but Tennile displayed potential as she worked through a short set which included her new single ‘Halfway to Somewhere’ and a cover of U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. While her big stage best may be still to come, by all accounts her voice came over really well when performing later in one of the song writing workshops.

Following Tennile on the main stage was another Canadian artist that had no problem commanding the arena which was now starting to fill a little. Bobby Wills is a highly credible country singer-songwriter, musician and performer who has seen his stock rise considerably in the last year. With a collection of songs that are equally powerful and tender, Alberta native, Bobby delivered a set containing new compositions, a cover of Randy Travis’s Digging Up Bones’ and a host of tracks from his recent album including the highlight ‘Show Some Respect’. Bobby’s album was reviewed here last year and catching him live confirmed the talent that existed in that recording.

Before the big name American acts dominated proceedings, newly formed but highly experienced Canadian duo Small Town Pistols took to the main stage to deliver a harmonious set of contemporary country music in the tradition of the great family acts of the past. Brother and sister, Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson who previously had solo careers as well as being integral members of their family group The Wilkinsons, are very much veering towards a cross over sound with their new project. They didn’t hold back on their admiration for Fleetwood Mac when introducing the track ‘Love is Gonna Find You’ and included a cover of Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ in their set. Although the debut album by the Small Town Pistols is commendable, perhaps the highlight of their live performance was the stunning ’26 Cents’, a song from The Wilkinsons back catalogue.

Anticipation amongst the younger and slightly rowdier members of the increasingly growing crowd started to gain momentum when country rocker Rodney Atkins took to the stage for the late afternoon slot. This established Nashville performer took a little while to warm up the crowd before closing with the hits that had many singing and jumping up and down to. Like many artists over the weekend, Rodney adapted some of his lyrics to suit a Canadian audience although maybe he went a little too far in totally renaming ‘It’s America’ to the syllable shorter ‘It’s Canada’. Having changed the title, much of the chorus was also amended with the lines ‘Saskatoon, hockey and Bryan Adams’ song’ all added. No such alterations were made with his popular hits ‘Take a Back Road’, ‘Country Boy’, ‘Watching You’ and ‘These are my People’. By the time he got to ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’ which closed the set, the more lively members of the standing crowd were in full swing both vocal and in motion to provide upon reflection one of the highlights of the festival.

After a short break to indulge in the unhealthy festival food and sample the highly rationed and expensive alcohol, main stage action resumed to witness an impressive set by Travis Tritt. Not knowing too much about this highly respected artist from the 90’s explosion years of country music did not distract from thoroughly enjoying his style of music which leaned very heavily on a southern rock blues sound especially in the vocals. A majority of the songs came from his hit laden back catalogue with the three having the most favourable impression being ‘Put Some Drive in Your Country’, ‘The Whiskey ain’t Working’ and ‘Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde’. A cover of ‘Take it Easy’ by The Eagles was the solitary known number in the set but by the end your mind had been enriched by an hour’s worth of old songs being introduced for the first time.

Luke's adoring fans from a distance
While it would be grossly unfair to class Travis Tritt as a warm up act, unfortunately for thousands of young, predominately female fans clad in ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘You Can Crash My Party Anytime’ tee shirts this was the case as Luke Bryan was all they wanted to see. At 37 years old, the native of Leesburg, Georgia is no overnight success having plied his trade around Nashville for a dozen years. However from somewhere he has found a formula to catapult his appeal into the stratospheric level of mainstream country music. Apart from the obvious features which need not be analysed here, it was the most intriguing part of the festival to gain a further understanding of his popularity. 

Well for a start, the guy held 25000 fans for an hour and half in the palm of his hand which is no mean feat. By drawing on material ranging from 2007’s I’LL STAY ME to the upcoming release CRASH MY PARTY, Luke Bryan is probably first and foremost an entertainer. While all the party style hits were demanded and delivered, mid way through his set perhaps we saw a vision of who Luke Bryan wanted to be. This extended phase of acoustic material including a version of ‘We Rode in Trucks’ was certainly a little too long for many in the crowd but gave a perceived insight of where his career may lead. Anyway, where Luke Bryan is right now was perfectly illustrated in three of the set’s final tracks ‘Drunk on You’, ‘All My Friends Say’ and ‘Country Girl (Shake it for Me Now)’. Fortitude may be the key to his sustainability but that ‘feel good moment in time’ aurora keeps Luke Bryan very relevant in the world of country music.

Luke Bryan Set List – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Country Man: Someone Else Calling You Baby: Rain is a Good Thing: Crash My Party: That’s My Kinda Night: Muckalee Creek Water: Sun Tan City: If You Ain’t Here to Party: Drink a Beer: We Rode Trucks: Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old: Do I: That’s the Only Way I Know: Drunk on You: All My Friends Say: I Don’t Want this Night to End: Country Girl

The Sunday weather held, just.
After the excitement of a party Saturday evening, there was a more sedate feeling to the Sunday set until it exploded into life later in the day. There was hardly a Luke Bryan tee shirt to be seen as Canadian country pop duo Autumn Hill took to the stage the get the final day underway. Once again the opening slot can prove tricky but this artist, very reminiscent of the UK act Raintown, came across well. A single recorded in Nashville titled ‘I Can Get Lost in You’, a cover of Keith Urban’s ‘Somebody Like You’ and ‘Party Like Memphis’ were the highlights from this 45 minute set.

Aaron Lines was another home grown Alberta performer added to the line up and this accomplished, experienced performer entertained those present in the outdoor arena which started to see a little cloud build up amongst the warm sunshine that up to now had blessed the festival. By far the best song from the acclaimed Canadian was ‘Trouble with California’, a track well worth checking out on You Tube.

One of the aims of the organisers is to showcase a selection of different styles without veering too far astray from the core of country music. The booking of Texas honky tonk band The Derailers certainly added a twist to the Sunday afternoon proceedings and they delivered a blistering high energy set to those members of the audience desiring a re-creation of a sound that resonates around the traditional dance halls of the Lone Star State. This edgy combo provided ample opportunities for couples to perfect their dance routines and breathed a little bit of life into an event that could have hit a quagmire of the pop/rock guitar side of contemporary country music.

The lady gracing the festival’s Sunday late afternoon slot needed little introduction to her adoring fans as the pride of Medicine Hat, Alberta and, Canada’s finest export to the Grand Ole Opry, Terri Clark took to the stage to effectively begin the festival finale. In contrast to her wonderful solo intimate shows in the UK last summer, Terri reverted to her equally wonderful full band performance on this occasion. Although her appearance formed part of the Classic Tour, the only vintage on offer during a jam packed hour-long set was a medley of her 1990’s hits and a short dose of the Man in Black as she ensured every precious available minute possible was dedicated to song. The live version of ‘I Wanna Do It All’ was amazing, as was ‘No Fear’ and the enthusiastic all-age audience had no hesitation in sending a message to the waiting Tim McGraw that their version of ‘Northern Girl’ would be louder than his ‘Southern Girl’. The finale of ‘We’re Here for a Good Time’ couldn’t have been more appropriate with the festival’s final two acts still to come.

Terri Clark Set List – Just Wanna Be Mad: Girls Lie Too: A Little Gasoline: No Fear: I Wanna Do It All: Medley- Emotional Girl/If I Were You/When Boy Meets Girl/Dirty Girl: You’re Easy on the Eye: Folsom Prison Blues: Better Things: Northern Girl: Poor Pitiful Me: We’re Here for a Good Time

If you analyse Big and Rich too much, you start to miss the point. The antics and hits flowed in equal measure as the fun duo played up to their image. ‘Come to your City’, ‘Wild West Show’ and ‘Loud’ had their delirious fans in raptures even before Cowboy Troy joined the boys for ‘I Play Chicken with the Train’ and remained on stage for the increasingly manic finale. Although loved by the crowd, the multi selling smash hit single ‘Lost in this Moment’ seemed a little out of the sync with the tone of the set, however there was no denying which song most wanted to hear. The live version of ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’ with all its sampling lasted an eternity but it took the set to an even higher level. Big and Rich will always divide opinion but if you sit on the other side of the fence, perhaps take the opportunity to peer over and try to ascertain what the fuss is all about.

At 9 o’clock, and with the threat of inclement weather passing much to the organiser’s relief, the major act for the 2013 Big Valley Jamboree took to the stage. With potentially a career album just under his belt, Tim McGraw continues to show the world of country music who is running the show. Luke Bryan may have had the adulation the night before but this performance was all about respect and the odd sing along. If anything the sound was a little less rock orientated than what was experienced at the O2 Arena in London last March but the set list ran pretty much along the same lines. A little blemish on the festival was a slightly deteriorating sound quality for us poor souls at the back of a very large field but with a little straining of the ears, the immense impact of McGraw’s song delivery and stage presence was still profound. If anything this guy’s music has grown on me since March and this follow up experience in many ways exceeded that London debut. The highlights were endless although a special mention needs to be reserved for the splendid ‘Highway Don’t Care’, albeit Ms Swift’s backing vocals came from a sound system as the budget didn’t stretch to her appearing for one song.

Tim McGraw Set List – Where the Green Grass Grows: All I Want is a Life: Down on the Farm: How Bad Do You Want It: Everywhere: Southern Girl: Just to See You Smile: Mexicoma: Friend of a Friend: Highway Don’t Care: Two Lanes of Freedom: Real Good Man: The Cowboy in Me: Something Like That: Felt Her On My Lips: Live Like You Were Dying: One of Those Night: Indian Outlaw: I Like It I Love It: Truck Yeah

Just prior to Tim McGraw’s performance, the big screen announced the festival’s first 2014 bookings. Darius Rucker and The Band Perry are no strangers to the UK but many would like to see Miranda Lambert over here. Unfortunately I won’t be at the Big Valley Jamboree next year to see these three artists but I know 25000 adoring Canadian country music fans will and they will definitely have a guaranteed good time.

Calgary Folk Festival - Alberta, Canada - Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th July 2013

The most poignant moment of the 2013 Calgary Folk Music Festival came during Saturday evening’s headline slot when Steve Earle dedicated the song ‘This City’ to all those who had worked tirelessly to ensure that this four day event on Prince’s Island, just a stone throw from downtown Calgary, didn’t become another victim of the great Southern Alberta flood of 2013. So with a lot of hard work and a little tinkering around the edges, artists from around the world descended on this Canadian self proclaimed city ‘Home of the New West’ to celebrate a diverse brand of music that stretched from country to dance and calling at most points in between.

With a daily sold out attendance of around 13000, the festival got underway around tea time on Thursday and I immediately headed to a stage hosting two artists who have become firm favourites of mine. Having made the long journey from the Canadian north east maritime provinces, Amelia Curran may have been expecting slightly warmer Alberta weather but with an excellent back catalogue joined recently by the Juno nominated album SPECTATORS, her set on the island site’s second stage got the festival off to a splendid start. Assisted by Catherine Allan on accordion/piano and Darren Brown on Mandolin, Amelia showcased her heart warming ability to deliver stunning folk songs with a feel good injection of laughter. ‘Years’, ‘Bye Bye Montreal’, ‘Blackbird on Fire’ and ‘The Mistress’ were all great songs performed but for me the captivating ‘San Andreas Fault’ set the standard for all the other artists to follow.

Hayes Carll is long overdue another visit to Britain and I can gladly report that the Texan Troubadour with an innate ability to turn a quirky tale into an outstanding song is in fine form and would jump at the chance if an opportunity arose. Amongst the wealth of classic literary masterpieces adorning the set list was a song added to his great pal Corb Lund’s latest album ‘Bible on the Dash’, the delightful tale of frustrated love ‘Beaumont’ and the equally wonderfully titled ‘Drunken Poets Dream’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Drunken Heart’. The charm and engaging talent of Hayes Carll has endeared many fans across North America and while he has created a respected niche with audiences in Canada, especially Calgary, the potential to continue to grow in the UK is still there. Promoters please note!

Having caught their spellbinding set at Glastonbury via TV, expectation was high that Alabama Shakes live could be an earth shattering experience. It may have been a slightly cool and wet evening but the main stage arena rocked, shook and lapped up everything Brittany Howard and her boys had to offer. With their BOYS AND GIRLS album formally fixed in Americana folklore, some new material previewed took a slower and deeper blues path which allowed Brittany total freedom to stretch every sinew of her vocal ability. When she removes her glasses mid song, you know this girl is on top form and whether you consider them blues, rock, folk, southern, soul or a bit of everything, the experience of catching them live transcends genres. You now start to get the picture that Alabama Shakes fully justified headlining the opening night of the Calgary Folk Music festival.

A major feature of this festival is the themed workshop sessions that spring up on stages throughout the site where artists collaborate, often without rehearsal, on each other’s songs as well as traditional standards. Much of Friday was spent exploring these sessions where Amelia Curran popped up again and they also gave a first opportunity to catch some songs by John Fulbright and The Dunwells ahead of their main sets. Many of the themes were based around genres such as folk, country, world, blues etc and overall they were a great way of experiencing the different sides of artists as well as providing an excellent opportunity to sample new acts and musical styles.

The Friday evening main concerts did not contain any must see artists but it was a pleasant way to saunter around the stages and see what takes your fancy surely the true ethos of any festival. Probably the standout act from the festival’s second day was the main stage show by Austin based alt country rock outfit Heartless Bastards. The set of this band led by singer guitarist Erika Wennerstrom evolved from straight down the middle indie rock to a more varied sound which allowed space for other more roots influences. They are due to visit the UK later this year and are definitely a band to look out for and are proof that festivals are excellent places to widen your music engagement.

John Fullbright gained loads of new followers when touring the UK earlier this year with his Grammy nominated debut album FROM THE GROUND UP. His Saturday lunchtime outer stage slot was always going to be a must see and the Oklahoma raised singer-songwriter didn’t disappoint. Plans are already advanced for the sophomore album and John previewed a new song titled ‘For the First Time’. On the morning of the announcement of the passing of guitar legend J.J.Cale, tributes were in abundance across the festival and John duly offered his own. However the standout moment of John’s set and one of the whole festival’s as well was the stunning rendition of ‘Jericho’. John returns to the UK later this year and he is set to be an integral member of the Americana movement for many years to come.

On the back of the Mumford and Sons America phenomena, UK folk/rock/pop band The Dunwells have been making inroads stateside with their own style of infectious roots influenced songs. This five piece Leeds based band led by the Dunwell brothers David and Joseph managed to achieve the near impossible and get a lunchtime TD Stage 6 sedentary crowd to their feet with a lively version of their anthem ‘So Beautiful’. Other songs presented from the debut album BLIND SIGHTED FAITH included the title track, ‘I Could Be a King’ and ‘Hand that Feeds’. Hopefully the autumn will see the boys re-concentrate their efforts on raising their profile in the UK as they have the talent to go far. Those present for their Calgary Folk Festival slot were converts by the end albeit from the confines of their lawn chair.

Following a trawl through an afternoon of more sessions, attention once again turned to the main stage evening line up and first up was the talented Scottish traditional folk singer Rachel Sermanni. Still in her early twenties, Rachel possess an amazing voice and although a little bit fazed by the enormity of the vast main stage when partaking in between song banter, there was no such intimidation when launching into fine songs such as ‘Ever Since the Chocolate’, ‘Sleep’ and ‘Song to a Fox’. There was no doubt that Rachel won many Canadian plaudits during her tour of the country especially with the strong Highland links that span the land. It will be interesting to monitor her progress in the folk world back home.

Prior to catching Steve Earle’s headline set on the main stage there was a slight disappointment when seeing the performance of Brooklyn indie songstress Sharon Van Etten. Perhaps the location didn’t suit her dark moody introspective manner but the hype surrounding her seemed misplaced when witnessing a disjointed uninspiring set. However there was no to time dwell at this festival as the missed opportunity to see Steve Earle on his recent UK tour was rectified. The legendary folk, Americana, country and, anything else you want him to be, performer embraced the spirit of Calgary by donning a white Stetson for the early part of his set which focussed on the latest LOW HIGHWAY album. Steve was on top form with his banter when dismissing a heckler demanding an immediate version of ‘Copperhead  Road’, although this classic was never going to be left out of the segment containing ‘Galway Girl’, ‘Guitar Town’ and the set highlight ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’. Although the Duchess AKA Mrs Allison Moorer-Earle didn’t make the trip north as band member at least, Steve continues to enthuse about the acquisition of The Mastersons by referring to this being his best ever Dukes line up. There may be a lot of miles on the clock but there’s plenty left in the creative tank of Steve Earle.

With credit to World Party, Kurt Vile and Credence Clearwater Revisited (basically Revival’s rhythm section with a tribute vocalist singing Fogarty’s songs) who all delivered fine sets, the final day of the 2013 Calgary Folk Festival for me was all about two acts, one familiar and the other not.  An excellent alt-country band called the Coal Creek Boys from just over the Alberta border in British Columbia first came to my attention during one of the workshops and subsequently confirmed their ability to craft real life high quality songs in the Sunday morning full band set in the tented sedentary TD Stage 6. With a rich heritage sourced from the coalfields of B.C., the band led by John Paul Smith use rock and roll as their outlet to recount tales of their proud tradition and deal with the real issues of their surroundings. They have a fine new double release out titled ROSETOWN: WHISKEY AND WINE with ‘Carrie Nation’, ‘Rose Town’ and ‘GI Highway’ being superb tracks added to their Calgary set. The band is starting to get good press in the States and have a ready-made audience in the UK if the two can connect.

While waiting to see the main set from the festival’s stand out performers Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, a highly impressive performance from Canadian folk duo DALA was stumbled upon. These two Toronto based artists had an eye catching talent and a sound that ranks highly alongside the abundance of compatriots that are very popular in the UK. Having noted their acclaimed home status, surely some international recognition is not far away and they are certainly an act pencilled in for future scrutiny.

It wasn’t quite a case of saving the best till last because Texas husband and wife duo Kelly Willis and Bruce Robsion had a 5 o’clock slot on an outside stage but their performance met all pre-determined expectations and proved unequivocally the highlight of the entire festival. Following a slightly uniformed introduction from the MC, the much respected duo, who have both been stalwart servants to country and wider Americana music in Nashville and Austin for a number of years, gave a superb performance littered with evidence of their eminence. Bruce, the writer of country hits for George Strait ‘Wrapped’, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw ‘Angry All The Time’ and Dixie Chicks ‘Travellin’ Soldier’, enthralled the audience with each of these songs. Kelly, a much respected vocalist, took lead on ‘9999999 Tears’, ‘Dreaming’ and the Tom T Hall tribute track ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’. Their first album as a duo released earlier this year CHEATER’S GAME is a gem of a record and a handful of excellent tracks from it lit up their woefully short 45 minute set. At present their album has a limited availability in the UK which needs to be widened as well as encouragement for Kelly and Bruce to tour.

I suppose it was inevitable that a country and Americana act would rise to the top of the extremely eclectic Calgary Folk Festival but the real winners were the people of the city who rescued their beloved festival at the eleventh hour to enable us outside visitors to enjoy a fabulous four days of music. The setting is idyllic, the organisation is first class and the quality of the artistic presentation is hard to beat. The magic and inspiration of the Calgary Folk Festival will remain within me for a very long time.