Saturday, 30 November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Billy Bragg - Birmingham Symphony Hall Sunday 24th November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Hidden Trail Records Presents...'Hidden Brighton'

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Jamie Freeman Agreement - 100 Miles From Town Union Music Store

If the mythical music genre ‘Briticana’ ever takes root then, on the evidence of this new release, Jamie Freeman will be right at the core of the movement. With the help of his band The Agreement and a wealth of guest contributors, Jamie has cut a record that combines a plethora of American music influences, all woven together with a distinct British, if not more specifically English, flavour. 100 MILES FROM TOWN is the second album from Jamie who balances a recording career with running the different strands of the Union Music Store and generally being an Americana music activist. This multi-merited release has the potential to nestle securely amongst the finest of British purveyors of this music style.

Diversity is a popular word frequenting the modern day dictionary and over the course of a 43 minute-13 song experience, Jamie fluctuates between folk, country, Americana and  rock n’ roll as well as adding a hint of gospel and even a Mod feel to a couple of tracks. The appeal of the record lies within the layers of musical arrangement and song construction, along with Jamie’s ear for a story and the valuable acquisition of additional vocals to help bring the tracks to life.

Jamie has certainly utilised the gifts of the many top notch artists that pass through his East Sussex base. The instant effect of one such talent is the lap steel and mandolin playing of the Lovell Sisters, Megan and Rebecca, now more commonly known as Larkin Poe, which soaks into the folk oriented opening song ‘The Knight’. Later in the album, Canadian songbirds The Good Lovelies add a sublime harmony touch to the retro but still relevant rocker ‘Two Sugar Baby’ which even before reading the sleeve notes was recalled as a familiar social media handle.

The third and probably most profound interim input comes from highly respected Austin based artist Brandy Zdan who co-wrote with Jamie the album’s standout track ‘Steel Away’. This superb song echoes the vibes from the golden age of west coast country rock and who better to step forward to offer his Pedal Steel services than UK stalwart of this iconic instrument B.J. Cole. To further infiltrate the core of American roots music, Jamie has chosen to promote this album with a classic-styled up tempo Americana murder ballad ‘Hey Hey Indianna’ and reveals his writing ability to pen a serious tale with a catchy hook.

For a closer influence to home, Jamie has assembled a fine band under the collective name of The Agreement consisting of regular contributors Abigail Downs, Jessica Spengler, Jonathan Hirsch and Joe Ellis. The two female band members join guest vocalist Rachel Davies and Jamie to deliver the groovin’ almost instrument free gospel-eque moving song ‘Hey Mama’ which you could envisage being a popular live participation number despite it’s quite sad lyrics and true inspiration. More traditional English influence surfaces on the dobro driven ‘Down from London’ while folk figures strongly on the Amy Tudor poem ‘Message from Limbo’, an acoustic effort very reminiscent to the work of Seth Lakeman. One suspects that Jamie may be rolling back the years a little with the guitar rock style used on ‘Scrabble in Afghanistan’ as vivid images of a post-punk new wave band immediately accompany the solos decorating this song, co-written with the previously mentioned Amy Tudor.

The best of the rest probably lies within the penultimate track, another groovin’ narrative piece titled ‘Annie Ran Away’. This is in effect the album closer as the 13th and final track is a short piano piece which is intended as a thoughtful response to the previous song. Jamie admits on the sleeve notes that he doesn’t play piano, however this has no adverse impact on the album which is healthily stocked with a wide multi-dimensional offering of string instrumentation.

100 MILES FROM TOWN may indeed turn out to be a rare musical outing for Jamie Freeman but the mileage for appreciation, airplay and live performance has limitless potential. Maybe an early July festival appearance in deepest Suffolk is one possible ideal occasion to hear it live. In the meantime, investment in this album is an enriched activity and will yield little regret.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Rod Picott + Wild Ponies - Elford Village Hall, Staffordshire Saturday 2nd November 2013

Rod, Doug and Telisha in full throttle
For the second time in a month, a trip to England’s rural heartland has unveiled evidence of the true spirit of top notch country, roots and Americana music thriving amongst communities which are sometimes excluded from the schedules of travelling musicians. In the case of this particular evening in the Staffordshire village of Elford, it was a serving of the old and the new as seasoned UK visitor Rod Picott elected to bring East Nashville based duo Wild Ponies with him on this latest European tour. While Rod is an established artist in the Americana scene on both sides of the Atlantic, it was the music of Doug and Telisha Williams, on their first UK visit, which engineered most reflection in the aftermath of this gig.

This is not meant to do any disservice to Rod, who after a few years of touring with his ex-partner on both fronts Amanda Shires had a renewed energy to his performance aided by his fine new record HANG YOUR HOPES ON A CROOKED NAIL and the wise selection of touring partners. The Wild Ponies opened the evening with a five-song set giving a taste of their albums to date before morphing into Rod’s backing band The Gun Shy Dogs. Rod delivered a 90-minute accomplished performance of singer-songwriter fare drawing on material across his several albums from around a dozen or so recording years.

Released on the Ditch Dog Record label, Doug and Telisha adopted the new name Wild Ponies for their latest record THINGS THAT USED TO SHINE and amongst their all-to-brief set included four tracks from the album. Alongside the title track, ‘The Truth Is’, the excellent ‘Another Chance’ and the murder ballad ‘Trigger’ showcased the inner qualities of this Ray Kennedy-produced album. The vocal duties on the evening were the domain of Telisha and right from the first track ‘Ghost of the Knoxville Girl’ off their earlier album of the same name, you could sense a voice rich in the heritage of southern storytelling and an innate ability to get to the core of the subject and style of the music. Telisha’s talents expanded to adding the rhythm of the double bass and perfectly complemented the multi guitar playing skills of Doug who seems to confine his vocal contribution to a number of tracks on the record.

Rod Picott has garnered wide respect over the years for his astute song writing skills and two of his finest recent efforts opened the second half of the set shortly after the organisers of the gig had splendidly served a hearty portion of loaded nachos to the 90-strong audience. ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’ define Rod’s blue collar, passionate and perceptive style of music making as well as any of his vast catalogue and on several occasions he reminded the audience that happy songs may be at a premium. One such composition ‘Angels and Acrobats’ featured early in the set and like so many of Rod songs has been recorded by others, in the case of this song a neat version appears on Amanda Shires album WEST CROSS TIMBERS.

The essential storytelling repertoire of Rod was in fine fettle during the evening. A particularly lengthy tale preceded ‘Your Father’s Tattoo’, while ‘Circus Girl’ was introduced with a reference to the contribution of Alison Krauss to the track. A slice of philosophical humour was never far away especially regarding his past relationships, yet the true essence of a Rod Picott gig is the endearing quality of the songs and those selected from the new album show no dip in his high standards. ’65 Falcon’ has been considered the strongest track on the record and this closed the main set but the beautiful country vibes of the break up song ‘I Might Be Broken Now’ saw the live rendition raise its profile.

A special mention must be reserved for Hot Burrito Promotions who superbly organised this gig and there is indication that more special evenings are planned for the future. Having booked Rod Picott before, they were always on solid ground with what evening to expect but the lasting impression of this excursion into the village hall communities of the rural shires was discovering the Wild Ponies. Investigating their music is highly recommended and it wouldn’t be surprising if more is not heard and seen of this group in the future.

Set List:
Rod Picott – Welding Burns, Rust Belt Fields, 410, Angels and Acrobats, Circus Girl, You Don’t Know, Missing Anything, Stray Dogs, Your Father’s Tattoo, Could A Been a King, I Might Be Broken Now, Where No-one Knows My Name, 65 Falcon Encore: Down to the Bone

Wild Ponies – Ghost of the Knoxville Girl, Another Chance, Things That Used to Shine, The Truth is, Trigger


More info about Wild Ponies

Friday, 1 November 2013

Jadea Kelly - Clover Darth Jadea Music/Divergent Recordings

The continual stream of high quality Canadian folk roots music into the UK is no showing little sign of abating, with the latest artist to have their profile raised on the right side of the pond being Ontario-based singer-songwriter Jadea Kelly. Although CLOVER has been widely available for a few months now, it is getting a more formal release at the end of November and this renewed impetus will hopefully open a few doors in new markets for Jadea. Not that this will be too difficult as she possesses a voice that pierces your heart with an aching beauty and from start to finish the sublime sound of the record melts effortlessly into your senses.

In this her third studio album, Jadea has successfully weaved a slice of rural substance into a slick urban production to interpret a truly stunning mix of traditional and contemporary influences. Jadea’s close family connection with the land has had a substantial impact on the making of CLOVER, named after her grandfather’s farm, and the raw talent honed on the great rural tradition of communicating through song lays the foundation of the record. However what brings the album to life is the Toronto production of Stew Crookes which takes the sound to the very limit of an record with folk credentials, yet never sways from the dedication to allow space for Jadea’s vocals to flourish.

Photo by Jen Squires
The laid back opening chimes hook you into the stand out track of the album as ‘Powell River’ sets an incredibly high standard that the other ten songs make a valiant effort to match. The vocal freedom that graces this collection will appease any winter’s evening and brighten up this oncoming season of shortened days. The enchanting and mesmeric ‘Wild West Rain’ leads off the record and is the one track earmarked for promotion via the embedded video available. The mid-section of the album sees a gradually intensifying of the production with an enhanced beat and especially sees the guitar moving up a notch on the lauded track ‘Hour North’.

Musically, Jadea has had some fairly diverse recent experiences which have included working with Canadian folk legend Catherine MacLellan and a Canadian metal band. It is fair to say the vibes of CLOVER sway more to the former but this is far from a stereotypical folk record as exemplified by the synth bass which pushes the potential of this album into more popular circles. If this direction succeeds a whole new fan base will have a special voice to treasure, either way the niche core market that fully appreciates this rare talent will embrace the strands of beauty that yields from the soul of Jadea Kelly.

Following the directional peaks of the mid tracks, a return to a softer appeal takes the record through the final strains of this 44 minute pleasurable listening experience culminating in the trance-like tones of five-minute closer ‘Violet’. The temptation to hit the repeat button at this point is addictive and not just to expose you to the magic of ‘Powell River’ again, so good it got a mention twice. Comparisons have likened Jadea to the melodious dulcet tones of Iris Dement and this is a thoroughly appropriate compliment. Exposing yourself to CLOVER is just the tonic until we adjust the clocks back again in the Spring and beyond, by when Jadea Kelly may well have paid us a visit to bring the record truly to life.