Friday, 31 January 2014

The Black Feathers - Strangers We Meet 'Bird in Hand Records'

The Black Feathers have spent the last couple of years garnering a positive reputation on the gig circuit both in the UK and the US. While the importance of getting your music out live to existing and potentially new fans cannot be understated, serious progress can only be achieved when dates are supplemented with a physical release. The Gloucestershire based duo have now rectified this omission from their offering with a tantalising short collection of songs rich in the influence of a sound successfully blending the subtleties of English folk and rural Appalachia.

STRANGERS WE MEET is a striking assortment of beautifully crafted songs brought to life by the gorgeous harmonies of Sian Chandler and Ray Hughes. The twin vocals and solitary guitar of Hughes no doubt give the songs a sparser sound in their intimate gig surroundings but the guys have just about got the balance right for the recorded versions with an agreeable addition of various acoustic and electrified instruments. This fuller production gives a fine bunch of tracks an added vibrancy to boost the listening experience and raise potential for extended airplay.

This release is granted EP status by virtue of its five tracks and the quality over quantity policy will lead to a growing call for an extra serving of Black Feathers’ fare. Comparison to The Civil Wars is no case of hyperbole although hopefully this doesn’t extend to unfortunate acrimony. Each number flows eloquently from the deep song writing well of Sian and Ray and possesses an acute sensitivity to capture an entrancing mood of inspirational elegance. Selecting a top pick from the record is an unnecessary activity as a thread of high quality consistency weaves throughout the engaging twenty minute listening exposure.

Photo by Matthew Lynes

This does not undermine each song’s individual redeeming features from the haunting title track which introduces an awe inspiring vocal blend to the more uplifting ’10,000 Times’ with an hint of aggression raising the tone and driven along by Steve Lawson’s electric bass. ‘Open Book’ adopts a more tender approach with a sentimental backdrop while ‘You Will Be Mine’ carries on a similar theme with Sian owning the vocal presence a touch more than the other tracks. An increased urgency accompanies the final song ‘All Came Down’ with a breezy manner and a greater prominence of violin and mandolin.

STRANGERS WE MEET is sure to meet approval with an ever increasing band of music fans who like to mix the worlds of folk and Americana. The record has the potential to give The Black Feathers a shot in the arm in presenting their music to a wider public. There is much to admire in their gratifying approach to making music and the sumptuous vocals are born to absorb. Bookmarking The Black Feathers will just be the start of a beautiful relationship with their music.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Blair Dunlop and Ashley Hutchings - Cookley Village Hall, Sunday 26th January 2014

Photo by Sean Redmond
There was an air of changeover surrounding this final leg of a series of shows featuring father and son artists Blair Dunlop and Ashley Hutchings. The theme of this wonderful arrangement sees Ashley gradually relinquish the steering by providing more of a supporting role as Blair continues on the road of fulfilling his prodigious talent. The sonnets, poetry, literary recitals, stories and bass playing created a backdrop for Blair to display the determination and skill to forge ahead in his own career. As well as a touch of family baton passing, Blair himself is in the process of moving away from his excellent BLIGHT AND BLOSSOM album and switching focus to a new record due out in May.

Blair has had no better guiding light than a father steeped in English folk rock heritage and has been at the forefront of a movement for now approaching nearly fifty years. Any Ashley Hutchings stage appearance is going to bring up re-collections of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, and this evening’s show extended to a recounting of the discovery of Nick Drake along with his passion for championing the folk lore of the English Morris tradition. Blair is successfully absorbing this enormous amount of influence and creating a style that embraces a contemporary twist.

Having seen Blair a couple of times last year supporting Larkin Poe and the Carrivick Sisters, it wasn’t surprising to see him adopt a more reserved approach alongside his father but this greater focus allowed him to show those present what a fine guitarist and song writer he is. In the final throes of promoting BLIGHT AND BLOSSOM we were treated to exquisite performances of its title track, ‘Less the Pawn’, ‘Billy in the Lowground’, ‘Secret Theatre’ and ‘Black is the Colour’. The latter was a collaboration with Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell and Blair joked it wasn’t cost effective to fly her over from Georgia, USA for this evening’s village hall gig.

The new material from Blair is gradually moving from embryonic status to its fully fledged set list presence and perhaps the most prominent song featured during this evening was ‘The Song of Two Bridges’. Inspired by a combination of poetry and Anglo-Italian influence, the track was a definite positive taster of what is to come. In sync with the previous slots I have seen him play, he reserves a spot for his version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ and this is no mean effort to replicate the work of a legend so intertwined with his father.

Photo by Roddy Clark
Ashley’s poise and authoritative stance was a superb foil for Blair thus creating a very entertaining evening of blending retro and contemporary. This event held at Cookley Village Hall was the latest in a line of folk inspired events promoted by the Shindig organisation in rural Worcestershire locations under the Live and Local banner. Those, and they were fairly numerous, who braved a wet Sunday January evening were privileged to witness this inter-generational collaboration.

There were many admiring glances from Ashley to his son on stage and while there is mileage in his own desire to promote the music he loves, the future is really about Blair Dunlop. The folk scene has already recognised him but this should not be the limit of his talent that can reach out beyond and carry the tradition to new admirers as well. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Annabelle Chvostek - Birchmeadow Centre, Broseley, Shropshire Saturday 25th January 2014

The wealth of Canadian singer-song writing artists who regularly tour the UK certainly add a perceptive richness to the local live music scene. The lyrics, themes, stories and general musical prowess have a captivating aura to ensure any investment of money or time in acquainting yourself with their art form is more than adequately rewarded. Sitting very comfortably amongst the latest crop of exporting Canadian talent is Annabelle Chvostek who has returned to our shores once again to promote her latest release RISE. Having giving this record a favourable review nearly a year ago, I can gladly report that the live show is more than an equal to her impressive recorded output.

Many will recall Annabelle as part of the esteemed folk trio the Wailin Jennies but in the last few years she has concentrated on producing work as a solo artist albeit with many contributing accompaniments. The material for this evening’s twin sets was almost entirely drawn from her brace of post-Jennies recordings with virtually all the tracks off RISE making an appearance. The exception was the popular song ‘Devil’s Paintbrush Road’ which Annabelle contributed to the Jennies’ album FIRECRACKER.

Annabelle had added the name Ensemble to the credits of RISE to reflect those who helped on the recording and for this visit to the UK she was joined by Jeremie Jones on acoustic bass and Tony Spina on drums. The presence of this rhythm section augmented the song delivery and sublimely supplemented the guitar, fiddle and mandolin playing of Annabelle. The sound system was particularly good for a multi-functional venue and those present were certainly being exposed to high class music.

As we have become accustomed to, the stories, thoughts and shared experiences of a singer-songwriter was an integral part of the show. Annabelle doesn’t shy away from her political leanings on RISE and the background to the tracks ‘G20’, ‘End of the Road’ and ‘Rise’ were explained in clear detail. We learned about the Slovakian origins of her surname as part of the introduction to ‘Baby Sleep ‘Till Sturovo’, a song about the Danube flooding, and the track ‘Sioux’ gave us a flavour of travelling into the northern areas of Canada. To bring the subject a little closer to home ‘Hartland Quay’ drew its inspiration from the Devon landmark of the same name and climate contrasts between the UK and her Canadian homeland were a recurring feature.

Hailing from the city of Toronto, Annabelle wasted no time in introducing her hometown and involving the audience in the opening sing along to ‘Ona’ with the catchy chorus “in Toronto I get more hugs, in Montreal I get more kisses, in New York I get crazy, crazy”. The engaging side of Annabelle’s personality encouraged further outbreaks of participation, particularly the call and response number ‘I Left My Brain’, from those present which included local residents of Broseley and some drawn from further afield to specifically see the artist. The enthusiastic promotion has developed a neat niche of bringing high quality original music to a community not usually the domain of touring artists. This growing trend really taps into the ideals of genres such as country, folk and roots which historically have reached out to the people.

While Annabelle predominantly focusses on her own material, she added to this evening’s set a couple of covers which have both been recorded on her previous albums. She mourned the recent loss of Lou Reed with a version of ‘Some Kinda Love’ taken from RISE and from the RESILIENCE album the Ella Jenkins song ‘Racing with the Sun’. This 2008 album also provided a couple of the evening’s more subtle and thoughtful numbers ‘Resilience’ and ‘Nashville’ both possessing an inviting appeal.

Like all travelling musicians, the stop in any one location is brief but, with plans in place for a new record, a return to the UK should be a distinct possibility. Hopefully more promoters and venues in the Midlands will latch onto the talents of Annabelle Chvostek and give a deserved wider exposure to her live music.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Lindi Ortega - O2 Academy 3, Birmingham Thursday 23rd January 2014

The challenge to understand and interpret the style of Lindi Ortega is a fruitful mission for music connoisseurs as she continues to unveil a wealth of optimum material. Her third release TIN STAR wooed critics at the tail end of last year and on the evidence of this performance, the live show has taken a significant step forward. With a similar size gig twelve months ago as the benchmark, Lindi succeeded in raising the stakes in her own inimitable way. There is an appealing complexity to her style that ranges from a little dark to a degree of musical orthodoxy. The left field undercurrent that guides her interpretation of country music is purely for the open minded but the virtue of her song writing and simplistic approach to musical arrangement has created a special talent.

The hiring of Champagne James Robertson to undertake accompanying guitar duties and the addition of Alex Cox on percussion enhanced the sound production along with a switch of location for this tour from the Hare and Hounds pub to an annexe at one of the city centre’s more corporate venues. A far more numerical turnout reflected the growing appeal of Lindi who possesses an endearing yet slightly eccentric vibrancy. This is certainly a key element to her creativity which extends from significant auto biographical song writing to some inspiring versions of standard songs.

The fairly evenly spread set list reflected the three releases with a biased opening towards the newer material led by ‘Hard as This’ but ultimately defined by the struggling musician tale ‘Tin Star’. The Americana fuelled journey took us deep into Louisiana with the electrifying ‘Voodoo Mama’, while she reverted to vocals only, leaving James solo on guitar, for the excellent ‘Waitin’ on my Luck to Change’.

Desperado’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ are far from radical choices for cover songs but the jaw dropping approach Lindi adopted to them, especially the Hank Williams classic, fully justified their inclusion. A lesser known song by fellow Canadian artist Timber Timbre ‘No Bold Villain’ made an appearance in the encore and there was a general consensus that it perfectly suited her style. While covers can spice up a set list, the true judgement of a serious song writing artist lies in the original material.

If Lindi Ortega took the unlikely route of giving up her lifelong obsession with making music, we would be still left with a song which has all the hallmarks of being a developing classic. The Birmingham audience had to wait until the encore to hear her outstanding romance inspired road song and this evening’s version of ‘Cigarettes and Truckstops’ put a strong marker down for the year’s outstanding live track. As well as satisfying evocative mood numbers, Lindi is equally adept at sweeping away any January blues with ‘Bluebird’ inviting some audience participation and ‘The Day You Die’ lubricating a few limbs. Another noteworthy song on the evening was ‘Ashes’ which sadly appears to have no recorded version.

There is no doubt that corporate eyes will glance in Lindi’s direction as she continues to cement her move from Toronto to Nashville but ultimately it is likely that her fiercely independent free spirit will prevail. This scenario will lead to many smiling faces from those mission-led to scratch the surface for country, roots and Americana talent. Lindi Ortega is a true enigmatic treasure to savour.

Set List: Hard as This. All My Friends. Waitin’ on my Luck to Change. Tin Star. Voodoo Mama. Desperado. Ashes. Demons Don’t Get Me Down. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Lived and Died Alone. Bluebird. The Day you Die Encore: Cigarettes and Truckstops. No Bold Villain. Little Lie

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shinyribs - Gulf Coast Museum Label: Nine Mile Records

Over the last decade and half, The Gourds have been one of many prominent bands who have made Austin Texas the cultural epicentre of alt-country. Even if they aren’t the most well-known name in the UK, there have been numerous mentions of them on the Bob Harris BBC Country Show. However in the first couple of months of 2014, UK audiences will get the chance to acquaint themselves with one of the splinter projects while the band takes a hiatus. This is due to, for second time in the last few years, band leader Kevin Russell galvanising his Shinyribs project to bring a collection of nine newly recorded songs to fruition. GULF COAST MUSEUM is the title of the album and it is being released by Nine Mile Records who were responsible last year for bringing us Rebecca Pronsky and Anders and Kendall.

Russell, a stalwart of the Austin music scene, has used the Shinyribs platform as an outlet for his prolific song writing, although for this release he has limited the content to just eight of his own compositions with a carefully selected cover slotted in to complement the tone of the record. For me the sound of country soul is a magnetic sub-genre of Americana music and one which is in vogue with many UK fans on the back of Danny Wilson’s magnificent 2013 effort. All nine tracks on GULF COAST MUSEUM possess a soul underbelly and succeed in embedding their mesmeric qualities into an open mind.

To top the soulful theme of the album, Russell elected to cover the much loved Harry Melville classic ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ but instead of a straightforward reproduction, the enlisting of fellow Austin resident Brandy Zdan and use of ukulele put an individualistic stamp on the track. The preceding eight songs are all Russell originals and the standout number is the shimmering ‘Take Me Lake Charles’, a body of water so wonderfully captured in a Lucinda Williams classic, although this composition has the potential to stand the test of time as well.

This album rarely dips below first class status throughout its duration with many of the tracks laced with a laid back ambience to sooth away any stress. You can choose the tender ‘Somebody Else’, the gentle ‘Sweet Potato’ or the laid back vibes of ‘Limpia Hotel (Chihuahua Desert)’ but the satisfaction derived will be of impressive equal measure. The enhanced beat of the rhythmically engaging ‘Texas Talking’ takes the record in a slightly different direction sound wise with more of a tendency for it to inspire foot motion as to wash away the rigours of modern life.

The ultra-soulful ‘Bolshevik Sugarcane’ could easily have surfaced out of the many Stax recordings with what sounds like some Hammond organ while the horns added to ‘Song of Lime Juice and Despair’ give this number more of a jazz feel. The remaining track is album opener ‘Sweeter than the Scars’ which does its job of setting the scene perfectly and entices you in for a sweet sounding journey of mystique and deep rooted country soul. The vocals of Russell are a superb match for the style of songs written and all other musical contributions make their mark.

GULF COAST MUSEUM has the capability of melting many a heart and the inspirational qualities to spawn a growth in other artists exploring their country soul. It could well be a trendsetter and if so, Americana music fans in the UK will be in for a real treat.

UK Release 17th February 2014

The O's - Thunderdog Label: Electric Honey

Just as some of the output from the media anointed bro-country movement can court controversy, the same applies at the other end of the spectrum with the explosion of roots oriented folk-pop-rock. There is always going to be unease when such a sound permeates the mainstream big style and the potential to drift away from its ideals heightens. Yet surely there is much merit in the future health of the banjo, double bass, mandolin and other assorted acoustic instruments when artists such as Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers attract a vast level of interest. Amongst those bands with an opportunity to ride this crest of a wave, and feed from the spin offs, is a Texas based duo known simply as The O’s. 

Although they have had some presence away from their Dallas home, especially in Europe, The O’s have made a significant development in the UK market by arranging a formal release of their third album THUNDERDOG via Glasgow’s esteemed label Electric Honey. The impetus from this arrangement and a slot supporting Del Amitri on an extensive upcoming UK tour will give the band a level of exposure to build considerably on their past successes. The overwhelming sound and feel to THUNDERDOG is one that could attract mass appeal with the added bonus that there is very little compromise in the authenticity from their harmonica, banjo, kick drum and guitars. The latter does involve a small degree of electric amplification especially at the end of the concluding track ‘Rearranged’ but this is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

The O’s consist of Taylor Young (vocals, guitar, kick drum) and John Pedigo (vocals, tambourine, banjo, harmonica, Lowebro). The latter instrument needed a little research which unveiled it as an acoustic lap steel of Texas origin with a tendency to provide a louder sound. This potpourri of natural rhythm orientated sounds is the perfect backdrop to a collection of simple and extremely ear pleasing songs which cannot fail to spark an initial reaction. Throughout the duration of this breezy twelve-track compilation of feel good emotion the listener is taken on a vivacious and dynamic journey with the occasional brief pause to savour the experience. This picture implies a live rendition of the songs from THUNDERDOG could be a must see event and maybe extend their presence to headline tours.

Despite its February 24 UK issue on Electric Honey, the album is widely available from the usual online sources on the back of its stateside release last summer, so the opportunity to at least sample the tracks will back up the promotion that THUNDERGOG will no doubt get in the near future. Several enjoyable listens to the record haven’t really revealed a stand out track as memorable chorus hooks aren’t a major feature but this doesn’t detract from a clear production that will resonate with roots fans.

THUNDERDOG meets a lot of the criteria for success in balancing substance with a lighter coating and could be a breakthrough record for The O’s. Either way appreciators of banjo, harmonica and general acoustic instruments will take something from a record that will sit comfortably alongside The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers and that UK phenomenon known as Mumford and Sons.

Sturgill Simpson - High Top Mountain Label: Loose

The name Sturgill Simpson first came to my notice when he was included in Grady Smith’s infamous list of the 10 Best Country Albums of 2013 in the influential US publication Entertainment Weekly. While Grady had to deal with the industry onslaught about its content, the alternative opportunity for me when scouring this list was to check out the unfamiliar artist amongst a stellar bunch of selections. Well the good news comes in threes as first, HIGH TOP MOUNTAIN is an excellent album, secondly Sturgill Simpson is visiting us very soon for dates and the esteemed UK label Loose Music have taken over the reins of giving the record its European release.

It is pretty easy to deduce from this introduction that Sturgill Simpson does not conform to the current requirements of male artists from the country music elite but that never deterred Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and more recently Dale Watson from creating their own niche with a sound true to their ideals. Simpson set out to record ‘the purest, most uncompromising, hard country album anyone has made in 30 years’ and whether this lofty ambition has been fulfilled remains to be seen but the result is a whole hearted attempt to stem the direction of a genre's populist tide. If Dale Watson wants to take a breather in his fight  against the system then Sturgill Simpson has kindly offered to take up the mantle with this album. 

While some apologies are offered to the constant naming of other artists, it was impossible to listen to Sturgill without conjuring up aural visions of Dwight Yoakam shaking the core of country music with the 80’s honky tonk revival. Throughout  the course of the 12 tracks, the fruits of Simpson’s song writing, accomplished contributors (including Hall of Fame pianist Hargus ‘Pig Robbins’ and steel guitarist Robby Turner) and his skills of emotional execution, ebb and flow with a pace variety to maximise listener engagement. From the heartfelt spine tingling homage to his maternal grandfather ‘Hero’ to the rip roaring obligatory train tune ‘Railroad of Sin’, the ‘uncompromising’ reference in Simpson’s mission statement has been achieved.

To fulfil his lifelong dream of turning art into a living, Simpson has surrounded himself with a host of other aspirants in re-locating to Nashville, Tennessee but the experiences of his Kentucky upbringing surface in the reflective mining industry track ‘Old King Coal’. Life travels have taken Simpson out west and the album gets off to a storming start with his autobiographical anecdote that ‘Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean’. The consistent high quality of all the tracks makes a standout one a tough selection but the rockin’ ‘You Can Have the Crown’ takes the virtual prize due to its driving beat and fantastic lyrical content commencing with the scene setter ‘I’ve been spending all my money on weed and pills, trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills’.

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller
Simpson gave way on his song writing for the final two tracks on the album, choosing to hone in on his own flat picking skills for the bluegrass standard ‘Poor Rambler’. A jazzy feel to a song made popular by Willie Nelson ‘I’d Have to be Crazy’ steers you through the exit door in a philosophical mood. The production on these and Simpson’s originals strikes the balance between a minimalist approach and an aim to give the presence of piano, guitar and omnipresent steel the opportunity to flavour the album with an essence of old time country.

Having received acclaim in certain US circles following the stateside release, HIGH TOP MOUNTAIN gets its formal UK introduction on February 17 and this is an album not to be missed by anybody motivated in discovering the soul of country music. Let’s leave the word retro on one side for the moment and rejoice in the existence of the true spirit of the genre alive and kicking in the work of Sturgill Simpson.

Full album details including tour dates

Moonshine Runners - Lamp Tavern, Dudley Friday 10th January 2014

January is notoriously a quiet month for gigs especially as dates from touring artists don’t normally kick in until the latter days of it. However there is no better way to fill this void than to seek out a local act who are striving to raise their profile amongst the plethora of bands plying their trade on the pub circuit. So it’s with great delight to introduce the Shropshire based quartet Moonshine Runners and to kick off this third year of live reviews with a band who, through a combination of inventive covers and excellent originals, harness a sound that perfectly fits their catchphrase of ‘from hoedown to harmony’.

In essence the band extracts their influence from a cocktail of primarily Americana sources tipping their hat along the way to the fine purveyors of both country and folk rock, all laced with a drizzle of authentic roots. Their highly entertaining and exhilarating live show is a melange of democratic instrumental and vocal interchangeability. Leads getting tangled up may be a band in-joke but the richness emanating from banjo, bass, mandolin, lap steel and various types of acoustic guitar adds a significant flavour to their choice of songs.

The band introduced three originals into their comprehensive pair of sets at The Brewhouse music annexe at Dudley’s Lamp Tavern pub. Two of them evolved from the pen of Graham Clews who is the band’s prime multi-instrumentalist. ‘Where You Gonna Run’ is a delightful vocal exchange of softly driven country rock showcasing the band’s capacity to harmonise exquisitely amidst a sweet aroma of gentle acoustic strumming and atmospheric lap steel. This song has the potential to turn a lot of heads on the UK Americana circuit. Graham’s other contribution was a sea shanty style folk number ‘Will You Go’ which came over really well, while the third original composed by Tim Barratt ‘Living My Dream’ had a positive vibe to encourage its surfacing into the wider world. Tim also delivered an engaging, entertaining and enthralling version of a twisted tale titled ‘I am my own Grandpa’.

In addition to Graham (mandolin, bass, drums, lap steel, guitar, vocals) and Tim (guitar, vocals), Moonshine Runners are completed by Rob Cooper (banjo, bass, guitar,vocals) and Chrissii Wing (lead vocals, bass). However this is far from a compartmentalised band as exemplified by the instrument exchange and each member contributing unique valuable lead vocal segments. This was particularly highlighted in their top notch version of The Band’s ‘The Weight’ where the verses were equally distributed, chorus harmonised and Graham living his Levon Helm moment.

The band’s approach to covers is to take a mix of pop standards and more specialist material then put their own stamp on them with a roots orientated twist. ‘Weather with You’ had some lap steel treatment while mandolin freshened up ‘Norwegian Wood’. ‘Swept Away’ by The Avett Brothers, Poco’s ‘Rose of Cimarron’, Faith Hill’s ‘Mississippi Girl’ and ‘Watermelon Crawl’ originally recorded by Tracy Byrd are not your normal Friday night pub covers but the Moonshine Runners expertly interpret them to ensure eyebrows are raised. They acknowledged the populist angle of their chosen music style with a version of ‘Hey Ho’ and the Bob Dylan/Old Crow Medicine Show/Darius Rucker, fast becoming a standard, ‘Wagon Wheel’ is a sure fire winning addition to any set.

They make no secret to their admiration of Fleetwood Mac in both influence and style. Chrissii excels on their version of ‘Landslide’ while Tim rises to the challenge of the guitar solo on ‘The Chain’. The acoustic touch to all their choices reveals a layer of authenticity and allows the innate talent to flourish. The sparkling finale focussed on the sparring of Tim and Rob during the band’s rendition of ‘Duelling Banjos’ and would have been a fitting finale itself had not a request for ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ been politely fulfilled.

Obviously a greater focus on original material will lead to different levels of interest and scrutiny in the Moonshine Runners, and there is definite potential in this path, but whichever song balance the band decide to proceed with, their ability to produce a damn good show is locked in. So check them out either on the Midlands gig circuit or hopefully in a wider available recorded format.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Lincoln Durham - Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous Doog Records

On the couple of occasions I have come across Texan performer Lincoln Durham in the past, he has been beset by difficulties out of his control. Firstly, venue technical issues dogged his set in Birmingham nearly eighteen months ago then twelve months later a red tape travel issue saw his follow up UK tour cancelled. Yet having been captivated by his raw passion, dedication and energetic approach to music, Lincoln Durham is an artist that remains lodged in the good memory section of my mind. The good news from deep in the heart of Texas is that Lincoln is in fine fettle as his sophomore album EXODUS OF THE DEEMED UNRIGHTEOUS is about to get its formal UK release.

Lincoln takes his brand of roots rock literally as witnessed during his live show and it’s reassuring to know that his pride and joy, the cigar box guitar complete with broomstick handle, makes an appearance in the track ‘Annie Departee’. In fact the whole record is one of improvised experimentation as vintage Samsonite suitcase guitar, piano with keys plucked from the inside and a vox box amplifier rubs shoulders with conventional guitar, percussion, lap steel and harmonica. There is a distinct blues feel to the sound and vocals of Lincoln albeit in a Texas dirt kind of way with a roughness which adds to the exhilarating experience of rinsing your soul with his music.

Photo by Stephen Schmitt
From a UK perspective, there are some loose similarities with fellow American Seasick Steve who has proved such a hit over here with mainstream audiences, but Lincoln is a more versatile artist as exemplified in the evocative album closer ‘Mama’. The contrast of this moving finale is stark when compared to the preach-like riveting opening ‘Ballad of a Prodigal Son’ where all of a sudden the almost soulful percussion backed vocals are subject to a burst of electrified impulsion. This compulsive appetiser leads into a more conventional roots rock number ‘Rise in the River’ which you could envisage being lifted on one of the great pioneering blues rock albums of the sixties.

Working closely with his wife Alissa and a handful of other contributors, Lincoln continues to absorb the listener with a mix of stripped down ballads such as ‘Keep on Allie’ and more powerful songs like ‘Sinner’ where Lincoln ramps up both the vocals and sound. In true Texas tradition the banjo and fiddle make an appearance on ‘Exodus Waltz’ to reflect his upbringing, although the overall sound has gravitated away from these roots. However the ideals of his grounding have flavoured the rock exploration with a sense of identity and provide a deep rooted anchor to give the record utmost merit.

‘Recorded using only the cheapest “instruments” and most percussive household items we could find’ is an inspiring quote lifted from the album sleeve and perfectly sums up the authenticity, creativity and DIY approach to Lincoln’s work. It may be short on expense but it’s certainly rich on impact. The record weighing in at just over half an hour won’t take up too much of your initial time but addictive repeat plays will. The only issue with EXODUS OF THE DEEMED UNRIGHTEOUS is that it falls short of experiencing Lincoln Durham live. Hopefully in 2014 previous travel difficulties can be ironed out and funds are sufficient to give us another visit to bring the raw power of this album to life.

UK release date 13th January 2014

Beth Nielsen Chapman - Uncovered BNC Records

Throughout her lengthy career in music, Beth Nielsen Chapman has garnered enough respect, credibility among her peers and lavish praise to be allowed a little self-indulgence. However when the result is as exquisite as UNCOVERED, the latest addition to her back catalogue, then the pleasure has well and duly been planted within the minds of the listener. On the back of a Grammy nomination for her most recent album, a collection of children’s songs titled MIGHTY RED SKY, Beth has re-visited a selection of sculptured tracks that she had either a partial or complete control of their composition but for a variety of reasons never got round to recording herself. Not that the songs were left in a cupboard, as seven of them earned number one status and were chosen by a very high calibre of artists from both the country world and those of a contemporary adult persuasion.

The line-up of musicians that Beth enlisted the services of reflects her standing on both sides of the Atlantic ranging from the adept talent of Vince Gill to the Celtic virtuosity of Phil Cunningham. From a record that included recording locations of Scotland, Wales and Nashville Tennessee Beth has mixed and matched the production duties to capture an accomplished sound that weaves a thread through strains of traditional and popular country as well as a sprinkling of classical folk and easy listening ambience. Overall the result is a collection of skilfully produced and well-crafted tunes from an adroit song writer displaying the peak of her talents.

From a personal viewpoint the most recognisable track was ‘This Kiss’ which Faith Hill took to the summit of the country charts around a dozen or so years ago and the line of the song ‘it’s subliminal’ goes a long way to describing Beth’s version as well. However this recording of the massive hit had to make way for another country number one as the album’s stand out track which belongs to the luscious and palatable tones of ‘Five Minutes’, a country classic taken to the ultimate heights by Lorrie Morgan. Lorrie and Pam Tillis joined Beth on vocals for this re-recording that gave a pertinent reminder of how to write a wide reaching country chart topper.

This track which shares its title with a song from Gretchen Peters latest record leads us neatly into ‘Almost Home’ where the Wine Women and Song trio of Suzy Boggus, Matraca Berg and Gretchen provide gospel-eque backing vocals on a song made famous by Mary Chapin Carpenter on her PARTY DOLL AND OTHER FAVOURITES album. The name dropping of artists who have either recorded Beth’s songs or collaborated on this album has only really just begun. The core of this album sees another pair of successful country rollers take their place with ‘Nothing I Can Do About It Now’, taken to the top by Willie Nelson and ‘Strong Enough to Bend’ getting the same treatment from Tanya Tucker. Beth’s versions are no pale imitations and you are left to ponder why her own recording career fell short of such heights in terms of chart success.

The mutual love of Beth from our side of the pond is reflected in the beautiful folk infused ‘Pray’ where the Celtic influence of its producer and Transatlantic Sessions stalwart Phil Cunningham laces a gorgeous track with scenery inducing whistles. Further UK input into the album came in the form of its title being suggested by keen Beth Nielsen Chapman advocate Bob Harris. This album should also provide a centre piece for the UK shows Beth has planned for February.

The pick of the rest probably lies with the Vince Gill duet on Alabama’s number one ‘Here We Are’ closely followed by the Duane Eddy guitar contribution to ‘Sweet Love Shine’. Spritely album opener ‘Simple Things’ showcases Beth at her best in how to write a pure and catchy pop record while her versatility surfaces in the bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ previously recorded by Bonnie Raitt. Of the final two tracks, ‘One in a Million’, a minor hit for the late Mindy McCready has a pleasing chorus while Darrell Scott lends a hand on ‘Maybe That’s All It Takes’ which was a low reaching chart entry for Don Williams.

All the name dropping can seem a touch exhausting but the bottom line is that UNCOVERED perfectly encapsulates Beth Nielsen Chapman as a first class song writer and no less a fine performer. There is no better way to start the year off than a little indulgence yourself and give this album the opportunity to set the standard for the twelve months ahead.

UK release date 20th January 2014

Beth plays Birmingham Town Hall in February details here