Sunday, 23 February 2014

Steve Scott Country - Those Tears I've Cried Self Released

THOSE TEARS I’VE CRIED by Steve Scott Country is an intriguing release which succeeds in both striving to conform and challenge convention. With a very slick presentation and set up, Steve seems to have a firm idea of where he is heading .The radio friendly vibes which Steve does not hide as an intended influence are prevalent across the record and the themes will resonate with many. You get the impression that Steve is a highly focussed and principled person and there is sufficient merit in the record to buy into what he is trying to achieve.

The slogans and hyperbole liberally frequent his online profile and they are not too far from the mark in suggesting that Steve Scott is attempting to marry the ideals of country music with the more urban sounds of Detroit Michigan. Certainly many bases are covered throughout the eleven tracks which make up Steve’s sophomore solo release, One concern is whether there is enough country in it for that genre or being suitably progressive enough  for the wider Americana movement. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the record is to lap up its multifaceted approach to music making and the styles it touches regardless of the purist response. 

The hat image and country addition to his name will add weight to recognition in that genre but it is much better focusing on the excellent sentimental ballad ‘Halo’ which is a pure country home style song and is my favourite track on the album. The title track ‘Those Tears I’ve Cried’ follows in a similar vein with a steel-driven mellow sound in contrast to the plethora of pop/rock which decorates a fair proportion of the album including the aesthetically pleasing opener ‘I Think About You’. Any link to the sounds of Detroit will inevitably lead to soul and there are a couple of tracks leaning in this direction. ‘Thoughts About Fire’ and ‘Geronimo’ fall into this category with the latter fuelled by some spicy soulful keyboard solos.

There is a nagging urge on two of the tracks namely ‘Lorra’ and ‘Hide and Seek’ to conjure up thoughts of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Steve’s vocal style and both songs have a rock feel to their structure although the latter features a dose of mandolin. The most diverse track on the album is when it veers thousands of miles south to the Mexican border with ‘Teqilarama’ where the contribution of trumpet adds considerably to the Tex-Mex sound.

All eleven tracks have emanated from the pen of Steve,with two of the compositions likely to have more appeal in the home market. ‘She’s Made In The USA’ is one such track and definitely resides in the pop/rock category while the emotional ‘Have You Ever Known A Soldier’ is the centrepiece of Steve’s cause of raising awareness for a captured US soldier and his wider military appreciation.

Extended plays of THOSE TEARS I’VE CRIED are probably required to get to the gist of what this album is about and each listen is an increasingly enjoyable experience. There is likely to be enthusiasm for it from a wide base of music lovers and that is a credit to Steve's ability to craft an album that will appeal to many.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Toy Hearts - Flyin' Too High EP Woodville Records

Buoyed by a six month stint in Austin Texas, Birmingham based family group The Toy Hearts have further cemented their passion for Western Swing by releasing this short collection of tunes they mastered during their Lone Star State stay. Over the last couple of years their live show has evolved from a Bluegrass bias to one more influenced by a traditional Texas sound and previous coverage of the band has commented on how the switch has embraced their talents.  This extended play release may be brief but FLYIN’ TOO HIGH is further proof that they are very fine interpretative exponents of a style anchored to the core of country music.
The four tracks selected for recording are all non-originals (their song writing skills have been temporarily put on hold) but they formed part of their many shifts undertaken keeping the floors in Austin’s dance halls busy. They may not be songs many people will be previously aware of but one of The Toy Hearts missions is to share a love and expertise for a genre of music dear to their heart. However not knowing the songs does not hamper your appreciation that The Toy Hearts can deliver a cracking tune with its centrepiece being the scintillating sound of Stewart Johnson’s triple neck steel guitar.

As per usual with Toy Hearts’ recordings, Hannah Johnson excels on lead vocals and mandolin while her sister Sophia is equally adept on harmony vocals and guitar. For this EP, under the stewardship of Joe Beckham in his Austin based Birdhouse Studio, Jake Erwin from Hot Club of Cowtown kept the rhythm going on bass. Together they offer a taste of how gratifying Western Swing can be when done well.

Of the four tracks chosen, ‘Five Minutes Of The Latest Blues’ is the one which leaves the most favourable impression and is an original composition by Justin Tubb, son of Ernest who will need little introduction for a majority of serious country fans. The press release contains what the girls describe as ‘geeky liner notes’ but these give a wonderful insight to the songs and it would be a great touch if they were included with the purchased copy to further inform listeners. The opening song ‘What Goes Up Must Come Down’ had its inspiration from a vocal performance by a singer called Kay Starr and its origins lie in a 1939 musical The Cotton Club Parade with the line ‘flyin’ too high’ lending the phrase for the EP’s title. ‘Too Late To Dream’ sees the band delve into the work of Wade ‘Pugnose’ Ray with this charming and sophisticated number. The closer ‘Baby That Sure Would Be Good’ is a song previously featured in their live sets and celebrates the work of Bob Wills and Cindy Walker.

Having enjoyed and supported The Toy Hearts music for around half a dozen years, it is always interesting to see how they develop. They seem very comfortable with the Western Swing style and this appears to have side lined the Dobra and fiddle for a while at least. However they have proved a versatile band and their undeterred commitment to the principles of their passion is much commended. The experience of cutting their teeth in the hotbed of Austin has no doubt hardened them and while promoting this style of music over here is always going to have its limitations and knockbacks, The Toy Hearts continue to be a valuable member of the UK scene. Supporting FLYIN’ TOO HIGH and the band’s live dates will ensure we are suitably entertained and informed in the forseeable future.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Black Feathers - Tower of Song, Birmingham Wednesday 19th February 2014

With their debut EP just about to be formally released, it was an ideal time to check out a live performance by UK based Folk-America duo The Black Feathers. Having been blown away by the five songs on their exceptional new record, it was hardly surprising to form the same opinion after enjoying this short set at the Tower of Song.

It was a lengthy wait to see Sian Chandler and Ray Hughes take to the stage as they were officially the guests of the Rea River Roots club who hosted the evening. The format of this regular gathering is to run an open mic session for local folk and roots enthusiasts before introducing the main act around 10 pm. The diverse range of performers kept you suitably entertained before The Black Feathers elevated the quality level considerably straight from the off with their opening number ‘You Will Be Mine’.

In the current vogue style of two voices and a single guitar, The Black Feathers showed they were the masters of such delivery with the key redeeming feature being their ability to beautifully harmonise in unison. The duo eased their way through an all-to-brief set with Ray’s guitar work steering the songs that are brought to life by the elegant vocals led by Sian. The pure emotion and subtle timing of their song delivery is as evident as the enjoyment radiating from their onstage chemistry. The acrimony that surrounded the recent split of that  famous duo in Americana circles from across the pond seemed a million miles away from what was on stage tonight. There is definitely no apology in this quarter for raising the comparison between The Black Feathers and The Civil Wars.

After the opening song, Sian and Ray proceeded to give a preview to all five tracks on the STRANGERS WE MEET EP with perhaps the most striking version on the night being ‘Open Book’. Yet really there was little to choose between this, the title track, ‘1000 Times’ and ‘All Came Down’. A couple of copies were sold during the evening and grabbing one yourself is highly recommended in whatever format that it is available in. To complete the set the guys did a great song called ‘Down By The River’ and they covered Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’.

The Black Feathers are just concluding a short jaunt around the country promoting this record but loads more dates are promised in the future. They have some exciting plans and a sound that will go down well in the US, a market on their horizon. In the meantime checking them out either on record or live is a must for any fan of folk or Americana music. They are a talent to be cherished and proof that this genre of music is flourishing in the UK.

Review of Strangers We Meet EP

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Ashley Riley - All The Pretty Things Self Released

While this blog tends to prefer covering US artists who appear to be actively seeking UK coverage, occasionally you come across somebody who you feel would be a neat fit into the burgeoning Americana scene over here. Just after Christmas an impending release by Ashley Riley crossed my radar and made an instant impression. The good news is that ALL THE PRETTY THINGS has now been formally issued and if the hard copy may be tricky to get hold of at least that well known popular download store is making the record available over here.

The reason you should check out Ashley’s album is that it’s a gorgeous collection of nine beautifully crafted songs that encompasses all that is valued in the folk/rock/acoustic scene. Her sublime vocals straddle a varied selection of song structures given added impetus by a backing band keen to mix strings and keys to full effect. Often you have to take a step back when a bio or press release indulges in name-checking hyperbole but it is difficult to argue with references to Stevie Nicks and Jewel and Ashley herself has no finer inspiration mentioned than Patty Griffin. Added to her exquisite vocals, Ashley shows she’s no mean song writer in both lyrical content and melody construction.

Hailing from Decatur, Illinois, Ashley has been actively involved in recording since 2008 and while her previous records haven’t been checked out yet, the nine songs from ALL THE PRETTY THINGS are perfect appetizers to appreciate her talent. The genre for female singer-songwriters to take their music in a folk-rock direction is growing on both sides of the Atlantic and the Americana scene seems to be the natural home. Straight from the acoustic opener ‘Made of Dreams’ through to the tranquil closer ‘Lie To Me’, where Ashley shows she’s the master of the slow song, Americana fans will drool over the enchanting quality. The punchy title track ‘All The Pretty Things’ explodes with a captivating and harmony-laced chorus and rivals ‘Trouble’ for the stand out track. The latter draws faint comparisons with the rather good Be Good Tanyas song ‘Light Enough To Travel’ which is another esteemed name to add to her sound association.

At 33 minutes long, ALL THE PRETTY THINGS won’t take up much of your valuable listening time, unless like me you have a continual impulse to press the repeat button. Regardless of the volume of plays, listening to this record won’t be a second wasted and the challenge will not to be addicted. There was no indication in the press release of a plan for Ashley Riley to have the UK on her horizon but I’m sure in this digital age support from anywhere in the world is welcome. Whether or not the enjoyment of Ashley’s music remains a distant connection, checking her out is highly recommended especially if you like quality female vocalists cutting their teeth in the world of folk/Americana/rock.

All The Pretty Things is available on UK ITunes from Feb 18

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Redlands Palomino Company - Broken Carelessly 'Clubhouse Records'

I first discovered The Redlands Palomino Company around half a dozen years ago when they played the delightfully named Marr’s Bar in Worcester. In the intervening years they have flickered on and off my horizon, mainly catching their live shows such as an appearance at Americana International and a gig at The Musician in Leicester. However in the summer of 2013 they came right back to my notice big time with two storming sets at Palmfest and Maverick. This personal momentum is now being carried forward by a new album release which has the potential to cement their reputation as one of the UK’s premier alt-country rock bands.

A striking feature of seeing Redlands live was how they managed to come over as a good time jovial band and at the same time deliver some cracking tunes with pure energy. Amongst many references to beer and kebabs, songs likes ‘Doing It For The Country’, ‘Wasted On You’ and ‘She is Yours' soon became embedded live standards. The big change with this new release titled BROKEN CARELESSLY is that they now have a quality recording to match the passion of their live show and this may prove to be the catalyst to allow the band to develop in a more consistent upwards projection. This is not to deliberately show contempt to their three previous albums recorded sporadically over the last decade just that this one seems to really hone in on their ideals and match their talents.

These ideals are to craft catchy songs, base them around pedal steel, drums and guitar with an inadvertent sound that could be lifted straight from the late 60’s/early 70’s pioneering west coast fusion of country and rock. BROKEN CARELESSLY has endless such examples starting with the excellent radio friendly ‘In These Lines’ and culminating in a near tearful finale ‘Band Song’ where the guys reflect sentimentally on why they bother. The answer to that question is that so many people care and the UK indie Americana scene is much richer for the creative presence of Hannah and Alex Eton-Wall.

For this album recorded informally yet authentically in the confines of an isolated chapel, Alex took over production duties to mix with his guitar and vocal work while Hannah was the major song provider and possibly the more effective vocalist on the record. The pedal steel work of Dave Rothon laces the album with a sprinkling of atmospheric elegance and he also contributes one of his own song compositions in ‘She Can Live Without You’, a quintessential 60’s pop number showcasing Alex at his vocal best. The making of this record was the final act of drummer Dan Tilbury before his emigration to Denmark and Redlands regular bassist Rain resumed his usual role in the band’s engine room.

The interchangeable lead vocals between Hannah and Alex keep the record fresh and its 53 minute length never drags with a constant stream of majestic ear pleasing tunes. The early part of the album peaks with the superb title track ‘Broken Carelessly’ ,a descriptive piece on the Palomino breed of horse. Hannah anchors the mid album with her beautiful vocals lowering the mood on ‘Scattered Earth’. ‘Perfect Forever’ and ‘Swim’ are both in a similar style giving the album a sense of sophisticated maturity, not a term you would normally associate with Redlands but hey, good things evolve. The delightful guest fiddle of Simon Kelly graces the jolly ditty ‘Floorboard George’ delivered by Alex in his usual style while ‘The Big Freeze’ is more traditional Redlands material especially when Hannah launches into its infectious chorus.

The Redlands Palomino Company may have had this record in the can for a while but there are going to be many grateful people now that they have successfully released it with the help of their ever impressive label Clubhouse Records. To support the record the band are hitting the road in May, no doubt with renewed vigour and plenty of references to beer and kebabs. Redlands Palomino Company fans wouldn’t want them any other way especially when they match such frivolity with an exceptional record. 

Broken Carefully gets formally released on April 14. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

David Berkeley - The Fire In My Head Straw Man Music

Following in the footsteps of many great American troubadours of the past, David Berkeley has produced an outstanding package of songs to rival those traditionalists who trawled the land far and wide for song writing influence. THE FIRE IN MY HEAD is David’s fifth studio album and succeeds from start to finish in absorbing the listener and taking them on a literary journey fuelled by poetic licence. David extracts every sinew from his itinerant lifestyle and draws upon his Harvard education to create a gem of 8 recordings gift wrapped for your listening pleasure in pure sartorial elegance.

The barren landscape of David’s latest base, New Mexico, has come up trumps in providing the inspiration for this record which gets its formal UK release on March 17th. It also gives credence to the myth that freeing the mind from visual stimulation loosens the shackles for a total creative explosion. The simple production of David (vocals, guitars, percussion, bass), Bill Titus (guitar, keys, organ) and Jordan Katz (trumpet, banjo) recording live creates a space for the lyrical content and structure to come to the fore. On the musical front it is probably Katz’s contributions that leave the greater impression with the soothing brass and gentle banjo.

The true magic of this album emanates from the wordsmith qualities that David possesses and his innate ability to wonderfully construct a song which masters the English language in both structural and metaphorical philosophy. The most prominent example of this is title track ‘Fire In My Head’ which gives an inner feel to living in the south west. This track like most on the album has a smooth mellow feel to allow your mind to be transfixed and it is only really in the final song where you are guided back to the realms of normality. ‘Song For The Road’ is the 6 minute finale which by the album’s structure acquires epic status but its rousing theme of fighting back, aided by the repetition of ‘don’t ever give in don’t ever give up’, stimulates the listener in a more active manner than the general passive mood of the record.

Photo by Kerry Sherck
This album is best enjoyed in a state of isolation or at the very most only accompanied by the lyric sheet which allows you to visually marvel at the song composition. The 8 track 36 minute format is another of the record’s redeeming features and optimises the listening pleasure. The other good news is that David has the UK firmly on his horizon with a planned visit to these shores in June and July. He is teaming up with fellow songwriters Robby Hecht and Peter Bradley Adams for a series of shows under the New American Troubadour banner. If as per usual the sun shines at the Maverick Festival in July, then spending a short period soaking up both these songs and the rays will be something to look forward to. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Amelia White - Old Postcard White - Wolf Records

Away from the bright lights of Music Row and the glitz of corporate driven country music, the eastern part of Nashville continues to buzz with a style that takes the genre down a more folk and Americana inspired road. This thriving refuge of likeminded artists has been the perfect environment for Amelia White to flourish and her latest release looks set to take her residency in the city to a new level of artistic recognition. OLD POSTCARD is a gritty collection of creative guitar-led tunes that never waivers from balancing a rock overture with a tender heartfelt undercurrent.

With numerous releases behind her in the dozen or so years since discovering Nashville as her true home, Amelia has settled on a sound that pays homage to her banjo playing grandfather while encompassing the passion acquired while cutting her teeth on the Boston rock and folk scene. The result is a highly competent and rock solid composition of 11 songs straddling the genre triangle of her influences and in places tipping her hat to the country sound synonymous with her adopted home town. The sheer consistency of the 37 minute listening experience is probably the album’s defining feature and this will serve her well in the pursuit of more recognition in the UK.

The press release name checks Mary Gauthier, Lori McKenna and Lucinda Williams in its desire to promote Amelia and they are not too far off the mark especially with the latter. Traces of Lucinda Williams is not a bad feature to incorporate into your record and to these fine comparisons I would add aural visions of Kasey Chambers appearing when listening the record’s stand out track ‘Goodbye Sun’. In an album which flutters from an aroma of gentle acoustic to more  awe-inspiring rock, this song resides in the former camp with a lovely layer of subtle pedal steel gracing its presence. In a similar mode ‘Old Stone’ is a mellow beautiful offering and a pair of haunting tracks in ‘Brothers’ and ‘Hollow Heart’ wallow in a dark yet enchanting mood.

Photo by Denise Fussell 
For this record, Amelia has fully utilised the guitar talents of John Jackson who numbers Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan amongst his collaborators. This guitar presence moves up the gears for a couple of tracks more akin to her indie rock background in ‘River of My Dreams’ and ‘Mary’s Gettin' Married’. The addition of pedal steel and a nod to the other more wider known side of Nashville flavours the rhythmic number ‘Get Your Cowboy On’ while ‘Daddy Run’ is probably the most chorus friendly track. This is one of several songs to feature harmony contributions from fellow female vocalists and the sole one to have a guitar piece supplied by Tim Carroll.

Ghetto’ and the superb scene-setting album opener ‘Big Blue Sun’ epitomise the consistency of this release which just leaves its title track to probably sum up best what the album is about. Amelia has used this record to address some of the family issues that have figured in her pursuit for self-actualisation. ‘Old Postcard’ is a reflective retro piece, steeped in nostalgia and containing a faint hint of banjo that possibly sits as an acknowledgement to the side of her family that acted as her career’s conductive force. The wonderful striking cover photo for OLD POSTCARD astutely captures the soul of the record and perhaps is a pointer to why this has been considered by others Amelia’s most important release to date.

Whether or not you are acquainted with the work of Amelia White is immaterial for the appreciation of OLD POSTCARD as it has sufficient merit to warrant a place in your music collection when it gets its formal UK release on March 10th. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Police Dog Hogan + Drew Holcomb - The Art Bar, Oxford Saturday 8th February 2014

Police Dog Hogan
If you like a good-time band blessed with an adeptness to replicate quality roots rock then look no further than Police Dog Hogan. Having finally caught part of their set at last year’s Maverick Festival, the next step was attend a full live show and what better way to experience their talents than a Saturday night in a small packed venue. The seven-piece combo were in top form entertaining an enthusiastic Oxford crowd with a thrilling blend of sounds encompassing such pretentious genre descriptors as alt-country-punk-bluegrass all in a traditional style with a contemporary twist.

There was probably no finer poignant moment in my early gig travels of 2014 than seeing a diverse aged audience singing and dancing along to ‘I Saw The Light’ as Police Dog tipped their hat to Sir Hank with their parting shot. This exhilarating climax crowned a superb evening which had not got off to the best of starts after misjudging the early on-stage time of supporting artist Drew Holcomb. The result left me only witnessing around ten minutes of his set which was disappointing as his latest album GOOD LIGHT had such fantastic reviews when released in the UK last year. However it barely needed ten minutes to realise good live Drew is and this only exasperated the frustration. A self-pact was made to ensure any follow up visit is seen next time to get the chance to see if all the songs are as excellent live as ‘Nothing But Trouble’.

Along with some well-chosen covers which also included a version of Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’, Police Dog Hogan do not shy away from celebrating their own material which in my opinion peaks at a pair of diverse tracks taken from each of the band’s two full length releases to date. ‘Fraserburgh Train’ from 2012’s FROM THE LAND OF MIRACLES tells a tale based on the D-Day landings as well as showcasing the band’s folk influences and ability to craft a first class song. In contrast the infectious and humorous ‘Shitty White Wine’ sees the band take a lighter route with their sound and demonstrate they know how to engage a Saturday night crowd up for a good time.

Drew Holcomb
Police Dog Hogan pay homage to the world of string instrumentation with a tight knit sound comprising of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, lead, acoustic and bass guitar, not forgetting  some essential percussion and on this evening, a little bit of trumpet supplied by the solitary female artist appearing, Emily Norris. Band leader and chief vocalist James Studholme does a grand job as focal point but this is a group where no one would complain about the assertion that 'the sum is greater than the parts'. So take a bow Tim Dowling (banjo), Pete Robinson (lead guitar), Eddie Bishop (violin), Tim Jepson (mandolin), Adam Bennette (bass) and Michael Giri (percussion), together you know how to deliver a top show in a midst of not taking yourself too seriously. This relaxed atmosphere is probably the key to their appeal as well as having an array of excellent songs such as ‘Better Go Now’, ‘Fourteen Roses’ and ‘World Enough’.

A final credit must go to Empty Rooms Promotions for continuing to bring outstanding live music to Oxford and the surrounding counties with the re-branded Bullingdon pub now known as the Art Bar proving a popular Saturday venue for a fine act like Police Dog Hogan. If you get the chance to catch one of the band's live shows, albeit predominantly in the south of England, then disappointment won’t be on the agenda, likewise if Drew Holcomb returns to the UK in the future.He is definitely an artist to watch out for.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Rachel Sermanni + Mo Kenney - The Glee Club, Birmingham Friday 7th February 2014

Rachel Sermanni
From a personal perspective there was a tenuous Canadian link to this evening’s gig. Rachel Sermanni first came to my serious attention when she was invited to play at last year’s Calgary Folk Festival. One of her sets at this fairly prominent event was to open the cavernous main stage arena and although the audience was sparse at that time of the day, the experience was surely invaluable to Rachel’s burgeoning career. After sharing a platform which was later graced by artists such as Steve Earle and Alabama Shakes, Rachel returned to Canada for a series of further dates and there is no doubt that her style of traditional Scottish folk blended in well with their roots scene.

Having pencilled in Rachel’s latest live appearance in Birmingham a while ago, and being a great fan of Canadian roots music, the double delight for this date was the inclusion of Mo Kenney as the support act. Hailing from the eastern province of Nova Scotia, Mo is the latest in a long line of Canadian singer-songwriters to seek growth of their awareness in the UK and the evidence of the performance here suggests this aspect of her career could be a fruitful venture. Mo possesses a beautiful singing voice which illuminated the songs she selected to share with the Glee Club audience. There was an intriguing charm to her minimal stage presence which drew an unlikely audience bond amidst a slightly surrealistic atmosphere. Yet the sheer quality and strength of her songs generated a warm feeling of admiration amongst those present.

Mo Kenney
The live performance of Mo’s songs from her self-titled debut album was a lot more stripped back than their studio version where a ramped up production leads them to flirt with aspects of indie pop. After listening to both versions, a preference is tilted towards the solo acoustic style which allows the vocals to flourish. Either way exploring the work of Mo Kenney, whether through her original material such as ‘The Happy Song’ or an inspired re-work of David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, is highly recommended after this brief introduction to her music.

For this evening’s show, Rachel was accompanied by Jenifer Austin on piano. Together they add an aura of maturity to Rachel’s sweet sounding style which successfully delivers the emotive aspects of her songs. Over the duration of the next hour, Rachel meandered through a selection of material from several of her various sized previous releases including ‘Black Hole’ from the EVERYTHING CHANGES EP, and both ‘Breathe Easily’ and ‘The Fog’ lifted from her single full album to date 2012’s UNDER MOUNTAINS. These and the other tracks showcased were interjected with a slightly impish stage presence which shared such diverse tales as busking in Amsterdam and painting with pomegranates in New York. With a genteel and occasionally haunted song delivery, it is easy to see why Rachel is highly rated in Celtic folk circles and an hour in her dulcet company is an enchanting experience.

On a day where the owner of The Glee Club chain was showered with positive publicity from a High Court libel verdict, their ethos of providing cutting edge comedy and high quality singer-song writing acts was on show for everyone to see. In their own diverse individualistic styles, Mo Kenney and Rachel Sermanni continue to prosper and an appreciative Glee Club studio audience showed every sign of agreeing with this opinion.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Transatlantic Sessions - Birmingham Symphony Hall Thursday 6th February 2014

The late winter annual jaunt around the prestigious concert halls of the UK is fast becoming a ritualistic extravaganza for the Aly Bain-Jerry Douglas inspired Transatlantic Sessions project. Once again a near sell-out Birmingham Symphony Hall marvelled at the virtuosic performance of seventeen artists spanning two nations, which could easily become three by the end of the year. The formula is tried and tested although with a streak of compartmentalised and structured rigidity. Seasoned veterans of these shows will get the drift but the structure works as the esteemed guests, of which the immense quality never wains, ease into their solo, duo and collaborative slots.

However there was a feel this year of a more Americana bias towards the near three hour show which was punctuated by a short break to allow your cultural intake to take a breather. Nevertheless when you can tempt such fine artists as Sarah Jarosz, Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien to join the Sessions then the seal of high class guarantee is secure. Perhaps the segment straight after the interval when Douglas gave a lengthy demonstration of solo Dobro followed by a brace of honky tonk duets by Scott and O’Brien could have left a few Celtic folk fans twitching for a stage return of their favourites but the sheer authenticity of the performance was undeniable.

The ideals of the Sessions are about celebrating the roots music traditions of predominately Scotland and the Eastern US with the musical choreography orchestrated by Douglas and Bain seamlessly delivering these in a highly palatable format. Many of the musicians are established regulars including John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick and Phil Cunningham on the home grown flank with Bruce Molsky, Russ Barenburg and Tim O’Brien serving Douglas well on the visiting bench.

Joining the vocal ranks for this year’s tour were Julie Fowlis and Kris Drever both with a complementary contrast of folk styles. The addition of a couple of songs sung in Gaelic by Fowlis including a version of The Beatles ‘Blackbird’ worked well with a gentle introduction to those who may not be so acquainted with the artistic subtleties of a second language. ‘Shining Star’ by Kris Drever was definitely one of the show’s highlights with the Lau band member saving it for his final piece in the spotlight.

While Shawn Colvin and Darrell Scott represented the more experienced angle of a country roots sound, it was Sarah Jarosz who perhaps moved the audience the most with a trio of numbers which showcased her undoubted vocal and song writing elegance. ‘Build Me Up From Bones’, the title track from her latest album crowned Sarah’s appearance and hopefully generated sufficient interest to sustain a future visit to the city in support of the record.

On an evening of endless highlights, not forgetting the majestic amalgam of pipes, fiddles, mandolins, whistles, banjos et al, it was a truly awe inspiring front porch version of ‘Shady Grove’ which stood out. Molsky, O’Brien and Barenburg were joined by Jarosz on banjo and Drever on mandolin for a superb version of this traditional classic.

The indication from Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas at the end of the show was that a 2015 version is on the cards and there’s no doubt that a Symphony Hall audience will be in force to lap up any future Sessions’ serving. So another Transatlantic Sessions was hailed a great success and you could even forgive Shawn Colvin for suggesting it was her first visit to this magnificent building. Acoustic Evening with Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Hank Wangford - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Saturday 1st February 2014

Hank Wangford has been a long established cult figure on the UK country music circuit for many decades and now into his 74th year he still continues to entertain folks up and down the land with a show that succeeds in grasping the reality of the genre. The shows are billed as discovering the dark underbelly of country and through tales, songs, recollections and insight, Hank truly achieves his objective leaving the audience splendidly entertained in the midst.

He may be a confirmed urbanite but Hank has spent many years taking his shows around the rural village halls that are sprinkled liberally across these isles. For this evening, he is in more familiar territory or at least in a city environment but the intimacy of the Kitchen Garden Café fits his ideals perfectly of total connectivity with a like-minded audience. The sold out café enthusiasts were more of a Ray Price country persuasion than Blake Shelton and this suits Hank well as there is a defined traditional stance to the theme of his sermons.

Any stereotypical view of a UK based traditional country act is blown away after two hours in the company of Hank Wangford. The originality to his cliché-free act is a refreshing experience as both humour and acute observations are interspersed with a mix of self-written and carefully selected cover songs. In the presence of his sidekick, Brad Breath aka the very talented multi guitarist Andy Roberts, Hank has found the perfect foil to lead the audience on a journey filled with divorce, pain, loss, cheating, drinking and all other aspects of misery that have been the bedrock of country music for eternity. Yet all this is done in a style of delivery which is unique, thought provoking and totally absorbing.

There were several inspirational covers during the evening which struck at the heart of Hank’s discovery objectives including Webb Pierce’s ‘There Stands the Glass’, Louvin Brothers' ‘Must You Throw Dirt In My Face’, Brown to Blue’ by George Jones and Willie Nelson’s ‘Half a Man’. Throughout his multi -dimensional career as both artist and rock n’ roll doctor to the stars of the sixties such as Gram Parsons and The Who, Hank has gathered an armful of tales and this evening was appropriate to share some of his encounters with Willie Nelson.

While he has arguably not been the most prolific recording artist, Hank was still mightily proud of his latest release, a record inspired by his love of waltzes, containing waltzes and aptly titled SAVE ME THE WALTZ. Amongst the popular songs during the evening, many requiring little invitation to joining in the chorus, ‘Lonely Together’, ‘Simple Pleasures’ and the ‘Ballad of Bill Picket’ were the most enjoyable. The latter containing the story of a unique rodeo star denied the trappings of Hollywood stardom due to the non-white ethnicity of his origin.

Having seen Hank perform a number of years ago at Americana International, this was a first opportunity to witness one of his full live shows and whatever your country persuasion is, spending an evening at one of his gigs  is an experience not to be missed. Did we discover the dark underbelly of country? I definitely think so, but as there is still plenty left in Hank’s tank, why not embark on the journey yourself.

Sarah Jarosz - Build Me Up From Bones 'Sugar Hill Records'

Some prodigal talent can ultimately run dry due to a lack of substance but in the case of Sarah Jarosz, the sheer depth of her ability is suggesting a fruitful career lies ahead. Initially heralded as the future of roots music when signing for Sugarhill Records at the age of sixteen, Sarah then set about consolidating her undoubted potential with a stint at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Upon graduation Sarah has undertaken the most ambitious project in her short career but reaction Stateside to BUILD ME UP FROM BONES has been incredible. UK fans will be presented with the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the record via its formal January release over here and the presence of Sarah on this year’s Transatlantic Sessions tour.

This third album release from Sarah, all under the guise of the Sugarhill label, has already wooed critics via a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album and its title track being up for Best American Roots Song. Alas both were unsuccessful in the Los Angeles ceremony but the legacy of BUILD ME UP FROM BONES is set to stand the test of time. It’s a far more experimental release than her previous albums and wider creative influences acquired during her studies have flavoured a record that refuses to be confined to a traditional beat.

Straight from the traps, Sarah sends a signal out that development is on the agenda with a far rockier song than you would expect from her. ‘Over the Edge’ tempts the world of Americana with a sample of her ability to mix and match the extremes of this far reaching genre. The combination of an Austin upbringing and a classical New England schooling give her an added advantage of exploiting this diverse appeal.

The presence of Jerry Douglas and Chris Thile on the album ensures there are tracks which revert to form and replicate Sarah’s trademark Bluegrass sound.  Thile’s mandolin heavily influences ‘Fuel the Fire’ while Douglas introduces the Weissenborn lap slide guitar to ‘Gone Too Soon’. The harmony vocals right across the album are supplied by a delightful array of contributors including Aoife O’Donovan, Kate Rusby and Darrell Scott.

As intimated earlier Sarah is an immensely talented young lady and, as well as possessing divine vocals, she plays banjo, mandolin and guitar and lent a hand to having a writing contribution in all but two of the eleven tracks. The exceptions being Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, which consists of Sarah’s vocals and solitary cello, and ‘The Book of Right-On’, a Joanna Newson track which drifts into an elegant haze.

Alongside the superb opening number which probably just shades top track status, sits the slightly languid but equally at the same time mesmeric ‘Mile on the Moon’. The beautifully constructed chorus repeatedly calling ‘If I ever wake up’ lodges in your mind and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Grammy nominated song ‘Build Me Up From Bones’ has the added twin appeal of Aoife O’Donovan joining Sarah on vocals for a double dose of angelic roots folk.

The only caveat for listening to this album is to refrain from multi-tasking as its deep sincerity demands your full attention and this will ensure maximum listening pleasure is derived. There is little doubt that BUILD ME UP FROM BONES grows the stock of Sarah Jarosz and the good news is that UK fans are set to get some opportunities to share in its riches.