Monday, 31 March 2014

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 30th March 2014

Fresh from their success of being named Best Duo at the recent BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin continue to make substantial waves in the world of traditional roots music. As a duo they are inventive, energetic and passionate about their specific areas of interest which spans three continents in an attempt to tap into sources of enchanting song and majestic slide guitar playing. The Kitchen Garden Café is an established Midlands venue on the roots music scene and, despite the sounds in the past of many fine artists reverberating around its acoustic friendly brick walls, there cannot have been many better 45 minute slots than the second half of Phillip and Hannah’s set on this mild Sunday evening.

It may have taken the award winning duo a little while to warm up and adjust to the surroundings, including a few teething technical issues, but eventually the quality kicked in to leave a near sell out audience thrilled to be in the company of two inspiring musicians. For those who like their traditional music with an Americana flavour then the impressive Dobro playing of Phillip Henry is served gift wrapped with the soul of the south. Throw in some enigmatic gospel and blues style harmonica segments and a couple of covers of songs made famous by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, then there was more than enough to keep any transatlantic music enthusiast satisfied.

This need not detract too much from the duo having a strong foothold in the world of traditional English song and Hannah’s stylish vocals are more than suited to interpret tales such as ‘Death & The Lady’, the audience participating ‘The Nailmakers' Strike’and the self-composed ‘The Painter’. A song inspired by its Wiltshire location ‘Silbury Hill’ was perhaps the highlight of the first set where we were now fully acquainted with the fiddle, viola and banjo playing of Hannah to supplement her soothing vocals.

In addition to his mightily impressive Dobro playing and harmonica interludes, Phillip utilised the stomp box and beat box to good effect as well as providing the vocals for Gillian Welch’s ‘Wichita’. The sub-continent is another fertile source for Phillip’s inspiration and we learned of the importance of his trip to India several years ago to immerse into the culture of the centuries-old tradition of slide guitar playing. When the duo performed their version of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn’, revived by Alison Krauss and the Union Station, you couldn’t help but compare Phillip to the Tennessee Dobro maestro himself Jerry Douglas.

By the time the evening had been brought to a serene closing with a gorgeous version of James Taylor’s ‘Close Your Eyes’, there could not have been a Kitchen Garden Café inhabitant not in awe of the performance of this highly talented duo. Their second studio and most recent release MYND, of which we were entertained with a debate about its old English name origins, supplied a fair amount of this evening’s material and is an album worth acquainting yourself with.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have great crossover potential, with that being straddling several strands of folk and Americana instead of delving into the saccharine world of pop. This performance when hitting its stride was one which gave marvellous entertainment and catching them again sometime in the future was added to the wish list. 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Simone Felice - Strangers Team Love Records

Simone Felice has long been one of Americana music’s hottest tickets, whether part of the Felice Brothers, one half of Duke and the King or in his recent venture branching out as a solo artist. The multi-talented native of upstate New York is set to seal the deal as an eminent performer with the release of STRANGERS, his second record of solo status but not short on guest influence. Repeat listens of this 10 track–37 minute offering reveal an intimate insight into the mind of Simone, all wrapped up in a sound quintessential of pure Americana.

It doesn’t take long to get into the stride of the record with a rousing sing along chorus decorating the fabulous, jovial and sweet opener ‘Molly-O’. This track sees Simone re-trace his carefree days as a panhandling travelling musician around the New York folk scene. While the upbeat sound tends to take more of a backseat as the album progresses, the strong choruses are a permanent feature to keep even the casual listener engaged throughout. There is no finer example of this than the second track ‘If You Go Down To LA’. This slow developing acoustic masterpiece has classic credentials written all over it and is the album’s stand out track. Its compelling mesmeric chorus with anthem-like qualities is something truly to savour.

By the time the third track ‘Running Through Your Head’ embeds its inner depth into your mind, you are guaranteed to be on a similar wavelength to Simone who has revolved this very personal project around his own close brush with death. Having recovered from open heart surgery in 2010, STRANGERS is a continuation of the recuperation process and the emotion runs deep in the vocal construction on ‘Our Lady Of The Gun’, another track with a strong hook to snare you in.

Simone was raised in the Catskill Mountains and, despite his roaming, still resides close to the town of his upbringing. ‘Bye Bye Palenville ‘ is something he doesn’t want to say now to his hometown whilst he is raising his own family close by, and the depth of feeling as he sings the words is undeniably emotional. ‘Gettysburg’ has a more upbeat groove with perhaps the closest feel to the spritely opener with several ‘sha la las’ added to the infectious chorus. A little banjo is detected in this song and joins the usual array of sounds that frequent a record of this type with perhaps a touch more piano and horns than you expect on a straightforward rock-influenced Americana record. The brass really kicks in on ‘The Best Money Can Buy’ which launches a more tranquil and, at times, darker feeling towards the latter stages of the record.

Amongst his musicianship, song writing and vocal talents, Simone can also add novelist and poet to his creative artistry and perhaps the one downside to the copy being reviewed is the absence of a lyric sheet to further dissect his wordsmith qualities. The final three tracks starting with ‘Heartland’ continue down the ballad path with the sombre mood evolving through ‘Bastille Day’ and ‘The Gallows’. Regardless of the album’s lighter or darker moments, the absorbing content will soak right through to the heart of a sophisticated music follower.

Simone Felice is an instinctive and clever artist who has delivered a top notch album with a little help from such luminaries as his well respected brothers and Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers. STRANGERS is a deep introspective record with a palatable lacing of catchy melodies whilst remaining a fruitful source of masterly song writing. This record will go down well with old and new fans alike, with an opportunity to hear it live in the UK in April.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Maria Byrne - Back To You Self Released

Every so often you hear a song from a new artist you’re just discovering for the first time that literally makes you stop in your tracks. In 2012 Emma Jane managed it with ‘Sunday Monday Blues’ while around a year ago it was ‘Tennessee’ by Emily Baker. There is a distinct pattern occurring here as the same experience happened recently when first listening to the track ‘Back To You’ by Maria Byrne. It was first sampled online and in a whirlwind couple of weeks, the song has been witnessed live as well as having the EP it came from, parachuted in for review.

This amazing song is one of six tracks to feature on Maria’s new EP and lends it name to the record’s title BACK TO YOU. The work of Maria was being checked out in advance of deciding who to see of the growing number of UK based artists appearing on the pop up stages at this year’s Country to Country Festival in London. Instantly Maria was added to this list, a decision certainly not regretted after watching her 30 minute set at the O2.

This release is Maria’s third since she moved from her native Ireland to London in 2008 and is definitely one to recommend to people who like her style of music. This is very much based on a folk Americana sound and, while this style seemed a little isolated at the O2, it is one that should be represented at a premium country music event. Midway through her set Maria deviated from her new material to sing the John Prine duet ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’ with Benjamin Folke Thomas, and the legendary US songwriter is name-checked as one of her key influences.

Along with bass player and producer Karl Odlum, Benjamin Folke Thomas features prominently on Maria’s new record which is full of memorable tunes, flavoured by some superb string arrangements and delivered by her soft fulfilling vocals. The previously mentioned stand out track, which for me conjures up visions of Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat Of Many Colours’, had its context brought to life when Maria spoke about the emotional background of the song and how it related to her father. Checking out the track ‘Back To You’ is mandatory for any serious music lover.

It is tricky to split the other five tracks as they all possess worthy merit and are delivered in a similar delectable ear pleasing style. ‘Tennessee’ is a popular song title and Maria’s composition (she is the writer of all six tracks) tells a tale of a desire to meet up 4000 miles from home in a certain state famed for its music. Gorgeous guitar work supplements the sweet vocals on such songs as ‘Sweet Burden’ and EP opener ‘Keep On…’. ‘Go To Sea’ has a more folk oriented roots sound to it while this short but high quality collection ends with the slightly more placid ‘Love Will Find You’.

Maria’s previous releases received elements of mainstream praise within sections of the BBC Radio team and this EP will absolutely find a home within the burgeoning folk/Americana scene across the country. Currently Maria is active in the London area and hopefully further positive press coverage will encourage her to expand the record’s promotion around the UK. Listening to BACK TO YOU will be one of the most rewarding 20 minutes that you spend this year. It’s as simple as that.

The Coal Porters - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath Birmingham Monday 17th March 2014

 London based alt bluegrass band The Coal Porters have been plying their trade for many years but have admitted that for far too long they have not been active enough in the West Midlands. Well the Kitchen Garden Café has been hosting roots gigs for several years now so it is great that both band and venue have finally connected. Packed to its intimate capacity, the Café was alive tonight with the fantastic sounds of this highly talented quintet who uniquely manage to make bluegrass music significantly progressive.

The Coal Porters are led by the former frontman of the esteemed US alt country rock band the Long Ryders, although Sid Griffin has a lot more to his cultural arsenal than an eighties cover slot on the NME. He has assembled a wonderful set of musicians to bring many original compositions to life alongside several imaginative covers that you would not expect to hear at a gig steeped in this music style. Sid, in a dry and slightly quirky manner, led the band for a twin pair of outstanding sets spanning several of their album releases including the latest titled FIND THE ONE, which unsurprisingly he was keen to plug.

From this 2013 release, the sold out audience were treated to such gems as ‘Barefoot On The Courthouse Lawn’, ‘Never Right His Wrong’, ‘Gospel Shore’ and the splendid instrumental ‘The Betsey Trotwood’. The latter being a tribute to the established London roots venue of the same name, a place dear to the band’s hearts. This fine record also housed a couple of covers which the band played on the night. Their version of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ has been proving a popular rendition and its performance tonight was spot on, just as the encore decision to give ‘Paint it Black’ a bluegrass makeover. Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ went down really well with the crowd and a personal highlight was a splendid version of the Only Ones new wave classic ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’. However it was not all about contemporary pop music with a twist as a version of ‘Pike County Breakdown’ respected the traditional side of the genre.

Sid was a charming and humorous front guy, excelling on mandolin and bribing potential CD buyers with potential tales of the 80’s LA scene with reference to The Bangles, Dwight Yokham and Fats Domino. However the two sets were an exemplary presentation of roots music, packed with inspired solos, vibrant audience interaction and an unplugged finale of ‘New Cut Road’.

Of course The Coal Porters is not just about Sid Griffin, in fact he shares vocals and writing on many tracks with Scotsman Neil Robert Herd. There are also several sublime vocal contributions from Carly Frey along with her dynamic fiddle playing. John Breeze plays some mean banjo and it is somewhat unfair to always leave the bass player until last as the rhythm of Tali Trow kept the sound together throughout the evening.

Over the years the Kitchen Garden Café has hosted many fine gigs but it has to be said that a splendid evening in the company of The Coal Porters is right up there with the very best. Having only recently fully explored their work, it was a pleasure to witness them live for the first time and hopefully this will be the rekindling of a beautiful relationship with West Midlands roots music fans.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Country to Country Festival - Zac Brown Band, Dixie Chicks, Dierks Bentley, Martina McBride O2 Arena, London Saturday 15th March 2014

While trying to remain impartial and objective, there was only ever going to be one act to open this review and be the lasting legacy of Country to Country 2014. Even though expectation and anticipation was high, the reality of the Dixie Chicks London return could not have been a starker reminder of why they were, and still are, a highly respected country music act and unilaterally responsible for the literary indulgence you are reading. For a solitary hour on the Saturday evening of this 2 day festival, Natalie, Martie and Emily enchanted a sold out arena with a spellbinding display that not only gold-framed their talents for your memory bank but also defined the directional path of their career. At 7.30 on Saturday 15th March the Dixie Chicks were back. By 8.30 they were triumphant.

Martie Maguire
For the second year running, only the Saturday of this 2 day festival, which brings the cream of mainstream US country music to the UK, was attended. However with all due respect to the four artists appearing on Sunday, from a personal perspective they would have had a tough task surpassing the 4 hour pleasure of being in the presence of a certain Texan trio along with the excellent Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley and Zac Brown Band. The first three were right there at the outset of my country music journey, while it has been an intriguing experience discovering why the latter could become a great contemporary Americana rock band.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride possesses one of the most powerful voices in country music and has taken many a great song to the summit of genre appreciation. ‘Independence Day’ is one of the finest country songs ever written and we have been privileged here in the UK to listening to many versions sung by its writer. There is little doubt that Gretchen Peters herself would have had a little grin as Martina closed the opening set of this festival with an absolutely stunning version of the song. The day may have belonged to the Dixie Chicks but the champagne song moment of the evening was the honour of Martina. For the remainder of her time on stage, there was a leaning towards the years at the top of the country charts with ‘A Broken Wing’, ‘Whatever You Say, ‘Love’s The Only House’, ‘Wild Angels’ and another Gretchen Peters song ‘My Baby Loves Me’, all featuring. While there may be a few eyebrows raised to the subject content of her latest project, a non-country covers album, Martina related the release to that of TIMELESS in 2005 where she delved into the back catalogue of traditional country. Regardless of any negative responses, and from this evening’s evidence ‘Suspicious Minds’ sounded pretty good, Martina has earned the right to experiment at this point of her career. Radio may not call anymore but the talent clearly remains.

Dierks Bentley
Back in 2008, Dierks Bentley owned the stage of a tightly packed Borderline in central London. Tonight he owned the cavernous O2 Arena with a display that merged the very best of new country with an honesty and integrity essential to keep the evolution of the genre on a sane track. Dierks can rock it with the best as witnessed in ‘Sideways’ and ‘5-1-5-0’ but the constant reference to banjo fiddle and steel saw the words backed up with actions on tracks such as on ‘Up On The Ridge’. The genuineness of his musical journey from Arizona to Nashville was perfectly portrayed in ‘I Hold On’ from his excellent new album RISER. Engaging humour is never far away from Dierks who certainly had the audience in the palm of his hand for the hour-long set. For me, any songs from LONG TRIP ALONE are welcome and when he selects ‘Free and Easy’ and ‘Every Mile A Memory’ total connection is made. The reaction Dierks Bentley received here can only inspire him to not wait another six years to play the UK again.

Emily Robison
With regards to the date of a last UK appearance, it has been eight years since the ‘return to the scene of the crime’ for the Dixie Chicks. Of course their hiatus from band activity has been the contributing factor but the years were rolled back as the ‘finest female trio in the history of country music’ served a luscious helping from all four studio albums. ‘Earl’ continues to meet his fate, those who so wish, are again invited to be whisked away by a ‘Cowboy’ and we can all rejoice in the freedom offered by the vision of ‘Wide Open Spaces’. Perhaps the most fervent moment of the ‘return of the Chicks’ is that Natalie is still as defiant as ever which was passionately displayed in an emotional version of ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’.

However while Martie fired up the fiddle with the spirit of the past and Emily made the banjo as relevant as it should always be, there was still evidence as why it was inevitable that times would change for the Dixie Chicks. The shadow of Rick Rubin loomed over ‘Lubbock or Leave It’ and it was interesting to note that Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ hasn’t left their set list over the years. Natalie was never going to be shackled by the country music industry regardless of the ‘incident’, best exemplified in her excellent solo album of last year, and her performance tonight in London highlighted why she is one of the best female band leaders of any genre. The interesting inclusion of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ showed that a desire to experiment is still present. While this magnificent hour was always going to be defined by a dose of nostalgia, pondering the future of the Dixie Chicks is as intriguing as it has ever been since that eventful day eleven years ago.

After three stellar sets by country music artists, each with at least a decade of UK appreciation, it was always going to be difficult for headline act Zac Brown Band to follow. While they have been making inroads into the UK via alternative routes to the country music scene i.e. Hyde Park and Glastonbury gigs, there was significant evidence around the arena of their brand of music being not always to the taste of many present. Despite a growing  gradual trickle of arena exits during their hour and three quarter set, it has to be said that the Zac Brown band are one hell of a live act who do call on many other styles to fashion their sound. In fact, as earlier said, they have the potential to become one of the world’s great Americana influenced rock acts over the next decade.

Zac Brown
There are certainly roots and folk rock elements to the Zac Brown Band and Jimmy De Martini is one of the finest fiddle players witnessed live in this genre. There is also a high degree of Georgia-style southern- tinged country music found within the band who you get the impression are never going to dwell on a single sound that has in the past encompassed reggae, Latino, regulation rock and some straight down the middle pop ballads. All were on display this evening in tracks such as ‘Island Song’, ‘Toes’, a cover of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Goodbye in Her Eyes’. There was definitely more of a rock feel to their live set than what is found on the last three albums which have proved very popular country releases. Their latest project with Dave Grohl, which has produced four superb songs to date, has given their sound a more profound edge. Three of the four tracks were aired tonight with 'Let it Rain’ being the stand out song of the trio.

Natalie Maines
Segments of the Zac Brown Band set may have tested a few people but fortunately Zac keeps ‘Colder Weather’, ‘Knee Deep’ and the highly popular ‘Chicken Fried’ up his sleeve to woo an audience and these effortlessly brought the O2 back to life. By the time the band returned for the encore, attired in skeleton suits and masks, to leave us with ‘Uncaged’ and the standard fiddle number ‘Devil  Went To Down To Georgia’, there seemed to be a more appreciative feel to the arena.

So it was inevitable that the efforts of Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley and Zac Brown were going to play second fiddle (excuse the pun) to the Dixie Chicks in my eyes, but they demonstrated to being a supporting cast second to none. All three have had their appreciation elevated to an even higher level than before and it is a credit to the organisers that such as a line up graced a UK venue. To sum this evening up, whether it’s as the Dixie Chicks, Court Yard Hounds or Natalie Maines solo, there is a plea for this trio to keep making music and maintain the UK market on their radar. Country to Country 2014 was enriched by their presence. 

All artist photographs courtesy of Hels Bels Photography

Check out more of Hels Bels photography here or follow on Twitter @helsbelsphoto

Dixie Chicks Set List – The Long Way Around: Truth No.2: Landslide: Goodbye Earl: Sin Wagon: Cowboy Take Me Away: Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus cover): Lubbock or Leave It: Ready To Run: Wide Open Spaces: Not Ready To Make Nice: Mississippi (Bob Dylan cover)

Martina McBride Set List – Wild Angel: Whatever You Say: Anyway: Concrete Angel: Suspicious Minds: Little Bit Of Rain: Love’s The Only House: A Broken Wing: This One’s For The Girls: Independence Day

Dierks Bentley Set List – Am I The Only One: Free & Easy: 5-1-5-0: Every Mile A Memory: Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do: Riser: Tip It On Back: Up On The Ridge: Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover): Settle For A Slowdown: I Hold On: What Was I Thinkin’: Sideways: Home

Zac Brown Band Set List- Whiskey’s Gone: Keep Me In Mind: Jump Right In: The Wind: As She’s Walking Away: Island Song: Free: Enter Sandman (Metallica cover): All Alright: Who Knows: Knee Deep: Colder Weather: Day For The Dead: Let It Rain: Goodbye In Her Eyes: Natural Disaster: Toes: Chicken Fried – Encore – Uncaged: Devil Went Down To Georgia (Charlie Daniels cover) 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Ags Connolly - How About Now Drumfire Records

Ags Connolly is a name I’ve been aware of for quite a while with respect to a Country 2 Country Festival pop up stage appearance and numerous interactions on social media. Now finally we can add recording artist to his repertoire and without any hesitation it has to be said that HOW ABOUT NOW is an exceptional release that ranks highly among UK artists actively involved in producing country music. You get no pulled punches with Ags and don’t shout too loudly about the current output of Nashville’s mainstream crop in his presence. Regardless of whether you adopt his views or not, understanding the inner qualities of what Ags is trying to re-interpret is sufficient enough to savour the merits of this album which has the depth to reach out to fans across the spectrum of country from mainstream to alt via all ports of Americana.

The concept of this album was born from a meeting between Dean Owens and Ags at last year’s Country 2 Country Festival, with the pair re-convening up in Scotland to bring the project to fruition. Having a stellar group of musicians around him has allowed Ags to bring his fine songs to life and we are served with a collection of 11 tracks that get to the crux of what country music is all about. Maybe it’s not the style embraced by commercial radio, CMA and advocates of evolution but it represents a sound that will be embedded on the epitaph of country music in the unlikely case of it meeting its maker.

Back to the finer details of the album and there is no finer place to start than the opening track where ‘When Country Was Proud’ explicitly leaves you in no doubt as to where Ags Connolly’s allegiance lies. So right from the off we are in the territory of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe. This theme, style and sound doesn’t waiver as we weave through the drinking, loneliness, companionship and reflection songs, all delivered with loads of guitars from pedal steel to mandolin and electric amidst a vocal style aching like the tortured soul of country music.

Alongside the excellent opener, the other two tracks worthy of stand out nomination are the nostalgic ‘I Saw James Hand’ and the heart wrenching ‘Trusty Companion’. The former sees Ags recounting his ‘I saw the light’ moment when witnessing the subject of the song playing alongside Dale Watson at a London gig. Many country fans will recognise this scenario as having a particular moment when you were ultimately hooked into the genre.

The lyrical content is far from abstract and the musical production is at a suitable level to give the songs centre stage and this is really what country music is all about. So whether you are cursing what’s already happened as in ‘The Dim And Distant Past’ or wallowing in the confusion of ‘I Hope She Wouldn’t Be Here’, the travails of life are all captured here in a collection of 3 minute songs. However just as we learn to accept the melancholy in a self-comforting way, the final and title track ‘How About Now’ just opens the door for a smidgeon of optimism.

Ags openly states that this album should be viewed as a step into the ‘Ameripolitan’ world inhabited by Dale Watson rather than merely country or Americana but I’m going to beg to differ. This is an unashamed country album that should be gorged upon by all serious fans of country music and not just confined to sub-genre backwaters. HOW ABOUT NOW by Ags Connolly is one of the best UK country albums recorded in recent years and should be showcased alongside the work of My Darling Clementine in how a style immortalised in the past should be preserved for enjoyment in the future.


Robby Hecht - Robbie Hecht Old Man Henry Records

With his roots firmly in the folk inspired singer-songwriter set, Robby Hecht is an established member of the Nashville based informal Americana movement and has the UK in his sights for development in 2014. To support a summer tour when Robby visits some of our established listening venues and a slot at the Maverick Festival, a new album hits the airwaves on March 24th to showcase why he is a respected artist. Choosing to go down the route of releasing a self-titled record, this 3rd album of Robby’s has all the components you would expect from a previous winner at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival. Although the album has moments of slightly inflated intensity it is best defined by a soft, soothing and serene sound.

Weighing in at 12 tracks and 44 minutes, Robby’s album is a thoughtful introspective record rooted in the art of personal expression. Produced by Lex Price (Mindy Smith, k.d. Lang), the former resident of Knoxville Tennessee has re-created a sound inspired by some of the great singer-songwriters of the past and is a comfortable fit into the wealth of folk-Americana which is currently undergoing a transatlantic resurgence.

There is much merit in raising the awareness of different types of mental illness and Robby doesn’t shy away from using the release to explain how he has come to terms with bipolar. The 3rd track on the album titled ‘Feeling It Now’ is his own composition on the subject and is a brave attempt to develop a coping strategy. Elsewhere the album has a couple of moments where the accelerator pedal is slightly more de-compressed including the track ‘New York City’ which has had a video made to enhance the album’s promotion. In a similar vein, ‘Papa’s Down The Road Dead’ is one of the album’s more rhythmic numbers but generally, tranquillity is the overriding feel from the listening experience best exemplified by the softening ‘Barrio Moon’.

My favourite track off the album is split between the country sounding ‘Soon I Was Sleeping’ where extra steel infiltrates the instrumentation and the gorgeous vocals of Juno winning songstress Rose Cousins join to form a duet. This is rivalled by the splendid ‘The Sea And The Shore’, a song which had duet status when it was originally recorded last year by Amy Speace and John Fulbright. This extended metaphorical masterpiece is a co-write between Robby and Amy, and his solo version only just falls marginally below the one involving Amy. Another excellent song on the album is ‘Hard Times’ which continually draws you to the song writing style of Gillian Welch during each listen. To add a little more diversity to the music, a touch of horns gives an alternative feel to ‘The Light Is Gone’.

While the album slightly undulates in its mood, the inbuilt tranquillity is a firm fixture of the final three tracks namely:  ‘Cars and Bars’, ‘Stars’ and ‘When I’m With You Now’. However the quality is seamless and the content is an antidote to throwaway pop that falls straight into the arms of an Americana movement raised on a diet of Townes Van Zandt.

When Robby teams up with fellow artists David Berkeley and Peter Bradley Adams under the New American Troubadours banner for their summer European dates, the stakes of song writing are certain to be raised and the bar of anticipation is to be set high. While we wait for these live dates, enjoying this 3rd release by Robby Hecht is the perfect aperitif. 

Anais Mitchell - Glee Club, Birmingham Wednesday 5th March 2014

Riding on the back of a recent success at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Anais Mitchell gave her Midlands fans a reminder of her talents with this Birmingham gig slotted in at the tail end of this short UK tour. The Glee Club played host to Anais on the evening for a show promoted once again by Cosmic Americana Music and the near 200 turnout justified their decision to bring the gig to the West Midlands instead of their normal Nottingham base. Over the hour and a quarter she spent on stage, Anais breathed a vibrancy that allowed her enthusiasm for song and a distinctive voice to swarm your senses, drawing you into her mystique and slightly quirky world.

For me the depth of song and original addictive vocal style are the primary attractions and why I found YOUNG MAN IN AMERICA a compelling listen when initially discovering Anais. This first opportunity to see her live confirmed the early impressions especially as she included some of the better tracks from that album in the set list. These included the title track, ‘Venus’ and my personal favourite ‘Coming Down’. Also from the record Anais sang ‘Shepherd’ and she shared her family experience of growing up with artistic parents in Vermont, USA by explaining how this song originated from a short story written by her father.

A recurring theme of the evening was Anais constantly returning to her 2010 folk opera album HADESTOWN with songs both being planned and subject to spontaneous and invited audience requests. Of course Anais had to adapt the songs from their orchestral original version to one delivered solo with an acoustic guitar but with consummate ease, and the aid of the immense depth of the songs, she managed the transition effortlessly. Amongst the songs played, ‘How We Build The Wall’ and ‘Wedding Song’ were planned while ‘How Long’ and ‘Flowers’ tested her recalling skills to meet the audience requests.

Not surprising, one of the best received songs on the evening was the award winning version of ‘Willie of Winsbury’ which saw Jefferson Hamer and Anais top the Best Traditional Song category at the recent folk awards in London. Elsewhere during the set, Anais stepped back in time to extract ‘Out of Pawn’ and ‘Old Fashioned Hat’ from 2007’s THE BRIGHTNESS and back three years further to re-visit HYMNS FOR THE EXILED recorded in 2004 and supplying ‘Cosmic American’ to the offerings this evening.

Anais shared several entertaining stories with the audience including spending time on the road with her 9 month old daughter and indulging in a history lesson via Wikipedia with fellow artist Ned Roberts who was opening for her on this short tour. In fact Ned performed a highly accomplished set of contemporary folk to support the main event with, alongside several originals, an excellent cover of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’.

Anais Mitchell purveys a style of Americana music that can be best described as alt-folk and there is no doubt that the live version of her material hooks you in to the same high degree as listening to her records. She may be getting well known now in UK folk circles but if you haven’t discovered the delights of Anais Mitchell yet, it’s definitely worth checking out her material and maybe hopefully in the future catch one of her shows when she next returns to the UK.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Diana Jones + Jarrod Dickenson - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 3rd March 2014

It’s been a few years since Diana Jones last visited Birmingham and a fair number of her fans defied the often uninspiring Monday night slot to catch her return to the city. For this tour, Nottingham based promoters Cosmic American Music decided to utilise the small room at the Hare and Hounds pub and were rewarded with a decent turnout. This bodes well for this relatively new venture of the promoter spreading their wings and enhancing the Birmingham music scene with a serving of quality Americana which has been bypassing the area in recent years.

In support of Diana, the services of her fellow US compatriot, Jarrod Dickenson, were secured and he duly entertained the audience with the usual high singer-songwriter standard that we have come to expect from UK PR stable of Geraint Jones. Jarrod has just released an excellent short EP titled SONGS FROM WILLOW ST with the biggest regret being that funds restricted the record to four tracks. My personal favourite from this EP is the melodic ‘Misty Eyes and A Troubled Mind’, although Jarrod chose to feature more of his previous full length album in the set and limited showcasing the EP to just ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’. Jarrod was raised in the infamous town of Waco, Texas and the now New York based artist definitely possesses the Lone Star State troubadour genes. He tackled the age old issue of finding employment with ‘No Work For A Working Man’ and added weight to the theory that tough economic times can be fertile ground for the travelling folk singer.

One man and his guitar was replaced by one woman for the evening’s main set, although Diana did have pair of such instruments to aid her brand of Appalachian storytelling utopia. She has the unique trait of possessing a voice steeped in the soul of the mountain although her heritage had to be discovered after a more urban upbringing. Diana’s career continues to grow since the re-connection with her roots and this has been really in evident over her last four albums. The latest record released last year titled MUSEUM OF APPALACHIAN RECORDINGS featured heavily in the set with it both opening proceedings with ‘Oh Sinner’ and closing the evening with the evocative a capello track ‘The Other Side’.

This inspirational album recorded at the title’s cabin in Clinton Tennessee during live sessions is perfectly suited to be shared with intimate audiences and among its highlights featured during the set were the twin state tracks ‘Ohio’ and ‘Tennessee’ as well as the snappy ‘Love O Love’ which acted as a prelude to the encore. Diana turned the spotlight on the audience to select the first track for the extended set segment and there were few complaints for a rendition of ‘Better Times Will Come’. Prior to this there was plenty of old favourites sprinkled across the set along with the usual stories which explain the inspirations for the tracks. The poignant ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words’ never fails to move while male members of the audience get a little unnerved to the murder ballad ‘If I Had A Gun’. ‘Pony’, ‘Poverty’ and ‘Cracked and Broken ‘were familiar tracks from her previous Midlands gigs which have numbered appearances at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and the Big Sessions when it was held in Leicester.

Paring Jarrod and Diana together was a masterstroke by the organisers and the opening Monday night of March was a lot richer from the experience of listening to two excellent practitioners of contemporary Americana music with a folk twist. Diana continues to be a popular draw for UK audiences and Jarrod will surely grow his stock once word gets around about his talents. 


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Eric Church - The Ritz, Manchester Saturday 1st March 2014

With the wrapping barely off his fourth and latest studio release, an opportunity has arisen for UK fans to check out live the latest instalment in Erich Church’s quest to be a country music game changer. It may be a brave move to base the name of your record so explicitly on your mission and only time will tell whether the rules are being re-written. However there is no doubt that Church is at the top of his game both as a live performer and a recording artist. It didn't take many listens to appreciate the inner qualities of THE OUTSIDERS and the experience of seeing him live for the first time lived up to the hype generated from his one-off debut UK gig last year.

You know the fiddle and steel is not going to make an appearance at an Eric Church gig, although the banjo appeared from time to time, but this show, at a packed mid-size venue, was far from a rock extravaganza. That is not saying there weren’t times when the guitar-laden six piece band didn’t truly rock the joint but just as THE OUTSIDERS isn’t defined by the ratcheted up sound, the more poignant moments possibly saw the best side of Church as a performer. There was no more definitive example of this theory than the evening’s golden moment with the stunning delivery of ‘A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young’ from the new record. An audience probably split with contrasting knowledge of his career work were highly appreciative of the moments when the band stepped back to give us more of an insight of Church the performer rather than just a band front man.

There was certainly no brashness or arrogance about his on stage persona and at times he came across as a touch humble of the respect he was getting from a market probably still alien to him. The strength of the songs he has written, many with anthem-like qualities, is sufficient enough to bring them to life on the stage. In addition to my personal standout moment, ‘Drink In My Hand’, ‘Sinners Like Me’ and ‘That’s Damn Rock & Roll’ all had an enthralling feel to their live version, while the crowd gave most love to the interactive ‘These Boots’, ‘Homeboy’ and encore opener ‘Smoke A Little Smoke’.

Let’s get the facts out first that ‘Springsteen’ is a classic song with sheer sustainability and it was highly likely that it would bring the evening to a close. Yet it was felt that its introduction could have been more dramatic to milk the anticipation and the live version was delivered at a faster pace than the recorded one I've listened to and enjoyed hundreds of times.Still the audience vociferously played their part on cue and the song’s lyrical structure continues to amaze me. This evening he chose to sample ‘I’m On Fire’ to celebrate The Boss mid-song and there’s no complaints about that.

The hour and twenty five minute set, delivered rather too early in the evening due to the commercial desire of the venue to clear the place for whatever they put on for the remainder of the night, was packed full of songs from across his four albums and was virtually free of chat, which can though sometimes add value to a touring artist’s show. Also on this note, he chose not to deliver the emotive prelude to ‘Devil, Devil’ which was a pity as ‘Princess Of Darkness’ is an excellent piece of prose showing Church’s master depth of genre interpretation. ‘Talladega’, my favourite track from the new album, was one of the four numbers from this release omitted off the set list but on the plus side it was great to get a decent balance of material from the four albums to date.

A new band to me, Cadillac Three, played a lively opening set with a raucous brand of Southern Rock that has been making waves with those who are a partial to venturing down this route of country music. They are certainly an acquired taste and from a personal angle would need further exploration to make a truly subjective comment on them. However this evening was all about the rise of Eric Church to the summit of the brand of country music which is under the jurisdiction of the Nashville majors. Country music has been guided and inspired by its outsiders for many decades and whether Eric Church joins the elite influential club remains to be seen. In the meantime the work-in-progress is highly promising and Eric Church has the gifts, craft and integrity to continue to set the agenda in steering the rock infused side of country music. His healthy UK fan base will continue to grow once word gets around and there was no doubt few complaints from this Manchester crowd.

Set List: Creepin, Cold One, That’s Damn Rock n Roll, Sinners Like Me, I’m Getting Stoned, Drink in My Hand, Give Me Back My Hometown, Jack Daniels (sampled with Livin' Part Of Life), A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, Dark Side, Devil Devil, Guys Like Me, Lotta Boot Left To Fill, Homeboy, These Boots, The Outsiders  Encore: Smoke A Little Smoke, Like A Wrecking Ball, Springsteen (sampled with I’m On Fire).

Beth Nielsen Chapman - Birmingham Town Hall Friday 28th February 2014

There have been two main strands to the career of Beth Nielsen Chapman, both immensely respected, and to the great delight of this Birmingham audience, both very much on display during this packed evening of high quality entertainment. The celebration of Beth as a very successful Nashville song writer is currently being honoured by the recent release of her rather good UNCOVERED album and the many fine songs from that record formed the centrepiece of her return to the city. When you take into account her fine voice and acclaimed other recordings which tended to be in a more Adult Contemporary style then this sophisticated mix lent itself to an enjoyable show.

The support Beth received from her core band of Martin Allcock on various guitars, Tripp Dudley on drums and the delightful Ruth Trimble on a variety of instruments ranging from bass, keys, piano and whistle helped make the evening a resounding success but the icing came from the support act Red Sky July. Not only did this talented trio play a wonderful opening set but remained onstage for most of Beth’s as well to generally provide harmony vocals and a touch of extra guitar.

Red Sky July are a relatively new name but comprising of seasoned artists such as husband and wife team Shelly Poole (Alisha’s Attic) and Ally McErlaine (Texas) with American Charity Hair completing the line-up. Together they delivered a harmony driven country folk sound which perfectly suited the girls’ vocals. Amongst a collection of original songs spanning their upcoming and previous releases, a sublime version of Donna Fargo’s 1970’s country hit ‘The Happiest Girl In The Whole Of The USA’ crowned a memorable performance to make many of the audience take serious note.

While on the subject of country music, it is that genre where Beth Nielsen Chapman had most commercial success with some of the very best performers cutting her songs of which many went to number one. In her own bubbly manner, Beth took great pleasure in enthusing about the background of each song and the stories that led to her acquaintance with artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill and Bonnie Raitt. The audience listened attentively and responded positively to most numbers but especially the big Faith Hill hit ‘This Kiss’ and the invited audience participation track ‘One In A Million’. Having giving this album a very favourable review at the start of the year and liking most of the tracks, it was difficult to pick a live highlight but the passion Beth shared regarding the writing therapy gained from composing ‘Simple Things’ during a period of recovering from a serious illness gave this song added understanding.

On a night of many high spots, there was one downside in missing out ‘Five Minutes’, my favourite song from UNCOVERED, but at least there was the opportunity to listen to her other material, much of it sung while playing the very grand in-house piano. Many of the audience were there to share the experience of these songs and her 1997 hit ‘Sand and Water’, a tribute to her late husband, probably had the best reception. The exceedingly talented Ruth Trimble took centre stage for one song and filled every inch of the elegant Town Hall with her beautifully delivered number ‘Goodbye’.  

Just to show her diversity and immense pride, Beth shared a couple of songs from her recently Grammy nominated children’s album, THE MIGHTY SKY, both delivered in an amusing and exuberant style. At the end of this rare and special evening we were left with an exquisite version of the Beach Boys classic ‘God Only Knows’ but the show really belonged to the songs from the talented and creative pen of Beth Nielsen Chapman. While this evening had a nostalgic and reflective feel to it, Beth is far too young to live on past glories and hopefully there is still much more outstanding new material to come. 

Set List: How We Love, All I Have, Here We Are, Strong Enough To Bend, Simple Things, Sweet Love Shine, Maybe That's All It Takes, Meet Me Halfway, Pray, One In A Million, Goodbye (Ruth Trimble), Test Re-Test and Verify, Rockin' Little Neutron Star (Both from The Mighty Sky), Emily, This Kiss, Nothing I Can Do About This Now, Almost Home    Encore: Sand And Water, God Only Knows.

Album review of UnCovered