Saturday, 28 June 2014

Kacey Musgraves - The Ritz, Manchester Friday 27th June 2014

Photo courtesy of PG Photography
Whilst recently browsing the online pages of No Depression, a comment was noted by a poster implying that Kacey Musgraves was leading the ‘fight for country music within the castle walls’. Regardless whether you have any opinion or not on the state of mainstream country, it is indisputable that the music flowing from this talented 25 year old Texan will challenge even the most ardent purist not to sit up and take notice. Kacey opened up this latest manoeuvre to build on her European fan base with a spellbinding show at a packed Ritz venue in Manchester and oozed with class throughout the entirety of her 85 minutes on stage.

Not only is Kacey extracting every ounce of brilliance from SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK in her stage show, her selected covers matched the moment and there is growing evidence that the classic album will be followed up in a similar vein. What struck me most about seeing Kacey for the first time is how she combined the roles of singer-song writing guitarist and acclaimed charismatic entertainer with such ease. Maybe the between song banter will evolve from mere saccharine irreverence to more incisive comment in time but at the moment the sophistication is in her lyrics and ability to further the cause of raising the bar for progressive country song writing.

The songs of SAME TRAILER were pristinely delivered by Kacey and her band in their own inimitable style with the crowd lending a hand to numerous tracks, no more fervently than the passionate closer ‘Follow Your Arrow’ and the designated classic ‘Merry Go Round’. One of the more under rated tracks off the album ‘It Is What It Is’ rose to prominence during the set as a venue not normally the domain of silence was utterly besotted by a pedal steel led song so demanding in its quest for audience respect. Poor old ‘Dandelion’ was the only omission from the set list as the excellent ‘Silver Lining’ graced the early stages and ‘My House’ acting as the pre-encore number. The performance of the latter saw the band form an arc around Kacey and her harmonica as the crowd responded enthusiastically to the infectious beat of this song’s rhythm.

To pay respects to the Queen of Country only a couple of days before they both improved the output from Glastonbury, Kacey looked every inch a protégé of Dolly when singing ‘Here You Come Again’. Her cover of the TLC hit ‘No Scrubs’ was a solitary blot on the evening as she edged into a style which didn’t connect, alternatively she put a smile on an awful lot of faces when sampling the Marley Classic ‘Three Little Birds’ in her own composition ‘Step Off’. It’s hard to class Miranda Lambert’s ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ as a cover as Kacey had a part in writing it but her encore version of the Nancy Sinatra standard ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ was simply stunning. Accompanied by a literally lit up band and Kacey’s own sparkling boots, the song opened with a near gothic groove until Kacey took over before she ultimately let the band complete it with a touch of ‘off the leash’ rock.

One of the high hopes from attending this gig was to get a glimpse of what the future holds for Kacey Musgraves. She admitted herself that a lot of new song writing had not taken place but was soon to be rectified. The You Tube clip of Kacey singing ‘The Trailer Song’ at the Opry has already aired this excellent country-drenched song to the online world and the news of its single release is the next big move for her. Make no mistake this song has the potential to thrill many country fans right across the spectrum and was one of the highlights of this special gig. A Manchester audience had already heard the unrecorded opening song ‘High Time’ when she played the city last October but the whole world was virtually getting ‘Cup of Tea’ previewed live for the first time. As you would expect, this song had instant appeal with an immediate positive crowd reaction.

Photo courtesy of PG Photography
Support act John and Jacob from Birmingham, Alabama opened the evening but unfortunately the M6 was not kind to a Friday night after work dash and only the last few songs of their lively set were heard. However there was a glow of positivity about their performance and ‘Be My Girl’ from the Nashville TV programme came across well.

If anybody was left unconvinced that Kacey is not the great unifying hope for country music then the band’s a capella rendition of the 1952 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans theme song ‘Happy Trails’ to end the show sealed the deal. Whether she’s writing cutting lyrics, representing the genre in a crossroads alliance with Katy Perry or engaging with an ever increasing audience base, Kacey Musgraves is propelling herself into the ‘A’ list of country music performers. If there is a battle to be fought, then the purists will have no finer ally within the industry. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Holly Williams - The Glee Club, Birmingham Tuesday 24th June 2014

When Harlan Howard coined the phrase ‘three chords and the truth’ to sum up country music, he encompassed the simplistic and honest approach many performers have to sharing their thoughts through song and music. Holly Williams is a shining example of how this style can be an absorbing and entertaining experience for audiences tuned into her wavelength. The Nashville based artist has finally brought her acclaimed 2013 album THE HIGHWAY to the UK in a series of headline shows and the Glee Club in Birmingham is representative of the numerous polite listening venues that will host her on this tour.

Without being too clichéd about Holly’s background, it is difficult to ignore the enormous influence this has on her music. Holly glows with pride at the hand she has been dealt with and this is an integral part of her live show. Whether it’s in lyrics referring to Grandpa, Cadillacs and events in January 1952 or an encore cover of ‘I Saw the Light’, the looming shadow of Hank is never too far away. However this should not detract from Holly being a fine performer in her own right and one addictively attracted to the thrill of being on the road performing live, which has long been her forte.

This latest tour sees Holly fast approaching motherhood but plans are already afoot to combine raising the next generation of the Williams clan with continuing to take her music to the fans. For this evening’s show, she was joined by her husband Chris Coleman on acoustic guitar and Annie Clements on electric upright bass. Chris was able to make this date, and the previous evening’s London show, by taking time out from his current role as drummer in the Kings of Leon. While the supporting roles helped Holly, she is just at ease on her own as demonstrated by a solo interlude where she sang ‘Alone’ and ‘Without You’ from the keyboard and the opening number ‘Sometimes’, which preluded the arrival of Chris and Annie.

For a long time Holly has been bracketed more in the folk style singer songwriter set of country music setting her apart from what has been deemed marketable by the Nashville elite. This hasn’t deterred Holly and her desire to continually craft high quality songs was reflected in the choice of two covers featured in the show – John Prine’s ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and a rather good version of ‘Clay Pigeons’ by Blaze Foley. This influence is clearly making its effect when you listen to many of the originals she played tonight including from the latest album ‘Drinkin’’, The Highway’ and ‘Gone Away From Me’.

Very few present would disagree with the show’s highlight as Holly turned the spotlight on her maternal grandparents with a stunning, tearful and emotional rendition of ‘Waiting on June’. This is a worthy closer on THE HIGHWAY and likewise brought the main set to a perfect climax prior to the Hank sing along finale that raised a bout of optimism after Holly, without apology, admitted she has a batch of rather sad songs. However subjects like a near fatal car crash (‘Without Jesus Here With Me’) and a friend’s addiction (‘Give It Up’), sum up where a lot of songwriter’s inspiration comes from.

The Kerouac styled free spirit and ability to convey her thoughts and emotions via song make Holly Williams an exceptional ambassador for country music in the 21st Century. Those present in the Glee Club’s studio room were exposed to an elite serving of southern charm amidst an artist who continues to do the right things well. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Dolly Parton - LG Arena, Birmingham Sunday 22nd June 2014

Is there a more consummate, complete and accomplished entertainer in country music than Dolly Parton? On the evidence of her performance during the UK leg of the Blue Smoke World Tour the answer is highly unlikely, although it would have greater credibility if an increased number of American arena acts were prepared to bring their lavish productions to this country.  Even then it would be tough to match the warmth and affection that radiates from Dolly as she eases her way through a back catalogue that reaches out far and beyond the genre of her roots.

A near capacity LG Arena rode the waves of her emotion throughout this two set show, allowing the sound of just a mere pin drop for the three part harmony unaccompanied ‘Little Sparrow’ and raising the roof for the unlikely anthem ‘9 to 5’. The span of interest in this latter song amazingly grows wider with each generation and is one of the main reasons that her stock in the UK has been propelled to arena level.

However the bedrock of Dolly’s appeal is the way she weaves the substance of her roots into the stage show and portrays a convincing portrait of how her Smoky Mountain upbringing formed the legendary artist that continues to sell out venues just a couple of years shy of her 70th year. There may have been better vocalists, more influential song writers and skilled musicians but the package Dolly puts together with an absorbing stage aura keeps the momentum going and the miles on the clock seem permanently halted. Of course a new record ensures a fresh approach and it was pleasing to hear so many tunes from BLUE SMOKE fill Birmingham’s premier concert arena.

Not that many of these songs were new to the wider world, as she savoured the song writing of Dylan with ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, re-ignited the traditional murder ballad ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and gave Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ a gospel makeover. While admittedly being a touch critical of the album version of the latter, it came across with far more appeal on stage. ‘Home’ and ‘Blue Smoke’ completed the compilation of newly recorded material as Dolly skilfully revisited the styles which helped shape a career that crossed over at several lucrative intervals.

For me the magic will always lie in the spirit of Appalachia with ‘Coat of Many Colours’, ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ and ‘Rocky Top’ leading the way as Dolly’s band superbly adapted their skills to breathe authenticity into a sound not too commonly heard in such a venue. The 9 piece band consisting of 3 backing vocalists, 2 guitarists, percussionist, bassist and a fiddle and keyboard player were clearly in a supporting role. There may have been scope to develop the instrumental side of the show especially with the bluegrass sound but any experimentation was left to Dolly as she tried her hand on numerous instruments including guitar, fiddle, lap steel, harmonica and banjo.

While for many the finale was the highlight, including the popular duet ‘Islands in the Stream’ and the soaring ballad ‘I Will Always Love You’, there was a segment in the second half where Dolly perfectly hit her groove with a medley led by, perhaps the finest performed song on the evening, ‘Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle To You’. As you would expect ‘Jolene’ and ‘Here You Come Again’ were met by rapturous approval as was the trademark non-discreet humour that Dolly has cleverly woven into her shows over the years.

Dolly Parton is an artist kept young by mutual love and it is a treasured experience that she can bring a raft of country music heritage to such a diverse audience. Her path may have led her in many different directions but there will always be more than a hint of Tennessee in her act and a trail has been set for other country artists to connect with Dolly Parton's UK fan base. 

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Massy Ferguson - Victory and Ruins Spark and Shine Records

For someone who grew up with the new wave sounds of post punk long before discovering Americana, it is exciting when you come across a new band which successfully manages to combine both styles so well.  First and foremost, Massy Ferguson are a rock band raised on crashing guitars and a driving beat but are not afraid to mix in a bit of refined country to shape their music in true American tradition. VICTORY & RUINS is the Seattle based band’s fifth studio album and a release which is being promoted in the UK via extended press and a debut tour.

For a record packed full of indie rock vibes, the track that perhaps stands out the most is one drenched in country sentiment. ‘Bring Back Something’ is a superbly constructed song which brings the pedal steel to the fore and is very reminiscent of their US compatriots from down the Pacific coast I See Hawks in LA. Another track to linger long in your mind is the outstanding ‘Hard Way’ where singer bassist Ethan Anderson contrasts his worn vocals with the beautiful tones of fellow Seattle artist, though now based in Austin, Zoe Muth. An enthusiastic Anderson pays tribute to this effortless contribution in the press release and it is a highly recommended track to sample online.

The basic album consists of eleven songs, all band originals, although a digital version has two bonus tracks including an amped up version of Gillian Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’. The remainder of VICTORY & RUINS rattles along at a lively pace as core band members Anderson, Adam Monda, Tony Mann and Dave Goedde rekindle the spirit of DIY pub rock albeit with strains of stadium band quality. Opening track ‘Hello’ greets listeners with a fairly safe rock format before the album ignites with ‘Renegade’, a number possessing all the power of the late 70’s suburban youth movement. Subsequent tracks ‘2 AM Beauty Queen’ and ‘Flexed-Arm Hang’ are very much in a similar vein and, as the record evolves, a similarity to the cow punk spearheaded by Jason and the Scorchers emerges with vibrant effect.

The band’s inaugural UK tour is a relatively low key introduction to this country but at least a mid- afternoon slot at the Maverick Festival will raise their profile amongst music fans prepared to embrace an explicit dose of Americana which Massy Ferguson undoubtedly possess. The album does have its more serene moments where listeners can regain their breath especially during ‘Wait Love Maybe’ and ‘Apartment Downtown’ but it’s the faster and countrified numbers which define the album’s worth.

Americana music in some quarters is described as primarily rock with a tinge of country and, although this definition is open to debate, Massy Ferguson gives the theory credence. Either way VICTORY & RUINS will create its own niche in the deluge of releases within this genre of music and ‘Bring Back Something’ will surely frequent end of year lists as one of 2014’s best songs.

Zoe Muth - World of Strangers Signature Sounds

Some musicians head for Nashville while others find the lure of Austin irresistible. Zoe Muth was probably always destined to end up in the ‘live music capital of world’, although she would not have been out of place in Music City. The decision to uproot from her Seattle home in the Pacific North West is starting to reap rewards as the release of WORLD OF STRANGERS signals a new chapter in making the transition from innocent promising songstress to complete artist. The words, tunes, melodies and ideas have always been in place but now Zoe has surrounded herself with the expertise to polish the sound without losing any of the passion to paint the canvas with song.

Zoe acknowledged the importance of her new team in “giving my songs new life” on the sleeve notes and the architect has proved to be producer George Reiff who obviously saw great potential in her three previous releases. Three noted contributions to the album included the vocals of Bruce Robison and Brandy Zdan as well as some violin from Dixie Chick/Court Yard Hound Martie Maguire. However these are just the tip of the iceberg as Zoe’s soothing vocals wrap themselves around loads of pedal steel, piano, organ, accordion and a variety of guitars provided by a comprehensive line up of musicians. The result is a sound swaying between country, folk and occasional tinges of light rock but significantly stamped with the mark of Muth’s musings and heart melting magic.

The ten track compilation will light up your day for 43 minutes, or longer if the temptation to repeat is bitten, and contains nine originals alongside a cover of Ronnie Lane’s ‘April Fool’. You can take your pick for stand out track but fans of classic country need look no further than the wonderful pairing of ‘Waltz of the Wayward Wind’ and ‘Mama Needs a Margarita’. The latter is a prime example of a lyrical master class and rivals Zoe’s other classic ‘If I Can’t Trust You with a Quarter (How Can I Trust You with My Heart)’ from a previous album, in her amazing ability to tell a simple tale in a sophisticated song. As explicitly referred to in the title, the other is your classic country waltz tune decorated with fine pedal steel.

There is an aching heartfelt quality to album closer ‘What Did You Come Back Here For’ which is graced by stellar keyboard work. As you would expect from a song writer who digs deep into her inner soul for inspiration, the subjects can be on the darker side so it’s unsurprising that frustration is the theme of ‘Make Me Change My Mind’ and loneliness crops up in ‘Somebody I Know’. There is an optimistic spring to the album opener ‘Little Piece of History’ which may well have its roots in her move to Texas back in January 2013 as referenced in the line ‘we put everything in boxes, left early on New Year’s Day'.

Of the remaining tracks ‘Annabelle’ is Zoe’s version of an epic, running at nearly six minutes and will no doubt have a story behind it when she takes this album on the road. The UK will get the opportunity to see Zoe live in October. There is a lively guitar induced beat to ‘Too Shiny’ providing evidence that Zoe can rock with the best of them when desiring to up the tempo. ‘Taken All You Wanted’ completes the album and once again sees Zoe draw on the subjects that country music does so well.

With its satisfying sweet sound and vocals oozing an air of familiarity, WORLD OF STRANGERS is trademark Zoe Muth and announces a development that is bringing her talents to fruition. You can call it country, Americana or folk but in essence this is a release to appeal to those in search of great writing, majestic musicianship and a voice lifted straight from the heart.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Delines - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 17th June 2014

Listening to the sound of country soul is an aesthetically pleasing experience and the current vogue for this style of Americana music is generating some extremely strong albums. On the back of excellent releases by the UK’s Danny and the Champions of the World and the US’s Shinyribs, The Delines have come up trumps with one of the year’s most atmospheric and mesmeric albums in COLFAX. It’s a double UK delight that the band, founded by Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin, are currently visiting this country to promote the launch of this debut record.

Midlands promoters Cosmic American had little reluctance to book the band and were rewarded with a near sell-out crowd in the Hare and Hounds’ smaller music room. To the great pleasure of the many knowledgeable music fans attending the show, COLFAX was played in its entirety and the band perfectly balanced the set by interspersing several contrasting tunes from outside the album thus keeping the overall performance fresh. The pin drop silence of respect to the vocals of Amy Boone and the buzz at the end of the show suggested an overwhelming approval to a project which hopefully may not be confined to a solitary release.

The story behind COLFAX indicates that the highly literate Vlautin had a plan to write a number of songs that suited the flawless vocals of Amy who for over a decade has been a leading light in the Austin music scene as the voice behind Damnation Tx. With a background steeped in the culture of alt-country, Vlautin had no hesitation in bringing in the horns, keys and pedal steel to give the sound a steer in a soulful direction. The ease of the transportation of the vibes of COLFAX from studio to the stage is a credit to the road band put together which included bassist Freddie Trujilo, Cory Gray on keys and trumpet and Vlautin’s fellow Richmond Fontaine percussionist Sean Oldham.

Prior to Willy, Amy and the boys filling the room with an hour and half of Americana bliss, Irish duo The Lost Brothers opened up with a set of two part harmony inspired folk songs backed by the fine pedal steel guitar talents of Dave Murphy. The guys had become acquainted with Willy while based in his home city of Portland, Oregon and proved to be the ideal warm up act. So impressed with the steel contribution of Murphy, he became the honorary missing piece of The Delines jigsaw for the evening when joining the band for the final third of the set. This segment included a couple of fantastic tracks not on COLFAX led by the limited release song ‘Slim and Margy’ (available only on a Record Store Day 45) and a cover of the Webb Pierce classic ‘There Stands the Glass’.

Also outside of COLFAX, Willy and Amy excelled as a vocal duo on the Dolorean number ‘What One Bottle Can Do’, while a new song during the encore, ‘Golden State’, indicated that there may be more to come from The Delines. Amy showed why she is such a respected artist in Austin, Texas with one of her songs ‘Heart, Trust and Pride’, while even Freddie stepped forward to sing a number from his solo work ‘Freddy Fender’.

However this night was all about COLFAX and right from the start, the hypnotic tones of ‘Calling In’, ‘Colfax Avenue’ and ‘The Oil Rigs at Night’ filled every crevice of the tightly packed room. The latter is the finest track on the record but after listening to the album live it was strongly rivalled by ‘Stateline’. The encore saw Amy stroll back on stage solo to deliver the Randy Newman song ‘Sandman’s Coming’ from the keyboard and as per the record, the closing moments belonged to ‘82nd Street’.

It is my prediction that COLFAX will grow and grow as an album and it was a privilege to be in a position to listen to an intimate performance of it. Willy Vlautin deserves every ounce of praise heading in his direction for inspiring The Delines project and Amy Boone is welcome back in Birmingham anytime to grace us with her vocals.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Kennedys + Edwina Hayes - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 15th June 2014

Maura and Edwina in full flow
With so much original music around, any tribute show needs to be different and special to raise an eyebrow above the mediocrity that often portrays this type of performance. Of course The Kennedys and Edwina Hayes are highly respected artists in their own right as well as possessing the perfect credentials to expertly interpret the songs of the legendary Nanci Griffith. There was an extra buzz about a sold out Kitchen Garden Café this evening as Pete and Maura Kennedy returned to a venue where they went down so well around a year ago. At the end of the evening, it was immaterial whether the audience were primarily fans of Nanci Griffiths, The Kennedys, or both, as a rapturous applause greeted two excellent sets by the duo.

The relationship between The Kennedys and Nanci goes back over 20 years, albeit on an irregular basis, although they are now in a period of being the cornerstone of her backing band. With Nanci taking a brief hiatus from touring and recording, Maura and Pete saw an opportunity to develop their own fan base in the UK by paying respects to an icon of Texas flavoured country/folk music. Edwina Hayes is more East Riding than East Texas but her pristine vocals have caught the ear of Nanci who decorated the Roses songbird as the ‘sweetest voice in England’. Edwina subsequently penned a beautiful ballad ‘Pour Me a Drink’ which Nanci cut on her 2009 album THE LOVING KIND. The version sung this evening was nestled amongst a collection of classics and did not sound a note out of place.

The Kennedys
Prior to Edwina joining Maura and Pete for an exalted set of finesse-laced three part harmonies, the New York based duo demonstrated their own advancement with a UK audience by playing a near all-request 30 minute opening slot. Alongside favourites such as ‘9th Street Billy’ and ‘Rhyme and Reason’, the duo previewed a track from Pete’s new guitar instrumental record, of which he elected to showcase the Jerry Reed tune ‘The Mad Russian’. While Pete’s breathless guitar playing talent was the highlight of last year’s Kennedys show, they tended to take more of a backseat on this occasion as the evening progressed with the charismatic charm and elegant vocals of Maura being the defining aspect of their stage presence.

After opening the main set with two Griffiths’ classics ‘Lone Star State of Mind’ and ‘Gulf Coast Highway’, two became three in the harmony stakes as Edwina joined the duo, although Pete tended to come more to the fore with the cutting guitar interludes. Edwina and Maura regularly swapped lead vocals as the audience had an insight to working with Nanci and to the background of some of the songs. With such outstanding versions being delivered of old favourites like ‘From a Distance’, ‘Listen to the Radio’ and ‘Trouble in the Fields’, they were a timely reminder of what great songs Nanci and her fellow collaborators have produced in the past. The evening ended on a special note for Maura as her own co-write with Nanci, ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’, invited a polite but enthusiastic bout of audience participation.

Along with Edwina leading the way with her writing contribution number, another major highlight was the tale Maura told of Nanci finally having the courage to sing ‘There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)’ on stage in New York following the death of her close friend featured in the song. Maura’s rendition was no less emotional but just eclipsed by the fabulous ‘Love at the Five and Dime’, a great Griffiths write almost taken to the top of the country charts by Kathy Mattea, as the night’s standout moment.

This was the final show of a twelve date tour, after which both Edwina Hayes and The Kennedys will go back to cultivating their own careers. However for just one night, a Birmingham audience was submerged in the next best thing to Nanci Griffiths returning to one of the city’s main venues.

Mauna on stage with Nanci singing 'Hell No (I'm Alright)'

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Maverick Festival 2014 - Preview

Once again the first weekend of July sees the most comprehensive collection of artists, best described as operating under the Americana banner, assemble in the delightful backdrop of rural Suffolk. While Summertyne and Southern Fried continue to establish themselves as premier events in the north, Maverick Festival sets the standard with regards to depth and variety. Close of 60 acts from both home and North America descend on the agricultural setting of Easton Farm Park to provide a festival experience that is unique amongst the throngs that crop up during our busy summer season.

The organisers have a canny knack of maximising the quality out of their modest budget and successfully conveying the notion that small can be beautiful. Not that size, chart positions and album sales bother the enthusiasts who travel from far and wide to the event, just the wonderful opportunity to catch so many niche favourites in one place and the high possibility of discovering some of the more up and coming artists added to the bill each year. Maverick certainly warrants its status as the number one event for Americana, roots and alt-country music in the UK.

Larkin Poe
It is always an anticipated wait to see which transatlantic artists have been booked and this year there are three who really stand out. In contrast to the booking of Mindy Smith last year, the organisers have been fortunate to choose a trio with a more established UK standing led by the acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. With her upcoming new album TROUBLE AND LOVE getting rave reviews, the influential Gauthier continues to garner acclaim and will no doubt inspire those present for her Saturday evening slot. 2014 will see a further development in the career of the Lovell Sisters, Megan and Rebecca, with their growing legion of fans curious to see what strand of Americana music is represented in the new Larkin Poe album. The trio is completed by Holly Williams who really began to fulfil her genetic promise with the excellent release of THE HIGHWAY in 2013.

Hannah Aldridge
The North American contingent this year is heavily US based as there is a markedly fewer number of Canadian artists to last year. However there are two intriguing acts that will surely go down well with UK audiences. Seattle based alt-country rock band Massy Ferguson are making their inaugural UK trip and after listening to their latest release VICTORY AND RUINS, Maverick Festival goers are in for exceptional treat. Although not quite on her first UK visit, Muscle Shoals favourite Hannah Aldridge will bring a thrilling blend of soulful country roots to the festival with her debut release RAZOR WIRE getting a positive verdict here.

There has been unfair criticism in the past of the festival being a continual procession of individual folk-style guitar playing acts but scanning the line-up this year suggests this is far from that perception. However that type of musician is an integral part of the Americana movement and it is with great delight that Robbie Hecht and David Berkeley have been booked. Both have released superb albums this year so why not re-live the thoughts on ROBBY HECHT and THE FIRE IN MY HEAD . A final US artist worth mentioning in this preview is the urban roots sound of Rebecca Pronsky and the Brooklyn based artist is looking to build on her tour to the UK last year including a Birmingham date reviewed here.

Danny and the Champions of the World
There is no intended offence in leaving the UK offering to last, although you could say that it is worth waiting a little for the best. The three rock infused acts of Peter Bruntnell, Dreaming Spires and Danny and the Champions of the World are worth a bulk of the modest entrance fee alone with the first two possessing a more Americana country rock sound while Danny has been a previous architect of folk rock and more recently a distinct country soul sound. The latter’s exquisite 2013 release STAY TRUE was given the accolade of this blog’s second best album last year.

One possible oversight from previous Maverick Festivals has been the lack of artists who have emerged from the UK’s strictly country scene. This year the festival have granted a slot to Ward Thomas who are part of a growing band of artists under a new country banner and have been attracting attention within the Nashville industry. It has been my view that more of these acts need to be represented at this festival and hopefully the duo will impress. At the other end of the UK country spectrum, the legendary veteran artist Hank Wangford brings his own inimitable style of exploring the dark underbelly of country to the Friday evening of Maverick. His set will surely include a few of the waltz tunes that lit up his most recent collection of songs in SAVE ME THE WALTZ.

As a follow up to last year’s initial Americana Music Association UK conference, there will once again be a gathering of industry artists, promoters, agents and press to discuss all things Americana in the hours before the festival kicks off around Friday teatime. Bob Harris will be addressing the conference in person this year instead of by video link and Mary Gauthier will be amongst the key note speakers. This embryonic industry body has also assumed control of the Peacock Café on Friday evening and are presenting a select montage of eclectic Americana artists. Two selections of particular interest are Jamie Freeman and the folk-Americana duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. The former produced a fine album last year with 100 MILES FROM TOWN getting a thumbs up here. While Philip and Hannah entertained a near capacity Birmingham audience back in March as documented in this review.

Whether it’s the outstanding music, luscious setting, laid back ambience or the authentic Suffolk food and drink on offer, the Maverick Festival is set up to ensure very few leave disappointed. Just one final warning though! It is yet to rain on my four previous visits to the Maverick Saturday but then again, this is Britain so no fate is being tempted. 

All artists are listed to play on the festival's website at time of publish

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Hatful of Rain - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 10th June 2014

Chloe and Phil 
While festivals can be a great place to sample live bands with their 40 minute sets, sometimes you just wish that the allotted time could be extended. So after seeing a couple of, far too short, Hatful of Rain sets at the last couple of Maverick Festivals, it was a pleasure to see the band find the time and resource to undertake some headline dates around the country. The Sussex based quartet have developed their own niche on the London and south coast folk n’ roots circuit with a pair of impressive album cuts but this brave venture north presents an opportunity for the band to widen  their brand of harmony driven–Americana influenced acoustic music.

Of course growing a live following outside your core area can take time and despite a slow ticket sale start, a highly respectable Kitchen Garden turnout soaked up this initial savouring of the Hatful’s talents. These are centred on the golden vocals of Chloe Overton, often playing foil to the harmony slots from Fred Gregory and Phil Jones, although the latter two occasionally take the role of lead vocal around the iconic single mic. All three show their adept skills on assorted string instruments ranging from bass to banjo to mandolin to guitar, all requiring not a single bolt of power. The energy comes from their blinding pickin’, all serenaded by the distinguished fiddle playing of James Shenton.

With the vocals and musicianship intact, the final piece of the jigsaw is the songs and Hatful of Rain come up trumps in this category with free flowing melodies and sharp lyrics bringing their thoughts and observations to life. Over the duration of this 90 minute show split across a pair of sets, the band served up nearly 20 tunes, of which a majority are originals and a couple of instrumentals driven by the fiddle playing of James. These included his own composition ‘Stranger’ taken from the band’s latest album and a French Canadian tune which the band ribbed James about him claiming it.

The band’s latest album, THE MORNING KEY, only came out in May and was unsurprisingly the focal point for this evening’s gig. It was particularly pleasing to hear the two stand-out tracks deep in the second set. ‘Good Way (To Make A Bad Man Worse)’ sounded as clear and inspiring as its album track recording while the spellbinding ‘One Promised Land’ delivered by three voices and a fiddle was a super closing moment. As per usual a backseat album track leaps forward on stage to live prominence and the delightful waltz ‘Cannot Be The One’, beautifully sung by Chloe, was this evening’s wild card treasure.

Chloe and Phil again (sorry Fred and James)
Hatful of Rain are a folk act shaped by a cross Atlantic theme and are as much influenced by bluegrass as to traditional English song. ‘Hop High’ and ‘Little Sadie’ fell into the latter camp while Fred’s ‘Superman’ saw the song’s subject get a bluegrass makeover. The whistles and hurdy gurdy may have been missing from the evening’s finale but the rousing ‘Little Bird’ enabled the audience to depart with a toe tapping spritely number lingering in their ears.

The band didn’t desert their debut album totally and its title track ‘Way Up On The Hill’ opened the second half to show the slightly haunting side to their sound. On a lighter note, the album’s ‘Strawberry Leaves’ is chock full of sweet appeal and ‘The Exit Song’ shows the band at their elegant best. It was hard to fault any of the evening’s selections and the superb brickwork acoustics of the Kitchen Garden Café reverberated once again to some majestic roots music.

One can only hope that this venture around the country sparks a sufficient level of interest to enable Hatful of Rain to make regular excursions from their southern base. They are far too good to be the south coast’s best kept secret and certainly challenge those in their presence not to be disappointed. The 40 minute sets are fine but the 90 minutes shows are a whole lot better.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Dolly Parton - Blue Smoke/Best of Sony Masterworks

Dolly Parton has long been an intriguing artist on the country music scene. While her roots are unquestionable, it is perhaps the crossover appeal which has led to her massive genre reach especially here in the UK. No other artist steeped in East Tennessee heritage will attract the numbers to her live shows when the Blue Smoke World Tour hits these shores in June. This will be extended to the now entrenched oldie Glastonbury slot which I have never felt truly comfortable with, although the commercially savvy Dolly will embrace the masses waiting for their mainstream rock fix. Quite where Dolly Parton’s new material sits amongst her admirers is unsure and with this in mind, the UK release of BLUE SMOKE has been conveniently packaged with a re-released BEST OF compilation.

BLUE SMOKE is Dolly’s 42nd studio album and like so much of her back catalogue is put together with an astute cleverness.This ranges from a couple of neo generational duets with two other artists who she is following in the previously mentioned Glastonbury oldie late afternoon slot to some more curious cuts. Her duets with Kenny Rogers have been hugely successful in the past and the inclusion of ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ is going to be a sure fire hit on this record and also was released as a single last year. The other classic collaboration is with Willie Nelson on ‘From Here To The Moon And Back’, a fine song which melts two of country music’s most distinguished voices which, although a touch diminished by time, still possess that old magic sparkle.

Two of the more interesting tracks on the album see ‘Dolly Does Dylan’ on the latter’s classic song ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and a spellbinding version of the much recorded traditional murder ballad ‘Banks of the Ohio’. Both these arrangements work really well and Dolly adds her own imprint on their legendary status. Another couple of decent tracks on the album have a definite contemporary twist to them with both ‘Home’ and ‘Try’ not sounding far too adrift from what you would expect from any number of female country performers 20 years the junior of Dolly.

However not all of BLUE SMOKE works and the less said about the Bon Jovi cover ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ the better as Dolly tries to stretch her appeal a little too far and suitably snaps. Also ‘Lover Du Jour’ has a cringe worthy feel to it which limits the effect of the track. However the other four songs are all Parton originals and show that Dolly can still be relevant with her new material and not be confined to a karaoke retro machine. The title track ‘Blue Smoke’ has a great feel to it and rolls along in true country tradition while ‘Miss You Miss Me’ has all the sentimental and traditional traits that over the years have defined country music.

Of the remaining tracks ‘If I Had Wings’ gives the impression of borrowing its title from some other song but with implicit orchestrated fiddle develops into a highly appealing number. This review has saved the best until last as ‘Unlikely Angel’ in my opinion is the album’s unlikely stand out track. With all the structure of a Dolly classic and a soaring emotive chorus, this song blends the best of gospel with the roots infused origins of Dolly’s upbringing. It is tracks like these which still make the new music of Dolly Parton important and rich.

BLUE SMOKE has sufficient depth and quality to match up well with the classic material but the coyness of the European twin release shows a leaning to what is perceived her fan base really wants. Hopefully amongst the populist stream a few of these numbers can make the set list this summer and keep the music of Dolly Parton fresh.

Dennis Ellsworth - Hazy Sunshine Busted Flat Records

The term Canadiana doesn’t appear to have yet filtered into the lexicon of music genres like its southern neighbourly counterpart but if it did then Dennis Ellsworth would be amongst its first inductees. The Prince Edward Island native surfaced in the UK last year with the excellent DUSK DREAMS and played a storming set at the Maverick Festival which was acknowledged by this site as being one of the weekend’s highlights. Dennis is set to build on the appreciation he received with the release of this follow up album which is a more introspective piece of work than its predecessor. Furthermore HAZY SUNSHINE is a stirring selection of sophisticated songs drawing its influence from a multitude of sources and extolling a variety of moods.

Dennis name checks one of his influences in the album’s most striking song title ‘Harry Nilsson’s Heart’ but a key similar vocal style to Elvis Costello is a more pertinent feature to the record in its early stages. This opening segment possesses all the hallmarks of mature country rock as Dennis sandwiches the album’s stand out track ‘Coke Machine Glow’ between the jaunty violin laced opener ‘Things I Want’ and a more standard soft rocker ‘Let It All Out’. This stand out track is one of two co-writes to supplement the solitary song writing of Ellsworth and the swirling guitar piece towards the end ignites this super little number.

The aforementioned violin and its viola relative play a significant part on the album’s instrumentation especially on the quieter numbers where an air of sensitivity is added to the sound. ‘If I Find the Truth’ shows Dennis as the master of the single guitar and solo voice until he lets the more classical string arrangements take control. He adopts a more philosophical mood to his writing on the rather dark ‘Rudderless Day’ which is followed by the equally mellow ‘Hazy Sunshine’, a moment when your senses are set free to roam. As the album meanders its way to the exit door this tender style returns with ‘Silver Tears’ and more violin added to the closer ‘Can’t Turn To You’.

It is within this final number where Dennis peels back some of the pretence to his song writing with the killer line ‘So I will glue my heart to you’. Elsewhere the writing can be a complex collection of candid and cryptic compositions yet nonetheless appealing and implanting a desire to explore the wares of his musical craft. As was in evidence at last year’s Maverick set, Dennis is probably at his peak during the faster tempo numbers where he draws on his influences from such diverse sources as folk, indie, country and punk rock. ‘Paradise’ probably has a greater folk rock tinge to its structure while ‘Happiness’ could quite easily re-appear on a more explicit country release. The remaining track to be mentioned is ‘Everything’s Fine’ where a lovely keyboard intro spices up a classic singer-songwriter offering to rival some of his influences referred to in the press release.

HAZY SUNSHINE is a spiralling journey of mood style and tempo but is still a compelling if somewhat complex listening experience. Yet the commitment Dennis Ellsworth shows to his music is unrivalled and will continue to engage followers far and wide from his Atlantic Maritime base. Those in the UK are enjoying this first hand and the release of the new record will entice a few more to understand an artist beginning to blossom.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

John Fullbright - The Glee Club, Birmingham Tuesday 3rd June 2014

John at Calgary Folk Festival in 2013
Not only has John Fullbright managed to follow up his Grammy nominated debut album with a super new release, but his stage presence and live show has moved up a level since he played his first UK dates just over a year ago. Whether initially on guitar, intermittently on harmonica or increasingly on piano, the modern day Okie from Okemah gave a compulsive captivating performance to a packed Birmingham crowd in the Glee Club’s studio room. The vocals were intense and domineering, the musicianship was majestic and moving as John delivered a set rich in finely crafted songs with an understandable slight bias towards the new material subject to upcoming release.

While it was a pity that the new record SONGS wasn’t available for folks to pick up on the night, the appetite to savour these tunes on a recurring basis was well and truly whetted as John played the perfect introductory showcase to many hearing these songs for the first time. Having been fortunate to receive an advance copy, the live version gave many of the songs an added dimension especially with a jaw dropping rendition of all 7:38 minutes of ‘High Road’ to close the main set. By this time John looked seemingly settled on the piano, including trying out a version of the popular ‘Gawd Above’ on the keys. However the epic performance of 'High Road' elevated this album track to monumental live status and brought the evening to a peak which John came close to surpassing in the encore with a blues-laced barnstorming version of the Bessie Smith famed classic ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’.

This was the third occasion of seeing John live and the ease of his informative onstage banter has markedly grown to reveal more of what makes a great singer-songwriter tick. Obviously there was a tilt towards his home state especially with a graphic explanation of a favourite Oklahoma past time of noodling catfish. Most of the audience were familiar with the tracks off his celebrated first album and we learned of his experience of playing ‘Satan and St Paul’ in the title’s twin city of Minneapolis. While we also enjoyed ‘Fat Man’ and the wonderful ‘All the Time in the World’ from this album, the evening was easily based around the introduction of SONGS.

Photo by Vicki Farmer
Right from the off, this time on guitar, John launched straight into ‘Write a Song’ and weaved through a bulk of the album with notable versions of ‘Happy’, ‘Going Home’ and the beautiful tale of long distance love ‘The One That Lives Too Far’. Although on the surface the new material was more of a similar quality to what the industry had rejoiced in FROM THE GROUND UP, listening live they came across as more thoughtful and introspective numbers that suited perfectly John’s individual style of delivery. Last year John had toured with Terry Ware but this evening you never felt that a sidekick was missing as every inch of the intimate venue was owned by imposing music of John Fullbright.

To round off a comprehensive set list, ‘Until You Were Gone ,’Keeping Hope Alive’, ‘When You’re Here’ and ‘Never Cry Again’ were more proof of the special qualities that will make SONGS a must have album when released while John celebrated the work of Don McLean with a cover of one of his earlier album tracks ‘Bronco Bill’s Lament’. The only other recalled song on this evening was ‘Unlocked Doors’ which surfaced on John’s LIVE AT THE BLUE DOOR album.

Prior to John taking the stage, Birmingham welcomed back Jarrod Dickenson to play a set of impeccable US style folk songs straight from the guitar and pen of this exiled Texan now based in New York. Among the offering to more than warm up the appreciative audience was the earthy ‘No Work For a Working Man’, the up tempo ‘Little Black Dress’ and the tender ‘Come What May’. Jarrod was previously a Birmingham guest of promoters Cosmic American at the Diana Jones show in March and is a cut above most opening acts on the circuit.

The decision of the promoters to bring John Fullbright to Birmingham on this second night of the tour was immensely successful and the good news is that John is making a couple of visits to Britain this summer with dates being continually added. On the evidence of this evening, many more people will get to enjoy the talents of John Fullbright and can eventually further savour his music by adding SONGS to their collection. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Miranda Lambert - Platinum Sony Music Entertainment

Since the release of Miranda Lambert’s last album in 2011, the bar for Music Row’s female output has been raised considerably higher. So the challenge was set for Miranda to respond to the albums of Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark and Lambert’s own collaboration project, the Pistol Annies. Each of these records eclipsed those of their male counterparts in 2013 and the good news is that PLATINUM is set to do likewise this year. 

Although this fifth studio album by Miranda is comfortably her most accomplished release to date, a desire to cover all bases has slightly restricted its march to classic status and, at 16 tracks, has exceeded the optimum number of songs to make a truly definitive album. Yet there is sufficient substance in PLATINUM to suggest that Miranda has the talent to impart her influence right across the country music spectrum.

On her previous albums, Miranda has not shied away from a stab at the traditional angle with covers of Gillian Welch and John Prine songs along with some classic country style originals. Right at the heartbeat of PLATINUM are three exceptional tracks which set a marker as to how contemporary country music can harness the magical sound of the past. Quite whether ‘Old Shit’ and ‘Gravity is a Bitch’ will get any radio play is debatable but they’re getting plenty of airtime in this household. The latter sees the album swing in a jazz direction, just one of the many genres woven into PLATINUM’s fabric. One old time number already getting UK air play by Bob Harris is the collaboration with the Time Jumpers on a Tom T. Hall/Dixie Hall song ‘All That’s Left’. This infectious Western Swing number ideally suits Miranda’s sassy Texas drawl and shows how well she can adapt to different styles.

Such is the wealth of top quality material on the album, I don’t want to dwell too much on the songs that haven’t really matched the high standards of the majority but ‘Somethin' Bad’ really belongs on a record of her duet partner Carrie Underwood, ‘Platinum’ is a little lacklustre and ‘Too Rings Shy’ is a touch messy. The latter is a shame as the normally brilliant writer Brandy Clark is among its composers.

On the subject of song writing, PLATINUM is full of clever, explicit and clear lyrics without any air of pretension. Miranda has had a hand in writing most of the songs including a solo effort ‘Bathroom Sink’ which musically is one of the tracks to veer in a rock direction. Miranda’s song writing is still an area for development but a recent social media Q&A session revealed her current listening experiences to include the outstanding young Americana singer-songwriter John Fullbright. So she is not far away from a seriously good influence. The best lyric from the album comes from its stand out track. ‘Too soon to be a mother and father but too late for the alma mater’ is a line straight from a Kacey Musgraves style song and ‘Babies Makin’ Babies’, with its wonderful verse and chorus construction, shows Miranda can match social commentary with ear pleasing  appeal.

The lead- off single ‘Automatic’ has had plenty of press since its release and this radio friendly track possesses a growing quality. A hint of the Dixie Chicks at their peak can be detected in the song which reflects on a common country music theme of nostalgia. The same topic is the subject of the Little Big Town collaboration ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ which like the Carrie duet track probably will have more appeal on one of the band’s albums. The song has a slightly languid feel to it but will at least have sufficient merit for fans of the quartet.

Among the many high spots on the record is where Miranda blends a little soul into her country with the super Ashley Monroe co-write ‘Holding On to You’. As you would expect the lyrical content is top notch and you can imagine a subtle dose of brass being added to raise the soul stakes. Ashley also contributes to the album closer, a quintessential take on the south from the usual Sunday morning viewpoint. ‘Another Sunday in the South’ and its listings neighbour ‘Hard Staying Sober’ are pretty much country music staple and showcase Miranda at what she does best.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Girls’ is a solid and safe choice to open the album, while in contrast ‘Little Red Wagon’ sees Miranda move into more risky territory. This track will have a tendency to divide opinion which from my point of view has some strong rockabilly and extremely sassy vibes but falls a little short in its chorus appeal. The final track under scrutiny has been a tough one to analyse but ultimately ‘Priscilla’ got the nod after understanding the sentiment behind it and putting a value on the guitar intro. Quite whether Miranda and Blake have the same media scrutiny as the subjects of the song is questionable but the track is well put together and would have been more prominent on a lesser album.

The sparkling early innocent promise of Miranda Lambert’s first two albums is starting to blossom. PLATINUM is also a major leap forward from the two recent albums which fluctuated from outstanding to patchy in their content. One thing certain is that this latest record will provoke debate and scrutiny within country music circles. It seems Miranda has the blessing from the industry to experiment and this is possibly the most refreshing aspect of the project. PLATIMUM is an outstanding record but the good news is that the definitive and classic album from Miranda Lambert is still to come.

Sam Baker - Elford Village Hall, Staffordshire Saturday 31st May 2014

If you want a modern singer-songwriter to personify the famous 1940s song ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’, then you need to look no further than the mesmeric poetic anecdotes of Sam Baker. In some respect the vocals and music are mere accomplices as Sam is very much a wordsmith able to deliver his thoughts with an alluring appeal. Once again the guys from Hot Burrito Promotions did a tremendous job in rallying close on 100 people from near and far to Elford Village Hall in the Staffordshire countryside. Although when you’re promoting an artist as good and popular as Sam Baker then you’ve got a pretty good head start.

Sam was making a return to this rural venue, although for the first time since SAY GRACE was released last summer. However he gauged the knowledgeable audience well and successfully carried out an all request second set to what was a near 2 hour show. As you would expect from an experienced Texan troubadour the songs were interspersed with relaxed humorous audience banter and the stories behind some of the songs. Whether or not you had seen Sam live before, keen fans would have heard or read about his incident in Peru many years ago and true to form the track ‘Broken Fingers’ followed the heart breaking tale of the people he met and lost on that fatal train trip in South America.

While you can reel off a multitude of contemporary artists operating out of Texas in the same vein as Sam such as Robert Earl Keen, Tom Russell, Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard, it is probably James McMurtry who is most alike in sound. Sam made reference to a couple of his heroes in the set by revealing how ‘Migrants’ had a similar theme to the Woody Guthrie song ‘Deportees’. Also he chose to open the evening with a version of a 1994 Johnny Cash track ‘Drive On’ but this is where the covers ended as Sam has so much rich original material from his four albums that have surfaced since he got his break as a recording artist in 2004.

Sam gave a nod to Bob Harris, who has championed so many Texan/Americana artists in the last decade, but like so many inspirational song writers he doesn’t forget his roots and in particular his days working in construction as highlighted in ‘Ditch’. Over the course of the evening, which received stand up rapturous applause at the end, Sam featured songs from all his albums but particularly focussing on MERCY, PRETTY WORLD and SAY GRACE. The highlight from the first set was ‘Slots’ as Sam took a little time to get into his rhythm. The second set saw Sam get right into the groove as he reeled off requested song after song with notable performances being of ‘Baseball’, ‘Say Grace’, ‘Signs’ and ‘Angels'.

Obviously a travelling troubadour eventually has to say farewell to their temporary home and Sam had the perfect sign off track in ‘Go in Peace’. No doubt many in the audience will keep their fingers crossed for a return in the future but Sam is the sort of artist who attracts individual fans to more than one of his shows. Texas has long been a fertile ground for singer-songwriter talent and Sam Baker does his home state proud. For a brief couple of hours on this Saturday evening, Elford was well and truly transported to ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

Set List – Drive On: Slots: White Heat: Isn’t Love Great: Sweetly Undone: Psychic: Migrants: Ditch: Baseball: Boxes: Thursday: Say Grace: Kitchen: Signs: Waves: Broken Fingers: Angels  Encore – Mennonite: Iron: Go in Peace