Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Shires - The Institute, Birmingham Wednesday 30th July 2014

UK new 'country' duo The Shires have been presented with an unprecedented opportunity to make a well backed record that could take this modern genre of music in this country into unchartered territory. Formed a little over a year ago and now under the wing of Decca Records, the duo of Chrissie Rhodes and Ben Earle are being targeted at taking on the country pop wing of Nashville’s mainstream elite at their own game. In preparation for their upcoming debut album release, The Shires have undertaken a few UK dates to add some experience to the media adulation being bestowed upon them. As a consequence, the upstairs room at Birmingham’s established Institute venue was well attended with an audience intrigued to find out more about the band.

Opening up for The Shires on this short tour was young singer songwriter Frankie Davies who played an half hour set of acoustic driven country music with a slight edge and no little heart. There was a flicker of maturity in her performance which benefitted from an impressive vocal range, solid guitar playing and an enterprising enthusiasm for her music. Not afraid from sharing the intimate inspiration for her art, Frankie struck the right chord for what is needed to interpret and tap into high quality country music. The moving ‘Superman’ is her current framed gift to the music world and this was well supported on the evening by a song recalled to be ‘High Love’ and the excellent ‘Dancing All Night’. Perhaps it was the commitment after several years to conquer the ‘Highwayman’ and play this iconic song live which more than most showed Frankie’s intent to make inroads on the country music circuit.

Chrissie and Ben are not short of experience in their individual music endeavours and they have to quickly draw on this to match the pace of their rapid evolution as The Shires. The hour long set they played in Birmingham was packed with original material that weaved in a host of personal inspiration alongside designated strategically targeted material. The vocals of Chrissie are highly suited to the style of music being desired as she can effortlessly move into power mode. Ben is a determined songwriter who is at ease delivering his songs both from guitar and keyboards.

Frankie Davies
Of the two singles released to date, and obviously both featured in the set, ‘Tonight’ outshone ‘Nashville Under Grey Skies’ and one can envisage the day when a backing band takes the live rendition of the former into a higher stratosphere than the Institute’s Temple room. While you feel the numbers ‘Made in England’, ‘Stateline’ and their take on the country staple of drinking whiskey are a little contrived, there is an enormous depth of sincerity to ‘I Just Wanna Love You’, ‘Black and White’ and a song belatedly added to the set list believed to be ‘Only Midnight’.

With a determination to steer clear of country covers and develop a reputation as a strong song writing duo, the couple only strayed into the works of others for their solitary encore number and strikingly stripped down Candi Staton’s dance classic ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ to a slow acoustic ballad. With the new album out soon, the wait will almost be over to see if The Shires can meet the lofty ideals of those prepared to invest in their talents. As a duo, they haven’t had the benefit of a serious grounding via a heap of career shaping gigs and soul searching indie releases but they have the chance of a lifetime to fulfil their individual personal goals of making waves in the music industry. 

Check out Frankie on Facebook

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Rising - Coming Home Renegrade Maverick Records

There can be a fine line at the point where country and Americana music merge into a straightforward mainstream rock sound. Belfast based band The Rising have demonstrated knowing its precise location and suitably positioned their album to pitch to listeners from those genres rather than the minefield of bland radio fodder. Make no mistake COMING HOME is a belt and braces rock album full of crashing guitars, riffs and solos but it also toys with some of the sounds emanating from Nashville’s stadium crop and the more indie elements that fuel the alt country music scene.

The intention behind this release was to adopt a more roots rock stance leading to guitarist Chris Logan adding banjo and mandolin to his armoury, although their influence can be a touch tricky to detect. What are undeniable are the raw passion, energy and integrity that exists within the ten songs that race along at a breathless pace. The Rising are effectively a slimmed down version of a deceased band formerly known as Exit with vocalist Tristan Harris and bassist Andy Morgan joining Logan to complete the trio.

The band hasn’t lost the knack of pursuing airplay with a rousing chorus attaching itself to the lead off track ‘Calling You’. However there are more substantial moments on the album such as the angry vocals bringing ‘Break the Chains’ to life and the more melodic ‘City by the Sea’. Although the stand out track ‘Highway to the Lost and Found’ possesses all the drive and emotion of new wave with more than a passing resemblance to Jason and the Scorchers firing on all cylinders.

The Nashville effect is in evidence on the track ‘Still Coming Home to You’ which is very much in the same vein sound wise as Keith Urban. As Music City was one of the recording locations alongside Los Angeles and Belfast, this is unsurprising but probably a result of working with Grammy Award winning engineer Hank Williams who numbers Urban amongst his clients. The press release is quick to namecheck Springsteen but there are definite traces of late 80s U2 in the backbeat to ‘Dreaming & Scheming’.

The final four tracks on the album never quite reach the same heights as the opening half a dozen as they occasionally wander into classic rock territory and some of the raw energy is lost. ‘Shadows on the Wall’ is probably the pick of this segment as the album switches to stadium and festival mode with the finale of ‘Return to the Moon’ especially skirting epic status.

COMING HOME by The Rising is a record that appears to have accomplished its objectives in the making. The challenge is now to engage the music listening public whose tastes are ready to savour this brand of rock music. Many from the country, roots and Americana genre who are ready to push boundaries in their listening habits will find merit in the release whether they seek a straightforward guitar bashing sound or something with a little more edge. 

Red Molly - The Red Album Self Released

The Americana genre could well have evolved out of THE RED ALBUM by Red Molly. This potpourri of American roots music is wonderfully sang, exquisitely played and superbly assembled. It strikingly disproves the theory that different styles can be accommodated without being mastered. Listen carefully, which is mandatory, and influences of blues, rock, soul, jazz, country, folk, gospel and pop can be detected, all capturing the true spirit of Americana.

Red Molly has been in existence for ten years with the present trio being in place since 2010 when Molly Venter (guitar) joined Laurie MacAllister (bass) and Abbie Gardner (dobro). This latest release hit their home stateside market in late spring and gets its formal UK introduction on August 25. The added bonus for old and new fans alike is that the band are due to make their inaugural UK visit in October for a series of live dates and seal this welcome expansion into our market.

Produced in Nashville under the guidance of former Wilco and Uncle Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer, the girls have settled on a winning formula of eight originals and five covers of which the self writes match up exceedingly well against the more established numbers. The two most recognisable covers reflect the different ends of the folk spectrum as the works of Richard Thompson and Simon and Garfunkel are celebrated. Their version of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ is long overdue for a band basing their name on a character from the lyrics and the bluegrass makeover with a stunning dobro intro does this destiny song full justice. ‘Homeward Bound’ is a conservative song to cover but a slight pause on the main chorus line and gorgeous vocals give this version credibility.

Photo by Whitney Kidder
Rather than dwell too much on the excellent covers, let’s focus more on the originals which have primarily come from the pen of Molly and Abbie. The record contains a pair of fantastic songs Abbie has written on the back of the Real Women-Real Songs project. ‘You Don’t Have The Heart For It’ is the Red Molly take on classic country and with stellar pedal steel, this tear jerker works to a tee. ‘Lay Your Burden Down’ is the other track, with a gospel flavour and inspirational qualities. Molly herself excels on three solo writing contributions including the rock n’ soul sounding ‘My Baby Loves Me’, ‘I Am Listening’ with its indie pop vibes and the tender harmonious ballad ‘Sing To Me’.

Several other key artists in the Americana world feature in the writing with Jonathon Byrd teaming up with Abbie to pen the jazzy blues sassy number ‘When It’s All Wrong’, while the Mark Erelli song ‘Pretend’ has all the show time trappings complete with brass. You won’t go far wrong with the inclusion of a Daryl Scott song and, with its excellent guitar accompaniment and folk Americana sound, ‘With a Memory Like Mine’ creates its own niche on the record.

Photo by Whitney Kidder
Hopefully by now the flavours of this record are starting to fill the air and the final three tracks to mention each make their own mark on the album. ‘Willow Tree’ is a co-write between Molly and Eben Pariser while another gospel influenced song opens the album in the A.J. Roach penned ‘Clinch River Blues’. Just when you think that the ‘a cappella’ style has been left out, the girls ditch the instruments for the final song and let their harmonies drool over ‘Copper Ponies’.

The excellent sleeve notes accompanying this release really help you understand what Red Molly are all about and extensive listens to THE RED ALBUM confirm why they are held in such esteem back in the US. This record is a joy to be acquainted with and the band’s long overdue venture into the UK market will be one of the autumn highlights.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Vena Portae - Vena Portae Label:Humble Soul

Although the name Vena Portae is new, it barely took a few bars into the first song to recognise the distinctive vocals of Emily Barker. Not wanting to confine herself to a solitary project, Emily has temporarily put the Red Clay Halo Band on one side for a short period to concentrate on this collaboration described in its press release as an ‘Anglo Swedish alt-folk band’. This self-titled debut album is an explorative effort full of melodious moments, beautifully sung and underpinned by a strong roots sound.

The evocative album cover and recording in a Swedish winter location suggested an element of darkness to reflect the harshness of the environment but this is a far from noir sound as a breezy thread weaves the refined folk sentiments with a concoction of roots infused instruments. The opening lead track and single ‘Summer Kills’ succeeds in endearing your musical senses, sets the tone for a record which demands attention and is a subtle link to the Americana vibes Emily captured so well on her acclaimed DEAR RIVER album.

The soothing brass sound of trumpet adorns the opening track and later competes with a multitude of other instruments ranging from banjo, piano, guitars and traces of blues laced harmonica. This latter sound appears on the slightly upbeat second track ‘Before the Winter Came’ which lightens the mood with some engaging interludes.

At this point it is polite to introduce the architects of the Vena Portae project which include British songwriter-theatre maker Dom Coyote and acclaimed Swedish artist Ruben Engzell. Emily herself now has very strong UK roots since her formative years spent in Australia and is quite content to share the vocals across the album in contrast to her previous solo and band projects. Without doing disservice to the gents, the strength of the album is erected on a pair of contrasting mid record tracks in ‘Transatlantic’ and ‘Flames and Fury’, both graced by Emily’s vocals. The former is a subtle, intrinsic number mixing harmonica and banjo, while the latter has a far more dominant vocal presence almost matching the mood of the title.

The mellow undercurrents on this debut self-titled album stem from the soft male vocals especially on ‘Solitary Wives’ and the duet with Christian Kjellvander on the final track ‘All Will Be Well’. Christian also appears on the nautical folk induced number ‘The Mapless Sea’ while a similar style prevails on the duet ‘Magpie’s Carol’. Of the remaining tracks ‘Foal’ possesses a good beat and an excellent harmony approach to the song, while the banjo gives a roots feel to ‘Stingrays’. ‘Turning Key’ completes this eleven track compilation with more folk sensibilities but always positioning itself on the alt side of the genre.

Emily’s strong commitment to touring is extended to Vena Portae and as soon as the record is released the band hit the UK for several late summer dates at some of our more refined listening venues including the Union Music Store, Square Tower, Green Note and Kitchen Garden Café. The anticipated addition of Jesper Jonsson on percussion makes the live listening of this album an even more enticing experience. The Red Clay Halo are back on the road later in the autumn but there is no more rewarding moment than letting the sweet acoustic drift of Vena Portae submerge your senses and spending a little time endorsing this project.

Vena Portae Facebook Page

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Sturgill Simpson - Bush Hall, London Thursday 24th July 2014

He draws on the depth of the blues; He sings the folk songs of the land. However most of all, Sturgill Simpson understands country music and performs it right from the inner sanctum of its very soul. He is unassuming and without pretence with a stolid humility grateful for the gift he has been presented and the current wave of adulation being bestowed upon him. On the back of a storming performance on the David Letterman show back home, Sturgill has once again returned to the UK for a further string of dates and is set to continue to adhere himself with our country music fan base.

Sturgill Simpson
The quaint and slightly worn grandeur surroundings of London’s Bush Hall steamed in a sultry environment more akin to a mid-west summer’s evening as Sturgill strode on to the stage backed by his newly acquainted sidekicks for this tour, Scotland’s very own Daniel Meade and Lloyd Reid. For the next hour and a quarter, a near sold out crowd had a glimpse of honky tonk heaven with Sturgill blowing away the notion that the past is irrelevant in 2014. The seamless mix of complementary covers and sizzling originals raised the tempo in a heady hall possibly reminiscent of venues in Bakersfield, Austin, Nashville and no doubt many in Simpson’s home state of Kentucky.

Daniel Meade
Life of Sin’, ‘Long White Line’ and ‘The Promise’, the latter an interesting cover of an 80s minor UK pop hit by When in Rome, all demonstrated why METAMODERN  SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC is raking in the praise from ‘the good and the wise’, while Sturgill himself showed no restraint in doing likewise to Lefty Frizzell. While he was slightly surprised to the general lack of awareness in the UK pop song he countrified, there was no such puzzlement when he introduced Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ as one for the ladies.

Prior to providing stellar support for Sturgill, Daniel and Lloyd played an exciting opening set to create the perfect environment for an evening of classic country indulgence. Fresh from making a record in the presence of the Old Crow Medicine Show in the US, Daniel played a straight acoustic driven lead role very much in the style of Justin Townes Earle, with Ian providing reams of guitar mastery. The latter continued in the same vein when backing Sturgill while Daniel reverted to the ambient evoking keyboards. The duo’s original material is worthy of a fuller press and their ‘it would be rude not to celebrate Hank’ version of ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ had the early arrivals tapping and singing along.

Lloyd Reid
On the topic of iconic songs, it may be a little early to laud Sturgill’s ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ in a similar light but as one of the year’s most talked about tracks, it continued to further intrigue this evening. Having teased the audience with the possibility of yet another explanation to this cosmic inducing number, Sturgill drew his chat to a halt and served up a stunning rendition of this classic in the making. The addition of this charisma alongside the awe inspiring vocals and the excellent pickin’ skills made this initial date of Sturgill’s mid-summer extended UK tour a resounding success.

Just before a bluegrass led encore, Sturgill acknowledged appreciation of the belief and investment showed in him by UK indie label Loose Music and promised to bring his full band with him when returning yet again to our shores in October. It is without doubt that by then the awareness and respect for Sturgill Simpson will have continued to grow. In the meantime for one hot and sweaty night in the cramped confines of Bush Hall, real country music graced London with its presence. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Emma Jane - Workhorse Self Released

For somebody who recorded such an inspirational song in ‘Sunday, Monday Blues’ back in the summer of 2012, every subsequent Emma Jane release has to match up to this standard from a personal perspective. Since then a publishing deal has been secured along with some movement in the American market as Emma Jane started to guide her music in a more country direction. 2013’s EP release SILVER STREETS initially followed up her debut full length album PENILEE SONGS and she has further cemented her sound in this sphere with her latest recording WORKHORSE.

The title could well sum up the character of an independent artist who undertakes most of the record making duties right from writing though to doing the PR. Funds have probably limited this release to seven tracks but this doesn’t diminish the quality as Emma Jane continues to cultivate a unique UK take on the country, roots and Americana genre. Her vocals are the main contributors to this stance as their slightly worn effect perfectly matches the blues tinge to her music and owns the mood of the songs.

Along with partner Iain McKinnon, who wrote the lyrics to the more sombre number ‘Unforgiven’, Emma Jane has recorded a set of songs that owe more to the western extremities of Tennessee with a Sun-styled rock n’ roll beat driving the sound. Add in traces of soulful keys and a sparsely recorded gospel-like closing piece to stir in more southern flavours, and you start to further visualise the journey Emma Jane is undertaking without losing sight of her Glasgow roots.

Ears are initially drawn to her self-confessed personally inspired track ‘Carter Cash’ and she is certainly not the first to interweave this iconic couple into a song which rolls along to a guitar driven beat and stakes a case as the record’s standout track. On the topic of musical pairings, Emma Jane has teamed up with fellow Scottish performer Sean C. Kennedy to record a straight down the line country duet ‘Old and Grey’ which romantically explores the notion of eternal love. The track where Emma Jane successful nails the art of searching for that striking chorus melody formula is ‘Delicate Minds’, also one of the album’s deeper songs that searches for guidance.

The opening track ‘Run’ launches the record with a dose of twang as Emma Jane puts down an early marker of what sound she wants to define this phase of her career. Although describing this as a fun number in her song notes, Emma Jane has quickly drawn you into her mode of an infectious beat and the search for a killer chorus. ‘Tunnels’ carries on a similar vein without meeting the same chorus highs as the other tracks. The surprise closer ‘Hold On’ with its simple production and strong message gives the record that raw feel essential to any release with a roots claim.

One development that we are still waiting for from Emma Jane is a wider live presence around the UK with more expansion from her present South East base. While the practicalities may be challenging, the rewards will surely surface. In the meantime the good news is WORKHORSE does evidence progression and while that memorable tune from the summer of 2012 is forever ingrained in my mind, the future remains positive for an artist able to put a personal imprint of the country, roots and Americana genre. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang - Tingewick Village Hall, Buckinghamshire Friday 18th July 2014

Every so often an artist needs to freshen up their live show to keep an audience engaged. For well over ten years Eve Selis has been touring the UK on an almost annual basis both with a full band and as a duo with long term musical partner Marc ‘Twang’ Intravaia. However for the 2014 tour including this evening’s show at the legendary Tingewick Village Hall, it’s a case of ‘California Dreaming’ or to be more specific ‘San Diego Singing’.

To headline this gig on a sultry evening in the Buckinghamshire countryside, more akin to the Golden State, Eve morphed in Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang to deliver a 75 minute set of glorious two, three and four part harmonies decorating a plethora of catchy tunes echoing the golden age of west coast music. For once the effervescent Eve happily settled into a co-starring role alongside Calman Hart, Jeff Berkley and of course Marc serving up his usual finger pickin’ treat. The occasion was to celebrate the release of the quartet’s new self-titled record and promote a load of original songs possessing that familiar instant appeal.

For a show introduced as one with a plan, the symmetrical and alphabetically ordered foursome was flanked by Jeff and Marc’s acoustic accompaniment which at one point took centre stage in a classic guitar duel, similarly to what Marc conjures up with fellow band member Cactus Jim. Calman and Eve primarily controlled the vocals to near identical proportion as they surfed through a batch of crowd pleasing new songs best reflected in ‘California Mountain Home’, ‘Tomorrow on My Mind’, ‘Long Road Back to Love’ and a rousing country flavoured sing along ‘Let’s Go Out Drinking’.

The evening was crowned by a trio of diverse covers that perfectly represented the mood of the evening and covered a variety of bases from the roots genre. Jeff introduced the San Diego origins of the Jack Tempest penned classic ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, Calman oozed with class tackling James Taylor’s ‘Steam Roller Blues’ and Eve relived her own connection with the folk tradition of our shores by leading the rendition of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. This set came right out of the blue to many Eve Selis regulars but from the sound of the applause there was a room full of impressed plaudits.

However for traditional fans of Eve and Marc, there was a middle 40 minute set by the duo recounting a selection of their favourite tunes over the years. Although a little impeded by being in the final stages of recuperating from a roller blade accident, Eve soared through ‘Angels and Eagles’, the now very appropriate ‘Bump in the Road’ and the popular live number ‘Any Day’. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has become a recent staple of the live set while Calman was invited on stage to duet on the excellent waltz number ‘Family Tree’ and title track from the most recent full Eve Selis album. Eve has also been busy making a record with her colleague Kim McLean under the Cactus Honey banner and introduced ‘A Little Bit of Heaven’ from this release.

Jeff and Calman, just like twelve months ago, were granted a support slot to present a bunch of songs from their lengthy career as the Berkley Hart duo. Primarily Jeff plays guitar and Calman provides the vocals and harmonica but this can be interchangeable and ‘Austin Girl’ and ‘My Name is Sam’ were probably the two most striking songs from their 20 minute opening set. At this point it is worth complimenting Mike Trotman and the Empty Rooms Promotion team for putting on another well attended gig at a location that epitomises the quintessential English village hall. This was my first visit to the venue and made all the more memorable by the show put on by Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang.

If as expected Eve reverts back to her duo and band work, and Berkley Hart continue the plough on in a similar vein, it was a privilege to be present when they came together for a special night to celebrate a style so reminiscent of their home state. If the intention was for Eve to freshen up her live presence in the UK, then Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang hit the target with excellent precision. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Amanda Rheaume - Keep a Fire Self Released

One of the key events each year for fans of Canadian folk and roots music is to check out the nominees for the prestigious Juno awards in the relevant traditional category. In recent years this has become more relevant for us in the UK with so many artists visiting our shores to share their delightful music. To this list we can now add the name of Amanda Rheaume who, despite not being ultimately successful with her Juno nominated album, is about to undergo a period of promotion in the UK. The acclaimed album KEEP A FIRE is set for a formal release over here on 18 August around the same time that she undertakes an inaugural tour. It doesn’t take long to understand the merits of this record which succeeds in blending informed storytelling with a sophisticated sound merging the very best of folk, pop and rock.

Based in the nation’s capital Ottawa, Amanda’s music takes you on a Trans Canadian journey through the stories, tales and experiences of her family heritage which includes a line back to the Metis people, an aboriginal mix of European and First Nation. The simplicity and clarity of her work engages the listener from start to finish with a multitude of strong choruses and a concise approach which stays on message. The 10 tracks shift in style and mood but always retain a glow of positivity. This is no more evident than the optimistic opener ‘Strongest Heart’ with its simple repeated sentiment and pop overtures. In a similar vein the slightly soulful ‘Home on the Road’ closes the album by paying homage to her perceived comforts of constant touring in a style not too dissimilar to Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Photo by Sean Sisk
The core of the record revolves around Amanda’s heritage with possibly the standout track being ‘So Much to Gain’. With a chorus surely custom made for audience participation, the song recounts her ancestors being forced to pack their bags and move north in pursuit of a living. Amanda addresses the issue of mixed race acceptance, once more through the experiences of distant relatives in ‘Keep a Fire in the Rain’. The stories continue to unfurl in true folk tradition with the foot stomping heavy beat and fiddle infused ‘Not This Time’, recounting a journey that was special by not succumbing to inclement weather as in many nautical tales. The toe tapping roots style delivery surfaces again on ‘AGB Bannatyne’ a tribute to a relative credited with being a pioneering influence in the early days of Winnipeg Manitoba.

From time to time the album replicates that of a rock structure with key ballads interspersing more upbeat numbers as evidenced in the moving ‘Write You a Letter’. The pride radiating from Amanda’s writing is perfectly captured in ‘Passed down the Line’ where the importance of linear tradition is championed in a thought provoking way injected with a country feel.  ‘Ancient Rime’ is a track bestowed with a folk dressing while ‘You Walk Beside Me’ is far more conducive with a sound that could permeate the adult contemporary mainstream market.

Right beside Amanda throughout the entirety of the record making process has been John McDonald and the duo have enjoyed the benefit of full band input with mandolin and fiddle periodically adding the roots sound amongst the waves of modern electric guitar. This highly accessible and enjoyable album is further proof that we are in the midst of a cherished period of exported Canadian folk and roots music. KEEP A FIRE is Amanda Rheaume’s prized possession and it is a privilege that it’s being shared with a UK audience.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Red Sky July - Shadowbirds Shadowbirds Records

The name may not be familiar but a solitary listen to SHADOWBIRDS is all you need to be put under the hypnotic spell of Red Sky July. Dig a little deeper and the trio behind the band will reveal their talents and you can start to understand why they have just put together a record that could well be unrivalled as the best 2014 UK release heavily slanted towards the country and roots genre. With an optimum length of 10 tracks and 38 minutes, not a second is wasted as the album leads you down a blissful path of heartfelt emotion whilst tipping its hat to the core essence of Americana music.

Before we celebrate the finesse of each track, let's unveil the prestigious background to the trio starting with Ally McErlaine who was at the heart of the Scottish band Texas’s 15 million record sales followed closely by his wife, Shelly, one half of 90s million selling pop act Alisha’s Attic. The trio is completed by Charity Hair who includes The Alice Band and Blur’s Dave Rowntree in her musical CV. Together the Red Sky July project has had some industry doors opened for it but real momentum can develop as SHADOWBIRDS follows up a 2011 debut release.

Whilst from top to bottom the album is soaked in a country sound swinging from all points alt to Americana, the elegant drizzle of minor, and not to be unexpected, pop/rock, only adds to this amalgam of sartorial elegance. From the very start where the band have eyed some mainstream coverage with the breezy single ‘Lay Down Your Love’ through to the dark and broody closer ‘Solitary Woman’ the vibes of appreciation continually grow.

The enchanting qualities begin to really kick in with the second track ‘Here Then Gone’ packed with aching sensibilities and an upward spiral that refuses to retract. The blended voices and country guitar twang illuminate ‘Losing You’ which references listening to Bonnie Prince Billy, the American singer songwriter not to be confused with the historical figure of Ally’s homeland. ‘Made for Each Other’ is a sensitivity inspired love song drenched in choral elegance which leads into the moving and jaw dropping track ‘New Morning Light’, a serious candidate for stand out song if one’s arm is twisted.

On the sixth track which could be ‘Side 2 Track 1’ if this album gets a deserved vinyl release, the band showcase a very roots orientated sound with a slow backbeat and graceful fiddle giving ‘Renegade’ a back to basics feel. The band have invited Anglo Italian artist Jack Savoretti to contribute to the writing and duet vocals on the classy ‘Any Day Now’ with the smooth effect you would expect from Jack.

To complete a record that never drops its guard, a swirling dreamy folk feel surrounds title track ‘Shadowbirds’ while there are significant hoedown vibes to the fiddle adorned bubbly optimistic number ‘Warm My Heart’. Throughout each song Ally and his accompanying pack of Glasgow based musicians serenade and guide the wonderful vocals of Shelly and Charity which are both sublime and divine.

Red Sky July started the year playing support to Beth Nielsen Chapman on her UK tour and could well end it headlining with one of their own to take this excellent record on the road. SHADOWBIRDS may be a left field entrant to the race for the Best of 2014 but it is usually now when the heat is turned up. This album has unlimited potential and has certainly put a marker down as a contender.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Louise Petit - Louder Than Your Drum Self Released

The thriving health of any local music scene is dependent on the extraordinary hard work of artists showing great determination to plough on with their song writing, gigging and hoping one day to get the finance together to release an album. This often means songs become staples of live sets before they get the studio treatment. Just over a year ago, I covered a Louise Petit headline gig at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham and it is good to report that a number of songs played that evening have surfaced on LOUDER THAN YOUR DRUM, her debut full length release.

With her accomplished brand of acoustic folk alt-pop, Louise has been active on the Midlands live circuit for a few years now and the calm, composed and measured way she delivers her songs have made her a respected artist. For the recording of the new album, Louise was ably assisted by her two band sidekicks Russ Sargeant on bass and Tim Heymerdinger on percussion. Also producer Martin Atkinson was able to assist with the addition of extra musicians providing piano, viola and violin. This was topped by a choir being assembled for one of the album’s best tracks, the title number ‘Louder Than your Drum’.

The album weighing in at a meaty 13 tracks and 50 minutes is a touch mellower than her previous EP release which brought her to my attention a couple of years ago. Tender tracks such as ‘Tree Song’ and ‘Away With The Day’ set the general tone which paints a more sophisticated side to Louise’s music. While the additional string input has added to this, there still remains the roots part of her music especially when the ukulele takes centre stage such as in another of the album’s finer moments, ‘Damn This Part of Me’.

The song writing has immense depth to it and is very much a journey of experience. It is easy to bury yourself deep into the songs and this is best exemplified in ‘To The Sharks’ with its analogies and view on life. The rousing end to this track also adds to the appeal as well as being blessed by Louise’s near faultless vocals which adorn all 13 songs often supplemented by backing and harmony support.

The completion of LOUDER THAN YOUR DRUM gives Louise a sturdier platform to progress her music career and she is already beginning to widen her gig net to promote the record. So why not pop along to her Bandcamp page and try before you buy with a variety of formats available. Hopefully one of her live shows can be attended in the future to check how she’s progressing and continue to support artists at the very heartbeat of your local music scene.

Louise Petit Bandcamp

Ward Thomas - From Where We Stand WTW Music

It was only a matter of time until Nashville spread their net from promoting contemporary country music in the UK to look a little deeper into what home grown promise there is. While it is far from unique for a UK act to have their sights on country music stardom, Ward Thomas have come up with a package that matches up well with its similar styled output from Music City. Make no mistake this is unabated country pop done well and the siblings have hit on a formula which will give them every chance of exploiting their target markets.

The size of the home market is yet to be determined but ambition is high that the mainstream can be permeated by national radio airplay. This would be a great shot in the arm for the genre in the UK as FROM WHERE WE STAND has sufficient country merit to distance itself from the run of the mill chart mediocrity. Barely out of their teens, the twins Catherine and Lizzy from rural Hampshire, clearly understand where their influences lie and the direction they want to take their music in. Obviously the record has had a huge boost by being produced under the guidance of Chris Rodriguez and Bobby Blazier, both Nasvhille luminaries. The result is a fresh and spritely bunch of tunes showcasing Ward Thomas as no mere pretenders.

Of course there are work in progress elements to Ward Thomas and one of these is being rectified by hitting the road with a load of live dates. Perhaps a Maverick Festival appearance sandwiched between a host of hardened Americana acts highlighted an element of inexperience and a little on the light side but subsequent plays of their debut album reveal a talent to build on this and a subtle diversity to their music.

A recent EP release proved to be a tantalising taster before this 12 track 50 minute record hits the market. All four featured songs on the EP make the album including an interesting cover, ‘Caledonia’ by veteran Scottish folk performer Dougie MacLean. As you would expect from an album with such pretensions there are a number of brash pop songs designed to engage a wider audience but I prefer to home in on three tracks which highlight a more substantial side of their talents. ‘Wasted Words’ is the stand out track from my perspective, mixing harmony vocals with a hint of mandolin, steel and fiddle to reach out across the country divide. Following closely behind are a raucous piano led honky tonk belter ‘Town Called Ugely’ which rattles along with a considerable beat and a passionate emotional ballad ‘From Where I Stand’.

The latter sees the album title revert to the individual personal pronoun to give the topic of their parents’ divorce a more poignant angle. Piano, pedal steel and an uplifting guitar solo grace this track that captures the pain of the moment, a not uncommon trait of real heart stricken country music. These three tracks are the real gems of an album not unexpectedly wrapped in a combination of up tempo radio friendly numbers including the safe flagship songs ‘Push the Stride’ and ‘The Good and the Right’. Of the album’s lighter side, I have more of a leaning towards ‘Guest List’ with its unashamed tilt towards the works of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood as does the nostalgic anthem qualities to ‘Way Back When’, if nostalgia is allowed for someone so young!

It is to the album’s credit that the four remaining tracks ‘Footnotes (Happy Ending)’, ‘Try’ ‘Company’ and ‘Take That Train’ never give the impression that the record is being filled or scrambling around for songs without really hitting the peaks of the classier parts. Whether Catherine and Lizzy subsequently major on their song writing, vocal capabilities or musical arrangement, they have announced their arrival on the music scene with a record full of all three qualities. FROM WHERE WE STAND will find its own niche in the market and Ward Thomas are set to make their mark on the UK country music scene, perhaps a little wider in prevailing circumstances. 

Otis Gibbs - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 14th July 2014

Otis Gibbs is a regular visitor to the UK and will always guarantee you a good show. He has been a firm favourite of mine since first seeing him hold court at the Big Sessions Festival in Leicester in 2009. A subsequent duet with Billy Bragg on the Gram Parsons' classic 'Sin City' at that festival further cemented his status and the five most recent albums are a brimful collection of wonderful observational tales. Needless to say his Birmingham show at the Kitchen Garden Cafe matched the blueprint that has set the high standards and he acquired many new fans who were seeing him for the first time. Having reviewed Otis on countess occasions, this time I would like to predominantly share some of the music played on the night to tempt a few more people to seek out the wise man of Wanamaker Indiana coming to you via East Nashville and a listening venue near your town.

The first two songs were featured in his opening set and show the span of the releases that he draws his live material from. 'Small Town Saturday Night' originally surfaced on 2004's ONE DAY OUR WHISPERS and is as near as standard Otis Gibbs track as you get. Often introduced after his infamous story of singing Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers covers for tips to maintain the lifestyle of a drunken uncle, the masterful lyrics paint a symbolic picture of growing up in small town USA through the eyes of Otis Gibbs. The other track is brand new and can be found on his latest album SOUVENIRS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH. Once again the story telling is engaging as Otis manages to link boxing and Vietnam in 'Ghosts of Our Fathers', a track reminiscing about parents and neigbours. These are just two fine examples which were joined by the following songs making the opening set list for this evening:

Second Chance: Never Enough: Where Only The Graves Are Real:  It Was A Train: Back In My Day Blues: Plus an unknown cover dug out for a Bob Harris session.


After the break, Otis continued to serve up a lavish diet of sweet stories and savoury tracks which met the appetite of a well attended and hungry Kitchen Garden crowd. The two tracks selected to share were the final songs of the evening as Otis orchestrated his memorable stage managed encore routine. Both songs highlight his lyrical ability to capture the mood of the road, a place Otis knows too well. They also mix the rural openness and urban grit that lends a theme to many of his songs. 'Detroit Steel' became a flagship track from 2012's HARDER THAN HAMMERED HELL and has settled in well as a live favourite. 'Kansas City' contains the immortal troubadour line '7 hours in a car, 45 minutes singing in a bar' and comes with no higher recommendation than being my second favourite all time Otis Gibbs song (sadly 'Get Me Out Of Detroit' didn't make the set cut tonight). While these tracks take pride of place for this post, it is worth checking out any of the following songs that were played in the second half of this gig:

Joe Hill's Ashes: Beto Junction: Caroline: Aint' Nothing Special: Something More: The Town That Killed Kennedy: The Darker Side of Me:  Long Black Thunder.

There is so much more that can be said about Otis Gibbs but it would be better if you checked him out yourselves. The following three links are great starting points and then you can join the growing band of Otis Gibbs admirers.


Remaining dates on current UK tour

Friday, 11 July 2014

Kris Delmhorst - Blood Test Signature Sounds

The temptation to use the pun of going straight to your veins is too good to resist when referring to this album as BLOOD TEST possesses a penetrative quality seeking to seep deep into your inner senses. Kris Delmhorst had taken a six year break between albums of original material and if this is your introduction to the New York raised artist now living in Massachusetts, you’re in for a treat. Listening to this album re-enforces the view that Americana music is best heard rather than defined with its drooling melodies melting into the sumptuous sound and thoughtful lyrics.

This is Kris’s seventh album and although she is new to me, her husband, the fine song writer Jeffrey Foucault, has crossed my path on numerous occasions. Kris herself seeks only self-inspiration for her songs rather than collaboration or interpretation as twelve solo-write originals fill a record lavished with soft pedal steel and shimmering soulful organ. For this project Kris has teamed up with Anders Parker and together they have assembled a tightknit four piece band to create a sound fluctuating between tender vibes and impassioned soft rock.

The temptation to continually delve into this record emerges with the opening and title track ‘Blood Test’ and successfully retains your full attention throughout its 42 minute duration. The magnetic allure of this track’s infectious chorus makes it a top candidate for the album’s standout song but listen on and you’re subsequently spoiled for choice. Any song title referencing the Buckeye state makes me take note and ‘My Ohio’ is a beauteous effort demonstrating Kris’s capacity to pay tribute to a friend in the best way she knows.

The delicate tones of ‘Homeless’ will ease you through any stressful day while on the subject of habitation, we get a nostalgic insight to Kris’s past on ‘92nd St.’ Based on her memories being reignited when returning to New York City to record the album, this emotional track moves freely between the soft undertones of her vocal style and the rousing impact Kris and Anders wanted from the band completed by multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer and percussionist Konrad Meissner. Together they let it rip for a brief moment on the short number ‘Temporary Sun’ with a blast of rock impregnating the waves of passive elegance.

Saw It All’, ‘Bees’, ‘We Deliver’ and ‘Lighthouse’ are all adorned by some glimmering organ, a sound which works so well on a deep rooted record drawing on a multitude of musical styles and influences. Of the remaining tracks, ‘Little Frame’ has a lounge like feel with a hint of pedal steel and mellow piano, while ‘Bright Green World’ veers in a pop direction with a communicable beat. Light acoustic strumming heralds ‘Hushabye’, a stripped back number with a lullaby sentiment.

BLOOD TEST will enrich your listening repertoire and is just the tonic when you require a touch of sensitivity with a little edge. By seeking out UK press it can only be assumed that a visit by Kris Delmhorst sometime in the future is being considered and these songs certainly have the depth to take on a whole new entity when played live. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

New American Troubadours (featuring Peter Bradley-Adams, Robby Hecht and David Berkeley) - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 6th July 2014

Peter Bradley-Adams
It was a privilege to be present at the final break up concert of iconic rock band the New American Troubadours. It was a tearful event of heartbreak, emotion and just a touch of irony. Try searching for the back catalogue of this band and you will draw on a blank. On the other hand if you check out the works of Robby Hecht, David Berkeley and Peter Bradley-Adams, the talents of three real ‘new American troubadours’ will be all be revealed. Jest aside, these three guys served up a highly entertaining night at the Kitchen Garden Café as they concluded a short UK tour which will probably see the end of the banner designed to herald their introduction to the UK folk/Americana market.

Essentially, all three are respected individual singer-songwriters back in the US with Robby Hecht probably having the highest profile in the UK as recalled from his tour with Carrie Elkin a few years back. For these UK dates, which included a combination of slots at the Maverick Festival, the guys have mixed and matched the order but all featuring a rotation of a lead role with invited harmony interludes. This evening the toss of coin meant Peter opened, David followed and Robby had the honour of leading the New American Troubadours into the distance. Well at least until the reunion tour.

David Berkeley
Peter is the softer sounding of the three vocalists with a capacity for injecting sensibility into his songs. An inhabitant of Birmingham Alabama, he was honoured to play in the city that was the origin of his home town’s name and spoke about some of the shared industrial heritage. In fact his most striking song from the opening segment was one about the steel mills of Birmingham which was preluded by some informed comment on its nickname of the Magic City and eventual frustration of being eclipsed by Pittsburgh as the premier US steel town.

While this was my first introduction to the work of Peter, David Berkeley’s latest record THE FIRE IN MY HEAD gave an insight to what a fine literate and vivid songwriter he is. David was often the source of the trio’s humour and with his more extroverted style raised the level of the show in terms of tempo and audience reaction. From the excellent latest record, subject to a fine review on this site, we were treated to amongst others, ‘Back to Blue’, ‘Fire in My Head’, ‘Shelter’ and perhaps the stand out song from his set ‘Song for the Road’. The latter was met with some engaging invited audience participation and a stunning fluctuation of vocal tone. Having learned about his literary exploits we were further informed that the next record will be accompanied by an anthology of short stories and were previewed to a song believed to be titled ‘Wishing Well’.

New American Troubadours
Robby graced the acoustic friendly surroundings of the café when playing here with Carrie Elkin a couple of years ago. While Peter has the sensitivity and David the word craft, Robby probably excels more in the tune and similarly to David had an album to grace this review site earlier in the year. The highlights of the self-titled album to feature in this “headline set” were the superb ‘Stars’, ‘New York City’, ‘Cars and Bars’ and the personally requested ‘The Sea and the Shore’. Although there was no Amy Speace or John Fullbright on this solo performance by Robby (they produced a beautifully crafted duet version last year), the shear pull of the song makes it one of Robby’s best.

David had been itching all night to sing off mic and for the final song he cleared all the stands out of the way to lead a beautiful version of the classic Townes Van Zandt standard ‘If I Needed You’ in unison with Peter, Robby and a couple of guitars. This may have brought the curtain down on the illustrious career of the New American Troubadours but hopefully it won’t be the last we see of Robby Hecht, David Berkely and Peter Bradley-Adams in the UK. With iconic reunion tours always in vogue, the New American Troubadours may yet re-surface one day. Just remember not to search for their back catalogue.

Maverick Festival - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk Friday 4th July to Sunday 6th July 2014.

Two anecdotal comments over the weekend captured the very essence of Americana music. In her Saturday evening slot in the Barn, Mary Gauthier commented that the genre won’t earn you much money but will sure get to your heart. The following morning during a presentation of The Band’s seminal Americana album MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, the host pulled up short of a definition of the genre by simply saying ‘you’ll know it when you hear it’. The couple of thousand music enthusiasts who descended on Easton Park farm in Suffolk for the seventh Maverick Festival certainly heard it, as a wealth of hardened, seasoned and burgeoning artists shared their talents in this idyllic agricultural setting.

There is no finer point to commence the artist look back than the captivating performance that Mary Gauthier gave to those eager to savour the delights from one of Nashville’s most esteemed and respected singer-songwriters. There was a magnetic charm radiating from Mary, who mixed humour, stories and songs, all delivered in a unique style rich in warmth, affection and a glowing touch of eccentricity. Always keen to involve the appreciative audience, she drew on the depth of her latest record TROUBLE IN LOVE as well as slotting in some older favourites like ‘Last of the Hobo Kings’ and ‘I Drink’. Whether having a Gretchen Peters’ co-write (‘How to Learn to Live Alone’) included in the Nashville TV series, and commenting on its on-screen performer Jonathan Jackson as being cute, to asking the audience about their experiences of a relationship with a sociopath narcissist, there is an engaging originality to her art and she was a worthy inclusion as one of the festival’s more established bookings this year.

At the other end of the career scale, Hannah Aldridge is beginning to make waves in the UK with her stunning composure and natural flair for breathing life and emotion into a song. Hannah was a late addition to the festival’s line up this year but more than justified the booking with a couple of sets including a slot in the unashamedly female oriented Saturday evening Barn presentation. The delivery of a celebrated bunch of songs from her debut album RAZOR WIRE had a significant country feel to them when accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar. This was in contrast to the Muscle Shoals rock, blues and soul sound that ratchets up the mood on the record. In line with the festival sponsorship by the Alabama tourist board, Hannah, also raised in Muscle Shoals, was involved in a Q&A session after an earlier festival viewing of the recently acclaimed documentary made about this iconic recording town steeped in southern legacy.

Both Mary and Hannah plan to return to the UK in October to play further shows and positive reports from their Maverick festival appearances will no doubt boost interest. Sandwiched between these two wonderful artists in the schedule was an equally striking set from Holly Williams who was at the conclusion of a successful and highest profile UK tour to date. In contrast to her Birmingham gig at the start of the tour, she was joined for this evening by the talented Anderson East on accompanying guitar who displayed a gripping potential that suggests we may be hearing more from him in the future. Having recently featured Holly in a more in-depth live review earlier in the tour, the same applied to the closing act Larkin Poe who rocked the crowd late into the evening with their newly unwrapped brand of southern roots rock.

As well as being spoilt by a thrilling four hour ensemble of US bred Americana on Saturday evening, Maverick also presented opportunities to catch live for the first time other artists who have made a considerable personal impression when their albums have crossed my path. Jamie Freeman was afforded one of the AMA UK slots in the Peacock Café on Friday evening and thus had the opportunity to confirm what was a prized selection of songs he recorded on the 100 MILES FROM TOWN album last year. With an hastily arranged incarnation of The Agreement put together for the evening including the temporary engagement of Phil Jones from Hatful of Rain on bass and the rather late addition of Michael Girie from Police Dog Hogan on drums, Jamie successfully held the band together and the ultimate tribute came from an audience who valued the set’s vibrancy, energy and, as a symbolic UK take on Americana.

Ethan Anderson
Another band marked on the pre-festival form guide as one to watch was Seattle based alt-country rockers Massy Ferguson who commenced a trio of likeminded sets on the outside stage during Saturday afternoon. Apart from a powerful array of songs linking the roots of pub rock with the subtleties of country, lead singer Ethan Anderson erased a bout of afternoon sedation from those in the vicinity of the Sweet Home Alabama stage with a vaunted and successful attempt at enlisting audience participation starting with the vivacious ‘Powder Blue’. The subsequent performance by Scottish band Wynntown Marshalls retained a similar driving beat straight after Massy departed the scene and although a little less brash than their American counterparts, were more than their equal in an ability to unleash a round of mature and cultured alt-country rock.

The Dreaming Spires are an exciting and rapidly developing force on the UK scene and showed a continuing step in the right direction with a passionate set. Having seen the band four times in the last year at various events, this was their most accomplished performance to date and the expectation for their follow up to BROTHERS IN BROOKLYN grows ten-fold after being exposed to the rousing anthem ‘Dusty in Memphis’. This once again brought to life an outdoor audience gratefully spared longer outbreaks of the showery weather that dispelled the myth that it never rains on Maverick Saturday.

The Barn continues to be the hub of the site’s live music and perennial Maverick favourites Police Dog Hogan were granted their usual Friday night slot to raise spirits with a glass of ‘Shitty White Wine’ and preview a new album due to be released on the Union Music Store label coupled with an nationwide Autumn tour. This will see the band play the spacious West Midlands venue The Robin 2 who coincidentally hosted the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band only a couple of days before this Indiana based raucous blues infused trio were given the accolade of closing proceedings on a sultry and humid Friday evening.

The unavoidable festival regret of only seeing partial, or missing complete sets applied to a couple of artists this year but make no mistake Danny and the Champions of the World are a respected band and will be featured in full when they hit the road again with the excellent STAY TRUE and upcoming new live album in the Autumn. Other acts previously covered but not seen on this occasion due to clashes in the schedule were Peter Bruntnel and Rebecca Pronsky, but often a festival is about discovering new acts.

In that category this year were Vermont duo Crying Wolf who brought a fix of graceful country, roots and folk duets to the Barn on Saturday lunchtime and left an impression of you wanting to seek out more. The same applied to Dan Beaulaurier who packed a Sunday morning Moonshine Bar with the help of London based duo Hallelujah Trails and served up a treat of original music with a side order of Johnny Cash. UK up and coming country band Ward Thomas were an intriguing booking for the outdoor stage on Saturday afternoon and came with a sound that was a little less hardened and worn to many acts deep rooted in the soul of the Americana genre.

Obviously the dust needs to settle for the full viability assessment of this treasured festival but from many quarters it continues to be a resounding success and a nourishing source for those desperate for a comprehensive live diet of alt-country, Americana and roots music. A further anchor for the festival is its continued location for the genre’s fledging organisation body - the AMA UK’s annual conference. The appetite for this festival remains strong overall and if the conundrum of defining Americana is never solved, then the joy of listening to the music is really all that matters.

Photos of Hannah, Holly and Mary courtesy of Steve from 4000 Miles to Nashville. Check out his site here.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Jeni and Billy - Picnic in the Sky Waystation Records

Faith, family, tradition and love are the key ingredients that fuel the music of Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp and all are to be found in abundance on their new album PICNIC IN THE SKY. This hastily arranged project for the Nashville based couple was an opportunity too good to turn down as they headed west to LA after a chance meeting with producer Dave Way. The result is probably their most complete album to date without losing any of the legitimacy that marks their core Appalachian sound. If anything the widening of instrumental input from the assembled session musicians, given the temporary accolade of the Big Picnic Band, has enhanced the vocal elegance of Jeni and the effectiveness of the harmony driven duets with Billy.

For the record, Billy is a city boy from Baltimore chasing the country dream while Jeni is a country girl from West Virginia living the country dream. Together they make sweet music as rooted in the sound of their ideal rural surroundings as you could expect. Inspired by her ancestral heritage and dreamy summers on Smith Ridge, Jeni recounts the tales of her youth with vibrant pride and entwines them with the romantic musings of literary giants like Austin, Bronte and Gaskell.  The positive, melodic and spiritual vibes are etched into the core of the record and in no finer detail than the standout title track ‘Picnic in the Sky’ with the striking line ‘frozen dinners were a special treat listening to radio obituaries’ painting a vivid nostalgic picture.
All eleven tracks are originals, although spanning a near decade in their composition. Perhaps Jeni and Billy had to dig deep into their song locker to ensure this golden opportunity was maximised. Billy especially had the freedom to relinquish his engineer duties to concentrate on guitar, banjo, harmonica and piano as well as sharpening up his vocal contributions. The duets are aplenty including the classic country waltz ‘Reckoning Day’ and the throwback style ‘The Old Hotel’ where for a moment Jeni and Billy almost revert back to their normal duo status.

As we have come accustomed to on Jeni and Billy recordings, the stories are told in clear prose with ‘McHenry Street’ being inspired by a sighting on the streets of Billy’s home city Baltimore and ‘The Days of the Blue Tattoo’ re-telling a story of Olive Oatman who was captured and subsequently released by tribes in the Gold Rush days. One of the most redeeming features of the record is the beautifully presented and highly informative packaging. However this is only to be expected from a duo which extol fierce pride in their work and come over even more sincere if you attend one of their live shows.

From an album which starts with an up tempo re-write of the traditional Froggy Went a-Courtin’ song, titled ‘The Robin and the Banjo’ and ends with the haunting gospel tones of ‘Made as New’, the rest is filled with a glowing assortment of fiddle, steel, banjo, mandolin and a multitude of percussion to convey the convincing message Jeni and Billy want to relay through music and song. The duo have created a tight touring niche in the UK over the last few years and maybe PICNIC IN THE SKY will be the record to engage with a wider audience in the country, roots, Americana and folk communities.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Otis Gibbs - Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth Wannamaker Recording Company/Thirty Tigers

Thanks for giving a damn is the signature sign off phrase Otis Gibbs uses in an appreciation to people engaging with his music. It is partly this honesty and humility which has made Otis a hit on the UK/Europe folk Americana circuit over the last few years along with his capacity to skilfully master the art of storytelling through song. SOUVENIRS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH is the fifth release since Otis made a bid to take his music overseas and like so many of its predecessors is packed full of insightful and compelling songs.

Once seen Otis is rarely forgotten, whether it’s his trademark beard, gruff vocals or sheer ability to captivate a room full of demanding ears. He can range from both cynical about the industry to appreciative about his fans but always ready to share his perceptive skills via his lyrical competence and the standard folk style medium of acoustic guitar. On record, and especially this latest release, there is more scope for development and there is a fair amount of country appeal on the new album with the increasing utilisation of fiddle and pedal steel guitar. All this adds spice to the core ingredient of Otis which is the construction of a song that will absorb into your head, heart and soul.

While resorting to the ever popular crowd funding model to finance the record, Otis found that there were many faithful believers out there. There may have been a wait for this release, Otis previewed a number of songs on his tour last year, but this 10-song 38-minute collection is ready to be unleashed on a UK audience through another upcoming tour and a wider availability through physical and digital formats. A tie up with Thirty Tigers music management will enhance its promotion as even a record of this quality needs a nudge in the right direction.

The record’s title is lifted from a quote Otis noted down when his father referred to the ailments of an arduous and torturous working life. This talent for spotting the artistic potential from everyday events has been the source of Otis’s craft since the days when he too had to toil for a living. ‘No Rust on My Spade’ is one of the record’s standout tracks and re-tells the exploits from his tree planting days. The personal stories roll on especially in ‘Ghosts of our Fathers’ where a neighbour’s loss in Vietnam is the subject. While opening track ‘Cozmina’ has its origins in picking up a hitch hiker in Romania.

This opening number is an interesting development in Otis’s work as it begins with a minute and half fiddle solo with a significant pause before the vocals kick in. Along with the usual guitar accompaniment there appears to be a wider use of pedal steel especially in the tracks towards the end such as ‘Kokomo Bar’ and ‘With a Gun in My Hand’. The traditional tones of banjo can be detected in ‘Nancy Barnett’ while one of the more upbeat numbers ‘It was a Train’ rumbles along in the vein of its subject.

Photo by Todd Fox
To take a break from extolling the virtues of Otis’s song writing, the excellent ‘Wrong Side of Gallatin’ comes from the pen of his long term partner Amy Lashley but possibly the record’s premier track is ‘The Darker Side of Me’. This riveting number has a Merle Haggard feel to it and it had to be checked it wasn’t a long lost cover. Sources confirmed the origin to be a camp fire story which inspired Otis to commit to song and once again confirming that listening and interpretive skills are core to great folk song writers.

Otis Gibbs is an independent free spirit and a gracious sharer of his art while SOUVENIRS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH is the fine recollection of a cultivated troubadour. This record will have crossover appeal whether your specialism is country, folk, roots or Americana and like all his recordings is best consumed alongside a live show. Support both, and Otis Gibbs will thank you for giving a damn.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Larkin Poe - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 30th June 2014

Rebecca Lovell
You often associate sibling harmonies with melting voices but as you would expect from Larkin Poe, they take the concept a step further. The Lovell Sisters, Megan and Rebecca, are steeped in the tradition of collaboration but this latest phase of their career is based around the instinctive nature to blend guitar playing into a wonderful entity of southern roots rock. The chemistry from their onstage liaison radiated right around a healthily packed Hare and Hounds venue as the girls turned up the volume to thrill an audience curious to what direction the band were taking.

There was a hint of what to expect when Larkin Poe toured in 2013 and a few of the rockier numbers from their set then have surfaced on the new album. The wider world will have to wait until the end of August to gorge on the absorbing sounds from KIN but those able to get to the interim shows can purchase the CD and savour live ten of the tracks in all their amped up glory. The band’s 90 minute set was more Birmingham Alabama than Birmingham UK, although technically the music has grown from the girls home city of Atlanta Georgia. The phrase ‘swampadelic rock’ has been coined to define the sound and it’s not difficult to visualise the tunes blasting out from a southern dive.
Megan Lovell
Larkin Poe have retained the same four-piece line up from the previous tour with Robby Handley (bass) and Marlon Patton (drums) holding fort while the sisters unleash their guitar playing talents and vivacious onstage appeal. Rebecca is a livewire performer, never settling on acoustic, electric and mandolin but always excelling. In contrast there is a reassuring consistency from Megan who is the architect of some stunning lap slide guitar interludes. Rebecca often leads the vocals and there was a notable blues tinge to them this evening to match the groove emanating from the band.

Those present with little prior knowledge of the girls had a short insight to what they are also capable of with the encore version of ‘Take Me Back’. This was presented by two sweet voices, one acoustic guitar and a single mic. Perhaps a sign that we haven’t heard the last of the Lovell Sisters signature sound. However tonight was all about the present and a multitude of scintillating songs such as ‘Jailbreak’, ‘Sugar High’ and the upcoming new single ‘Don’t’. All these feature on KIN as do two other songs which sounded great on first listen ‘Crown of Fire’ and ‘Elephant’. Although an old favourite from their past shows, the southern gospel number ‘Wade in the Water’ rivalled any new song as the gig’s major highlight.
A Larkin Poe show is not complete without the anecdotes, humour and lively banter as we especially were reminded about the complexities of their family history. ‘Mad as a Hatter’ is based on their slightly unstable grandfather while a new song ‘Jesse’ completes an unfinished historical family story of a relative confronting his children with a gun. We also learned of Rebecca literally glowing about a resumption of opening for Elvis Costello in an upcoming show. Most of all you leave a Larkin Poe show believing in the talents, sparkle and genuine love of the Lovell sisters.
Prior to Megan and Rebecca taking centre stage, Birmingham singer-songwriter Chris Tye played an opening set full of quality songs sung in a striking style which raises the standard from many plying their trade on the local acoustic circuit. A particularly engaging song was ‘New York City Rain’ and there is more than a hint of that city’s folk style in Chris’s sound. He was ably assisted by Jane Powell on supporting vocals and his upcoming release THE PAPER GRENADE is something to look forward to.

This new phase of Larkin Poe is certainly pushing the boundaries of their existing fan base but they execute the challenge in a way that complements their talents to ensure the product is finely tuned. The endearing charm of Megan and Rebecca transcends any musical style they adopt and long may they take Larkin Poe on a fulfilling roots inspired journey, unplugged or at full volume.

Set List – Thief in the Night: Sugar High: Trick of the Light: Wade in the Water: Crown of Fire: Mad as a Hatter: Stubborn Love: Carrot and the Stick: Jesse: Elephant: Dandelion: Banks of Allatoona: High Horse: Mr Mechanic: Don’t: Jealous  Encore – Take Me Back