Friday, 31 October 2014

Sara Petite - Prince Albert, Stroud Thursday 30th October 2014

Around 5 years ago, via his Thursday evening BBC country show, Bob Harris introduced us to a couple of female artists who were plying their trade many miles, both physically and metaphorically, from the formal industry centre of Nashville Tennessee. Sharing a common trait of possessing a voice etched with the pleasure, pain and emotion of pure country music, Sara Petite and Zoe Muth soon became firm personal favourites showing the vibrancy of the genre on the nation’s west coast. Now in the space of 6 days, it has been a delight to catch up with both artists on selected dates during their current respective UK tours.

In contrast to Zoe who is touring with her band, Sara has taken the option of travelling alone on this trip armed only with her guitar, a bunch of neat songs and that voice extracting every inch of sinew from the core of her compositions. Sara has had more experience of touring the UK, often with her own band, without reaching the audience her music deserves. All four studio albums are well stocked with songs rich in melody, true in tradition and presented in a recognisable style full of passion and panache. This evening an audience in the town of Stroud on the edge of the Cotswolds had the opportunity up close and personal to connect with the music of Sara Petite.

The Prince Albert makes effective use of its surroundings with an unsurprising heavy folk bias to the artists it promotes. On the back of her double header slot with Stephen Simmons the previous evening at London’s prestigious Green Note, Sara shared this date with a UK artist Rhiannon Mair and used her hour wisely to showcase the breadth of her career. Stretching back to her sophomore album from 2008, Sara lifted ‘Heaven Bound’, ‘Little House’ and, as part of a medley, ‘Coming on Strong’ from her LEAD THE PARADE record with an air of confidence that saw her politely banish a couple of intrusive punters to the back of the room when she needed space to deliver the quieter numbers.

Of course Sara with her band could mix and win with many a raucous honky tonk out west in her home state of California and when in full flow there is no finer song to her arsenal than ‘Bootleggers’ from the DOGHOUSE ROSE album which launched her presence in the UK. Not shying away from providing some background to certain songs, Sara shared her experience of moonshine along with other musings such as her love for Kris Kristofferson’s simplistic approach to song writing. Also she acknowledged the importance of patching things up with her band member partner in a new song titled ‘Getting Over You’. With her next potential project seeing the feasibility of a live record being explored, there were still a few opportunities to indulge in the excellence of the latest record CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN.

This 2013 album had lots of favourable press from trusted UK sources and tonight Sara elected to play the title track as her opening number, alongside ‘The Master’ and possibly a song which would be better received in a more vibrant environment ‘If Mamma Ain’t Happy’. These tracks all sounded great stripped down in this setting and style but were definitely eclipsed by the emotion of ‘Flying in Your Dreams.’ Written in tribute to her grandfather and in the aid of raising funds for the Alzheimer’s Association, the song drained of pure emotion and feeling as well proving to be a fitting finale to her set.

It was inevitable that witnessing Sara Petite live for the first time would fuel a desire to see more and the hope that it won’t be too long until she returns, perhaps with a full band next time. In the meantime those who value a sound dripping in country music ethos should continue to help Sara raise her profile in the UK. She is an artist who understands the right path of the music, engaging and captivating those in tune with how the genre should unfold. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Daniel Meade - Keep Right Away From the Top Records

It took only a few bars into Daniel Meade’s live show to understand and appreciate what he is all about. In a country music community fragmented on both sides of the Atlantic, the portion true to the spirit and core continues to follow a path laid out by history’s pioneers and trailblazers. With a helping hand from likeminded souls across the pond, Daniel lays claim to the British (or Scottish to be more precise) rights with an excellent new album glorious in evocative re-creation and rich in ideal.

KEEP RIGHT AWAY may have been recorded in Tennessee with many highly respected contributors but it has its heart firmly in Glasgow and is a fluid flow of ideas right from the mind through to the pen of Daniel Meade. While it is actually Daniel’s second full length release, his recent support slots in the UK for Sturgill Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show have raised the profile and brought in a raft of praise and plaudits. When seeing Daniel support and back Sturgill on a stifling summer’s evening in London, an image of Justin Townes Earle flashed across the mind with all the poise and stature of a sincere artist. That is certainly a fair introduction to a performer.  

His last minute replacement support slot for Old Crow’s recent Glasgow gig probably owed as much to his connections with the band and their stamp of style resonates all over KEEP RIGHT AWAY. Among the stateside luminaries helping out, Old Crow’s Morgan Jahnig handled the production duties while Cory Younts and Chance McCoy joined the merry band of players and vocal contributors which extended to others with British connections such as Chris Scruggs and Diana Jones. Obviously Daniel still worked closely with his sidekick Lloyd Reid who does a sterling job both in the studio and on stage.

The relentless beat of bona fide and credible roots music rarely pauses through a rampaging thirteen tracks with a well-earned pit stop occurring when Daniel and Diana Jones team up for a dreamy delectable duet ‘Help Me Tonight’. This song featured on a recent EP release with the album’s lead off number ‘Long Gone Wrong’, a rip roaring song with more than a hint of Waylon Jennings in the chorus structure. There is an unashamed respect to the past running through the veins of this top notch record with visions of ‘Gimme a Draw’ being lifted straight from the 50s in the style of Lefty Frizzell.

On a breathless record given a lightly produced single take edge to it, you feel the studio presence of Shelly Colvin on ‘Not My Heart Again’ and the authentic twist to the opening and closing segments of the rousing anthem ‘Sing it Loud’ with fiddle player Joshua Hedley featuring prominently. There are not one but two references to blues in song titles with both ‘The Hangman Blues’ and ‘Rising River Blues’ joining the fun and contributing to a record that refuses to relinquish its hold on your musical attention.

On the UK circuit you are coming across more and more young acts inspired by the likes of Hank Williams and a sound timeless in appeal. The upcoming biopic may help to push this along and if these artists can follow in the footsteps of Daniel and produce an original album as good as KEEP RIGHT AWAY then the future is secure. This record is the real deal and perfect for an up to date fix of real country music.

Stephen Simmons - Hearsay Locke Creek Records

Sometimes it’s baffling to understand release dates in the digital age but HEARSAY by Stephen Simmons is getting renewed press in the UK well over a year since its availability and a couple of months after its successor! Putting industry labels and distribution methods to one side, this seventh album by Stephen once again showcases a singer-songwriter determined to plough an integrity laced route of country music true to his beliefs and heart. Maybe this means he has to work a little harder to find outlets for his music including regular sorties into Europe but when a solidified connection is made between artist and listener then fruition of a lifelong journey comes to a head.

HEARSAY is your quintessential collection of storytelling country music, rich in influence and aiming to capture the soul of a late night jam with or without the addition of the odd tipple. Combining the heritage of his rural Tennessee upbringing with the travails of the road, the album is full of themes akin to both city and countryside dwellers. Awash with pedal steel and an attention to careful lyrical details, Stephen succeeds in smoothing the path to the listener’s ear offering a favourable deal for those with an insatiable appetite for dose of refined nostalgia.

The track ‘I’ll Be Your Johnny Cash’ will meet the approval of those who ears prick up to any mention of the Man in Black, although this time it’s Audrey Hepburn who replaces June Carter in the chorus. Stephen’s curious take on love leads us into the seedy world of establishments as laid out in the memorably titled ‘The Boobie Bungalow Gentleman’s Club’. One black mark with Stephen’s lyrical offering surfaces in the export of his music to the UK in the use of the word ‘spaz’ which has far more offensive connotations than it appears in the US. The sentiment of the song, ‘Stardust’ is to create a derogatory image with the words ‘jerk’ and ‘ass’ also used without the same degree of effect to us Brits.

Close your eyes and falling into the charm of the beautiful ‘I Ain’t Lonely (I’m Just Lonesome)’ is one of the albums true delights along with the informed and inspired narrative to ‘Horse Cave, Kentucky’ spinning a tale of a painted canvas of real life. ‘Hearsay’ the title track which opens this eleven song strong release, just pulling up a minute short of the three quarters of an hour duration, is reminiscent of much of the current singer-songwriter style emerging from East Nashville, with a fair amount finding a receptive audience overseas. Without an over use of country clichés, the ubiquitous serving of melancholy is presented in album closer ‘Just Like a Sad Song’ and, like much of this record, the track attracts your attention and leaves a lasting rewarding effect.

It has already been referred to that Stephen Simmons is an eternal music traveller and opportunities to catch him live come around frequently. Renewed press for HEARSAY will help present an album which will meet approval by those looking to kick back and immerse themselves in a sound keeping nostalgia relevant in this modern age. It also acts as a perfect introduction to his work and certainly entices seeking out one of his shows.

Baskery - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 28th October 2014

For one night only, the Kitchen Garden Café ditched the quaint singer-songwriter ethos and kicked the proverbial in the guise of Swedish alt-country trio Baskery. The regular nine month stints the Bondesson sisters have spent in Nashville has formed a dim view of the modern country music direction and inspired them to further pursue a mission of spreading the word of mud country and banjo punk. A ninety minute set of frenzied activity, raucous tunes and using every inch of the confined space saw a Birmingham audience thankful that Baskery had ended their five year exile of playing the city.

In fact the three sisters, now veterans of three studio albums with a fourth on the way, admitted that they had neglected the UK market for too long with festivals and the odd date being their recent focus on our shores. On the evidence of this evening, the songs, sound, stage show and passion is in place to build an audience that had an initial lift half a dozen years ago with an opening slot on Seth Lakeman’s 2008 tour. With a striking visual presence and enamoured chemistry, the girls have well and truly branched out from their Stockholm roots becoming strong international artists in their own right.

From a left to right audience view, Stella holds things together on upright bass; Greta’s multi-faceted input excels on banjo and percussion, while Sunniva mixes the acoustic and electric rhythm guitars. Together they share, harmonise and combine vocals to bring a bunch of songs that both inform and entertain with only the odd cover thrown in. Tonight, Neil Young’s ‘Only Man’ got the Baskery treatment suggesting where they get their lyrical inspiration from to add flavour to a sound paying homage to bluegrass, old time country and the raw energy of new wave punk.

Interspersed between the songs, often in extended live mode, was a mixture of irreverent chat and informed background to their origin with perhaps the most interesting being ‘The Big Flo’, taken from the most recent album LITTLE WILD LIFE. In addition to the theme of that particular song, incidentally a contrived plane crash in Mexico, we also learned how newspapers inspired Sunniva to write ‘The Last Beat’. Along with these pair of songs, of which the latter shaped up to be the encore number, the recent album offered ‘The Shadow’ and an a Capella opening with ‘Northern Girl’.

The signal that the girls are about to enter the studio to record another album came with two preview numbers ‘Cat Flap’ and ‘Cactus Boy’, songs which on first listen appeared to have a more alt-country rock feel to them. However the two highlights of the evening saw the band return to their debut release, FALL AMONG THIEVES. ‘I Haunt You’ closed the main set, while the girls produced a frantic peak on ‘One Horse Down’ with Greta taking the banjo to its limit and Sunniva deciding it was time to raise the stakes in the Café a little higher turning the bass drum into a platform to showcase her guitar playing skills. The come down from that evening high saw a more tender song in ‘Tendencies’ as the venue had its usual demeanour returned.

An evening initially delayed by traffic problems, got off to an impressive start with a good opening set from local artist Alex Olm, ably supported by Julianne on fiddle and defined by a subtle mesmeric vocal style utilising the sound system well. An effective support artist always sets up the main event well as Baskery proceeded to raise the temperature and remind everybody what an exciting live act they are. We need the Bondesson sisters to keep their promise of increased Baskery UK shows as there is definitely a growing audience thirsty for more of their Swedish take on Americana music.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Angaleena Presley - American Middle Class Slate Creek Records

Articulate, authentic and actualisation are three carefully chosen words which perfectly sum up AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS, the excellent debut album by Angaleena Presley. Penned with extreme eloquence and enlightenment by Angaleena and her team of writers, all twelve tracks pin the album firmly in the camp of contemporary country traditionalism and creatively capture the realism of an individual perception on life. The skill and panache adapted to this record is a credit to Angaleena who now has a product to break out from her Pistol Annies days and demand the attention of an industry consistently wriggled with commercial conservatism.

It is worth noting that there is a perceived difference with the term ‘middle class’ between our two nations with Angaleena’s upbringing being far from as comfortable as the phrase suggests over here.  However Angaleena felt there was an untold story that needed to be shared and the challenge is not to be impressed with the outcome especially when we match up lyrical content with theme, song structure and a concoction of sounds to thrill the purists.

Whether or not the masses have been exposed to issues surrounding religion, drink, poverty, marital disharmony and unplanned pregnancies, Angaleena doesn’t shy away from any of them, often in autobiographical mode. However a serious candidate for the strongest track on the album is a marvellous melange of mundane observations and ‘Grocery Store’ is certainly an ode to gritty realism rather than the search for escapism. The bar for high level engagement is elevated to stratospheric heights for the pedal steel driven ‘Dry County Blues’ as Angaleena uses the medium of real country music to take a lyrical snapshot of the less salubrious aspects of life, introducing us to the wonderful phrase ‘pillbillies’ along the way.

Partnering the production duties with her husband Jordan Powell has worked wonders for Angaleena, as free from interference, they assembled a top team of players and writers as well as finding an ideal outlet in the form of Slate Creek Records. Their previous release 12 STORIES by Brandy Clark received cemented acclaim from influential sources and potentially acted as a blueprint to the depth of observational substance strived for in AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS. Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mark D. Sanders are three examples of the high calibre of writer to collaborate on the record as Anglaeena switched between solo and co-write status for each track. One of the former was a song Mark and she wrote a few years back when Heidi Newfield cut the track ‘Knocked Up’ on her 2008 album.

Probably the most talked about solo write on the record is the title track ‘American Middle Class’ which took its inspiration from the musings of Angaleena’s coal miner father and the decision to merge their spoken format into the song works wonders. This extended piece of social commentary provokes both thought and debate with the speech sampling being a technique also applied to Angaleena’s take on religion ‘All I Ever Wanted’. The themes roll on with ‘Pain Pills’ focussing on one angle of addiction and has the Pistol Annies sound stamped across it. ‘Drunk’ is made of solid country music staple stock in the tradition of the iconic trail of female performers, while ‘Life of the Party’ is another song awash with an everyday theme. This track has the potential to reach out to listeners who perhaps are free from many of the issues dealt with on the record but can identify with the subject of the song.

All the usual sounds you associate with country music appear on the record with a more leftfield segment being some glorious soulful keyboard work on album opener ‘Ain’t No Man’ where a deluge of ironic similes serve as an enticing starter to the prose of the record. ‘Better off Red’ and ‘Blessing and a Curse’ are further fine examples of how the sound keeps you hooked for the 47 minute playing time and album closer ‘Surrender’ ponders a resigned train of thought with a catchy groove to belie the message of the song.

Even if you are a listener who does not identify with the theme of each song, engaging, understanding and believing in the thoughts and words of Angaleena Presley is impossible to avoid. AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS is another release to prove that female country music output outside of the mainstream is at the top of its game and where the spirit of the genre resides. Don’t construct your end of year highlights list without listening to this record first.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Luke Jackson - Artrix ArtsCetre, Bromsgrove Saturday 25th October 2014

Luke Jackson has not been short of plaudits in his short career and having now witnessed him and his trusty guitars for a an hour and half, the jigsaw puzzle of praise reveals a talent raw, rare and rapidly racing ahead of time. It may be a reluctant cliché but this is clearly an extremely experienced head on such young shoulders with the winners being an audience hooked by the mesmeric charm of his songs, persona and guitar playing. Respected sources are potentially anointing Luke as the next big thing in British folk but sometimes it’s wise to remain in the present and enjoy the moment.

Midlands based promoters Bright Side Music were rewarded for the foresight to book Luke by a near sell out turnout in the studio venue of Bromsgrove’s Artrix Arts Centre and those who elected to spend their Saturday evening supporting live music had the joy of some splendid entertainment. With two albums under his belt and some new songs to share, Luke is not short of material and only throws in the odd cover to add flavour to a show by sharing his inspiration. ‘Beeswing’ by Richard Thompson allows Luke to indulge in a little folk rock and marry up his guitar playing skills with eloquent storytelling, while ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ tantalises us with a dose of Americana. While this Canterbury based young man is forging a very English path in style, there are forays into the world of gospel and blues leaving a thought of what could emerge if Luke ever took a trip down the Delta.

The vocals ride the emotion of each song, whether requiring impetus or retraction, and the guitar playing exudes the mood of the sentiment. Confidence flowers in the storytelling and the poise to shake off a broken string, although it’s always handy to have a part time techie named Doug in the audience ready to give a hand. Perhaps at this stage of his career it is the song writing that’s creating waves for Luke and paving the way for opportunities such as a recent 30 date tour supporting Martin Joseph. Many of these enlightening songs have surfaced on Luke’s two releases to date with an unsurprising slight bias in this set to the latest one FUMES AND FAITH. ‘Answers Have Gone’, ‘Father and Son’, ‘Sister’ and ‘Charlie in the Big World’ all excelled from this 2014 album while the title track from 2012’s MORE THAN BOYS took the honours from his back catalogue. ‘Heart of Stone’ was one new track previewed and the future sounded very promising indeed.

For me, appreciation of Luke Jackson took off after a set in the club tent at this summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival, although praise had been building for a while especially in the guise of a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk nomination in 2013. An abiding memory of Luke enticing the audience to sing along to a chorus of ‘She holds him close’ in his finale number was replicated at the end of this gig taking crowd participation outside of its comfort zone and encouraging folks to stretch their vocal chords. This crowned a night of class, quality and burgeoning talent. The bandwagon of Luke Jackson is freely available to be joined at anytime, whatever your persuasion, style or preference of roots music. This young guy will seriously impress anybody who opts along for the ride.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Zoe Muth - Wightman Hall, Shrewsbury Friday 24th October 2014

‘I’ve got the finest record collection that you have ever seen’ boasts Zoe Muth in the final throes of what is one of the most clever and cutting songs written in the last few years. However the finest record collection wouldn’t be complete without a Zoe Muth recording and a memory library of live performances will have a great hole without seeing Zoe and her band in full flow at least once. The UK are having a second opportunity to catch one of her live shows and the good folk of Shrewsbury heartily supported an artist with an intuition to follow the right path and tap into the soul of real country music.

The song referred to in the opening paragraph took its rightful place towards the latter stages of the evening and while Zoe introduced it as about the theme of being broke, ‘If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)’ can also be interpreted as a song about conditional love. Either way it was a centre-piece of a set which Zoe surprisingly focussed more on her 2009 debut material than the new record but there has been a consistent thread of quality throughout her work in a short but increasingly acclaimed recording career.

On an evening where the vocals were pitched just perfectly above the sound of the band, it was the sum of the four piece combo Zoe has assembled since moving to Austin which proved the key to the success of the show. With a minimum effort, the chemistry and timing between Zoe and her lead guitarist Eric Hisaw and bassist Sean Jacobi was a musical pleasure to savour. We must not forget the heroics of the unsung drummer and Zoe truly acknowledged her longstanding percussionist Greg Nies. Knowing when to move around the scale, the fine balance between the slower songs such as ‘Starlight Hotel’ and quite a rocked up version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ was perfectly tuned. There was perhaps a Friday evening tilt towards the more upbeat songs and for once a constant buzz of noise from the rear of a cavernous venue added a small touch of authenticity to an artist now plying her trade around the joints of Austin Texas. 

The pick of the songs chosen to entertain a sizable audience, apart from the obvious highlight, included the stand out number from current release WORLD OF STRANGERS, ‘Mama Needs a Margarita’, a gem from her first album ‘You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying’ and pre-encore belter ‘Hey Little Darlin’’. Without the fine detail of song knowledge, satisfaction was in plentiful supply by just kicking back and taking in the artistry of a hot tightknit band and a vocalist born to sing the sad country song in a distinct and original way.

While Zoe is very much an excellent songwriter cutting her cloth back in her home state of the Pacific North West’s Washington, the evening’s support act were a group of young local guys out to have a good time singing a host of classic country and Americana songs rather well. Two-Faced Tom and the Bootleg Boys to give them their distinctive name came across as dedicated followers of a great tradition, hailing Hank Williams, interpreting the work of Ernest Tubbs and delving deep into the history of American music with a version of ‘Midnight Special’. It was the perfect warm up opening set and the guys would surely have learned a few tips by hanging around to watch Zoe and the boys.

Since Zoe was introduced to UK audiences via Bob Harris a handful of years ago, interest in her has been growing. The move to Austin has worked wonders for her sound development and the 2014 stage show blossomed with poise and confidence. Many people know that the spirit of real country music has ebbed away from Music Row and a little bit surfaced in a young Seattle girl with a yearning to write songs. Today that young girl proudly stands as a consummate real country music performer and it was a delight to finally see Zoe Muth live in the UK.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Red Molly - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 21st October 2014

Taking your music to new territories can be a daunting prospect but when you possess the talent of American trio Red Molly then the task is made a whole lot easier. With a recording career stretching back a decade, Molly Venter, Laurie MacAllister and Abbie Gardner decided it was time to try their luck in the UK and the latest release, simply titled THE RED ALBUM, was the ideal accompaniment to cross the pond. After a summer of UK press, the inaugural tour is underway and with little hesitation Midlands promoters Cosmic American booked them for a pair of gigs in Nottingham and Birmingham. The latter’s Hare and Hounds venue hosted a decent turnout frequented by those both new to the band and others who have tracked their career for a while. There was a unanimous verdict of approval at the end as another cracking and accomplished touring band were added to the growing list of recent times.

For genre junkies, Red Molly, who all hail from the North Eastern part of the US, comfortably ease between country, folk and many other corners of American music heritage. The latest record saw the band increase their quota of original music but much of their charm oozes from their ability to adapt the work of others in a confident, assured and innovative way. This is beautifully exemplified by a version of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning' where surely British guitar god and the song’s composer Richard Thompson is tipping his trademark beret to Abbie’s interpretation of the track’s breath taking riff on her Dobro guitar. In fact the whole evening was packed with magical moments emerging from her playing along with enlightening stories such as when she and Jonathan Byrd conjured up a dark Hank Williams-like number in ‘When It All Goes Wrong’.

On the opposite side of the stage to Abbie, Molly added the acoustic guitar sound to the mix and sung beautifully all night, no finer than on a Dolly Parton cover ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. This was as about as pure country as the band got throughout the evening with the ladies also giving a nod to the Delta Blues with a version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Come on in My Kitchen’. Bridging the pickin’ talents of Molly and Abbie, as well as cutting a re-assuring pose at the heart of the trio, was Laurie who held court with her 1963 electric bass guitar. All three showed off their vocal talents at opportune moments and blissfully filled the air with sweet music when coming together for sumptuous harmonies. These peaked with a wish influenced self-write ‘Copper Ponies’, a delve into the dark world of folk murder ballads ‘Clinch River Blues’ and an A Capella style finale believed to be ‘Dear Someone’.

Spanning either side a mid-evening break, the ladies also showcased ‘I am Listening’, ‘Sing to Me’ and ‘Pretend’ from the new album alongside their version of the Paul Simon classic ‘Homeward Bound’. Just to prove that they can also rock it with the best, a cover of ‘Can’t Let Go’ by Lucinda Williams went down a storm with an informed audience and the ladies paid respect to the Great American Songbook by opening the second set with the much loved ‘Fever’. Just picture all these iconic songs perfectly executed with exemplary musicianship and voices born to grace your ear with angelic bliss.

You got the impression of witnessing the birth of a long lasting fraternal relationship between Red Molly and UK audiences. A return tour looks on the cards for 2015 and word will surely get around that this trio are a hot ticket. The ice has been broken and relationships formed, leaving the prospect of adding Red Molly to the perennial list of regular UK visitors an enticing one.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Old Crow Medicine Show + Parker Millsap - The Ritz, Manchester. Sunday 19th October 2014

Blistering bluegrass; Classic country; Awesome Americana. Three simple superlatives that sum up the manic musical mayhem that transpires into an Old Crow Medicine Show live performance. Faint hearts and traditional deniers need not apply to join their band wagon but fans of Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel’ are welcome as long as they treat the song as an initiation into the old time world of the Old Crow Medicine Show. Many of those who packed the 1500 capacity Ritz in Manchester well and truly bought in to the ideals of the band with several hard core gig goers shuffling out at the end muttering that they had just witnessed the best concert of 2014.

With such a turnout and buzzing atmosphere throughout the evening, there was a satisfying re-assurance that the future of country music in the UK was heading down the right path. Although it has to be acknowledged that the Old Crow Medicine Show has made several UK visits over the years, cultivating a fan base and possibly attracting a cross genre audience. Recently acclaimed collaborations with Mumford and Sons via their award winning road trip documentary will have served them no harm but ultimately it’s their impressive songs and spellbinding stage show that successfully seduces an audience.

There was the added spice to this 2014 UK tour that Old Crow were bringing along Parker Millsap as their opening act. Stateside luminaries have been shouting from the rooftops for a while about the talents of this latest incarnation of an Oklahoma song writing gem, bestowing him with an Emerging Artist nominee at this year’s Americana awards. Armed with a stack of songs from his excellent self-titled new album, Parker brought a touch of dustbowl blues to a damp Manchester alongside his sidekicks of Michael Rose (upright bass) and Daniel Foulks (fiddle). Growing in influence and presence with each song, Parker was approaching his peak by the end of his short opening set. Whilst the projection of his stunning anti-love song ‘The Villain’ would have been more suited to a smaller quieter venue on this occasion, ‘Old Time Religion’ and especially ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ at the end saw him hit a mightily impressive stride. Old Crow’s decision to bring Parker back to sing a version of Van Morrison’s ‘On the Mystic’ during their encore also reaped vast dividends and sealed a positive impression of an artist deep rooted in the soil of authentic Americana.

Right from the lively opening chords of ‘Bushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ through to nearly two hours later, a closing celebration of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, the slick superiority of Old Crow’s supreme stage show sailed through a sea of mainly accelerated acoustic adulation. The interactivity and occasional hyperactivity of all seven band members raised the pulse of a show which ebbed and flowed through the band’s fifteen year recording career. Not surprisingly tracks from their current album REMEDY featured prominently and it is probably a touch harsh to single out ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’, ‘Firewater’ and ‘O Cumberland River’ as stand out live numbers. Many would no doubt enthuse about that other Dylan finishing project ‘Sweet Amarillo’ as main vocalist Ketch Secor sarcastically hailed the country radio playing of that other Dylan originating song as the prompt for the great man to send another unfinished masterpiece to them.

The current Old Crow Medicine Show line up is a transient co-operative of roots music artisans blasting out banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica amongst countrified pedal steel and soulful keys, all being kept in time by percussion and upright bass. Alongside Secor’s main vocals and band leading presence, Critter Fuqua provided most singing assistance with Gill Landry particularly stepping forward to heat things up with a hearty serving from ‘Mary’s Kitchen’. Kevin Hayes came to the fore impressively on ‘Sweet Home’, while comical interludes and theatrical step dancing were among the many talents of Cory Younts. Individual performance aside, the spirit of the band is in its collective aura and passion to pioneer the roots of country and bluegrass music long into the future.

As the show progressed, the packed venue responded to each request, whether restoring near silence for the band to deliver a couple of numbers around a single mic with minimal instrumentation such as ‘The Warden’ or needing little encouragement to bellow out the chorus to ‘Wagon Wheel’ word perfect. The renewed life of this old song has been incredible in the past year with a deluge of different versions accompanying many live shows up and down the country. From a personal viewpoint ‘Alabama High Test’ held a special moment as 2008’s TENESSEE PUSHER release propelled the band in my direction and there was a slight disappointment that ‘Dearly Departed Friend’ from the new album didn't fill the occasional moments when everyone needed a breather.

Best gig attended of 2014? It is wrong to assume that any of the remaining shows will not surpass the highs of this Old Crow Medicine Show gig. Credit to Manchester for hosting three great shows this year when you add in Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves to this one; Shame on the venues of Birmingham for not willing to bring the cream of country talent to the Second City. However some evenings are worth the investment of time and travel. Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap rewarded that investment many times over.

Review Parker Millsap's new self-titled album

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Danny and the Champions of the World - O2 Academy 3, Birmingham, Saturday 18th October 2014

Danny Wilson proudly proclaims his band as ‘champions of the world’, while others hail them as the best live act on the UK circuit. The merits of both claims have great substance and plenty of evidence is on display each time they take to the stage. The belief Danny has in his band is undeniable and he fully understands the value of combination and co-operation. Closely observing, then immersing yourself into the work of this genre defying band is a riveting experience, although the true pleasure is leaving the scrutiny to one side and riding the euphoric wave of good time vibes radiating from the band in full flow.

This tour by Danny and the Champions of the World encompasses the past, the present and the future. While technically the tour is supporting the new record, LIVE CHAMPS, this particular release is celebrating the past or to be more accurate, one magical night at the Jazz Café. So the set list for this Birmingham gig contained many old favourites and a substantial collection from last year’s much loved studio release STAY TRUE. The country soul path that Danny led the band down on this record was a refreshing sound and similar soulful vibes adorned the two tracks that he previewed for the next record. These two were perhaps a little more up tempo, possibly proving comparable to the sound of US acclaimed band St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The un-naming of these songs preserves a touch of mystique about the new record with Danny himself still unsure of the ultimate direction, although one certainty is that they’ll make you dance.

Fresh from their successful worldwide support slot opening for Tori Amos, south coast based alt-folk duo Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou have re-united with Danny to show those arriving early at the gig what an exceptional duo they are. It was a pity that these pair of ex-champs had a prior commitment that prevented them joining in the fun at the end but an impromptu sentimental moment saw Danny invited on stage to sing them a song to commemorate their wedding anniversary. The two guitar-single mic format suits their unique vocals and the performance harked back to an excellent set they played at the 2013 Maverick Festival. Spinning visions of the 60s New York folk revival sound, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou deliver their songs with fine exquisiteness and aligned harmony, tantalising you to want a little bit more than their thirty minute opening set.

The country soul sound that has defined the current momentum of the champs centres round the pedal steel of Henry Senior Jr and Free Jazz Geoff’s luxurious sax contributions. Sparkling lead guitar segments by Paul Lush ladles each song with finesse while the rhythmic engine room of bassist Chris Clarke and drummer Steve Brookes keeps the tight sound intact. Danny George Wilson, to give him his full and solo status name, skilfully orchestrates a live performance which often sees three or four minute studio tracks turned into ten minute concert extravaganzas, liberally sprinkled with individual band member interludes.

An enthusiastic, committed and appreciative Saturday night Birmingham turnout bought into Danny’s mutual ethos from early in the gig, which eventually spawned into a set exceeding two hours. In a venue that hosts a decent sound system within a soulless corporate shell, few would leave without an affirmative acknowledgement that Danny and the Champions of the World perfectly execute the ultimate intimate interactive show. Any issues surrounding the Second City’s viable reception of Americana music are best debated elsewhere and true live music will always survive the situation.

For a more comprehensive documentation of the set list, it is suggested that you invest in LIVE CHAMPS but needless to say ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ is the ideal show opener, ‘Henry the Van’ oozes with alternative sentimentality and ‘These Days’ removes the static element from every member of the audience. Those with an ear for good taste understand and fully appreciate what Danny and the Champions of the World stand for. Intelligent acclaim is aplenty for Danny Wilson and commercial justice, with a prevailing wind, is within his grasp. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Seth Lakeman - Birmingham Town Hall, Friday 17th October 2014

Occasionally the wider music community takes a peep into the world of Seth Lakeman but all they will usually see is a focussed and driven artist pursuing his passion for traditional sound and song. The respect from his peers and loyal fan base is intact, with each tour and project sealing the pact between artist and audience. Seth’s now annual visits to the West Midlands have tended to rotate between Birmingham and Black Country venues in Bilston and Wolverhampton with a packed Town Hall this time welcoming him to the heart of the Second City. What was on offer was the usual high quality serving of flowing fiddle, stomping sound and a carefully crafted collection of compositions.

Seth is touring this year to promote his new album WORD OF MOUTH and skilfully weaved a set list strategically to support this release alongside old favourites which have formed the bedrock of his live shows over the years. A Seth Lakeman show is all about a switch of tempo and from the reaction of this Friday night audience, there was only going to be one winner as a usually conservative Town Hall crowd removed their shackles for a dance. Having seen Seth perform on countless occasions, a preference has long been developed for his up tempo material and to perfect cue, ‘Colliers’, ‘Kitty Jay’ and ‘Race to be King’ all raised the temperature and sent ripples of activity around the venue. Without being too crude, Seth Lakeman is a ‘red’ hot fiddle player and is at his best when orchestrating a rousing sound either solo or leading his band.

For what appeared to be the first time in my book, Seth was the only Lakeman on stage with Jack Rutter taking over general guitar duties alongside Cormack Byrne on percussion and regular in-demand bassist Ben Nicholls in his usual stalwart role. Lisbee Stainton continues to balance her solo career with a now regular place in the band adding banjo, vocals and harmonium. A striking visual observation of the band on stage is that rarely do any consecutive songs have the same musical line up present as instruments are exchanged and individuals stand aside on certain numbers. On one of the evening’s stand out slower songs, Seth and Lisbee excelled as a duo on ‘White Hare’ and there is a no more stunning atmospheric feel to the gig than the lights dimming and then shining intensely on Seth as the solo fiddle player on stage.

For what was believed to be the first time witnessed at a Seth gig, he utilised the opening artist and brought back feisty Aussie roots rocker Kim Churchill to the stage twice to add some glorious blues drenched harp most notably to a rousing number from the new album titled ‘Last Rider’. Kim’s opening thirty minute set was perfectly planned for a Friday gig with a dose of fast paced roots rock delivered in a one man band style. Kim was last seen in the city opening for Billy Bragg on a Sunday night but this time he tuned in more to the upbeat vibes of the expectation.

Seth’s role in powering a new generational appetite for exploring traditional song saw him explain the ethos behind the Full English project and played a song under that banner called ‘Stand By Your Guns’. He also delivered an impassioned version of a Jim Radford song ‘The Shores of Normandy’ amidst a respect to the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. An appreciable audience gave these songs their full attention and in contrast helped Seth with a chorus contribution of “Raise your glass to the one you love” on ‘Portrait of My Wife’.

This gig by Seth Lakeman was business as usual with the added bonus of Kim Churchill’s contribution leading to a slightly different sound on a couple of numbers.Business as usual in Seth Lakeman’s book is an exceptional night out with an artist who entertains, enthrals and embraces a traditional sound in a contemporary manner. The Town Hall in Birmingham certainly knows a winning formula. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone Highway 20 Records

If you are a paid up subscriber to the theory that CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD is by far the finest segment of the Lucinda Williams back catalogue then standby for a release that will at least challenge your perception. With a vocal acumen that gets richer in age and an appetite to re-discover her southern roots, DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE sees Lucinda capture the mood of the land, moment and feeling to embark on a prolific bout of stunning song writing and stellar music production. This 20 track collection signals a return of the classic double album and, while certainly not for the meek, submerging yourself into this golden seam of country soul will leave a prolonged essence of gratifying satisfaction. 

Lucinda, her husband Tom Overby and Greg Leisz collaborated on the production duties and emerged from their LA studio with an album dressed for classic recognition and an inaugural release on their appropriately named Highway 20 Records label. This road, so integral to Lucinda’s Mississippi upbringing, has acted as a conductive influence in much the same vein as Rosanne Cash’s recent masterpiece delved beyond the tales of the south. The drifting soulful tones of Lucinda mark a difference between the albums, although both excel on sound and production. The enlisting of Tony Joe White to play guitar on a handful of tracks and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Davy Faragher and Pete Thomas) on a significant number of others has enhanced the sound. Lucinda finds her superlative writing groove by directly penning 18 of the tracks, choosing a solitary cover in JJ Cale’s 10 minute epic ‘Magnolia’ and re-working one of her father’s poems ‘Compassion’. The album draws its title from a line in this piece and reveals appropriately where this record takes you with repeated listens.

Finding time in your busy lives to listen intently to all 103 minutes of both discs in one sitting may be tough but essential at least once or twice and it’s nigh on impossible to hone in on a stand out number. However no review would be complete without earmarking those tracks having a profound early effect and possibly may serve as focal points. ‘West Memphis’ recounts a miscarriage of justice in a resigned sort of way awash with sultry grooves and a languid backbeat. ‘Burning Bridges’ possesses the album’s knockout melody and is definitely a radio-friendly track, although in my book radio would be improved by playing any of the 20 songs. On the subject of airplay, the mainstream won’t touch ‘This Old Heartache’ but it’s tough to think of a better pure country song put to record this year. On an album almost entirely the vocal domain of Lucinda, Jakob Dylan, fast becoming a go to guest vocalist, makes an appearance on ‘It’s Gonna Rain’.

Several enlightening online interviews with Lucinda have proved invaluable sources in adding a background flavour to the record and reading them while listening to the songs evolves into a dual pleasure. ‘Wrong Number’ proves to be a very personal sad number and the spiritual pairing of ‘Everything but the Truth’ and ‘Something This Wicked Comes’ reveal a fascination with both sides of the religious divide. If you’re searching for a track to melt you away, ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing’) will seductively oblige, while ‘Walk On’ and ‘Protection’ possess an upbeat appeal to induce a more active feeling.

Apologies to anyone already smitten with this album and crying out for a reference to an omitted track. On the other hand, delving into the record via any of the 20 tracks will lure you deeper into its vaults and lead you ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’. Don’t worry staunch Lucinda Williams’ fans, the legacy of CAR WHEELS….. is still intact but we will certainly be talking about DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE in years to come. Savouring the delights of this magnificent piece of work comes with the highest recommendation and cements Lucinda Williams as an Americana artist of the highest pedigree.

Interview with Rolling Stone

Interview with Wall Street Journal

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Rod Picott - George IV Pub, Lichfield, Saturday 11th October 2014

He may be an established member of the UK international touring circuit but Rod Picott never loses the blessing of someone who came to full time musicianship later in life than the usual career trajectory of a recording artist. With a personal milestone anniversary on the horizon, Rod still retains the passion of taking his music, songs and stories out on the road and the knack of connecting effectively with his audience. In the last dozen or so years the records have flowed consistently from the guitar and pen of Rod, successfully maintaining their quality and ensuring that his set lists can accurately represent the full span of his recording career. This evening’s show in Lichfield followed this winning formula leaving a probably already committed audience content with their 2014 live fix of Rod Picott.

Staffordshire based promoters Hot Burrito were on fairly safe ground having booked Rod on three previous occasions, although they experimented this time by being forced to leave their idyllic usual village hall location for a more conventional semi urban venue. The back room of the George IV pub in Lichfield was packed to its limited capacity reflecting a turnout many promoters would be grateful for and creating an intimate environment that met the full approval of Rod. As is normally the case where no support is available, the main act spread their sets either side of a lengthy break and those present had far more exposure to Rod Picott than when he last visited the area. Twelve months ago he was slightly overshadowed by the Wild Ponies who excited many with their debut UK gigs and this year’s touring schedule gave the promotion the opportunity to book separate dates for them.

So armed with a bunch of albums including his latest 2013 release HANG YOUR HOPES ON A CROOKED NAIL and a clear run, Rod utilised every moment of his time in the spotlight to remind everyone how entertaining an evening mixed with fine music, song and tales can be. Although a few of the stories were familiar from last year, the expansion of time on this date allowed several additional ones in particular the family heritage link to ‘Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues’ and his own personal residential experience in ‘Mobile Home’. Of course a Rod Picott show always has the possibility of referencing two other popular artists associated with him over the years. The mutual and harmonious break up with his ex-partner Amanda Shires is documented in ‘Might Be Broken Now’ and his solitary happy song ‘Angels and Acrobats’ has the distinction of being recorded by both artists on individual solo records.

The other artist close to Rod is his good buddy Slaid Cleaves and it was good to hear their co-write ‘Broke Down’ especially has Slaid has seemingly taken a break from touring this country. This song had all the credentials of being the evening’s stand out number, although he launched the show with a couple of his classic industrial inspired compositions, ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’. While travels around the country have been necessary to promote his career including a stint in Nashville, where an association with Alison Krauss created opportunities, it is the industrial north east and his many years of hard labour that has influenced much of his writing. Recollections of his upbringing in South Berwick, Maine were extensive leading into songs such as ‘Where No One Knows My Name’.

The preview of a new song hinted that the frequency of Rod Picott albums may be maintained in the future and the closing moments of the evening saw a version of ‘Nobody Knows’ in tribute to a faithful UK friend unable to attend shows on this tour due to personal difficulties. It is this attention to touring detail that has served Rod well in the past and the likelihood of him continuing to visit us long into the future. An artist who maximises their talent and develops an affinity with their followers gives themselves a fair chance of succeeding and Rod Picott continues to rejoice in the path he has chosen.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Parker Millsap - Parker Millsap Okrahoma Records

Spin this record once and you’ll be impressed. Spin it a dozen times and layer upon layer of superior song writing talent will be revealed. Quite remembering that Parker Millsap is just 21 years old can be a tough task as his seasoned vocals and mature approach to music making belie someone at the beginning of what should be a long and fruitful recording career. This self-titled release is actually Parker’s second full length record but is packed full of breakthrough qualities. Musically Parker calls at several ports along the way notably blues, gospel, country, jazz and straight forward singer-song writing fare but rarely lingers long enough to be typecast. What you do discover is that Parker is adept at harnessing all that’s sirenic about roots instrumentation at its combo best. When mixed with his compulsive lyrical musings, the whole album is an edifying listening experience.

The Americana Music Association has already recognised Parker as one of the genre’s emerging talents of the last year and UK fans will have a brief glimpse of him as the opening act on Old Crow Medicine Show’s short tour. However there is so much scope for Parker to follow in the footsteps of fellow young Oklahoma based artists – John Fullbright and Samantha Crain – in cultivating a sizable European following by extensive touring. The ten songs composed to form this optimum offering will serve this mission well if it is on Parker’s radar.

Religion played an important part in the upbringing of Parker Millsap and the topic is a recurring theme throughout the album. Although the spiritual distance between his Pentecostal background and the present has grown wider, the topic and experiences prove a fertile source for his song writing. Lead off track 'Old Time Religion’ had recent exposure as a single release and possesses a haunting explorative feel to it, in contrast to ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ which has more lively rousing beat. However both songs take an almost outside view of their subject with just a little irony in the latter. While on the semi spiritual theme, ‘When I Leave’, complete with harmonica interlude and demo presence, also touches on the subject and houses one of Parker’s most impressive and non- clichéd lines “When I leave maybe I’ll go to heaven. When I leave maybe I’ll go somewhere else.”

Similarities to John Fullbright are liberally found throughout the record, although vocally Parker generally has a more gravelly and earthy tone. The twin tracks ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘The Villain’ follow Fullbright’s winning formula with the first aching in redemption and the second enriched by a soaring verse segment. This latter song was also featured on the OLD RELIGION EP and stakes a good claim to being the album’s standout track. This is closely rivalled by ‘At the Bar’ which edges into country territory with a waltz-like sentiment and the killer line “Melancholy melody that’s the place I belong.”

More sentiment follows in the ballad ‘Yosemite’, one of the dream locations Parker wants to take the subject of the song when his winning ticket comes in. Like a couple of other tracks, the input of horns is experimented with but mainly the sound of the record relies on the trusted trio of guitars, fiddle and banjo. A nod to the blues is more prevalent in the closing number where a grainy guitar sound accompanies ‘Land of the Red Man’, a curious and cutting take on his home state with a final remark that it is “better than Texas”. Of the remaining tracks, ‘Disappear’ is a steady number, while ‘Quite Contrary’ has a demo sound to it and a poetic lyrical make up set to traditional rhyme.

Parker Millsap’s second album is defined by an intuitive nature to explore a variety of experiences, feelings and styles within a context of the quintessential Mid-West songbook. Dive deep into this record and sunken treasure will be found in the guise of an artist locked in for a successful future.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Red Sky July - The Musician, Leicester Tuesday 7th October 2014

How do you follow up producing an album that flirted with perfection before nestling in the upper echelons of your music appreciation? Well just short of releasing its successor to equal acclaim, which on this occasion may not be too far away, taking it on the road and showing its excellence is far from confined to the studio  is not a bad option. We may have been short on full band production but when you are blessed with the two part harmonies of Shelly and Charity held together by the majestic guitar skills of Ally, the captivating songs from Red Sky July’s second album SHADOWBIRDS had little difficulty in making the transition. The transformation of Leicester’s established Musician venue from rock pub to intimate listening parlour added to the aura of a performance frequented by a respectful and appreciative gathering.

In what was an evening defined by quality over quantity, the trio quite rightly decided to major on the recent release which was played almost in its entirety. Perhaps we needed Jack Savoretti to bound on stage and sing his part on ‘Any Day Now’ but they wisely decided to put an alternative version on hold. However the rest of SHADOWBIRDS sparkled and flowed with several anecdotes and observations showing the record in a new light. Is it possible to listen to ‘New Morning Light’ again without a feel for the joy Shelly is sharing in Ally’s recovery, while an enlightening awareness of ‘Renegade’ metaphorically painting the canvass of a Cormac McCarthy novel turned this haunting tune on its head.

The latter heralded a brief fiddle interlude from Charity, although I’m pretty sure that she and Shelly will bow to the prime musical steering stemming from the dual acoustic and electric artistry of Ally McEarlaine bringing all the experience of his many years at the heart of Scottish rock band Texas. Not that the background of his wife Shelly and Charity (surname Hair thus the sole non-McErlaine in the trio) has been short on success and their sweet vocals comfortably smothered around both their own compositions and the selected works of others. These included recently aired social media versions of ‘Hey Brother’ and ‘Take It to the Limit’, along with the delightful ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’, one of a handful of tracks lifted from their self-titled debut release.

With Shelly extolling the virtue of an album carefully track ordered in fine precision, the closing number of SHADOWBIRDS ‘Solitary Woman’ shivered your senses in a similar way that ‘Made for Each Other’ exalted heart melting qualities. ‘Losing You’ has been a rapidly evolving progressive track from the record and although its stripped back version significantly altered the sound, the mesmeric nature of the melody refused to lower the effect of tantalising your listening genes. Maybe the light hearted closing version of ‘9 to 5’ was a touch out of sync with the ambience of the evening but by then the die was cast and this fine album had successfully completed its fulfilling journey from studio to stage.

Prior to Red Sky July showing how a UK act can make a great record absorbing all that’s special about country, its alt compatriot and Americana flavoured music, a four piece band (sadly reduced to three on the evening) under the name of Mr Plow opened proceedings with their take on the self-described ‘ugly side of Americana’. While struggling without a lead guitar, they left a dark but prominent imprint on the evening in a style not short of conviction and belief in the quest of their mission. Sad songs reigned supreme for half an hour before Red Sky July demonstrated a more balanced view of the human emotion.

Shelly McErlaine, Charity Hair and Ally McErlaine are well on the way to cementing Red Sky July as a key player on the UK scene. Since their support slot to Beth Nielsen Chapman in the early months of 2014, the trajectory of their career as a trio has grown steeply upward. This Leicester show crowned the joy derived from many repeated listens to SHADOWBIRDS and attention now excitingly turns to what next.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Kaity Rae - Spark EP Folkstock Records

First we had the compilation album previewing the talent, now the blossoming comes to the fore as more of the Folkstock artists move into the spotlight with their extended releases. Hot on the heels of Kelly Oliver and Zoe Wren sending their records out to press, Kaity Rae is next in line with a four track EP stunning in quality and blooming with maturity for one primarily at the outset of a promising career. If Kelly excelled in a song delivery to charm the traditionalists and Zoe possessed that innate ability to craft a magical tune, Kaity oozes with a confidence to reach out far out beyond the rapidly declining boundaries of folk music. Of course there is a school of thought for the need to preserve such boundaries but the beauty of Kaity’s music will rise above any curtailment.

From a personal perspective, lifting Kaity from the FEMME FATALES OF FOLK album and showcasing four of her songs in this introductory package has raised the appreciation threshold tenfold. Perhaps separating her from the other outstanding artists allows your senses to focus and the added concentration reaps the rewards with a showering of fine songs presented with a divine culture and elegance. What also aids Kaity is that the other three songs joining the previously released ‘It Is’ are at least its equal and pushes her talent in a limitless direction.

With the simple title SPARK lifted from the opening track, this trigger related metaphor fires the first shots of a career which has the potential to span the worlds of folk, pop and country. While it is wholly inappropriate to belittle the middle option to someone so young, opportunities to embrace the other two and shape the future direction of the original and traditional songbook are enticing. Selecting a favourite from ‘Spark’, ‘Across the Sea’ and ‘Final Bow’ is a near impossible task as each sparkles with imaginative writing and flawless vocals merging into the majestic music making. The experience may be a brief quarter of an hour but you surface richer and enlightened by the exposure.

Not yet at an age to frequent the ballot box and the bar, Kaity has used her musical schooling to such an effect that the plaudits are beginning to gather pace. The Barnet based artist has been working with John Dines, Benny Beaumont and Lauren Deakin Davies on this project and together the writing, musical arrangement and production has seamlessly evolved into a record capable of moving, delighting and just plain impressing the listener. SPARK is a debut release refusing to be constrained and destined to forge its own path. Kaity Rae is a burgeoning special talent and now recorded proof exists to provide a benchmark of what can be achieved in the future. Although let’s put the future aside for the moment as SPARK is very much about the present. 

Check out Kaity on Facebook

Ian Sherwood - Everywhere to Go Self Released

Without pushing any boundaries, Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Sherwood has served up a highly palatable collection of songs underpinned by a folk substance but frequently uncoiled with a powdering of 80s pop. This latest release from a poetic wordsmith steeped in North East Canadian storytelling lore has adopted mini album status in its eight track compilation and has struck an egalitarian balance between aiming for the pulse and penetrating the heart.

Symmetrical in effect though not necessarily in album position, four tracks could have been lifted straight from the golden age of melodic pop where enthusiasts of a certain age now, once held their breath for the weekly chart entries and countdown. Perhaps there will be an element of nostalgia in this notion as Ian’s inevitable target audience are more likely nowadays to be ploughing through reams of mournful numbers dressed in pain and etched in heartfelt soul.

Yet starting with title track ‘Everywhere to Go’, threading through the chant properties of ‘Non Believer’, tapping your feet to ‘Me or Your Money’ and reminiscing to the sound of ‘Big Love’, this quartet will guarantee a brief respite from that middle aged passion of searching for the meaning of life, or to be more exact, music. Ian executes this part of the record without any throwaway tendencies and portrays an artist at ease with striving for a style to match the conflicting moods of us complex music seeking individuals.

In the name of true eclecticism and for those preferring the safer ground of deep introspection, ‘Stop, Don’t Fall in Love’, ‘Fireman’s Ball’, ‘Kiss Me Quick’ and ‘No Water’ see Ian rein in the search for the killer melody and concentrate on exploring the darker and more solace tinged side of song construction. The degree of Ian’s success depends on the approach of the listener but as you would expect the demand for greater intensity is an essential ingredient in tapping into the vibes from this quartet.

Photo by Scott Blackburn
For the record, all eight tracks are either a solo or co-write of Ian and saw their recording birth in a Toronto studio accompanied by a stream of musicians adding the strings, brass and beat. Ian is making tentative steps in touring the UK, starting off with regional confined dates before hopefully branching out to a wider set of nationwide gigs in 2015. Like many Canadian artists, Ian has been fortunate to receive life blood backing from the government’s heritage department, an increasingly alien concept to UK performers and this has led to recognition from several of the nation’s award giving bodies.

As far as stand out tracks are concerned, it is only polite to select one from each facet of the record with ‘Non Believer’ and ‘Fireman’s Ball’ sharing the honours. Quite how you approach EVERYWHERE TO GO will depend on your prevailing mood but its chameleon characteristics will come in handy and ultimately add to the record’s appeal. Even the hardiest of music critic has the occasional yearning to delve into their non-judgmental past and Ian Sherwood provides this in a well packaged and inviting release.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Mary Gauthier - Glee Club, Birmingham Wednesday 1st October 2014

It may have only been the first day of the year’s fourth quarter but for me that was plenty early enough for Mary Gauthier to sing her festive masterpiece ‘Christmas in Paradise’. On an evening of countless highs, the cries of Mary’s character yelling ‘Merry Christmas y’all’ had to share the limelight with fascinating songs written with soldiers, many enlightening tales from the inside and of course a stream of old favourites. This evening had the special stamp marked right across it as a transfixed audience marvelled at an artist embedded into the core of country, Americana and roots music. Whether pouring her heart into the riveting tracks adorning her latest album TROUBLE AND LOVE or captivating those present with the song ‘Iraq’ telling the untold story of conflict, Mary extolled every virtue of a singer-songwriter riding a career long wave of creative artistry.

To cap a memorable evening, or to be more precise open it, Ben Glover had the live opportunity to present several songs from his excellent recent release ATLANTIC and demonstrate how his song writing talent is being shaped by an association deep into the American psyche. Exceptional tracks like ‘Blackbirds’, The Mississippi Turns Blue’ and ‘Sing a Song Boys’ lifted Ben out of the melange of mediocre support acts with the added poise of charismatic presentation and impassioned song delivery. Ben’s lengthy song association with Mary meant he was destined to appear later in the show but for now we witnessed an artist ready to step out of the shadows of his illustrious collaborators.

TROUBLE AND LOVE without doubt will feature in many top annual album lists and its lead off track ‘When a Woman Goes Cold’ will surely join the ranks of classic Mary Gauthier songs in years to come. It is always a pleasure to have an album track given a lift by a live version and ‘False From True’ possessed an added shiver when sitting barely a couple of strides from its composer and singer. ‘Another Train’ has recently frequented the Grand Ole Opry on a few occasions as the country elite finally recognises an artist rich in the ingredients that make a perfect country song.

Several classics from the rejuvenating years of Mary Gauthier pleased her long-time fans and few failed to grin with the wit of ‘I Drink’, engage with ‘Last of the Hobo Kings’ and purr with her sad masterpiece ‘Mercy Now’. Mary proudly announced her satisfaction of this song making an appearance in Rolling Stone’s 40 greatest sad country songs list and revelled in its place between Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt. There is very little room in a Mary Gauthier set for a cover song but the lyrical magic of Sam Baker has engrossed her enormously and she chose to close the show with a version of the Texan troubadour’s ‘Go in Peace’.

A search for the grave of Robert Johnson in Greenwood, Mississippi and solitary time spent in a Tennessee cabin saw the birth of the song ‘Oh Soul’ before Mary stepped in and led this Ben Glover co-write to a status of taking pride of place on both their current albums. Not surprisingly Ben was invited to join Mary on stage to contribute to its inspirational chorus and its path to crowning a live performance completes the journey for a song encapsulating all that’s mythical in blues and soul southern folklore.

Recurring memories of this evening throw up alternative high spots at regular intervals but the abiding recollection is the treasured experience of being in the exalted company of a premium American singer-songwriter and a burgeoning UK counterpart. When we search for that seasonal offering of Mary Gauthier at the end of the year, perhaps this evening will surface again when the annual ‘best of’ lists are being compiled.