Monday, 22 December 2014

An Alternative Look at the Top 20 Favourite Albums of 2014

Taken from the Top 20 Favourite Albums of 2014, these are just a sample of the tracks that made the releases special. Take a listen, whether you are acquainted with the album they are from or not, and hopefully you will appreciate their merit.

Top 20 Favourite Albums of 2014

It would be wrong to call this list the best albums of 2014, and do a disservice to those many fine releases that haven’t crossed my path yet. So this year it is renamed favourite albums to reflect those records which had the most prominent listening effect on me over the last twelve months. Not all have been reviewed on the site as reviews are restricted to submissions only, but all have provided immense enjoyment during 2014 and deserve their place on this list. So sit back, enjoy and as always,your reading presence for this bout of self-indulgence is highly valued.

1.Miranda Lambert – Platinum                     Review  

A career best release that succeeded in uniting both ends of the country music spectrum. The mainstream revelled in the success of the singles and collaborations, while the true depth of the record was in its core and soul. Sixteen tracks presented a hefty release but the top quality numbers hit double figures to reveal an artist effortlessly moving into the next diverse phase of her career.

2.Red Sky July – Shadowbirds                        Review

This surprise hit of 2014 revealed a beautiful collection of prime melodic songs, sung in sparkling harmony and sealed with exquisite musicianship. Shelly, Charity and Ally set out to mix the best of country, folk and Americana, coming up trumps with a record possessing instant appeal status before retaining an air of substance within your listening repertoire.

3.Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread

In a year of career best releases, Rosanne traced her roots and succinctly captured a breath of southern folklore with a sound rich in execution and accomplishment. Educational, inspirational and enchanting are just three deserved superlatives for a record that was brought to life by Rosanne during her summer UK tour. A widely acclaimed album heading for legendary status.

4.Lucinda Williams - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone        Review

Definitely the most appropriate and highly metaphorically titled album of the year as Lucinda re-wrote the roots agenda in taking her alt-country tendencies deeper than ever before into the psyche of Americana music. To say this is her best effort since the critically acclaimed album ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ is an understatement for a record not once outstaying its lengthy presence.

5.Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes

A folk Americana album embodying the magnetic appeal of roots instrumentation and the wanderlust soul of Alynda Lee Segarra. Its introduction, via a first class radio session, raised the temperature for a release soaked in pure emotion, spirit and a hint of dark musings. Though undervalued in the UK, its day will come with greater awareness.

6.First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

Blessed with a title track proving to be the sound of the summer and heard blasting out of many a cool record shop, the Soderberg sisters moved through the industry gears with a record reaching out to country and folk connoisseurs. The harmonies were stunning alongside melted vocals adorning a bunch of strong evocative songs forming an album rarely off the playlists all year.

7.Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class                      Review

In the absence of a release by Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves, Angaleena Presley filled the gap of social commentary and provided further proof where the strength of quality country song writing lies. Residing in the inhibited world of the indie label, this record experimented extensively, boldly explored common themes and stretched into the world of Americana without losing any strain of attention from the listener.

8.Jennifer Nettles – That Girl

The golden sassy vocals of Georgia’s finest were revitalised in the studio of Rick Rubin as the Sugarland hiatus breathed a renewed sense of life into the career of Jennifer Nettles. With a voice that will never lose its southern country tinge, it was taken into a world of multi-genre songs supremely formatted into an excellent album that provided multiple splendid listens.

9.Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music Review

Whether classified as Americana, traditional country or just plain country music ahead of its time, this release was drooled over all year by plaudits across the world. Likened to many as the true heir to the outlaws, Sturgill belied his indie status to court praise from the very core of the establishment and to the pleasure of us in the UK, his tie up with Loose Music led to frequent visits.

10.Kelly Willis and Bruce Robision – Our Year                          Review

Since discovering that making duet records is not a bad idea, the golden couple of Austin music continue to harness their talents around both original material and cleverly selected covers. Another release proving an instant hit from first listen, it successfully captured the fine individual talents of Kelly and Bruce as well as their mighty acts of unison in a simplistic yet satisfying nature.

11.Dierks Bentley – Riser

Although Dierks flirts a little bit with bro-country in his extrovert nature, he continues to make records generally free of clichés and ones that reflect his true country heart. This widely acclaimed album reached out from the inner sanctum of mainstream country with a string of strong ballads, majestic country rock and certainly not short of raw emotion.

12.Eric Church – The Outsiders

Many proclaimed this a rock album which is difficult to argue against but it is the slightly lower key tender approach that for me reveals the true Eric Church. The album was packed with a variety of sounds and styles alongside reams of interesting lyrical content. Once again a record from the heart of the mainstream which crossed borders successfully, while retaining utmost integrity.

13.Redlands Palomino Company – Broken Carelessly           Review

Each time Alex, Hannah and the boys go into the studio, the results are eagerly awaited and this year’s exceptional release didn’t disappoint, cementing their place as the UK’s premier alt-country rock band. Keeping the pedal steel relevant and fusing it into crashing guitars defines the band which continue to showcase their smart ear for mixing engaging lyrics into popular tunes. 

14.Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Living                 

Now back as a fully-fledged member of the country gold club, Lee Ann’s new record saw no loss in effect, presence or voice as she assumed role model status for aspiring country songstresses. A release from outside the mainstream was soon embraced by the industry and held up as a blueprint of how traditional country can be made relevant in 2014.

15.John Fullbright – Songs                 Review

This sophomore album from a young man hailed as the future of American song writing confirmed the plausibility of the accolades. Exploring the songs of John Fullbright is a delightful pastime and he uses the accompanying medium of piano and guitar with equal scintillating effect. Another artist with a growing commitment to support the UK, makes him a talent to treasure and enjoy.

16.Hannah Aldridge – Razor Wire                  Review

Hannah harnessed her genetic gifts, talent and influences to make a record successful in syncing the sounds of Muscle Shoals, Memphis and Nashville. A record you believe in from start to finish was highly valued by many in the UK Americana scene as Hannah was given a warm welcome by folks over here and subsequently unveiled as a precious talent.

17.Simone Felice – Strangers                           Review

The abstract, quirky and profusely creative world of Simone Felice brought us a highly enjoyable record that engaged, entertained and helped raise his solo artist profile. The master of the autobiographical ballad epic, Simone can blow you away with the sheer magnitude of his songs and provide wave after wave of sumptuous folk rock.

18.Hatful of Rain – The Morning Key            Review

A lot of over here and a little bit of over there, saw South Coast quartet Hatful of Rain hit the highs with a fascinating brand of folk-Americana. Beautiful vocals, crafted musicianship and well-constructed interesting songs populated this follow up album that had the stamp of the band’s cheery persona firmly planted all over.

19.Emma Swift – Emma Swift                           Review

Just like the Swedish entry at number 5, this extended play release by Aussie songstress Emma had a golden track (Bittersweet) that both seduced and trapped you in. Stints living and working in East Nashville have helped Emma form her distinctive style and you are left in little doubt to where her country and Americana allegiances lie. Although the shortest release in this year’s list, it is firmly there on merit.

20.Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy

The golden boys of roots music produced another high class serving in this year’s album release with a brash and catchy set of songs perfectly formed for transfer into the live arena. Roots, folk and Americana labels were often attached to this record but its country credentials are strong and many of the tracks will easily slip into timeless status.

So that’s the ultimate favourite list for 2014 and just a flavour of the many fine releases that reached my ear during the year. Stay tuned for loads more in 2015. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Top 20 Gigs of 2014

Upon attending over 80 gigs this year, it is only courteous to commend those I come across on the circuit who far exceed this number and refrain from the vanity of a blog. Yet with little shame, the Top Gigs of 2014 has been extended to that other round number of 20 to give further praise to the ever increasing quality of live music that frequents venues of vastly contrasting sizes. So here goes and it’s a pleasure to share a fare portion of my favourite concert experiences of the last twelve months:

All individual reviews are linked to the artist.

A crossover audience needed to appreciate that they had just been in the presence of as pure and true country music as you could ever likely see. The whole show fizzed from start to finish and evolved into a perfect jamboree of roots instrumentation. When the Old Crow Medicine Show land upon our shores they rarely fail to disappoint and left an imprint of high quality music on a packed audience. The added bonus of Parker Millsap supporting iced an already sumptuous cake.

If you wanted live proof of the gender chasm that exists in mainstream country music then witnessing Kacey Musgraves strut her way around the stage and pay utmost respect to every ounce of tradition was a blessing. The whole show oozed of professional class and showcased a young lady with the genre at her feet. Kacey owned every cubic metre of the airspace and delivered an album cemented in country music legacy with a tantalising tease of what is to come.

On several visits to the UK this year, Mary Gauthier further sealed an inseparable bond with audiences over here and intensely transfixed a Birmingham crowd with stellar song writing, story-telling and general aura. ‘Christmas in Paradise’ was just as poignant in October as it will be this holiday season and like so many of Mary’s songs sung live, leave her guitar and vocals before heading straight to your soul.

Dolly owned the wider UK music scene this summer and seeing her arena show in Birmingham proved that the hype for once was genuine. A born entertainer who balances the ultimate crossover appeal, you know that Dolly (the surname is redundant) will find and connect with your sense of appreciation. Regardless whether you were more’ Rocky Top' than ‘9 to 5’ or vice-versa, love was universal in a venue that’s not the usual domain of country music artists.

With their latest album being a pristine live effort, it was a joy to see Ali and JT re-create a little part of SPACE in the cosy confines of the Kitchen Garden Café. While in the throes of a life changing experience with the addition of baby Ida, the seasoned musicians appear settled in their Birds of Chicago format. This show proved to be the perfect platform for them to share their multiple talents.

When in rampant flow and full throttle, it is hard pushed to find a better UK combo playing a brand of meaningful country music than this Alex and Hannah Eton-Wall led band. Maybe gigs aren’t as frequent as fans would like but this makes each Redlands event special. Melodies, harmonies, pedal steel and guitars, the highlights are endless and when you focus on this band, the surroundings are irrelevant.

SONGS was the name of his new album and that simply summed up this stunning show by a singer-songwriter carrying on the great tradition of Oklahoma troubadours. There is no pretence about John Fullbright and certainly no façade. His live shows are a deep emporium of observation and emotion with musicianship and vocal acumen to transcend the sphere of his appreciation.

In a year which saw a resurgence in country soul (re; Frazey Ford, Shinyribs, Danny Wilson), Willy Vlautin's latest project swarmed the small room at the Hare and Hounds with the blissful vocals of Amy Boone and a sound rich in keys, twang and brass. Being up close and personal to such artistry was a mesmerising experience and many were overjoyed when Willy repeated the shows in different towns towards the end of the year.

Sooner or later, Danny will get a Birmingham turnout worthy of his immense and entertaining talent. In the meantime the privileged few will remain the chosen ones as the Champs carry on regardless, in a style successful in extracting the best bits of country, rock, folk and soul. A Danny free of ailments, a better sound system and a slightly improved turnout saw this year’s show edge into the Top 10.

The blessed country dulcet tones of Zoe Muth finally made their way to the English Midlands c/o Austin and Seattle with the added bonus of a live show that rocked in more imaginable ways than the records. So top marks to Zoe’s touring band, a very healthy Shrewsbury turnout and Zoe herself for playing the delightful and cutting masterpiece ‘If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart.)’ Worth every nickel and dime of the expense to get there.

The gig year opened with Blair sharing the stage with his father at a village hall. By May he was taking city venues by storm with his excellently assembled band and a sound prepared to venture outside the confines of folk. This exciting development from Blair showed an artist prepared to experiment and anybody with his talent dipping their toe into Americana rock is worth a listen.

If Dolly wooed the country mainstream in the UK this year then Sturgill had a similar effect on those with alternative and Americana leanings. By all account his full band shows took his live presence up a couple of notches but he still impressed solo, especially when backed by the Scottish duo of Daniel Meade and Lloyd Reid. On a stifling hot summer’s night you knew you were in the company of an artist changing the country music game for those with class.

This show was all about listening to the glorious songs from one of the year’s best albums live. Both Shelly and Charity did not disappoint with Ally holding it all together with the guitar skills you expect from a performer with serious career credentials. The intimacy brought the magical songs to life and sealed the deal for a liaison which began with an introduction as a supporting artist in March.

World class purveyors of western swing are a must see when they hit your area and Hot Club of Cowtown showed this label was no fake when delighting a Midlands crowd. With Jake Erwin giving a masterclass in slapping a bass alongside Elana and Whit pitting their skills, the trio eased, weaved and hurtled through a set of timeless songs to demonstrate an art form safe in the hands of contemporary artisans.

The Lindi Ortega faithful had another winter helping of Canada’s finest exponent of dark country music with a city centre gig this time bringing a more populous turnout. Lindi, another artist to be free of ailments this year, raised the game of her live show on this visit and we rocked with her rock n’ roll twang and still metaphorically joined her on that ‘Greyhound to LA’.

Many music residents of East Nashville make the trip to the alt-country and Americana listening venues of the UK but few have had the instant effect of Doug and Telisha Williams. This time a headline tour rolled into the fringe of the Midlands and we were exposed to a thrilling evening of fine song, sincere entertainment and a duo steeped in integrity.

A mainstream country music artist playing a Midlands venue is a rare event but one that should be expanded on the evidence of this show. Darius is a king entertainer, successful in whatever style he has put his hand to. Any pre-gig negativity that was borne out of missing the Frazey Ford country soul show on the same evening across the West Midlands evaporated in what proved to be one of the surprise gigs of the year, in terms of anticipation versus appreciation.

The Lovell Sisters unveiled in full their new 2014 southern rock sound and folks at one of Birmingham’s premier alternative venues held their breath in amazement. Amidst all the amplified instrumentation, the chemistry of Megan and Rebecca was still intact leaving you to wonder what else there is in the Larkin Poe locker.

A revitalised and refreshed Cara called into the Kitchen Garden Café on her latest tour springing life into songs both old and new. Assisted by a new sidekick in fellow Canadian J.D. Edwards, there was a renewed belief and sparkle in Cara and this is set to be transpired in new music soon.

The current trend of the clergy throwing opening the doors of their grand buildings for roots music shows continued in 2014. Sarah Jarosz was an ideal artist to test out the acoustics in the vast surroundings of this house of worship and her vocals proved the perfect fit. Although the temptation to try off mic was resisted, this show had a packed audience drooling at such prodigious talent.

So that concludes the gig year of 2014. Stay tuned for loads more in 2015 and don’t forget to the check out a similar post highlighting the top festival sets of the year. 

Top 10 Festival Sets of 2014

Many thanks for supplying the following images:
Kacey Musgraves - PG Photography
Sturgill Simpson - Ericksson Imagery
Sarah Jarosz - Mike Trotman (Empty Rooms Promotions) 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Top 10 Festival Sets of 2014

The 2014 festival season was vastly curtailed from the previous year when a Canadian road trip saw seven days spent at various outdoor musical gatherings. However where the quantity was lacking, the quality more than made up. So at the eleventh hour, here is a reflection of the best ten sets seen at events during the year, which to supplement the lower number included the C2C Festival:

1.Rosanne Cash – Cambridge Folk Festival

Opinion was divided on Rosanne’s Saturday evening headline slot at Cambridge. One respected observer likened it too much to listening to the album but for me it brought one of the year’s best records to life. The stories surrounding Rosanne’s mystical journey around the South were captivating alongside the near perfect band presence led by her husband John Leventhal.

2.Jason Isbell – Cambridge Folk Festival

This first opportunity to see Jason live met all the expectations of an artist fast heading towards legendary status in the world of Americana music. The lack of his full band was easily compensated by Amanda Shires on fiddle and the music they are now making together has a moving and extraordinary elegance about it. Close observers to me would have switched position 1 and 2 and Jason’s fine performance came within a whisker of agreeing with that.

3.Dixie Chicks – Country 2 Country Festival

The scheduling of country music’s all-time favourite female trio at the second C2C Festival in London was totally out of the blue and proved to be one of only a handful of appearances during their brief reunion period. Yet for one hour on that Saturday evening in March, the years were well and truly rolled back with a glimpse into Dixie Chick heaven. A one off? Maybe, but eleven years on from the ‘nearby’ scene of the crime, a packed arena was humbly grateful.

4.Sarah Jarosz – Cambridge Folk Festival

After waiting a while to see Sarah, it was a case of three appearances in six months including twice in three days. This afternoon set at Cambridge probably saw Sarah at her most relaxed and just eclipsed the church and Symphony Hall slots. The enclosed venue on this festival site brought a greater focus on her beautiful voice and the superb band assembled for the UK tour.

5.Hannah Aldridge – Maverick Festival

With her striking stage poise and ability to capture live the emotion of the record, Hannah confirmed her status as one of the finds of the year. Taking a rightful place at the heart of the Maverick Festival’s scheduling decision to make Saturday evening in The Barn, the domain of the female artist, Hannah raised her imposing stature another notch to reel in a new set of fans.

6.Mary Gauthier – Maverick Festival

Mary rounded off her weekend at the festival, after a key note speech at the AMAUK Conference, with a super Saturday evening slot capturing the spirit of Americana and mesmerising an anticipated gathering. Wit, stories, sing-alongs and a stream of career defining songs filled the Suffolk air as Mary easily became one of the year’s highest profile regular visitors from the States.

7.Zac Brown Band – Country 2 Country Festival

Another set which divided opinion. This one a touch more vociferous as the highly successful crossover band rocked the O2 Arena a little more than some folk wanted. However from a personal viewpoint, the Zac Brown Band amp it up in the right way and there was ample evidence of their country and folk rock credentials in this high energetic headline slot.

8.Holly Williams – Maverick Festival

Having seen Holly at either end of her UK tour, she was definitely more in the groove as the visit came to a close at Maverick in a Saturday evening all female Barn slot. The addition of guitarist Anderson East supplied an extra dimension to her live show as Holly showed that the Williams clan are still going strong into the third generation, with Holly herself adding to the fourth by the year’s end.

9.Lindi Ortega – Cambridge Folk Festival

Following on from her winter UK tour, Lindi made a surprise fleeting summer re-visit to play a couple of dates including this exciting set at Cambridge, bringing a dose of dark ‘North’ Americana to England’s premier folk festival. The rapturous reception Lindi received suggested the festival goers were up for a little bit of variety and she certainly didn’t disappoint.

10.Dierks Bentley – Country 2 Country Festival

Eight years on from seeing Dierks play an extremely steaming Borderline venue in London, he made a triumphant return to the capital playing a bold brash set but packed with plenty of subtle emotion For many, Dierks was the highlight of the weekend and this was aided by him bringing the very strong new album ‘Riser’ along to share with his legions of new found fans.

Mary Gauthier, Holly Williams and Hannah Aldridge images courtesy of 4000 Miles to Nashville

Dierks Bentley, Dixie Chicks and Zac Brown images courtesy of Hels Bels Photography