Friday, 27 February 2015

Lindsay Ell + Sasha McVeigh - O2 Academy 3, Birmingham Thursday 26th February 2015

Lindsay Ell was born to play guitar, has been schooled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and received considerable praise from across a wide spectrum of the industry for her playing skills. Observing Lindsay at close quarters reveals an artist engrossed in her craft and totally dedicated to presenting a gifted talent to an appreciative audience. Yet there was something missing from this seventy minute performance which left you scratching your head in puzzlement as to who Lindsay Ell is and where her music heading.

There was no denying her love of classic blues rock and when commissioning a full frontal attack on this style with guitar wielding sidekick Brian Smith then you felt Lindsay hit her comfort zone and perhaps found her true mission. However this was too often punctuated by a bland attempt to mix in lacklustre pop which lacked soul, impact and ultimate belief. In contrast to Lindsay last playing to a packed Institute venue in Birmingham when opening for The Band Perry in 2013, this time her headline tour limped into a sparsely populated O2 Academy, thus possibly aligning with the dearth of recorded material found within her digital profile.

Lindsay did conclude her set, which surprisingly did not feature the ubiquitous encore, by referring to copies of a newly recorded EP for sale, but how much beneficial would it have been to attach a tour to a record to aid promotion. Despite being signed to Stoney Creek Records and filtering a couple of videos to the online community, the road to a full length record appears slow. Further investigation into Lindsay’s past reveals details of indie recordings and surely an artist finding her feet in the mainstream world should be steadily compiling a recording catalogue to back other areas of promotion.

Amongst the songs that did contribute to her set were the well-received single ‘Shut Me Up’ and the excellent ‘Don’t Take Me Home’. Also there were a couple of impressive solo numbers that formed part of the segment when her two band partners briefly left the stage in ‘Criminal’ and ‘Not Another Me’. In the performance of these, and the Stevie Nicks/Dixie Chicks standard ‘Landslide’, we got a brief glimpse into who Lindsay is and her upbringing in Alberta, Canada. However these moments of artist-reviewer connection were rare and probably culminating in the ultimate conclusion of a performer not quite matching their unquestionable talent with a rounded and thoroughly engaging live music experience.

On the other hand, opening for Lindsay on this tour is a vivacious and bubbly English singer-songwriter in Sasha McVeigh who is totally focussed on making waves in the music world and knows exactly where she is heading. Presently this is a lot higher profile in the US where she rubs shoulders with the Nashville elite via slots on leading stateside events. Recording wise, Sasha proudly hawks around her highly appealing six-track EP and her debut full length record is merely weeks away, all done on a limited and independent budget. Sasha primarily filled her thirty minute set with self-penned tracks highlighted by ‘No Strings Attached Romance’, ‘I Should Have Realised’ and ‘Someone to Break My Heart’. Although her cover of Zac Brown’s ‘Chicken Fried’ had great merit, there is a school of thought suggesting the theory of confining such a limited time to original material. However Sasha is keen to develop as an entertainer and probably sees this as a useful tool in embracing customer preferences.

With Sasha returning to Birmingham in April as part of an eagerly awaited co-headline tour with Sonia Leigh, her short term career development is likely to be very much observed close at hand and it is hoped that she manages to evolve in a way as to differentiate a little from the quagmire of country pop that is growing in this country. Of equal curiosity is where the talents of Lindsay Ell finally find a home to enable a curated blossoming and end the limbo status that is perceived at the moment as evidenced in this exposure to her.

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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Asleep at the Wheel + Friends - Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys : Proper Records

No educational lesson in the history and roots of country music is complete without a trip down Texas way and getting acquainted with the work of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. After rising out of the Lone Star State’s dance halls in the 30s and 40s to hit the heights of its commercial appeal, western swing continues to ooze with timeless class with the two main artists charging themselves with leading the preservation stakes today being Asleep at the Wheel and Hot Club of Cowtown. Ray Benson of the former has been active in this role for over forty years and decided the time was right to give the genre extra vigour by engaging in a liaison with over twenty established artists to produce the latest tribute to the music of Bob Wills.

The result is a total re-affirmation that Bob Wills is STILL THE KING, a compilation of excellent recordings that succeed in breathing contemporary life into a style etched into history. The format is quite a simple one with Ray and his band accompanying a steady continual stream of ‘A’ list performers adding their own panache to a classic tune. The contributors span the wide genre of 2015 country music from the mainstream strands of George Strait and Brad Paisley through to the pure Americana of Buddy Miller and the Avett Brothers. Throw some iconic Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett into the mix with the sass of Elizabeth Cook and the elegance of Carrie Rodriguez and you are still not yet close to getting to grips with the magnitude of talent enlisted for this mammoth project.

In total, 21 Bob Wills tracks have been covered with the album being brought to a fitting finale with a 22nd track and a version of Waylon Jennings’ own tribute ‘Bob Wills is Still the King’, sung appropriately by his son, Shooter alongside Randy Rogers and Reckless Kelly. This neatly concludes a special collection, opened 71 minutes earlier by an intro courtesy of the Texas Playboys Theme followed by an immortal quote from Bob himself proclaiming the genre will be built again by the young. Another positive to draw from this release is the attention it may attract from fans of the contributors who aren’t familiar with western swing. It was of no surprise to see The Time Jumpers feature and it’s a good time to remind folks of their exceptional collaboration with Miranda Lambert on one of the stronger but less focussed tracks from PLATINUM.

The wonderful combination of pedal steel, fiddle, piano, double bass and assorted guitars go a lengthy way in capturing the effervescent sound of western swing and Asleep at the Wheel are maestros in achieving this. Another fabulous feature of the presentation of these songs is the frequent interjection by Ray Benson, in addition to his formal duets, often bringing in or mentioning the other vocalists and ensuring a seamless thread of outstanding interpretations. There is immense pure listening enjoyment to be gained from activating this album and a suitable starting point has to be gazing at the guest list detailed below.

Western music is often too easily and wrongly dismissed by modern country fans, so a combined mission has to be to ensure these people get an opportunity to rectify their errors. To aid such a process STILL THE KING is a gift wrapped project from heaven and achieves its goal of raising the profile of western swing music in 2015. Long live Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel in their career mission along with other fine practitioners of one of country music’s most fascinating and entertaining sub-genres. Oh and by the way, Bob Wills is still the king of western swing as you might have gathered.

Track Listing

1. Intro: Texas Playboy Theme (with Leon Rausch)
2. I Hear Ya Talkin (with Amos Lee)
3. The Girl I Left Behind Me (with The Avett Brothers)
4. Trouble in Mind Me (with Lyle Lovett)
5. Keeper of My Heart (with Merle Haggard and Emily Gimble)
6. I Can t Give You Anything but Love (with Kat Edmonson and Ray Benson)
7. Tiger Rag (with Old Crow Medicine Show)
8. What s the Matter (with the Mill with Pokey LaFarge)
9. Navajo Trail (with Willie Nelson and The Quebe Sisters)
10. Silver Dew on the Bluegrass Tonight (with The Del McCoury Band)
11. Faded Love (with The Time Jumpers)
12. South of the Border; Down Mexico Way (with George Strait)
13. I Had Someone Else Before I Had You (with Elizabeth Cook)
14. My Window Faces The South (with Brad Paisley)
15. Time Changes Everything (with Buddy Miller)
16. A Good Man is Hard to Find (with Carrie Rodriguez and Emily Gimble)
17. Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas (with Robert Earl Keen and Ray Benson)
18. Brain Cloudy Blues (with Jamey Johnson and Ray Benson)
19. Bubbles in My Beer (with The Devil Makes Three)
20. It s All Your Fault (with Katie Shore)
21. Twin Guitar Special (with Tommy Emmanuel, Brent Mason, Billy Briggs)
22. Bob Wills is Still the King (with Shooter Jennings, Randy Rogers and Reckless Kelly)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Cameron Blake - Alone on the World Stage :Self Released

Pull up a chair, pour a drink and shelve all other tasks for a couple of hours. This will get you set to dive headfirst into the poetic world of Cameron Blake where the music plays second fiddle to the words and long term applicants only need apply. If you instantly reject this record then it’s best to stay away, however if you hang in there, tune into the mono sonic vibes and grapple with the lyrical content, rich pickings are to be found. ALONE ON THE WORLD STAGE is a title which perfectly sums up Cameron’s approach to his art and his craving to take a very individualistic approach to the storytelling song genre.

Grand Rapids, Michigan is the home of the now settled family man and he uses this base to span his writing from the intensely personal, politically regional to wider global issues. Alternative perspectives are a key driver for Cameron’s writing and a vital accompaniment for coming to grips with his literary messages was an informed song analysis piece on his website. Perhaps reading this before tackling the music is the way forward as elements of intrigue certainly leap from your screen as you gather this information. Once feeling informed about the implicit, explicit and abstract, the puzzle begins to emerge from its fragmented pieces.

Cameron, in the tradition of the protest genre, has numerous key issues in his sights as he tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ‘Rise and Shine’, and more closer to home causes in ‘North Dakota Oil’ and ‘Detroit’. The first and last of this trio are the closest he gets to surpassing the message with musical effect with the former labelled with chorus intent. The two home causes reflect Cameron’s alternative lyrical approach as ‘Detroit’ is focussed on recession victims, while the state of North Dakota gets personified in its critique. Also on Cameron’s social justice mission are the issues raised in ‘Welfare Street’ such as disabled workers and dishonest politicians. 

Dedication to his unborn daughter in ‘Ultrasound’ shows the tender side of Cameron’s work which is equally as creative in taking obscure external observations and moulding them into songs. This has proved the evolution process of the curious ‘Home Movie’, ‘Fireman Snowman’ and ‘Wild Blue Garden’, all quite vivid accounts once understood. However like all twelve tracks that form this album, it is a case of one man versus his subject armed only with a guitar, occasional piano and a bunch of words. This is a format long the staple of the solo folk protest singer-songwriter and Cameron slips extremely comfortable into this role.

ALONE ON THE WORLD STAGE is a lyrical beast which gains in momentum with each listen, providing the circumstances and mood are right. Experience of other mono driven song writers such as Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen will help with understanding Cameron Blake, and accessing his inner thoughts via the songs on this album reveal an artist with masses of interesting ideas and perceptions to share. Perseverance is the key to unlock this piece of work and enjoy its treasures. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Decemberists - Institute, Birmingham Wednesday 18th February 2015

First and foremost The Decemberists are a top class and polished band, packed with fine musicians and playing attractive songs to adoring audiences. They have a wide ranging appeal and a charismatic frontman capable of harnessing adulation. Commercial success has been forthcoming and many who attended this sell out gig in Birmingham Institute’s premier hall would have headed home with their fan status enhanced. The new album, which broke the band’s longest barren recording spell of four years, is a decent buy with many tunes that attract several repeat listens. Yet there was something missing on a personal basis which will prevent this gig getting close to the end of year top 20.

Much debate preceded the decision to attend this gig as it was a definite nudge into the mainstream and far more to the crowded centre than a majority of the eighty plus shows attended each year. However The Decemberists cross my path on numerous occasions as an influential US band flirting with a folk and Americana agenda and have certainly warranted this level of advanced scrutiny. Perhaps it goes with the territory of operating within the circles of major labels and well populated secured fan bases, but there was a safe, conservative and predictable aura to the show. Ultimately there was a bypass in radiated connection and an omission of lower case soul which left the show a little short.

Maybe there was a little too much expectation for the band to live up to my roots agenda and even sporadic appearances of double bass, banjo and pedal steel had only a minimal effect. What was exceptional and most impressive about the show was the contribution of Jenny Conlee with almost all the musical highlights coming from her wonderful keyboard playing, accordion and brief excursion on heavy percussion. In contrast, while band leader Colin Meloy did little wrong, there was an almost continual chant-like feel to his vocals which resulted in an ebbing away of any belief in him as a performer. Of course this was in contradiction to the response from the audience which further questioned the decision to attend, although satisfying a curiosity at first hand never renders attending a gig worthless.

As you would expect from a show lasting two hours and containing 19 songs, considerable focus was on the new album and pleasure was derived from listening to songs such as ‘Cavalry Captain’, ‘Philomena’ and ‘Carolina Low’ live. In fact right across the evening there was not a moment where any track allowed you drift even if there was a continual search for what could make this band special. What thoughts did cross the mind was a similarity to several bands over the last few years making it in a big way on both sides of the Atlantic with magnificent credentials but getting a mixed reaction in effect.

There is no hesitation in recommending getting a hold of WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD but in contrast to many Decemberists devotees the band fell short on a personal level, probably guided by too much emphasis on the centre ground. This view is probably founded by seeing a cavalcade of roots artists plying their trade on a similar, but all too often smaller, scale with the absolute ability to transmit their integrity and belief to an audience. While possessing many laudable merits, The Decemberists came up a little short against this measure. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Sons of Bill + Paul McClure - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 17th February 2015

James Wilson
Let’s get the name cliché out of the way first. Yes they are, well at least three-fifths of them. Onto more important matters and Sons of Bill demonstrated in Birmingham tonight why their star is set to shine a lot brighter in the UK in years to come. The five-piece band from Charlottesville, Virginia are only on their second UK tour but the growing audience numbers, continuing positive universal reception and enhanced wider press is making that spotlight brighter with each gig and record. A versatility to successfully sway between tender harmonies and fully optimum amped up rock while calling at many points in between give Sons of Bill a massive head start when either hitting the studio or the stage and what emerges is one of the finest alt-country bands plying their trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bill Wilson’s three sons – Abe, Sam and James – once again show how sibling integration can be a vital ingredient in a successful music act and thus join a long list of family artists who have graced one genre of influence for the band in country music. Each brother brings something diverse to the band whether vocally and musically on stage or creatively within the organic development of their songs. Sam excels on lead guitar including a stunning solo piece in this evening’s encore and he also stepped forward to sing a song he wrote, ‘Radio Rewind’. James fronts the band on vocals, electric and acoustic guitar displaying a flexible style to suit the mood of each track, while Abe settles to flourish behind the keyboards alongside adding valuable, and possibly under used, vocal contributions.

The band shared their enthusiasm for the new album with this Birmingham crowd who were vociferously eager to make up for those not wanting to venture out on a Tuesday evening. LOVE AND LOGIC has not been short of critical acclaim and there were plenty of opportunities to hear why during this set approaching an hour and half in length. ‘Brand New Paradigm’ is the stand out song on the record and was well received tonight being played alongside other tracks from the album such as ‘Big Unknown’, ‘Bad Dancer’ and ‘Fishing Song’. From their back catalogue, ‘Virginia Calling’ was a particular highlight and one of the less intense songs amongst a smattering of beat driven guitar anthems perfectly constructed for the live arena.

Paul McClure
A worthy mention must go to one of the bedrocks of the UK alternative country, folk and Americana scene as Paul McClure made a rare visit to Birmingham to share his songs, wit and aura, all in his own words as ‘not that good as to show up the main act’ or a similar phrase. In true Paul McClure style, the dry put downs were on top form and his underwhelming approach to stage banter complements perfectly the highly competent performance of his appealing and substantial songs. Among the numbers piercing the humour tonight were ‘Pollyanna’, ‘Song 6’ and a personal favourite, from his self-proclaimed “third debut album”, ‘For You’. House concerts and play where the customers are continues to be an important and sensible part of Paul’s music mission with a high recommendation to engage with him from these quarters.

However the final word must reside with Sons of Bill and not forgetting the two non-Wilson band members in bassist Seth Green and percussionist Todd Wellons. James rounded the evening off with full appreciation to Cosmic American promotions for believing in the band and introducing them to a UK audience with the compliment returned via a glass of bourbon to help him through the final songs. The abiding memory of Sons of Bill is their exceptional way of weaving delightful two and three part harmonies into superb guitar and keyboard fuelled songs. The lineage for such bands in the US stretches back decades but Sons of Bill are very much the present and no doubt the future as well.

www.cosmicamerican .com

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar - Send the Nightingale : Self Released

The ultimate joy of reviewing new albums is occasionally getting totally besotted by the first listen. So without delay, let me share the pleasure of discovering the gutsy and powerhouse sound of Samantha Martin. Technically this is not the first listen to Samantha’s music as there is a vague recollection of catching part of her Sunday morning gospel set at the 2013 Calgary Folk Festival but this casual acquaintance at a crowded event has now exploded into a full blown love affair. SEND THE NIGHTINGALE is the guilty party for this new found obsession and rips right through you with a lightning streak of what makes blues, roots rock and soul music so accessible to listeners desiring an alternative music exposure.

For this album, which is now available to download in the UK, Samantha has assembled a three piece backing unit creatively named Delta Sugar. This combo of Mikey McCallum on electric guitar alongside Sherrie Marshall and Stacie Tabb on backing vocals help Samantha create a wonderful rounded listening experience, with additional organ by Jimmy Hill taking you on a journey deep into the inner sanctum of your musical mine. Right from the spine chilling opener ‘Give Me Your Mercy’ (don’t forget to sample the Sound Cloud link below) through to the deeply spiritual closer ‘Tell the Heavens’, the album will make you shudder, extract every sinew of raw emotion and leave you blessed with an experience of exploring what makes music an important medium for self-expression.

All eleven tracks on the record are originals from a multitude of writers including Samantha on eight of the songs. ‘Mississippi Sun’ first appeared on an EP in 2014 and anchors the second half of this record with a sound that reaches out right across the wide roots spectrum even wandering into country territory. Of course by the very nature of its title, southern influence is a major feature of this track and indeed many others which shows Samantha’s desire to spread out from her Toronto base and soak up the special sounds that span a continent. Primarily the mood is driven by a passion to interpret the blues and its soulful cousin with Samantha expertly achieving this in a highly palatable way. There is not a single track on the album with a mere minimal effect and ‘When You Walk Away’ will leave you in a temporary state of melancholic despair (in a good way though!).

The most appropriately titled song on the album is ‘Addicted’, a state further enhanced by multiple listens to the drooling number ‘My Crown’. Apart from Samantha’s thumping vocals and the ‘to die for’ harmonies’ , sterling guitar work surfaces on ‘Don’t Shoot’ and the slight rockabilly influenced rolling number ‘One More Day’. Going back to the wonderful harmonies, they are no richer than heard on the strong chorus featured in ‘Take Us Swiftly Home’, while Samantha manages to dig even deeper into her vocal armoury to belt out the slower paced ‘I Won’t Justify’. This whistle stop analysis of the songs ends with the pure golden soul dripping out of ‘Won’t You Stay’ with visions of its singer pleading on her knees accompanied by a stripped back sound.

Official publicity have likened Samantha to Mavis Staples and Sharon Jones, so take a listen and see if you agree. Either way the process of accessing the sounds emanating from SEND THE NIGHTINGALE by Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar is one not to be missed. Feel free to choose your own stand-out track from the many on offer, however this review is signing off with the simple statement that this is a ‘stand-out album’.

Available to download from UK ITunes store

Monday, 16 February 2015

Allison Moorer - Down to Believing :Proper Records

Having masqueraded as a country singer around the turn of the millennium and as a duchess for the last few years, Allison Moorer has taken stock of her life and comes up with a stunning album that will have both punters and critics drooling. DOWN TO BELIEVING will thrill, excite, move and entertain, especially if savoured within the context of Allison’s career and life over the last twenty odd years. No doubt it will be billed as a break up album, but this record is much more than this exhausted concept with the writing, themes, musical direction and passionate delivery reflecting a number of key inputs.

From a personal perspective, sitting triumphantly amongst the last few years of Allison’s career was witnessing her transfix the audience at Leicester’s Big Sessions Festival with a memorable version of her humble home state masterpiece ‘Alabama Song’. It was the album of the same name which launched Allison onto Nashville’s country scene in 1998 and a reunion with key producer and influence from those commercial years in Kenny Greenberg has been instrumental in harnessing her current outburst of creative passion. A significant rock injection moves the record clearly in the direction of alt-country/Americana as Allison’s southern vocal elegance wraps around 13 tracks equally adept as stand-alone numbers or in the entity of a complete album.

While history suggests there was an element of inevitability in its conclusion, Allison praises the influence of marriage to Steve Earle in reforming her song writing skills and she has certainly put them to the test in the process of putting together this release. ‘Tear Me Apart’ and ‘If I Were Stronger’ get the formal nod as directly influenced by the break up and surely the resolute ‘I’m Doing Fine’ joins the club with the cutting lyric “If you want your old guitar, it’s sitting out on the porch.” However the title track 'Down to Believing' heads the break up sequence and is equally as impressive in sentiment as it is in listener reception. Maybe the track ‘I Lost My Crystal Ball’ also has its origins in the unforeseen events that have unfolded in her life .

These include the diagnosis of her son’s autism which is forcibly dealt with in the aggressive and no doubt therapeutic ‘Mama Let the Wolf In’. A strong bond throughout Allison’s life has been her singer-song writing older sister Shelby Lynne and she pays the utmost respect to this in the song ‘Blood’. A lifelong relationship surely strengthened by the tragic loss of both their parents at a young age. However the album does take one significant break from the rigours of autobiographical life with a surprisingly decent cover version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s monster classic ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’.

On an album that is optimally constructed in song order, this well-chosen tribute to iconic southern rock takes its place as the penultimate track, almost in first encore position and leaving space for Allison to slow matters thoughtfully down in the closing number, ‘Gonna Get it Wrong’. In contrast the album opens in an explosive and fiery manner suggesting an inner release of Allison to finally get this important project underway. ‘Like it Used to be ‘is a full fronted bout of aggression and chosen to be the album’s flagship track, although perhaps the true soul is found later in the record. ‘Thunderstorm/Hurricane’ is the ideal follow up song as it ebbs and flows in pace with a simple song structure rampant in parts.

Like so many outstanding recent releases by her peers (Rosanne/Lucinda/Gretchen et al), each song is underpinned by a multitude of impressive sounds blending guitars, keyboards and more roots induced instruments. Ultimately the quality of the song and the powerful force of the artist define the record and Allison Moorer possibly takes the listener back to 2000’s HARDEST PART in terms of impact.

On an album where a disappointing track is nowhere to be seen, there is no malice in commenting on ‘Back of My Mind’ and ‘Wish I‘ last. The former opens with the most explicit piece of acoustic strumming on the album thus a slight deviation from the rock/ballad prominence while the latter has a familiar ring to it without quite figuring out where. However both are a continuation of the strong make up which will seal the deal of this being one of the year’s most lauded Americana albums.

Whether you are a committed Allison Moorer admirer, one who has taken their eye off her ball over the last decade or completely new to her, DOWN TO BELIEVING is the album to unite all strands of her fan base and beyond. This is possibly a career piece of work and one that will set the standard of how to pour your life into a project and come up trumps in the musical stakes.

Awna Teixeira - Wild One : Self Released

Anybody who attended a Po Girl show in the late 2000’s will not be surprised by the successful transition of its two key players in their re-incarnated projects. While the immensely soulful Ali Russell goes from strength to strength with Birds of Chicago, the highly creative and impulsive Awna Teixeira continues to cultivate a solo status blending an infectious cocktail of originality and deep veined class. WILD ONE is the full blown follow up to 2012’s debut solo outing WHERE THE DARKNESS GOES and once again Awna invites you on a glorious voyage of mystical bliss designed to intoxicate you with an explorative take on the alternative world of folk and Americana or to be more precise Canadiana.

Quite frankly this is yet another album to be savoured as an entity which means a little time investment is required, but a more rewarding way to spend 50 minutes of your down time is tough to find, if you have the desire to explore the depths of an intriguing artist. Brimming with magnificence and emotion sapping excellence, Awna uses inspiration such as the Utah landscape and the close to home issue of mental illness to pen 10 of the 11 tracks with the lyrics of ‘In the Wintertime’ being a re-arrangement of a First Nation poem. The latter being a fascinating contrast to Awna’s family status as Portuguese immigrants settling in a diverse Toronto neighbourhood.

Famed for her Gutbucket bass especially recalled from Po Girl shows, the instruments Awna utilises herself in the making of WILD ONE is an endless list with piano making telling contributions alongside subtle string work on the opening merged combo of ‘The Light in You’ and ‘Blue Heart on Your Sleeve’. The latter is the song which centres round her grandmother’s struggle against mental illness and what better way to further a cause than with a striking song making a sophisticated impact. The tempo and tone of the record only marginally deviates from mesmeric and hypnotic levels, so once your mind gets in tune, the listening satisfaction derived increases exponentially with each track. This is vocally enhanced with harmony contributions from Oh Susanna, perfectly complementing Awna's mind stretching style of song delivery matching her eclectic approach to music making.

Photo by Julia Chandler
The haunting mood continues to evolve over the album’s playing time with ‘Yellow Moon’ and ‘Freedom Hunter’ tapping into the wider artistic traits of Awna which reflect a broad span of influence from across the North American continent. However like so many performers of this ilk, there is always one eye on the appreciative European market and Awna is planning to share these songs with old and new friends alike in the UK across the second half of March including a prestigious double billing with Kimmie Rhodes in Bristol.

While it is without doubt that ingrained fans of Awna and similar introspective artists will fall in love with this album, the challenge is out to broaden the minds of others and introduce the rich pickings of WILD ONE. Awna Teixeira is a highly talented artist of great substance making superb music to simultaneously melt and stretch your mind. Musical choices are out there but indulging in WILD ONE will be a correct one.

Kimmie Rhodes - Cowgirl Boudoir :Sunbird Records

After a brief saunter into the world of interpreting the work of others with 2013’s COVERS, Kimmie Rhodes announces her return to original song writing with the release of the very satisfying COWGIRL BOUDOIR. There was little danger of an artist with such a rich concoction of acclaim, influence and association showing any complacency and this record is a prime example of the theory of mature blossoming. With a recording career stretching back to 1981, a Lubbock upbringing and an Austin refining, Kimmie has cut it amongst the finest in country music and its disengaged family member Americana for so long and it’s a blessing that her talents can be further shared with the class of 2015.

Released on her longstanding indie record label, Sunbird, and once again under the guidance of her son, Gabe, on production duties, COWGIRL BOUDOIR successfully merges a classically underpinned country sound with wider polished tints, all wrapped in a cover of iconic 1970s singer-song writing panache. Kimmie ultimately bestows the inspirational credit upon the legendary Cowboy Jack Clement and his influence has clearly worn off. Likewise an artist who has been associated with luminaries such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris can surely impart a masterclass on the next generation of up and coming songwriters.

The latest evidence to back this claim lies most explicitly within half a dozen tracks from the new album with the sumptuous and sovereign country waltz, ‘Lover Killing Time’ leading the pack by a lengthy distance. The velvet-voiced Kimmie exudes majestic and regal charm on this standout number which heads a chain of outstanding album pieces including ‘Me Again’, ‘Worthy Cause’, ‘Always Never Leave’ and the classic closer simply titled ‘Yes’. Right across the whole album, all 14 tracks have been beautifully produced with a strong list of players creating the perfect sonic platform for Kimmie’s voice and songs to flourish.

Photo by Christopher Durst
This album is Kimmie’s first to focus on original material since the passing of her long-time partner in both life and music, Joe Gracey. Having had at least a co-write role in all but one of the songs, Kimmie has teamed up with Johnny Goudie to duet on a couple, with his solo composition ‘I’m Falling’ chosen to open the record. Yet of the two recording collaborations with Johnny, it is the excellent ‘Having You Around’ which has the greater impact, a track where Kimmie, Johnny and Gabe share the writing credits. Although Kimmie excels best on her own in the delightful late night lounge feel to ‘Will You’.

Much respect goes to Kimmie for continuing to mine her endless seam of song writing talent and sharing her skill of vocal elegance with the listener. Fans of classic song writing paired with a host of sounds ranging from pedal steel to B3 organ will lap up this record, while all budding song writers attaching themselves to the genre will do no harm in absorbing the wares of Kimmie. COWGIRL BOUDOIR is certainly an album worthy of the towering reputation of Kimmie Rhodes.

Check out Kimmie's UK dates in March/April

Monday, 9 February 2015

Hank Wangford Trio - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 8th February 2015

What is meant by the concept ‘dark underbelly of country music’? Having used the phrase to open his show at the Kitchen Garden Café, Hank Wangford set about the task of taking the audience on a gloomy journey of misery, heartbreak and pain. Whether you left the venue fully versed in Hank’s graphic and metaphoric description of his music or not, there was no denying that you had just spent a couple of hours in the company of an evergreen performer absolutely in tune with the ethos and soul of country music. Unashamedly regressive and nostalgic in its stance, the show oozed with golden class and proved to be a faultless presentation of the timeless appeal of simple, honest and canorous music.

This Birmingham return was almost a year to the date since Hank first brought his show to the Kitchen Garden Café and this time he upgraded the line up to a trio with the inclusion of Anna Robinson from London-based band Hallelujah Trails on guitar and vocals. While not exactly a carbon copy of last year’s show, the focus was still on Hank’s recent album SAVE ME THE WALTZ alongside a rich and varied set full of originals and classic covers. The humour and irony was still in plentiful supply with Hank’s sidekick, Brad Breath continuing to enthuse about life in Two Boots, Colorado coupled with plenty of instrumental switches highlighted by some sumptuous sounds from an Appalachian Dulcimer.

Any country music newbies would now be well educated in the merits of George Jones, Ernest Tubbs, Tammy Wynette, Floyd Tillman and Willie Nelson. Knowing a little bit about Hank’s cult status in the alt-country music movement, there was also little surprise in choosing to cover a Lucinda Williams’ number and Anna duly excelled on ‘Concrete and Barbed Wire’. The connection between this song and the general theme of the evening was Hank’s unconditional love for the waltz with the latest album, available on the night in appropriate vinyl, being a full blown tribute to a sound that differentiates between country and rock n’ roll. The title track from this record was amongst the highlights of a first set blessed with gracious music delivered in a self-deprecating style.

This modesty was extended to Hank not dwelling too much on his colourful past and the illustrious musical giants he has more than brushed shoulders with. The evening was all about his love for real country music and sharing this passion with an amical audience in his own inimitable manner. Extending this interaction to mutual participation was a given in this intimate environment packed to near capacity. The audience was forthcoming when invited, and many lungs were fully active by the time the finale of ‘Simple Pleasures’ was once again selected as the show closer.

Whether a departing audience were now fully conversant with the ‘dark underbelly of country music’ is a pure matter of individual conjecture but an appreciation of the merit of sad songs was one conclusion impossible not to absorb. The best way to further explore this abstract concept is to take in a Hank Wangford show and there are plenty of these still in the pipeline for this much loved and respected artist. One would not bet against Hank, Brad and Anna making a return to the Kitchen Garden Café with, without doubt, many of the audience prepared to commit once more to a lesson in why country music is a special genre.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Drew Holcomb - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Saturday 7th February 2015

While almost entirely the talent on offer from touring Americana artists is undisputable, the reception and turnout to support these performers up and down the country can often be patchy. This therefore made Drew Holcomb’s show at The Bullingdon in Oxford totally refreshing and a blueprint that hopefully can be replicated in other towns and venues. The first part of this jigsaw was the easy bit as Drew Holcomb is an immensely accomplished artist with a full toolkit to project his majestic songs to an enthralled audience. The second and trickier piece is the knack of pulling in over 140 enthusiastic people across a diverse age range on a Saturday night in a provincial city. So credit to Empty Rooms Promotions for achieving this and further boosting the evening by booking an excellent supporting artist in Oxford based singer-songwriter Bethany Weimers.

Drew Holcomb is still finding his feet in the UK market but this latest tour to promote his impressive new album MEDICINE may prove the launching pad to playing more evenings like this on future visits. Across a set which just touched an hour and a quarter, Drew set out to bring this record to life in an explicit and clear style aided by extremely strong vocals and a sound system doing justice to the qualities of the music. After visiting the very same venue around a year ago in support of Police Dog Hogan, Drew this time upgraded from solo to duo status with the help of longstanding band member, Nathan Dugger. Introduced as a Neighbour (or Neighbor depending on your approach to English), Nathan has been a member of Drew’s backing band, The Neighbours , for over a decade and tonight ably supported on guitar and keyboard. He also took lead vocals on a song of his titled ‘Good Time Girl’ which appeared on Drew’s 2009 album A MILLION MILES AWAY.

However the night was mainly focussed on MEDICINE and before any formal introductions, we were treated to two of its many fine tracks in ‘Tightrope’ and ‘American Beauty’. When taking to the mic to talk about his songs, Drew spoke with great affection about family influence, best highlighted in the tribute to both his wife and daughter – ‘You Will Always Be My Girl’. Most songs were enthusiastically received by a lively audience, who by now had forgotten the venue's work-in-progress surroundings and a subsequent lack of heat on a cold February evening. Vocal participation from the paying punters was easily forthcoming, starting with ‘Here We Go' and gathering pace as the evening progressed.

Although Drew has had a decade-long recording career, it has only been his last two albums that have been promoted in the UK with 2013’s GOOD LIGHT providing three of the set’s highlight moments. ‘Another Man’s Shoes’ and ‘Tennessee’ proved to be popular crowd favourites, while ‘Nothing But Trouble’ saw Drew and Nathan pull away from any amplification to conduct the essential gig sing along. When back to plugged-in status, ‘Shine Like Lightning’ saw Drew move the sound up a few notches on a tune that would be immense live with a full band. Added to tonight’s set list was an older song ‘Someday’ requested by one of the, quite a few,‘out of town’ members of the audience.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the night was made extra special with an opening performance by a young artist raising the stakes a lot higher than your run of the mill support slot. Bethany Weimers possesses a startling voice that adds a folk-tinged elegance to a bunch of self-penned memorable songs packed with interesting tales and observations. ‘William and His Ghost’ was the pick of Beth’s 35 minute set which included the title song off her solitary album to date HARPSICHORD ROW and a couple of new ones especially ‘I am Gold’, with the last word suitably and amusingly amended to cold.

The Bullingdon, now back to its original name after flirting with the Art Bar, served both artists well tonight despite being in the throes of refurbishment. A crystal clear sound meant you could almost transcribe each song from Drew and Beth word perfect. However first and foremost you need to be an artist worthy of such a process and that was certainly in evidence tonight in Oxford. Drew Holcomb is welcome back to the UK at any time and now the only task left is to transplant this audience to support the other wealth of fine artists prepared to share their music thousands of miles from home. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Luke Jackson + Amy Wadge - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Thursday 5th February 2015

When Luke Jackson casually enthused on social media about the new Parker Millsap album, an instant connection was made and subsequently confirmed following this double billed gig welcoming Luke back to the Hare and Hounds in Birmingham. Not only are the two of a similar age but their approach and style of music interpretation possesses an uncanny resemblance making short shrift the mileage gulf between the sparseness of Oklahoma and the English garden county of Kent. Both belie their young years with a fathomless extraction of bone and soul to present a raw sound rich in spirit and outstanding in its level of competent appeal.

Mixing with established singer-songwriters such as Amy Wadge on this dual set tour, will do no harm in Luke’s development alongside prestigious support slots with artists of the calibre of Martyn Joseph and Marillion. Yet as soon as Luke took to the stage for this intimate show you felt in the presence of a special talent gathering momentum in the art of captivating, entertaining and committing one’s artistic creativity to the wonderful medium of song.

Only the second song into his set, Luke ditched the guitar, moved into expressive gear and transfixed the audience with a version of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. When adding finger picking prowess to a voice succumbing to the pull of the folk/blues, Luke primarily delved into his latest album FUMES AND FAITH to add a touching lyrical twist to a blossoming aura. With this album approaching its first anniversary, Luke politely asked for space to reveal a totally new and untitled song which instantly funnelled from performer to audience laden with melody, class and impact. Can’t formalise the feedback any further but hopefully you get the point.

The opening set by Amy Wadge was characterised by the removing, layer by layer, of any inhibiting façade to reveal an artist determined to leave an impression and one you had little difficulty in ultimately believing in. Songs from her lengthy recording career flowed in an unabated style, none more lucrative than a contemporary million seller cut by Ed Sheeran and gliding Amy all the way to the Grammys in LA. Perhaps ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is poetic proof that one day your ship will come in to reward no shortage of perseverance, determination and belief. However California and those cheques were temporarily put on hold as Amy promoted, via guitar and keyboards, material from her new EP, older songs reflecting her introspective writing style and also joined Luke for three lauded duets.

There were indications from other observers around the country of Luke and Amy planning a curious finale with this culminating in a montage of several popular songs interpreted with impeccable finesse and including favourite standards such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’. Possibly more stunning was a few songs earlier when Luke invited Amy to sing a wonderful duet part on ‘Memory of You’. Luke’s solo set was punctuated with an abundance of songs reflecting his growing grasp in the art of penning a track to impress and reserving special mention to ‘Ghost of the Crossroads’, ‘Sister’, ‘Father and Son’, ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Misspent History’ does not do disservice to those omitted from this list.

While the folk world has laid claim to Luke Jackson, those labelled with raising the profile of Americana in this country would do little wrong in eulogising about an artist who is no doubt in a similar mould to Parker Millsap. Without wishing to gloss over his English heritage, just imagine a Luke Jackson exploring the delta, mixing with Nashville’s finest and cutting it in the live Austin scene for a short period before returning to ultimately spearhead a British invasion into the upper echelons of Americana music. Maybe that’s for another day, year or decade so let’s end in the present and state that alongside Amy Wadge, Luke Jackson played a gig to remember in Birmingham this evening.

Transatlantic Sessions - Symphony Hall Birmingham Wednesday 4th February 2015

While their careers have been at varying lengths, it is probably unlikely that Rodney Crowell, Sara Watkins and Patty Griffin have been backed by a finer assembly of musicians than those on Birmingham’s Symphony Hall stage this evening. First time Sessions invitees, Crowell and Griffin, added some high level cultured Americana to this year’s tour but in the true ethos of this longstanding project, the beauty is in the collaboration and the way the roots of two nation’s music can be entwined as one.

In essence the rotation of guest vocalists is a seamless transition and to be fair who can argue with a generational four timer of Ruth Moody, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Wakins since the inception of this blog reviewing the event in 2012. A near constant has been the dual backfield spearheaded by Messrs Douglas and Bain, with a total constant being the impeccable high standard of their cemented chosen players. Whether your interest lies in the folk music of these isles, bluegrass, Americana or straight down the middle good honest country music, then most tastes are catered for in a roots extravaganza lasting just a few minutes shy of three hours. One further guarantee is whatever your persuasion is you will leave the hall totally seduced by the whole talent on display.

While there may be an unashamed bias towards our cousins from the New World in this feature, it would be totally remiss to not commend the vocal elegance of Kathleen MacInnes with her Gaelic interpretations or the entirely majestic English craft of Devon born singer-song writing guitarist John Smith. Throw in a solitary tune from Sessions stalwart John Doyle amongst the many fiddle, accordion and pipe pieces orchestrated by the golden trio of Bain, McCusker and McGoldrick, and a tidal wave of pride in how we preserve the musical heritage of these shores washes over an audience spoilt to the core.

On an evening where the stature of Crowell, the grace of Griffin and the versatility of Watkins justified their special invitee status, it was a moment of pure gold instigated by a Session returnee which captured the appeal. Louisiana native Dirk Powell had already served up one gem but a four pronged fiddle attack on his song ‘Water Bound’ courtesy of Sara Watkins, Tim O’Brien, Aly Bain and John McCusker led you into a breathless state. Informed opinion prior to the show contrasted the respective classical and unorthodox playing styles of Bain and McCusker with the same mouth-watering conclusion of the combined sound being sheer bliss to the ear, a verdict easy to agree with.

Over the course of three hours, the songs came in a rapid and almost symmetrical rotation with Griffin and Crowell leading the way with four apiece. Not afraid of covering the greats, Crowell served up a version of Hank Williams’ ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ alongside his popular number ‘Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight’. On the other hand, in tandem with the countrified Lefty Frizzell song ‘Mom and Dad’s Waltz’, Griffin tipped her hat to the Dixie Chicks for cutting one of her finest compositions ‘Truth’ and celebrated by playing the writer’s not too dissimilar version. Another moment of pure Americana heaven saw Tim O’Brien sing lead on a gospel song supported solely by Jerry Douglas’s Dobro and a very high calibre American backing vocal trio.

So ingrained in the psyche of folk, roots and Americana fans, it is unimaginable that Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas won’t co-ordinate this late winter annual touring project again, one that gives a little glimpse of spring, even on a cold February evening. Likewise little moments such as master bassist Danny Thompson’s brief two minutes in the spotlight and Russ Barenberg’s role switch from trusty sidekick to arch player would be a great miss. However all the indication is that the Transatlantic Session will continue to roll on down the twin roots highway providing a country to country feast which never settles for a watered down version of great genre music.

Revisit previous Transatlantic Sessions reviews


Monday, 2 February 2015

Porchlight Smoker - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 1st February 2015

Steve Bell and Fred Gregory
An Englishman, a Welshman, a Scot and an American is often the cue for a gag but tonight it was one facet of the Porchlight Smoker line up, that had ventured north to promote their excellent new album WATER INTO SAND. Such is the comradery and interchangeability of like-minded bands, two Porchlight members were making a return visit to the Kitchen Garden Café after fellow Brighton-based band Hatful of Rain had graced the same venue with their presence last year. Just as Hatful impressed with their 2014 gig, Porchlight Smoker displayed in their versatile entity, the wealth of song writing and musical talent that exists within the UK’s Americana-tinged folk and roots genre.

With Hatful’s Phil Jones filling in on stand-up bass, it was left to the three remaining core Porchlight members to showcase their sound and share a bunch of well-written original songs sitting comfortably alongside some more illustrious covers. From the opening strains of ‘Mary Mary’, replicating its album position in tonight’s set list to a hypnotic version of Bob Marley’s ‘Stir It Up’ proving a suitable finale, the songs came thick and fast with an almost entire airing of the new album. As per usual, a moderately rated album track comes to the fore in a live set and ‘Instead’ fitted that bill this evening, even without the pedal steel that spices it up on the record.

Fred Gregory and Scott Smith
All the way from Kansas, USA, Scott Smith was the architect of this track raising its album profile during the show as well as providing lashings of very welcome twang in the form of lap steel, dobro and guitar. Scott’s vocal style and American connections obviously add a stateside slant to Porchlight’s sound which is further aided by covering songs from such esteemed artists as Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. Sitting back and enjoying the playing of Scott was hardly an arduous task.

Likewise the Celtic influence of Steve Bell further flavours a melting pot of tasty transatlantic servings. Predominately on influential banjo, Steve’s vocal contribution to grand songs such as ‘Maria Kennedy’, ‘US75’ and ‘Flowers on the Sea’ rose above the dreaded seasonal ailments to take a rightful centrepiece role in the evening’s twin sets.

Steve Bell
The Kitchen Garden Café was familiar surroundings for Fred Gregory, who shares his Porchlight duties with Hatful of Rain, displaying his skilled guitar and mandolin playing acumen at the venue last June. The Porchlight set up gives Fred a slightly higher profile live role in what is still a very much egalitarian band in terms of input. ‘If I Had a Way’, ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ‘Man in a Boat’, all from the new album, had Fred in full flow, who also showed a little coy pride in announcing the latter’s video.

2015 is likely to be a busy year for Porchlight Smoker in promoting the new album and this will undoubtedly be aided by the return of regular bassist Scott Warman alongside their tie up with the guys from Brighthelmstone Promotions. What you will see from Porchlight Smoker is a group of highly capable musicians, exquisite architects of both highly effective originals and cool covers, intuitive band playing and a total understanding of the music they excel in performing. All round,  a great band to add to your live menu of folk, roots and Americana music with a UK twist.