Thursday, 30 April 2015

Alice DiMicele - Swim : Alice Otter Music

The sumptuous sound of country soul, especially where pedal steel meets Hammond organ meets horns, can take a lot of beating. On a slightly different footing is the equally ravishing sound of folk soul or to borrow a phrase from the press supporting this new album by Alice Di Micele, acoustic groove. No two words are better phrased to describe SWIM, the latest in a long line of releases from this Oregon based artist. Right from the off this record is a constant mover using a multitude of instrumental pieces from a lengthy list of players to breathe musical life into the lyrical outpourings of Alice.

Drawing on the experience of her natural surroundings, there is a strong environmental theme to Alice’s writing and this is no more passionate in its expression than the moving protest track ‘Old Life Back’. The US are a lot further down the line with the exploratory process of fracking than the UK and thus issues have arisen for song writers to fuel (pun certainly unintended) the traditional path of championing the underdog. It has to be said Alice does this rather well with startling and emotional effect, very much in a similar style to Annabelle Chvostek.

The mood and tone of this record is supremely set in the opening track as the organ is unleashed in the gorgeous soulful number ‘Soul Fly Free’. The presence of such as precious musical commodity is only surpassed in the title track ‘Swim’ where the B3 is allowed to run amok with glorious results. The drift into funk territory is purely a tantalising taster on the album as Alice often pulls back to concentrate on more straight up folk. ‘When Jane Rides Scout’ is the prime example of this as Alice takes on a facet of love with the subtle help of Tex Mex horns. The driving style and feeling of this song is akin to some of the work emanating from Canadian artist Amanda Rheume, albeit without the brass interludes.

Alice has rubbed shoulders with many acclaimed artists over her thirty year touring career and not a moment has been wasted in fine tuning this record into an accomplished body of work. More intuitive writing takes on another environmental issue this time surrounding the Klamath River in her home state with the song ‘Schoolhouse’. ‘This Love’ demonstrates that Alice is perfectly at home addressing this age old topic in tender ballad proportions complete with the usual sombre cello sound. To supplement the nine self-penned originals that form the bulk of the content, Alice chose to cover the Grateful Dead song ‘Ripple’ and its careful rendition adds value to a record that thrives on an underlying layer of high calibre music sophistication.

This ingenious release which benefitted from the now common crowd funding source is formed into a rounded ten track album with three further numbers starting with a reworking of a song from 1994 titled ‘If I Could Move the World’. This is one of the smoother tunes on the record and the sensuous sound is repeated a couple of songs further on in the track ‘Inside’. ‘Open Road’ with its inspiration drawn from the wide expanses of the natural environment completes the set and merges sublimely into an album that succeeds in its mission to seduce your senses.

SWIM is a slice of secular spiritualism designed to educate, inspire and entertain. It showcases an artist maturing into a comfort zone, while  inviting all comers along for the ride. Alice DiMicele has produced a delightful album full of many treasures to chill, marvel and ultimately feast on.

Blair Dunlop + Emma Stevens - Glee Club, Birmingham. Wednesday 29 April 2015

On the surface, the pairing of Blair Dunlop and Emma Stevens appears to be a curious combination with respect to their contrasting background, style and sound. However dig a little deeper and the synergy begins to emerge. Both are aspiring, driven and fiercely independent artists spinning the wheel of fortune with the power of the immaculate song. The skill of writing is an endemic part of their DNA and a key component of an innate ability to communicate via their craft. Ultimately Emma appears to crave that killer melody to unlock the door to limitless appeal, while Blair is seemingly pursuing a path of creative versatility to seek that niche of ultimate respect. The amalgamation of these two artists for a short UK tour presented the perfect opportunity to enjoy the yield of their energetic labours.

Over the course of her two albums to date, the first initially appeared in a 4 EP series; Emma has demonstrated the knack of penning a tune ripe for cross appeal airplay. This has led to national recognition of the song without necessary delivering the riches. On the upside the struggle for recognition further fuels Emma’s drive for organic growth leading to a steady surge in people buying into her mission. The practicality of this support enabled Emma to take her three piece band on this tour and thus the opportunity to transport the full impact of her studio tracks to the stage.

Emma should not under estimate her ability to perfect the art of solo delivery as twice during her hour long set  the bulk of the band took a back seat to allow the depth of the ballad to be fully explored via the force of Emma’s vocal skills. These two numbers – ‘This is for You’ and ‘How to Write a Love Song’ – are also representative of her talent to perfect the capture of the three minute emotion. While this leaves food for thought about future development, the present is sold around her upbeat catchy offerings as the set opened with ‘Stop the World’ and was brought to a fitting climax with ‘Riptide’. Together Emma and her tightknit band sailed through a set of similarly styled tunes never straying from the spirit of uplifting your soul.

Blair Dunlop is in a mid-album transition period as he itches to get his new songs aired for initial audience reaction. The good news is that the song writing of this fabulous performer is firing on all cylinders and a new release, hopefully planned for 2016, will live up to the high standards of both BLIGHT AND BLOSSOM and HOUSE OF JACKS. Of the four new songs aired tonight, ‘I Don’t Know What to Make of it’ came across with the greater appeal, while ‘No Go Zone’, with its local connection, had the most profound effect. One of the other unrecorded songs ‘Castello’ was also featured in Blair’s recent solo show seen in Cookley with the introductory story proving a ‘mouth-watering’ accompaniment to its live launch. Time will no doubt reveal more about these songs.

While Blair, with his alluring dry wit, impressive guitar skills and engaging stage presence, is an accomplished solo performer, tonight was mainly about his band development. The addition of Jacob Stonely on keys and Fred Claridge on percussion allows his songs to emerge into spherical entities tinged with echoes of folk-rock and dosed with more than a subtle hint of Americana. The astute pairing of the twin songs – ‘45s (C.’14)’ and ‘45s (C.’69)’ as the set list’s book ends was the finest precision planning in motion especially as the former is fast becoming my favourite Blair Dunlop song, doubly so in its live format. Whilst veering away from regurgitating the set list, it would be remiss not to mention the excellent versions of ‘Blight and Blossom’ and ‘Chain by Design’. Meanwhile Blair should not have been surprised by level of cultural awareness in a Birmingham audience! 

Without obvious crossover, this comprehensive evening of over two and a half hours of good music, was a resounding success. Opening duo Lost Art played their part with a short set full of lush harmonies before Emma and Blair gave a an explicit and endearing snapshot of where their burgeoning careers are in 2015. The future success of both artists will be keenly observed and if this tour proves a one off, it was a delight to be present.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Laura Marling - The Institute, Birmingham Monday 27th April 2015

Sometimes it’s not a case of when you understand an artist but the fact that you have finally cemented the act of discovery. Over the last seven years this radar has been active in many places elsewhere while the Laura Marling phenomena exploded across the wider music world. However if there is still a little room to hop onto the curve, the experience of seeing her live show has made it the mission of 2015. To complement her spine chilling performance at a packed Institute, the continual playing of the new record SHORT MOVIE has been in danger of developing into an unhealthy obsession.

In these inter-connected times it doesn’t take too long to piece together an artist’s career and Laura Marling has certainly packed an awful lot into her still relatively young years. Five albums and countless tours in the spotlight has led to many witness her evolution which has now taken root into full blown plugged in electrification. This rounded and more complete sound etched into a venue full to capacity with the most respectful of listeners to roll out a captivating set of songs delivered by a prime and charismatic songwriter. The charisma may be slightly unconventional as it radiates from bouts of inertia but the aura demands intense fixation. Quite simply Laura Marling poured oodles of emotion into a stunning 85 minute set.

With a panoramic desert backdrop, a cultured sound, shades of Lucinda Williams in the vocals of a new song, the covering of a Townes Van Zandt number and touring with Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show, there is more than a hint of Americana in the sound of Laura Marling. Whether this has always been present exists only in the perception of others but the effect of an extended stay in LA appears to have entered her veins. In the lyrics from one of her new songs, Laura aches ‘I’m going back East where I belong’, but seemingly with more than a little influence from her travels west.

Laura’s three piece backing band slipped effortlessly into a set list heavily leaning towards the mighty fine new album. ‘Worship’ and ‘Short Movie’ brought the curtain down with impassioned versions long after ‘Howl’ had launched matters in an almost coincidental low key solo style. ‘False Hope’, with its Lucinda Williams aural vision, proved the standout moment of the night, thus setting the challenge for her back catalogue to meet expectations when the process of full evaluation is complete. ‘Rambling Man’, ‘Goodbye England’ and ‘Master Hunter’ were three older tracks to impress with the latter getting a makeover in full rock proportions.

The motion of Laura’s stage presence exists in the swirling vocals and stirring lyrics rather than the physical format. Her natural shy persona is well documented and while it limits the spoken word, she did make a valid attempt to fill the unplanned tuning gaps. She was fully complimentary to opening act Gill Landry and even joined him on stage to sing backing vocals on a couple of songs. Gill was promoting his new solo album, a continuation of a recording career which runs alongside his work as a key member of the fantastic Old Crow Medicine Show. Gill’s thirty minute segment of pure strong storytelling Americana provided a solid base for the complete gig experience to materialise and Laura later asked the audience whether they had heard of Townes Van Zandt after playing a super version of ‘For the Sake of the Song’. There was definitely an affirmative nod in this quarter.

So this truly awe-inspiring gig and being totally engrossed in her new record has proved the catalyst for joining the Laura Marling appreciation society but a valid defence for the delay has to be all the independent artists championed while the radar was elsewhere. Anyway life is about the present which now ironically involves back catalogue investigation to complete the circle.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Cale Tyson - Introducing Cale Tyson: Clubhouse Records

Stamp marked with 100% authenticity and a fully paid up member of the heartbreak songwriter's ‘A’ list club, Cale Tyson is a mystical mirage of a golden age projected onto a contemporary canvas. Should country music need a saviour then the music of this Nashville based Texan announces its candidacy. The good folks at Clubhouse Records have unearthed a precious jewel to spearhead their real country preservation mission and this specially packaged album is an achingly brilliant collection of timeless original tunes. You can’t have a more explicit title than INTRODUCING CALE TYSON and 45 minutes after inserting this CD into your player, it is mission accomplished.

Technically this cleverly presented record is an amalgamation of Cale’s two Ep releases to date which merge into a fully-fledged style album for those hooking into the sound of an artist blessed with precise interpretative skills. Whether this aptitude for absolute re-creation is natural or nurtured by a lifelong schooling in classic country song writing, the result drips, drools and oozes with a lethal cocktail of sombre, longing and solo barroom odes. The seven tracks from HIGH AND LONESOME form the first part of the album and possibly provide the pick of the numbers which will sear your heart right from the opening listen.

Take your choice from ‘Old Time Blues’, ‘Lonesome in Tennessee’ or the evocatively titled ‘Honky Tonk Moan’ for standout track, but in all seriousness each of the magnificent seven is a priceless gem on their individual merit. Swaying between foot shuffling waltzes, pedal steel to die for and a vocal style drenched in a wonderful emotion sapping twang, the experience of immersing yourself into this record should contain a warning against reaching for the drinks cabinet.

The six tracks from the equally splendidly titled other EP, CHEATER’S WINE, inhabit the second part of this record and far from being intimidated, make a great case for rivalling the opening half. ‘Get out of Town’ and ‘Fool of the Year’ head the best from this section as the rich vein of Gram Parsons at his tear jerking country best is omnipresent through the sound and aura. The fact that Cale has written all these songs suggests the classic art of penning in the style of Williams, Parsons, Clarke, Nelson and Van Zandt is far from consigned to the past. The recording of this music has also benefited from some of Nashville’s finest players who have worked with esteemed artists such as Marty Stuart, Don Williams, Caitlin Rose and Andrew Combs.

While Sturgill Simpson has been ripping through the wider music world with a similar style, it has to be noted that Cale Tyson is a far less complex version, but equally compelling in his ability to extract every sinew of how country music is meant to be. Quite simply Cale is the real deal and this supreme collection couldn’t be better put together to enthral an audience thirsty for untainted, pure and iconic country music. The product, the championing and the opportunity are all in place to make Cale Tyson a welcome visitor to the UK and this record deserves every grain of adulation heading its way.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Bella Hardy - MAC Birmingham Friday 24th April 2015

The talents of Bella Hardy are well known within the folk world, so maybe it’s worth just opening this piece with a complementary word about her band which does an incredible job bringing the songs to life. Obviously it helps when you have the most gorgeous of voices to project the lyrics, but the subtle way in which two keys, piano, percussion, guitar, banjo and lap top melted into the songs was a highly impressive listening experience. Yes the word lap top is correct as Ben Seal added a digital touch to what is in essence a roots infused sound. When you factor in Bella’s fiddle playing to the mix of Ben (keys, lap top) Anna Massie (guitar, banjo), Tom Gibbs (piano, keys) and Tim Lane (percussion), the setting was perfect for an abundance of outstanding songs and tunes to flourish.

Bella was returning to the MAC in Birmingham just under a year since her last visit to the venue as part of the 30 shows project to celebrate her 30th birthday. This time the tour had the purpose of promoting the latest album, WITH THE DAWN, and in the week that Bella metaphorically handed over the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year crown to Nancy Kerr, she was in a buoyant mood to share the treasures from this excellent new record. Like all potentially great albums, the tracks require some intense initial listening, but gradually the enormity of their worth unravels in good time. Bella introduced ten of the eleven tracks to an audience enthusiastic in their appreciation and generous in their response to the album's availability at the merch table.

The album’s two opening tracks, ‘The Only Thing to Do’ and ‘First Light of the Morning’, also played a similar a role in this evening’s event which rolled out in the usual format of a pair of sets, with the second lasting a little longer than the opening 45 minute one. Having been fortunate to access a pre-release copy, it was wonderful to get a live confirmation that ‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’ is just as good in a theatre setting as it is on record. As per usual one track increased its level of appreciation with a live airing and on this occasion ‘Gifts’ came on leaps and bounds.

Of course the stories behind the songs are an integral part of any folk gig and Bella is as engaging as you could wish for. From the new album, we learned of her Canadian experience and a liaison with Cara Luft when introducing ‘Time Wanders On’. Maybe the most enlightening tale from WITH THE DAWN was the characters that painted a picture of The Great War from a female perspective in ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’. Listening to a raft of songs from this record live vastly raised its appreciation level and in time it is likely to rival her other widely acclaimed releases.

Herring Girl’ is one of Bella’s most popular older songs and, like herself, a previous award winner. Tonight’s performance was complete with the background story plus extra contributions from Anna and Tom. Other older songs to feature were the requested ‘Three Pieces of My Heart’, Bella’s offering to the Elizabethan Sessions project ‘Hatfield’ and the absolutely fantastic ‘Walk it With You’. This last song showcases her production versatility in a positive glow as it almost comes across with mature pop sensibilities. By the time Bella returned to her fiddle to play the specially written encore tune ‘Foolish Trouble Farewell’, everybody in the building had been given a stark reminder of why Bella is such a highly rated performer.

The thirties decade is likely to be just as productive for Bella Hardy as was her twenties. No doubt many collaborations, projects and traditional song gatherings will emerge to complement her natural talent for penning an original song. Continued work with Ben and her fellow players will further advance the appeal that will always centre round her beautiful vocal acumen. A significant majority of this Birmingham audience will testify to such a sentiment.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Aoife O'Donovan, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz - Biddulph Town Hall, Staffordhire. Thursday 23rd April 2015

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt may have sold more records when they got together for their TRIO project and The Highwaymen were certainly more advanced with their careers, but surely there cannot have been a purer collaboration of three independent artists than the one witnessed this evening at Biddulph Town Hall. Born from an impromptu performance at Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, the combination of Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins represents the cream of 2015 traditional revivalists, easily finding common ground to share their natural ability to sing, play and make beautiful music. Billed as the ‘I’m With Her Tour’, this celestial choir showed a glimpse of roots heaven in a 90 minute sonic shower free of any musical impurity.

In consecutive years all three have added an elegant sparkle to the Transatlantic Sessions roadshow, an effect magnified to sublime proportion when taking full possession of the centre stage. The slick manoeuvre between solo, duo and trio was blessed with magical harmonies and an innate knack of wonderfully blending the stunning vibes from fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar. All three solo careers were celebrated alongside a preview of the future and a respectful nod to the past.

This civic venue at the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands was nearly full to its seated capacity with folks willing to make lengthy journeys to experience this precious gathering. It didn’t take long for the ladies to get into their stride with a version of John Hyatt’s ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ kicking off proceedings. The rotation of songs took the standard format for these shows with alternating lead vocals flowing into a solo segment and all being strategically bound with spellbinding moments of delectable unison. This climaxed with all three stepping off mic for a perfect closing version of the Emmylou Harris gospel number ‘Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn’.

Sarah Jarosz is still riding the crest of a wave from her recent Grammy nominated album which formed the basis of her hugely successful UK tour last year. Her prodigious talent has produced many column inches buoyed by the banjo and mandolin prowess flavouring a wealth of beauteous songs. ‘Build Me Up From Bones’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Fuell the Fire’ were amongst her offerings this evening, all served with classical undertones adding finesse to popular tunes.

Aoife O’Donovan made massive strides as a solo artist with the release of the 2013 album FOSSILS, having spent a number of years as an integral member of Crooked Still. Guitar is her chosen piece of instrumental accompaniment in true folk tradition, seamlessly adorning a glorious vocal style radiating tones of aesthetic appeal. ‘Beekeeper’, ‘Red & White & Blue & Gold’ and ‘Captain’s Clock’ were the highlights of Aoife’s individual contribution, but the real soul of the evening existed within the collaboration.

Sara Watkins nonchalantly overcame brief technical difficulties to just unplug the fiddle and play it with a composed charm. Her increasing reputation as a prime fiddle player, both in solo projects and as a member of Nickel Creek, is well deserved and being positioned so close to such a breath taking demonstration was a joy to behold. Songs primarily sourced from Sara’s lead contribution included ‘You and Me’, ‘Be There’ and ‘Long Hot Summer Days’, all leading the way in popular attraction. Of course the essential instrumentals were filtered in periodically and Sara delivered her tune ‘The Ward Accord’ in fine style.

The chemistry and sheer enjoyment from the stage was evident for all to see, making this one special concert to attend. A further development from the evening was the revelation of an intention to record which is a prospect to savour later in the year. A new song believed to be titled ‘Hornets’ was introduced by Aoife and matched up favourably alongside a couple of exceptional covers unearthed by the trio. These were ‘A Hundred Miles’ by Gillian Welch and a Jim Croce song ‘Walking Back to Georgia’.

Eventually Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins will resume their own burgeoning individual careers, but not without leaving a major mark as one of the truly great American roots collaboration projects. The promised recording will create a souvenir of the magic, but the ultimate pleasure was being in the presence of three fabulous musicians sharing their treasures in divine portions.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Sonia Leigh + Sasha McVeigh - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 22nd April 2015

‘Mind the Gap’ was the tour headline with its connotations spanning style, sound and the Atlantic divide. However the evening was all about two fiercely independent artists bridging the gap between the signed and the unsigned world, whilst being totally united in a determined drive to plough through their own vision of music. This was life at the epicentre of the twenty-first century music model, spiced by crowd funding, social media, digital sharing and reaching out to connect with the fans. Rocking it all the way from Georgia, USA was the dynamic Sonia Leigh, being guided through these isles with a little help from the polished tones of Hereford-based UK singer-songwriter Sasha McVeigh.

This concluding date of their short, but action packed, tour anchored in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath and an enthusiastic audience gave this brief liaison a fitting farewell. In line with other shows on the tour, a couple of local artists briefly opened before Sonia and Sasha split the standard 90 minute headline portion into a pair of roughly even sets, each showcasing their respective and slightly contrasting careers to date. Perhaps aligned to this being the show closest to Sasha’s home town and the fact that Sonia needed to make a speedy exit to return to London, it was a case of the US first followed by the UK, although we all secretly knew the night wouldn’t end before some form of onstage collaboration.

This was the second time a Sasha McVeigh live performance was witnessed after she supported Lindsay Ell in the city around a month ago. The development between the two shows was the switch from solo acoustic to full band which included a three-piece combo of drums, bass and lead guitar. The three guys in the band also did the honours splendidly for both artists. Sasha is rapidly heading towards her debut album release in June and it was interesting to listen to a number of familiar songs in the new format. Two such numbers bookended her slot as she opened with ‘No Strings Attached’ and closed with a song, popularised by a live version on You Tube, called ’Mr Brown Eyes’. Sharing her passion, inspiration and dreams via affable audience banter and introspective song writing is a therapeutic outlet for Sasha and she disguises little pride in symbolising her song ‘Time of My Life’. The stand out songs from her set included ‘Someone to Break My Heart’ and ‘Crooked Road’, the latter being part of the ubiquitous section where acoustic ruled the roost again.

During this segment, Sasha delivered a superb version of ‘Jolene’. While on the surface covering such a popular and well-loved song is safe ground, it does leave a critical door open for wondering - do we as audiences need another one?. Having passed the critic test on this occasion, a medley of Zac Brown covers is not my preferred method of listening to fine songs and she did much better last month with an entertaining full version of ‘Chicken Fried’. First and foremost, Sasha is a song writer of unlimited potential and possesses a smart eye for maximising her appeal. It will be interesting to watch how the career of this talented artist evolves and in what direction it veers before ultimately settling.

In contrast to Sasha being technically at the outset of her recording career, Sonia Leigh is going through a period re-establishment after high level association This included mixing with seriously popular US artists, label contracts and the enviable status of co-writing such fantastic Zac Brown tracks as ‘Sweet Annie’ and ‘Goodbye in Her Eyes’. Without resorting to versions of these songs, Sonia spread her set right from the first single dating back to 2011 in ‘My Name is Money’ through to the current release of ‘Put it in Your Pocket’. Also with an eye to the future, Sonia introduced the sassy number ‘Booty Call’ with an intention to pursue a US issue of it, alongside a humorous invitation for anyone offended to leave.

Of course no one did leave as they were witnessing a high calibre charismatic performer who has made the most profound effect on me as any live act in the first four months of 2015. Armed with the most authentic of achingly resonant bruised vocals and possessing the raw emotion of post-punk new wave rock n’ roll, Sonia Leigh kicked ass for three quarters of an hour. Whether hitting the full throttle or powering into something slower but still intense, this dark and diminutive figure with the most delectable southern twang owned the stage with utmost authority. The itchy feet of genre restriction guides the style of Sonia, but it has to be said that the performance of ‘Bar’ was dripping in pure 24 carat country gold.

With all fairness to Sasha, following that performance was going to be a tough ask in these quarters, but she rose to the challenge in her own style. To conclude the evening, the gap was well and truly closed when Sonia bounded back onto the stage to deliver a duet version of ‘Summer of ‘69’ which brought the best out of all five core performers. ‘Mind the Gap’ as a concept tour may have ended, but a golden road lies ahead for Sasha McVeigh if she maintains her current trajectory of appreciation. Finally, can we please have more Sonia Leigh!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Paul Brady - The Vicar St. Sessions Vol.1: Proper Records

The gap may have been fourteen years but the wait for THE VICAR St SESSIONS VOL. 1 to emerge in a recorded format is over, much to the delight of the legions of Paul Brady fans. On the contrary, if you are yet to be acquainted with this highly acclaimed Irish artist then this new release will act as a fresh introductory opportunity. With this project being the snapshot of one month in the life of a performer back in October 2001, perhaps the use of the word ‘fresh’ is ironic. The decision to descend on Dublin’s Vicar St venue for a residency was ambitious at its outset, cautionary with its start, rampant in its promotion, before ultimately succeeding in its legacy.

In total Paul played 23 dates during that single venue run and this initial release, in what promises to be a series, evokes a little of the bristling craftsmanship that surrounded each night during the month. The obvious attraction of the thirteen tracks selected to populate Volume 1 is the sheer magnitude of the collaborating artists who ended up giving Paul more than a little helping hand in making the initiation a success. These artists ultimately queued up to work with a performer who at the time had already enjoyed a thirty year recording career, successfully moving between the styles of traditional Irish music  through to contemporary pop/rock, whilst making calling stops within the country and folk communities.

Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Curtis Stigers, Ronan Keating and Bonnie Raitt are all household names to feature on the record. Paul was happy to share the spotlight of his own songs alongside selected numbers from his guests. This is reflected in the chosen tracks for the recording which surfaces under the Proper Records banner. O’Connor’s ‘In This Heart’, Morrison’s ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and Stigers’ ‘Don’t Go Far’, all graced with the additional presence of Paul, make the cut. Standing mightily alongside these songs are Brady’s own ‘The Soul Commotion’, making a good case for the stand out track, and a piece he co-wrote with Carol King ‘Believe in Me’.

THE VICAR St SESSIONS VOL. 1 ends on a real high with Mary Black and Mauna O’Connell joining Paul for a rousing finale of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. This is one of the less smooth tracks on the album which is the appeal to many of a live record. With this in mind the bulk of the tracks do blur the lines between live and studio, so it down to the choice of the discerning listener. What is removed from the debate is the first rate musicianship running through the core of the record and the imaginative ease of being a privileged guest at each of these live shows.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Danni Nicholls - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 19th April 2015

The journey down MOCKINGBIRD LANE took a swift turn last night for Danni Nicholls as she began the live roll out of an album destined to reach its destination of widespread acclaim. Birmingham’s respected folk and roots venue, the Kitchen Garden Café, hosted the first date of Danni’s ‘Pre-Release Tour’ and it was a golden opportunity to see if the album tracks from the new record responded well to a stripped back delivery. The result exceeded expectations, but that was hardly a surprise from a highly crafted song writer capable of spinning a winning formula when pairing the tale with the melody.

The privilege of accessing a preview copy of the new material had whetted the appetite enormously and the consensus amongst the majority enjoying their inaugural listen was unanimous in the affirmative. Any trepidations of playing a venue for the first time were soon removed as Danni eased into a sweet groove of enlightening inter-song interludes to add considerable value to a continual stream of beautifully sung originals and the odd engaging cover. The latter started with a fine version of Randy Newman’s ‘Guilty’ as Danni paid tribute to one of her heroes, Bonnie Raitt, who also covered it. Three of the other covers were delivered in a part of the show where Danni reunited with an old playing partner from her Brighton days and the pair rattled through KD Lang’s ‘Ridin’ the Rails’, the popular Gillian Welch tune ‘Wayside/Back in Time’ and the usual nod to the Man in Black with the much covered ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ closing the well-deserved requested encore. All were impressively delivered off mic to add to the venue’s ambience.

Before we move onto the main purpose of the evening and the launch of the new record, Danni reminded those present why her first full length album was applauded so well when released in 2013. From the album of the same name, Danni gave an insightful background to the origin and legal issues surrounding ‘A Little Redemption’ with its quaint source dating back to a casual read about a local Suffolk Women’s Institute. Perhaps the most poignant story attached to the songs from this album was the pride flowing from Danni with regards to the dream scenario-turned to reality in covering Will Kimbrough’s ‘Goodnight, Moon’.

A decent proportion of Danni’s songs have surfaced from her trips to Nashville where she has had the good fortune to record both albums. One of the early favourites from the new record rose to an even higher plane of appreciation when played live as Danni filled every corner of the Café with pure Americana with the delectable ‘Leaving Tennessee’. Written on a journey from Nashville to Atlanta, the song was contrasted in its geographical sentiment when matched up with another from the new record, ‘Long Road Home’, with its final destination being her hometown of Bedford. Another immensely ear pleasing tune, ‘Travellin’ Man’, was unveiled as an old song finally finding a home on the album, where it acts as the perfect closer. The wonderful lyrics of ‘Beautifully Broken’ were given a timely reminder and Danni used the striking chorus of ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’ for an effective call and response piece of audience participation.

The pre-release nature of this tour meant the physical copies were not yet ready for sale but those signing up on the evening in advance were also given the pristine preview of three other tracks in ‘Back to Memphis’, ‘Between Forever and Goodbye’ and, in Danni’s opinion, the song ‘Sad Swan’ living up to the description in the title with its projection of emotion. Throw in ‘Dragons in the Distance’, ‘Hey There, Sunshine’ and ‘Bird of Paradise’ from the first album and we had an excellent comprehensive gig, rich in fine songs and packed with the indebted ideals of how American inspired roots music can be portrayed with English charm.

This was the first opportunity to catch a full Danni Nicholls show, to follow up witnessing a couple of festival sets and many listens to her back catalogue of two albums and two Eps. It is also important that Danni makes strides to take her music out of the South East to promote her talents to an audience that will surely grow. Midlands music fans will get another chance to see Danni when she supports Daniel Romano in Coventry next month and hopefully the second phase of the album promotion tour will see a further return to the area.

Let’s conclude however by returning to the present and reflecting favourably that we are certainly blessed to have a talented and affable singer-songwriter in Danni Nicholls showcasing our genre with the best of British. By matching the recorded and live material with equal high competence, an artist of absolute integrity continues to emerge. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Benjamin Folke Thomas - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, BirminghamThursday 16th April 2015

PAs a regular listener and advocate of Michael Park’s The International Americana Music Show, there is no finer way to explore continental music that is infused with definable twang and heavily influenced by the reams of iconic roots music to emanate from the States. Sweden’s Ben Folke Thomas has been one such artist to be featured and his style of alt-country rock compactly fits within the ideals of the Americana genre. In support of his second record due out in May, Ben and his fellow Scandinavian band members are embarking on a wealth of UK dates and on the evidence of this Birmingham show, folks are going to be well enamoured with his bold vocal delivery, driving rhythms and engaging songs.

Ben is far from new to the UK scene, adopting almost Anglo status during his lengthy periods of residence, but the challenge has to be to expand out of the London scene and bang on the doors of provincial music nuts. This evening’s show at the Hare and Hounds did just that and those present were served a luscious portion of Ben’s ability to front a tight knit sound with panache, class and a touch of dry humour.

Apart from the sheer consistency of quality within the songs spanning his two albums, Ben’s band introductions made for one of those golden gig moments to lighten the intensity. The visual nature of the humour means you will have to attend one of Ben’s shows to fully appreciate it, so in a more conventional way we shall just commend the playing skills of Henning Sernhede (many guitars), Johannes Mattsson (bass) and Jonas Abrahamsson (drums).

Most of the songs from the new album ROGUE STATE OF MIND were featured in the set and made that instant impact when you feel a record is going to be a firm favourite. ‘Futile Blues’, ‘Broke Down Train’ and ‘Dream About You’ led the tracks from this new record with the most prominent first impression. By paying respect to his other album TOO CLOSE TO HEAR, Ben lifted two equally impressive numbers in ‘Love Somebody’ and the seemingly popular ‘Blues for You’.

While the band’s presence added real value, there was the usual solo slot which Ben used effectively to deliver ‘Married’ and he needed very little effort in extracting audience participation for the chorus of ‘Sex Addict’. The acoustic solo stance was extended to the final song of the evening when Ben kicked off a tribute to one of his song writing heroes, Warren Zevon, with an on stage version of ‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’ before finishing it unplugged, sitting in the audience and conducting a departing sing along. Prior to this, the band had signed off for the evening with another Zevon song, this time a rocking version of ‘Play it All Night Long’.

The opening slot for this gig was afforded to ahab band member Dave Burn who used the thirty minute set to share songs, both old and new, accompanied by a multiple exchange of guitars. From his new solo EP, ‘Vans’ and ‘The Killer’ were enthusiastically received and enjoyed, while an older song from Ahab, ‘My Father’s Eyes’, was without doubt the most fetching number played.

2015 is shaping up positively for Benjamin Folke Thomas, with a national radio session lined up, numerous headline dates mingled alongside support slots for Beans on Toast and a handful of festival appearances, most relevant in these quarters a debut at Maverick in July. This first opportunity to catch Ben live and devote further time to his recorded material has been a worthy exercise. Quite rightfully, the move from the fringes into the spotlight is in motion. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Larkin Poe - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 15th April 2015

Rebecca Lovell
Almost a year on from unveiling their new sound, it was time to once again catch up with a Larkin Poe live show to check out the continual evolution of the talented Lovell siblings’ career odyssey. The gradual transformation from harmonious roots traditionalists to full blown ‘swampadelic ‘ southern rock has reached a point of embedment with prime evidence of both Rebecca and Megan effortlessly growing into their new sonic identikit. Close up observation revealed a band optimising a voluminous sound within the confines of sisterly harmony; this time more prevalent in musical intuition and emotion rather than vocal entwinement.

Megan Lovell
The team from the Kitchen Garden Café was vindicated in re-booking the band for a second successive year and a healthy turnout in their borrowed home of the Hare and Hounds manifested into a convivial atmosphere of shared appreciation. An interesting observation when comparing Larkin Poe 2015 and the 2014 version was the slimmed down trio format with the inventive adaption of percussionist Marlon Patton adding the foot pedal bass to his repertoire. Such solid backfield support is critical for successful band delivery, with the girls acknowledging his presence alongside their usual sassy banter.

Rebecca Lovell
Song-wise the set was unsurprisingly heavily biased to their latest album KIN which continues to gather praise months after its release, with the latest accolade being delivered from readers of the respected roots website Spiral Earth. From a personal perspective, the live highs on the evening revolved around the core tracks of ‘Stubborn Love’, ‘Crown of Fire’, ’Jailbreak’ and the radio friendly ‘Don’t’. However it would be remiss not to honour the extended version of ‘Banks of Allatoona’ with Megan raising her lap steel guitar playing to impressive levels. Perhaps there is a touch of irony in the mere observation on the instrument allocation front, of the elder sister Megan holding a position of consistency alongside the constant switching of Rebecca between acoustic, electric and mandolin. However such musical fusion adds immense spark to a band devoted intensely to mastering audience connection.

It was intimated in an interview accompanying this tour that the current style of Larkin Poe is maybe earmarked for a potential lengthy run, although precedence adds an element of caution to such a thought. Anyway to back the initial inkling up, three songs added to the set since last year were in much the same vein with ‘Hey Sinner’, seamlessly sampled with the classic ‘Black Betty’, being the pick. Larkin Poe pre-Kin was thinly represented by ‘Mad as a Hatter’ accompanied with the usual tale of their genealogical challenges. The traditional ‘Wade in the Water’,another long term favourite of the band, also took its rightful place in the set list. In a diversion from last year’s show at the same venue, the encore wasn’t concluded with an exhibition of exquisite unaccompanied sibling vocal harmony, but their version of Cher’s ‘Bang Bang’ still shimmered with nostalgic brilliance.

Raevennan Husbandes
It was a delight to finally see the lucid singer-songwriter Raevennan Husbandes make her Birmingham debut after first crossing her path at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year. The distinctive and wholly individual Raevennan appeared this time in a trio format, supported by Simon Lewis on cello and the legendary B.J Cole on pedal steel. While she was showered with praise in these quarters for her recent collaborative work with Tracey Browne, this support slot focussed more on her solo EP work with songs such as ‘Box of Innocence’ and ‘The Dancer’ standing out. Not afraid to experiment and stretch her sound in complex angles, Raevennan is in control of her considerable talent and whichever direction it veers in bulges with appreciative appeal.

To pair the two contrasting styles of the support and main artists worked effectively in presenting an entertaining evening, where Larkin Poe were to successfully sign off this current UK leg of their almost ubiquitous touring schedule. While this latest incarnation of vaunted exported Georgia talent head to further their cause to a wider European market, a UK return is planned for the summer including Elvis Costello support slots and a re-invite to headline the Maverick Festival in July. Packing a great deal into their formative years is paying dividends to the prospering careers of Megan and Rebecca Lovell with the current evolving style of Larkin Poe settling neatly within the rich seam they have certainly hit.

All photos courtesy of Ian Dunn at Principle Photography

Thursday, 9 April 2015

April Verch - The Newpart :Slab Town Records

Without doubt April Verch is the complete package as her records continue to match the magnetism and grace of the live performance. Having first crossed April’s path in 2013, with both a live review and a feature on her album BRIGHT LIKE GOLD, it is a pleasure to present the next instalment of a career that is already bulging with many records and countless live performances. THE NEWPART is in fact April’s tenth studio album, quite prolific for an artist in her mid-thirties but a symbolic reflection of her thirst for discovering, re-interpreting and making music, all stamped with her Canadian fiddle prowess.

Some people may consider April a revivalist, but more aptly she acts as a conductive force bridging early twentieth century roots music into the new millennium. This new record sees April lean heavily on breathing contemporary life into a mixture of old songs and tunes, many dating back to the twenties and thirties. Within the context of her illimitable appeal, April and her tightknit team of co-players Hayes Griffin (guitar, mandolin) and Cody Walters (bass, banjo) alongside producer Casey Driessen, rattle through 14 tracks wrapped in stripped back packaging and charged to the hilt with acoustic fire. As witnessed live, the chemistry between the trio is intensely evident and all instrumentation utilised rallies around April’s lauded fiddle playing and legendary step dancing.
Photo by Parker J. Pfister
April has long extended the radar of influence far from her Ottawa home and this album was recorded in the red hot roots territory of Asheville North Carolina. Nearby Virginia is the source for the opening tune as April flexes her fiddle on the traditional ‘Belle Election’. In an attempt to fuse the roots music of both Canada and the US, she later merges two tunes from either side of the border into the uplifting number ‘Midnight Wheeler’. As well as exploring the sounds from her own continent, April is also keen to interpret the European style and has found a Swedish tune full of imperial grandeur to record in the name of ‘Polska from Kumla’.

It only takes a short delve into April’s career to discover her passion for Ottawa step dancing and in the most innovative piece on the album she uses the sound to curate a tune. ‘Gilchrist’ is named after the grandfather of her home province’s step dancing tradition and its inclusion on the record certainly adds an element of fascination to its content. Full details of the background and inspiration behind all the songs and tunes included on the album are available within the album package.  This reveals the album’s title track being named as little more than the ‘new part’ of her family home, although it has long since been the location where considerable talent was heavily practised and finely tuned.

Alongside the tunes and step dancing, songs play an important part in the music of April Verch. With her soft spot for a sad country song, ‘It Makes No Difference to Me’ is an evolved co-write between April and Cody and splendidly houses her sweet vocals. Later on the album, April and Cody team up for a duet on the achingly beautiful real deal country song ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’. This song was unearthed as a composition by Canadian Hod Pharis, but April chooses to end the album with one of her own original tracks and symbolises ‘This Melody’ as a tribute to her belief of communicating via fiddle and song.
Photo by Parker J. Pfister
April plays a significant part in reviving old music and she is really just an extension of the valuable field work done in previous decades, notably the sixties. An example on this album has been accessing the Dust to Digital project and subsequently recording the traditional ‘Dry Bones’, thus mixing fiddle, folk and harmonies in a delicate manner. Other ageless numbers dug out for the record are: ‘If You Hadn’t Gone Away’ inspired from a 1925 recording, a 1931Seger Ellis song ‘Montana Call’ and ‘It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain’ dating back to a version from 1936. It is important to impress that all these songs are executed with absolute finesse by April and her band, adding the oxygen of modern life to important past relics.

Acquainting yourself further with the work of April Verch, whether live if the chance arises or definitely via THE NEWPART, is a must for any music lover who values the past. So as this should apply to anybody into country, folk, bluegrass and roots music, the invite to discover is widely extended. The fiddle playing may enter the realms of a fantasy feast, but the essence and aura of this album is definitely real.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Caddy Cooper - Outside the Wire :Self Released

Caddy Cooper tempts you to ‘Get Onboard’ in the first few bars of the aptly named opening track on OUTSIDE THE WIRE. This is quite possibly the best invite you will get all year to join an enticing lady on her ambitious journey through the trials and tribulations of a heady mix of real country, sultry blues and a phenomenal stab at some classic storytelling folk. On a record sumptuously merging the smitten vocals of Caddy with stacks of splendid playing and spiritedly led by lashings of pedal steel, the longevity peels away to reveal an artist hell-bent on doing things the right way and coming up trumps.

This album, a follow up to 2014’s SNAPSHOT, is bursting at the seams with songs designed to melt, engage and enthral the listener. The treasure trove of glorious tracks effortlessly moves through a haze of late night lounge jazz blues onto more feet shuffling rock n’ roll, always paying the utmost respect to the style of the traditional songbook. What makes this album even more remarkable is that all fifteen tracks are written by Caddy who is developing quite an entertainment profile since venturing far and wide from her West Australian home.

Midway through this hefty release that breaks the hour mark, you will be hard pushed not to prevent a tear from squeezing out when Caddy slips into folk mode to spin the tale of lost love in the moving ‘Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’. Revisiting a well told theme of young boy leaves his love to go to war works wonders to give this record real lyrical substance and you can detect a hint of Aussie twang in Caddy’s voice as her subject makes the futile trek from Albany to Gallipoli.  

The rolling rhythm of the opening track, with its railroad and wider metaphorical vibes, is the perfect opener before Caddy hits the laid back zone to guide the early stages of the record right into the dying embers of a late night soiree with that proverbial empty glass. ‘An Hour or Two’, ‘Don’t Say We’re Through’ and ‘Outside the Wire’ are all from a similar mould and have a welcoming re-assurance that the deeper into the evening we go, the richer the music becomes. Just when we maybe need a shot in the arm, Caddy and the band serve up a dish of feat tapping roll n’ roll blues with the guitar and piano led number ‘I Be Leavin’ You’.

The second part of the record sees Caddy keep the sound fresh with a further explorative approach, while still retaining a sound that is both anchored in the past and a vital ally in nurturing authenticity in the contemporary world. Instruments are ditched and replaced by sparkling backing harmonies in the 'a cappella' formatted ‘Love You in the Morning’ and a laid back island beat relieves the tension a touch in ‘Sunshine Hot’. More jazz blues materialises in ‘London Town’, perhaps a nod to the UK which is currenly Caddy’s base and a location, alongside her homeland Australia, where the album was recorded.

Caddy pays the utmost respect to Dave Hayward, who combined the production duties with continual playing of the prevalent pedal steel, rampant in parts and more subtle in tracks such as ‘Further We Got to Fall’. This song sees one of a couple of vocal contributions from Paul Carella and wanders into duet territory. However there is little doubt that this record is vocally owned by Caddy, with their cutting presence mixing perennial charm with advocated purpose. There is a slight inch in the pop direction with the soulful shoulder moving ‘One Step at a Time’ and while still retaining a bluesy essence, ‘Last Night’s Lover’ possesses a modern backbeat. Although the traditional country sounding song ‘Far to Go’ flies the flag in the final stages there is a slight feel that the album has run its course as we wind down with the concluding numbers ‘My World and Everything in it’ and ‘Crosswind’. This certainly does not detract from the many fine qualities in the preceding tracks.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a restless, feverish and marvellous album release by a talented artist determined to buck the trend.  Caddy Cooper has an ear for a great sound and the skill to produce a superlative record successful in steering its content in the right direction for many discerning fans of roots music.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Danni Nicholls - Mockingbird Lane :Self Released

Back in 2013 when reviewing Danni Nicholls’ previous album, her candidacy for the vacant crown of Queen of UK Americana was announced. Two years on and it is a privilege to announce that the plans for the coronation are well advanced. Where A LITTLE REDEMPTION signed off, MOCKINGBIRD LANE picks up the mantle and under the same guidance of producer Chris Donohue and his team, Danni has raised the stakes higher with an album packed to the hilt with sultry vocals, majestic musicianship and songs strewn with the emotional strains of life.

From a strong background of early exposure to classic sounds right across the spectrum of country, blues, folk and rock n’ roll, Danni has a clear vision of the musical style she wants to portray and takes a major leap towards this goal in the production of her sophomore album. The journey from Bedfordshire to the Nashville-Memphis corridor is a long one but made more practically attainable with a singer-songwriter marrying up the holy trinity of talent, desire and influence.

Photo by Benn Healy
Following the well-worn route of crowd sourcing has proved fertile for Danni who was able to return to Nashville to hook up with a stack of talented writers and players to help bring her ideas to fruition. The release of MOCKINGBIRD LANE is set to sandwich a couple of UK tours where the songs will be given the opportunity to flourish in the live format. This should be a comfortable transition as all eleven songs possess a strong sub-structure to cater for any kind of stripped back delivery.

Production wise the album successfully merges in a multitude of varied instrumentation, giving sufficient space for the vocals and melodies to flourish which are also subtly supplemented by the phasing in of additional harmonies. Two familiar names jumped out from the lengthy list of players in guitarist Will Kimbrough and vocalist Brandy Zdan, both acclaimed artists who regularly crop up in such credits. From a writing perspective, Danni splits the eleven songs between solo and co-writes, with a slight bias towards the latter, and the strength of the compositions represents an increased maturity of balancing creative self-confidence with the merits of shared experiences. Lyrically the record peaks with the analogy of ‘like the scratched 45 of a sad love song’ gracing the chorus of ‘Beautifully Broken’.

The record hits the traps with immediate effect in the guise of the country rocker ‘Long Road Home’, infected with impressive electric guitar riffs. This is immediately followed by the mellower track, ‘Let Somebody Love You’ complete with acoustic intro. On the subject of intros, the delightful and sincere ‘Leaving Tennessee’ owns an effective initial hook to present a song sung in a more sombre tone to represent the farewell sentiments of the number. Staying with geographical references, Danni eases into a slightly soulful bluesy mode for ‘Back to Memphis’ thus making a case for it being the first among equals in the quest for stand out track.

A brace of mid-album tracks once again tip the record in a heavy roots direction. First up ‘Look up at the Moon’ is a sublime lounge jazz blues effort reeking in nostalgia and timeless essence. ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’ gets the metaphorical nod and attaches a gospel-like sound to another song aching to emerge from the pack. A couple of straight up ballads reflect well on Danni’s diverse vocal range with ‘Feel Again’ and ‘Sad Swan’ giving the album a solid base for the other songs to possibly hit higher peaks.

Both remaining tracks excel in different directions with ‘Between Forever and Goodbye’ being the second offering to be underpinned by a rock sound with a snippet of organ supplementing the heavy guitar presence. ‘Travellin’ Man’ is a jovial show time effort, almost folk-like in its appeal, and acts as the perfect closer to an album that soars across your emotions and senses before planting itself right in the middle of your heart.

In a year where Gretchen Peters, Allison Moorer and Brandi Carlile are leading the way across the water with album recording masterpieces, MOCKINGBIRD LANE is a reminder that over here we have a sterling Americana influenced female singer-songwriter in Danni Nicholls who can mix it with the best. Observing this album emerge and blossom over the ensuing months promises to be one of the highlights of what is turning out to be a remarkable year for outstanding album releases.

Callaghan - A History of Now : Green Town Music

Rich in familiarity, alluring in sound and genuine in its extraction of inner talent, Georgina Callaghan’s second album announces her prominent arrival on the international adult contemporary singer-songwriter scene. A HISTORY OF NOW is a bright and breezy bout of organic pop designed to project Callaghan’s profile significantly in both her new home in the US as well as a tilt at the UK market.

Since leaving our shores around four years ago, she has sought career development in several quarters, most strikingly teaming up with Shawn Mullins for her debut album and re-locating from Atlanta to Nashville in order to tap into Music City’s wider resource pool. A lot of hard work has gone into Callaghan getting to this stage of her career and she has come as long way since first seeing her play a showcase set at Americana International probably around ‘08/’09.

Of course Callaghan has long been championed by Bob Harris to the extent she featured on his excellent recent BBC aired documentary ‘Back to Beth’s’. While her career is still in its embryonic stage in comparison to the heavy weight singer-songwriters decorating that prestigious house concert, she shows a high degree of promise especially when focussing on the meaningful ballads that form the bedrock of this new album, due to be released internationally on her own Green Town Music label.

The perceived pretensions a while back of Callaghan being the heir to the UK country crown have been shelved and best left to others as she focusses on a cross appeal which has attracted the ears of the Radio 2 playlist decision makers. However the album is far from a drift down the banal route of throwaway pop as she skilfully wraps her most stylish numbers in a blanket of feel good songs with the potential to act as key openers to the real Callaghan. ‘Best Year’ and ‘Crazy Beautiful Life’ are the album’s picturesque gloss designed to brighten a dull day and probably will struggle to make inroads with hardened country and Americana followers. In contrast what will be delightful to the ears of sophisticated music junkies is the way a trio of generous piano inspired ballads literally move your senses. ‘I’ll Take You Away’, ‘Lost’ and ‘When You Loved Me’ form this part of the record and herald a talent set to move quickly up the ladder of prominent female singer-songwriters.

Callaghan (the first name has long been removed from her professional profile) uses the tremendous acumen of her sweet vocal ability to pour her heart into a set of personal songs reflecting an increased maturity to her music. There is definitely more to come from her as a songwriter and like all high quality performers who reach a peak of influence, some edge will probably need to be added to make the pill more effective. The way she makes music is similar to the UK’s Emma Stevens as both artists continually conjure up inventive ways of connecting with their fan base. They both seem in control of their destiny without resorting to big label manipulation and demonstrate that fashionable popular music can be made well without a resort to sleep inducing EDM banality.

A pop up session appearance at C2C in London probably reflected more on that events marketing policy than the sincerity of Callaghan to make serious country music of which she is clearly not. A more industry wide strategy is adopted for her upcoming UK tour to support the record with Birmingham Promoters linking up with her for the gig at the Sunflower Lounge in the city. While the British market retains an element of importance, a big push will be back in her adopted home and the bid to continue to grow her national presence there.

A HISTORY OF NOW is a snapshot of the present for Callaghan and achieves its purpose of housing an artist ready to exploit every sinew of her ability to make high quality music without compromise. An artist of massive potential is beginning to surface and whichever direction her music takes, it will always have a renowned stamp of approval. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Kelley McCrae + Josh Harty - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Thursday 2nd April 2015

Sometimes from distant expectations bright nuggets emerge. Amongst the continual rise of UK performers seeking the original music dream and the increasing number of touring acts eying the fruits of British expansion, a couple of American  artists unintentionally almost shamefully slipped under the radar. Yet just as their UK tour drew to a close, the names of Josh Harty and Kelley McCrae blossomed with an exceedingly accomplished performance to join the growing ‘hall of fame’ of US indie artists to flourish within the intimate surroundings of the Kitchen Garden Café.

On a packed evening of varied entertainment which pushed the venue’s curfew to the limit, three separate acts took to the stage (or corner of the Café where the mics and plugs are) to deliver contrasting sets bonded by a common theme of Americana influenced music. Joining the US guests for the evening and opening with great gusto was Birmingham singer-songwriter Guy Jones, heavily influenced by the sheer magnitude of American message and road songs. Playing in a trio format helped Guy deliver his songs effectively with more than an ounce of twang and an infusion of harmonies accompanying a series of thoughtful tunes, mainly lifted from his EP LONG WAY HOME. The pick of these was a tricky choice between ‘Washington Line’ and ‘Albany Honey’, both originating from stateside visits. Guy is currently running a Pledge campaign to fund his new album to be recorded in New York later this year. On the evidence of this evening’s brief showcase, the finished product possesses a fair degree of early promise.

While Josh and Kelley had equal billing in the pre-gig blurb, the pair used the twin sets on offer to present a sample of their tunes, split by gender but both interwoven with folk sensibilities focussing on the intricacies of real and true everyday American life. Josh uses the solo mantle to share a bunch of songs mainly centred round his two areas of geographical residence, namely growing up in North Dakota and currently inhabiting the Wisconsin state capital of Madison. Matching his profound vocal style and flexible guitar playing form an integral part of his limelight presence, although the warm and informative inter-song banter adds the vital interactive audience ingredient. A handful of Josh’s releases are available online with the two stand out songs introduced being the deeply personal ‘6th Avenue’ and the passionate ‘Whiskey and Morphine’. Not one to miss out on an opportunity to collaborate, Josh invited Kelley and her husband Matt Castlelein to help out with a couple of numbers with the invitation being reciprocated later for a cover of Ryan Adams’ ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ and an encore version of Dan Bern’s ‘Black Tornado’.

Before heaping further praise on the magnetic appeal of Kelley’s song presentation, an acknowledgement of Matt’s contribution on resonator guitar deservedly needs documenting  as it drove the musical arrangement in a much appreciated twang induced roots direction. Matt is at the absolute core of Kelley’s desire to share her inner thoughts via an artistic medium she is both comfortable with and extremely good at. Over the course of the evening it was impossible not to grow fond of Kelley and believe in her lifelong quest to throw her heart and soul into pursuing the utopia of an idealist singer-songwriter. Whether leaving the inbred musical influences of her Mississippi home to hang out as a hipster of pretence in New York City (she is far too genuine for that label) or giving up the day job for 2 years living out of a VW campervan, her background tales were absorbing especially when introducing the source of the song ‘Johnny Cash’. ‘Stay Close to Me’, ‘Rare Bird’, Alone’ and ‘All the Days’ were all gratifying songs entrancingly sung and frequenting a set which could quite easily have floated into the early hours of the following day’s Good Friday holiday.  

The names of Kelley McCrae and Josh Harty are now no longer a mystery in these quarters and any discerning fan of folk-style Americana music should follow suit. Increased affection for them as artists will surely encourage both to seek some return to the UK in the future and maybe a few more folks in the press and promotion world will make their path more productive.

Guy Jones Pledge Project

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Tom Russell - The Rose of Roscrae :Proper Records

Call it a ballad of the west, a folk opera or a masterpiece of musical theatre, Tom Russell’s latest epic THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE will audibly move, absorb and inspire any listener who dives headfirst into this pool of western folklore. The project may have been twenty years in the making but its fruition through a stellar cast, the wonderful merging of new and borrowed songs with archival field recordings and a story etching to be told, make it a lifetime piece of work from a prolific artist passionately dedicated to his cause. Time may dictate that ultimately a number of the songs will evolve into separate entities, although this should only occur once grasping their context and role within the brilliance of the project.

Quite simply THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE is built for the stage and Broadway has to be its ultimate resting place. However the interim is all about engrossing your mind in the story Tom tells and marvelling at how so many aspects of the West are woven into its soundtrack especially within the strapline theme of 19th Century Irish emigration. A brief synopsis of the story sees a young Irish lad flee his homeland in the 1880’s and head west for a cowboy life which is recalled through the words of the subject several decades later. We are introduced to many characters along the way, none more recurring than his first and true love, The Rose of Roscrae. Two versions of the title song appear in this body of work which spans two discs, is unsurprisingly billed as two acts and lasts a fulfilling two and half hours. Tom, who adopts the role of the main character known as John Dutton and often referred to as Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, masterly delivers the inaugural version with acclaimed Irish American-influenced songstress Maura O’Connell wrapping up proceedings with a stunning rendition of this superb song written by Tom, Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh.

Barry undertakes  a co-producing role on the record, while Gretchen takes her place amongst an amazing list of performers including Eiza Gylkyson, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Jimmy LaFave, Joe Ely, Ian Tyson, Jerry Douglas, and Gurf Morlix to name a mere handful. If you were to inevitably extract a number of tracks for isolated listening then obvious candidates would be ‘When the Wolves No Longer Sing’, ‘Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos’,’Doin’ Hard Time in Texas’ and ‘Resurrection Mountain’. However these songs form only part of the decorated canvas as field recordings from illustrious American historical figures such as Walt Whitman and Leadbelly, weave into the narrative courtesy of Tom and the outstanding use of soliloquys to thread the concept into an enterprising finished product.

The sheer educational impact of this record will see you researching further the life of St. Damien of Molokai, a Belgian missionary who the main character turns to in one of the many dark moments, thus removing any glamour of the cowboy life. Encounters with the landscape, original inhabitants and fellow migrants add a real life flavour to a tale which never loses touch with its Celtic roots. An eventual reunion with the Rose of Roscrae provides a stimulating finale free of stereotypical clichés. With circle of life connotations, the overriding message is that the last frontier can be conquered despite the many obstacles and terrors. Tom’s unrelenting passion to present the reality of the West is a joy to share and how ultimately love, faith and spirit lead the way on the pioneering trail.

Tom’s cast of many includes the Norwegian Wind Ensemble who under the arrangement of Mats Halling delivers the soundtrack overture split across the opening shots of both discs/acts. Apart from obvious rambles around Texas (which includes a hair tingling patched up version of Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’) and New Mexico, the story also ventures south of the border. The songs ‘Guadalupe’, (another Gretchen Peters contribution) ‘Valentine de la Sierra’, ‘Poor Mother Mexico’ and ‘Gallo del Cielo’ provide the welcome sprinkling of a Latino sound with some splendid accordion from Joel Guzman.

In support of this monumental project, a 96 page book has been published providing full details on the songs, performers and background of which there is plenty to analyse within the 52 tracks. This accompaniment should perfectly supplement the listening experience and hopefully its UK availability will widen upon album release and ahead of Tom's tour. 

One thing for certain is that this piece of work is highly addictive and once you have scaled the hurdle of initial listen, the desire to keep returning is all consuming and the inhalation of newly discovered interpretations keeps the fire of interest roaring. If Western music is to get a deserved resurrection then Tom Russell is its keenest contemporary disciple and THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE will provide a marker for historical context and act as an outstanding arrangement of song, sound and prose.

Once this album is rolled out the consumer conundrum of entity versus song selection will determine its commercial viability. While the former is strongly advised, there is merit in the latter especially if it provides tangible rewards for its architect. Tom Russell tours the UK in the autumn and it will be fascinating to see how he presents the record alongside his enormous back catalogue. In the meantime critical reaction to the record will be keenly observed from the high ground of holding the opinion that THE ROSE OF ROSACRE is a magnificent piece of work.