Sunday, 31 May 2015

Jess Morgan - The Bournemouth EP : Self Released

Never an artist to rest on her laurels, Jess Morgan has not been fazed by this latest short release being hot on the heels of last year’s album LANGA LANGA and firmly decided it was a right time to commit a number of new songs to a recorded format. So in between the end of a busy year and a new one beginning with a month long US trip, THE BOURNEMOUTH EP was born with an uncanny resemblance to what Jess was about to experience on this hop across the pond. This is by far the most Americana tinged set of songs grouped together by Jess who continues to grow her presence generally within the UK folk scene.

Now, the choice is simple to purchase this collection, either get five tracks by ordering from the artist friendly platform Bandcamp or four from that universally available download store. The fifth or unreleased track is succinctly titled ‘American Song (unreleased field recording)’ and assumedly takes its influence from the trip where Jess called at New York and Nashville on her way to performing at the prestigious Folk Alliance showcase in Kansas City. Like its four accompanying tracks on the extended version, the recording perfectly captures the elegant tones of Jess’s sumptuous vocals delving straight into the heart of her outpourings of song writing observational wisdom.

If anything, Jess has dug a little deeper into her vocal repertoire than on previous records with this time her hearty whispering vocals revealing a touch more soul and host of sunken treasure. The defining mood of these five tracks is the heady mix of an intimate house concert with the sophistication of a studio arrangement. The major winner is the listener who opens the door and peeks into a sonic sanctuary for a brief 20 minutes. Existing fans of Jess will be familiar with one of the chosen tracks slated for this record as she has bravely opted to slightly rehash probably her finest song to date. ‘Freckles in the Sun (2015)’ is already cast as a quality number and the tinkering has put a bright new sheen on a substantial piece of song writing excellence.

Elsewhere on all formats of the EP, the three new tracks evoke memories of an enchanting charm with ‘Time Machine’ being elegantly crafted on the piano before melting into its luscious mode of consumption. ‘Simple Mantra’ sees a little harmonica added to a subtle gentle guitar led piece, while opening tune ‘Down in Flames’ has a laid back jazzy feel to its make up coupled with a lot more twang than we are used to from Jess’s recordings. The sum of these gilt-edged components fully justifies the impromptu decision Jess made to go ahead with THE BOURNEMOUTH EP and there will be no complaints from her growing list of admirers.

These informed people already identify Jess Morgan as one of the hardest working performers on the acoustic circuit and a fiercely independent artist successfully matching her endeavours with material of endearing quality. As usual Jess will be busy this summer promoting the record with an evolving list of dates in all formats - festivals, gig and anybody who wishes to book her. If you form part of the uninitiated then sampling THE BOURNEMOUTH EP is a low risk-high dividend investment. To those in the know, keep spreading the word.

Available soon from here

Annabelle Chvostek - Be the Media : MQGV

The hot potato style of Annabelle Chvostek leaps all over her new album as she well and truly parks the acoustic folk slant to one side to herald a dark and moody release. Fully creative and experimental in its serving, BE THE MEDIA twists, turns and snakes around with the empowered electric guitar driving the sound. This is far removed from the pure tones of the Wailin’ Jennys where Annabelle raised her profile nearly a decade ago, but perhaps more in tune with an explorative artist determined to plough the independent route.

While being an album which warrants a few spins to grasp its mettle, listeners will detect aspects of old Annabelle alongside the new especially those in tune with her fiery passion for the protest song. Fans of her previous Juno nominated album RISE will quickly align with the two numbers providing an outlet for her anger. The title track ‘Be the Media’ turns the heat up right from its prominent position of album opener and proceeds to be the dominant piece on a record where Annabelle has sought a particularly minimalist approach to making music. A heavier and rockier sound to this passionate outpouring may need a touch of ear adjusting but the message is stark and clear. A trait which endears Annabelle to many likeminded admirers.

With an instantaneous floor to tape feel to the record, Annabelle once again teams up with regular bassist Jeremie Jones and percussionist Tony Spina, a trio which become the standard touring format. Unfortunately an opportunity didn’t arise to catch the recent UK tour to promote the album’s June 1 release, but there is little doubt she will be back and getting to grips with the record is a near perfect substitute.

Photo by Ximena Griscti
The other track with protest connotations is the challenge to faith in ‘Jerusalem’ which soon gives way to Annabelle seeping into more prophetic mode especially in the dark and philosophical song ‘Black Hole’, where the extra musical accompaniment of saw adds to the intrigue. This sound edges into the follow on track ‘Carnal Delights’ with a continued eerily feel taking you into the weirder corners of your mind. For those seeking a little more light, the chorus from this last track shows a slight glimpse into a brighter world which is then further illuminated by the palatable beauty of ‘You Can Come Now'.

The irresistible pull of a Canadian singer-songwriter covering a Neil Young song is too much for Annabelle as she reaches for the more conventional mandolin to pay respects to the ever popular ‘Like a Hurricane’. The high quality take on this track makes it forgivable that Annabelle elected to insert a cover in a nine song album, which still managed to edge into the optimum forty minute playing time. The final two songs under consideration are headed by the more intrinsic rock beat providing the underlay to ‘Inside the Scream/Screen’, before the conventionally layered song structure highlights what Annabelle does best in ‘Say it Right’.

BE THE MEDIA is a record which tempts, lures and fascinates in equal measure while demonstrating that Annabelle Chvostek can flit around her folk roots core and enlist the listener on a pursuit of deeper drive. This desire to experiment in alternative directions makes Annabelle an integral member of the artistic scene which successfully fuses the traditional and the progressive.

Dennis Ellsworth - Birchmeadow Centre, Broseley, Shropshire. Saturday 30th May 2015

It was a case of interim Dennis Ellsworth as he punctuated a short UK visit to play a couple of shows which gave fans an update on his current situation. It also provided a timely reminder as to why he has garnered so much praise since the decision to export his talents was made. With a new album slated for release in September, Dennis took the option to reflect upon his whole career as songs from all tenses were dissected, analysed and primarily delivered in his genuine magnanimous style.

Having previously seen Dennis play a storming late night full band festival set and open for Leeroy Stagger back in 2013, this was a far more revelatory opportunity to grasp him as a performer, songwriter and partially as a person, although the latter is tempered by the stage façade. He comes across as a stoical and sincere figure on stage, while his meticulous approach to write moving and passionate songs is a testament to an intelligent stance on the whole sphere of the inspiration to his art. For nearly two hours in this Shropshire community venue, Dennis permeated the minds of his audience with a prepossessing form of inter song musing which majorly focussed on the writing process and succeeded in bridging the many miles between Prince Edward Island, Canada and the music scene in the old country.

With the new album in the can and now titled ROMANTIC AS IT GETS, Dennis is itching to get the songs out into the wider world, yet taking the considered approach of letting the summer months roll away before launching the record. Three of the songs selected for airing this evening had the full package of explanation as their aperitif. Therefore the location of the writing of ‘Full Moon Blues’ was revealed as sitting contemplatively on the shoreline of his hometown Charlottetown on the Canadian maritime coast, while ‘Beauty is Sad’ was inspired by thoughts of Billie Holiday while frequenting a record store. The trio was completed by the renewed life of a fallen tree in the borrowed title ‘Mercy Doll’, just to give a diverse flavour to his subjects.

Drawing inspiration from other songwriters is another track for his craft as exemplified in the song ‘Harry Nilsson’s Heart’ lifted from his 2013 record HAZY SUNSHINE, an album which also supplied the excellent number ‘Rudderless Day’ to this evening’s offerings. Like so many Canadian artists, a Neil Young song made an appearance with Dennis choosing to close the show with his version of ‘Powderfinger’. However it was English folk artist John Smith who has had the most profound effect on Dennis since they first hooked up as writing companions a few years ago. ‘Perfect Storm’ and ‘Forever to an End’ were two results of their collaboration with the former being one of the top tunes from his handful of previous albums to date. ‘Electric Stars’ was another personal favourite from 2012’s DUSK DREAMS to make the cut for the show.

The transition from totally solo writing, as most graphically described in the song ‘I Thought My Name Was Dark Clouds’, to now considering collaboration as an important part of his arsenal was explained during the evening. This culminated with reference to a recent writing project with Donovan Woods. We also had an insight to the historical aspect of Dennis being part of the band Haunted Hearts and how his most recent record LOVE KNOWS LOVE was a low key affair designed to be a home for older leftover tracks with its intended marketing policy being mainly gig merchandise sales.

The wider music community including the UK are going to hear a lot more of Dennis Ellsworth in the near future. A dedicated tour is lined up to support the new album and for those of you who put a high value on the importance of the acutely crafted song, then the soft persuasive vocals of Dennis sharing his wares is an engaging and enticing way to expend your listening time. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Simon Stanley Ward - Simon Stanley Ward : Self Released

From a guy who doesn’t know the meaning of the word fake, but is most certainly blessed with a desired edge, the projectile career of Simon Stanley Ward takes a massive leap forward with the release of his self-titled debut full length album. Now no longer the sole domain of its multitude of presence-based activities in the South East of England, the music of Simon is now extended into many other listening arenas via a record rock solid with a genuine sound ratcheting up the twang barometer. There is also a tantalising yearning within a voice ripe with honesty which continually digs deep into the core of rock n’ roll infused country music.

While this album is no homage to the rhetoric of alt-country rock, there is a definite alternative twist to the ten tracks that circle your senses with an intriguing motion prior to landing right on their intended spot. Right from a curious opener which succeeds in immediately raising your eyebrows, its arousal tendencies take a while to sink in as the record carefully assesses an acute parking spot within your collection. ‘The Monster Song’ is that splendidly surreal opener spiced up with some heavy bass twang before making way for a trio of numbers intently raising the heat. ‘Trouble Somewhere’ with the fabulous catchy line ‘when drink from this lonely fountain’ is where the killer melody kicks in and proves to be the tasty filler between the conventional rocker ‘100 Days in Heaven’ and the neo traditional ‘Please Excuse Me (While I Feel Sorry for Myself’. Just perhaps when a little breather is required, Simon comes up trumps with a slice of pure mellow in the album’s pivotal track ‘Another Page’.

As the page is turned over, or to be more precise the vinyl version (if it materialises) is flipped, the songs continue to ignite that eternal flame of a classic sound. The perfect pairing of the pedal steel driven aching number ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and the wit energised ‘American Voice’ prove the focal points of the album’s second phase. The latter combines humour and poignancy by proclaiming Simon’s love for country music without the experience of drinking excessive whiskey, listening to whippoorwills or having fights. Intoxication by the romance and an extraordinary talent for soulful interpretation is a sufficient combination to make this a very good country record.

Inevitably in today’s climate such a left field production is a sure fire fit to be courted by the Americana contingent and the final three tracks to mention throw a touch of diversity into the mix. ‘Obvious to You’ and ‘Homesick’ both draw influence from the rock n’ roll side of country music and race along with a hearty beat. Album closer ‘Over Here’ possesses a deeper groove than its track list predecessors and signs off the record on a slightly lower key note with the organ making an effective appearance on a lengthy near six minute piece, pushing the whole playing time just short of the three quarter hour mark.

Hefty praise is fully warranted on Simon Stanley Ward for channelling his style, acumen and heart into a record which resonates with acres of impressive effect. The challenge is now to raise the profile and show a wider market that a sincere brand of high quality and intelligent country music is bubbling under within the UK’s vibrant indie scene.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Slaid Cleaves - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmimgham. Friday 22nd May 2015

For those buying into the concept of absence makes the heart grow fonder, the fact that Slaid Cleaves unintentionally missed Birmingham off his previous touring schedule may have been a blessing in disguise. Slaid has always been well supported at the Kitchen Garden Café and for his triumphant return the house full sign was almost being dusted down. On an upgrade from his previous Birmingham dates, Slaid was this time accompanied by his sidekick Scrappy Jud Newcomb and together they reeled off a continual chain of popular tunes, well received by many long term fans populating the audience. Right from the opening chords of ‘Horseshoe Lounge’ to a poignant unplugged tribute to the late Ian MacLagan over two hours later, there was a distinctive Texas flavour from an honorary Texan now fully steeped in the Lone Star State’s poetic culture.

With no apparent set list visible it didn’t take long for the requests to kick in and probably nearly a third of the set were audience shout outs stretching Slaid’s memory acumen to its limit. Any doubts about immaculate recollection from his deep back catalogue vault were soon removed especially when dealing with ‘Borderline’ and his eight minute folk epic ‘Breakfast in Hell’. As the requests rolled in, favourite songs such as ‘Quick as  Dreams’, ‘Lydia’ and ‘Horses and Divorces’ rolled out leaving many Slaid fans content that the unfortunate wrong of missing the city last time had been fully rectified.

Last time Slaid toured the UK he was supporting his latest record STILL FIGHTING THE WAR and with copies to sell to those who had yet to buy the record, a number of tracks infiltrated the set with promotional intent. Amongst these was the fabulous ‘Texas Love Song’ which proved one of the pivotal high spots on the evening. The album version featured Terri Hendrix and she was one of many Texas musicians namechecked during the evening including Don Walser and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Slaid never fails to relay stories of his long term association with Rod Picott and two of their most popular co-writes illuminated the opening set in ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Broke Down’. The latter usually gets its introduction as the song which lifted Slaid up the inconspicuous ladder of muted fame. Like so many Americana artists out of Austin, Slaid was quick to be appreciative of the help Bob Harris had given them to make touring the UK a viable option.

Scrappy Jud’s contribution to the evening ranged from some serious twang emerging out of his slide acoustic playing to a baritone sound emanating from his second guitar. He also sang lead vocals on one of his own songs and backed Slaid on many others. The pair has developed that telepathic intuition required for a successful duo style and several songs were enhanced with the occasional fluid lead guitar breaks. Many lauded songs continued to flow from the floor as we were treated to ‘Cry’, ‘Wishbones’ and another crowd favourite ‘One Good Year’. Like so many artists operating at this level, there is not a single shred of indifference to the show, with such humility and gratefulness being a blessing for performers rich in talent, but forever denied that big break.

Slaid Cleaves is an artist content with his lot and gets much satisfaction in sharing his songs with enthusiastic and dedicated audiences where compromise is not an option. The songs are a pure poetic masterpiece of Americana landscape, observation and soul with their author perfectly at ease in using his gifts to entertain via the fruits of his craft. Tonight was a reminder that Slaid Cleaves is a sheer classy songwriter and we were promised no more Birmingham omissions from future tours.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Lucy Ward + Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Thursday 21st May 2015

Taste of traditional, primed in the present and locked in for the long term are three phrases that perfectly sum up the current career status of Kim Lowings and Lucy Ward. Of course the light of Lucy has shone a little brighter in wider circles, but they came together as kindred spirits to share the spotlight in the second instalment of the 2015 Stourbridge Folk Festival. Splendidly described by Lucy as a ‘bunker’, the cellar bar at Katie Fitzgerald’s pub in Stourbridge hosted this memorable evening which was sprinkled with the gold dust of song, sound, prose and passion. 

Local artist Kim dutifully and gracefully opened for the Derbyshire based guest as Lucy was afforded a couple of sets to spice up a serene start to the show. Not that Lucy refrains from her more composed moments, but the feisty side of an exuberant persona ignites the flame to illuminate her craft, art and message. The handover between artists was a precise piece of cultural exchange as Kim hit her vocal stride with ‘The Parting Glass’ before being almost instantly followed by Lucy announcing her arrival with flamboyant panache.

Both artists are in the throes of making that next record and took the opportunity to present a taster of the new material. Kim chose to share one of her more contemporary offerings with the track ‘Stay’ sounding immaculate on first listen and gave a hint that this new release is set to span the folk spectrum. ‘Connie and Bud’ and ‘Summers That We Made’ showed Lucy as being in fine fettle with the usual addition of inspired commentary being a fundamental accompaniment to each song, whether old or new.

Kim, predominately on her trademark mountain dulcimer, was as usual supported by her backing trio The Greenwood and together they weaved through a set of familiar tunes, many of which have featured on her album and EP. ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Off to Sea’, both originals, headed the list and it was good to hear ‘The Wonderful Mr Clark’ again. The title of her new album was announced as Historia with hopefully the press to begin before the dying days of summer fade away. There is a guarantee you will be hearing a lot of it as the year heads into its final months, so stay tuned for more from a talented artist succinctly capable of gift wrapping each song with her idyllic vocals.

The enhanced versatility of Lucy’s vocals has led to a Folk Singer of the Year nomination to follow up a Horizon award for emerging artist. These imposing tones were wonderfully propelled around this intimate setting in diversely presented songs such as the spritely ‘Old Brown Hen’, the traditionally inspired original ‘Alice in the Bacon Box’, the wonderful ‘The Last Pirouette’ and the popular ‘Velvet Day’. This last song closed her first set, one in which Lucy opted out of playing stringed instruments due to a slight injury. This led to a late call up for an old friend in guitarist Albert Widdowson. The minor hindrance did not duly affect a couple of tunes being bellowed out on the concertina and harmonium with this temporary situation providing a further opportunistic spark for Lucy’s expressive mode of song delivery.

The music of Lucy sways between the abstract and the earthy with the latter being intensely fuelled by her political stance, which like her music is a long way adrift from the centre ground. The prelude to the imposing pre-encore show closer ‘For the Dead Men’ paraded Lucy at her fiery best as well as the gratitude she showed to her hero Billy Bragg. This was perfectly captured in the WW1 tribute piece ‘Lion’ she wrote at Billy’s request when playing his choreographed Left Field stage at Glastonbury last year. This was much in a similar vein as the commissioned song ‘Creatures and Demons’, based on the famous Elizabeth Gaskell novel North and South. Just to cap the political leanings of the evening, Lucy couldn’t resist the request to cover Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ in light of that dark day of May 8.

While on the topic of covers, a warm and affectionate audience had little trouble adding backing vocals to a version of ‘First Cut is the Deepest’ and Lucy celebrated her temporary reunion with Albert by returning to a song from their musical past in ‘I Will’ by The Beatles. This brought a momentous evening to a close which thrilled both audience and artists alike.

Appreciation is forthcoming to the Stourbridge Folk Festival for presenting a show which went a long way in encapsulating the pioneering folk spirit of two artists stolidly representing their generation in the inspirational art of traditional and contemporary song. Erase the observational differences between Kim Lowings and Lucy Ward and it will reveal two artists bound by a drive to fulfil the calling of their gift.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Grant Langston - Hope You're Happy Now : California Roots Union

For every indifferent country music release filing out of Nashville, it doesn’t take too much searching to find a golden nugget elsewhere truly subservient to the heritage and prestige of the genre. California has frequently been a hotbed for country music, often in a revisionist capacity. Whether within the urban confines of LA or the less refined surroundings of Bakersfield, the Golden State possess a fine pedigree and this latest project under the banner of California Roots Union is a further leap in the right direction. Grant Langston has long been associated with the far west community despite being raised a true southerner and has successfully captured the melting pot of his influences in a recording career well into its second decade. HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY NOW is a slight diversion from his recent releases in overall style, but matches up exceedingly well in the quality stamp of authenticity.

Whereas two of his previous records, STAND UP MAN (2009) and WORKING UNTIL I DIE (2012) were driven by a prominent honky tonk sound, this time it’s a more melancholic Langston tuning into a sad song wavelength with many a thoughtful sentiment. This smashing and thoroughly satisfying album basks in swathes of pedal steel amidst a dozen alluring tracks showcasing an adroit song writer and musician with the nous to steer the ship through the rough seas of change to calmer traditional waters.

Photo by Duff Ferguson 
If you want a lesson in how to grab a listener’s attention with the first hook, Langston perfectly executes it with the marvellously memorable opening line ‘I bought us a couple of whiskeys, you look like you could use a drink’. The next three and a half minutes drip with absolute 24 carat country gold as ‘Drive’ nails the moment and delivers a song for all seasons, ages and time. Of course it would be remiss of you to quit after one song, but if you did stall, there is no finer stopping point. The wise amongst you will trawl through the next eleven tracks calling at several strategic highpoints to ensure the challenge set by the opener is not too daunting. The superb, almost part spoken, ‘Breaking Hearts’ is another sterling steel infested effort as is a stunning peak towards the album’s finale in the classic ‘I Work Too Hard’.

A significant slice of this record is played out on piano spreading that laid back California vibe to all and sundry in scintillating effect. This harks back to the golden age of singer song writing with substantial country twang adding up to a record relentlessly swimming around your mind with barely a few plays under its belt. ‘Don’t You Dare’ leads the way in the unashamed throwback stakes, while ‘Me and Margaret’ is a distinguished effort played out in a theatrical mode coupled with an upbeat mood. Occasionally, the record glides into a slightly rockier direction with a soft guitar groove underpinning ‘Born to Ride’ and a quainter tune in ‘Fading Fast’ housing the album’s prime guitar solo, while easing into a pool of tantalising twang.

From a man who once immortalised Shiner Bock and Vicodin into a never to be forgotten song title, the writing of Grant Langston had already been carved in vinyl. This latest release has taken its inspiration from the Willie Nelson concept album PHASES AND STAGES highlighting Langston’s desire to continually seek directional influence for his work and there is no better source than delving into the vaults of a master. HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY NOW serves as the perfect refuge for real country music seekers and confirms Grant Langston as one of the good guys who makes records to match the passion for his craft. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Police Dog Hogan - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 14th May 2015

Following a false start towards the end of last year, a West Midlands audience finally got the opportunity for find out what Police Dog Hogan are all about. Folks in the South of England and various other locations dotted around the country already knew that they are one of the hottest live bands on the UK roots circuit, so it was a case of getting up to speed. A highly credible turnout at the Hare and Hounds for a new band in town saw this multi-instrumental  assembly firing on all cylinders and fully eager to ride the waves generated by the band’s all-consuming rousing stage performance. This was Police Dog Hogan doing what comes natural and deliver a totally authentic high octane entertaining performance.

It has been around six or seven months since the band released their third full length album and many of the songs are quickly becoming embedded favourites in the set list. This is hardly surprising for a record richly populated with tunes reflecting their live presence. ‘From the Land of Miracles’, ‘West Country Boy’ and ‘Thunderheads’ head the fast flowing numbers from an album titled WESTWARD HO which frontman James Studholme informed those present was influenced by his own South West roots. Critics heralded the record as symbolically representing the strategic extremity of the British Isles and the last staging post before the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. You don’t have to exert too much energy in discovering the Americana context to Police Dog Hogan, to the extent that their very British slant on the genre has been presented to industry bods in Nashville.

While the band show little refrain in hiding their American heroes via covers of Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’ and the immortal Hank Williams classic ‘I Saw the Light’, it is perhaps their take on home grown observations that give Police Dog Hogan their identity. ‘Crackington’, ‘No Wonder She Drinks’ and ‘Fraserburgh Train’ all have distinct origins and what could be more British than the poignant ‘A Man Needs a Shed’. Maybe further Midlands gigs will get the crowd more actively celebrating the band’s ode to low class drinking in ‘Shitty White Wine’, but they were reciprocally vociferous in giving a helping hand to the cleverly written song ‘Burnt’.

For this evening Police Dog Hogan was operating as a seven piece unit with James (guitar/lead vocals), Tim Dowling (banjo) and Eddie Bishop (fiddle) assuming a more focal role. Shahen Galichian (accordion/harmonium), Michael Giri (drums) and Don Bowen (bass) each had their moments to individually shine in addition to a collective effort propelling the theory of the sum being greater. The numerous trumpet interludes from Emily Norris give the sound a finer touch and whose presence accentuates the band’s explicit diversity. The buoyant outlook of this part time band is a refreshing trait alongside a stage show awash with humour and just sheer gratefulness to share their passion with a paying public. The joviality peaked with a touch of Anglo-French rambling in ‘La Moutarde du Dijon’ and the desire of the band to evolve lay in a new song ‘Black Road’ thus showing a stated intent to continually update their song writing repertoire.

Enthusiastic local performer Rich McMahon was a popular choice to open the evening with a mix of covers and originals fuelled by a combination of Irish and Midland roots. This pro-active and purposeful singer-songwriter has forged a growing reputation on the local circuit and he no doubt gained a few more admirers from this three figure Hare and Hounds gathering with his brash brand of observational songs.

Now Police Dog Hogan has conquered the West Midlands, world domination is a less daunting prospect. In the meantime the band will continue to make forays around the country demonstrating the high value that can surface from the art of enterprising song and the extracted inspiration from roots instrumentation. This theory will be endorsed by each member of a satisfied Birmingham crowd and justify the decision of the Kitchen Garden Events team to promote the evening.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Don Gallardo - Hickory : Clubhouse Records

Apart from housing some very special UK music talent, indie label Clubhouse Records have an intuitive knack of exposing seriously good North American acts to refined markets this side of the pond. On the back of Leeroy Stagger a couple of years ago and more recently Cale Tyson, next up on the Clubhouse delivery wagon is the strikingly named Don Gallardo from Nashville, Tennessee. This cool and chilled singer-songwriter is beginning to gather momentum in the UK with national radio airplay and his new album HICKORY will resonate with connoisseurs who thrive on a subtle mix of classic and contemporary. The rise of Americana as a recognised genre is a media coat hanger for artists like Don, so that their talents can be displayed prominently in the shop window. Purchasing the smooth and slick sound of Don Gallardo will be one of your best value bargains of the year.

HICKORY is Don’s fourth full length release, but no doubt for many folks in the UK a first listen to his material. However there is a solid guarantee that this initial experience will be rewarded with distinct approval. Backed by an accomplished list of musicians, detailing the quality of their associations would be an exhaustive task, all thirteen original tracks ebb and flow through a golden stream of distinguished song writing fare. Perfect for lazing back on a warm summer’s evening, this scenario has been ordered for Don’s festival appearances on the proviso that the UK weather is open to requests. More guaranteed though is the listening pleasure garnered from playing this album at your leisure in one’s preferred format.

Upon each listen to this album (and there are many under the bridge), two tracks shine in a consistent light of excellence each time. ‘North Dakota Blues’ is a delightful folk tale with the usual dark patches, while ‘Banks of the Mississippi’ is a dip into one of the most fertile areas for Americana songwriters and Don scores highly with this aphotic composition. In a colourful contrast, a lighter background, including a touch of sax, accompanies ‘Angel on the Dance Floor’ where a Californian sound to represent Don’s roots is more prevalent.

This west coast feel also flavours the opening song ‘Down in the Valley’ which sets a laid back tone to become almost the soundtrack of the record. Such a soundtrack spans the Americana spectrum with a couple of top tunes calling at the country music truck stop to re-fuel with a bout pedal steel twang. These are namely the waltz induced ‘This Time’ and a lengthy heart breaking closer full of love and loss ‘Pearls’. While on the laid back trail, both ‘Midnight Sounds’ and ‘Will We Ever Get it Right’ possess a lounge jazz feel with the sax once again infiltrating the first and a fiddle giving the second an slight old time makeover in parts of the song.

On a record which draws contemporary comparisons with some of the less frantic Old Crow Medicine Show material and definitely shades of Drew Holcomb, it is surprisingly Simon and Garfunkel which come to mind when listening to ‘Carousel’. Talking of this era, or more specific the early 70’s, ‘When the World Wakes Up’ relays absolute imagery of the classic singer-songwriter cutting the mustard. This leads in neatly to Don’s tribute to one of the industry’s greats via ‘Ophelia, We Cry’ (Ode to Levon Helm’), with the immortal tribute line ‘you left us all so suddenly with no chance for goodbyes’ saying all there needs to be said. On an album rich in lyrical indulgence, the writing goes metaphorically deep digging in ‘Diamonds & Gold’. The final track to mention ‘Cup of Rain’ does likewise in a tender ballad extolling the virtues of sharing and protection showing that there is no shying away from sentiment, especially when done well.

While the two tracks mentioned at the start of the review still retain those ‘stand out’ qualities, there is so much else on offer to make HICKORY a ’stand out’ album itself.  Don Gallardo is a masterful artist perfectly equipped to interpret American roots music in an impressive style to totally engage the listener.

Alabama Shakes - 02 Academy, Birmingham. Wednesday 13th May 2015

Alabama Shakes are a band who explicitly display their roots and proudly take a slice of the Deep South with them wherever they play in the world. Tonight they may have traded the urban namesakes between their home state and the English Midlands, but there was an unmistakable aura of southern lore around the venue. The challenge is certainly on to find a finer rock n’ soul band on this planet especially one that has successfully permeated the UK mainstream. You could quite easily supplant the name Brittany Howard into the band’s title such is the dominant and imposing presence of a front person blessed with a spiritualist talent to deliver the most authentic soul and gospel you are likely to hear in a rock arena.

Following a flying visit to the UK, mainly for press purposes, earlier in the year, Alabama Shakes in their eight piece format are now rolling out a series of provincial dates to support their new album SOUND & COLOR, which has already sold in considerable numbers. A few more copies will shift off the shelf after catching the band in full flow and in the true tradition of a major live act, the songs take on a whole new dimension when transported from studio to stage. The torrential outpouring of pure emotion into each song is a gasping experience as she blazes through a heady mix of up tempo rock infused songs and others lifted straight from the sermon of Brittany Howard in all their soulful and gospel might.

The trio of guitarists including Brittany on a majority of the numbers play a significant part to form the sound, but the cream comes from the keys and organ creating that galactic feel of soul music swirling around in a sumptuous haze. The twin keys approach, a pair of backing singers and the resident drummer provided the final line up pieces that excelled collectively throughout and were fully supportive to Brittany exuding her powerful persona to the nth degree. This was a show of little chat, only a smattering of Brittany’s grateful humility, as the band steamed through an 80 minute set of songs from their two albums to date almost in equal portions.

From the debut album BOYS & GIRLS, the band elected to omit the popular tune ‘Hold On’, however this show was more about the entity of the radiated emotion than eulogising over individual songs. However to present some detail  ‘I Found You’ and ‘Rise to the Sun’ off this record raised the energy levels, while ‘You Ain’t Alone’ and ‘Be Mine’ were among the most intense numbers.

To put the live performance of Alabama Shakes into context, the lead single from the new album was perhaps one of the evening’s lighter moments with Brittany seemingly taking an emotional breather. This is no slur on ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ which was a good choice to court popular appeal,  but it’s dance-like beat and almost disco vibes fall short of Brittany at her incredible soulful pinnacle. ‘Dunes’, another popular track from this album, had an early airing in the set list  and in contrast to shows where the final song is a rousing anthem, this evening closed with a more low key effort in ‘Over My Head’ which reflected on the observation that this was a gig with a domineering focal point. Three other notable new songs to feature and worth a mention were 'Miss You', ‘Gimme All Your Love’ and ‘The Greatest’.

The evening got off to a blistering start with an exhilarating blast of Mali style blues rock groove. Songhoy Blues are a four piece band bringing the best of African electric rhythm aided by yet another expressive and effervescent front person capable of whipping up a docile crowd. It took barely two songs to hook in the gig early birds which gradually swelled to a sizeable proportion. Orchestrated participation matched the dynamism from the stage and this band are set to be an instant hit when they hit the UK festival circuit this summer.

There is going to be a lot more of Alabama Shakes in the UK this summer as well and this exposure will bring the power, guile and brilliance of American roots music to a wider audience. Make no mistake Brittany Howard does not play to a mainstream gallery and more pertinently on stage she sinks into a wonderful mire of transfixing soul, blues and gospel. That extraordinary lung sapping vocal pedigree sends shivers down the spine. While there may be a Brittany Howard in every church and hall in Alabama, there is only one pounding the international rock stage and one who also kills it every time she explodes into action.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 10th May

The term crossover can have a multitude of musical connotations, but when the two styles are folk and Americana the results are often quite positive especially when quality artists are at the helm of the execution. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have their roots firmly planted in the UK folk scene and possess a talent recognised by numerous national and regional awarding bodies, most notably BBC Radio 2. Their live shows never fail to impress and always unveil a heady mixture of pulsating musicianship and beautiful delicate song. This third appearance at the Kitchen Garden Café was business as usual for the duo who breezed their way through a pair of alluring sets.

Whether on Dobro, harmonica, stomp box or beat box, Phillip is an intriguing and original musician capable of holding the audience’s attention for lengthy periods. He orchestrates the harmonica with extraordinary effect leaving many in awe. The solo performance of ‘Underground Railroad’ is Phillip’s ace in the pack and goes a long way to justify the price of the admission alone. This ode to the blues strongly tilts the duo towards an Americana sound which is further enhanced by Phillip’s Dobro playing and several choices of covers. This particular show delivered a tribute to two female icons of American roots music in excellent versions of Gillian Welch’s ‘Wichita’ and Alison Krauss’s ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn’.

With her songbird vocals and adept violin and banjo playing, Hannah cuts the poise of a quintessential English folk songstress to add contrasting shades to the duo’s façade. Though diverse in their schemes, the chemistry of combo carefully settles blends and ultimately flourishes. The role of prominent vocalist and engaging communicator suits the warm persona of Hannah and she excels on the familiar favourite ‘Silbury Hill’ as well as on some newer material which augurs well for the duo’s upcoming new release. ‘Tonight’ and ‘Taxi’ were two of the fresh songs previewed and the signs are positive that the new record will match the success of the latest release MYND.

In the week of a disappointing election result, it is vitally important to gather a sense of resolve from the power of a protest song. ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike’ is a staple of any Henry and Martin performance and takes on a particularly local feel when played in the West Midlands. The story of a march between Bromsgrove and Halesowen in the 19th century has a timeless and powerful message which is emphatically and vociferously sung in the chorus of this song. This Midlands audience certainly didn’t let Phillip and Hannah down in the collaborative stakes.

Tales of the duo’s worldwide travels, which in 2015 has included flying visits to Japan and America, filtered into the show and each time seen live, you get to know a little more about Phillip and Hannah. By the time a version of ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ by James Taylor ended the show, an enjoyable evening of splendid and informative entertainment had once again been presented by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Without doubt this duo are well set for a long, successful and influential career, so here’s to more fine material, ingenious musicianship and the odd protest song to fuel the passion of hope. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Katzenjammer - Rescue Rooms, Nottingham. Friday 8th May 2015

Turid Jorgensen
Wholly egalitarian, mildly eccentric, fully fervent and alt with a capital ‘A’, are perfect slogans for describing the live version of Katzenjammer. On this opening gig of a latest attempt to breach the UK market, these four highly talented ladies, morphing into one of Norway’s finest musical exports, gave a timely reminder as to why they have been tearing up mainland European venues for a while now. With an extraordinary display of interchangeable musicianship, Marianne, Turid, Solveig and Anne Marit flit across every shade of the roots spectrum in genre defying proportions. A packed Rescue Rooms in the heart of Nottingham city centre was in a frivolous Friday night party mood to dance, sing and clap along to a lengthy set exceeding an hour and a half, which is above par for a curfew restrictive weekend venue. Many came to marvel and were well and truly exhilarated by this energetic Katzenjammer performance.

Anne Marit Bergheim
The eclecticism was sheer head spinning for the mere mortal observer with each band member rising to the challenge to deliver in creative ways and rarely failing to succeed. Few would dispute the demonic delving of Marianne on keyboards as a moment of pure emotion when she poured out a series of memorable pieces. All three of the band’s albums were extensively represented with the excellent recent ROCKLAND release getting an airing in its entirety to propel it onto a superior plane. Whether the miniature pink piano was the tenth, fifteenth or twentieth instrument used on stage, it sure housed the stand out song of the evening as ‘Shine Like Neon Rays’ made it a double favourite after heading the fine rollercoaster of rockin’ tunes on the new record. For many present, the opportunity to join in with ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ raised the heat on the evening, although the frenzied activity on stage did that adequately on its own.

Solveig Heilo
The freshness, frivolity and charismatic chemistry from the foursome was aplenty with subtle humour from Solveig, and a more serious interlude from Marianne as she explained the background to the track ‘Lady Gray’ and its link to the relationship between music and dealing with Alzheimer’s. We were also reminded of the origin of the term Rockland and the song itself was one of the few tender moments on an evening that was firmly defined by the other end of the tempo scale. Solveig’s encore entrance armed with trumpet crowned an evening of supreme musicianship that was totally underpinned by the band’s trademark cat faced contrabass balalaika.

It would be remiss for a critic not to attempt to pin some kind of label on the sounds of Katzenjammer and the presence of banjo, Dobra and harmonica give an intrinsic folk-Americana feel to a number of their songs. Anne Marit opened up on banjo and was comfortable playing a variety of string instruments; likewise Turid started on bass and frequently went back to it after various instrument excursions. Vocally the band was entirely democratic with its distribution of lead roles although Marianne showed the greatest range with ear splitting pleasure when the vocal chords were suitably stretched, especially as the show reached its crescendo.

Marianne Sveen
While ROCKLAND goes from strength to strength with its acclaim, the latest featured track from it went down a storm with the crowd as ‘My Dear’ saw the band move into a full on feel good mode. This wander into the world of refined pop is a peep into the flamboyant side of Katzenjammer and the evening also saw sporadic outbreaks of Balkan style folk, accordion hip hop and rebel rousing mid European bar music. The band members had recently spent time apart and soaked up the musical environments of places such as London and Nashville. It was quite vivid to imagine the band going down a storm in the famed Ryman Auditorium and delighting many a roots enthusiast in the Americana community.

The underlying theme from this totally enthralling and awe-inspiring gig was that simplicity is king or perhaps queen in this context. The passion was burning intensely and the micro focus was a constant stream of magnificence. Katzenjammer is a jaw dropping must see act and retain an air of credibility in whichever direction they head. They produced the most memorable of stunning live shows and long may they keep UK venues on their horizon.

Cale Tyson - The Musician, Leicester. Thursday 7th May 2015

Cale Tyson
Call the bets off and close the book as the rising star in country music stakes now has a clear winner. With a striking posture, stunning poise and a voice soaked in country tradition, Cale Tyson breathes life into the corpse of the modernistic genre stance, to relight the flame of cosmic Americana. On a simpler scale he is just a happy go lucky guy, extremely talented, incredibly humble and intuitive to a sound which ricochets around every aspect of sense and emotion. The guys from Clubhouse Records have mined the Nashville scene with exquisite taste to uncover this gem and the delivery of both his music and live presence to UK audiences is rapidly evolving into one of the highlights of 2015.

Pete Lindberg
Cale’s inaugural trip to our shores was winding down when he called into Leicester’s distinguished roots venue to remind the chosen few that the world is a more beautiful place if you dig a little deeper. Teaming up with his sidekick Pete Lindberg on lead guitar, the dynamic duo weaved through a set of the new, very new, old and very old to leave not one single punter feeling short changed. Maybe a sea change in industry direction is needed for the chosen few to protract into the lucrative many, but Sturgill Simpson is blazing a trail of the good guy keeping it lonesome, on'ry and mean, so why not Cale Tyson. If Sturgill pushes boundaries, then Cale walks more of a tightrope with intrepid balance. The path may be narrow, but it leaves a sweet scent of nostalgia and the odd empty glass.

Just as the initiated from the old country are being blessed with Cale’s existing material, the man himself is ready to move on and thus we were treated to the most up to date version of Cale Tyson with a raft of songs itching to get the full studio effect. If we were not so forgiving or the fact that the new songs were so good, there may have been a call for more from the two Eps which Clubhouse Records have kindly merged into the INTRODUCING CALE TYSON record. Of the five to richly flavour the set list, ‘Old Time Blues’ was golden class, ‘Not Missing You’ drained no small amount of feeling and ‘Oaxaca’ whisked you off to a world far away from the East Midlands. By the way, ‘Can’t Feel Love’ and ‘Long Gone Girl’ were pretty good as well.

Luke Tuchscherer
From the batch of new songs ready to hit the mixing desk, ‘Careless Soul’ and ‘Two Timer’ were retained most in the memory from first listen, with the latter showing that Cale’s soulful blues gene is just as emphatic as the one which precisely taps into the heart of classic country music. Upon release of the new record, Cale may just well find a growing UK fan base ready to support it in emerging numbers especially if more people latch onto the shameless promotion by Bob Harris on BBC radio.

An enticing prospect of seeing any artist explicitly driven by the past is wondering what covers they are going to celebrate and Cale certainly lived up to the anticipation. A version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel No.1 (T for Texas)’ revealed many hidden talents in a Leicester audience, while a perfect take on John Prine’s ‘That’s the way the World Goes Round’ presented Pete with the opportunity to share his vocal skills and cement his essential piece in the show jigsaw. A crooning version (as if there could be another way) of ‘Make the World Go Away’ to end the evening suggested that Cale can mix with it Eddy Arnold as much as with Gram Parsons.

Luke Whittemore
You should now be getting the message that this was one special evening which got off to a super little start with a pair of Luke’s showing that we Brits can punch above our weight in the world of Americana. Luke Whittemore opened proceedings with a style shaped by the solo acoustic delivery of Jason Isbell and showed glimpses of what a fine record he can make if the rays of good fortune present an opportunity. On the other hand, Luke Tuchscherer has just grasped the mantle of temporarily moving from behind the drums of The Whybirds to record an excellent solo record last year. ‘One of Us ‘and ‘Dear Samantha’ were just two tracks from this album to feature in Luke’s 30 minute slot and he honourably warmed the crowd up with invited participation to join him on Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away’. Strong vocals and a desire to pour his heart and soul in deeply personal songs are just a few qualities of Luke Tuchscherer and the next development is to savour these songs in a band format later in the summer.

On the subject of bands, one of the abiding memories of seeing Cale Tyson for the first time is pondering how he would move onto the next level of awesomeness with the full accompaniment of pedal steel, keys, percussion et al. Fingers crossed that this will be made possible in the future with the rising of his star and the much warranted funding. In the meantime, the superlatives were out in force to form a lexicon of appreciation for an artist driven by an immaculate desire to recreate with an immense magnitude. If you backed Cale Tyson to be the real deal, the only thing left to say is collect your winnings at the door.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Leaf Rapids - Lucky Stars : Black Hen Music

Like a summer breeze ushering the winter blues out the door, a brand new album by Canadian duo Leaf Rapids hits the airwaves this spring to present a delightful awakening experience. Inspired by the remoteness and eccentricity of the northern Manitoban town of the same name, this new project by husband and wife team, Keri and Devin Latimer, is organic in its evolution, roots in its stance and experimental in the finished product. Quite simply LUCKY STARS is decorated with all the essential ingredients of a record destined to make a longstanding impact.

Keri appears to be the mover and shaker on the record, applying her soft velvet, though versatile in places, vocals to all twelve tracks, being the lyrical architect of the ten originals and generally fronting the band. However Keri is more than indebted to her bass playing husband, Devin, and an incisive production input from a Canadian music playing colleague in Steve Dawson who steered the record to its recording conclusion in his Nashville studio. Heavily influenced by pedal steel on a number of tracks gives this album a dignified country feel and this is no more apparent than on a cover of The Handsome Family’s ‘Don’t Be Scared’. To back up this sound ‘Gravity and a Ladder of Gold’ also has country pretensions in eternal portions. However this is no stereotypical release, with a strong folk and roots thread binding its luscious vocals and stellar sound. Choosing to end with a cover of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is a masterful stroke proving the theory that great songs can transcend genres and styles.

The balance between the heavy production, sanctified vocals and lyrical messages is finely tuned by the assembled players. The instrumentation includes Keri showing her skills to incorporate the sound of the theremin into the usual strings, keys and percussion cacophony. The writing floats between deeply personal issues such as the title track ‘Lucky Stars’ and perhaps a take on remote communities in ‘Welcome Stranger’. The environment plays a part on a couple of numbers, namely supplying the backdrop to ‘Galaxie 500’ and providing the subject for ‘Vulture Lullaby’. A strong case for the lyrical peak arrives in one of the record's stand out tracks where Keri circumnavigates a series of heartfelt pleas in the outstanding ‘Healing Feeling’.

Album opener, ‘Virtual Machine’ is one of the record’s tender moments and acts as the perfect relaxing aperitif before the more up tempo features kick in. The penultimate track ‘Agent of the Night’ is one of these more active numbers that heralds Keri’s writing finale before the Bowie cover ends the record. Second track ‘April’, with stints of banjo and fiddle, probably represents the album’s starkest roots moments, while ‘Everything in Between’ serenades the listener with melodic poise.

If you are searching for a definition to attach to this record, the alt tag is poised to make its mark and more than anything this concept highlights the record’s impatience to linger too long in a buried and cemented sound. We are continually shown the strength and depth of the Canadian music scene and LUCKY STARS by Leaf Rapids is further proof of this notion. Whether this is an extended project for Keri and Devin remains to be seen, but they have left an impressive stamp with the effortless tones of this record.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Whiskey Charmers - The Whiskey Charmers : Self Released

For a slice of country music in the shade then why not indulge yourself in the twang filled noir that forms this debut album by The Whiskey Charmers from Detroit, Michigan. UK folks who enjoyed The Delines on their sorties over here last year will find merit, albeit on a less soulful scale. More similarities will lean towards Chris Isaak and The Handsome Family but more importantly The Whiskey Charmers strive to put their own mark on the sound and they have certainly done it well on this excellent inaugural release.  

The duo of Carrie Shepard and Lawrence Daversa guide the band’s direction which leaves a trail of impurity free groove in its wake. Catch yourself in the headlights of their enticing tunes and total absorption is impossible to avoid. Whether it’s the glorious sultry vocals of Carrie snaking around the hazy songs that ache with magnetic appeal, or Lawrence’s driving lead guitar decorating each track, this album runs on a full tank throughout its 38 minute journey.

All nine tracks emanate from the pen of Carrie with Lawrence sharing the writing duties on ‘C Blues’ and there is no room for a filler on this compact release. This co-write is one of the prime examples of Carrie wrapping her gorgeous vocals around a sumptuous song. Each and every track shimmers in in dulled glow of a noir onset, although a chink of light appears in the final number where the band slip into pure country mode to do exactly what it says in the title of the song – the lavishly arranged and elegant ‘Waltz’. By now a little bit of steel has been added to the mix alongside the timely presence of rhythm holding court for the frequent twang driven solos. In unison, the instrumentation melts into your late night glass, but leaving far from a watered down effect.

A pair of dark, moody and gothic numbers helps get this record into the desired groove as ‘Vampire’ and ‘Straight and Narrow’ build on the haunting opener ‘Elevator’. ‘Neon Motel Room’ owns the album’s peerless lead guitar segment and makes a valid case for being the first among equals as it’s also equipped with the leading melodies. The sheer beauty and delightful gear changes within ‘Sidewinder’ run the stand out track close, but the ultimate beneficiary of this contest is the discerning listener brave enough to dip their toe into the unknown. ‘Parlor Lights’ is a wonderfully atmospheric track perfectly capturing the spirit of the record in its 5 minute execution and seamlessly merges into the higher charged subsequent number ‘Can’t Leave’.

It is impossible to resist the name analogy, so apologies for suggesting that no mixers or ice are required for this perfect late night accompaniment and that the band succeed in the mission of their titled activity. The Whiskey Charmers have perfected the art of tempting the listener with a bag of jewels and have delivered a self-titled debut album showing the darker side of genre indulgence is full of treasured riches.

Support The Whiskey Charmers via Bandcamp

Danny Schmidt - Owls : Live Once Records

Maybe it’s symbolised on the front cover of this album, but the enormous depth of perceptive song writing vision portrays Danny Schmidt’s latest record as a lyrical jewel among a deluge of likeminded releases. One can only marvel at the immense substance of OWLS, which in tandem with the relaxing mood of its soothing tone heralds an ultra-literate record spearheaded with the power of words. The choice to bury your head into the lyrical whirlpool or let the satisfying melodic tide wash over you entirely lies with the listener and each is of desirable equal merit. However the former unveils some fantastic song structures which are even more profound to the eye than to the ear.

Danny is a longstanding visitor to the UK and follows a lengthy line of Austin troubadours to seek inspiration within the dusty Texan capital before spreading the wares far and wide. This dignified record is Danny’s seventh studio release and is set to be the focal point of his next UK trip in the autumn, this time in conjunction with his wife and fellow songwriter Carrie Elkin. Danny is a mesmerising live act with his almost spoken expressive singing style shaping the words into a vivid commentary on both the seen and the experienced. Quite often Danny seeks inspiration from his surroundings with natural forces driving a desire to fuel an insatiable appetite to communicate through the artistic medium of music and song.

A minimalist approach to studio involvement optimises the small band of players selected to bring the eleven tracks to recorded status and the result is a subtle blend of accompaniment serving as an oxygen source to Danny’s songs. Only towards the end of the record does the sound escalate to skirt a little around rock territory.  However the true beauty of these compositions is Danny’s approach to cyclical, symmetrical and repetitive word patterns with sufficient eminence to drive the literati into raptures. For mere mortals it adds up to a collection of supremely crafted songs served in a wrap of smoothen delight. Listening to the 45 minute duration of OWLS without doubt spoils your ears and more importantly the matter in between.

Although possessing that entity-quality critical to the survival of the album, four tracks from the record can be hived off to showcase what Danny does best. The stunning ‘All the More to Wonder’ will make you gasp with its fabulous use of interlinked questions and ability to encapsulate some wonderful pontification. ‘Cries of Shadows’ is a fantastic piece of imagery using an amazing cyclical structure to relay the circle of life through the perspective of a shadow. ‘Cry on the Flowers’ is an amalgam of verse and chorus brilliance with the subject woven into the lyrics in an outstanding format. ‘Soon the Earth Shall Swallow’ completes this exemplary quartet with pure environmental awareness captured within a smart sectioned and compartmentalised form of song structure.

Elsewhere Danny launches the record with a touch of imagery in ‘Girl with Lantern Eyes’ and does not shy away from a slither of social commentary in ‘The Guns and the Crazy Ones’. Once again the lyrical patterns scale another peak in the question and answer structure to ‘Faith Will Always Rise’. ‘Bad Year for Cane’ is the nearest thing we get to an explicit tale, although the song itself provokes curiosity amidst the ravages of the natural world. The message is getting clearer that this record is increasingly best enjoyed in conjunction with accessing the lyrics which can be found on Danny’s website.

At times OWLS is capable of inducing an out of body experience and succeeds emphatically in freeing your mind of that mundane everyday clutter. Diving deep into the lyrical opulence is probably the ultimate recommendation for understanding the work of Danny Schmidt. Deep down the riches sparkle and await your act of discovery.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Jimmy LaFave - The Night Tribe : Music Road Records

The UK shows of Jimmy LaFave last year would have been a rare treat to see one of the prime exponents of American roots music on this side of the pond. In the absence of more planned visits, the release of his new album THE NIGHT TRIBE is a distinguished effort to fill the void. With its nocturnal inspiration, the record starts out as a tribute to a way of life lauding the stalwarts of the night economy and synching them with the fruits of his most productive hours in terms of idea generation and impetus. This scholarly album may have been made for the early hours but it transcends into a fixation of 24 hour appreciation.

Not one for short measures, LaFave delivers a full on project, heavy on sound, packed with passion and soulful in sophistication. This is seasoned Americana in epic portions and is bang on target to drive home a reputation found on decades of experience, ascended levels of association and an enormous amount of respect. Of the record’s thirteen tracks, LaFave pens ten from the heart, one from an unfinished effort and re-works two from the greats in impeccable style. Edging the cover versions is an inspirational rendition of Neil Young’s ‘Journey Through the Past’, delivered in a much softer style than a hardened take on Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’.

On an album ripe with potential standout tracks, the glorious second song ‘Maybe’ stakes the greatest claim with excellent piano pieces decorating an effort lush with choral elegance. On a more roots-induced level, ‘Dust Bowl Okies’ is a cocktail of rollicking good sounds aiding LaFave’s homage to a State where he spent his formative musical years and the home of his hero Woody Guthrie. The standing of Jimmy LaFave in American roots music has led to him to being a vital ingredient in the ongoing movement to celebrate the life and works of the nation’s finest troubadour.

There are several pinch points on the record where the organ comes to the forefront to inject a welcome dose of subtle soul. This is especially prevalent in the opening and closing tracks of ‘The Beauty of You’ and ‘The Roads of the Earth’, both successful in pulling off the role of their positional places. Elsewhere LaFave perfectly executes the tender sound in the delicate number ‘Smile’, while the transfixing appeal of ‘Island’ reveals absolute elegance in both words and music. ‘Talk to an Angel’ was a Kelcy Warren work –in-progress song that benefitted from an act of artistic completion with the attached string accompaniment making it orchestral in parts.

The album’s name, as well as being the record’s theme, is also a band title LaFave has regularly used over the years and he re-activated the tag for last year’s cross-Atlantic trip. The track to feature the name on this record simmers with bleary eyed majesty and is the ideal backdrop to a witching hour so often the clear canvas for the creative generation to exploit their inner talent. Elsewhere on the album, the unhurried style of ‘It’s Not Only Me’ adds more panache to an impressive opening bunch of songs intent on raising the standard of sheer musicianship. ‘Trying to Get Back to You’ sees LaFave in more semi-rock mode and this comprehensive record is completed by ‘Never Came Back to Memphis’, a number that repeated plays suggest just falls a little behind the album’s best.

Quite simply Jimmy LaFave is in stunning form to record an enriched album and the entity of THE NIGHT TRIBE is a blueprint to how the ideals of Americana song writing and sound creation are to be brought to fruition. Laid back, enthralling and accomplished sum up the work of Jimmy LaFave and this excellent record encompasses all three traits in its journey from studio to available package.

Will Hoge - Small Town Dreams : Thirty Tigers

Riding on a wave of nostalgic innocence, Will Hoge makes a poignant move to capture the heartland sound with his all guns firing new album SMALL TOWN DREAMS. Maybe this choice of metaphor is a touch ironic when matched up against the track ‘Guitar or a Gun’ where Hoge debates this interesting conundrum in a powerful piece. This track sits prominently alongside a bunch of explicitly themed heart on your sleeve songs leading Hoge into the style territory of Springsteen and Mellencamp. This spirted rousing album moves swiftly to fill the blue collar rock void with a view to posturing for some post bro-country momentum within country music.

What Hoge does bring to the table is acres of literalist sentiment amongst plenty of writing ripe with gritty realism. It may be a well-worn path of familiar notions, and slightly formulaic in parts, but there is enough honesty within the driving rock for this album to be a rewarding and enjoyable listen. Part of the appeal is a touch of British urban escapism, a common thread for the popularity of a lot of Americana music especially from a writing perspective. Hoge is recognised as a leading songwriter by both his peers and critics alike and this latest album, his 10th since 1997, is another chance to re-establish him as a pre-eminent performer as well.

As well as the track mentioned in the introduction (luckily a decision not applicable in the UK), the other song attracting early attention is the memorably titled ‘Little Bitty Dreams’. This poignant and well-written song resonates with sheer sentiment and while possibly inviting criticism for being over dramatic does manage to reside in credible territory. The album’s title, technically also its theme, is taken from a chorus line in the unashamedly patriot ‘Middle of America’, where common folk and their ilk are championed enthusiastically.

In almost a contrast to the recently lauded records exploring the many small town issues, this album remains staunchly positive and upbeat, whilst making casual references to life’s problems. This is probably best exemplified in the honest rocker ‘Desperate Times’. Throughout all eleven tracks, Hoge’s vocals retain an air of worn warmth and they are given a slither of backing harmony support in the partially soulful ‘The Last Thing I Needed’.

If the album kicks into action with an ode to proud nostalgia in ‘Growing Up Around Here’, it certainly signs off in fine style with a rollicking bout of no regrets in ‘Till I Do It Again’. In fact multiple plays of the record re-enforce the tub thumping anthems and themes such as in ‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To’, just another example of where Hoge leaves implicit song writing to others.

On an album which is equally perfectly crafted for its live airing as its recorded format, ‘Better Than You’, with plenty of vocal fillers, is the leading candidate best positioned to make the transition from studio to venue. You could also make a case for ‘Just Up The Road’ as its piano led rock ballad vibes allow for a smidgeon of atmospheric variety before the song explodes into a concoction of spiralling guitar solos. ‘All I Want Is Us Tonight’ completes the full album and perhaps struggles to make an impact amongst its strong counterparts, despite further serious rock pretensions.

It will be interesting to see where this album fits and whether it permeates into some form of radio play. It is certainly a major push in that direction and has the potential to accrue plenty of active listeners. From a personal perspective, SMALL TOWN DREAMS succeeds in its clarity of direction, message and delivery, whilst managing to be a thoroughly entertaining listen. The added bonus is Will Hoge is set to tour the UK with the record in September.