Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Dreaming Spires - St.George's Hall, Bewdley, Friday 30th October 2015

It was the evening when the ‘B’ of Bewdley put the ‘B’ of Birmingham into the shade as The Dreaming Spires finally played a show on the fringe of the West Midlands area which drew an audience that starts to justify their undoubted talent and potential. However let’s leave the frustration of local gig promotion to one side for a moment and positively reflect on the live celebration of one of 2015’s best albums. SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH was catapulted into the record collections of the wise and worldly with great success earlier this year. Tonight was the perfect opportunity for the Bennett Brothers to present the gifts of the record in a headline show and this was grasped with great gusto from the opening strains of ‘Still Believe in You’ right through to a closing jam seguing sixties classic ‘Keep on Running’ into ‘Brothers in Brooklyn’.

The latter song was the title track from the band’s debut album, but this was far from a retro evening unless you factor in the abundance of classic influences that make The Dreaming Spires a serious player on the UK’s Americana, indie and alt-country circuit. While there are still moments when the band comes across as Gram Parsons versus The Jam, there has recently been a severe injection of soul leading the sound into the realms of a Memphis Revue. Rock ‘n’ soul is a suitable tag to attach to the band which for the first time in my presence tonight appeared as a quartet with Tom Collison on exceedingly soulful piano and F. Scott Kenney on drums joining Robin and Joe. For well over an hour and a half, the guys played a rollicking impressive set to a well-attended Bewdley gathering, buoyed by a couple of local warm up acts and enticed by the compere’s Andrew Marr quote of the Spires being the ‘best live band in Britain’.

Despite having seen the band on around half a dozen previous occasions, none had exceeded the usual forty five minute allocation of a festival or support slot. However the extended set brought the best out of the band with song after excellent song growing in stature as Robin continually flitted between Rickenbacker and twelve string guitar, while Joe upped the twang input when venturing onto Lap Steel.  A pair of ace mid-set tracks illuminated the show with a finely judged slow tempo pace. ‘We Used to Have Parties’ and ‘Easy Rider’ are two stellar songs from the new album. The latter presenting the evening’s golden moment when Joe switches instruments for the track’s exhilarating finale.

Perhaps on second thoughts, this golden moment should be shared with the entire airing of ‘Dusty in Memphis’. This song has been unashamedly over played and over promoted in these quarters all year with the killer line ‘there’s no easy way down’ being a suitable moniker for this singalong epic. As earlier indicated, the band is in a supreme state of soulful intoxication and they presented the only new track on the evening as one they recently recorded in an acclaimed Memphis studio. Look out for ‘Harbeton Mead’ on an exciting new release.

Great songs from the new album flowed continuously all show including the title track, ‘Searching for the Supertruth’, ‘All Kinds of People’ as seen on national TV, and the emotive main set closer in all its seven minute glory ‘So Pretty’. For a band heavily basing its sound on so many magnanimous classics, they keep the covers to an absolute minimum, with a little bit of Springsteen indulgence frequenting the encore in the form of ‘Atlantic City’ before the medley finale. While on the track re-collection, there was just one other song not lifted from the new album: ‘House on Elsinore’.

A Dreaming Spires review should not be just a mere factual account, but more a liberal sprinkling of superlatives admiring the noticeable development of the band as a live outfit. The soulful piano added an extra dimension and seemed to extract a deeper sense of soul from Robin’s vocals. The musical chemistry is intuitive and the guitar tempo synchs with the gig’s ever changing moods. This was a first class show and perhaps for a few fleeting moments in a hall in Bewdley, the search for the supertruth was temporarily halted.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Seth Lakeman - Robin 2, Bilston. Thursday 29th October 2015

It had been a few years since Seth Lakeman last played the Robin 2 in Bilston and his timely return was a reminder how much more exciting his shows can be in a standing venue. This is not to say the performance by Seth and his band in the formal surroundings of the nation’s theatres is any less exhilarating but the connective power between artist and audience is intensified in standing locations. A lively, populous and enthusiastic Robin 2 audience greeted the star of the show and he repaid the adulation with a blistering set of 'trademark Seth Lakeman’ led by the fire and the fury of his trusted fiddle.

Similarly to last year’s visit to the West Midlands, and a more conservative show at Birmingham Town Hall, the band had a core four-piece make up with Ben Nicholls assuming his stoical stand-up bass role alongside guitarist Jack Rutter and the varied percussion of Cormack Byrne. Of course Seth instrumentally doesn’t stand still, but it is when the fiddle is in his hand that the show really comes to life. Despite the hiccup of a broken chin strap, there was no stopping Seth this evening which had the usual barnstorming finale trio of ‘Kitty Jay’, ‘Blood Upon Copper’ and ‘Race To Be King’.

While it has to be said that Seth Lakeman is at his best when the speedometer passes the limit, there are still the less intense moments to allow everybody to catch their breath. As previously seen, this allows the opportunity for The Full English project to be celebrated and as Remembrance Day approaches, the opportunity to share once again, ‘Shores of Normandy’ couldn’t be resisted. One golden moment from this gig, and unusually for a Seth show, was a new love ballad titled ‘Silver Threads’, and a preview of the upcoming new record. This was by far the most intense and impressive vocal performance witnessed from Seth, digging deeper into his pipes than his other slower numbers.

With an increasingly lengthy back catalogue, Seth is becoming more selective with his set list and inevitably previous set stalwarts are omitted. However there was room this evening to resurrect ‘Take No Rogues’ from FREEDOM FIELDS, and there is still mileage from his latest album WORD OF MOUTH after playing ‘Last Rider’, The Courier’ and the crowd favourite sing along anthem ‘Portrait of My Wife’. From a personal point of view, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’ and ‘Lady of the Sea’ were joys to behold, but really the evening is defined by the atmospheric entity and full appreciation of the scintillating band performance.

In a twist to previous Seth Lakeman shows, the support slot was awarded to an experienced artist by the name of Josh Rouse. A somewhat nomadic performer, Josh has wandered around many locations since leaving his Nebraska home, but has acquired a back catalogue of album releases running into double figures. His gently presented brand of American folk music was in the true tradition of that genre and what more can you ask for than a harmonica, acoustic guitar, blessed voice and a lifetime full of expressive songs. Josh had the luxury of a near forty minute set and took requests at the end from those familiar with his work. This culminated with the track ‘1972’, also acting as the highlight from his moment in the Bilston spotlight.

Seth and Josh shared mutual admiration as they swapped central roles on stage, but that was where the musical comparison ends, although the contrasting styles made for a wholly entertaining presentation by the venue. Hopefully the resounding success from this evening means a sooner return to the Robin 2, or at least another standing venue in the area where invitations to actively participate in the show aren’t necessary. Seth Lakeman continues to be a vital component of the contemporary UK folk scene, although genre pretensions are a welcome absence. The word absence is though non-negotiable when his annual live show hits town. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Orphan Brigade: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story : Self-Released

Maybe a little prompting was required to get this record off the bottom of the pile, but sometimes you are forever grateful for that helping hand and hopefully the outpouring from the next few paragraphs will act as a further stimulus for others to engage. Quite simply this record is a stunning presentation of a project by three exceedingly talented songwriters to extract creative gold from an intriguing story, chain of events and an interesting slice of American history. The three architects are two Americans: Nielson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, and a Brit in the guise of Northern Irishman Ben Glover. The name is taken from that given to a group of Civil War fighters and the scene is based around the haunted Octagon Hall in Kentucky. The result is a magnificent fourteen track backdrop to a string of accomplished folk songs, gloriously structured in the American roots tradition and adding extraordinary value to the precious listening time of the cultured ear. 

Before launching into the album’s deep end, attention must be drawn to the CD liner notes which contain the most enlightening overview to a record read in ages. Subjects such as madness and soul reside alongside phrases like ‘Pink Floyd on moonshine’. These notes are no mere superficial press release copy, in fact more of a splendid independent analysis. This record can be enjoyed solely on its musical merits but you are missing so much by not delving into the background prose, meaning and extended reading. If anything it takes the soul of Tom Russell’s masterpiece THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE and gives it a practical edge without losing the desired impact.

Ben Glover will be the pathway into The Orphan Brigade for many UK and Ireland listeners due to his back catalogue and most recent associations, both on record and live, with Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier. Gretchen does make a fleeting vocal appearance on the record alongside Kim Richey, another acclaimed American singer-songwriter with a UK presence. Ben also worked with Nielson on his most recent record ATLANTIC and the Nashville based producer has also undertaken production duties on this album. However these are just facts, when compared to the true wealth revealed from the output of this project.

Ben in Birmingham 
Ben, Nielson and Josh spent considerable time in Octagon Hall, Franklin Kentucky experiencing the myth and atmosphere of what is considered one of America’s most haunted locations. The setting for the album is mainly around the Civil War when the building played a prominent role. Song after song has emerged following a total absorption of the history, characters and stories. This is pure folklore immortalised in song and music and a major beneficiary from the artistic talents of the three protagonists. In celebrated roots tradition there is a heavy leaning towards authentic instrumentation and in one instance, ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, the guys felt the need to incorporate a traditional song. This fetching Irish tale tells of the innocence of immigrants having their first experience of the new land when being told to fight for one side versus another, without any understanding or relevance.

Like all essential albums, the track order is a vital component with the guys electing to start with a short musical prelude titled ‘Octagon Hall’, and end with the ultimate tribute to the band of soldiers, ‘The Orphans’, responsible for giving the collaboration its name. Within the boundaries of these two markers are a rich set of mainly original tunes, with the word ‘tune’ being taken literally in ‘Whistling Walk’. As it explicitly says in the title, this is a whistling piece and is inspired by slaves being forced to participate in that act to prove they were not eating the food they were transporting around the plantation. To say song-wise the album peaks in tracks two and three is misleading, but ‘Pale Horse’ and ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriett)’ continue to hit enormous heights after many listens. The first kicks in with a wonderful atmospheric feeling straight after the prelude. The second introduces one of the record’s many characters and presents Ben at his rootsy best. At this point he teams up with Kim Richey and Heather Donegan to share the vocals with the trio joined by Gretchen Peters on ‘I’ve Seen the Elephant’.

Ben in Shrewsbury
As well as the haunted connotations, the historical context of the Civil War is rife throughout the record and best exemplified through ‘We Were Marching on Christmas Day’ and the Josh Britt sung song from the Union perspective ‘Good Old Flag’.  Apart from the obvious concept and theme laden aspects of the album, the songs are damn good stand alone productions, configured to reach out from an entrenched fan base. If you fancy a touch of vocal diversification mid album, Kim Richey takes sole lead on ‘The Story You Tell Yourself’, while there is a heavily collaborated vocal chant feel to ‘Cursed Be the Wanderer’, majorly influenced by the group folk style of the British Isles. Not to leave Nielson out of the vocal appreciation, he takes over for the ballad ‘Last June Light’ and the more upbeat and dramatic anthem ‘Sweetheart’. Further characters emerge in the delightfully sung duet ‘Goodnight Mary’, with Nielson and Kim in vocal control.

Each listen to this album offers a  different facet, whether vocally, musically or a storyline twist to consider. Praise cannot be lavished any higher for the outcome of Josh, Ben and Nielson’s project and while the name The Orphan Brigade is not presently a household one, with any justice it should be. This is folk, roots and Americana music at its very best; educating, informing and inspiring all those who open their senses and minds to the depth of Soundtrack to a Ghost Story.

Patrick Sweany - Daytime Turned to Nighttime : Nine Mile Records

Layers of maturity, cool vibes and impressive sophistication are unveiled upon each listen to Patrick Sweany’s latest album DAYTIME TURNED TO NIGHTMARE. Musical evolution can branch off in many directions, but the knack of absorbing experience and spinning it in a positive direction is a valuable trait. Without reading too much into Patrick’s past and influences, the two factors of being East Nashville based and released on Nine Mile Records raise hope from the experience of precedence. From this starting point the record doesn’t disappoint and reveals a voice burrowing out if its soul to form a bunch of songs for posterity.

Through the neat and rounded structure of ten tracks, the album hovers around a multitude of music styles while forever gravitating to those enthralled by the ethos of the Americana movement. Elements of rawness exist in Patrick’s gutsy vocals and these get refined in a soulful capacity especially on the emotive sounding ‘Too Many Hours’. Like so many records of its ilk, the twang-tinged electrification provides a tantalising backdrop for the songs to flourish and prosper. ‘Here to Stay (Rock and Roll)’ emerges as the track with the lengthiest staying power and evokes a sound synonymous with the early seventies era of cult song writing.

Patrick’s career has included around half a dozen album releases and what gets defined as a more up tempo live show to what is revealed on this record. However the multiple listening venues springing up in the UK to cater for the growing demand of high quality American singer-songwriters would lap up the endless laid back rays emanating from the new record. This commences with the opening song ‘First Day of the Week’ and is still running strong when the listener stays fully immersed in the closing pair of ‘Mansfield Street’ and ‘Long Way Down’. If your preference is for Patrick Sweany to dig deep into his blues repertoire then ‘Back Home’ is available on the menu.

All ten tracks originate from the solo pen of Patrick who grew up in Ohio, where he musically schooled on classic blues, country, folk and soul before heading to Music City like so many aspiring songwriters. It is no surprise to see him mix with artists who are associated with Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. His music is ready made for the market frequented by folks who like substantial depth to their valuable listening time aligned with an inspirational mix of cultured sound, song and vocals.

In the wake of other excellent records released on Nine Mile Records to cross my path namely Anders Kendall, Rebecca Pronsky and Shinyribs, DAYTIME TURNED TO NIGHTTIME is a welcome addition. Think a more soulful version of Jimmy Lafave and you are heading into Patrick Sweany territory. Both artists are the architects of highly listenable records this year and worthy purchases for those with a finely tuned Americana-biased ear.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Session Americana - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham. Tuesday 27th October 2015

Listen to their records, read their bio and now see their live show; the conclusion remains the same as it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint the sound of Session Americana. Either way, this six-piece fluid combo from Boston Massachusetts presents an impressive mix of memorable songs and engaging musicianship. All this occurs in a unique formation literally creating a ‘session’ environment where three band members share a single mic whilst sitting around a table with the others positioning themselves in a huddled arc. This intimate lounge-like stage atmosphere fitted in well with the Hare and Hounds smaller music room as the band continued their latest UK tour to promote the new record: PACK UP THE CIRCUS.

Whether you consider the Americana music genre an amalgamation of roots styles or a state of mind, these guys fit the bill as they hot foot around a nation’s songbook within the context of a historical timescale. A bunch of original tunes wrapped in a packaging of fiddle, harmonica, and accordion plus numerous other types of stringed instrumentation filtered through a pair of forty-five minute sets this evening to induce a posture of intense focus from those present. The set list spanned the group’s near decade-long recording career with the usual focus on recent material found on the exceedingly entertaining new album.

A curious feature of the stage show was the constant switching of the middle position on the central table in contrast to the flanked roles of harmonica player Jim Fitting and fiddle player Laura Cortese. What was also consistent was the rotation of lead vocalist with all six band members taking turns. This also included percussionist Billy Beard who contributed the song ‘Doreen’, one of many to be found on the band’s several albums. The guys have many other musical offshoots in addition to the activities of Session Americana and two of Laura’s contributions were lifted from her solo records. In fact, the show’s penultimate tune beautifully sung by Laura, ‘Heel to Toe’, was the most enjoyable of the evening with a sparkling concluding jam of fiddle, accordion, harmonica and guitar.

The nearest the band had to a front person was Ry Cavanaugh who had previously visited the UK accompanying fellow singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, but the focus for the show was heavily leaned towards song delivery with minimal chat and introduction. Ry opened proceedings with the title track from the new album ‘Pack Up The Circus’ and also did likewise after the interval with ‘All For You’. The record was also represented by the excellent ‘It’s Not Texas’, sung and written by accordion and keyboard player Dinty Child. Also lifted from the album was the final song of the first half, ‘Willing To Be Lucky’, and another entertaining ditty in ‘Vitamin T’, given a Latino feel by vocalist and harmonica blower, Jim Fitting.

Jim probably had the strongest voice among the sextet and his harmonica playing added real spice and buoyancy to the sound. He also took lead on the show finale where the band strayed from their songbook and covered the standard ‘Such a Night’, made famous by the version by Dr John and The Band in Scorsese’s documentary ‘The Last Waltz’. Earlier the band had celebrated the Tin Pan Alley sound of 20’s America with a version of ‘You Got To See Your Mama Ev’ry Night (Or You Can’t See Your Mama At All)’. At this point it is timely to introduce the remaining band member Kimon Kirk who shared his bass duties with a couple of lead vocal opportunities, the most prominent being ‘Cowboy Coffee’.

There was no disputing the talent on show and the impressive way all six blended their contributions and assets. It was definitely a case of lower case session Americana as well as the upper cased title version. It’s an experimental phase for these experienced stalwarts of the North Eastern music scene back home to take their music overseas, especially around the UK provinces which can be a tough market to crack. The band and the team around them are giving it their best shot with the all-important musical package firmly in place to aid the challenge of seducing wider appeal. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Ryan Bingham - Gorilla, Manchester. Friday 23rd October 2015

We had it all in Manchester tonight: Ryan Bingham the folk singer, Ryan Bingham the country star, Ryan Bingham the ultimate rocker. All these styles were knee deep in Texas grit as Ryan and his firing four-piece band hurtled through a ninety minute set of material from a recording career now approaching a decade. The sounds emanating from the stage and circulating around a packed Gorilla venue were equally as adept in any of the chosen styles which place Ryan right at the heart of the Americana movement. Perhaps the Friday night feeling leant towards the up tempo rockier songs being the preferred style of the audience. However special commendation must be reserved for the three song encore segment where Ryan required only his sturdy acoustic guitar to reel off a trio of gut wrenching symbolic numbers.

Two of these, namely ‘The Weary Kind’ and ‘Nobody Knows My Trouble’, were easily amongst the many highlights of a show undulating in mood and tempo but forever consistent in crafted effect and panache. An unscientific straw poll would surely have placed the fabulous ‘Southside of Heaven’ at the top of audience reaction with many Bingham devotees at the front totally intoxicated by this song. The exhilarating ending raised the venue’s rafters and it was apt for it to hold the position of main set closer creating audience fervour for a little extra Ryan Bingham.

Circumstances had dictated a delayed start to this gig for me meaning that sadly the Sons of Bill opening set was missed. This was particularly disappointing as the guys created such an impression with their Birmingham show earlier in the year and their scheduling to support Ryan on these October dates was an enticing prospect. Maybe arriving in Manchester late, coupled with adjusting to the venue’s sound capabilities plus Ryan finding his vocal groove, led to the set taking a few songs to hit its stride. However as soon as ‘Radio’ from the latest album pierced that aural pleasure zone, the gig’s optimum level was reached and maintained through to the usual weekend ‘disco’ curfew indicative of many of our city centre venues.

The year had started with Ryan’s latest record FEAR AND SATURDAY NIGHT creating significant waves in the music press who 'get' his music and there was a firm prediction that the album’s light will still be flickering brightly by the year’s end. The wait to finally catch Ryan live was eventually over this evening and to celebrate the new record he added ‘Broken Heart Tattoo’, ‘My Diamond is Too Rough’ and ‘Top Shelf Drug’ to the set list to join the previously mentioned stand out tracks ‘Radio’ and ‘Nobody Knows My Trouble’. The former of these five tracks was dedicated to all those who were leaving little loved ones behind for the evening and this included most of the band.

Unfortunately the names of band members escaped me despite a couple of introductions from Ryan but all four did their job to the usual high degree. The bassist and percussionist quietly got on with their essential rhythm duties, with the lead guitarist and fiddle player adopting a far more expressive and flamboyant role. Mindful of the curfew and that Friday night desire to just get on with the music meant the chat was cut to a minimum but Ryan utilised these short interludes to come across with immense humility and gratitude. This may be instinctive to his nature and something heightened by travelling thousands of miles from home to share your music with an enthusiastic crowd.

The set list proved to be an excellent cross section of Ryan’s recording career. His 2007 album MESCALITO came to the fore with ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Bread and Water’ serving well as the evening’s climax. Of course ‘Southside of Heaven’ had done a similar job pre-encore. One deviation from his own material saw Ryan pay tribute to fellow Texan singer-songwriter Terry Allen with a version of ‘Dogwood’. Let’s not forget contributions from Ryan’s three intervening albums: TOMORROWLAND, JUNKY STAR and ROADHOUSE SUN, showing that despite a career of ups and downs, he has consistently made great music.

This latest European venture for Ryan Bingham has showed a great appetite for his music many miles from his homeland with a potential to widen UK appeal outside the handful of dates he played in London, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow. There was no short change from catching Ryan live for the first time and the derived satisfaction from feasting on FEAR AND SATURDAY NIGHT all year has been crowned this evening. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Simone Felice + Anna Mitchell - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 19th October 2015

While this show was billed as a solo Simone Felice gig, the overarching view at its conclusion was how effectively the emerging talent of Anna Mitchel had been blended into the evening’s offerings. The pair of artists had only commenced their creative partnership earlier this year and the chemistry on show at Birmingham’s Glee Club demonstrated an outstanding merging of two contrasting talents. The enigmatic Simone and unflustered Anna worked in harmonious tandem to present a bucketful of songs from all three phases of his career – solo work, Duke and the King songs and older Felice Brothers material.

Anna, who hails from Cork, had the honour of appearing on stage throughout the duration of the show courtesy of opening the evening with a few of her own songs before proceeding to accompanying Simone for the main set. Granted time for around half a dozen numbers, Anna wasted little time in steering the audience towards her cultured piano playing providing the backdrop to her cross genre songs. There is a heavily leaning Americana stance to Anna’s delivery of folk-styled songs. This was highlighted in the title of her first song ‘Tennessee’, and she later drifted more into country territory with a quarter pace cover version of the ever popular ‘Jolene’. Putting genre aside for a moment, Anne is, no more – no less, the model singer-songwriter who undoubtedly gets her inspiration and influence from the right sources. Apart from a new song, titled ‘Radio Waves’ and based on chasing that elusive hit, the rest of Anna’s set came from her highly praised debut record DOWN TO THE BONE with perhaps the highlight being ‘When My Ship Comes In’.

Simone Felice has a strong following in Birmingham, appearing twice in the city at alternative venues last year. Those dates were in support of his brilliant album STRANGERS which was a deserved entrant in many Top Album lists of 2014. Three excellent songs from that release continued to impress during this intimate show with barely a hair splitting the audience effect of listening to ‘If You Go To LA’, Bye Bye Palenville’ and ‘The Gallows’. Having only caught Simone’s band show last year, it was a delight to see his material transcend without blemish to a solo delivery via just acoustic guitar. Simone’s voice nourished the songs and his almost contorted stage presence gives them a motioned soulful gloss. He mixes a touch eccentricity with bags of humble appreciation to earn a standing ovation at the end of his pre-encore set.

The audience appeared to really get into material from his ‘Duke’ days with ‘Water Spider’, ‘The Morning I Get To Hell’, Union Street’ and show closer ‘If You Ever Get Famous’ accruing loud and appreciative praise. In fact the love towards Simone was forthcoming from the opening bars of ‘Courtney Love’ which headed the set list and it wasn’t too long before we were enjoying ‘Charade’, ‘New York Times’ and ‘You and I Belong’, all from the 2012 self-titled debut album. ‘Mercy’ and ‘Don’t Wake The Scarecrow’ represented an earlier phase of Simone’s career which has been threaded with a consistent strand of high quality.

Simone’s current UK tour is in support of a new live double album recorded in the iconic village of Woodstock, located in his home state of New York. It was this project which helped cement the collaboration with Anna, a match up that has been extended to tours either side of the pond. Anna almost had a steadying influence on Simone and flitted between harmonium, piano and tambourine to support his songs, not forgetting exquisite harmony backing vocals. The mutual gratitude of this liaison radiated from both performers and the balancing of Anna’s smooth Celtic influence etched itself on Simone’s exalted poetic appeal. Any move in the aftermath to double bill this show can start right here with ultimately Simone Felice and Anna Mitchell combining for a splendid evening of entertainment.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Stacie Collins - The Musician, Leicester. Friday 16th October 2015

She blows a mean harp. She throws herself headlong into every gig played. She is the Queen of ‘Roadhouse Rock’. Stacie Collins continues to thrill music fans either side of the Atlantic with an ever growing band of admirers flocking to her shows especially in mainland Europe and the UK. It has been around six or seven years since first discovering Stacie and each subsequent visit to The Musician venue in Leicester sees an incremental growth in her popularity capped by a very impressive turnout for this latest journey up the M69.

Such is the familiarity of this venue to Stacie, there was very little need for any formal introductions and she must have been thrilled by the number of tee shirts baring her face and name in the audience. In return, Stacie and her Almighty band treated folks to a near two hour performance of ear splitting blistering roots rock spanning the blues, heavy and classic sound. The trademark cowboy hat barely lasted half a dozen songs as the girl from Nashville Tennessee rocked with sheer energy, exuberance and loud voluminous sound.

It is statistically safe to say that Stacie is not the most prolific of recording artists and prefers to inject her passion into the live experience. Up until this month, there have only been two albums pushed to the forefront of her DIY marketing with there being a marked difference between listening to the recorded Stacie and being in her presence in a live venue. Visually and audibly on record, there is ample evidence of her country roots, yet these almost get blown away in a wave of a rock rush on stage putting her really on the distant edge of Americana.

This year’s trip to the UK sees Stacie proudly bearing gifts of a new record with ROLL THE DICE being the title and High Roller acting as the tour strapline. The two hours Stacie spent on stage this evening went through something of a rock ‘n’ roll haze with little chat, fewer song introductions, but compensated by a proliferation of guitar licks, magical harp blowing and a buzz zipping right round a packed venue. Through the stream of likeminded songs, old favourites such as ‘Carry Me Away’, ‘Hey Mister’, ’Baby Sister’ and ‘Tied to You’ were savoured. Without prior listening exposure to the new record, it was trickier to detect these songs, but ‘Lost and Found’ left an audible mark with its playing.

Be prepared for a handful of interesting covers at a Stacie Collins show. ‘If You Wanna Get to Heaven’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)’ are two regular songs to frequent a Stacie Collins set list with husband Al providing vocals on the first one and both numbers reflecting the rock influences of the band. Just prior to the encore, Stacie employed a new finale to her show since the last visit with a highly charged montage of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ to rock the venue to its foundations.

Alongside Stacie, the promotion has brought three other intrinsically linked bands to the Musician this year. Al’s other band Jason and the Scorchers played a sensational sold out gig in July, and that band’s guitarist Warner E Hodges returned for a solo billed show in September. Also Dan Baird and the Homemade Sin visit in December and a song of theirs was celebrated during the set as well as a rousing version of the Scorchers ‘If Money Talks’.

A Stacie Collins live show is not for the faint hearted and this evening’s gig had a more profound rock ring to it especially as two of her better songs which reflect a slightly different sound in ‘Lucky Spot’ and ‘It Hurts to Breathe’ were surprisingly omitted to make way for the new material. However this did not hold back the majority of the audience from lapping up the continual stream of up tempo rock ‘n’ roll as the evening unfolded. Without any sign of the ailments that have slightly affected previous shows in Leicester, Stacie Collins was on top form and once again displayed all the traits of an artist blazing a trail on the live circuit with a raw, authentic and high octane fuelled sound. Long may she blow a mean harp, wrap her worn vocals around a bunch of energetic songs and play music both steeped in history and able to retain timeless relevance. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Other Half - Birmingham Rep. Thursday 15th October 2015

Twelve months ago the combined project of literature and country music known as The Other Half was premiered to the stylish twin towns of Biddulph and Birmingham. A year on and the brainchild of top selling author Mark Billingham and the UK’s finest purveyors of enriched traditional country music My Darling Clementine has grown considerably in the guise of many theatre showings and the release of the audio CD. This evening the circle was almost completed as the production returned to the studio theatre of Birmingham Rep and served up a real treat to many new fans mainly attracted by the show being part of the city’s extensive literature festival.

The challenge for the show’s architects, Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish of My Darling Clementine alongside Mark, was to freshen it up to entice back those who attended the Birmingham event last year and have subsequently acquired the CD. While the core of The Other Half is Mark narrating the story and the band interspersing songs, there was scope for some juggling and it actually was not too difficult to discover a slight adjustment. Whereas last year’s show virtually panned out as a narration first half and mini gig second half, this time the production was more along the lines of the CD with the band adding an extra theme to the beginning and ending.

Without hesitation getting hold of the CD is recommended just to admire the story telling acumen of Mark and listen to the inspiration provided by the wonderful prose laden songs of My Darling Clementine. However attending the live show reveals an added dimension where enhanced focus illuminates the story aided by Mark’s impassioned and theatrical narration. The wit, chemistry, sincerity and artistry of My Darling Clementine are raised to another level on stage, whether like tonight in a duo format or when their accomplished band is assembled.

Lou and Michael at Cambridge in 2014
As earlier mentioned the narration and songs were lifted from the CD so no need to regurgitate it here. Striding onto stage in their usual retro attire, Michael and Lou set the scene for the story with three of their songs that did not feature on the audio recording. ‘Departure Lounge’, ‘King of the Carnaval’ and ‘100,000 Words’ could have quite easily been weaved into The Other Half, but tonight they were further reminders of the two excellent albums My Darling Clementine have under their belt.

Without revealing too much about the ending of The Other Half, Mark, Lou and Michael thought we needed more misery to end the evening and this led to a four song finale of some of the finest examples of classic country being hailed as the wallowing sad song genre. So two George Jones numbers led the way and there were few excuses for not being aware of ‘Good Year for the Roses’ and ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, even if you only have a minor interest in country music. The George Jones thread continued with a version of a song he sang a duet with Gene Pitney on, ‘That’s All It Took’ before Mark joined the guys to complete the evening with a crowd invited singalong to the popular Ray Price classic ‘Heartache By The Number’.

The hazy memory of last year’s show suggests that the refining of The Other Half live production has improved the experience with the blending of the songs into the script having a more profound effect. This levered synchronicity paid dividend with the only final thought being what next for The Other Half and the collaboration between Mark Billingham, Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King. Whatever happens next, immense enjoyment has been derived from engaging with the project.

Just one final thought, I was always curious about another story crying to be told from the HOW DO YOU PLEAD? album; Over to you budding authors. 

Get The Other Half audio CD

Monday, 12 October 2015

Frazey Ford - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 11th October 2015

Frazey Ford has all the attributes to be the cornerstone of contemporary roots music for the next decade and beyond. Not that the last decade and half hasn’t served her well as an integral part of the hugely acclaimed Canadian folk group The Be Good Tanyas and a burgeoning solo career. The release of the second Frazey Ford album last October saw the Vancouver based artist move up a notch or two with a sound so effectively blending the folk roots of her background and the soulful breakthrough of her calling. With INDIAN OCEAN now bedded in as a highly respected album, Frazey and her band have returned to Europe and incorporated three UK shows into the schedule. With this limited availability, it was quite a coup for the Cosmic American team to capture a date and schedule it away from their own East Midlands turf to the Birmingham setting of the Glee Club chain.

As well as playing the same venue last year for a different promoter, Frazey also visited the West Midlands twice in 2013 when The Be Good Tanyas broke their extended hiatus to temporarily reform. This loyal following ensured a decent Sunday night turnout with the gig taking place in the larger of the venue’s two rooms, useful as well for housing the seven piece band for the evening. This band consisted of a two piece horn section, bass and lead guitar, percussion and the usual accompaniment of Caroline Ballhorn on backing vocals. Frazey switches between acoustic guitar and pure vocals with the only missing link from a complete band being a keyboard input to really drive the soulful sound heralded by the trombone and trumpet.

Not only does Frazey have that A* knack of writing great songs with catchy tunes, she has the most amazing distinct vocals sent to tease and tantalise you before sending that soulful shiver down your spine. To head down to Memphis to record the latest album was a magnetic manoeuvre for Frazey who eulogised about playing with Al Green’s backing band and gleefully shared with the audience the middle naming of her son Otis, just as she ploughed into a version of Mr. Redding’s ‘Happy Song’. The anticipation for this gig was based on the sultry sound of the latest record and an ascending hour and half set hit a lofty plateau six songs in when the band launched into the album’s opening track ‘September Fields’ before refusing to budge until the inevitable standing ovation at the end.

Frazey appears to be perfectly at ease with this solo status and continues to build bridges between the stage and the audience with a banter style that perhaps is not her natural domain. One thing for sure is that the vocals are effortless and it was a wonderful listening experience to savour their glowing warmth and evocative appeal at such close quarters. In the latter stages of the show, the band found and remained on the sweet spot generating sounds similar to the players recently supporting two of North America’s premier roots artists in Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash. This mesmerising zone transfixed the discerning ear and enabled song after song to be etched on both mind and heart.

The bulk of the set list was drawn from Frazey’s two solo albums with the sole Tanya’s number served up being ‘Ooteshenia’ alongside the story of her draft defying hippy parents fleeing north to Canada. The audience was also treated to a brand new song as Frazey described the political origins surrounding ‘Separatin’’, an excellent song on first listen and sure to be a winner when the next round of recorded material appears. As if to still hold dear to her folk roots, she introduced the cover of Dylan’s ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ as a song to still maintain credibility in that community.

This is one of the few songs not to originate from Frazey’s pen and can be found on 2010’s OBADIAH. The same album illuminated the evening’s proceedings with ‘Bird of Paradise’ and a couple of encore numbers in ‘Firecracker’ and ‘Blue Streak Mama’, the first of these proving a popular selection and a slight deviation from the pre-determined set. Virtually all of INDIAN OCEAN was played during the band’s allotted time with the stimulating title track being a suitable choice to close the show. ‘Done’, recently promoted by a hugely popular video, was another well received song by the appreciative audience, although there was hardly a tune not rapturously applauded by a crowd who had earlier given a warm reception to another Vancouver artist in David Ward taking his place as the support act. 

There is an alluring and hypnotic presence about Frazey Ford, the artist – the musician – the vocalist. Like so many roots performers, the true strength is in the substance and quick fix consumers are likely to bypass her talents. Yet for those enthusiasts buying into the concept of the complete package then Frazey offers a wealth of talent, aura and deep rooted soul. In fact let’s just call her one of the premier folk ‘n’ soul artists making contemporary roots music today and undoubtedly most of those present in Birmingham this evening will back this judgement.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Stephen Simmons - House Concert, Staffordshire. Saturday 10th October 2015

The inventive and innovative House Concert experience is heaven sent for the intelligent, sincere and articulate singer-songwriter. In this age of the music model rulebook being re-defined, the phenomena of taking live music into the home of the consumer has been growing in the UK since being re-invigorated by travelling artists from North America. The intimacy and connectivity of such an event can never be created in conventional settings. Maybe it will remain the domain of the commercially challenged artist, but there is no less substance on offer and one those missing out will be spiritually poorer for.

Stephen Simmons has been making the long journey from Nashville Tennessee to the venues in Europe for eight years now and epitomises the carefully crafted singer-songwriter meeting the high standards to succeed in Music City. This is obviously conditional that you buy into the ethos of success being defined by the quality of output and the fact that the artist continually survives in the cut throat unsympathetic world of the music industry. The evidence of Stephen’s recorded material and live shows plants him firmly in this camp and the lucky few present at this House Concert in Staffordshire had the best front row seats other venues couldn’t provide.

Apart from the ubiquitous refreshment break, the structure and evolution of such an evening can be in a shared, flexible and non-standardised format. Artists will feel more comfortable with experimenting and the ultimate atmosphere of mutual performer-audience appreciation is probably never stronger. Stephen has been busy since he last visited this area almost exactly twelve months ago and several songs from his upcoming new album were tested out, even in the context of which key to use. Inevitably there were the usual requests alongside artist choice of back catalogue material and the odd cover which needs to add value without coming across as a mere filler.

For this year’s UK dates, Stephen is being accompanied by his colleague Molly Jewell whose pianist and beautiful vocal qualities proved the perfect foil to the standard guitar and conventional southern male voice of the senior performer. On his previous two visits to the Staffordshire area, Stephen appeared solo, so this set up was a welcome adaption with perhaps the eventual hope that the full band may materialise one day. Stephen invited Molly, who also happened to be celebrating her birthday, the sole limelight of three solo numbers at the start of each set and she duly showed the glistening potential of a seriously influential singer-songwriter in the country folk tradition of many performers attracted to the collaborative environment of the wider Nashville music community. Think of an emerging Beth Nielsen Chapman, Gretchen Peters and Mary Chapin Carpenter thirty years ago and you are approaching the right territory.

Born and bred in Tennessee has played a significant part in forming Stephen Simmons – The Artist. Country music is right at the core of his art without defining the perception and aggregated exterior. His style is all about the song, message and powerful artistic device of sharing your thoughts via guitar tunes and heartfelt lyrics. Schooled in rural East Tennessee and cutting it in the hardened surroundings of downtown Nashville has created a toughened and strong edge to his onstage persona. When asked recently to choose between country and folk, fellow US musician Carrie Elkin said ‘all the best country songs are effectively folk songs’. This quip goes a long way to defining the music of Stephen Simmons.

Stephen in Lichfield last year
To put a little bit of song flesh on the evening’s bones, two exceptional covers presented were Townes Van Zandt’s ‘If I Needed You’ and Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’. The latter was delivered in a duet format showcasing the vocal and musical chemistry between Molly and Stephen. The pick of Stephen’s new songs was ‘West’, while from his back catalogue ‘Shirley’s Stables’, Emily’s Eyes’, ‘I’ll Be Your Johnny Cash’, ‘Limavady Blues’ and ‘Asheville Girl’ stuck in the memory. ‘Yellow’ and ‘Tricky’ were examples of Molly’s super contribution to the evening which was crowned by the serenading of happy birthday from the audience and the surprise attendance of her parents flying in from the States for the show.

The resounding success of the evening had a threefold sense of satisfaction. First the discovery of Molly Jewell as an emerging talent, followed by further confirmation of Stephen Simmons being an excellent singer-songwriter equipped with the roots, outlook, skills and state of mind to represent the best of his home State. However the cream of the evening was an initial experience of the fulfilling House Concert movement and the joy of appreciating fine music is such a unique setting.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Treetop Flyers - Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham. Thursday 8th October 2015

While Treetop Flyers have been on the periphery of my horizon over the last couple of years, seeing them live on this fairly low key date has sealed the deal with their impressive credentials. What unravelled during this hour long set at Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge was an exceptional band making intelligent and articulate music modelled on the classic sound of soul infused rock. The debut album from this London based band created waves upon its release in 2013 with highly positive reviews from resected publications. Vivid comparisons of the West Coast sound are not difficult to detect on that record and the key theme two years on still has this feel to its core.

So currently it is phase two for Treetop Flyers and the five-piece ensemble have lined up a handful of dates around the country to share some of the new songs wrapped around old favourites that made THE MOUNTAIN MOVES such a riveting listen. To say this Birmingham date was low key is almost an understatement, but enough folks hung around after a couple of local acts played a pair of half hour sets to give this tiny city centre venue a reasonable sense of atmosphere. Hopefully the eventual release of the album will inspire the team behind them to give the band a bigger push aiming for a larger platform to align with their talents. Either way being up close and personal was not a bad place to be in such an intimate atmosphere which enabled you to grasp the technical nuances of the band.

Treetop Flyers possess an inspirational front person in Reid Morrison who injects a deeply moving soulful streak into his vocals to aid the depth of sincerity in their songs. The substance of their sound is derived from the value of the band’s entity which fluctuates from a four guitar spearhead attack to a more diverse sound when Sam Beer commutes to the vacant keyboards. This diversity was further embedded when Beer took over the lead vocals from Morrison for one of the several new tracks presented in ‘Lady Luck’. This enabled a timely rest for Morrison who had just sent a shiver around the spine of the room with a soul searching rendition of another new song in ‘St Andrews Cross’. The guitar was ditched for this poignant moment as Morrison unearthed his emotive mojo to embrace the moving spirit of country soul.

There is an indication of a switch to a more psychedelic sound from the evidence of the first new song earmarked for significant promotion. A rather visually bending video of ‘Dance Through the Night’ has just been uploaded on the usual channels and this infectious guitar led dance tune closed the set in the manner it has been designed for. A heavy bass part from the band’s newest member, Ned Crowther was one of the redeeming qualities of this track which also benefitted from substantial and memorable keyboard parts. Yes, it also got the feet of most folks moving.

At this point it is worth commending the other two band members starting with lead guitarist Laurie Sherman whose passion for Black Sabbath was shared by Morrison to the approving locals. American drummer Tomer Danan completed the line-up and the cliché last but not least fails to do justice to the importance of the rhythm line. The band was firing on all cylinders by the time the second track ‘She’s Gotta Run’ had ended and another old favourite from the first album was gratefully acknowledged later in the set when the popular ‘Things Will Change’ was introduced.

In the days before this gig, re-living the old album had become a regular occurrence, but the evening ended with major thoughts turned towards the new album. ‘Wild Winds’, ’31 Years’, ‘You, Darling You’ and ‘Falling Down’ are likely to be songs we will be hearing a lot more of in the future. Having seen a previous Loose Music act in Dawes mightily impress on UK dates recently, there was more than a hint of similarity in Treetop Flyers which are set to be an integral part of the label’s future. The evidence on show tonight is that these five guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with and the promise of the debut album has been soundly built upon.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Tom Russell - The Glee Club, Nottingham. Wednesday 7th October 2015

The Rose of Roscrae has finally set sail for the home isles. Nearly six months after Tom Russell’s epic western opera/musical hit the airwaves, the touring version has crossed the pond, bringing its splendour to venues across Britain and Ireland. The Glee Club in Nottingham hosted Russell for the Midlands leg of the tour with legions of devoted followers eager to lap up the old and the new in the inimitable style of an artist possibly construed as the ‘Balladeer of the West'.

Accompanied by the smokin’ hot guitar pickin’ skills of his Italian sidekick, Max di Bernadi, the bold and brash troubadour upholding the traditions of the West, rambled through a pair of hour long sets with projected passion and an innate ability to stir the immortal cauldron of prose, poetry and song. Ultimately Tom Russell is a true artisan and all assembled partisans were enshrouded in the warmth and sincerity of his desire to entertain with a strong message.

It was eight years since Tom Russell had last been caught live and this seemed just like a mere flash when he threw in ‘Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall’ as the evening’s pre-encore finale. Given a timely renewal by the comments of Donald Trump, the fired up Russell continues to champion the underdog and folks needed little invitation to share both the words and the sentiment. Forever mischievous with no shortage of irony, Russell orchestrated the evening with equal amounts of wit, observation and the sheer totality of mastering the art of the meaningful folk song. By the time ‘Touch of Evil’ had served as the show’s climax, it was straight to the merch table to seal the deal of audience inclusion.

After listening to all two and a half hours of THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE on numerous occasions around release time, thoughts had turned to how the record would be presented live in lieu of the Broadway musical version. The veil of intrigue was lifted during the first half of tonight’s show as Russell served up a precis of the project, merging elongated musings with a select half dozen of the songs which best represented the album in the gig arena. Few would argue that ‘The Rose of Roscrae’, ‘Hair Trigger Heart’, ‘When the Wolves No Longer Sing’, ‘I Talk to God’ and ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’ are among the cream of the album’s standard songs and all were delivered wrapped in their mighty grandeur. Okay we didn’t have Gretchen Peters, Maura O’Connell and the McCrary Sisters to impose their vocal charm, but the lyrical sentiment and outstanding melodies are perfectly filtered through Russell’s voice and guitar. On the topic of Gretchen, and jumping ahead a little, without surprise ‘Guadalupe’ did feature in the second half and her husband Barry Walsh, co-producer of the record, got mentioned as well.

If you are not excited by an event filled with enlightened onstage chat and ramblings, Tom Russell may not be up your street, but you will be missing out on one of America’s great musical preachers encapsulating all that is marvellous about capturing history within the realms of folk music. Being brought up in Southern California and spending many years frequenting border locations such as El Paso and Santa Fe, the spiritual excitement and the plight of the Mexican people is etched far into his heart, as much as the romanticism and reality of the cowboy. Listening to Tom Russell for two hours is a mind stretching experience and one highly recommended for anyone remotely interested in the quintessential history of the wider concept of Americana.

The first set ended with a version of one of Russell’s older songs in ‘Tonight We Ride’ which acted as a prelude of what to expect after the break. Requested old favourites like ‘Spanish Burgundy’, ‘St Olav’s Gate’, Nina Simone’ and ‘Stealing Electricity’ brought an air of familiarity to the evening for those yet to take a fatal addictive dose of THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE, and surely time will add many of the new songs to the mantle of live staple. Apart from the two second half songs mentioned earlier in this review, the standout number of this segment was ‘East of Woodstock West of Vietnam.’ This precise geographical description of the year (1969) Russell spent teaching Criminology in Nigeria emerged as a top track on the BLOOD AND CANDLE SMOKE album and was listened to with acute attentiveness this evening.

Within the constraints of a live gig, Tom Russell managed to whet the appetites for those new to THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE and re-enforce its emotive appeal to those already tuned into its grand presentation. By referring to it as his ‘Les Miserables’, Russell did not disguise a great personal pride in the project and this sheer enthusiasm is one of his many redeeming features. Hopefully it won’t be another eight years until another Tom Russell show is attended. Life is too short not to maximise opportunities to savour his spiritual take on the West through the spectacular medium of prose, song and wider art.

Review of The Rose of Roscrae

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin - Watershed : Dragonfly Roots

A couple of bars into the first track of this album and you can pinpoint it straight away as the work of Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Phillip's trademark harmonica has been an established feature on the UK’s folk and roots circuit, especially excelling during the award winning duo’s many live shows up and down the land. WATERSHED is their third studio album, following in the wake of their hugely successful last album MYND. As you would expect from such a talented pairing, the new record is packed full of moving tunes and stimulating songs, with the theme for this release steering more to the personal, contemporary and figurative rather than historical and reflective. However the sound is as cross purpose as before with a heady mix of Appalachia and homespun appeal, ensuring a stream of recognition from both the Americana and folk worlds.

Weighing in at twelve tracks and fifty-four minutes, this album is one of the meatier releases out there, and throw in its style as the antipode of pop leaves many facets to be digested. Lyrically the record is owned by Hannah’s temptress vocals supplemented by her role as the main word architect, but the duo status is strongly bound by the way Phillip's diverse harmonica and slide guitar playing welds together the components of each song. The single word name to each track suggests an uncomplicated stance, yet this belies the enormous depth to the ten songs and two instrumentals.

The first of the instrumentals is titled ‘December’ and fits neatly as the filling of a seasonal trilogy flanked by ‘Conkers’ and ‘January’. The latter is an acapella number, obviously divinely delivered by Hannah and is a prime example of her voice adding beauty to a blank canvas. Phillip does take lead vocal on ‘Yarrow Mill’, an emotive piece inspired by his grandparents meeting in industrial Lancashire. Although the duo are based in Devon, they do take the song writing a  lot further north in the title track with references to Coniston and Lingmoor from the Lake District setting for ‘Watershed’. The sentiments of this excellent opening track can be interpreted as how nature, or in particular rainfall, reflects the uncertainties of life.

The two songs with the most personal appeal appear in the early and latter stages of the record. ‘Stones’ is a beautifully written response to the UKIP representative who associated gay marriage with the stormy weather. A song packed with sumptuous slide guitar, a fine groove and the striking line ‘wherever they choose to love’. Later in the album, the touching track ‘Foundling’ delves straight to your heat. The sentiment is heavy and the last line of the final verse poignantly states that the mother’s eyes are ‘a bit like mine’. The theme is continued a couple of tracks later following Phillip's arrangement of the Irish traditional tune ‘Lament’, when the more upbeat ‘London’ suggests an optimistic future for the subject.

Of the remaining three tracks, ‘Letter (Unsent)’ is tender and evocative, ‘Tonight’ is a short lyrical piece defined by harmonica and fiddle, and ‘Taxis’ is a more explicit song emphasising the transient nature of their musical calling. Throughout the record, the inventive musicianship, satisfying blend and beautiful artistry takes the music of Phillip and Hannah to another level.

While WATERSHED does not delve into the territory of their popular gig singalong ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike’ and all its protest connotations, the content is far more subtle, demanding the listener’s absolute attention before endlessly spilling its riches. This album is about the evolution of Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin as a recording duo without erasing those trademark qualities. The connection from artistic talent to active listener is well and truly made.

Ange Hardy - Esteesee : Story Records

Some music you can take at face value, while other demands that little more attention. Approach the new album from Ange Hardy from the first angle and a fabulous eclectic mix of sound variety will thoroughly enchant you. Dig deeper into the background of this project and further riches will emerge in a dazzle of romanticist enlightenment. Of course the recommendation is to fully embrace all aspects of ESTEESEE and absorb your mind into the magnificent detail of Ange’s valued attempt to revive the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to a contemporary audience.

Taking inspiration from poems, stories, epitaphs, events and wider environmental context, Ange has conjured up a fourteen-track adulation to the life and work of this lauded English historical literary figure from the late eighteenth century. The album’s title is taken from initials of the subject’s name and through what is a fairly slick thirty-seven minute duration, it is difficult not to be smitten by Ange’s passion and creative nous for committing this project to song, verse and musical arrangement.
Not surprisingly, funding was available from arts sources for this key project, and Ange has recruited well to formulate the album’s sonic appeal. The guest vocals of Steve Knightly and the various string accompaniments from Patsy Reid are the two names to leap out from the list of players, with perhaps the starkest contribution being the reading of Coleridge’s famous poem by broadcaster and artist Tamsin Rosewell. The emotive reading of ‘Kubla Khan’ almost anchors the record with its central position in the track list and is just one of several spoken parts to heap further focus on the lyrical content. Ange is credited with writing and arranging all the tracks and liberally references the lifting of many snippets from the works of Coleridge.

Among the many fascinating facets of this album, the sheer elegance of the standard three minute ballads all sung beautifully and decorating the message that Ange wants to get over, which is no more or less than modern day recognition of the subject’s life. Her previous work has courted honours both for album content and vocal ability, and there is little doubt that ESTEESEE will be lapped up by folk traditionalists and historians alike. This is by no means the limit of the appeal evidenced by the gorgeous presentation and allure to educate where perhaps many intriguing minds have not been before. To maximise the immense pleasure from plunging into the depth of this record, exposure to the concise and informative insert sleeve is recommended and certainly the insight is better explained through Ange’s words than review regurgitation.

If you want to learn more about Coleridge’s links to the philosophical term pantisocracy, his self-penned epitaph, the trail in Somerset and Devon named in his honour and deeper analysis of his relationships, Ange has provided a super source via her imaginative writing. Numerous candidates for radio play to at least showcase the unrelenting appeal of Ange’s vocal ability can be found in ‘My Captain’, ‘Friends of Three’ and the title track ‘Esteesee’. While Ange is keen on vocal collaboration and harmony, her own skills reach unsurpassable peaks when left alone to flourish on the open stage.

ESTEESEE is pure archetypical folk music, dark in places, explicit in narrative and wonderfully packaged. The jolly and jaunty persona to this album gives it a sense of renewal and if the ubiquitous revival of romantic poetry is once again in our midst, then Ange Hardy can be a chief protagonist. Otherwise just marvelling in the magnitude of this project will broaden your mind, engage your listening senses and add immense value to your overall enjoyment of music. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood (Album Launch) - Scary Canary Venue, Stourbridge. Thursday 1st October 2015

The starting gun has been fired and the second full length album by Kim Lowings and the Greenwood is now fully available to the waiting world. A packed gathering at an eclectic venue in Kim’s hometown of Stourbridge provided the backdrop to the launch gig and the evening proved a resounding success to all parties involved. The most important part of this event is to celebrate the rewards of the endurance from making the album and set up the next phase of spreading the joys of the record to a wider audience. Being amongst family, friends and supporters can be as equally challenging as comforting for the artist, but Kim can reap enormous satisfaction from how the events unfolded which included a pair of sets from her temporarily enlarged band and the opening set from good friends, Hicks and Goulbourn.

Scary Canary is a purpose fit new entertainment venue in the heart of Stourbridge and generally gears to more left field and underground music acts. It hasn’t yet branched out into hosting regular roots music nights, but possesses an intimate charm to be a useful addition to the West Midlands scene. The configuration proved a touch tricky in initially accommodating a large listening audience. However folks soon found ways to best view the proceedings which started shortly before eight and concluded a little after eleven.

The Greenwood has a fairly settled three piece back line supporting Kim, but this evening the usual quartet was enhanced by the guest appearances of Leon Gormley (Cittern) and Lewis Jones (mandolin and Swedish nickel harp).This latter instrument played a substitute role for the violin which illuminates a number of the tracks on the new record. It was business as usual for the remainder of band with Tim Rogers playing his stoical role on Cajon and percussion and Dave Sutherland driving the double bass and adding the backing vocals. Last but certainly not least, Andrew Lowings has his usual quiet yet irreplaceable presence on bouzouki and bodhrum.

The artistic package of Kim is evolving impressively as her writing and song inspiration skills develop to match the beauty of her vocals and highly crafted musical ability. The undoubted pressure of the evening, coupled with the odd technical difficulty plus shaking off an unwanted ailment were all dismissed with ultimate professionalism. Whether utilising her trademark mountain dulcimer, standard acoustic guitar or rising supremely to the challenge of the unaccompanied vocal piece, the effect was confident, assured and entirely consistent.

The evening was obviously revolved around the new record HISTORIA and ten of the eleven tracks featured across the two sets. Kim followed the structure of the record by opening with ‘The Wood Wife’ before launching straight into the singalong track ‘Maggie’s Song’, which acts as the album’s most ear-catching tune. Quite often stand out live tracks can differ from the recorded originals and the most effective songs from the album to surface this evening were ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Regrets’. The second had a set list switch as Kim brushed off a minor technical difficulty to excel on this excellent showpiece of her vocal skills.

Monsoon’ and the instrumental piece ‘Alfrick’ were the two other new tunes to appear in the first set which also saw her return to two older numbers in ‘The Wonderful Mr. Clarke’ and ‘New Moon’. The latter of these two consisted of a re-work from its initial format and this theme of band re-interpretation was also found in the set’s concluding number, an original version of the standard traditional tune ‘The Cuckoo’.  Running right through the night was Kim’s enthusiastic introduction to a majority of the songs selected, whilst sharing her passion for alternative folklore and the lure of traditional song.

As if to make a statement that life after HISTORIA is underway, Kim introduced a further new song after the break with ‘In Spirit’ proving the successful culmination of her enchanted interest with folklore and this time, specifically Russian inspired. The second half had started with a solo song from Leon Gormley, before the band resumed roles and Kim revealing the source of her anger song ‘I’m Still Here’. However some onstage revelations remain such that. Following another song from the album ‘Willow’ and a number simply titled ‘Stay’, the remainder of the set focussed on a batch of traditional tunes; some dark, some upbeat but always forever folk.

Dark Eyed Sailor’ and ‘Bonny Labouring Boy’ both had recorded versions added to the album, while Kim decided to base the gig climax on two upbeat songs inviting the ubiquitous audience participation. ‘The Begging Song’ and ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ have become staples of a Kim Lowings’ show and would be significantly missed if ever removed. The enthusiastic and appreciative crowd refused to allow this to be the evening’s close and Kim needed little persuasion to return to offer a stunning version of ‘Annie Laurie’. The sparkling video performance of this song has been Kim’s major online selling tool for the last couple of years and hopefully the new record will offer further opportunities to promote her talent by the wonderful world of this popular medium.

With a desire to ensure her loyal supporters had a full evening of entertainment, Kim invited the experienced North-East based roots duo Hicks and Goulbourn to open the evening. Drawing influence from a wide range of cross Atlantic sources, the virtuoso guitar-playing of Steve Hicks and versatile vocal and musical offerings from Lynn Goulbourn combine to engage their audiences with wit, fine music and entertaining song. Their confident persona set the bar high for Kim and the guys to follow, but nothing was going to phase the band on their big night.

The major task is now for Kim Lowings and the Greenwood to successfully spread the word of HISTORIA and use a variety of mechanisms to grow their live following and ensure the album has many new homes. The quality of the product and the talent to convey it is undisputed. The music industry is littered with miscarriages of justice, but there is a positive feeling that this situation may not necessarily be the destination of HISTORIA and the wider talents of Kim Lowings.

Review of Historia