Saturday, 28 November 2015

Danni Nicholls - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Friday 27th November 2015

On the evening before her long awaited album launch gig, Danni Nicholls warmed up for the big event by returning to the West Midlands to play another show in support of the new record. MOCKINGBIRD LANE was first shared with audiences back in the spring with a short UK tour prompting an initial batch of positive reviews. Renewed interest and further media love has continued during the autumn batch of dates, leading to the eventual wide scale availability of a record deserved of a more expansive platform. A majority of the tracks were featured during the pair of sets which formed this show and once again explicit evidence was apparent as to why Danni is considered a prime singer-songwriter in trusted circles.

Katie Fitzgerald’s is a long established Stourbridge music venue and has been the home for the town’s folk club for the last couple of years, leading to a constant stream of high quality artists performing in the cellar bar. There has been less common visitors steeped in the country and Americana tradition, but a memorable evening in the company of Eve Selis can be recalled a few years ago. A less enjoyable gig was attended a while back when a non-ticketed weekend show by the Toy Hearts was spoilt by your usual noisy pub crowd treating the music as a mere irrelevance. At the start of Danni’s second set this evening, a number of folks did wander down to the cellar bar with an intention to carry on their Friday night social. However with an increased sense of confidence and purpose, Danni admirably used the power of the mic to remind them that this was a ticketed event, with the desired effect of creating the perfect listening environment for the rest of her performance. This was a significant victory for live music and well done Danni.

Back to the music and a development since Danni played at the Kitchen Garden Café in April was the addition of Max Milligan on guitar to add an extra sound dimension to the songs. Maybe bringing some form of a rhythm section can be the next stage when she returns to the area for a future show. The core duo of extremely impressive melody driven songs and a voice burying deep into the spirit of each composition are firmly in place, to herald Danni as one of the UK’s brightest practitioners of communicating the magic of American roots music through a personal perspective.

Around twenty songs were presented in full glory during the show and these can quite easily fit into three categories with the occasional overlap. Danni chose to celebrate the works of others in five songs with the most notable being a version of Will Kimbrough’s ‘Goodnight, Moon’ which closed her 2013 album A LITTLE REDEMPTION. A Randy Newman song, given a blues twist by Bonnie Raitt, ‘Guilty’ gave Danni the opportunity to stretch her vocal acumen in the first encore number. The evening ended with the usual dose of Johnny Cash and the endlessly covered ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, with the equally as popular ‘Jolene’ and Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me’, finding their way into the set list.

However Danni Nicholls the recording artist is all about the stylish way she composes songs and presents them with the feel of becoming an accomplished standard. The new record is packed full of such numbers with three particular standing out during the evening. ‘Leaving Tennessee’, ‘Back to Memphis’ and ‘Travelin’ Man’ all have Americana connotations without being dressed in pseudo clothing. As some of you may be aware, Danni has recorded both her albums in Nashville with all the infra-structural help reaping rewards and this panache filters through from record to stage show. Two other experiences of the new record worthy of a mention are ‘Long Way Home’ selected to open the evening and ‘Look Up at the Moon’, where a glass of whisky replaces the guitar as the comfort blanket, thus freeing her vocals to move up a notch.

The third strand to the set list was a number of tracks lifted from Danni’s debut solo release headed by the title song ‘A Little Redemption’. Alongside a majority of the tracks performed this evening, the informative introduction added extra value with the Women’s Institute link to this song being a staple of Danni’s shows. There has been a recently detected link between Danni and the musicians associated with this venue as the song appeared on the compilation album BORN BRED BELIEVES in the company of a number of protest pieces performed by West Midlands artists. Her debut album was also represented on the evening by ‘Beautiful Game’, ‘Bird of Paradise’ and ‘Hey There, Sunshine’, with Danni gleefully recalling the pedal steel input from the acclaimed American player Al Perkins on the latter’s recorded version.

So Danni ended the warm up show for her massive evening on a noted high and thoroughly confirming to those present that we have in our midst a creative talent adept in indulging in a musical direction which bonds many fans who attend her shows. Visualising her voice, songs and presence on a much bigger stage is not a difficult imaginary thought and maybe justice will prevail one day. In the meantime, giving Danni Nicholls a small amount of exposure through three reviews this year has hopefully played a small part. There aren’t many artists of her ilk passing through Stourbridge and this performance was both cherished immensely and now chronicled in the infinite vaults of the blogosphere. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Comment on the Shortlist of Nominees for the Inaugural AMA UK Awards

Last week The American Music Association UK (AMA UK) announced the shortlist for their inaugural awards evening in February next year. This fledgling trade body has recently re-aligned its structure and acted on a previous commitment to instigate such a celebration for musicians associated with its genre. This moves it in line with its cousins of folk and country which have long established awards events, a recognition process seen as essential to showcasing the success of any year. Whether such events, for what is purely a subjective art form, are your cup of tea, the value for artists is acknowledged as important, especially for those who capture the imagination of a particular electorate. Whilst not being a participate of this shortlist selection process or the ultimate winner ballot, the names and categories were of particular interest to a person who invests an awful lot of time in listening to Americana artists while in the process of writing 150 plus reviews on an annual basis. So read on for a personal assessment of the selections now being heavily promoted on social media.

The first category on the press release doing the rounds was UK Album of the Year with four records being presented as the choice for the ultimate ballot. Firstly I have to admit surprise at seeing The Staves included and have to further add that the record has not yet crossed my listening path. The band did impress me when seeing them play at Moseley Folk Festival a few years ago but as their flame grew brighter in the wider music press including TV Glastonbury coverage and arena support slots for Florence and the Machine, they still remain elusive to my ear, so further comment is not valid. Two of the other nominations were reviewed on the site with both, WHAT KIND OF LOVE by Danny and the Champions of the World and The Dreaming Spires’ sophomore album SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH  meeting my full approval. The fourth entry was another slight surprise as Emily Barker’s THE TOERAG SESSIONS consisted mainly of older tracks recorded in a different format and setting. This album has only been recently purchased and like many of Emily’s previous records is an excellent piece of work. However if I was to make one choice from this quartet,  the vote would have to go to The Dreaming Spires as it is a record that hasn’t left my mobile device since listening for the first time.

On the other hand, International Album of the Year presented four exceptional releases that have been core to my listening activity all year and three have been heard live, with the fourth scheduled for a January UK visit. This last point refers to Jason Isbell whose SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE record is guaranteed to top many end of year lists in the next month. It would probably get the nod from me just ahead of BLACKBIRDS by Gretchen Peters, Cale Tyson’s debut UK release which was an amalgam of his two US Eps and the popular Kacey Musgraves album PAGEANT MATERIAL. Seeing this album on the list was also a surprise as mainstream country records tend to not float the boat of many Americana fans who voice their opinions. I have enjoyed all four of these records and the artists will feature in some format when my 'favourites of 2015' lists are published just before Christmas.

The UK artist category presented a mixed bag from my perception. The repeat nomination for the Champs and the Spires was not totally unexpected as both acts have ripped it up on the live circuit in support of their new records. The nomination of Lewis and Leigh raised a few eyebrows especially as the duo has yet to release their debut full length album. I have enjoyed listening to their Eps and caught them live for the first time at this year’s Maverick Festival. Co-incidentally both Lewis and Leigh and The Dreaming Spires represented the AMA UK in Nashville during the annual convention of the original AMA last September. I’m afraid no comment can be made on the fourth nomination as Bear’s Den has yet to cross my path in any format. Just like the album category, it would have to be The Dreaming Spires just edging The Champs, but it’s a close call and Danny’s show in Oxford is set for a lofty position in the end of year gig list.

The four nominees for International Artist of the Year are all familiar to me to differing degrees. The Bros. Landreth was recommended to me this year and their album was subsequently purchased and enjoyed. Jason Isbell has long been a firm favourite, but his nomination would have been strengthened if he had visited the UK this year. Likewise Sturgill Simpson did play several festival and venue UK dates in the summer, but he falls short as both albums were released in the first half of 2014. This leaves the path clear for Gretchen Peters to get my fictional vote as she combined the release of BLACKBIRDS with several Trans-Atlantic visits to promote the album, with her Birmingham and Leamington Spa shows getting favourable reviews.

The UK Song of the Year category was the most difficult to assess as it contained recordings by Bear’s Den and The Staves, so attention was limited to 'Clear Water' by Danny and the Champions of the World and 'Rubble' by Lewis and Leigh. The live impact and standing of Danny in my hierarchy would get the vote in this category, also cemented by the fact that the nominated track was played fairly regularly around the time of its release. While several nominations for Danny were totally expected and understood, it is interesting to note that he spent a lot of interview time in the run up to the album release explaining the influence of a number of British musicians and suggesting the Americana links can be sometimes overstated.

While not being quite sure of the qualifying period for the nominations,  including those for the penultimate category International Song of the Year, it has to be noted that 'American Middle Class' by Angaleena Presley was reviewed in 2014, although it may have had renewed UK promotion when she played summer dates over here. 'All These Dreams' by Andrew Combs is a noteworthy addition, but I could probably think of well over fifty preferred songs released. The irony of Andrew Combs is that he has almost been loaned by Americana to mainstream country with his place on the 2016 Country to Country bill at the O2 Arena. Jason Isbell’s '24 Frames' and 'Blackbirds' by Gretchen Peters would easily both feature in my top fifty and maybe with a slight bias to its co-writer Ben Glover, I would give the nod to the latter.

There is plenty of twang on the UK Instrumentalist of the Year shortlist with Joe Bennett, B.J. Cole, Paul Lush and Spencer Cullum Jr all worthy candidates. My vote would be confined to the first three as these have been witnessed at close hand during the year. To narrow it down further, I would have to ultimately limit it to a straight choice between Bennett and Lush on the basis of their core roles in The Dreaming Spires and Danny and the Champions of the World. The ultimate selection would just go to Paul Lush as I especially enjoyed his performance with Simon Stanley Ward at Tingestock.

So to confirm what would have been my personal picks from the nominations presented:

UK Album of the Year – Searching for the Supertruth by The Dreaming Spires
International Album of the Year – Something More than Free by Jason Isbell
UK Artist of the Year – The Dreaming Spires
International Artist of the Year – Gretchen Peters
UK Song of the Year – Clear Water by Danny and the Champions of the World
International Song of the Year – Blackbirds by Gretchen Peters
UK Instrumentalist of the Year – Paul Lush

The actual winners will be announced at the awards evening in February and it will interesting to see what the members overall preference is.

Full List of Nominees

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sunjay - Launch of the album 'Black & Blues' - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Friday 20th November 2015

It’s not every day you see a young guy in his twenties dissecting early twentieth century blues music down your local pub. Even rarer is an artist tracing their exposure to the genre back to the age of five, but Sunjay is not your average performer. By exposing an incredible surplus of technical skill in working the whole length of his guitar from vigorous chord changes to expert picking, Sunjay reveals himself as a high class interpreter of folk blues drawing many plaudits from a variety of industry sources. For his fourth album, BLACK & BLUES, Sunjay chose Katie Fitzgerald’s in Stourbridge as the launch location and entertained the sizable gathering with a comprehensive compilation of songs that have been special to him since the outset of his performing and recording career.

Sunjay continues to evolve as a performer in lavish assured portions, with a finely tuned wit added to the repertoire alongside the exquisite playing and developing vocals. The ear for picking a successful tune to interpret is acute, whether delving into the blues archives, sharing the songs of his peers or choosing something more contemporary. Tonight’s show was packed with all three of these strands and despite seeing him perform regularly over the last couple of years, this was the first time in a trio format. Essentially this was predominately as a duo with fellow Stourbridge musician Eddy Morton on bass and mandolin, but for a handful of songs after the break, the blues style was ramped up with the harmonica participation of Lee Southall.

One surprising aspect of the show was that Sunjay chose to only share four of the songs from BLACK & BLUES among twenty-one numbers forming a near two hour set list. It’s tough to pick a stand out song from this quartet as ‘Drop Down Mama’, ‘You Don’t Learn That in School’, ‘Nobody Wants to Know You When You’re Down and Out’ and ‘Trouble in Mind’ each have similar merit when getting the Sunjay guitar treatment. On a personal front, the most pleasing songs he chose to add to the album were ‘Pallet on the Floor’ and ‘Please Don’t Go’. Maybe these are standards which have transcended the blues world, but the versions are excellent and would have sounded superb live. However what was put on the menu did his talent justice and contributed to a successful evening.

BLACK & BLUES was once again produced by Morton who has worked closely with Sunjay throughout his career and prominently on the three other records. The eponymous titled record released last year is still fresh in the 2015 set lists of Sunjay and during the show we enjoyed renditions of Tom Rush’s ‘No Regrets’, Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ and the John Hiatt classic ‘Memphis in the Meantime’. On this previous studio outing, Sunjay cut one of Morton’s songs in ‘London Road’ and this proved a popular number this evening alongside another Morton composition ‘Faith Healer’.

Sunjay’s pedigree as an enterprising entertainer continues to grow with a strategic decision to add ‘I’m into Something Good’ to his shows creating a suitable opportunity to engage with the audience on a shared vocal basis. This like some many of his songs is introduced by a story often tinged with humour but forever informative. He spoke of the decision to play ‘Street Riot’ in the wake of recent events as the song recounts, through the words of Roger Brooks, a violent event in Paris forty years ago. Like so many of his other shows seen over the last couple of years, Sunjay opens with a medley of his 'hit' and acknowledgement of how his performance of ‘Love You Like a Man’ played a significant part in attracting a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nomination in 2012.

Although you can make a strong case for suggesting that Sunjay’s heart is in the blues, his live shows are almost exclusively on the folk circuit, but then the roots nature of both genres are intrinsically entwined. In 2015 Sunjay has played with Chris Smither cementing the Americana tinge to his style, while next year support slots are lined up with folk luminaries Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Either way he is set to be in demand for a long while to come and thus get plenty of opportunities to sell copies of the new record plus the older albums at many shows in the near future.

The curtain to this album launch show was brought down with a blistering, finger picking version of Bo Diddly’s ‘Who Do You Love’, complete with spell blinding guitar solo. Prior to this there was a hint of fresh material in the pipeline with the song ‘Crocodile Man’ being presented as a possible candidate for a future album. However let’s not race ahead too quickly on the evening BLACK & BLUES was formally launched. Just to add a few more facts to the record, the album consists of ten recordings with ‘Duncan & Brady’, ‘St. James Infirmary’, ‘Delia’ and ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer’ completing the line-up alongside the six previously mentioned tracks. The album was recorded in a single day under license to New Mountain Music and is awash with a lightly produced authentic appeal to make its purchase a sensible decision.

Although Sunjay regularly plays gigs in his home West Midlands region including several support slots at the Stourbridge Folk Club nights he hosts, there are also many other venues across the country which book his talent to appear. Catching one of these shows and owning a copy of BLACK & BLUES should be on many folks' New Year resolution list. Being impressed is a total given and supporting the future of roots music via a young performer is a worthwhile act.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Kacey Musgraves - Royal Albert Hall, London. Wednesday 18th November 2015

It may have taken until the latter half of November to arrive, but it has to be unequivocally said that the solo rendition of ‘Merry Go Round’ this evening was the golden gig moment of 2015. Stripped of her band for a brief three minutes, the soul of this modern social classic was bared to a packed Royal Albert Hall. This show was the culmination of Kacey Musgraves’ latest of countless trips to Britain in the last couple of years and certainly the most eventful one for a multitude of reasons. She was totally smitten by the venue, emotional at times and fired up to show why her star has been rising recently right across the music spectrum.

Let’s get the cliché out of the way by stating that the sound in this venue was exemplary leaving most others in its trail. However there was something lacking in its ability to create a warm and connective environment which is essential to lift live artist music to the pinnacle of a moving performance. Perhaps the venue was a little stuffy, vacuous in its design and matters were certainly not helped by an unsatisfactory hour long wait between the support act finishing and Kacey entering the stage to the fabulous sound of ‘Pageant Material’. From a fairly decent sized sample of eighty plus shows this year, this was the longest gap between performances and in my opinion is treating a ‘smart phone engrossed audience' with contempt.

One of the endearing features of Kacey Musgraves is her attempt to re-establish the ‘western theme’ amongst a contemporary crowd’s insistence to hairbrush the term from the genre. So fair play to the strapline ‘Country and Western Rhinestone Revue’ matching the visual style and band ethos that goes some way to defining her sound and stage performance. With reference to the band, their role in a Kacey Musgraves live show is to remain a little distant and for a large part this works well enabling the super songs to own the spotlight. Pedal steel remains the most prominent component and also we did witness on a couple occasions – ‘Die Fun’ and ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ – the band being let off the leash with appealing affect. We know Kacey is going to evolve musically, so why not in a rock ‘n’ roll direction. So much more preferable to any hint of pop.

Kacey’s show in Manchester last year, in my opinion a far more inspirational and moving evening, was the start of the leap from SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK to PAGEANT MATERIAL with the journey being finally completed in 2015. Ten of the thirteen tracks, excluding the Willie Nelson duet, from the new album made the set list this evening with ‘High Time’, ‘Fine’ and the aforementioned ‘Die Fun’ being the notable live versions to emerge from the show. The album remains a firm favourite among the throngs of laudable 2015 releases and listening to the songs live through this sound quality strengthened the appeal of the record. A handful of songs from the previous album reminded folks of the impact of this debut major release with ‘Follow Your Arrow’ heading the popularity stakes. From a personal angle, ‘Silver Lining’ sounded better and a surprise candidate in the guise ‘It is What it is’ joined the expanding group of stand-out songs from the show.

There were a number of content similarities between last year and this year’s gigs. ‘Happy Trails’ remains the group vocal-single mic finale, the Nancy Sinatra tribute complete with sparkling footwear adds to the glamour and the TLC cover ‘No Scrubs’ appeals to certain strands of her fan base a little distant from yours truly. The Kacey co-write–Miranda hit ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ made a welcome re-appearance as well. Interestingly a steel soaked version of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ made a drab song a little more palatable, but please audience no waving illuminated phones at one of my gigs – thank you.

All evening Kacey’s vocals were on top form and she continues to emerge as an assured entertainer. Inspirationally she remains work–in-progress, but is one of the good gals doing things the right way in the murky world of mainstream country music. This genre term is a much mangled art form in the chase for the dollar/pound and it is refreshing that Kacey Musgraves acts as a counter balance from within.

Prior to the irritating and seemingly unnecessary hour long wait, Sugar and the Hi Lows played a thirty-minute opening set. They came across as a competent outfit and were unfazed by the surroundings. They were a little synonymous with some of the modern pop-rock that rolls out of Music City these days. At least they veered away from ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ with their Johnny Cash cover in choosing ‘Jackson’. Without recalling the titles of their songs, the penultimate number had the most appeal with its rock ‘n’ roll feel, while the closing Otis Redding inspired number headed out of the exit pretty quickly.

Without hitting the impact heights of seeing her show for the first time last year, time and investment spent in seeing Kacey Musgraves at the Royal Albert Hall was still a worthwhile activity. She remains a treasure and will be a shining light in whatever creative direction her music takes. The next appointment with a UK audience is at C2C in March next year and it will be interesting to read how her set there is interpreted by key scribes. Meanwhile she can play anywhere for me, with just a slight preference to a venue with a renewed soul.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Wild Ponies - Holy Cross Parish Hall, Lichfield. Saturday 14th November 2015

This evening’s show in Lichfield was further visible proof of the Wild Ponies blossoming as a live touring act. The first time Doug and Telisha Williams played the Lichfield area it was in a support role to Rod Picott and they impressed sufficiently to get an invite back to play a headline duo date a year later. Follow the timeline on another twelve months and you arrive in the present with on this occasion the duo format expanded to a trio with a guest percussionist added. Each performance built upon the previous show with enhanced impact and indications are that the band’s profile in the UK is growing too. Quite simply Doug and Telisha are in the throes of becoming an established touring act well supported by a UK network which advocates the view that the true soul of Nashville music exists east of the Cumberland River.

On the topic of soul, you would have to travel a long way to experience a more gut wrenching rendition of a song than the version of ‘Iris’ that flooded out of Telisha just after the break. Written in tribute to her grandma, the song adopted a greater element of poignancy in light of the fundraising aspect to this evening’s show and took pride of place as the night’s golden moment. There is an incredible amount of authenticity and southern class in Telisha’s voice whether it’s acting as a song’s focal point or merging in the more upbeat rock ‘n’ roll material that the band excel at. Throughout a performance that spanned two sets, deliciously punctuated by a serving of Hot Burrito Promotion’s famous chilli, the Wild Ponies shared all facets of their repertoire, obviously steeped in traditional country but also extending to wider roots and a spicy dose of indie rock ‘n’ roll. This sound has enormously contributed into attracting an expanding fan base this side of the pond.

To share some of the Wild Ponies ingredients, Telisha adds the stand-bass input to her vocals, while Doug effortlessly flits between his trusty old Gibson acoustic and more lively Fender Telecaster. For this tour, a hired native percussionist known as Tobias has provided the third dimension, with Telisha anointing him as the ‘Posh Pony’. Seriously though and despite the ribbing, the contribution of a percussionist at these shows can be immense and this evening was no exception. Before delving into some of the band’s song analysis, you have to mention the encore when all three performers left the stage, brought their unplugged instruments onto the floor (including the hefty bass) and beautifully serenaded the audience on their way with Telisha’s appetising version of the Patsy Cline standard ‘I Fall to Pieces’: Pure live gig heaven.

The two sets the band played prior to the encore were sprinkled with material from the latest album THINGS THAT USED TO SHINE, the Doug and Telisha Williams duo album GHOST OF THE KNOXVILLE GIRL and enticingly, three songs from an upcoming record due to hit the shelves in 2016. This trio of tracks titled, ‘Radiant’, ‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Unplug Your Machine’, was the most intriguing part of the night and the first listen was mightily impressive. The first track is set to be the record’s title, while the second one was the standout of the three with such a remarkable likeness to the style of Angaleena Presley. The final one was the most memorable of the trio with a distinctive appeal, new wave indie rock backbeat and a sentiment we all need to adhere to sometimes. Stay tuned for further new Wild Ponies stuff shortly.

THINGS THAT USED TO SHINE has been given a renewed press boost during this tour and tracks from the record continue to sparkle in a live setting. Tonight’s highlights were the vigorous ‘Broken’, the Amy Speace co-write ‘Trouble Looks Good on You’ and the NASCAR story told in ‘Massey’s Run’. As per last year’s show, Doug introduced the latter with an insightful tale of being raised near to the famous speedway circuit in Martinsville Virginia with this year’s take including a recent return visit to the town. At this point it is worth mentioning that Doug takes lead vocal on this track and a few others as well as singing harmony on many more.

There is no lead status in the Wild Ponies with both artists adding vital components. Telisha is a proud fan of the murder folk ballad and amongst the set this evening included the wonderful title track from the GHOST OF THE KNOXVILLE GIRL album along with a couple of others defined by the killing theme. Of course this is the artistic side of Doug and Telisha with undoubtedly their literal side being represented in the defunct protest song ‘Love is Not a Sin’. To conclude the song analysis, there was no finer up tempo part of the show than ‘Graveyard Train’ which precluded the encore and contained two of Telisha’s major song inspirations.

Just a word about the backdrop to this evening’s show and its fundraising purpose of supporting the British Heart Foundation which included a short opening set by local artists Ben and Chrissie. The cause was very dear to the heart of a few folks in the room and an extremely well attended show displayed an enormous amount of support for the cause. The sheer quality of the Wild Ponies performance gave the event the content it deserved and it was a pleasure to attend the evening with all the subtle and honourable trappings.  You are certainly missing something if you don’t add the Wild Ponies to your 2016 gig and listening schedule. This was definitely not the case for those in Lichfield this evening.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Katzenjammer - Institute, Birmingham. Friday 13th November 2015

To the appropriate background strains of ‘Crazy Nights’, Turid, Anne Marit , Solveig and Marianne took a well-deserved bow after playing yet another scintillating Katzenjammer show. For this, their second batch of UK venue dates in 2015, the intoxicating Norwegian quartet included Birmingham on the schedule and thus the first chance for many West Midlands fans to hear the songs from the new album ROCKLAND live. Disappointment was not on the agenda as the girls literally weaved through a chaotic set lasting just over ninety minutes and exuding gallons of exciting, mainly acoustic mayhem. First time fans were literally blown away, while seasoned Katzenjammer watchers probably never get to grips with the multitude of instrumental exchange and energetic buoyancy radiating from the stage.

Although active as a band for ten years, Katzenjammer only came to my attention this year through an addiction to ROCKLAND, their third album, and a ground breaking show, well for me anyway, in Nottingham. Festival goers at Cambridge Folk and Cropedy also had the opportunity to see the band during the summer with it being unsurprising that fans on the folk and roots circuit have taken to their style of upbeat organic music. However it is difficult to believe how they can beat these indoor shows with a couple of hundred people packed into a smallish venue. The Library room at Birmingham Institute is ideally contained to capture the magic of a Katzenjammer show with the girls on full fifth gear power mode this evening.

It was a Friday night and the band wasted no time in rousing the crowd with the smart choice of opening the set with the singalong favourite ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’. The tone was established for a trawl though material from all three albums with ‘God’s Great Dust Storm’ and ‘Land of Confusion’ joining the opener as a representation from 2011's A KISS BEFORE YOU GO.  There was an increased serving of songs from the LE POP record with numerous tracks vying for the show’s golden moment, or should we say moments.

The final three songs before the encore all came from this 2009 record. ‘Demon Kitty Rag’ signalled the start of the finale, before Solveig raised the atmosphere to crescendo levels when playing the trumpet parts in ‘A Bar in Amsterdam’. This was the cue for further creative use of the venue’s light system and Marianne slipping into demonic mode while wallowing in ‘Hey Ho on The Devil’s Back’ from the keyboards. Playing catch up with Katzenjammer’s previous albums has been highly enjoyable this year and an honourable mention is deserved for the live rendition of ‘Mother Superior’, also from LE POP and an inspirational piece of joyous accordion-led, European upbeat, sway-inducing bar music.

Any review of a Katzenjammer show cannot fail to mention the continual exchange and array of musical instruments used. The number 18 has been read somewhere and that seemed about right, headed by the band’s cat-faced contra-bass Balalaika and pink piano, with electric bass being almost the odd one out amongst a concoction of acoustic. For so much on-stage manoeuvre and switching, the pauses are relatively short, with the wider Katzenjammer team precision-tuned in this operation.

The songs from ROCKLAND were rolled out in a steady procession with perhaps one notable absentee being ‘Shine Like Neon Rays’ which did not grace the pink piano when it was brought out. Similarly to the Nottingham show, Marianne explained the background to ‘Lady Grey’, but a Katzenjammer show is defined by the musical chemistry rather than the between-song chat. To further this theory, ‘Old de Spain’, ‘Curvaceous Needs’ and ‘Bad Girl’ continue to evolve and excel in a live setting with the title track ‘Rockland’ being one of show’s occasional restful moments.

Katzenjammer has been one of the finds of 2015 and has almost left a lasting legacy from seeing a couple of their shows. They are the epitome of the phrase ‘the sum is bigger than the parts’ with each band member playing near identical roles with only the odd instrumental exception. Truly egalitarian in their approach to music making, Turid, Solveig, Marianne and Anne Mariet have emerged as a treasured quartet and proudly present Katzenjammer as a band doing things the right way: skilfully, authentic, organic and totally enthralling.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Caddy Cooper - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 11th November 2015

Give yourself a little treat sometime and open up your senses to the wonderful musical world of Caddy Cooper. Don’t restrict it to just listening to her pair of full length albums and acoustic EP, but widen it to attending one of her shows. They’re temporarily in their intimate phase and I’m sure your local venue would consider inviting her if they value what is true and honest about music. When judgement day arrives, Caddy need not be concerned as to the verdict and from a more grounded angle she is the epitome of talent exploitation. This superbly executed gig at the Kitchen Garden Café sealed the deal for me and hailed Caddy as a performer of immense credibility, integrity and more than the odd occasional flash of stylish panache.

Let’s start with the voice and its tremendous versatile approach to wrapping her classically trained vocals around a string of songs sunken deep in the roots inspired genres of country, folk and blues. Her guitar playing skills are not limited to the odd chord change and continual strumming, but more aligned with projecting the full depth of her choice of instrument to an anticipated audience. The holy trinity of the singer-songwriter is completed by the ability to craft quality lyrics and melody with example after example found within the increasing body of her recorded catalogue. Of course all these qualities can be enjoyed on record, but the ultimate performing trait of translating your work into a stage presence exuding aura, audience connection and the chemistry to cement the art of the live re-enactment can only be found at a show. It goes without saying that all this was present in Caddy’s return to the Kitchen Garden Café and the first visit in support of her latest album OUTSIDE THE WIRE.

With a theatrical degree of exuberant effervescence, Caddy shared an enormous amount of career experience to date with many audience members who were taking a chance on a new artist. However she perfectly balances the inter-song banter with engaging degrees of humour, personal expression, informative chat and sheer entertainment. To fully appreciate this you need to attend a show, but as a taster think: entertaining the troops, strange dates, being a long time exiled Aussie in the UK and more than a touch of inference on what constitutes good country music. All this continued in the song selection which reflected material from all three of her releases and a similar number of intriguing covers.

Caddy’s heavy blues influence was evident in her decision to cover the Muddy Waters standard ‘Got My Mojo Working’ and the Big Maybelle song ‘One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show’. The third cover was another standard in ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ which signified her passion to delve into and ultimately re-create the great song. While on the topic of lyrical competence, Caddy’s successful attempt to commit semi-folklore to immortal song was made even more poignant as this evening’s rendition of ‘Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’ was symbolically sung of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

This was one of the key tracks from the new album and Caddy also shared a handful of other songs from this record which acted as the introduction for me earlier this year. The title track ‘Outside the Wire’ and ‘Don’t Say We’re Through’ were definitely candidates for ‘first among equals’ during the evening with the latter implying tantalising thoughts of the duet version with Paul Carella. Although the songs from Caddy’s debut album were a little less familiar, ‘Red Blooded Man’ and ‘Whole Lotta $$’ had considerable appeal. From her earlier acoustic EP, which is still available from online sources, though Caddy is temporarily out of physical copies, ‘Better Place Now’ came out tops and we even had the opportunity to glimpse into the future with the sharing of a new song titled ‘Sky’s on Fire’. This was a sultry ballad possessing all the classy substance that prevails right across her song collection. The song analysis wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the ‘Cup Song (incorporating Love You in the Morning)’. Words are insufficient to describe it so check out the video which only just starts to project the fun and also the a capella version of the song on OUTSIDE THE WIRE complete with 12 part harmony. 

At this point it is worth mentioning the opening set for this evening’s show honourably delivered by Birmingham’s own Robert Lane. Another singer-songwriter with an eye on stage presence and appeal, Robert tends to limit appearances in local venues, but is a capable performer and passionate advocate of the powerful art of song. In the true tradition of effective warm up acts, he used a John Lennon medley to lubricate the vocal chords of the audience. From his own pen, ‘Tear Drop Tattoo’ and ‘Make it Easy’ showed a degree of flair, with the latter to be found on his recent self-titled album.

There was a refreshing camaraderie between Caddy and Robert which exemplified the warmth of the evening’s atmosphere. This further embedded the satisfying appeal from attending the gig and made you continue to marvel at the extraordinary level of great music that can evolve from scratching below the surface. The abiding memory of the evening was to visualise Caddy showcasing her talents on a larger platform with all the band trimmings. This may be for another day, so let’s just feel grateful that a gathering of Kitchen Garden Café faithful had Caddy Cooper all to themselves for one golden November evening.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Callaghan - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 8th November 2015

‘Musique sans genre’ perfectly sums up the artist simply known as Callaghan. ‘Sans frontier’ is another language analogy to apply as this exiled Brit is beginning to reap dividend from her American re-location five years ago and subsequent onward move to Nashville. My early re-collection of Callaghan the solo musician was around six or seven years ago during a new artist showcase when the Americana International Festival was held in Newark, UK. Several years on, she emerged a smooth and polished figure on stage in Birmingham, exuding a magnetic presence and one totally comfortable in her musical surroundings. This is a performer blessed with the art of song and extensively schooled in the live arena, be it venue or home, with a heavy bias to her extensive house concert schedule.

Callaghan herself hinted during the evening on several occasions how the twin continent drive of her career is rapidly taking shape. An increased level of acclaim back in her UK homeland is proving a continual touring pull with several working trips this year and more in the pipeline for 2016. This show at the Hare and Hounds, Birmingham was a second visit to the city this year and acted as the final gig of the current tour. Callaghan and her keyboard playing sidekick: Dan, were determined to have a blast and they rattled through a set around an hour and a quarter long with a sentimental twist at the end. Not surprisingly, material from the latest record A HISTORY OF NOW took precedence and reminded folks of its unrelenting appeal, which extended to selective national airplay.

What was apparent from witnessing Callaghan during the show was the impact upon her from mixing with the Nashville singer-songwriter crowd and there’s no finer place than Music City to hone your craft. From a personal viewpoint, Callaghan excels best when sinking into her wonderful ballads aided only by piano, succulent vocals and a heart spilling out a story. This was made clear in a recent review of her album and sealed tonight with sumptuous renditions of ‘I’ll Take You Away’, ‘When You Loved Me’ and ‘Who Would I Be’. The centre of this trio was introduced with the most heart rendering story you could wish to hear and Callaghan was highly skilled in the art of stage banter throughout the show.

Of course it is permissible for songwriters to indulge in the work of others during their shows and curiously three of Callaghan’s covers added an extra edge to the gig. As much as I love Johnny Cash and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’,  it is becoming a little staid as the go to ‘Man in Black’ cover when he has written hundreds of brilliant others. With the help of some of Dan’s incredibly soulful keys, Callaghan poured everything into ‘Piece of My Heart’ and suggested at the end that perhaps her glass of water should be something a little stronger. Therein lays a secret wish for Callaghan to push the boundaries a little with her song delivery as this would increase the soulful impact of her powerful writing. A further eye opener was the impromptu second encore and a slight melody re-arrangement of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ which met with universal and in some cases tearful, approval.

Best Year’ and ‘Crazy Beautiful Life’ were greeted enthusiastically by an increasingly appreciative and responsive audience. Whilst the pop pretensions of the recorded versions were almost swept away on stage, these songs still fall short in my book when matched up against the gorgeous ballads which melt you away. There exists the conundrum for me as a willing listener, bowled over by the assured performer, but mindful of the actual artist’s preference and desires of a growing fan base.

Support for this evening, and several other dates on the tour, was provided by UK singer-song writing duo Rosalie Deighton and Steve Balsamo. Under the combined surname banner Balsamo Deighton, the duo is due to release their debut album in this format early next year. Among the songs assigned to their thirty minute opening slot were several from this upcoming release including ‘Blue’, ‘These Four Walls’ and the title track ‘Unfolding’. Awash with biting satire, a delectable dry wit and unassuming stage style, the duo waded through a mire of sad songs with mortal intent. A few killings would have planted it in the realms of folk, with the slightly lighter vocal tinge heading the sound in an Americana direction, either way the performance was spot on and the album is eagerly awaited.

The upshot of this fabulously entertaining and heart-warming evening was once again experiencing Callaghan live and being enormously impressed with a vast array of her body of work. If the cliché ‘genre defying’ needs personifying, a willing suiter exists. Although let’s discard the typecast word for a moment and celebrate an artist crafted in the majesty of fine song that is destined to deliver on an ongoing basis, both live and on record across two continents.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman - Cookley Sebright Primary School,Cookley. Saturday 7th November 2015

There appears to be a rich abundance of outstanding duo acts in the current UK folk scene, especially in the habitual male-female combination. These acts follow the exciting course of mixing traditional and contemporary pieces with a keen eye on maintaining the relevance of the key song through the ages. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman is a firmly established such duo and continually prompting the award giving bodies along with Gilmore-Roberts, Martin-Henry and Clarke-Walker. All four are forever seeking innovative ways to reach their audience, so it was far from surprising to see a gig spring up as a primary school fundraiser.

The village of Cookley in North Worcestershire has a rich history of hosting folk music in various guises within its handful of locations. Kathryn and Sean were making their first visit to the area and by the reception the healthy gathering bestowed upon them it is unlikely to be their last. In fact the setting was right up the street of this parental duo which spends a large amount of time departing their Dartmoor base for shows up and down the land. Those present in the quaint school hall witnessed a pair of dovetailing artists exploiting their individual talents to the full while skirting around subjects as diverse as the blueprint murder ballad and the more sensitive side of intricate song writing. Kathryn is blessed with the most gorgeous vocal acumen you could wish to hear with Sean fuelling the theory of genetic brilliance.

The evening kicked off with emerging West Midlands singing guitarist Sunjay playing a highly entertaining thirty minute set to not only warm the crowd up, but get the unique honour of a support slot encore. Witnessed as a musician who skilfully practices the art of pickin’ over strummin’, Sunjay switches between folk and blues in his style as well as adding a touch of populist humour to his stage presence. The heavily blues bias towards material from his upcoming new album was left on the shelf for this show as he concentrated on the job of playing the perfect warm up guy. This clever stance possibly eased more fans into the deeper psyche of his recorded output which doesn’t revolve around Herman Hermits’ covers. Matching his natural flair with stage maturity is a reasonable assessment for this in-demand artist equally adept at fulfilling the support or headline role.

As with many fundraising evenings, the main act was punctuated with a strategic break to sell more raffle tickets and shift extra quantities of the adult refreshments brought into this adapted venue. This did not temper the flow of Kathryn and Sean who balanced each half with songs from their latest album TOMORROW WILL FOLLOW TODAY alongside a fair selection of their back catalogue. There was also a finely tuned spread of traditional and self-penned material ranging from the ever popular Child ballad to deeply personal original songs successful in spreading the intensity of their sentiment. ‘A Song to Live By’ is an outstanding example of the latter, one of a series of compelling songs graced by Kathryn's piano presence and further supplemented by the lyrics being available in a greeting card format at the merch table.

As well as the aforementioned song and the Child ballad titled ‘Child Owlet, the highlight from the new album was ’52 Hertz’, a beautifully presented account of a whale in the North Pacific with a far from successful mating call. The stories behind the songs were as much as an enticing and engaging feature of the evening as the music itself and we were delightfully informed that the title track from the new album ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’ is a protest piece inspired by a segment from a Terry Pratchett novel. A further self-penned track acted as the encore number and ‘Wisdom of Standing Still’ proved an ideal closer with its self-reflective theme and perhaps the strongest melody driven track all evening. The art of folklore was rife all show with a gruesome Norwegian piece ‘Huldra’ putting fear into the male species as well as the graphic introduction to the Bury St. Edmonds murder ballad ‘The Red Barn’. ‘Lusty Smith’ was presented as an Appalachian folk song with an imported beginning, while ‘Joe Peel’, a song written by Peter Bond, was the most emotional of the evening with Kathryn responding to an audience request and supremely executing its delivery.

While Kathryn gracefully moves between flute, clarinet and piano in addition to her vocals, Sean steadfastly engineers the guitar input in a less flamboyant style than his younger brother Seth. Kathryn appears to be the source of the original song writing with Sean keenly adding inter-song input to substantiate a generally lower key live presence. However acclaimed duos have an innate chemistry, with Kathryn and Sean adding credence to this notion.

The Sebright Primary School in Cookley has hosted successful shows in the past and this Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman gig is a worthy addition to the list. Enchanting, acutely interesting and magical song is the ideal strapline to add to a show from this duo who will continue to drive the live appeal of traditional and contemporary folk music well into the foreseeable future. Innovative venues will also long remain a substantial base to house live versions of the songs of our land, time, history and people.