Monday, 21 December 2015

The Folk Year 2015

2015 was by far the most active this blog has been in covering the UK folk music scene. While country and Americana will remain the core content, more extensive recognition and appreciation has been given to the wider roots scene, especially closer to home. Of course there are far more exclusive sources of comment and review for this type of music available, but well over twenty album and gig reviews were posted this year. Here is a flavour of the artists, in no particular order, who were featured, supported and ultimately enjoyed over the last twelve months:

Bella Hardy Live in Birmingham                                  





Megan Henwood - Head, Heart, Hand


Seth Lakeman Live in Bilston



Jess Morgan - The Bournemouth EP


Gilmore & Roberts - Conflict Tourism


The Unthanks Live at Moseley Folk



Ange Hardy - Esteesee


Richard Thompson - Still


Olivia Chaney Live at Moseley Folk   

 Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Live at Moseley Folk


O'Hooley & Tidow Live in Broseley


Steve Knightley Live at Shrewsbury Folk


Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman Live in Cookley


Kate Rusby Live at Shrewsbury Folk

Luke Jackson Live in Birmingham     


Saturday, 12 December 2015

10 Songs That Shaped 2015

Top 10 Favourite Festival Sets of 2015

During the summer months of 2015 nine days were spent at festivals ranging from Southern Fried in its entirety to the single evening format of Tingestock. As usual a wave of talented artists from around the world shared their wares usually in the forty-five minute set format. This year a host of acts were witnessed for the first time and left a positive imprint on the memory. Here is a brief rundown of sets which had the most impact with an excerpt from the festival review. The full version is available via the link. 

1  Dawes - Shrewsbury Folk Festival Friday 28 August

'What the main stage had just witnessed was a sublime exhibition of classic American folk rock, bristling with spellbinding musicianship providing a magnificent backdrop for Goldsmith to wrap his unequivocal vocal style around a deluge of top rate songs. The booking may have been a left field choice and a desire to unleash a dose of West Coast folk rock on festival goers, but the sheer class of Dawes paid off the decision tenfold.'

'The term class is just one of a landslide of superlatives to label Rhiannon Giddens who opened the main proceedings with a twin billed show in the hall alongside those icons of modern classical bluegrass, the Chris Thile-led Punch Brothers. Rhiannon elevated her status tenfold with the debut solo album TOMORROW IS MY TURN released earlier this year and this aspect of her career is set to spiral in a vertical direction.'

'While the songs from the new record such as ‘Banks of the Mississippi’, ‘Carousel’, ‘North Dakota Blues’ and ‘Diamonds and Gold’ are sealed in the vaults of excellence, it was listening to older tunes like ‘Memphis Train’, ‘Burgundy Wine’ and ‘Hey Julia’ which took the appreciation of Don to a greater level. This is a guy steeped in the country music song writing and performing tradition of Kristofferson, Nelson and Helm, with the added panache of being able to connect with audiences through an affable charm.'

'C is for Chastity Brown who was the pick of artists lined up to play the Barn on Saturday evening. Chastity came to my attention a couple of years ago with an advance copy of her album and it was an honour to finally get the opportunity to see her live. She encapsulates all that is diverse in Americana music and finely weaves her mixed heritage into a musical style rich in country, blues, soul and folk. The three highlights from her set were ‘Solely’, ‘Colorado’ (which gave her most exposure in the UK via a TV airing on Jools Holland) and an exquisite cover of Van Morrison’s ‘The Sweetest Thing’. In these quarters Chastity transferred all the strength from her record to the stage leaving a legacy of a desire to catch one of her full live shows the next time she visits the UK.'

'From the streets of Nashville to superstardom in Sweden has been a barnstorming journey for sixty two year old Doug whose talent has finally been recognised to the extent that he has just been bestowed an Emerging Artist nomination at the upcoming AMA awards. Doug’s outstanding new album GOING DOWN TO THE RIVER with its stellar title track formed the centrepiece of his set which was supported by a three piece backing band led by the magical fiddle playing of Barbara Lamb. If anything Doug’s model country voice was even more fetching when bridged by just a microphone and there was a common consent that a top notch country performer was in our midst.'

'The Unthanks are one of the most highly acclaimed performers on the folk scene and their spectacularly moving ten piece show made the Sunday headline tea time slot a sheer joy to be in listening range. To be more precise, this set was viewed close at hand and there was probably no more stunning moment on the festival fields this summer than listening to Rachel and Becky melt the heart of folks with their version of ‘Magpie’. Everything about the show from the sisters’ clog dancing, the beautiful orchestral arrangements, the celebrated trumpet solos and the sumptuous harmonies was blissful and praise for The Unthanks couldn’t be any higher from these quarters.'

'Dean is firmly planted north of the border and used this homeland gig to re-assemble his Whisky Hearts backing band to add extra zest to his growing back catalogue in a live setting. This was the first opportunity to spend more than a fleeting acquaintance with the music of Dean Owens and the resultant purchase of his new record INTO THE SEA cemented a growing appreciation for how he perfectly blends the Americana spirit into songs inspired by feelings, events and observations closer to home.'

'While on the topic of beautiful voices, perhaps the stand out moment of the festival from this standpoint was the delightful set from Olivia Chaney on the main stage on Saturday afternoon. This is one remarkably talented lady who not only possesses a heavenly voice, but turns her hand majestically to piano, assorted guitars and harmonium. Attention was drawn to Olivia earlier this summer and discovering her debut album THE LONGEST RIVER. The promise from this finding has been fulfilled after seeing her play live and as a performer who just views herself as a genre free artist playing, singing and writing songs she takes a liking to, the future is set to be very prosperous for Olivia Chaney.'

'The deplorable situation of not seeing award winning folk duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker play live was corrected on Sunday afternoon when a dose of splendid melancholy was served in all its dark splendour. Mixing Gillian Welch and Sandy Denny covers with their own take on the sad song genre, described by Josienne as the ‘psycho ballad’, made for an obsessional enticing half hour. Ben’s exceptional acoustic guitar playing echoed the sounds from Josienne’s beautiful vocals and together we were invited to wallow in our misery. There was no hesitancy in adding this golden moment to the top ten and an essential fix for any folk festival.'

'Like so many folk artists, Steve had been active in communicating songs to commemorate the centenary of The Great War and ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ was shared with the good folks of Shrewsbury this evening. ‘(Let Me Go) Sweet Bella’, ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ and ‘Cousin Jack’ were among the most rapturous songs lapped up by the crowd with the latter acting as a self-engineered encore performance. Well Steve was compering so it was his rules. The choice of Steve Knightley to kick the festival off was a no brainer by the organisers and the mood in the main marquee was bubbling as we settled down for the second top class act to appear.'

Of course there were many other fine performances at Maverick, Tingestock, Southern Fried, Shrewsbury Folk and Moseley Folk Festivals. These, and plenty of other outside gatherings, remain the core of the summer gig season and it is certain that any festival attended in 2016 will throw up further memorable performances. 

Top 20 Favourite Gigs of 2015

If 'music is the voice of the soul', then surely 'live performance is the soul of music'. This blog was launched five years ago to house gig reviews and these continue to be the staple of its content. In 2015 ninety gigs were attended, if you count each festival day, and most ended up with a review. However at this time of the year, it is tradition to pay tribute to those folks I come across on the circuit who far exceed this hefty number. As in previous years, and with full vanity intentions, the Top 20 from a pure enjoyment perspective have been chronicled, listed, ranked and posted. Festival sets have been deliberately omitted and grouped elsewhere, leaving a bunch of gigs long to linger in the memory. Enjoy the accompanying review extract and feel free to click on the full piece.

1  The Mavericks - Birmingham Symphony Hall Sunday 1 March

'During the Mavericks hiatus, Raul Malo had developed his own solo career with numerous Birmingham appearances but he limited himself to just a singular moment in the spotlight this evening with a crooning version of ‘Mona Lisa’. As much of a star as Raul is, this show was all about the unity of one great band and how they demonstrated the ultimate value in the combined efforts of a well-oiled slick high class machine. On the first day of March, the renewal of The Mavericks as a significant force in the world of American roots music set down a marker for all 2015 gigs to follow.'

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

3  Jason and the Scorchers - The Musician, Leicester Friday 24 July

'Whether you consider them the blueprint for a maturing punk band or require a template to inject driving rock into an aspiring country band, Jason and the Scorchers is still a vivid reminder of how two worlds can collide for a dramatic effect. Sizzling electricity, flowing humility and fervent appreciation were just three features to describe their latest visit to the Musician in Leicester, which proudly displayed the ‘sold out’ board in the run up to this fabulous Friday night gig. Without the need for a support act on this occasion, Jason and his latest band of Scorchers flushed out thirty five years of material over the course of two and a half hours full of energy and devoid of any of the hindrances of time.'

4  Cale Tyson - The Musician, Leicester Thursday 7 May

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

5  Danny and the Champions of the World - The Bullingdon, Oxford Saturday 13 June

'On the other hand, Danny and the Champions of the World have been seen many times before, but not perhaps quite in this most passionate of settings as experienced in a packed out Bullingdon. Take note Birmingham, it is possible with a little effort to fill a moderate venue to the rafters when you publicise that the ‘best live band around' are in town. Empty Rooms Promotions deserve continued credit for supporting exceptional live music in their area. As the year approaches its midway point, this show was comfortably in the upper echelons of the 2015 gig cycle..'

6  Alabama Shakes - O2 Academy, Birmingham Wednesday 13 May

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

7  First Aid Kit - Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday 16 January

'In the week of their Brit award nomination, the supremely sublime Soderberg sisters showed that the mainstream might just be heading in the right taste direction. In the intervening couple of years since First Aid Kit last played a more intimate Birmingham venue, their international bandwagon has gathered pace cutting across both genre preservationists and more casual observers, residing for one evening only at a sell-out Symphony Hall. With a sound effortlessly floating between the alt wings of folk and country, while being briefly injected with a spiced up dose of pop and rock, the stage show of Johanna and Klara is awash with heavenly harmonies, memorable melodies and a reminder of the compulsive purity of roots music.'

8  The Dreaming Spires - St. Georges Hall, Bewdley Friday 30 October

'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.'

9  Della Mae - The Musician, Leicester Tuesday 21 July 

'The badge of Grammy nominated band is a proud one to possess and Della Mae wear theirs with great pride as they pursue the path of wider recognition. However this path is made a lot smoother when you’re one of the hottest bluegrass bands around, although Della Mae add loads more to the tag of that particular music style with a full on live show exploring many facets of the roots spectrum. Quite simply they have to be one of the strongest acts to make their UK debut this year and without a shadow of doubt...'

10 Kacey Musgraves - Royal Albert Hall, London Wednesday 18 November 

'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.'

11 The Stray Birds - Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford Friday 21 August

'When The Stray Birds are in town, old time is cool. On the back of widespread acclaim for their performances at Cambridge Folk Festival and assorted dates, the roots trio originally from Lancaster Pennsylvania rolled into Stafford to once again demonstrate a timeless breathtaking spin on the beautiful fusion of harmony, virtuoso musicianship and an innate ability to capture the spirit of a bygone age. With precision skill, the band’s performance ascended to impressive heights, maturing with each song that continually portrayed the trio in a different configuration.'

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

13 Gretchen Peters - The Assembly, Leamington Spa Saturday 27June

'There is certainly nothing like an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival to give Gretchen Peters an extra kick in her step. Two years ago she was still on a high after playing the prestigious event when rounding off her UK tour in Bromsgrove a day later. In 2015 it was another Midlands venue that hosted Gretchen, albeit this time on the eve of her festival appearance. The Assembly at Leamington Spa, with its excellent sonic environment, has been acknowledged by Gretchen as a particular favourite on the UK circuit to the extent that it was the scene of the infamous back stage Couch by Couch West video on their last visit. With the anticipation of the following day’s gig spurring the band and her on, Gretchen didn’t disappoint with an exemplary performance driven mainly by songs from her last two albums.'

14 Ryan Bingham - Gorilla, Manchester Friday 23 October 

'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.'

15 Frazey Ford - The Glee Club, Birmingham Sunday 11 October

'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.'

16 Laura Marling - The Institute, Birmingham Monday 27 April

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

17 Sons of Bill - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 17 February 2015

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

18 Tom Russell - The Glee Club, Nottingham Wednesday 7 October

'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'.'

19 Jonathan Byrd + Natalie Gelman - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 22n June

'They may reside a continent apart but Jonathan Byrd and Natalie Gelman are bound by the passion and love of song. In a venue built for the power of the beautifully sung word, both artists exhibited their inimitable styles to present an evening saturated in verse suitably fired up from the inspiration of urban and rural surroundings. This was an explicit outpouring of American folk music, engineered by the guitar and driven by the soul. The contrasting façade of each performer masked an inner desire to communicate, enthral and entertain via their gifted medium of music.'

20 Wild Ponies - Holy Cross Parish Hall, Lichfield Saturday 14 November

'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..'   '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.'

Finally thanks to everybody who has read and shared the blog content this year. Happy holiday season to all and look out for more gig adventures to be posted in 2016.