Thursday, 30 July 2015

Otis Gibbs - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 29th July 2015

With the number of times seeing Otis Gibbs live now approaching double figures, it is a fair statement to make that you know what you’re going to get. It can also be construed that it is a style met with approval and one which reaches to the core of the artist-audience connection process. On his website Otis makes a vivid point about music solely revolving around the creative output and the experiencing input with everything else being an artificial filter. Observing Otis live many times, intently listening to his soundbites and generally following his career, you get a deep understanding of his stance and sense of personal outlook towards an art form that has taken him from planting 7176 trees to being fortunate to consistently travel overseas to share his music.

Those who have also seen Otis live several times, and he certainly presents opportunities to do so on his extensive tours, will take more than a passing interest in the evolution of his storytelling as this Birmingham show revealed the steepest incline to date in what has been a fairly gradual line of development in this aspect of his show. Song wise, Otis still has faith in the two early albums which were his main port of call in the initial days of his European adventures. ‘Caroline’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Special’, ‘Small Town Saturday Night’ and ‘Karluv Most’ all took pride of place in this evening’s show with the latter still inducing deep emotion from its unplugged encore performance. Each time listening to it live sparks memories of accessing it on the IPod under Charles Bridge in Prague, a golden moment in itself to treasure.

Throughout his five albums that have surfaced during the traveling phase of his career, there have been countless songs to etch onto your brain leaving the stamp of an astute writer. From the latest album SOUVENIRS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH, ‘Ghosts of Our Fathers’ and ‘The Darker Side of Me’ are both rapidly developing into established and favourite live numbers when you consider their inspiration and impact. ‘Something More’ took on a different poignant angle this evening as Otis altered the tribute subject as influenced by recent events, while ‘Kansas City’ will always paint the ultimate picture of the struggling troubadour with the fetching line ‘seven hours in a car, forty five minutes singing in a bar’. Those new to Otis instantly take a liking to ‘Detroit Steel’ probably due to its change of pace, but these quarters miss the now regular omission of his previous Motor City masterpiece ‘Get Me Out of Detroit’.

Going back to that original online quip, you get a sense that praise is a difficult concept to experience for Otis and his vision is further cemented by an increasing desire to promote the notion of the ‘here and now’ with regards to the live consumption of his music. He also comes across as one of life’s great students and uses the constant learning experience to enrich both his craft and awareness. This possibly adds to the uniqueness of his live presence and why he leaves a memorable experience in his wake.

So while you can debate the ‘artificial filter’concept to infinite inconclusiveness, acknowledging the artist-audience interaction is a lot easier to grasp and re-affirm. Otis Gibbs knows his niche and it is a testimony to his approach that the appeal of unrelenting familiarity never loses its shine. The art world in which he inhabits is a richer place for his company and the biggest compliment to pay is the continual active interest in Otis Gibbs as a recording and performing artist. 

www.otisgibbs.com

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Hannah Miller - Hannah Miller : Hannah Miller Music

Take the famous quote ‘You don’t find love, it finds you’, alter the object to good music and the new album from Hannah Miller will cross your path. This release popped up from left field to my attention, displays all the credentials of that side of the music fence and will totally transfix those who fall victim to its predatory instinct. Losing yourself in the hypnotic indulgence of the record for forty minutes is no bad place to disappear for a few moments and we can all do with a little ‘me time' in this hectic world.

This album rarely changes gear, but enticingly finds that perfect groove to idle away those lazy summer evenings or seek warmer solace in colder times. Wrapped up in a raw package, the haunting vocals of Hannah match the astutely balanced musical background with a stunning equalising effect. It was of little surprise to learn that her life has revolved around the southern states of Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee as that gothic tendency that you associate with some aspects of the area’s musical heritage runs deep through the record.

The pivotal track on the album is ‘Promise Land’ and two versions of the song appear amongst the eleven offerings as a result of the piece being used in a documentary on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The alternative version to that which went viral on You Tube features Jason Eskridge on background vocals and possesses a stunning mix of spine tingling electric guitar and organ. While being a focal point and an introductory lead into the music of Hannah, any suggestions of a stand-out number should be shelved as this is a record epitomised by the entity concept.

Devouring the lyrics and surmising their meanings is one of the joys of listening to this record which joins several other releases in Hannah’s back catalogue. The album was recorded in her now hometown of Nashville and the Music City analogy is stretched to include the sound of Hannah which is at the crossroads point where folk meets Americana and indie. Hannah has worked closely with Mitch Dane on the making of this record with the pair undertaking co-writing duties on three tracks leaving the rest the sole domain of Hannah’s imagination. Lyrically the album peaks on the song ‘Leaving’ with the line ‘momma keeps a hand gun in her dresser drawer. Last night I took it out and I knelt down on her bedroom floor’ which closes a dark view of family disharmony.

The record opens with the mystique sounding track ‘Help Me Out’ which eases into the second song ‘Fighting’ with its hidden soul. ‘You Don’t Call’ tackles the eternal subject of loss and regret, while ‘Soothed’ if anything takes the delightfully sombre mood even deeper. On a record far from devoid of clever and absorbing hooks, the organ laced ‘Been Around’ offers the best example of chorus delight and is closely followed by the enticing tones of ‘Outside In’. ‘Watchman’ encourages your imagination to wander much in the same vein as the final track ‘You Will Stay With Me’ which just leaves the Chernobyl version of ‘Promise Land’ to close this thoroughly enchanting album.

There is always something special about self-titled records suggesting an artist in a state of introspective reflection and Hannah Miller’s effort emerges as splendidly dark, absolutely alluring and stunningly simple. Its lyrical sparseness, raw undertones and sultry gleam make it a record of genuine appeal and one that fate may have played a hand in delivering it to me. 

www.hannahmillermusic.com

Angaleena Presley - Night and Day Cafe, Manchester. Monday 27th July 2015

Some artists play country music by numbers and follow the text book without exposing any soul. Others play it instinctively and it’s solidly embedded in their DNA. Angaleena Presley is definitely in the latter camp and exudes every ounce of her Kentucky coal mining upbringing in her craft. In a career which has had a steep upwards trajectory in recent times, Angaleena has finally taken the bold step to meet her growing overseas fan base on their own turf, or to be more accurate undertake a short UK tour. The Night and Day Café, in Manchester’s cultural Northern Quarter, hosted the second date on this visit and a well populated gathering in this slightly elongated-designed venue saw close at hand a finely tuned songwriter sharing her wares in a relaxed intimate setting.

For many years Angaleena pitched her songs like many Nashville based aspiring songwriter before experiencing a career launching break as part of the popular country female collaborative project the Pistol Annies. Eventually the long awaited debut Angaleena Presley solo record finally surfaced in 2014 to widespread acclaim and AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS was rich in a substance of what every great country record needs. This tour was enabled on the back of the success of that album which benefited hugely from its independent origins and distribution through the Thirty Tigers network. Not surprisingly, a fair proportion of this record filtered through to the set list as Angaleena grasped the opportunity to bring many of the songs to context and given a sense of reality.

Although Angaleena had arranged a band backing for her higher profile gigs in London and at the Cambridge Folk Festival, this date took the setting of a seated solo performer with the intent to create some of the intimacy of the famed singer-songwriter circles in Nashville. Along with songs from the new album, a couple of Pistol Annies’ numbers were covered in ‘The Hunter’s Wife’ and ‘Lemon Drop’, as well as a Miranda Lambert recorded song which she co-wrote with her dear friend, ‘Fastest Girl in Town’.

With perhaps an eye to the future, there were several songs featured that are devoid of a recorded status at the moment and Angaleena indicated that she would be trying out some new material during the evening. Further information was a little scarce on these, but their initial entertainment value was high and in the true mould of Angaleena’s song writing style. This facet of her trade was in abundance in the songs selected from the album with the intrinsic link between ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Drunk’ referenced to her ex-husband. A personal favourite from the album ‘Dry County Blues’ possessed all the grit and dark undercurrent in its live performance as has been devoured on many listens. ‘Better Off Red’ saw Angaleena a little misty eyed, while ‘Pain Pills’ extracted a deeper sense of emotion and was a major highlight of her eighty minute stage time.

First and foremost, Angaleena is a songwriter and occasional lapses in lyrical and chord rendition were forgiven by a smitten audience. When in full vocal stride, she packed a powerful punch to add extra impact to the substantial songs and perhaps needs a few more UK shows to settle into the groove of delivering an all-round polished and informative performance. Her affable and soulful traits are exceptional as well as an innate ability to reach across the spectrum of American roots music, connecting with those ingrained in mainstream country music and others from a left field Americana stance.

British duo Luke and Mel opened this show for Angaleena and delivered a thirty minute set of covers and originals which were in a similar vein to the new breed of home grown performers inspired by the modern output from Music City. This style is proving popular in certain quarters and there was plenty of love showed to the duo from many in attendance.

However this lengthy midweek journey on a wet and miserable British summer’s day was primarily to see the songs from one of last year’s stand out album releases brought to life and Angaleena duly delivered this as only one could from the memorable hometown of Beauty, Kentucky. Whether in the unlikely circumstance of a major label calling or the more likely scenario of tapping into the bottomless pit of her free and independent spirit, Angaleena Presley has an enormous future in the industry and can evolve as an established performer this side of the pond if she continues to keep us on her horizon. 


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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Vera Van Heeringen - Proper Brew : Wood and Steel Records

It is now pushing three years since Vera Van Heeringen launched her solo recording career with 2012’s STANDING TALL and finally the follow up is here in all its finesse and glory. The highly accurate title PROPER BREW bestows a record rich in the core ingredients of fine music, blended to perfection with the addition of an established list of players and a broad offering of instrumentation. Guided by Vera’s strong writing and deep rooted beautiful vocals, the record calls at all ports of country, folk, Americana and roots to offer a taste of everything to distinguished followers of cool music.

As suggested by the surname, Vera has her roots in the lowlands of continental Europe, but is now firmly established in the hills of North Wales. Various Transatlantic excursions have led to acquaintances with performers such as Dirk Powell and Tim O’Brien with both featuring on some part of the album. From the folk world this side of the pond, Kris Drever, Sam Sweeney and Neil McSweeney all lend a hand, with the latter of this trio joining Vera for the record’s only co-write ‘Wisdom’. Vera in turn takes solo credit for the other ten compositions including the guitar instrumental title track ‘Proper Brew’ delivered in collaboration with Drever.

The album kicks off with a storming opening track ‘Believer’ which gently rolls along in an optimistic mood adding plenty of fiddle and mandolin to a cracking melody holding together a lovely chorus. This sets the scene for a riveting forty-two minute listen concluded by the reflective number ‘It’s All Been Said’ generating an abiding thought that standards haven’t slipped throughout the record. Musically, the record hits a possible peak if you like your style countrified in ‘Riverside House’ where lashings of fiddle and steel swathe over a foot stomping number garnished with a sweet chorus.

The writing hits similar heights on a couple of numbers to reveal Vera’s skills in this creative field. The poignant message of the sadness behind forced emigration in the 1960’s is threaded throughout ‘Milk and Honey’ which is thought to be reference to the ‘trafficking’ between the UK and Australia at the time. The subtle music accompaniment to this song allows the lyrics to flourish including the album’s stand out line – ‘good white stock is worth the money’. Likewise ‘Mad Jack’ also reveals a depth to Vera’s writing and questions the concept of freedom from a veteran who gave so much to acquire it.

If you are looking for the general mood of this record then look no further than ‘Cold Winter Evening’ where the warmth fits neatly with the tender tones suggesting listening to the album may blossom further in the colder months. A touch of piano and harmony from Kris Drever adds to the appeal of this song. Such is the variety of inclusions and qualities, maybe it takes until the tenth track ‘My Sweet Man’ to fully appreciate the richness of Vera’s vocal contribution, but looking back it’s prevalent throughout.

Elements of this album infer to a stripped back tendency including the cover shot and pure raw sentiment is to be found in ‘Wildest Truth’, the penultimate track to be commented upon in this review. Bringing up the rear is the album’s second track ‘Never Enough Time’ which once again presents Vera’s writing in a positive light as she ponders the brevity of it all with a selection of contrasting thoughts.

PROPER BREW is a proud body of work for Vera Van Heeringen to present to the music world and is worthy of your consideration. As per usual, expect some live support for the record as it is pretty sure that the songs from the album will transmit well to a listening venue. While you wait for the live opportunity, checking out this record should be a high priority. 

www.veravanheeringen.com

Jason and the Scorchers - The Musician, Leicester. Friday 24th July 2015

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.

The cemented love between spectacular lead guitarist Warner E. Hodges and humble frontman Jason Ringenberg was in unrelenting mode as their chemistry is core to the Scorchers buzz and has been for many years. Warner effortlessly moves between country and rock licks with stunning effect, while Jason meets many an insightful musing with oozes of charisma as inspired by the architects of the post punk new wave era. It was around this time (early eighties), that the fresh faced Jason bounded into Nashville, Tennessee determined to break the mould with a new sound. Whether he succeeded is immaterial to the legions of Scorchers followers over the years, but EMI certainly took an interest for a couple of the band’s most productive years and many stories about this era surfaced during the evening.

Jason also remembered the late Scorchers drummer Perry Baggs who passed away in 2012. It is to the credit of new recruit, Swede Pontus Snibb that he is also highly rated by the appreciative Jason and adds the diversity of occasionally stepping forward to swap drum kit for guitar and lead vocals. For this short tour, regular bassist Al Collins was occupied elsewhere for shows with his wife Stacie and another Swede, Micke Nilsson stepped up to valiantly fill the second rhythm slot. As a combo they nailed song after song, mainly up tempo (as you would expect from a band with their roots), but equally lower key when Jason deals with classic country on its terms. However his thumping trademark cover of ‘Lost Highway’ showed how he set the agenda in the eighties for a pioneering sound that, while aligned with alt-country rock, had that unique new wave feel.

One of the aspects that thrills Jason when he tours the UK is the immensely positive reception of his 2010 album HALCYON TIMES. He rattled through half of this release during the show including tracks such as ‘Mona Lee’, ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ and ‘Better Than This’. Jason said he was taking a request from himself for the encore and suitably delivered a fine rendition of ‘Twang Town Blues’ before the usual raucous finale. While this show was primarily about the energy of the Scorchers sound, a song that really stood out from the 1983 album FERVOR was ‘Pray for Me Mama (I’m a Gypsy Now)’, which saw Jason at his country best.

Of course it was the old favourites which oiled some action into the joints of the Scorchers faithful led by the Dylan fast paced re-work ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, the homage to Parsons and McGuinn ‘Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man’, the exhilarating ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and the closing rebel rouser ‘White Lies’. As at virtually every Scorchers concert, the audience lent a hand to ‘Broken Whiskey Glass’, the band’s signature tune which explodes mid-song into the most awesome change of pace. While it personally was a little sad that ‘Shop it Around’ wasn’t included, the story and playing of ‘Bible and a Gun’ with its Steve Earle origins made for a lauded replacement, explicitly perfecting one view of the South as perceived by many afar.

It has been nearly three years since Jason and the Scorchers last visited The Musician and the anticipated wait added an extra edge to the show. Local promoters Cheeseweasel deserve praise for continually bringing the band back to the wider Midlands area and it is fingers crossed for a repeat in the not too distant future. The final food for thought is perhaps the love shown towards HALCYON TIMES could add a spark to some new material and Jason Ringenberg is far too young and talented to slip comfortably into a retro mode, as much as folks love the old material.

It was the range of songs, explosive style and instant connection that made tonight special. Definitely a gig of the year candidate and one that will have many fans buzzing for a lengthy period after the show. Jason and the Scorchers is quite simply an amazing live band sounding still fresh and vibrant after all these years. 

www.jasonandthescorchers.com

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Della Mae - The Musician, Leicester. Tuesday 21st July 2015

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, music followers will instantly fall in love with their infectious and outstanding live show which made a fleeting but memorable visit to The Musician in Leicester.

Celia
Now the owner of three impressive albums following the recent release of their self-titled latest effort, this five piece combo may spread themselves across the States in location, but when in unison they effortlessly twist the natural talent from the ingredient pool into a spectacular concoction of roots music. Vivaciously led by front person and main vocalist Celia Woodsmith, a high degree of fraternity explodes from the stage with fiddle, guitars, banjo, mandolin and bass, playing their part to illuminate a growing roster of exquisite songs. Forever in harmony, Celia though occasionally steps back to allow Jenni Lyn Gardner (mandolin, vocals) and Courtney Hartman (guitar, banjo. Vocals) take lead, while the prodigious and acclaimed fiddle talent of band instigator Kimber Ludiker injects finesse and class into every part, whether solo or accompanied. Not forgetting the steadying and critical input from the newest band member Zoe Guigueno on stand-up bass and the complete package is assembled to wow a spoiled audience.

Courtney
Jenni
Not surprisingly for this first Della Mae UK tour, the band announced that they would be focussing on the new album, but as the ninety minute set evolved there was plenty of the Grammy nominated 2013 record THIS WORLD OFT CAN BE showcased as well and brisk sales of both CDs during the gig highlighted their dual appeal. Although new to the UK, Della Mae are a well-travelled band as per their role as US music ambassadors which has included visiting fifteen countries last year as part of the State Department’s mission to spread the cultural word. The song ‘Long Shadow’, performed and co-written by Courtney, had its origins in Pakistan and was one of the tracks featured from the new album. Other occasions where Celia took a back seat included the singing of ‘Pine Tree’ by Jenni, who provides the southern influence through her South Carolina background, and a couple of fiddle tunes spearheaded by Kimber, namely ‘Nail That Catfish to a Tree’ and ‘Cartier’.

Kimber
While being excellent writers, the band are not averse to featuring the works of others and have included a cover of ‘No Expectations’ by the Rolling Stones on the new album. This track closed the main set before the band returned for an enjoyable bluegrass take on the Everly Brothers standard ‘Wake up Little Susie’. One of many highlights from this superb night of entertainment was Celia pouring her heart and soul into a version of ‘Woman Be Wise’ and adding lineage to a song previously graced by Bonnie Rait and Sippie Wallace. Of the band’s own compositions, ‘Boston Town’, the location of Della Mae’s inception, and the gospel influenced ‘High Away Gone’, complete with blistering harmonies, provided a lasting legacy from seeing the band for the first and certainly not for the last time. Right from the off with the gripping tune ‘Empire’, Della Mae set their stall out to be a band a cut above the rest.

Not content on booking one passion-filled roots band, the organisers asked rising UK rebel rousers CC Smugglers to open the show and their high energetic and instant impact take on acoustic music brought a busy venue literally to its feet. Led by lively lead singer Richie Prynne, it wasn’t too difficult to see why they are a highly sought after festival band and portray a hard working attitude to extract every ounce of old time musical spirit from their youngish souls. While their music is probably in developmental stage, the live show is profoundly tuned and work should not be in short supply for a focussed and studious band, explicitly blazing that good time trail.

Likewise, it would be an amazing and an unjust situation, if Della Mae did not leave a startling impression on this initial trip to our shores. The very notion that artists like these can leave the comforts of homeland adulation to test the overseas market is a testimony to their drive and ambition. Della Mae possesses plenty of this and it was an absolute privilege to witness their mastery close at hand. 

www.dellamae.com

Monday, 20 July 2015

Sarah Gayle Meech - The Musician, Leicester. Sunday 19th July 2015

It was the night Robert’s Western World from Lower Broadway Nashville descended onto a small music venue in the back streets of Leicester city centre. This may be stretching the imagination a little in terms of literal translation, but the spirit of the honky tonk was alive and kicking in the stage act of Sarah Gayle Meech at The Musician. Fresh from her residency at one of Music City’s premier night time tourist attractions, and on the back of cutting her second record, Sarah Gayle has jumped at the opportunity to export her bold and brash style of country music overseas. The British part of this European adventure mainly sees her talents captured by the nation’s northern club scene; although there was added excitement as she ventured south to illuminate one of the Midlands established listening venues for touring Americana and country acts.

To phrase a couple of words from the modernist vocabulary, Sarah Gayle was ‘stoked’ and ‘hyped’ to be playing a stage previously graced by Dale Watson and Eileen Rose as well as treading the boards a little more than a week before Jason and the Scorchers hit town. By now you should be getting the image that Sarah Gayle has her feet firmly planted in the field of country music that is not the flavour of the day for mainstream genre movers and shakers. To this extent, she is emerging as a key player in the Ameripolitan movement and is the latest recipient of the Female Outlaw of the Year Award from that organisation.

For nearly two hours on this July evening, a highly respectable Sunday night crowd was wooed by a performer brimming with confidence, high on impact and a staunch traditionalist with an incumbent heart-on-sleeve attitude. Enthusiastically supported by a small section of the gathering determined to embrace the sentiment of the show, Sarah Gayle gave a glimpse of what encompasses a Nashville residency with a pair of sets packed full of classic covers and a raft of originals with more than a hint of influence from the golden age of country music.

Although Sarah Gayle embarked on this adventure as a solo performer, she has hooked up with a British band which had little trouble easing her through the country songbook with their smart playing led by fine lead guitar and excellent pedal steel. Sarah Gayle exuded an incredibly strong persona to put every inch of personal sinew into her stage performance which is what is probably needed to hold your own in many establishments back home. The result was a unique show for this country and one filled with immense pleasure from the opening strains of ‘Heartaches by the Number’ to a closing rendition of the George Jones favourite ‘White Lightning’.

There is a fine line in credibility circles between the subtle and overindulgent use of cover versions. Sarah Gayle skirted this line with a string of very familiar old favourites from artists such as Merle Haggard, Loretta Lyn, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, but kept to the right side in attempting to re-create the authenticity of a demanding residency right in the heart of the country music capital. However Sarah Gayle is far more than an interpreter of music, as has been evidenced in her two outstanding original albums to date. TENNESSEE LOVE SONG is the latest release and a prime reason for undertaking this tour as a promotional tool, although the songs from her debut record ONE GOOD THING had the more lasting appeal upon reflection after the show.

This 2011 release is the earthier of the two records and from its grooves, ‘Little White Boots’, ‘All I Want is a Honky Tonk’ and ‘Honey Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is’ were amongst the highlights of the show. It seemed that the tracks from this record were more prevalent in the set list with ‘Tennessee Love Song’ and ‘Watermelon and Root Beer’ leading the way from the new album. Sarah Gayle selected a couple of older original numbers to play during the mid-set segue where she played a string of acoustic numbers while the band had a breather. ‘Foolish’ and ‘Unlucky in Love’ from the older record were incorporated into this segment.

Originating from the Pacific North West region, an area not normally know for country music but still the original home of a couple of today’s outstanding performers in Brandy Clark and Zoe Muth, Sarah Gayle cut her musical cloth in the Californian scene prior to locating to Tennessee. This West Coast influence extended into celebrating the work of two iconic performers who made their name in that area, namely Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. Whether belting out old favourites or promoting her own work, Sarah Gayle bestowed an air of consistency to the proceedings and this fuelled an incredibly enjoyable gig which began with the chosen support for the evening.

Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade are an English duo from Milton Keynes who straddles their act at the point where country music merges more into a folk Americana sound. Their thirty minute slot was packed with impressively constructed songs, strong on melody and delivered from a pair of finely tuned vocalists. They varied the delivery between occasional individual solo efforts and the more widely used harmony mode. Josh’s acoustic guitar was the main musical accompaniment with Carly’s couple of banjo pieces adding a traditional element to their sound. The superb ‘Who’s Gonna Hold Your Hand’ and the gospel piece ‘Angels in Heaven’ were among the set’s highlights and are featured on the duo’s single release. They are certainly an act worth checking out on the circuit.

It was a delight to host Sarah Gayle Meech at a Midlands venue and she confirmed previous listening promise as an artist who can make an enormous impression with their live presence. She proved to be the real deal and extremely accomplished in the style of country music close to her heart and core to her mission. If this journey continues to have the UK on its horizon then many folks over here are going to be happy people and Sarah Gayle Meech can continue to carve out an increasing level of recognition. 

www.sarahgaylemeech.com

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Mary Chapin Carpenter + Bella Hardy - Birmingham Town Hall. Wednesday 15th July 2015

You should never underestimate the enduring appeal of Mary Chapin Carpenter and the loyalty of her UK fan base. There may not have been a new record to promote, but a near-packed out Birmingham Town Hall showed oodles of love to the widely acclaimed singer-songwriter as she returned to the city after a couple of years break. Admittedly the lack of new material did not duly concern a majority of the audience as they enthusiastically applauded the intro to many of Mary’s old favourites.

In fairness, Mary has kept in touch with the city since her last headline appearance at the same venue. This included slots at the neighbouring Symphony Hall with the Transatlantic Sessions and a joint intimate show with Shawn Colvin. However this time, the sole spotlight was on a thirty year recording career, of which a serious chunk took place on the mainstream stage. Whatever Mary has done in her career, acclaim has followed and the most recent bout was her Songs from the Movie project which hit UK halls and theatres last year with the backing of a major orchestral accompaniment. Alas Birmingham was omitted from that run of shows, but Mary more than made up with a string of popular numbers that filled her 90 minute plus set.

This short tour was a billed as a trio show with Mary being supported by long-time colleague Jon Carroll on piano and new recruit Jonathan Trebing on assorted guitars. The quality of the musicianship on stage was highly distinguished with the only possible improvement being the addition of a rhythm section to tap into the venue’s sonic majesty. Opening with ‘The Age of Miracles’, Mary soon tossed in the popular material from what she referred to as the ‘dark ages’, as she reeled off ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’, ‘This Shirt’ and ‘Passionate Kisses’.

The latter of this trio was unique in the fact it was not one of Mary’s own compositions, indeed it came from another American songwriter of her generation in Lucinda Williams. This led onto Mary’s most compelling story of the evening about the time she toured Australia with Lucinda and Rosanne Cash for a series of song writing circle shows. The very thought of those three getting together again would be enough to excite many a seasoned Americana music follower. This evening’s version of ‘Passionate Kisses’ was reduced to almost half the speed of the original and this worked well in the stripped back environment of the mini band.

In her own trademark softly spoken and cosmopolitan vocal style, Mary excelled on tender numbers like ‘Transcendental Reunion’ and ‘What If We Went to Italy’, while continuing to please many with more up tempo versions of ‘I Feel Lucky’, ‘I Take My Chances’ and ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’. This last number was part of a two song encore where Mary invited opening artist Bella Hardy to join her on vocals. The enlisting of Bella to support Mary on this tour was a master stroke on behalf of the promotion as we got to enjoy one of the leading progressive female voices on the UK folk circuit, on the same bill as a likeminded American legend.

In contrast to Mary, Bella is in the throes of promoting a new album and WITH THE DAWN is the title of this excellent record. Flanked by guitarist Anna Massie, Bella used the bulk of her forty minute set to share tunes from this release including ‘Time Wanders On’, ‘The Darkening of the Day’ and ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’. Bella wisely used this larger than usual platform to mainly showcase the songs leaving less than normal time for her engaging stories and relevant musings. However we did learn about the background to the song ‘Hatfield’, but sadly ‘Herring Girl’ didn’t have its usual delightful introduction. No doubt when Bella returns to the area in October for her Bromsgrove date, the full flow of the prose will be in force.

Without the full band to send everybody home dancing to her classic good time Cajun hit ‘Down at the Twist and Shout’, Mary chose to end the show singing solo with her trusty acoustic guitar and politely asked the audience whether she could share a new tune with them. In true Mary Chapin Carpenter tradition, the song recalled to be titled ‘Things That We Are Made Of’ was shaped by the usual finesse that we are used to and heralded the start of the next phase of her career with the recording of a new album.

With such a positive reaction from the crowd in terms of both numbers turning up and standing ovations, there is little doubt that Mary will return to the city to promote the album in the not too distant future. Hopefully, a full band will be brought next time, so that we can enjoy the complete Mary Chapin Carpenter experience and once again appreciate an icon of the cultured American singer-song writing movement.  




www.bellahardy.com

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Megan Henwood - Head, Heart, Hand : Dharma Records

Spiralling out of left field with startling effect is the new record from English singer-songwriter Megan Henwood. HEAD, HEART, HAND is the title of this second album from Megan, who is now beginning to fulfil the promise of the 2009 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award which was bestowed upon her and brother, Joe. It is also an appropriate strapline for a performer of Megan’s nature and reveals an artist prepared to stretch out from convention in striking a serious chord for originality. An album of many redeeming features, its strongest selling point is an impulsive knack of grabbing your attention, certainly not a bad trait to incorporate into an album.

Musically, this record is vibrant and keeps you on your toes for its entire duration, whether through mid-song tempo switches or superior moments of orchestral splendour.  It is also underpinned by Megan’s quintessentially English vocals which float between a whispering softness to a more profound starkness. Thematically, it ranges from the abstract to the observational often calling at many personal points in between. The latter is best identified in the closing track ‘Painkiller’ with its personal inspiration and the lingering words of the album title reverberating within the lyrical content.

Photo by Elly Lucas
Love/Loathe’ is the ideal lead off track to both open and currently promote the album. Like so many tracks that follow, it contains a wonderful tempo change with a memorable mid-song segment echoing the line ‘my heart is a pendulum’ to tie in succinctly with the track’s split title. Other songs which have a diverse element to their structure include the slightly dark ‘Our Little Secret’ and ‘These Walls’. ‘Puppet and the Songbird’ sees Megan at her most abstract lyrically, but as a tune, it unravels as a bouncy number illuminated by a relentless violin contribution.

Megan penned eleven of the twelve tracks with the exception being a beautiful instrument-free version of the traditional ‘Rose Red’ with a glorious harmony accompaniment from Jackie Oates and Tom Excell. In contrast, ‘No Good No Fun’ with its indie pop sentiment adds to the album’s diversity and shows that folk convention is a strong factor, but not necessarily a constricting one.

Alongside the opening number, ‘Chemicals’ makes a valid case for being among the strongest tracks and gets inside your head in a pleasing way straight from the early bars. This also features the strength of Megan’s vocal contribution which is one of the album’s most redeeming qualities. From a musical perspective the second track ‘Grateful Ghost’ begins in a stripped mode of simplicity before evolving into a great feast of sound. ‘Garden’ stakes a claim as the record’s most beautiful track and is a glorious descriptive piece of writing highlighting a writer in full flow. The final two tracks ‘Fall and Fade’ and ‘Lead Balloon’ both reside within the groove of the record with the latter being amongst the softer offerings.

HEAD, HEART, HAND  is a truly worthwhile record getting to know and reaches out to music fans without frontiers. Megan Henwood deserves every inch of anticipated column praise for this album which is a body of work rich in independence and packing a direct punch right from the first listen. 





Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free : South Eastern Records

If SOUTHEASTERN was the ladder to self-actualisation, then SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE is the platform at the peak. Not that it is easy or wise to compare the latest two albums of Jason Isbell as they were written in separate phases of his life. However the new album’s title, and subsequent track, takes a philosophical look at freedom and questions whether we all need something more than its absolute format. This is just one of many fascinating facets from an outstanding and regal album that sees Isbell seal his position as the pre-eminent songwriter in American music.

This peak that SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE has taken Jason Isbell to is a state of personal satisfaction where he can gaze back at the ups and downs of the past and visualise a limitless future on the road to song writing immortality. While focussing more on the immediate present, the new record sees Isbell at his southern best throwing in a bit of country, soul and good honest rock into a singer-song writing pit awash with the musings of a genius. He once referred to his listeners as ‘intelligent strangers’, but this can be reversed in viewing him as the 'articulate spokesperson of the intelligent musician.'

Teaming up again with producer Dave Cobb has paid dividends and what a portfolio of albums he is developing if you throw in METAMODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC. While the band element adds spice to many of the eleven tracks, this is essentially another Jason Isbell solo effort, or perhaps heading in a duo direction if you count the influence of Amanda Shires, both on the ever present fiddle and as a wider stabilising force. There are reams of autobiographical content to the album of which snippets have been revealed in the pre-launch press, no more explicit than in the Stereogum interview. This adds an extra dimension to trawling through the lyrics of the album which unveils a treasure trove of literary selfdom for those motivated by the intrigue of song.

Track-wise, the album possesses endless appeal with the high quality opener ‘If It Takes a Lifetime’ showing the Nashville hierarchy that you don’t need to write great country songs by committee. While Isbell’s music is bound only by the influence of his Alabama roots, one could foresee a full on country album surfacing in the future to lift the genre into a new stratosphere. Likewise, there is a streak of soul to be found in the album, especially on the track ‘The Life You Chose’, and once again with his Muscle Shoals roots and influence this could be developed in the future. Of course Isbell is famed for his southern rock tendencies as exemplified in his work with the 400 Unit and as a key member of the Drive By Truckers. ‘Palmetto Rose’, an ode to his fellow southern city of Charleston, is the album’s archetypical rocker and flagbearer for his trademark upbeat sound.

The title track ‘Something More Than Free’ is at the forefront of the autobiographical content as Isbell explores the concept that total freedom can be a dangerous environment and ‘Children of Children’ sees him delving back further into the annals of his past. Of course every great Americana record has some kind of reference to society away from the great metropolis’s and Isbell’s contribution is the supreme effort ‘Speed Trap Town’, perfectly summing up the ‘trappings’of his own upbringing environment.

Lyrically, Isbell thrills the analysts with the chorus line of ‘You thought God was an architect, now you know/he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow’ from the imperial second track and lead single from the album ’24 Frames’. If you’re looking for an inspired tale, ‘Hudson Commodore’ will appeal and this is perhaps another aspect of the concept of freedom being explored. ‘Flagship’ is your right on the mark typical Jason Isbell modern mode of acoustic song delivery, while ‘How to Forget’ is a gentle reminder that amongst the barrage of insightful lyrics, he can also master the killer melody.

This just leaves the concluding track ‘To a Band That I Loved’ to comment on and maybe the redeeming feature is its similarity to ‘Cover Me Up’ which classically opened the previous record. It probably won’t need too much imagination to reveal the band that he loved, but much pleasure is derived from pondering the meanings of the writing.

While the troubles of his past are well documented, the notion that ‘genius is the phoenix of desperation’ is no better exemplified than in SOUTHEASTERN and now SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE. Jason Isbell has arrived at a place of solace and a fruitful future is very much in his grasp to more than match his respected past. This is not just an album for the present, but one with the golden legs of longevity. 

www.jasonisbell.com




Monday, 13 July 2015

Michael Weston King and Michael Cosgrave (Songs of Jackie Leven and Townes Van Zandt) - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 12th July 2015

The immortality of song is no more highlighted than when sadly the great architects are removed from us far too early. While centuries ago the old folk songs were passed down the line by word of mouth, at least Jackie Leven and Townes Van Zandt lived in the era of the multi-dimensional recording. It is not uncommon for a post humus surge in popularity and appreciation, with a lengthy list of protagonists too numerous to mention. Perhaps free of the demons which inhabited his life, the presence of Townes since his untimely passing in 1997, continues to thrive leading ultimately to influential status. He is a must listen-to artist for every aspiring songwriter wanting to move and shake in country, folk and Americana circles with an infinite capacity to dig deeper for the eternal sad soulful song.

There may have been a vast ocean between their lands of activity, but while Jackie Leven also departed too soon, he also left a massive vault of legacy-laden songs which will keep the spark going for many years. The highly personal link that connects both songwriters is one of the UK’s most sincere and scholarly practitioners of roots music with a country tinge in Michael Weston King. Along with multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosgrave, who had a long association with Jackie, the two have paired up for an initial couple of nights to share the lyrical and melodic talents of these gigantic influences of song driven music.

For a combination of reasons, Michael Weston King had a longer and more productive relationship with Jackie, but there was a sense during this Kitchen Garden Café show that a shorter liaison with the genius that is Townes Van Zandt was the greater legacy of this mini, but intense, recollection of their work. Maybe this observation was heavily biased towards a far more familiarity from my perspective of the work of Townes and admittedly the key motivator towards adding this show to a busy itinerary. However two hours after the two Michael’s left the stage, the awareness of Jackie Leven was lifted tenfold, while the angle which viewed the work of Townes reminded those present that there is far more to explore than the usual volley of classics that merely represent the surface of his work.

The first hour of the show was dedicated to the work of Jackie with Weston King’s vocals working in divine cohesion with the guitar, piano and accordion of Cosgrave who chipped in with occasional comment as well. Having appeared at the venue on numerous occasions before his death in 2011, there was a sense that this well attended show was frequented by many of Jackie’s fans and the selection of songs ranged from the popular ‘Main Travelled Roads’ to slightly hidden albums tracks such as ‘Ireland for Losers’. In his usual slightly dry delivery, Weston King paid many humble personal respects to his late friend including a stark reference to his style as ‘Celtic soul’. With the perfect segue, the first half closed with a song Jackie penned for a Townes tribute album called ‘Townes at the Borderline’, ironically a project where the invited practice was to cover one of his songs, but the true song writing maverick had other ideas.

If you want to listen to an intense collection of Townes tribute classics then Steve Earle’s album of a few years ago simply titled TOWNES is your port of call, although there is no substitute really for listening to the man himself. Having supported and worked a little with Townes in the early 90’s, Michael Weston King steered clear of the obvious path for this hour long mutually pleasing bout of self-indulgence. The much covered ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and the overtly energetic ‘White Freight Liner Blues’ were probably the two most popular songs played as stories of their brief but ever lasting relationship was punctuated by some of Townes more obscure numbers. This included two tracks from Townes 1994 final studio album NO DEEPER BLUE in ‘A Song For’ and ‘Lover’s Lullaby’. The tribute extended further in the collaborative world between Weston King and Van Zandt with the song ‘Riding the Range’, written by Michael but honourably covered by Townes, being featured. Among the many highlights of this second half stooped in sheer melancholy was the morbidly sad ‘Maria’ representing Townes at his darkest finest.

Many thanks to Michael Weston King and Michael Cosgrave for serving up this memorable evening of enlightened music and stories which was an enthralling experience for us audience members. Apologies for this feature being a little Townes Van Zandt heavy, but the work of this great song writing visionary is an integral part of any country music education at whatever point you acquaint yourself with the genre. Full respect also lies with the body of Jackie Leven’s work and with this marker down you never know where your personal musical adventure heads next. 

www.michaelwestonking.com



The Other Half - Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine : Hachette Audio

The Other Half is a slice of Americana spiralling out of the music into the gritty realism of real life, real bars and the notion that occasionally a dream evaporates into a sense of reality. The spoken word, the written word and the poetically sung word entwine in a tale of nostalgia, intrigue and hope as the songs of My Darling Clementine merge seamlessly with the prose of top fiction author Mark Billingham. This is not your usual format for ‘three chords and the truth’, but it’s a wonderful take on the concept and will keep your ears glued to a listening device as the montage of collaborative art unveils.

Prior to this single hour-long recording hitting the stores there were two key moments to ignite the eternal flame, or a little less pompous, a collectable souvenir of the time two factions of the arts world met with such ethereal effect. You only needed a single listen to My Darling Clementine’s debut album HOW DO YOU PLEAD to identify the conceptual potential and let the imagination loose on numerous possible alternative creative developments. Far from taking the obvious route, Mark Billingham ventures down a path only the highly imaginative would foresee and adapts a number of tracks from subsequently both My Darling Clementine albums to succinctly weave them into his subtle tale of everyday life.

The project initially had its airing in the theatres of the land last year and you couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t be too long before a more permanent format evolved. True to this piece of not too difficult hindsight, the audio recording in both physical and digital formats has emerged courtesy of Hachette Audio with the splendidly packaged CD containing the narrative for those preferring to mix their media consumption modes. With the help of a couple of guests and the usual audio background accompaniment, Mark narrates the story which has the likable character Marcia at its core. Seven songs by My Darling Clementine are strategically segmented into the script of which five appear on their albums and a final one a commissioned effort by all parties involved.

My Darling Clementine has taken the UK country and Americana scene by storm over the last couple of years and is the brainchild of husband and wife team Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. This latest project by two highly experienced performers, while a visual tongue-in-cheek take on the classic duet era of country music, is a far deeper musical presentation revealing a much loved facet of the genre and has delighted fans far and wide. The versions of their songs used for this recording are more stripped backed efforts than you will hear on the albums, but are perfectly in tune with the sparse theme of the lives of the characters involved.

Mark Billingham is best known for crime novels and his creation DI Tom Thorne has featured in works successfully transferred from the written word to television. Mark also doesn’t hide his love for country music and this twin passion has kept the music of My Darling Clementine fresh as the band ponders their next move. His co-write with Michael and Lou, ‘As Precious as the Flame’ acts as the tale’s finale and as you would expect from any top author, the ending raises a few eyebrows in lieu of the preceding sentiment.

So if you want to further delve into this poignant, stark and moving story set in a downtown Memphis bar against a backdrop of serious character study and the flickering of hope then grab yourself a copy of the recording before sitting back to savour the content. It’s a quality piece of Americana fiction presenting the very best of what two performing entities have to offer. 



Anna Laube - Anna Laube : Ahh...Pockets! Records


It won’t take long to tune into the musical sentiments of Anna Laube, or to be more precise exactly the 31 minutes running time of her self-titled third album. While not being a vast investment of your valuable time, the rewards are extensive, as a seductive and homely songwriter unravels between your ears with a careful selection of tunes primed in a feast of fundamental folk and lustful Americana. If background information is an integral part of your musical appreciation, the wanderlust status of Anna is clearly stamped all over this record, although her feet appear to be more settled now. What we are left with is a scrumptious album full of songs, one to ten, leaving no stone unturned in that search for integrity-intact appeal.

Not averse to seeking a little influence and historical direction, Anna has bravely included a cover of the ever popular standard ‘Satisfied Mind’, but her sweet vocals deliver a pleasing contemporary version, standing as a flag bearer for her own compositions to follow. While on the topic of re-working the classics, the riff of ‘The Bike Song’ is a clear take on Woody Guthrie’s ‘The Car Song’, but if you are going to model yourself as the perpetual travelling troubadour then why not let the master’s work seep into your own.

Ten songs, including a cover and a re-work, leave little room for any slack and it is a pleasure to report that the other eight songs of Anna’s are devoid of any filler status. Challenging for that important top spot if your inclination is such, are a couple of tunes blessed with similarly enchanting melodies. The cool, ambling folk of album opener ‘Already There’ drifts across you like that welcome summer breeze and has all the structural appeal of a Slaid Cleaves number suggesting that Anna is a widely listening artist eager to inform her own songs with snippets of the best. ‘Sweet Boy Minnesota’ is a whimsically nostalgic tune which lodges firmly in your mind bank alongside those important moments in life. The musical interludes support this memorable tune that has the potential to extend into those dreaded playlists as defined by folks who live and die by the complete album.

Anna’s album is not short on variety as well with her laudable stab at the blues lacing the penultimate track ‘You Ain’t Worth My Time Anymore’. In contrast, a piano-led jazz feel launches the thoughtful and breezy number ‘Sugarcane’ which takes a scornful stance on one of the more hidden drugs of modern life and is an arrangement of the original song ‘Cocaine Blues’. A casual carefree beat accompanies this fine song with a touch of brass and fleeting fiddle adding to the sound package. ‘This One’s for You’ is the closest Anna gets to frequenting country territory with a hint of twang adding atmosphere to a beautiful ballad showcasing her versatility to scan the American style songbook.

Earlier in the album, Anna takes a slightly quirky direction in the vibes emanating from the song ‘Chocolate Chip Banana Cupcakes’ which while on the surface acts as the antithesis of ‘Sugarcane’ ultimately dismisses the saccharine consumption for real love. What Anna has done on this album is to crack the code of the perfect sub-three minute song with the final two tracks under consideration, namely the spritely ‘Oh My (Oh Me! Oh Me Oh My) and the peaceful album closer, ‘Green’ adorned with faint organ, meeting this criteria.

Lucinda Williams self-titled her third album and while this is not putting too much pressure on Anna Laube, the result of her fruits makes this record a neat fit in your record collection. Anna fully understands how to ultimately make a great concise American roots sounding record and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen. 

www.annalaube.com

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Tingestock - Tingewick Village Hall, Buckinghamshire. Saturday 11th July 2015

Some festivals have bigger budgets. Some festivals have artists who have sold more records. Some festivals embrace the corporate agenda to a higher degree. However few festivals meet their objectives so acutely as Tingestock and even fewer can boast their home as a village hall. So the playing fields may reside in differing stratospheres for such comparisons, but if the absence of pretension is a desired experience then Tingewick Village Hall on the second Saturday in July was the place to be. For nearly five hours, and for a modest outlay, five artists driven by a goal of perfecting the interpretation of American roots music decorated the blank canvas of open minded attendees with the magnetic appeal of powerful song and exhilarating tunes.

Don Gallardo
One of the five has the distinct advantage of being a Nashville resident and is fast emerging to be among the discoveries of 2015. Don Gallardo would surely smile at such a suggestion, but in the midst of a hugely successful mid-summer visit, the unveiling of a majestic new album and unlimited praise, he is proving to be the talk of the town within discerning listening circles. Don headlined on his first appearance at Tingestock and displayed a brand of true country music rarely seen in the modern environment fixated with the obsession of courting watered down popular appeal. Ably assisted by his travelling sidekick Travis Stock on bass, Don was supported by the UK version of his How Far West backing band namely the bulk of The Rosellys. Spiritual Hammond organ, evocative pedal steel and intermittent flashes of lauded electric guitar, wrapped a series of exceptional songs, mainly from the current release HICKORY, but also extending into Don’s back catalogue.

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.

Simon Roselly
The Rosellys
The rise of Don Gallardo is to the credit of UK label Clubhouse Records who smartly blend in distinguished US artists to energise their stable of British talent. It was Clubhouse who played a significant role in staging Tingestock alongside established promoters Empty Rooms. The latter have intermittently used this quaint English rural venue for a number of years and the overall presentation for the evening was first class, with a sound system superior to many likeminded operations on the circuit. Clubhouse also supplied a second band to the line-up in the guise of The Rosellys, a newly signed outfit to their roster. This five-piece combo headed by Simon and Rebecca Roselly unashamedly exalts an unrelenting love of American music through their identity, writing and style. Musically they peak with Simon’s fiddle playing and have evolved from a longstanding duo on the fringes of the circuit to a tight knit band capable of mixing it with the cream of British Americana.

Simon Stanley Ward
Paul Lush
Simon Stanley Ward is a unique performer with a golden innate quality to project a compelling song through an incredible voice extracted right from a hidden country soul. This set at Tingestock was a significant step up from his Maverick song writing circle appearance, suitably enhanced by a supporting show of fret manoeuvring magnificence from Aussie guitarist, and honorary Champ, Paul Lush. Simon reeled off three tracks from his debut self-titled album including the marvellous opening track ‘The Monster Song’ and is in such a rich vein of song writing that a few yet to be recorded numbers were aired, suitably spiced by the entertaining ‘Water’ and the painfully piercing ‘7 O’clock Alarm’. If the album was the discovery of Simon Stanley Ward and the Maverick slot the live introduction, this set was the blossoming and the effective launch of a performer equipped to go far.

Knights of Mentis
It was difficult to ever recall seeing a UK stage frequented by a nine piece folk and roots band especially one with each member playing a different instrument. Oxfordshire based nontet Knights of Mentis filled this gig gap with the second set on the Tingestock line-up and gave a rousing synchronised performance best enjoyed when the pace reached crescendo levels. From memory and left to right, we witnessed and heard: harmonica, double bass, banjo, dobra, acoustic guitar, drums, fiddle, mandolin and accordion. If you add in the accordion player occasionally switching to piano, double figures in instrumentation was reached and this band certainly made their mark, both visually and audibly while justifying their inclusion to the programme.

Luke Tuchscherer
Opening this extensive evening of primed entertainment was Luke Tuchscherer, who was reverting back to solo status after assembling his band for last week’s Maverick Festival appearance. Since being acquainted with Luke’s work nearly a year ago, it has been a treat to indulge in his intrinsic song writing and this is set to continue with the follow up record that he is currently fundraising for. Luke has mastered the art of the perfectly balanced set and once again this surfaced as Tingestock got underway. So for forty minutes we enjoyed a couple of songs from his solo debut (‘Three Long Days’ and ‘One of Us’) and four lined up for the follow up album including the very poignant ‘Amanda Jane’ and ‘Jack Brown’. Throw in the popular singalong Steve Earle cover ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and a similar enticing Whybirds (Luke’s other band) number ‘Before I Go Crazy’, and the atmosphere was simmering with an appetite for a comprehensive evening of finely judged music coated with a country, Americana and roots gloss.

All parties involved with the preparation and execution of Tingestock met the succinctly simple, yet so often misfiring, objective of presenting a package of highly crafted music designed to raise the awareness of acts dedicated to their cause and malleable only to the echoes of their integrity. Tingestock is pure, untainted and does everything the right way. Long may this micro festival continue to flourish.

Luke Tuchscherer Pledge Campaign

www.dongallardo.com

www.simonstanleyward,com

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Hannah Aldridge - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 5th July 2015

The last time Hannah Aldridge played a show in this area there was the rather bizarre sight of an inebriated couple slow dancing to one of her classic songs based on the true story of a woman serving a death sentence for killing her husband. It is glad to report that the level of audience sophistication was improved, as this time the location was elevated from a Friday night free pub gig to one of the region’s premier intimate listening venues. The song in question, ‘Parchman’, still retained a powerful place in the set list as Hannah paved the way for the next phase of her career.

It is now around eighteen months since the music of Hannah Aldridge was first introduced to folks in the UK and many members making up this Kitchen Garden Café gathering were amongst those instantaneously hooked into her sound upon first listen. Hannah has subsequently played many gigs on her numerous visits to Europe since this introduction and now the time is fast approaching when her outstanding album RAZOR WIRE is going to be joined by its follow up. The premiering of the new songs continues via the craft of a singer-songwriter capable of extracting every sinew of emotion from an upbringing and existence deep rooted in the soul of southern soil.

Economics dictate that Hannah tours solo, but she shared the intimation that the new record is likely to take on a more southern rock feel and we were asked to use our imagination to visualise. This was not too difficult with the track ‘Aftermath’ which increases the anticipation for the new record with its hopeful release date of early 2016. Another new song ‘Birmingham’ was first heard live at that Bromsgrove pub gig back in March and Hannah now had the opportunity to play it in the namesake to the town of its origin. The less than salubrious inspiration for the song was gladly not replicated by a more refined audience in the UK's Birmingham. Whilst there is a significant sincere and earthy edge to Hannah’s music, a touch of distinguished Gretchen Peters was detected in ‘Gold Rush’. This trio of new songs herald a giant wave of optimism that Hannah’s next project has the potential to be another gem.

Without the need to be over repetitive, RAZOR WIRE is full of past gems and a vast majority of its content was liberally spread across the pair of sets that formed this excellent gig. The extraordinarily moving piece ‘Black and White’ was the suitable encore number and the anger driven ‘You Ain’t Worth the Fight’ is the ideal launch track to introduce an artist striking in poise, grace and passionate song delivery. Hannah was appearing straight after a couple of sets at the weekend’s Maverick Festival and shed any traces of exhaustion to appeal through a confident, upfront and articulate persona. With a scholarly view of what makes Alabama, and more precisely Muscle Shoals music special, Hannah widens her appreciation of great song writing with a cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ and pays tribute to her own father Walt Aldridge with a version of one of his hits, ‘Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde’. While like so many artists, Hannah is far from genre bound, the foundations of her performing status are built on the classic sounds of country and folk which nowadays finds more appreciation within the burgeoning Americana movement.

Just as Hannah impressed in that pub location back in March and in her appearances at consecutive Maverick Festivals, this Kitchen Garden Café performance further re-enforced the view that we are fortunate to be blessed with her presence on our shores. There is no reason why the stock of Hannah Aldridge cannot continue to grow in the UK over the next few years, with the next big move being the new record. Few, if any, liberally minded music followers fail to be impressed when listening to her records or more profoundly being present at a live show. 

www.hannah-aldridge.com

Monday, 6 July 2015

A - Z of Maverick Festival - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 3rd July to Sunday 5th July 2015

The old saying goes ‘give me a child until they're seven and I’ll give you the person’. The Maverick Festival is in fact in its eighth year and it’s safe to say that the evolution into the UK’s premier comprehensive roots music event is now complete, subject to the ongoing flourishing of this Easton Farm Park gathering. In excess of 50 acts descended onto this quirky venue which is surely unlike any other on the festival circuit. Amongst the home grown talent were the usual guests from Canada and America with this year being joined by a couple of notable invitees with an Australian background, albeit totally absorbed in Americana music. It is this complex genre which unites all the performers as they explore many of its facets with extraordinary depth.

Personally this was a sixth pilgrimage from the industrial Midlands to deepest Suffolk and there is an unrelenting appeal derived from taking in a selection of largely unsigned independent artists raising their game for a dedicated and appreciative audience. The downside of any assembly of so many acts crammed within a full day, previous evening and following morning is the inevitable clashes. So before the 2015 analysis is launched, a commendable mention is offered to Amanda Rheume, Ben Folke Thomas and Miriam Jones. All have been previously featured and will no doubt cross my path again in the future. Likewise newly signed Clubhouse Records band The Rossellys just missed the viewing cut on this occasion, but further coverage of them is lined up in the near future.

So with a handful of apologies out of the way, attention turns to reflections on the weekend which contained the most glorious festival day weather-wise amidst a few minor unwelcome meteorological interjections. In a slight diversion from previous reviews, the challenge this year was to tie the event into an A-Z piece which has been pulled off with a touch of stretching and creative license. Anyhow all acts seen get a mention as this once again-excellent festival is re-lived.

A is for The Alan Tyler Show who played a thirty minute set in the Barn on Sunday morning, kicking the day off with a blend of classic country covers and neatly crafted originals. The Rockingbirds frontman was appearing in a trio format for his sets which is also reflected in the new album. Not on the record but delightfully heard in the Barn was a version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and the scene was set for a laid back collection of tunes to herald the festival’s shortened final day.

B is for Billy Bragg who is possibly the festival’s most widely known booking in the eight-year tenure of its existence. A late change to the schedule saw Billy moved to headline the outside Sweet Home Alabama stage which is the traditional 5 o’clock slot for Maverick. The set was typical Billy Bragg with an Americana slant to represent that side of his musical influence which has surfaced more prominently over the last few years. A Woody Guthrie song, ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, and a memorable version of ‘Dead Flowers' punctuated the old favourites with the inevitable concluding song. This prompted the thought: when did Billy last sing the chorus of ‘New England’ live on stage. Any concerns about the possibility of this being a lopsided booking in the line-up was answered by a superb set from an artist who is perfectly in synch with the roots agenda.

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.

D is for Don Gallardo, Clubhouse Records luminary and the architect of the brilliant new album HICKORY. Don popped up a couple of times during the weekend, probably most prominent as part of the Clubhouse curated Peacock stage on Friday evening. Friends’ services may have been borrowed to form the band for the evening, but Don showed that he is a class act and is fully deserved of the praise that has been flowing his way since the record’s recent UK release. ‘North Dakota Blues’ was the pick of his set on Friday as he epitomised the carefully selected American artist who fits the ideals of the Maverick Festival.

E is for Emma Swift on her first performing UK visit and the source behind an exceptional self-titled record which gate crashed the top twenty favourite albums of 2014. This unexpected booking gave Emma heaps of exposure from a couple of limited appearances. Among the four songs she played as part of her songwriter circle fixture on the Clubhouse bill were the superb ‘Woodland Street’ and the outstanding ‘Bittersweet’ which continues to blossom as her signature track. Emma also joined Don Gallardo on stage for a song or two and similarly featured in the festival’s surprise impromptu slot with a duet alongside Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who the organisers were not going to let leave without the invite to share a few songs from his considerable back catalogue.

F is the second part of The Black Feathers name, an inventive and highly active UK duo schooled in the art of delivering the spine tingling pan gender duet harmony. Ray and Sian is the couple in question and they continue to grow their nationwide presence with frequent live dates alongside an EP release which is shortly going to be supplemented by that ever important debut album. The Black Feathers had the honour of launching the weekend’s proceedings with a Friday evening Barn performance among their appearances and kept the audience’s attention right through to a closing original rendition of the classic song ‘Spirit in the Sky’.

G is the initial letter of American honky tonk artist Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Review who played a rousing set to close activities in the Barn on Saturday. On a festival where the deluge of original music towers above the smattering of covers, there is always the exception of a few old favourites to send folks home happy. You may have heard ‘The Circle is Unbroken’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ covered many times before, but Gal can be excused for a slice of indulgence as an extensive day of live music drew to a close.

H had to be the chosen letter for another Clubhouse band in Case Hardin who played the final and headline band set (if you can call it that for such as egalitarian stable) on the Peacock Stage on Friday. Incredibly this was the first time seeing the quartet live as they rarely seem to hit the Midlands and have suffered from clashes at previous festivals. However there was no such re-occurrence this time as Peter Gow and the boys let rip with a high octane set. Having only really listened to PM from their back catalogue, the live rock sound intensified their impact in surprise portions and it supremely added a ratchetted up finesse to the Clubhouse offering which was eventually closed by a sadly unwitnessed ‘All Star’ ensemble.

I is in the title of Dan Walsh’s new album INCIDENTS & ACCIDENTS and this was the first opportunity to catch a few tunes live from a record exhibiting some of the finest banjo playing you’ll see in the UK.  A personal rule of not flitting around during sets was broken to witness Dan for a couple of songs as he clashed with Chastity Brown. However watching his mesmerising playing has made it a new resolution to attend one of Dan’s solo shows which have always seemed to bypass me in the past. There was a few wrongs turned right at this festival and seeing Dan Walsh for the first time was towards the top of this list.

J sees a return to the first name of performers and in particular Joel Rafeal, a veteran US folk singer flavouring the festival with fine songs and many tales from that vast land which sources much of the great music on offer. Joel was seen playing a Saturday evening set in the Peacock and projected an immense aura of a songwriter highly active in the folk music scene west of the Mississippi. Flanked by Oklahoma guitarist Terry Ware and the young accomplished UK pedal steel guitarist CJ Hillman, Joel spun many thoughts and observations from his lengthy career. He namechecked other stalwarts of the West Coast song writing community such as the author of ‘Peaceful Easy Feelin’’ Jack Tempest and shared several songs from his own new album BALADISTA including the impressive ‘Old Portland Town’ with the usual accompanying story.

K is for the album title KIN which has been responsible for transforming the career sound of the Lovell Sisters and their inspirational band name Larkin Poe. Megan and Rebecca were returning to Maverick after their inaugural appearance last year. This time they were upgraded to headlining the Barn on Friday night and, with the new sound firmly bedded in, they thrilled a packed venue with an energetic dose of southern gothic rock. All the now-becoming old favourites from KIN were included in the set such as ‘Don’t’, ‘Jailbreak’ and ‘Jesse’, alongside a haunting version of ‘Bang Bang’ as the encore number. The sisters from Atlanta Georgia continue to grow their presence in the UK via a multitude of diverse tours and with each gig seen live seem to raise the bar of accomplishment.

L has a dual purpose in this feature as it is the shared initial surname letter for cross Atlantic duo Lewis and Leigh as well as the effervescent and gutsy US artist Sonia Leigh. Al and Alva sublimely blend the Celtic sound of Wales with the Deep South to reflect their respective homelands in a presentation of outstanding folk influenced music. In contrast to many artists over the weekend, Lewis and Leigh only played a single set in the Barn on Friday, but it was an appearance on the ‘must see’ list as their two EPs have provided endless listening enjoyment and the live experience didn’t disappoint. On the other hand, Sonia kept popping up all over the weekend with two Barn sets and an involvement with the Alabama tribute on the outside stage. Sonia has impressed before with her moving rootsy vocals in a band format and this time she transferred her skills to a solo presentation. A slight adjustment to the vocal sound paid dividends for her second set on Saturday as this did not overpower her guitar. Sonia is the real deal in this house and that raw southern voice was heaven sent for a festival fixated with the sound emanating from the dirt of the American roots. Legends of Country are squeezed into this category by virtue of both their tongue-in-cheek name and outdoor stage set on Saturday lunch time delivering their very English take on alt-country music to a basking audience beginning to accumulate a red tinge in the heat of the day.

M is the surname of the second Aussie to flourish at the festival after Emma Swift. Anne McCue was making her first visit to the UK in eleven years and played an acclaimed band set in the Peacock late on Saturday night alongside a stunning solo performance in the Barn on Sunday lunchtime. Having only seen the final live song on the evening, a similar mistake was avoided the following day as Anne presented a selection of tunes from her new album BLUE SKY THINKIN’. Supplementing her top songs mainly delivered via guitar, was a piece of inventive loop work involving her lap steel as Anne showed what a talented artist she is and why others such as roots icon Dave Alvin have worked alongside her, She was definitely one of the finds of the festival.

N sees a slight diversion from the artists on show and refers to the Newport Folk Festival, of which the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous plugging in of Dylan was being commemorated. The documentary from this 1965 event was shown on Saturday morning and was subsequently followed by a Q&A with Joe Boyd who was involved on the day of this monumental event in folk circles. Another US folk icon in Tom Paley was also present to share some memories and this was another example of the festival being fully versed in treasuring the immense history of roots and Americana music.

O is the probably the most tenuous link so far, but Oxford is famous for its dreaming spires and subsequently the inspiration behind the name of the Bennett Brothers, Robin and Joe’s, latest and most high profile venture. Armed with a tremendous new album SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH and now blessed by the powers of the BBC after their performance on the Andrew Marr Show, The Dreaming Spires are central figures of the Clubhouse Records project and shared their vision of indie-driven alt-country rock to an enthralled Peacock crowd on Friday evening. It is now approaching two years since ‘Dusty in Memphis’ was first heard live and it gets better with each listen. Another outstanding song from this set worth mentioning is ‘Easy Rider’, but anything The Dreaming Spires do at the moment is turned to gold.

P has to belong to Paul McClure who acted as compere, host and performer during the Clubhouse Friday night extravaganza. Known for his alluring dry wit and endearing take on honest observational songs, Paul launched the Peacock’s proceedings as co-ordinator of the song writing circle featuring himself, Emma Swift and Simon Stanley-Ward. The popular Rutland Troubadour continues to blaze a creative trail on the folk, roots and Americana circuit leaving a memorable experience in his path. As he is a keen observer of the written word, a little message is: keep it up Paul, your presence and work is always appreciated.

Q is the first stumbling block on the A-Z highway, so we’ll go no further than to offer the word ‘quality’, of which the high version was in abundance all weekend and is a prime reason why the Maverick Festival is an integral event of the British Americana circuit.

R is for Robert Chaney, a young highly rated singer-songwriter who was added to the ‘must see’ list when the line-up was announced. The weather may have been warm and spirits high, but this was not going to deter Robert and his dark murder folk ballads on a sunny afternoon. There is always room in a festival named ‘maverick’ for a little left field deviation and the world is a better place when a couple of folks meet a grizzly ending  in a song. The appetite has been whetted from this initial listen to Robert and hopefully it won’t be the last.

S is a double entry for the talents of Simon Stanley-Ward who is the final part of the song writing circle which opened the Peacock on Friday. Possessing the most authentic voice in UK country music whilst steering clear of false stereotypes is the trait that can take Simon a long way in the industry. He also matches it with fine songs and like so many artists this weekend, the opportunity to see him live for the first time was relished. It may have only been four songs, but hopefully the fruitful journey of seeing him many times has just begun. Under the commission of something –old, new, borrowed, blue – ‘Please Excuse Me (While I Feel Sorry for Myself)’ from the new album perfectly fitted the new bill.

T is for the unmistakeable surname of Luke Tuchscherer and his appearance on the outside Sweet Home Alabama stage on Saturday afternoon. Whilst in a phase from taking a break as drummer in the Whybirds, Luke is forging a decent solo career and for this gig he was backed by his band The Penny Dreadfuls. The set was a good mixture of songs from his latest solo record, old Whybirds numbers and a couple of popular covers, notably The Band’s ‘The Weight’ and Steve Earle’s ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’. Acclaim and recognition for Luke as a solo performer is growing and an appearance at the Maverick Festival did not do this surge of appreciation any harm.

U can only be for the nation that inspires so much of the music on show at Maverick and this year the Saturday centrepiece of the festival happened to be July 4th. So it was a case of Happy Independence Day to all artists who travelled from the USA to play at this year’s Maverick Festival. Full apologies to The Ugly Guys as their set was not seen.

W is for the splendidly named Welfare Mothers and their top rate frontman Bob Collum. Having reviewed Bob’s latest album at the start of the year and thoroughly enjoying it on many repeat plays, listening to the songs live proved to be the icing on the cake. His duet with Marianne Hyatt on ‘It’s a Good Thing We’re in Love’ is one of the songs of the year and the live rendition on the Sweet Home Alabama stage on the most perfect summer’s afternoon was a joy to behold. At this point the resistance to quote the glorious line ‘I do the jumping when you holler frog’ is withered away and hearing it live brought out an extra smile.

Debbie Bond
Y is for the state bird of Alabama, the Yellowhammer, and a name given to the performance of artists appearing at the festival from this southern state. Debbie Bond, Sonia Leigh, Hannah Aldridge and Lisa Mills were the quartet involved on the outside stage under the banner of Alabama Sweethearts with all the artists getting further slots throughout the festival. Sonia has been already mentioned and Hannah Aldridge was a festival returnee having been such a success last year. Hannah played a Barn slot on Saturday teatime as well as on the indoor Moonshine stage later in the evening along with Lisa Mills. Hannah is a firm favourite here and to an extra delight she travelled up to the Midlands straight after the festival to play a full length gig at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham. The fourth member of this quartet was Debbie Bond who really shone during her set in the Barn on Sunday morning. She was by far the most blues influenced of artists witnessed over the weekend and alongside partner Rick Asherson, delivered a highly inspirational set of deluxe music from the thriving roots melting pot of Alabama. Debbie has a string of UK dates over the summer and is definitely worth checking out.

Finally V and X have proved a bridge too far, but there was an artist named Vincent Cross who appeared on the Moonshine Stage on Friday night and could have met the criteria. Alas he was not seen, so that just leaves the letter Z and always the most difficult fit in any A-Z list. Zydeco is the word that comes to mind when considering Americana music and there was always the Zimmerman connection to fall back on. However this concept has probably been exhausted now which leads into the concluding thoughts.

When the long journey was made to Suffolk for the 3rd Maverick Festival in 2010, there was little thought that this would become an annual pilgrimage and the first entry in the summer gig calendar. Five years and six festivals later, Maverick has grown up as a festival without growing in size. Long may this status continue and the first weekend in July become the fixed date for the most comprehensive gathering of Americana and roots music in the UK.

www.maverickfestival.co.uk