Sunday, 31 January 2016

Rod Picott - Holy Cross Parish Hall, Lichfield. Saturday 30th January 2016

Few would argue that Rod Picott rarely disappoints, but there was an extra spring in his step tonight as the good folks of Lichfield were treated to what is now becoming an annual show. Maybe it was the pride of getting many positive reviews for the new album released on the eve of this latest UK tour. As expected these new songs had a significant place in this evening’s show, further enhancing the proof that if good songs are currency then Rod Picott is a wealthy man. Even if you drop the irony a little, enormous satisfaction is radiated from being able to make a living from writing and singing songs following a transition from the hard yards of the real working world. A perfect tribute to Rod is that he acts as a bridge to the two worlds and plants the idea that each of us has a story within to tell.

It was a fairly conventional gig presentation on the evening with no support and Rod playing a pair of forty-five minute sets. The audience was heavily frequented with knowledgeable fans and no sooner had the invitation for requests been made, inhibitions were dropped and a deluge of popular songs headed in Rod’s direction. This was following an introductory section where several tunes from the new record were showcased live, first time for probably a majority of the audience. Rod commented that this was his most personal album to date and the riches that could be found in an album titled FORTUNE were aplenty.

Cutting an imposing presence as he strolled on stage, Rod was soon into his stride and portraying a vocal style instinctively matched with the grit and reality of the songs. ‘Maybe That’s What it Takes’ led off a succession of tracks from the new record, followed by the autobiographical ‘Elbow Grease’ and a family sociological piece based on ‘Uncle John’. The highlight from this opening segment was a song Rod acknowledged as being a co-write with Ryan Culwell and ‘Spare Change’ impressed live as much as it did on record. The new album may have only been out for a few weeks, but it still contained a track shouted out for request and ‘Jeremiah’, an alternative take on the view of conflict, was a worthy choice which Rod used in the second half. ‘Until I’m Satisfied’ and ‘Alicia’ were other new songs to appear following the break, with a brief comment about the circumstances of the latter which far from disguised its identity.

Away from the new album, many old Rod Picott favourites were not going to be left out and rightly so. He was also on top form with wit, insightfulness and audience engagement as it plainly came across that he is a seasoned visitor to our shores, fully initiated in British quirks. ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’ have almost become the tracks which define Rod Picott as a singer-songwriter alongside the impressive Slaid Cleaves co-write ‘Broke Down’. Of course many folks seeing Rod for the umpteenth time would have been fully versed in most of the stories, including the film credits and ‘Angels and Acrobats’ being the only happy song, but an infatuation with Howlin’ Wolf videos was a new one.

Other requests that helped Rod develop a spontaneous evening of entertainment included ‘Black T-Shirt’, ‘Down to the Bone’ and ‘Mobile Home’. This latter song written about Rod’s immediate life after graduating school early was a familiar one, but for some reason really shone this evening. ’410’was one of a number of tracks from 2011's WELDING BURNS album, which just left ‘Bring it On’ to close the evening as the sole encore inclusion. This was an end that came too quickly, although they often say leaving an audience wanting more is not a bad place to end.

Rod Picott continues to hold the UK dear in his heart and as usual the tour dates stretch the length of the land including many venues fairly clustered together. In return there is an extensive appreciative network which will always give him a warm welcome and support his music. The show in Lichfield was an important episode in this arrangement and it was a good job done all round.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20 : Highway 20 Records

It may or not have been the intention to seal a legacy, but Lucinda Williams has accomplished this feat over the last eighteen months. For a long time 1998’s CAR WHEEL ON A GRAVEL ROAD was considered her seminal album and may well be the case when the book is closed. However back to back double albums since the end of 2014 have pushed this release to the absolute limit. First up, DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE made many a critic gasp with its imposing magnificence, and if anything THE GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20 has taken another step up the ladder of serial acclaim. Once again a double disc set has emerged and don’t let the combined fourteen tracks think the record has been spread out as the running time is in the vicinity of an hour and a half. What you get is a heavyweight production featuring song writing at its unabated best, a double pronged guitar soundtrack epitomised by its optimum accuracy and an alluring songstress soaking in the solace of southern soil.

Lucinda has returned home for this record and used the concrete sparseness of an Interstate running through her beloved Louisiana to be the spine for over a dozen songs spilling from its vicinity. In contrast to the mundanity of a road barely taking notice of its surroundings, each composition has an inner beauty, often harsh and dark in its sentiment, but ultimately rewarding the listener for their endeavours. This endeavour should be armed with a lyric sheet and the notion that no Lucinda Williams album is going to reveal its greatness on a solitary listen. To achieve the first objective of the album holy trinity, Lucinda digs merely into her gravelly vocal repertoire to extol all the aching, pain, anguish, fear and hope that exists in her songs. Secondly pouring over the lyrics reveals an admired structure, frequently using repetition while ensuring a clear path for either understanding Lucinda’s intentions or creating a canvas for you to effectively surmise. Both these qualities are brought together by the guitar skills of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, creating a backdrop to savour, equally adept at filling the interludes as well as standing back to allow the vocals to prosper.

The writing of this album came at a time of great grief for Lucinda and her co-producer husband Tom Overby, with both losing their fathers. Each late relative gets their own tribute song and in contrasting efforts. On one of two non- original songs selected for this album, a version of Springsteen’s ‘Factory’ lifted from his 1978 record DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, was used as an ode to Calvin Overby. Lucinda dug deep into her song writing well to pen a tribute for her father, the poet Miller Williams, and ‘If There’s a Heaven’ is a spiritually moving effort, etched in emotion and defies the listener not to develop the origins of a small tear. Before attempting to share some thoughts on the other originals, it is worth mentioning the second song not formed of Lucinda’s lyrics. ‘House of Earth’ uses the words of Woody Guthrie and further investigation reveals this is a novel he wrote alongside the many hundreds of songs. Lucinda obviously is credited with the music and it is fitting that a great contemporary songwriter has saluted a visionary.

The remaining eleven tracks reveal a pick and mix selection for listeners to hone in on their successful traits. For me ‘Louisiana Story’ leaps to the head of the queue and is quite simply Lucinda at her nostalgic best, with this time her mother taking centre stage. At over nine minutes long, it’s a meaty effort and forms a near symmetrical structure of the final track on each disc being quite lengthy with its alternative on the other side being the twelve minute ‘Faith and Grace’. This suggests a touch of stamina being required, but then grasping the music of Lucinda Williams is no mere throwaway task.

With the word ‘ghosts’ in the title, there is little surprise that many of the songs hover around either the end of life or post life theme. Therefore prepare yourself for a bit of morbidity and the personification of death in the splendidly stark titled ‘Death Came’. This is preceded by the superb ‘Doors of Heaven’ where Lucinda splits the excellent guitar pieces by announcing ‘open up the doors of heaven and let me in’. The after-life is also reflected in the title track ‘Ghosts of Highway 20’ which is the only original where Lucinda shares the writing credits with Tom. Opening disc two, it sets the scene of all the stories that are littered either side of the Interstate. One such character is revealed in ‘I Know All About It’, another mine of intense lyrical observation before Lucinda fades out with profound repetition to drive home the message.

Positivity in the guise of forgiveness can be detected in ‘Place in My Heart’, while the sentiment of ‘Bitter Memory’ is to consign it to history or once again repeatedly at the conclusion ‘let me show you to the door bitter memory’. ‘Can’t Close the Door on Love’ is another song clinging onto the positives among a sea of adversity and leaves the listener room to at least wonder about its inspiration. Food for thought also exists in ‘If My Love Could Kill'  and like so many of the tunes on the record, the sound vibes have a consistent appeal. The final track for comment is disc one opener ‘Dust’ and is the catalyst for Lucinda to use the writing technique of repetition with ‘you couldn’t cry if you wanted to’ and ‘even your thoughts are dust’ ensuring the sentiments of the songs linger long after its conclusion.

THE GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20 is a road album with a difference and presents a gut wrenching passionate artist sharing their unrelenting craft. It possesses so many avenues, themes and inspirations to explore that the ritualistic activity of understanding a Lucinda Williams album is an enlightening experience. Lucinda continues her extraordinary mode of creative song writing ensuring no half measures are served. Ultimately this album conquers morbidity and if that age old rhetoric of defining ‘Americana’ surfaces again then look no further than a record which will move those prepared to tune into the wavelength of Lucinda Williams. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Aaron Watson + Sam Outlaw - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Wednesday 27th January 2016.

Aaron Watson
Nashville Tennessee may be the spiritual and corporate home of country music, but it was the case of the western states fighting back at the Glee Club tonight as Texas and California flexed their muscles in the capable hands of Aaron Watson and Sam Outlaw. It was also a scenario of two gigs in one as both artists maintained the high quality in expressing the breadth of country music. What was absent was superficial commercial drivel and you were witnessing two contrasting songwriters and performers dedicated to making music on their own terms. You can take your pick between the up tempo Texas road dust rocking of Watson or the smooth west coast vibes hailing from Outlaw. However there is no law around being greedy and waxing lyrical about both.

Sam Outlaw hails from Los Angeles and flavours his music with a heady mix of classic country and border twang. His new album ANGELENO has just had its UK release some six months after taking a bow in the US, giving Sam plenty of stellar material to share with new listeners on his travels. Alongside this visit in support of Aaron, Sam is returning to our shores in April and is turning the heads of promoters and venues more akin to the folk/Americana side of the genre, often a safe haven for his type of music in these turbulent times. Immediate impressions of Sam were a striking resemblance to Cale Tyson, although perhaps a touch smoother in his style, but absolutely equal in the stunning impact they have both made.

As you would expect the bulk of Sam’s forty-five minute opening set was comprised of songs from the new album and these possessed the same appeal as the recorded versions when delivered live with fellow guitarist Danny Garcia on accompaniment. Even within the constraints of touring acoustically, the timely whistles enabled perfect memory recollection of the pedal steel pieces. There was no evidence of any nerves infiltrating a show that was only 24 hours later than a debut one in a country thousands of miles from home. In fact Sam came across as a confident and assured smooth operator, exercising a sharp wit to more than adequately fill the momentary gaps between songs. Inevitably Sam Outlaw will be judged on the evidence of his songs and these carry a substantial weight.Whether writing from the perspective of a drunk in ‘Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)’ to addressing relationship issues in ‘Keep it Interesting’, high class songs flowed repeatedly with ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Angeleno’, ‘I’m Not Jealous’, ‘Country Love Song’, ‘Hole in My Heart’ and ‘Love Her for a While’ all playing a part in succeeding with that all important first impression.

Sam Outlaw
In contrast to probably most of the audience and the balance of the set times, my view was of this being a double header gig. This was obviously from a bias stance as most neutrals would have left with the abiding memory of Aaron Watson in full flow. His ninety minute set backed by a full band (minus pedal steel!) gathered momentum in appeal, brought to a crescendo with a crowd pleasing climax full of mutual adoration and fizzing fiddle from Damian Green. In essence Aaron plays a no holds barred intense brand of country music, rich in Texas dirt and hardened by many miles on the clock around the roadhouse, honky tonk and rodeo circuit. It is definitely music from the heart, initially rejected by the suits before flourishing in the free reins of indie land. Ultimately Aaron did return to the big time last year with a number one Billboard album and the first ever by a solo male independent labelled artist without the backing of major cross country radio airplay.

The album in question UNDERDOG was heavily featured during the set, opening with ‘Freight Train’ before multi-peaking with ‘That Look’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Wild fire’, ‘Getaway Truck’ and ‘That’s Why God Loves Cowboys’. The growing Aaron Watson fan base in the UK will no doubt be aware that this is the twelfth album release from the Texan hailing from the western outpost town of Abilene, famed in many country songs. Those not too au fait with Aaron would have been a lot more informed by the end of this gig as he wears both his heart and life on the sleeve. He comes across as a blessed artist, and negativity was left at the door even when he touched on the darker moments of his life. Melancholy was not on the agenda as the abiding memory of Aaron’s debut show in Birmingham, and only the second in the UK, was of an incredibly positive persona, grateful to all the inspirations in his life.

Two notable songs off his previous albums to impress were ‘Reckless’, which proved the show closer subject to a prolonged fun filled finale and ‘July in Cheyenne (Song for Lane’s Momma)’. The latter was written in tribute to a late rodeo star cut off in his prime and followed a touching moment where Aaron shared details of his own loss. All these songs had the backing of Aaron’s excellent band spearheaded by lead guitarist Jason Lerma and supported by drums and bass rhythm section, (names eluded me).It was a lengthy wait for fiddle player Damian Green to be let of the leash, but when set free it was immense.

It has already been stated that Sam is set to return to play more shows, while Aaron was adamant that this is just the start of a UK venture without giving further details. What can be concluded from this evening is that extensive merit can be found in both artists and whatever angle you approach your country music, either can find their niche in your listening repertoire. One thing for certain is that Aaron Watson and Sam Outlaw are destined to win over many more fans on our shores. However the dedicated souls present in Birmingham’s Glee Club had the privilege of being there at the outset of this exciting journey.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Patty Griffin + Frankie Lee - Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 24th January 2016

There can surely be a no more respected artist within the Americana music industry than Patty Griffin. Whether it’s for her song writing acumen, striking vocals or strong musical production, Patty is always in demand as well as being the curator of an ever increasing impressive back catalogue. The latest in her long line of album releases is the critically acclaimed SERVANT OF LOVE which wooed many a critic in the latter part of last year. The good news for Patty Griffin fans is that she has wasted little time in including the UK on the album promotional tour and has formed each show with a full band complement.  A large turnout in the main room of Birmingham’s Glee Club greeted Patty who last played the venue a couple of years ago in a more stripped down duo format.

Upon commencing her set almost exactly on the stroke of nine, Patty quickly hit her stride with the audience enthusiastically applauding each song of which many were unsurprisingly lifted from the latest album. It’s an honest admission but this record took a few listens to find its inner quality especially as the moody title track is more suited to a mid-album position rather than its opening spot. However the magnitude of the song was eventually grasped and its brilliance sealed this evening as Patty served up a stunning piano version mid set. Having strongly thought that ‘Servant of Love’ couldn’t be topped there was a twist in the latter stages when other track from the album mightily impressed in ‘Shine a Different Way’.

This song saw Patty switch to mandolin and this exemplified the diversity displayed by her three piece backing band during the show. It is tough to argue against David Pulkingham being the prime musician on stage whether plying his trade on acoustic or electric guitar. He particularly impressed on the latter especially when finding divine notes to garnish some of Patty’s gentler songs. The more versatile Billy Harvey flitted between bass guitar, keys and piano with Patty also hailing his own solo material as worth checking out. Conrad Choucroun completed the line-up predominately on drums split by a short interlude on mandolin with Patty commenting that it was rare for her to tour with a drummer these days. This proved to be one of the many privileges enjoyed on an evening which started off on the perfect note.

The decision to add Frankie Lee to the bill on this tour was a master stroke on the back of the excellent album AMERICAN DREAMER he released in the UK towards the end of last year. If SERVANT OF LOVE took a few listens to grasp then Frankie’s debut release took barely one track or even just the first couple of bars to the opening song ‘High and Dry’. Although funds haven’t been sufficiently accumulated to tour with a band yet, Frankie makes a cracking job of delivering the songs in an acoustic solo format with the aforementioned track being the case of saving the best to last. Most of Frankie’s forty minutes on stage was devoted to songs from the album with the specific highlights in no particular order being ‘Queen of Carolina’, ‘East Side Blues’, ‘Honest Man’ and the record’s title track. The live versions confirmed the combined simplicity and sincerity of Frankie’s lyrical composition and song structure, announcing his arrival on the UK‘s Americana scene. Certainly playing to a decent gathering around the country on this Patty support tour will do his promotion no harm.

Patty was forthcoming in praising Frankie’s work as she continued to entertain the faithful with more songs from the latest album and some older favourites. The most popular of these from an audience reaction was the pre-encore closer ‘Truth No.2’. The abiding memory of this song was wondering if the Dixie Chicks will play their version of this Patty penned classic when they visit Birmingham in April. As you would expect, Patty wasn’t short on succinct quips between songs including commenting on being delighted to return to a part of the UK which knows well. She also introduced one of the best songs from the AMERICAN KID album ‘Ohio’ by informing the audience of its reference to the role underground railroads played in freeing slaves during the Civil War. Another pleasing song from the set was Patty sharing her writing contribution to a gospel album she recorded a few years ago following encouragement from the great Mavis Staples. ‘Coming Home to Me’ was the named song and it was rather good.

The encore came too quickly and Patty chose to end the evening with a pair of interesting songs away from her extensive back catalogue. Taking a liberal license to dabble in the Spanish language is something Patty has earned the right to experiment in and her take on a Mexican Revolution number ‘Caminito’ was impressive. This left just one final dose of indulgence with Patty wrapping her vocal chops around the Jimmy Durante standard ‘Glory of Love’. This capped a memorable evening which fully justified Patty Griffin adding Birmingham to her tour schedule and reminding many why she is such a highly regarded artist, specifically in the Americana sector but also in the wider music community.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Milk Carton Kids - Union Chapel, London. Friday 22nd January 2016

If you’re searching for evidence of musical destiny then there is surely no finer example than The Milk Carton Kids. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan experienced largely low key careers in the industry prior to teaming up in 2011. Not only did they find each other, but landed on an incredible innate understanding of how to blend the beauty of the acoustic guitar and the fragile voice. It is reasonably simple to understand the evolution of the sibling harmony, less so when not bound by genetic ties. From the opening song of the duo’s show in London this evening, it was obviously apparent that we were in the midst of a special partnership, capable of stunning an audience with a near flawless single voice and a brace of complementing guitars.

While widespread acclaim has been heaped on The Milk Carton Kids including Grammy recognition back in the US, not too much attention has been paid to the UK market. Two relatively minor albums have been followed by a couple of more successful releases with the latest of these, MONTERREY, being issued since the pair last played shows on UK soil. Although this was a repeat visit to the Union Capel, they apologised for the delay, while significantly noting that the audience size had grown from a quarter full to the sold out sign being dusted down. The next step is surely to expand out of London and this process will begin as the guys have been invited to join this year’s Transatlantic Sessions tour which plays large-sized halls across the country.

It’s a toss up to decide whether the spectacular vocal harmony or guitar virtuosity is the duo’s redeeming feature. The latter is definitely ear catching especially as Kenneth’s extravagant picking perfectly complements the rhythmic consistency of Joey’s more subdued playing. Whereas you can hardly insert the breath of a whisper between the vocal harmonies, an individual stamp is made both on the playing and also the extensive inter-song banter. This is almost entirely the domain of Joey, formed of an incisive satirical wit, regularly bouncing off Kenneth and rambling into random subjects such as fatherhood, child birth and feline/canine homicide. Apologies but you had to be present to fully appreciate this, although it has to be said that the guys struck the ideal balance of optimising entertaining irreverent chat within a stage time spanning ninety minutes and containing approaching twenty songs.

The evening’s material was drawn mainly from the latest album and its predecessor THE ASH AND THE CLAY. There were four exceptions to this starting with the humorously introduced ‘Charlie’ from their debut album RETROSPECT. From its follow up PROLOGUE we were treated to the excellent ‘Michigan’, ‘New York’ and ‘I Still Want a Little More’, before the proverbial curtain was drawn down with a typical Milk Carton Kids style makeover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’.

At this juncture, it is necessary to pay compliments to the awesome surroundings of the Union Chapel and a sonic atmosphere gift wrapped for two guys playing the most delicate of acoustic music through that iconic traditional single mic. This was a first visit to a highly recommended venue and no finer location to catch The Milk Carton Kids for also the first time. Anticipation in seeing them perform live grew tenfold following a cinema viewing of the ‘Another Day/Another Time’ concert documentary where the relevance of the duo’s role in the current popularity of the folk revival sound was splendidly shown. As if to kill the Simon and Garfunkel analogies which often frequent press coverage, Kenneth got in first on one of the few occasions he owned the mic between songs.

Back to the songs, which thrilled the audience and enticed a couple of standing ovations, and leading the way was a couple of relatively up temp numbers in ‘Heaven’ and ‘Honey, Honey’. It is hard to argue against these being the evening highlights, although ‘Asheville Skies’, ‘Monterrey’ and ‘Snakes Eye’ push them to the limit. There is also a strong case to state that the actual songs are a mere backdrop to the aura and spellbinding atmosphere of being seduced by the sheer experience of listening The Milk Carton Kids live.

There was no support for this show, but it is tricky for any other artist to make an impression when Kenneth and Joey are in full flow. With their impeccable timing and melting pot of folk music in its purest form, The Milk Carton Kids are a treasure to be nurtured and shared by the American roots music scene which has taken them to their hearts. Many more nights in the UK like the one experienced in the Union Chapel this evening will lead them to the wider world of international adoration. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Jason Isbell - O2 Academy, Bristol. Wednesday 20th January 2016

Occasionally you freeze into a fixated zone during a gig where nothing else matters apart from the performance you are marvelling at. That state of mind was frequently entered during this Jason Isbell show in Bristol and not always during the songs that you would personally predict beforehand. Just witnessing Jason pour absolutely everything into ‘Cover Me Up’ will without doubt court popular appeal during this tour, but to feel that that particular moment was surpassed is a rare treat. To borrow the political phrase ‘first among equals’, ‘The Life You Chose’ soared up the lofty Isbell ladder to crown a performance delivered by unequivocally the coolest and must humble performer in Americana music.

This was Jason’s second UK date on the European tour to support the album which has elevated his status to wider appeal. Without too much knowledge of the Bristol live music scene, the decision to move the show to the O2 Academy seemed a wise one by the packed in feel to the place. Surely it can’t be long before a promoter brings him to a midsize Birmingham venue as no doubt a market now exists as evidenced by the number of people making the trek down the M5. The trip was certainly worthwhile, as in addition to over an hour and half of Jason rocking the joint with the ubiquitous 400 Unit, we had the pleasure of John Moreland sharing his songs for forty minutes with stirring effect.

With HIGH ON TULSA HEAT finally getting its UK release the previous week, it was fitting that Moreland announced his arrival with ‘Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars’. Later in his set the performance peaked with a rendition of ‘Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore’ lifted from an earlier record which had warmed the hearts of listeners this side of the pond. The song delivery was entirely free of pretension with the raspy vocals projecting a large degree of deep felt emotion savoured in a state of immaculate reception by a vast majority of the audience. This was song writing and performing in its purest form leaving the thought that there must be something in the Oklahoma landscape to enable a writer to tap into the inner seam of lyrical brilliance. Following in the travelling footsteps of fellow State artists John Fulbright and Parker Millsap, John Moreland announced an unmissable arrival and an imprint to accommodate the magnitude of his compositions.

On his previous visit to these shores, Jason played a duo show with his wife Amanda Shires at the Cambridge Folk Festival and it was interesting to compare the version of ‘Travelling Alone’, complete with fiddle, to the full band version featured tonight. On an evening where the 400 Unit soared into a prime tuned rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment, perhaps the fiddle was occasionally missed especially when the throttle was relieved a little. Striding back onto the stage for the inevitably deserved encore demand, Jason tore straight to the hearts of many present with a stunning version of ‘Elephant’ before choosing a mild mannered mid-tempo rocker to bid farewell in ‘Codeine’.

Earlier in the evening Jason had announced his arrival by introducing the band and himself from Muscle Shoals Alabama before launching straight into ‘Stockholm’ and ‘Palmetto Rose. A band he definitely loved this evening was the four guys in his stage vicinity led by the guitar virtuosity of Sadler Vaden, with whom Jason pushed to the limit with his own playing at times. Bassist Jimbo Hart was introduced as a friend of twenty years with recollection of the pair parking school buses in Alabama many years ago. On a couple of occasions, Derry de Borja stepped from behind the keys to extol the romance of the accordion. Full apologies for mentioning drummer Chad Gamble last but a roomful of music connoisseurs fully understand and appreciate the engine roll of the guy with the sticks.

On the subject of home states, ‘Alabama Pines’ stood like a beacon mid set and we were dealt with a further dose of the past when ‘Decoration Day’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ saw full respect given to the Drive By Truckers days. Bringing things right back to the present and as you would expect many songs from the highly acclaimed and commercially successful SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE were integrated into the set list. Apart from the track mentioned in the opening paragraph, ’24 Frames’ sounded as good as ever in justifying its place as the records promo track at the time of release. ‘If It Takes a Lifetime’ continues to teach many how to write a great country tune and ‘Hudson Commodore’ delivers the perfect lesson in nostalgia. Hearing all these songs live within the confinement of a first rate venue sound system capped the pleasure from first listening to the album in a feeling of mid-summer awe.

From memory there is a recall of the set list containing ‘Speed Trap Town’, ‘Children of Children’ and ‘Something More Than Free’ but no doubt full listings will appear in other sources. However the factual element is only part of the excellence of this show, it doesn’t convey the feeling of entering that zone when you know a band, a songwriter and performer is on top of their game. Twenty days into a new year and the bar has almost disappeared out of view in terms of matching the aura of live band music. Although watching many challenge this peak over the next twelve months severely wets the appetite. Jason Isbell is a standard bearer for a contemporary movement and, though he will just brush it off as a normal guy from Alabama writing songs and playing music for a living, many will vouch for this concluding listener viewpoint.

The Small Glories - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 18th January 2016

Cara Luft continues to be one of the most innovative artists on the Canadian music roots scene. Since first making a mark some years ago as a member of the Wailin Jennys, she has carved out a successful solo career alongside some crafted collaborations. Among several visits to the city of Birmingham over the years, Cara appeared with Brandy Zdan and Awna Teixeira in the momentarily branded ABC of Canadian Music. Just under eighteen months ago, she introduced a new musical partner in JD Edwards during a Kitchen Garden Café visit and now the partnership has been anointed in the guise of a recording and performing duo billed as The Small Glories. In the slipstream of a Celtic Connections appointment, Cara and JD slotted in another Birmingham visit with many old friends heading to the Kitchen to give them the usual warm welcome.

Although this piece commenced with a Cara Luft focus, The Small Glories is now a fully preserved and balanced duo with this perception formed after being present on the both occasions JD has graced the venue. Of course old habits remain and when they consist of Cara’s exquisite banjo playing then they are always welcome. Vocally the duo has almost perfected the shared basis which is also reflected in the stage banter with JD far more forthcoming with background stories and humour. Musically JD flits between standard acoustic guitar and harmonica. While the rocking days of the JD Edwards Band have been put on temporarily hold, there is still a raw edge to his vocals which you could feel at any time blossoming among a barrage of electric amplification. However this evening they work exceedingly well in an intimate acoustic setting.

Across the two sets allotted to them, The Small Glories gave a decent representation of the past, present and future. Of course the past pre-dated the pair’s union, but JD easily slipped into support mode to help Cara deliver ‘No Friend of Mine’ and ‘Bring ‘Em All In’ from two of her previous records. The duo also collaborated expertly on the traditional tune ‘Black Water Side’, another from Cara’s THE LIGHT FANTASTIC album and an individual take on the Bert Jansch/Jimmy Page inspired version. Two other covers that were introduced as The Small Glories interpretations were Woody Guthrie’s ‘Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key’ and Dirk Powell’s ‘Water Bound’. The latter had the usual unplugged/off mic treatment to end a Kitchen Garden Café show, while prior to the former, JD reminisced about his own grandfather’s life in Oklahoma.

Winnipeg Manitoba has been the home to the last couple of generations of JD’s family and he is now fully entrenched as an established Canadian songwriter mixing with other artists the breadth of this vast nation including those in the far eastern Maritime Provinces. Bringing things right up to the present and some of the new recordings have been made available on a short EP ahead of a debut full length album release expected to be available in April. From this EP, which can be downloaded from the duo’s website subject to a generous donation, the songs ‘Long, Long Moon’, ‘True Story’ and ‘Oh My Love’ were all shared with the audience this evening. Of the songs previewed from the upcoming album (we were reliably informed that none are duplicated from the EP), ‘Ol’ Garage’, with its deeper than the obvious sentiments, was the most memorable with 'Had I Paid' not far behind. One other notable song from the evening was the one Cara co-wrote with Bella Hardy for Bella’s most recent album. ‘Time Wanders By’ is a fabulous song and a personal favourite from WITH THE DAWN, painting the perfect picture of being in awe of the Rockies.

The appreciation and love that Cara has from UK audiences is a credit to the effort she has put in, assisted by a charming personality and the skilful ways in which she shares her music and song. This project with JD is set to continue the process in the foreseeable future and while we adjust to the name The Small Glories, there is no guilt in just referring to it as the work of Cara Luft and JD Edwards.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Aoife O'Donovan - In the Magic Hour : Yep Roc Records

There is a dreamy reassuring feel to the vocals of Aoife O’Donovan. Unblemished, richly textured and elaborately rounded are just three warranted superlatives, but more importantly they just possess a boundless capacity to resonate with the ear of a listener seeking perfection. On the back of her hugely successful debut solo album FOSSILLS, Aoife returns on top form with her sophomore release IN THE MAGIC HOUR. If a class of ’16 supreme vocalists is going to emerge then Aoife will be right at the heart of it and the new record will confirm what many have known for a number of years.

Blending the universal links between her Irish heritage and New England home has been instrumental in a career which now has three acclaimed elements. Prior to the success of her solo projects, Aoife was also the voice behind the much vaunted roots group Crooked Still for close on a decade. In between solo albums, Aoife was part of the roots celestial trio ‘I’m With Her’ alongside fellow stateside luminaries Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. The success of these shows either side of the Atlantic was immense and while we wait for a potential trio record, the spotlight is now firmly on Aoife and her new album.

Photo Credit: Joanna Chattman
IN THE MAGIC HOUR is released on the influential Yep Roc record label and consists of ten tracks sprinkled with the gold dust of its prime architect and assembled players. When you can include the mandolin playing of Chris Thile in the latter, the stakes of quality are raised to a maximum height. The mouth-watering prospect is that Aoife is playing approximately a dozen dates in Europe prior to taking it around her homeland. Maybe the touring trio will not include the big names found on the record, but the quality should still be high.

The ten track album saw Aoife once again re-unite with Grammy winning producer Tucker Martine and the theme of the record is definitely nostalgia at both ends of the spectrum. Written and recorded at the time of her Grandfather’s passing, it both mourns and celebrates a long life by recounting many of Aoife’s visits to Ireland. His voice appears on ‘Donal Og’ and the sheer depth of her song writing enhances the appeal of the record. The true dedication for him exists in the song ‘Magpie’, totally soaked in nostalgia. The abbreviated title track ‘Magic Hour’ is the most distinctive song on the record as its structure and sound has obviously been designed for promotion. Maybe there is a commercial need for this, but the album’s true worth is buried within its inner content and sublime blending of accomplished musicianship and the comforting satin appeal of Aoife’s voice.

From the opening strains of ‘Stanley Park’ (location not detected) to the lengthy closer ‘Jupiter’, the intensity rarely relents. Those seeking  continual hooks and lighter moments will need to look elsewhere, but folks tuned into the magical aura of a record with so much personal investment will lap up the entity of this album. The enchanting ‘Hornets’ and the poignant ‘Porch Light’ make a good case for being the album’s high spot. The former is reminiscent of Alison Krauss at her finest with blissful fiddle providing the perfect vocal accompaniment.  ‘The King of All Birds’ is perhaps the one moment when the album gets experimental in its sound and certainly adds value.

IN THE MAGIC HOUR will undoubtedly thrill the purists along with listeners who just resonate with a top notch vocalist at the peak of her powers. Haunting in parts, charismatic in reception and infinite in appeal define the work of Aoife O’Donovan. She is set to be an integral part of the Folk-Americana- Bluegrass-Roots scene for many years to come and the pleasure is entirely in connecting with her music.

Kelly Oliver - Bedlam : Folkstock Records

They say silence is golden, but a brighter tinge is added when the music of Kelly Oliver fills the air. Her precious vocals illuminate an empty room and this talented artist is set to create further waves with the release of her second album. BEDLAM is the next up record from the ever evolving pro-active folk music project known as Folkstock and shines a serious light on the label’s focal artist. This ten-track record is made up entirely of original compositions which quite often is not the norm for a style of music fervent in celebrating the traditional song. However Kelly and her collaborators have delivered a highly credible record finely tuned in so many aspects.

The approach to BEDLAM has been for Kelly to work with three different producers, each bringing a slightly different facet to the album. What binds the record together is the voice of Kelly perfectly finding its pitch and the fact that her writing presence is embedded within each song. A clear trait of the sound is the refreshing way that Kelly adds a youthful vibe to what is quintessentially a traditional folk way of song delivery. Yet there is a strong reach out to sceptics who may not associate this in a contemporary context.

Probably the most prominent input from the outsiders is the production steer of Nigel Stonier giving two of the tracks a distinctly commercial edge. This is likely to be in outreach rather than lucrative terms at the moment, but both ‘Jericho’ and ‘Rio’ have already been sectioned off for prime promotion in advance of the album getting a more thorough campaign in the guise of Kelly’s extensive spring tour. At this point it is worth commending her as one of the folk scenes busiest artists, with countless gigs, radio slots and a savvy approach to utilising the unlimited potential of social media promotion. In fact unlimited potential can also be attached to the future of Kelly as a singer-songwriter matched with her instinct for innovation and inspiration.

Stu Hanna of husband and wife folk duo Megson takes the reins for the production of four songs including the punchy opening title track ‘Bedlam’. He was also at the helm for one of Kelly’s solo writes in ‘Miles to Tralee’, another track that has previously surfaced on a Folkstock compilation album and another to have the promotional benefit of a video. Joining the fray on another Stu Hanna produced song is his wife Debbie who adds backing vocals to ‘Same World’. Extending the family and backing vocal theme,  it is also worth noting that Thea Gilmore, the spouse of Nigel Stonier, makes a contribution on the aforementioned ‘Rio’.

One of the other named players on the album is fiddle player Ciaran Algar who joins the other talented musicians on ‘Jericho’, for what personally emerges as the rousing stand-out track. This is one of the numbers to benefit from a short interlude of Kelly’s harmonica playing. This also occurs on ‘In the City’ which heads a quartet of songs produced by the album’s third production architect Lauren Deakin Davies. Lauren was previously in solo control of Kelly’s debut album THIS LAND and perfectly strikes the balance on BEDLAM by creating a finely tuned infrastructure to fully exploit the strength of Kelly’s vocal ability. These tracks are enhanced by the subtle double bass playing of Lukas Drinkwater.

Ultimately BEDLAM comes across as a precision measured piece of work, delicately balancing all the input variables to create a record gift wrapped for the listener. The challenge to buy into the talents of Kelly Oliver will not be too difficult for fans of folk and roots music far and wide. The opportunity also exists for her youthful enthusiasm and approach to widen the pool of inclusion. 

Order the album

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Essential Gretchen Peters : Proper Records

2016 is year of career anniversaries for Gretchen Peters. 1996 saw her first make the step from songwriter to recording artist and also when the UK appeared on the horizon as a potential outlet for her brand of stylish and smooth lyric-driven songs. To mark this milestone, Gretchen is set to undertake yet another extensive tour of our towns and cities, this time fully armed with her most comprehensive collection of reflective material to date. THE ESSENTIAL GRETCHEN PETERS is a brash title, but throughout this twenty-seven track two-CD production the quality is soaked right through to the core as a serving of the familiar and not so familiar aches to be indulged by the critical ear.

Back in 2009, a ‘Best of’ album did hit the market, but that statement was rendered obsolete when Gretchen’s recording career soared with the subsequent records HELLO CRUEL WORLD and BLACKBIRDS. As you would expect, several key tracks from these releases appear on ESSENTIAL alongside those chart heyday cuts dating all the way back to 1991 with ‘Chill of an Early Fall’. What also adds to the appeal of this collection is Gretchen’s desire to mix the selection up with demos, bonus tracks, work tapes, live versions and straightforward recorded material, as well as a beautifully constructed acoustic version of the classic ‘Independence Day’.

The personal conundrum for retrospective collections is to evaluate their motive and highlight the target audience. On a positive front there does not appear to be an industry trait of tagging a focussed new single to force the hand of fans. While Gretchen devotees will without doubt snap this album up and savour the formatted offering, on the other hand full respect must be honoured to those who already own a vast majority of the tracks in a variety of formats and may choose the cherry picking option available in this digital age. However, this collection is heaven sent for Gretchen newbies, although it should only act as a taster before diving head first into the complete albums. Collections should never detract from this notion and be only curated to find their niche.

Returning to the theme of anniversaries, this new record will be released almost a year on from her most successful album to date BLACKBIRDS and there is certainly commercial merit in capitalising on this bout of wider appreciation. The upcoming tour represents the tenth anniversary of me seeing Gretchen play live in the UK and the evolution of her Midlands dates was capped with a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on the most recent full length tour. Since catching Gretchen live for the first time at The Robin in Bilston, her stage show has progressed from initially solo performances, through the Barry Walsh duo sets, those fun nights with Suzy and Matraca, the addition of Christine Bougie and the culmination of the four piece band for last year’s dates. Whatever the format, each show has sealed the appreciation deal with the bonus on this new collection being a live version of ‘Woman on the Wheel’ and a recording of ‘Wild Horses’ with her dear Wine, Women and Song friends. While on the subject of the last song, it would be remiss not to recall the duet Gretchen sang with Otis Gibbs at the Maverick Festival a few years ago with the infamous peacock backdrop.

From the tracks that may not be so familiar, the previously unreleased duet with Bryan Adams ‘When You Love Someone’ will raise eyebrows. Just to re-enforce the fact that Gretchen can be a great interpreter of songs, she has included John Lennon’s ‘Love’ and a version of the timeless standard ‘When You Wish upon a Star’. However the jaw dropping surprise moment of the record is a wonderful rendition of the traditional favourite ‘The Cruel Mother’, which had only appeared before as a bonus track on BLACKBIRDSA couple of songs do feature twice with the work tape takes of ‘Blackbirds’ featuring its co-writer Ben Glover and the increasingly viewed masterpiece ‘Five Minutes’, this time without the impeccable timing of the album version.

For those who have closely followed Gretchen’s career, and its consistent upward trajectory, there is a temptation to bracket the title of this album as ‘interim’ as surely there is much more to come thus consigning the term ‘Essential’ to the same obsolete status as 2009’s ‘Best of’. However life is best lived in the present and THE ESSENTIAL GRETCHEN PETERS is the perfect snapshot of where this much loved artist is in 2016. Let’s just call it a celebration and much deserved acknowledgement of a singer-songwriter who has done so much to entwine the country, folk and Americana genres over the last couple of decades.

Paul McClure - Songs for Anyone : Clubhouse Records

Paul McClure’s ‘difficult second album’ is now here and any fears of it not meeting widespread approval have been consigned to the trash bin. SONGS FOR ANYONE is the worthy follow up to his debut 2014 release and further proof of his engaging nature as an alluring songwriter. From a position as the troubadour counter balance of the Clubhouse Records roster, twelve adaptive tracks have been recorded in a fluid format to switch effortlessly between the finely produced studio version and the stripped back entity to accompany Paul on the road. It is perhaps the road which has defined Paul McClure over the last couple of years and the innovative way that he has been prepared to reach out to music listeners. Suggest to Paul to find a venue in your area and he will enthusiastically proclaim the value of the house concert. With his old moniker ‘Rutland Troubadour’ being formalised into a trademark, perhaps now is the time to re-brand him the ‘Living Room Troubadour'.

Of course the first port of call for many fans will be acquiring his music and the new album explicitly represents a grounded singer-songwriter often finding inspiration in the most mundane of everyday situations. Ray Davies was a great purveyor of ‘kitchen sink’ songs and ‘Unremarkable Me’ hits a similar mark with its stark observations. Inevitably a personal approach to love controls the steering wheel of the album’s content and no finer line exists in the record than ‘Paris got no romance without your kiss’ from this standout track. Two other tracks staking an early claim to be first among equals are ‘I Could Be a Happy Man’ with its wonderful explicit imagery of ‘drinking beer and listening to long playing records’ and the tender number ‘Every Day is Mine to Spend’.

The Clubhouse contingent have rallied round to assist in the making of this record with Joe Bennett sharing his musical expertise in the production role and Hannah Elton-Wall adding a delicate touch with her exquisite vocal harmony. Two instrumental inclusions enhance the album’s home listening appeal with some horns being added to the up tempo and slightly aggressive number ‘My Big Head Hat of Dreams’,  along with a faint organ sound adorning the slightly modified title track ‘A Song for Anyone’ giving it a warm feel. The ubiquitous presence of Paul’s road tools, namely harmonica and guitar, are in plenty supply with the former giving ‘Holding a Ten Ton Load’ a Beatles-ish opening. Maybe it’s unfair to refer to Lennon, McCartney, Davies, Springsteen, Young, Dylan et al, but you can detect Paul McClure’s influences and fans of these icons will find merit in his work.

The sum of this record is a meaty effort with the running time hitting fifty minutes as the strains meander between laid back West Coast vibes and the grittiness of urban England. Paul is an unpretentious, refreshingly honest songwriter and engaging with his work is quite a straightforward act of artist-audience interaction. While listening repeatedly to the record is far from an ordeal, the ultimate song connectivity will come from a live show where the true background stories and inspiration will no doubt be revealed.

There will be countless opportunities to catch Paul McClure live in 2016, just check out the usual sources and the ever informative world of social media. The good news is that his debut album SMILING FROM THE FLOOR UP now has a buddy on the merchandise table in the form of SONGS FOR ANYONE. This will continue to present Paul McClure as an artist worth listening to in whatever setting you choose. If the 'difficult second album' syndrome did exist, it has evaporated into thin air upon release.  

Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us, Volume 2 ; Mercyland Records

Firstly, let’s get the pun out of the way by hailing this album as a ‘slice of Americana heaven’. Mind you with the calibre of artists assembled, it was only really going to send MERCYLAND Volume 2 in one direction and full credit must be given to Phil Madeira for piloting such a project. If you are one of the many who may not be acquainted with Volume 1 there is no need to fear as the second instalment towers tall as a stand-alone entity. What is revealed when you access this record are twelve gorgeous tracks, magnificently packaged and presented in a way that invites universal praise.

As the strapline, Hymns for the Rest of Us, suggests, this is a spiritual album that doesn’t set out to preach but is designed to celebrate the enormous impact that faith has in the world of country, roots and Americana music. For this reason, the record succeeds in reaching out across the divide giving folks the option to derive from it what they desire rather than being told. All but one of the twelve tracks contain a strong spiritual message with the odd one out being John Scofield’s instrumental ‘Heaven Hill’ which brings the record to its conclusion after an uplifting forty-five minutes.

The line-up is packed full of leading names in contemporary Americana music with Emmylou Harris leading the way with a beautiful song titled ‘Kyrie’ and featuring ex-Civils Wars member John Paul White on accompanying vocals. Possibly making a claim for the elite track is the strategically placed opener ‘I Can’t See That Hand’ by The Lone Bellow with the enticing opening line ‘Let’s all go to heaven together’. This rousing start will get the heart pumping and the mind spinning with the desired effect of getting many opportunities to enthral when you set your mobile device or CD player to repeat play at the album’s conclusion. Of course the experience will be much more cultured and interactive when you have to flip the vinyl version over continuously between sides one and two.

Regardless of your position on the atheist-agnostic-theist axis, any Americana music fan should appreciate the gospel influence in roots music and its intrinsic value, even if only from a lyrical and melodic tune quality angle. MERCYLAND will re-enforce this with further strains of rock, soul and tempting singer-songwriter fare. Angel Snow’s sumptuous contribution ‘I Said I Meant It’ is a solid roots effort with plenty of country twang, while that stalwart of the Nashville recording scene, Will Kimbrough serves up a thoughtful and sensitive number with the Red Dirt Boys in ‘Madness of the World’. Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs have recently introduced their band Sugar and the Hi-Lows to UK audiences in the role of Kacey Musgraves support act and have had their track ‘Stranger’ included on the record.

Leading the soulful contingent has to be the McCrary Sisters, another band recently active on the UK gig scene, doing what they do best with the gospel induced ‘Boom Chick a Boom’. This is closely followed by the excellent rock ‘n’ soul duet ‘Sacred Ground’ by Jason Eskridge and Cindy Morgan. While we’re talking about this inspirational foot tapping style, the inclusion of ‘Can’t Put a Name on It’ by The Wood Brothers in the number two slot ensures the record gets off to a rampant start before elegantly meandering in tone and mood. David Crowder’s ear pleasing ballad ‘Make an Ocean’ shines in the album’s latter stages and showcases the more measured side to the record.

Whether or not all these names are familiar to listeners is immaterial as collectively they merge so effectively into a blissful serving of five star music. The track ‘Stars’ by Humming People is another worthy inclusion, which just leaves the offering by album architect Phil Madeira to consider. You won’t be surprised to read that his rough and rootsy effort ‘Mercy’ comes up trumps with plenty of fiddle driving a track as indicative of the release as any of the eleven predecessors included.

MERCYLAND Vol 2 is a powerful compilation packed with strong messages and from a wider angle, succeeds in celebrating over preaching. Whether you approach your spiritual side of American music from Hank’s ‘I Saw the Light’ or Carrie Underwood’s ‘Jesus Take the Wheel’, this collection demands attention, respect and ultimately will deliver on a multitude of platforms. You may not be ready for Americana heaven yet, or ever, but the journey is worth living every minute in the company of this record.

The Lone Bellow - "I See That Hand"
The Wood Brothers - "Can't Put A Name On It"
Emmylou Harris with John Paul White - "Kyrie"
Humming People - "Stars"
Angel Snow - "I Said It, I Mean It"
Jason Eskridge & Cindy Morgan - "Sacred Ground"
Sugar & The Hi-Lows - "Stranger"
Will Kimbrough- "The Madness of the World"
Phil Madeira - "Mercy"
The McCrary Sisters - "Boom Chicka Boom
David Crowder - "Make An Ocean"
John Schofield - "Heaven Hill"

One source to order, alternatives will no doubt be available

Rod Picott - Fortune : Welding Rod Records

In an alternative world, FORTUNE might well have evolved into Rod Picott’s eponymous album such is the introspective mode that this seasoned songwriter presents himself in. This is the seventh time Rod has committed his thoughts, feelings and observations to a collection of recorded songs since deciding that music is a worthwhile alternative to the graft of the real world. Luckily he has perfectly honed in on a talent to wrap his hardened worn vocals around songs rich in lyrical texture whilst presenting a tune authentic in its roots credentials. This style has been well and truly road tested via hundreds of gigs spanning two continents, with a healthy UK following being accrued along the way. The true worth of this brand new collection will surface when Rod once again heads across the pond in the early throes of the New Year to play dates well into double figures in their numbers.

Rod may be portrayed as the solo troubadour sharing his wares through the gruff voice and trusty guitar in an intimate venue, but in the studio a talented team is assembled to ensure the recorded gift to his fans is top notch. While being an album packed with a dozen songs ranging from the curious to the heart wrenching, the production jointly steered by Rod and the increasingly acclaimed Nielson Hubbard ensures the emotion of the venue is captured within a lightly polished capsule. Will Kimbrough’s guitar decorates many a fine record in addition to this one as will the bass from Lex Price. Rod also doesn’t veer away from indulging in a small amount of co-writing with Slaid Cleaves, Ben Glover and Ryan Culwell getting their name on the credits.

The song content weaves through several subjects ranging from lamentation of lost love, through toughened determination to succeed and to engage in curious character analysis. The existence of ‘Jeremiah’, ‘Uncle John’ and ‘Alicia’ is likely to be unravelled when Rod hits the stage and it cannot be overstated how pursuing attending one of his live gigs is more than a useful companion to owning his records. If these songs explore curious, but still relatively straightforward subjects, imagery and metaphorical excellence is prevalent in the wonderfully titled ‘Drunken Barber’s Hand’. This Slaid Cleaves co-write contains the record’s top line in ‘this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand’ which goes a long way to highlighting many of society’s problems.

Eyebrows are raised with the intensity of ‘I Was Not Worth Your Love’ with its heart driven lyrics and tempo gear change. Once again inspiration for the song may possibly be revealed at some point, but it definitely raises its head as one of the album’s many high points. Earlier in the album, ‘Elbow Grease’ acts as a conduit to Rod’s previous output which was heavily influenced by the blue collar grit of his background. This experience may well have been gained in the industrial North East but it’s the rich song writing well of Nashville, Tennessee where Rod has blossomed in the acute skill of capturing it all in the art of song.

There are several moments on the record where Rod’s vocals veer down to depths not normally associated with his previous material but this all creates an air of brutal honesty in wanting to get a message out into the world. By the time the intensity, passion and sheer emotion has defined the record, there is an open door for a glimpse of hope in album closer ‘Spare Change’.

FORTUNE presents Rod in fine fettle with the lyrical fervour being matched by highly crafted musicianship that will win over many fans of the Americana genre. There is still plenty of fire left in the heart and spirit of Rod Picott as he continues to use the entertaining medium of song to tell the stories that are close to him. The music world is a wealthier place when singer-songwriters like Rod Picott are on top of their game. 

Jane Kramer - Carnival of Hopes : Self-Released

A year and half after being introduced to UK audiences via her BREAK AND BLOOM album, Jane Kramer quickly returns with a follow up record. CARNIVAL OF HOPES gets it release over here on 8 January and has evolved into a quite impressive body of work. We were introduced to Jane as an artist working in the creative Pacific Coast melting pot of Portland Oregon and now we see her heading back to her Appalachian roots with stunning results. The record is knee deep in raw roots elegance with banjo and fiddle featuring prominently alongside an abundance of honest, thoughtful and reflective writing. The calling to return to Asheville is the theme for the record and the clear winner from this renewed inspiration is the listener who maybe is taking a chance on an unknown artist for the first time.

There are a number of clearly defined routes for this type of music into the UK and there is no doubt that Jane Kramer has the potential to make more than a fleeting impression with the strength of this album. If anything it has more defined qualities than its acclaimed predecessor with an earthy, worn and gritty take on real life. Devoid of any superficial elements, this is a straightforward hard-core dose of reality showcasing a lauded brand of American roots music.

On a record neatly packaged in a ten track format, Jane features nine of her self-penned compositions leaving room for a solitary cover to anchor the record in track #5 position. The choice to include the Tom Petty homage to the southern states ‘Down South’ is an apt move considering Jane’s own decision to return to her home state of North Carolina. The fit is seamless as either side of this pivotal number are songs brimming with emotions and forever exploring a variety of musical directions. In the second part of the record ‘Why I’d Do That Blues’ features a little brass and encompasses a sound as implied in the title. In an alternative roots direction, ‘My Dusty Wings’ brings the curtain down with an old time bluegrass feel and a sentiment that sometimes you need to dance away your problems.

Two similar tracks in length and impact cement the album’s appeal in its latter stages with ‘Truth Tellin’ Lies’ matching the previous song ‘Highways, Rivers & Scars’ in the depth of its issues and feelings. Earlier in the record ‘Truck Stop Stars’ unveils deep inner thoughts from forever seeking your true destination. This is one of many songs on the record sung beautifully and impassionedly by Jane while retaining an aura of discovery upon each listen.

On a record which maintains a high standard from start to finish, the first four tracks set the bar at the level required for a release of profound impact. ‘Half Way Gone’ wonderfully swings the album into motion with fiddle strongly driving this opening track which delightfully states that there ‘is not enough brown liquor in the whole state of Tennessee. ‘Carnival of Hopes’ has the potential to move the listener within a tune commendable in the way it weaves into your aural senses. ‘Your Ever Green Heart’ is another solid effort, but perhaps slightly overshadowed by the superior and hard hitting ‘Good Woman’ which makes the most enticing claim for being the stand out track, although this will rotate on each listen.

Fans of American roots music will absolutely connect with the music of Jane Kramer and CARNIVAL OF HOPES possesses a limitless appeal to sustain a lengthy presence in the accessible portion of many a record collection. Super sounds, meaningful themes and authentic vibes are all present to make this a record of great merit. 

Miranda Lee Richards - Echoes of the Dreamtime : Invisible Hands Music

With the strains of 2016 just barely breaking through, a strong candidate for the most appropriate title of the year has emerged. Instead of being the name of the record, ECHOES OF THE DREAMTIME is a heaven sent quote to describe its sound which floats in a celestial haze throughout a pleasurable forty-five minutes spent within listening distance. In fact to be more accurate, Miranda Lee Richards has been the source of a gorgeous album packed full of ethereal ambience while being underpinned by a sturdy substance. For definition purposes, the album resides at a multi-sound junction where the paths of folk, pop, indie and Americana meet.

It has hardly been a prolific solo recording career for Miranda, a San Francisco born LA native, with this just being her fourth full length release since 2001. However if such inactivity in populating her own solo back catalogue has led to bundles of suppressed creative energy, then the clear winners are those who will be smitten by the new record. The Californian laid back feeling may just be an illusion for those of us thousands of miles from the Pacific west coast, but this idyllic concept is further fuelled by melting your senses into the eight tracks which configure the album. Don’t be misled by this apparent low number as plenty of six and eight minute songs are on offer, each blending Miranda’s sumptuous vocals with a mix of indie-driven subtle guitars and more cultured string arrangements.

The album is being given a worldwide release through Invisible Hands Music and is virtually a home produced record with Miranda’s husband, Rick Parker undertaking the production role. The team have certainly come up trumps with perhaps two tracks vying for number one appeal led by the great hooks and delightful melody which adorns ‘Tokyo’s Dancing’, with the added enticing appeal of a super guitar solo in the final stages. ‘First Light of Winter’ is a track with a faint slice of twang that builds up to a soaring chorus. There is definitely an indie vibe to both the acoustic and electric parts to ‘Little Radio’ which almost sees the album break out of its shell. However this shell is far from restrictive and adds a comforting protective feel which gives the record a soothing medicinal purpose. It is always handy to possess an opening track with an addictive feel as well and the excellent ‘7th Ray’ pulls this off to a tee.

These four aforementioned tracks comprise of the record’s first half with there being a slightly different atmosphere to the second part which climaxes with the dream-laden ‘Already Fine’ where the cello kicks in. Prior to this, the eight-minute epic ‘It Was Given’ continues to mesmerise the listener in perhaps a softer vein than the early stages, but also allowing them to focus more on Miranda’s vocals. It may be a co-incidence but Miranda had a surge of success in Japan early in her career and the track ‘Julian’ does have a slight Eastern mystique to it. ‘Colours So Fine’ completes the track listing and further merges into the well-worn philosophy of an album entity being greater than the sum of its parts. Obviously lesser releases lean heavily on stand-out tracks, but this record has its soul firmly rooted in the complete album camp.

ECHOES OF THE DREAMTIME is the antithesis of a throw-away society where shallow music is consigned to the wallpaper or the trash bin. The underlying high quality riffs and beats secure a solid base for Miranda’s vocals to melt the heart with the added bonus of eight marvellously constructed songs. It may only be January, but there is almost a summer glow to the record. Miranda Lee Richards has obviously kept this gem under wraps until now, with a firm prediction that it will float around for a long time.

Sofia Talvik Big Sky Country : Makaki Music

BIG SKY COUNTRY, the 6th album release by Swedish artist Sofia Talvik, unveils as a luxurious clash of the New and Old Worlds. Inspired by a mega extensive US tour in 2012, Sofia has captured the very essence of the folk-Americana genre by mixing an evocative selection of mood-driven songs with a predominantly roots soundtrack. All twelve tracks are gloriously coated with her luscious vocals which are shaped purposely to sprinkle emotion into each message. These messages range from the acutely introspective to more expansive observations of the wider world and its landscape. What threads this album together is Sofia’s skill to spin a quality song from her inner thoughts, while cementing an impressive mix of gratifying melodies and darker numbers requiring greater listener exploration.

With an eye for precision symmetrical planning, the decision to insert an atmospheric and spiritual cover version of Buffy Sainte Marie’s ‘Starwalker’ pays dividends in pivotal proportions as it re-energizes the record midway through. Either side of this number six position on an eleven track album, Sofia owns the song writing process and is supremely supported by the list of players assembled to help her make the record. The writing tends to veer down the slightly darker and melancholic side of life with snippets of positivity shedding some light on the proceedings. This is most evident in the closing number ‘So’ which ends with the sentiment ‘and that is why I love you so’.

Big Sky Country’, the album’s title track, is another moment of uplifting positivity and clearly emerges as the record’s premier song. It is a clear take on using the American landscape as a backdrop which namechecks several places before deciding that the ‘big sky country of Idaho’ is the abiding memory before going home. The stunning landscape shots on the album cover and inner sleeves back this notion up. A similar theme occurs in ‘Give Me a Home’ which comes across as an ideal piece for a movie score.

As a writer, Sofia majors on the figurative and imagery styles with ‘Fairground’ and ‘Bonfire’ steering clear of literal interpretations. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says in the title by generally slowing things down and its lyrics magnificently contrast the presence of sunlight with morbid observations. ‘A Matter of the Hearts’ and ‘Jasmine, Rose and Sage’ both generally fall into the sad song camp, on a record which does delicately swing in mood. These are also integral reduced tempo moments on the record with ‘Dusty Heart, Empty Hand’ markedly representing Sofia’s ability to write a pacier number perfected to be easy on the ear. In almost complete listing reversal, the final track to comment on is the album opener ‘Aha-Aha’ which far from being inspired by a fellow Scandinavian pop group sees Sofia set the scene well with a reflective number that encourages the listener to connect with her intentions.

BIG SKY COUNTRY is a delightful record to engage with and contains a wide variety of contrasting selling points to lure in satisfied listeners. So whether you are moved by a wonderful vocalist, an enticing lyricist, a sound capturing a multitude of moods or probably all three, Sofia Talvik presents an album to indulge your musical preferences within the confines of its intended genre. We know that International Americana is thriving in Scandinavia through the excellent radio show TIAMS  and Sofia Talvik confirms this with her latest record.