Monday, 29 February 2016

Folkin' Great - Crescent Theatre, Birmingham. Sunday 28th February 2016

Duke Special 
It may usually be the domain of the thespian crowd, but for one day only Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre went into full operational mode to present a near eight hour continuation of primarily local folk and roots music. This was a significant step up from the venue’s occasional Monday night experiment with live music in the bar as both this usual space and the main auditorium housed around a dozen acts on a seamless rotation. To borrow one half of the pun-induced title, a great time was had by those sharing their Sunday with the conveyor belt of artists on parade.

Folkin’ Great held onto the ideals of its organisers to keep it mainly local by ensuring four of the six main stage acts didn’t have far to travel. The two exceptions did have pride of place at the top of the bill with East Yorkshire based Edwina Hayes returning to a venue where she played a successful show last summer. Shortly after Edwina finished her set, necessary stage adjustments were made to introduce the headline act all the way from Northern Ireland in Duke Special. If you’re trying to cover a fair few bases, these contrasting artists fit the bill neatly. Edwina’s velvet vocals produce reassuring warmth as she embodies a mellow touch of affable charm. In stark contrast to the conventional style of Edwina, Duke Special emerges as a quirky random character, spiky in persona, but totally absorbed in the dedicated art of song.

Edwina Hayes
Duke is also no stranger to Birmingham, with the Glee Club being a stopping off point on his tours. Tonight the enigmatic pianist and song writer once again hooked up with his regular percussionist Chip Bailey to play an enterprising headline set to an audience of whom some took up his second literal offer to join him on stage. A recurring theme of Duke’s set was his love for sheet music and he lived up to his billing of possessing theatrical style inspired by vaudeville and music hall. Perhaps the surroundings and the thinning intimacy created by a few calling it a long day before the final hour, sent Duke spinning into a seeking role to explore ways of sharing his obvious passion for song. This was folk music with a left field tinge, encouraging an open mind and inviting an adventurous engagement.

Edwina was assigned the role of penultimate headline act in a mini festival format where the audience was spared a solitary moment of downtime. Each twenty minute slot of main stage switchover saw a local acoustic act perform in the bar area. Engaging in refreshments, socialising and shuffling around the theatre possibly impacted a touch on fully absorbing these artists, although short sets by the duo Ashland and young singer-songwriter Eve Singleton were noted for further investigation at a later date. There were no such distractions in the main house at the festival’s midpoint when two emerging Midlands artists played a couple of lengthy sets.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood 
Chris Cleverley has been active on the Birmingham gig scene for a while now, often supporting major touring acts playing the smaller local venues. Chris launched his own debut album in 2015 and was no doubt thrilled by the reaction it got from sections of the national media. Chris reverted to his solo status for this show and displayed his immense acoustic guitar playing flair alongside a thoughtful and introspective song writing style. Amongst playing a handful of songs from the album APPARITIONS, Chris intimated a passion for immersing into the creative world of song writing, aligning this with a wry sense of humour and increasing maturity as a performing artist.

Chris Cleverley 
Following Chris onto the main stage was another rising Midlands folk performer and the ever impressive Kim Lowings, backed by her usual band The Greenwood. Kim has been the subject of more than a few column inches in these quarters over the last couple of years, as the blossoming of her talent has been witnessed. The band were also busy in the studio last year with their second album release, but on the second occasion seeing Kim this year, she is not holding back on the itch for presenting further new songs. If these unwrapped offerings are pressing to get out then why hold them back. Kim used the expanses of the Crescent stage to play a couple of these freshly painted numbers on piano with the applied effect lifting her performing artistry onto another plain. Upon listening to ‘Firestones’ and ‘I Fly Away’ on this first occasion, one can envisage them being around for a long time, such was their control and finesse.

The remaining two acts to complete the auditorium line-up  were also locally based and in line with what we were to see later presented as an eclectic view of folk music perception. Making the short trip from the Black Country was the three piece band The Empty Can which launched the festival in a folk rock direction with the meatiest offering of electric guitar that we were to hear throughout the day. This was punctuated by graceful violin and a lead singer swaying between some hearty local dialect vocals and an alternate singing style comfortable with successfully pulling off a couple of standard rock covers. The other three piece band which completed the line-up was known as Soundboard and represented the more traditional side of the folk genre with severely impressive classical pretensions. Multi-instrumentalist Natalie Mason raised a few eyebrows when saying she only returns to the violin for this band and subsequently produced a performance towering above many on the circuit who major on this instrument.

Empty Can 
Upon reflection this eight hour extravaganza of folk music worked a treat and ensured an enjoyable Sunday afternoon and evening was had. The inevitable teething issues for a venture in its ultimate infancy impacted little on the listening audience and overall the sound came across well in the auditorium. While the organisers may have liked to have sold a few more tickets to give the main arena a fuller atmosphere, there was a continual buzz about the venue as folks moved between performances and frequently packing the bar area. The most important aspect was that the Folkin’ Great guys put on a fabulous, value for money, diverse show and gave a welcome platform to several artists representing the depth of local talent with a couple of highly welcome out of town guests to top the day. 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Underhill Rose - The Great Tomorrow : Self-Released

The act is named after its founders Eleanor Underhill and Molly Rose Reed, but Underhill Rose has evolved into a fully-fledged trio with the full time participation of bassist Salley Williamson. Together, with the help of the assembled session musicians, the trio from Asheville North Carolina have made a sensual record reflecting the stripped backed basics of it roots and country core. THE GREAT TOMORROW is Underhill Rose’s third album release and is scheduled to be the centre-piece for the group’s first exploration into the UK. They will find an evolving market ready to embrace a soundtrack underpinned by the banjo and pedal steel, especially one sprinkled with enticing songs and the ever popular harmony approach to singing. Overall the album is a positive recording, quite often simplistic in its themes and gently drifting along in an unhurried timeless haze.

The many qualities of this record start with both the vocals and the musical content before edging into more popular territory with a multitude of hooks. From the exceptional verse melody of five star track ‘Love Looks Good on You’, with its cutting opening line ‘you don’t like country music, but it still reminds me of you’ to the ear pleasing refrain on ‘Montana’, the album is packed with moments to sit up and take note. The latter is one of the album’s more explicit lyrical elements as it explores the essence of memory. Other stand-out merits from this Molly-penned track are the violin interludes which appear at the opening and the mid sections, alongside the perpetual pedal steel, which along with banjo is seemingly and pleasantly omnipresent.

On the topic of song writing each member makes a steady solo contribution with Eleanor leading the way with five compositions, followed by Molly with three and Salley on two. The other track on this eleven song collection is a cover of the eighties Paula Abdul smash hit ‘Straight Up’. Obviously it has been done in a complete old time roots style, but still conveying the mass appeal that radiated from this song across the world at the time. The two songs written by Salley both make a considerable mark on the album’s landscape. ‘Our Time is Done’ appears as the lead off track, doubles up as the promoted song via video and ensures Underhill Rose pierce the surface upon immediate listen. This song which has a folk feel to it, especially in its lyrical structure and left field relationship content, is followed later by the enterprising ‘Shine’, not of the sun variety but explicitly explained in the chorus ‘the moon shines east, the moon shines west, but the moonshine from our cellar’s best’. This comes across as one of the darker songs on the record and sees Molly adopt a slightly different vocal style.

Eleanor and Molly often interchange lead vocal across the record with the additional harmonies being ever present in their beauty. Instrumentally, Molly settles on guitar, with her other song compositions being the life and death basic perceptive piece ‘When I Die’ and the more contemporary sounding ‘My Friend’, detailing a falling relationship. Eleanor’s claw hammer banjo playing is one of the highlights of the album and from a writing aspect she contributes the slightly abstract ‘Whispering Pines Motel’ and the philosophical closing title track, ‘The Great Tomorrow’, complete with its positive warm glow and final parting shot of drifting pedal steel. ‘Not Gonna Worry’ and ‘Rest Easy’ are the final two songs, once again flowing from the pen of Eleanor, with the latter one being representative of the many hooks that pack the album with appeal.

Stateside, the Americana Music Association has recognised the talent of Underhill Rose and as well as the release of this new album in March, the trio will be playing some shows in the UK to promote the record. THE GREAT TOMORROW could well be the start of a prosperous future for Underhill Rose on the international stage and its laid back vibes, interesting song themes and neat presentation make it an album worth checking out.

Treetop Flyers - Palomino : Loose Music

Taking its name from a gold coated thoroughbred is the first sign that Treetop Flyers are back and firing on all cylinders with the release of their sophomore album PALOMINO. This London-based band created significant waves with their debut release in 2013 and a hungry fan base is more than ready for another serving of classy guitar driven indie music heavily inspire by that classic West Coast sound and forever drifting into the realms of Americana rock. The good news is that the new record picks up where THE MOUNTAIN MOVES signed off albeit with personnel changes and much digesting of where to head next. Lead singer Reid Morrison is in fine form from start to finish lending his misty soulful vocals to a bundle of tracks undulating in terms of motion and pace, but consistent in finesse and exciting appeal.

Treetop Flyers do not sway away from the six minute long song and all thirteen tracks in total on PALOMINO almost push the hour mark in duration. However the listen does not drag, helped considerably by the scheduling of two of the stand out tracks at either end and freshening up the core of the record with significant gear changes. The album is vocally balanced whether Reid is pouring his heart and soul into a ballad or one where the sound is ramped up into rock proportions. In fact Treetop Flyers are developing into a diverse band equipped to be successful in whatever arena they perform in and leading a UK blueprint to match US bands such as Dawes which practice a similar style.

The link between these two bands is UK indie label Loose Music who have now issued both albums from Treetops Flyers and once upon a time had Dawes on their roster. Prior to Loose releasing this album, the band recorded it in their Soup Studios and some of the tracks started to emerge last year when they hit the road in the autumn for a few low key dates. One of those was witnessed at the Sunflower Lounge in Birmingham and the band is due to return to the city in April as part of a higher profile tour to support this album. Two tracks recalled from that show last year emerge as beacons on the new album. ‘Dance Through The Night’ also had video coverage as details of the new material started to hit the airwaves and sees the band almost cross over into dance territory with a tune designed to get many a cool guy’s feet shuffling. Its shimmering organ parts create a sixties psychedelic haze to snare the listener’s attention. ‘St. Andrew’s Cross’ is at the other end of the sonic scale and sees Reid pay tribute to his late father in an acoustic ballad giving the swirling electric guitars a breather.

The two stellar tracks which bookend the album start with the driving guitar feast ‘You, Darling You’ blessed with harmony vocals and an infectious chorus conveying the sentiments of the song. ‘Wild Winds’ is the song to close the album and once again is chorus friendly which is in fact introduced in the track’s opening bars before this foot stomping groovy piece roles out. Although the four tracks mentioned so far are great songs, they are just eclipsed by two other tunes fighting it out for PALOMINO’s golden moment (excuse the pun). ’31 Years’ is another song written to reflect on a passing and this rousing anthem has just had its own video delivered into the digital world to support the album in the run up to its release. Many delightful listens to this record just give the exhilarating ‘Sleepless Nights’ the summit position on the back of its stunning guitar riffs and glorious appeal.

The other five tracks each play their part in making PALOMINO an album to enjoy and recommend.‘Lady Luck’ is one of several six minute mini epics, while ‘It’s a Shame’ see the band slip into a soulful mode. ‘Falling Back’ is one of the undulating tracks where the guitars once again pick up after the album’s tender moment. ‘Never Been As Hard’ plays the opposite role and slows things down after a rocker and the line-up is completed by the sensibilities portrayed in ‘Fairytales and Lullabies’.

In all its glory, PALOMINO is a dreamy rock tinged record with its alt edges and soulful centre. It mixes venom with style and announces the return of Treetop Flyers as a cutting edge band resonating well in Americana, rock, indie and alternative circles. The next step is to catch the band live in April and re-live the album in its stage format.

Alice Wallace - Memories, Music and Pride : California Country Records

If you are wondering around the pop up stages on the Sunday of the Country 2 Country Festival at the O2 Arena, an essential look in should be Alice Wallace. The name may be new to many folks in the UK, but the sound will be familiar to those constantly seeking out the soul of country music. MEMORIES, MUSIC AND PRIDE is the third album release by the Southern California-based Alice and had its US debut at the back end of last year. Upon a solitary listen, this eleven track collection immediately grabbed the attention and invited many repeat plays. This was absolutely inevitable considering the music has the agenda of honesty, integrity and true to the desires of the soul. It is a record sharing the vision of travel broadening the mind and pinpoints an artist with impeccable taste.

California country music has often ploughed down its own path, dating back to the Bakersfield Sound and the 60s/70s pioneering infusion of rock and folk. Alice is not shy on factoring in external style influences into her music and walks the fine line of being progressive without bowing to popular trend. Like a good ole solid country song, Alice’s compositions explore a wide range of personal emotions wrapped in an explicit coating of stark authenticity. A voice soaked in the dulcet tones of everyday Americana breathes life into each story and an ear pleasing soundtrack is on hand to add much more than the gloss of the tunes.

The album’s title sums up Alice’s mood from spending so much time taking her music on the road. It appears as a line in ‘Luck, Texas’, just one of those quirky small town names as well as hosting a honky tonk where Alice played whilst on tour. This track is equally as memorable for its midway tempo switch and is just one of many notable highlights of the band playing an important part. ‘Poor Cleopatra’ sits one track earlier on the running order and displays Alice’s skill of weaving a story into an observation picked up from travelling. This piece also contains some classy pedal steel which sets the sound tone for a majority of the record. Jeremy Long is the said musician and also excels on organ, keys, accordion and dobro. Instrumentally the album kicks off with a varied sound as Alice’s vocals roar in gear on the ballsy and sassy ‘I Just Don’t Care Anymore’. From this start we know she ‘ain’t taking no crap’ and the rest of the album portrays Alice as a performer in total control, while flourishing incessantly on all the attributes that make this a top record.

Two other singers-songwriters came to mind when listening to Alice for the first time. Allison Moorer was heard on the emotive ‘Perfectly Painful Life’, complete with a soulful backing sound, while immediately the vocal sound drew comparisons with UK artist Danni Nicholls. Alice herself throws more names into the mix when referring to influences in her online bio. These unsurprisingly include modern day country influenced artists finding refuge under the Americana banner and iconic traditionalists who will always retain the true spirit of country music. By tribute, Alice covers the 30s Patsy Montana standard ‘I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart’ and her version sits comfortably with the many others, complete with yodelling.

We are now at the centre point of the album and the second half continues to arouse your interest with great song writing alongside the stylish musical offering. ‘A Traveling Song’ is the album’s pivotal track with its biographical stance incorporating truth, positivity and plain speaking inspiration. It emerges as the complete ballad, bottling up the true essence of making your living in this unconventional way. Alice’s song writing peaks in this song with the immortal line ‘The only true thing we have in this life is a chance to wake up in the new morning light’. Of course this life can have its downside and the pain, bitterness, imperfection and lost love is fertile ground for songwriters. ‘Rough Around the Edges’ moves into this territory and ‘Ohio Boy’ gets deep down into the psyche of the travelling singer-songwriter.

We have mentioned the potpourri of genre input energising this album and ‘Grateful’ see Alice firing in full folk mode. ‘Leave’ is the album’s sole original co-write and represents the smooth side to a record which will have little difficulty in appealing to a wide range of listeners prepared to chance their arm on an artist they aren’t familiar with. ‘If I Didn’t Win’ concludes the track listing and the clear winners are Alice Wallace for making such a great record and the adventurous music seekers who find her.

MEMORIES, MUSIC AND PRIDE is an album for the tuned in and turned on. It’s packed with enlightenment and inhibitions are certainly down. The memories are vivid, the music is pinpointed and the pride is immense. Alice Wallace is an artist worthy of your consideration and the architect of an album poised for widespread appeal. Her inaugural UK trip in March should be the start of something big if the gods of justice are looking on.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Kelly Oliver - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 24th February 2016

You won’t read many gig reviews that start with a trio of Neil Young, Van Morrison and Kelly Oliver, but more of that later. Putting the first two aside, Kelly Oliver is a treasured young folk singer equipped with the three tangible essentials of great songs, beautiful vocals and fine playing. Add in her hardworking ethic, emerging stage presence and acute ear for influence, and you will see the portrait on the canvas beginning to take shape. However the finishing touch which makes Kelly such a special talent is that innate ability to captivate a listener’s attention, and for an hour tonight at the Kitchen Garden Café a privileged gathering succumbed to the charm of her artistry.

To put a few facts down as a marker, Kelly hails from Hertfordshire, has only been actively involved in the professional side of music for a couple of years, but already has two critically acclaimed albums under her belt. A prolific advocator of taking her music on the road has seen Kelly play countless gigs around the country. Radio airplay has been extended from the local stations to national ones and she had the call from Bob Harris to record an Under the Apple Tree session for his burgeoning Internet channel. Kelly returns to the Cambridge Folk Festival this year to play an event where she first caught my ear two years ago. As stated at the time, the lure of Van Morrison wasn’t strong enough to leave the Club tent and soak up the promise of a number of young artists which included Kelly.

Almost two years on and it has been super to finally catch Kelly in an extended live environment; one where she has the appropriate platform to own the surroundings. This was Kelly’s first show in Birmingham and further trips to the area will inevitably grow her audience. Word will get around how good she is and the team around her will continue to eye up further opportunities. The current tour, which has included several local BBC radio sessions along with the gigs, is the launching pad for her second album BEDLAM. In contrast to her debut release, the new record is entirely made up of original material and in true contemporary folk tradition Kelly balances the song generations remarkably well.

During her time on stage this evening, which evolved into around an hour and a quarter, Kelly grew into the intimate environment sounding better and better with each song. Starting off with the title track from the new album, we proceeded to hear another five songs each crisply raising the profile of the release. With the exception of ‘The Other Woman’, which gave Kelly a well-earned talking-break, the other songs were spiced by an enlightening introduction thus revealing the family connotations to ‘Lay Our Heavy Heads’ and ‘Miles to Tralee’, an independent take on the biblical story ‘Jericho’ and a curious re-definition of the song ‘Same World’. In a show of many highlights, the latter one ensured a lasting impression with its style and sincerity.

Away from the pen of Kelly, we were thoroughly entertained by her versions of the traditional songs, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘Pat Do This’. Perhaps the best of Kelly’s interpretations came at the end with a sterling encore performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. Assisted at various times by her harmonica playing, she proclaimed her adoration for Dylan and cited the influence of traditional Irish folk music. Her vocals at times do represent the classic traditional edge of folk music with an ingrained elegance sprinkling gold dust on the songs.

Not long after crossing Kelly’s path for the first time, she released her debut album THIS LAND and four numbers from that record were heard in the show tonight. Fellow young luminary of the English folk and roots scene Luke Jackson was mentioned alongside ‘Diamond Girl’, alas not sung in duet format on this occasion. We were given an informative background story to ‘The Witch of Walkern’ with respect to Kelly’s locality. ‘Far From Home’, another potential star song on the evening was introduced as the track selected for the Bob Harris video session, leaving just ‘Mr Officer’ bringing her main set to a conclusion before the well-deserved encore call.

On an evening recorded in the annals as an unqualified success, special mention must be reserved for the four piece band Speak Brother from nearby Rugby who opened the show. A decent mix of piano, fiddle, acoustic/electric guitar and improvised percussion flavoured a bunch of interesting songs delivered in an engaging style. The band are set to return to the Kings Heath area of Birmingham to launch their new EP soon and the promise is definitely in place for the four guys to carve out a slice of appreciation on the Midlands roots music scene.

The band played their part in setting up the evening for Kelly and the build-up praise emerged into reality once the main part of the show got underway. It has been a lengthy wait to finally catch a full live Kelly Oliver gig and the result was a tenfold accumulation of appreciation. She is a talent to be supported, praised and most of all, enjoyed. I’m sure the Neil Young drawing hanging on the wall behind her would concur! 

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Gretchen Peters - Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove. Friday 19th February 2016

A twentieth anniversary has connotations of being in the coming of age bracket and the full band show of Gretchen Peters did just that during this current celebratory tour of Britain. Gretchen’s talent as a singer-songwriter is sealed in the vault and her musical relationship with Barry Walsh has been cast in gold for a long time. The live development of working with Christine Bougie and Conor McCreanor added an extra spring to the step of the stage show and now the introduction of Colm McClean has raised the band bar to the level of other pre-eminent artists. Gretchen’s ascendancy continues to re-define her peak and this evening’s show at a sold out Artrix Theatre in Bromsgrove drew many cries of the best yet. From a viewpoint of seeing her live in several formats and different sized venues over the last decade, it is difficult to argue with this claim, not just the pedal steel and electric guitar of Colm garnishing the songs, but Gretchen herself finding further incredible depth in conveying her compositions to a mesmerised audience.

A couple of songs into the first of the two high class mirrored sets, we were given an introduction to how effective the pedal steel guitar was going to be on stage with a gilt edged contribution to the scintillating Tom Russell co-write ‘Guadalupe’. By now it was apparent that Gretchen was in that transfixed zone of relaying the majesty of her songs. ‘The Secret of Life’ opened proceedings, just like it did to her solo recording year a couple of decades ago. The lyrical sharpness exclaimed in ‘the secret of life is there ain't no secret and you don’t get your money back’ whetted the appetite as Gretchen went straight into the cutting edge analysis of ‘The Matador’.

This popular song with the powerful conclusion was one of three tracks from HELLO CRUEL WORLD to sparkle in the show’s first half, alongside the emotive title track and the incredibly perceptive ‘Woman on the Wheel’. At this point Colm chipped in with the first thrilling guitar solo as this top song, from still my favourite Gretchen Peters album, added an extra vibrancy to the event. It is impossible to mention this song and not wince at the vision of ‘one false move and it’s a real bad day at the amusement park’. Apart from the song which started things on the stroke of eight, the other memory lane trip during the pre-break set was ‘Love and Texaco’ from her second album and introduced as one of many car-inspired songs written at the time. The other three songs before the interval that probably brought the artists a welcome break, but not us admiring audience members, had an up to date contemporary tinge. Ben Glover, who opened for Gretchen when she last played Bromsgrove nearly three years ago, was kindly credited as the co-writer on the recently award winning ‘Blackbirds’ and from the latest studio album which housed this song and borrowed its title, the band served up a delightful version of ‘Everything Falls Away’. The remaining song from the first set saw Gretchen temporarily move away from her own writing and celebrate the work of Ben Bullington by singing one of his songs. ‘Ring Around the Moon’ was one of the indulgent inclusions on the retrospective album Gretchen has just put out to support this tour and flourished with the aid of further pedal steel.

‘Could the second half surpass the first?’ was pondered during the interval and we all had a firm idea of what was to come. ‘Well she lit up the sky that fourth of July’ still raises the hairs on your arm when the second verse of ‘Independence Day’ begins, as this classic now has a settled live format of Gretchen solo on piano, when Barry kindly vacates the seat. In the same vein that you know each tour sees her popularity in the UK increase; two songs with a special place in many fans hearts over here find their inclusion on the set list. ‘When You  Are Old’ was not surprisingly played as a tribute to the late Terry Wogan. While one of several emotional moments arrived as the line ‘And I wept in the arms of Jesus for the choice you made’ was sung from ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’. This timeless classic slipped seamlessly into the brilliant ‘Idlewild’ as that sad pre-encore moment arrived.

However before we prepared ourselves for the anticipated climax, there were several contrasting highlights from the second set, led from the front by the ever heart wrenching ‘Five Minutes’ with the classic line ‘last weekend she ran off to meet a boy in Tennessee, just like I used to run to you’. This song is fast moving up the Gretchen Peters favourite scale, but tonight it had a serious rival in ‘If Heaven’ which was sung just before the band appeared after the break. ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ was another tune brought to life on stage by the influence of the quartet and once again praise needs reserving for Colm for playing a neat solo piece on ‘Black Ribbons’. The remaining song to mention from the second half was Gretchen delving back a couple of albums to dig out the ever faithful ‘Sunday Morning (Up and Down Our Street)’.

So how was this successful night going to end? There had been a lot of press about the recorded duet with Bryan Adams ‘When You Love Someone’ appearing on the new compilation album and this duly made an appearance (sadly minus Bryan) as the first encore song. This just leaves the finale and previously the territory of a Gram Parsons, John Prine and Rolling Stones song. This evening all these had to make way for the old Rodney Crowell/Waylon Jennings number ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ which appeared on the last tour, but had pride of place this year as the closer. While credit has to be given to Conor for playing the essential bass role all night, it was left for a piano/guitar duel from Barry and Colm to end the show with Gretchen admiringly looking on, no doubt proud to see how her band is evolving.

This tour has been a resounding success for Gretchen Peters who was totally bowled over by the response, especially the reaction and aura to her sold-out Union Chapel gig in London. She was buzzing throughout the show and after, with a glow so grateful that many folks were continually being moved by her music. The good people of Worcestershire and the West Midlands played their part in this successful phase which on the positive side shows no sign of abating or peaking. A truly memorable show consigned to the gift wrapped side of the memory bank.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Maz O'Connor - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 16th February 2016

Photo Rob Bridge Redwood Photography
Sitting comfortably at the heart of a thriving young folk performer scene is a singer-songwriter from Barrow-in- Furness by the name of Maz O’Connor. With a couple of albums under her belt, a BBC Radio 2 Folk award nomination in her bio and association with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), Maz is set to make 2016 another memorable year in her developing career. Among countless shows, a new record is set to emerge and by the numbers turning up at the Kitchen Garden Café tonight, word of her talent is spreading around. It was a return visit to the Kings Heath venue for Maz, although this time booked direct rather than through an external promoter, and the securing of her talents for the evening paid off handsomely.

This current tour is being promoted under the banner of the new album title THE LONGING KIND and sensibly Maz is using the dates to showcase many songs from a release which sees her for the first time solely rely on original material. To help Maz deliver the songs to a live audience, she has enlisted the services of two other musicians to form a trio. One of these is no stranger to me or the venue as Laura Carrivick has played here several times with her sister Charlotte including most recently as a part of the new quartet Cardboard Fox. Tonight Laura provided a small element of twang to the sound, experimenting in lap steel and banjo alongside her trademark fiddle, a staple of any Carrivick Sisters show. In-demand session double bassist John Parker completed the trio and just looking at the artists he has played with suggested the rhythm part of the show was in good hands.

Prior to Maz commencing the first of her two sets, London based fellow singer-songwriter Emma Ballantine opened the evening by playing some of her songs for half an hour. Emma had sufficiently impressed when supporting Blue Rose Code at the venue towards the end of last year to be invited back and her stylish take on simple song delivery created a setting for folks to sit up and take notice. Introducing songs from her recent EP titled TOURIST, which includes a cover of Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Queen and the Soldier’, Emma showed enough poise to rise above the deluge of solo acoustic acts and demonstrate that a promising future is in her grasp with more shows and recorded material under her belt.

Perhaps getting to the status of Maz is a short term goal for Emma and what we witnessed as the main part of the show got underway was an assured folk singer balancing the key components of fine vocal acumen and engaging audience chat. The latter exuded a huge degree of warmth and familiarity as we got to know a little more about her and the influences for the new record. Opening with the title ‘The Longing Kind’, Maz almost devoted the whole of the first set to the new record by playing ‘A Winter's Blues’, ‘Crook of His Arm’. ‘Mother Make My Bed’ and ‘Jane Grey’. If you nip over to her Bandcamp site, three of the new songs can be streamed ahead of the release and while you’re there, pre-ordering wouldn’t be a bad idea. The exception of new songs before the interval was Maz’s take on the Child ballad ‘The Grey Selkie’ which appeared on one of her previous records. There were enough folk fans in the audience to respond in the affirmative when asked if anyone knew the story of the song.

hoto Rob Bridge Redwood Photography
After being flanked by her bandmates for the entirety of the first set, Maz both started and finished the second in total solo mode, with the encore definitely saving the best to last and a stunning instrument-free rendition of ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Both bold and beautiful in its accomplishment, it sealed the success of the night. The new tracks still flowed after the break highlighted by a sad song melody which closes the album in ‘A Rose’ and ‘When the Whisky Runs Dry’. In this part of the show Maz did delve back into her 2014 album THIS WILLOWED LIGHT and turn to the songs ‘Nightcap’, ‘Barcelona’ and ‘The Mississippi Woman’. These tracks induced moments of invited audience participation, alternative takes on the creation story and a poignant comment of recalling a primary school pupil describing a folk singer as ‘somebody who writes songs but is not famous’.

On that thoughtful and perceptive note, it is worth celebrating the fact that singers like Maz O’Connor are famous enough to uproot from their hometown and are prepared to tour their songs and music around the land. At just twenty five years of age, Maz has many years ahead of her in the often choppy waters of the music industry, but is supremely armed with a talent arsenal to ensure success on a defined scale is secured. Venues like the Kitchen Garden Café vibrantly play their part in this scene and on the evidence of tonight’s show, we may be in the midst of a golden age where indie is king and creativity is flowing unhindered. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

McCusker, McGoldrick and Doyle - MAC, Birmingham. Sunday 14th February 2016

Partial compensation for missing the Transatlantic Sessions for the first time in five years has been catching up with three of the show’s stalwarts, as John McCusker. Michael McGoldrick and John Doyle head out on their own post-Sessions tour. Twelve months ago the trio made a pit stop to perform at Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre and the MAC was delighted to host them again this year. There was certainly a Celtic spirit in the air as a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman delivered a feast of tunes and songs to warm the hearts of an audience taking a detour around any Valentine’s Day hype. For close on two hours, the trio threw a style of guitars, fiddle, pipes, flute, whistles and harmonium into the mix, with the output being a marvellous collection of music steeped in the folk tradition from around these isles.

Despite a Manchester accent and base, Michael McGoldrick is every inch the Celtic performer, majoring on Uillean pipes, whistles and flute and being a significant performer on the traditional roots circuit including a member of the acclaimed Scottish folk band Capercaillie. John McCusker is a bonafide Scot, exceptional fiddle player and professional musician since leaving school in his late teens. John Doyle adds the Emerald Isle spice and particularly offers an Irish-American angle due to the many years he has spent working in the States. John is the only one of the trio seen before in a solo or small gathering setting when he played the Kitchen Garden Café last September. While that event was successful in getting to really understand his music, the songs he performed tonight took on a whole new profile when backed by the skilled musicianship of his two colleagues.

This twin-set evening panned out as an even split between the mixture of instrumental tunes led by McCusker and McGoldrick and the songs of Doyle. Over the course of the near-two hours, seven of the latter were presented some familiar and others not so, but all equally resounding in their impact. Headed by the jolly drunken singalong ‘Fall Down Billy O’Shea’ and closely matched by another chorus-friendly anthem in ‘Across the Western Ocean’, each song provided a memorable focal point. Doyle introduced ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’ as an ode to his fellow countrymen who braved the perils of nineteenth century emigration. In contrast ‘I Never Let You Know’ was given a light hearted Valentine’s Day tinge and ‘I Know My Love’ was the song which saw the vocals kick in after an instrumental led start. Two traditional songs completed the vocal line up in ‘The Bonnie Light Horseman’ and ‘Banks of the Bann’. Doyle’s guitar skills on a beautiful sounding electric one, usual acoustic instrument and a guitar-bouzouki hybrid, all housed his considerable playing talent which also supplemented the others on the rest of the instrumental set.

As previously intimated, John McCusker is a highly talented fiddle player and the composer of many original tunes which he led during the evening. The most memorable of these from a story perspective was ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ which John composed on his first ever trip abroad as a teenage musician well over twenty years ago. If anything John was the chatty member of the trio and assumed an informal leader role. He started the evening with a short harmonium piece and returned to this most traditional of instruments in the closing stages.

Michael McGoldrick held the central and the least animated position on the stage, but proved the more versatile in sound offered. That which emanated from the Uillean pipes was the most pleasing to the ear closely followed by the flute and assorted whistles. Hailed as the world’s foremost whistle player did slightly jinx Michael during one tune with a moment that became ‘what happens on stage stays on stage’. However 99% of the musical craft on display was exemplary and there must not have been a single dissatisfied customer in the house.

With such busy professional lives, it should be treasured when such fine individual exponents as McCusker. McGoldrick and Doyle get together to tour the sum of their talents. They breathe the life of modernity into the class of traditional Celtic music, presenting it in such a way that no fan of roots music can fail to be impressed. It is unimaginable that this arrangement will not continue in the future, so there should be plenty of occasions to catch the live magic of John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick and John Doyle at a venue near you soon.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Austin Lucas - Between the Moon & the Midwest : Last Chance Records/At the Helm Records

If the term ‘saving country music’ can be considered an ethos rather than just a popular website, the new record by Austin Lucas not only shores up the defences, but re-loads the ammunition. BETWEEN THE MOON & THE MIDWEST is seeing the light of day through a collaboration between US label Last Chance Records and its UK partners At The Helm Records. Apart from eventually giving Austin Lucas a well-earned pay check, the other winners are those folks hooked on ‘how they used to make ‘em’ countryrecords as this ten track album unwraps in an aching vocal malaise of cliché free splendour. Using the bitter experience of reality and frustration, the record adopts a near-concept stance while offering a sombre serving to those seeking the solace of a sad song sanctuary.

Austin’s path to making a country album echoing the vibes created across the industry by Sturgill Simpson came from his indie/alternative background via the last album STAY RECKLESS which laid down the twang marker. The new record wastes little time in enhancing that mark and the painful opener ‘Unbroken Hearts’ makes an immediate case for being the country song of the summer, or at least the spring. Reverberating the album’s title in its chorus, ‘between the moon and the Midwest' could be where outlaw country has been hibernating until the time is right to return to the pinnacle. This song takes no prisoners in its directed attack, deeply personal in its sentiments and plants the perfect hook for the rest of the story to be told.

Several characters are introduced and returned to frequently over the next nine songs notably Kristie Rae and William We are advised of their fictional status but left to surmise their representation and they certainly lend some sincerity to Austin’s writing. This mainly takes place from a solo angle with the occasional co-write, although it can be detected that the solo ones pack the more powerful punch. ‘Kristie Rae’ is actually the title of track #3 after a good ole country rocker in the name of ‘Ain’t We Free’ maintains the momentum after the superb opener. Fictional or not, ‘Kristie Rae’ revs into action after an acoustic start and begins to convey the personal pain that flickers continually to ensure this is a record of deep substance. This track also introduces the third dimensionally placed character ‘William’, also the title of a stripped down song in the album’s latter stages. To further enhance the concept status, the closing track ‘Midnight’ threads in a letter penned from William to Krista where Austin’s pontificating gets deeper and more spiritual. You should be starting to get the message now that this record is not for the faint hearted and heavily recommended to be consumed with the lyric booklet in tow.

This album re-energises the spirit of country music storytelling and vocal assistance has been provided by three eminent performers on the right side of the line in Lydia Loveless, John Moreland and Cory Brannan. Lydia makes the most profound contribution singing harmony and duet pieces on ‘Wrong Side of the Dream’ which evolves into one of the album's stronger stand-alone songs. As you would expect, pedal steel is prevalent throughout the record that is probably defined by the heartfelt style in which Austin sings the songs, soaked in pure emotion. Lyrically the record hits a splendid metaphorical low in ‘Call Me a Doctor’ when demons are well and truly faced amidst the line ‘call me an undertaker…y’all can watch me disappear’. Having introduced you to seven of the tracks, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the other three. ‘Pray for Rain’ is a howling country standard drooling in pedal steel guitar. ‘The Flame’ is synonymous with the writing theme of using direct address, while ‘Next To You’ re-introduces Krista, as loss is categorically lamented.

The good news is that Austin Lucas has survived the making of this album and is returning to his old stamping ground of Europe to give the record a hefty launch over here. Of course BETWEEN THE MOON & The MIDWEST has its rough edges, but that is what you would expect from a real country record and this harnesses the honesty. Entirely introspective and wonderfully wearisome, it achieves its objectives without any hesitation and adds considerable weight to the ‘saving country music’ ethos.

The Black Feathers - Soaked to the Bone : Blue House Music

The long wait for The Black Feathers debut album is now over as Gloucestershire based duo Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler announce their arrival as a fully-fledged LP producing act. The wait hasn’t exactly been inactive as the duo did put out an EP a couple of years ago, have won over many fans with their countless live shows and possess a high profile exposition in pushing their music forward. SOAKED TO THE BONE is one of the year’s most pertinent album titles to date as The Black Feathers get right to the core of what makes a record good. There are no fake credentials to the eleven tracks that make up this release, which was initially crowd funded before getting issued on Blue House Music. This is an exciting album packed full of great tunes, sumptuous harmonies and a writing style that aches with heartfelt sincerity.

Ray and Sian have intimated at once dabbling at trying to crack mainstream pop with their writing, but regardless of any success in that direction, this album wouldn’t have surfaced and the world would have been a poorer place. The husband and wife team own this record from top to bottom, give or take a few pennies donated to Bob Dylan, and while the hooks are plentiful, a real depth to the feeling can only be revealed on a record without compromise. These hooks are most prominent on two stylish feel good numbers with one being a touch ironic. ‘Down to the River’ has been awarded the status of album preview track and this highly infectious vibrant song possesses a dark undercurrent in its lyrics. There is no harm in focussing on this and the’ no messing about’ album opener ‘Take Me Back’ which springs into action as a ballsy fiddle induced number as soon as you hit the play button. However there is so much more to this record which needs exploring.

Ten of the eleven songs are credited to the writing of Ray and Sian with the odd one out emerging from a songwriter with a promising future. Putting irony aside for the moment, the version of ‘Make you Feel My Love’ makes a strong case for reclaiming this song for the roots fraternity. While praising the song writing of others, there are several self-penned ballads on the album awash with great lyrics. ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’ is a waltz tune for the modern ages and reveals two voices burrowing themselves into the fabric of the song. The fiddle of Anna Jenkins glows on this song, which neatly segues into two other familiar players on the record, namely the legendary BJ Cole on pedal steel and the accomplished Dobro expertise of Phillip Henry. Overall the musical input on this record is a resounding success leaving sufficient room for the real stars of the show to blossom – the lyrics and voices of Ray and Sian.

The affable and widespread appeal of The Black Feathers has led to a popularity of fans spreading the breadth of the country, folk and Americana communities. While labels have their place, why not join the trendy crowd in binning genres and reflecting in the glory of the music being presented. Some folks like star associations and The Civil Wars have been banded around, but this should cease as Ray and Sian show no signs of quitting mid tour! Anyhow back to the song analysis and a few more examples as to why this album has the potential to thrive in cool circles. Swapping and exchanging duet roles amongst the harmonies is a thread throughout the record. For example, Sian opens on ‘Arclight’ which contains the fetching line ‘two shards which make a whole’, while Ray starts off the demanding track ‘Blind’ with the meaningful lyric ‘if I was born blind would you cry for me’. The duo soar in the sincerity stakes on ‘Homesick’ and bring the sound right down to a semi morbid depth for ‘Winter Moves In’ with prime responsibility being at the feet of the cello. In contrast ‘All For You’ is a jovial celebration of union with the metaphorical album title featuring as one of the lines.

The song analysis has generally rolled out in some kind of sequential order as the two remaining tracks to consider are the last two on the record. ‘Spider and the Fly’ is the most left field track on the album and is a million miles away from that distant thought of writing pop songs, with its intriguing alternative tinge. Album closer ‘Clear Blue Sky’ is a more conventional ballad and probably represents a general feel that the record is not a tough listen if you desire just to taste the top of the glass.

However as it says in the title, SOAKED TO THE BONE demands that you dive deep into the vaults and appreciate the inner quality that makes this a debut record to savour. The entrancing style of Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler presents a music collaboration meant for each other and this gregarious, ambitious duo have presented a forthright album uncomplicated in its appeal and incredibly genuine to its core. The Black Feathers have not wasted the long wait for this debut album, if anything the lengthy process has fuelled its finesse.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Woodman Folk Club, Kingswinford. Friday 12th February 2016.

Another year, another new venue and another opportunity to catch up with the music of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood. With that all important second album successfully in the bag, the challenge has been resumed to spread the word within the folk music and wider community. However, not a band to rest on their laurels, we were barely half way through the first set before Kim announced the ongoing writing and recording process with the first live playing of a post-HISTORIA song. This wasn’t the only surprise from Kim’s set list which rolled out to be an even spread from her recorded material, but more of that later. However what has now become a staple given, and far from a surprise, is the sheer quality and delight of listening to so many interesting songs in a live setting over an extended period.

The venue this evening was a rare step into the Folk Club world, although the band are regulars in such accommodating places up and down the country. The Woodman Folk Club host their weekly show nights at the point where the suburban Black Country breathes in the rural air and is only a couple of miles from Kim’s home town of Stourbridge. It was easy to detect that the hosts were delighted with the large turnout, cementing the appeal that the band is collating around the area. In line with Folk Club tradition a couple of local acts were given the spotlight preceding both sets, but plenty of time was allowed, probably approaching an hour and half, for Kim Lowings and the Greenwood to breeze through nearly twenty of their songs.

Free of the ailments that hindered her on album launch night last October, Kim was in a vibrant mood for this near-hometown gig, engaging in jovial band interaction, clearly keeping the audience informed of her song choice and splendidly showcasing her vocal calibre. Not afraid to ditch the beloved dulcimer on a couple of occasions, Kim opened her first set by returning to The Be Good Tanyas number she has perfected ‘The Littlest Birds’. This part of the show rolled along with a mixture of traditional and original songs permeated by another interesting cover to match the opener. It was a brave move to carry out a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’, and somewhat a surprise after seeing a fair number of shows over the last three years. However Kim pulled it off to a tee with that difficult vocal precision commanded.

The remainder of the first set saw Kim mainly in familiar territory as she put her own stamp on the old time favourite ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’. This track featured on the new album which also included two self-penned songs ‘Monsoon’ and ‘Maggie’s Song’ that thrilled the audience during this first set. Three other Kim originals made an outing this evening in ‘Phoenix’, ‘Deepest, Darkest Night’ and ‘Off to Sea’. If one highlight was to be picked from the opening forty minutes on stage, the latter song made a very strong case. The remaining song before the break was the new one previewed. ‘Farewell My Love So Dear’ was introduced as a song with German folk origins and bodes well for a future likely to be a continued fresh mix of traditional, originals and smart covers.

At this point it is polite to mention the Greenwood stalwarts. Andrew Lowings started off on acoustic guitar before switching to bouzouki for the bulk of the second set with results in perfect tune with the venue’s impressive sound quality. The rhythm duo of Tim Rogers (cajon and cymbals) and Dave Sutherland (double bass and backing vocals) performed their usual stoical backfield roles. Kim’s trademark mountain dulcimer sounded as sweet as ever and apart from the purely vocal start, she reverted to instrument-free mode for a couple of songs in the second set as well.

Following the usual break, complete with obligatory raffle, the band bounced back on stage with a couple of traditional favourites in ‘Bonnie Labouring Boy’ and ‘Devil and the Ploughman’. While Kim was in solo vocal mode, she tackled ‘The Allotment’ and gave an interesting insight into the tune ‘In the Spirt of the Rusalkas’, which was one of the few songs not to appear on any of her releases to date. ‘Cuckoo’ and ‘The Wonderful Mr Clarke’ also lack a recorded status but prove regular live numbers. The same can be said of ‘Away Ye Merry Lassies’, a popular audience participation song along with the encore feature ‘The Flounder’ containing a memorable refrain being hummed around the venue. Two of Kim’s softer tunes completed the slightly longer second set in the love song ‘Stay’ and the title says it all, ‘Lullaby’, a beautiful piece of artistry found on the excellent HISTORIA album.

Keeping tabs on Kim Lowings and the Greenwood over the last three years has been an entertaining, informative and enjoyable pre-occupation. The relaxed, accomplished and executed performance of their songs, borrowed and owned, tonight easily rivalled and possibly exceeded all previous live listening experiences. So commendation to the Woodman Folk Club for hosting a super evening and for Kim and the guys in continuing to neatly evolve as a band. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Jarrod Dickenson - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Thursday 11th February 2016

Acquainting with the music of Jarrod Dickenson has been an intermittent activity over the last couple of years, but it can gladly be reported that appreciation is rocketing up the scale. After catching Jarrod play support shows in Birmingham for John Fulbright and Diana Jones in 2014 and 2015 respectively, this year he has made a return to the Glee Club to headline a date.  Of course one of the biggest steps that helped attract a highly credible number of punters this evening was the support shows he played with his band for The Waterboys towards the back end of last year including a sold out date at the Symphony Hall. Reports from that performance were extremely complementary, and although the funds weren’t sufficient enough to bring the band back for this latest tour, there was a marked degree of increasing assurance in how Jarrod presented his music.

Headlining a show does raise the bar for an artist and Jarrod is equipped with the songs, voice, sound and banter to convey the necessary confidence. For this tour, the New York based Texan was accompanied by his wife Claire on additional vocals and invited fellow Big Apple resident Cariad Harmon to play a few tunes to open each show. The evening was rolled out as a collaborative affair with Jarrod introducing Cariad when the show began and she returned the compliment by asking him and Claire to join her for one song. To complete the cosy arrangements, Jarrod invited both Cariad and fellow artist David Ford, who was in the audience, to join a crowded stage for the encore number. By this time the paying audience had their modest outlay repaid several times over with respect to the entertainment provided.

Cariad introduced herself as a Brit originally from London living in New York for the last twelve years. Balancing her opening set between a mixture of goofy love encounter songs and ones which paid the rent, she rose to the occasion with a spritely performance suggesting she had played many a choppier water than this Glee Club gathering. She was reliant on the content of her songs to polish her style and these successfully held the attention for the half hour in the spotlight. Cariad was honoured that Jarrod asked her to tour with him and to return to her homeland for the first time in four and a half years. What followed was an exhibition by Jarrod in how to evolve from an opener to the fully fledged main act.

For around an hour and ten minutes, the striking poise of Jarrod held court armed with the essential tools of a performing singer-songwriter. The rotation of a pair of contrasting guitars exuded a clear crisp sound which also warrants praise in the direction of the venue’s sound team. Without courting too many labels, Jarrod does skirt around the folk, country and blues genres, but essentially is a smart performer with a keen ear on a good tune and a talent to convey his thoughts into lyrical content. From the moment he took to the stage, the audience was offered exclusive attention as he paraded a diverse set featuring songs from his past releases, ones from his currently being mastered new album and the occasional choice-cover. The latter came in the guise of a splendid version of the Tom Waits song ‘Picture in a Frame’.

Essentially it is Jarrod’s own songs that form his artistic credibility with ‘California’ and ‘No Work for a Working Man’ impressing in the early stages, ‘Rosalie’ shoring up the middle section, followed by ‘In the Meantime’ and ‘Little Black Dress’ flavouring the closing moments. Perhaps the pick of the evening was ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’ where wife Claire stepped out of the harmony shadows to beautifully sing a verse suggesting there is more potential to evolve as a performing couple. The titles of the other songs are a little sketchy but Jarrod’s attempt to step into Texas cowboy music paid off along with a number he wrote with David Ford about the evils of financial greed.

While the fine details often hold importance, there is much merit in reflecting on the impression left by an artist and the aura they create while on stage. On both of these accounts, Jarrod scored high with an impeding hope that he can one day return to play headline shows with his full band. However life is sometimes just about the present and the practical. On that final point it is worth commending Cariad, Claire and Jarrod Dickenson for providing a highly enjoyable evening of entertainment and ensuring the art of the fine song is still king.

Amelia White - Home Sweet Hotel :White-Wolf Records

There are unimaginable differences between the life of a travelling musician and the vast bulk of us residing in a comparatively static world. This concept has no doubt been the topic and inspiration for many an artist over the years and 2016 is the turn of Amelia White to convey her feelings via the medium of music and song. HOME SWEET HOTEL is the figurative title of her latest album and compactly casts an inward glance at life on the road with more than one eye in the direction of the opportunity cost of what’s left behind. Ten original songs appear on this new record courtesy of Amelia and her team of writers, providing the focus for her equally adept ensemble of players to construct a soundtrack to complement. What materialises is an enlightening listen where Amelia successfully gets over her message with sustained swagger.

Previous comparisons with leading American female rock singers have been forthcoming in past press for Amelia and no doubt associations will continue to fly around. Not to be outdone here, envisage Lucinda Williams on a bright day and Amelia edges in that direction. A dark and moody undercurrent structures this album without covering it with melancholy. Instrumentally, the guitar rules in a light rock style which has become a signature sound for Americana music distancing itself from the mainstream. This record is fighting in a crowded market, but packs a sufficient punch to find a niche.

photo by Stacie Huckeba
Running at just over half an hour, the album won’t keep you for too long. However long enough to grasp the emotion in Amelia’ voice, the royalty in the musical package and the feelings in her lyrics. ‘Home Sweet Hotel’ trebles up as the album’s title track, stand-out song and heartbeat of the record. Conjuring up the sensibility of making a living in a transient way also appears in ‘Leaving is in My Blood’, which highlights Amelia’s skill in honing in on such meaningful song titles. Completing a trio of songs which glide to the ground first after spinning this album a few times is ‘Rainbow Over East-Side’. Referring to the area of Nashville where Amelia has found a community to support her art, this residing place has been the finishing line which began in Boston before heading to Tennessee via Seattle. With such quality music and inspiring song writing flowing out of this community, it seems an obvious match for someone as independently fired up as Amelia.

Once you tune into the cool rock groove of this record, the consistency will lock you in. ‘Dogs Bark’ does appear a touch experimental and the fiddle plays a significant part on ‘Road Not Taken’. If anything the musical soul of the album exists in the penultimate track ‘Right Back into My Arms’ when the guitars take control. Maybe after all the pondering about life as a travelling music it’s the lyrical sentiment of this track and the semi-tender ‘Melissa’ which meanders you deep into the psyche of Amelia White.

Just as OLD POSTCARD impressed in 2014, HOME SWEET HOTEL possesses that inner quality to succeed in making a significant mark. The good news is that Amelia is coming to the UK this summer and folks will get the chance to understand her music better in a live setting. As an artist with an impassioned approach to her writing, Amelia White will continue to gather praise and fulfil the insatiability of those seeking enhanced musicianship aligned with a strong lyrical presence. 

Applewood Road - Applewood Road : Gearbox Records

Put the brakes on, stop what you’re doing and reflect on the beauty of the basics. Seventies country song ‘Luckenbach , Texas’ proclaimed this notion and in 2016, stepping into the world of Applewood Road evokes a similar feeling. As if to take the simplicity to the nth degree, the international trio comprising of Amy Speace, Amber Rubarth and Emily Barker decided on the self-titled album to project their take on the three-part harmony to the wider world. The result is a shamelessly retro-laden thirteen track debut release sparkling in its beauty and perfectly formed to ease the listener into a perpetual state of sanctified emotion.

Of course the three architects are well known in differing degrees to a multitude of listeners. Emily Barker, settled Brit but no doubt forever a proud Aussie, has the highest profile in the UK and currently is an artist you have to keep pace with as she veers in so many post- Red Clay Halo directions. Amy Speace is one third of Applewood Road and one half of the project’s American input and has had the UK market on her horizon for the last couple of years as her recording career has accumulated releases. Amber Rubarth is a well-connected singer-songwriter but the one who has crossed my horizon the least over the last few years. However Applewood Road is all about the sum and when the parts host such considerable talent then the ultimate value will soar.

The Applewood Road project did have a rather instantaneous beginning when the three ladies were casually acquainted in Nashville in 2014 with the immediate realisation that something special was in the air. Sophisticated music listeners will be forever grateful that the trio has evolved since the self-titled opening track ‘Applewood Road’ forged this celestial collaboration. Sonically, the sound meets at the corner where country and folk collide, circa any time over the last hundred years. Maybe it could be described as thirties pioneering country music given an early sixties folk revival tinge, but essentially it’s timeless and maintaining a relevance in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It’s a project straight out of the T Bone Burnett repertoire, recounting the magic of RAISING SANDS with the context of Llewyn Davis and Oh Brother.

Recorded in Nashville before being finalised for release at the studios of Gearbox Records in London, it is drenched in the marvel of the single mic/single take production. Take your pick between detecting the solo parts amongst the diamond shower of the luscious harmonies, all ably assisted by the finely tuned backing track supplied by some serious Nashville players courtesy of every roots instrument you can think of. All thirteen tracks are original compositions, but all great songs have a starting point. Inspiration comes from the deep song writing well of the three ladies and when you consider the wealth of their solo input, the chances of scoring high in this format are nailed on.

While the album is best preserved as the entity perfected for that personal forty minutes of ‘me’ time, track after track has the potential to emerge as stand-alone specials and infiltrate radio and digital playlists. At positions two and three in the running order, ‘To the Stars’ and ‘Old Country Song’ make an immediate pitch for any virtual rankings with the latter designed to melt the heart. The tender track ‘Home Fires’ takes the sound down a notch or two with introspective pondering about love and is immediately followed by an uplifting spirited effort ‘Honey Won’t You’. As the album approaches its midway point, it is worth gazing at the list of players assisting Amber, Amy and Emily, with the name of Telisha Williams of Wild Ponies fame immediately springing out.

Fans of traditional country music will be enthralled by the significant melody attached to ‘Lovin’ Eyes’ which illuminates the album’s second half and showcases Amber's writing capabilities. Just prior to this, the more thoughtful songs ‘Give Me Love’ and the harmonica-spiced ‘Sad Little Tune’ display the emotional breadth that can be housed within a simple formatted style. The fiddle excels on another mellow effort in the Amy penned ‘Josephine’, but great roots music is designed to capture every aspect of the natural moods. The spirit and sentiment of ‘I’m Not Afraid Anymore’ permeates your aural senses. 'Bring Your Car Round' is a nostalgia song with a difference as Emily draws on the positive side of dealing with adversity  Like so many old time songs, the duration of each track on this release hovers around the two to three minute mark, an optimum moment to convey the elegance of each offering. Penultimate track ‘Row Boat’ takes you into the artist world of Van Gogh showing the synergy of fine art bringing to life a blank canvas and beautiful music filling an empty open mind. As if to announce the closure in a low key way, ‘My Love Grows’ shows you the way to the album’s door in a short bout of heartfelt brevity.

APPLEWOOD ROAD the album will thrill listeners who lock into the record and allow it to flourish within. Applewood Road the trio may be a once in a lifetime project such is the hectic schedules of Amber Rubarth, Amy Speace and Emily Barker. Whatever road is taken by each of these three wonderful artists in the future, they can look back fondly on Applewood Road’ s debut album as that blissful moment when the listener can just slow things down and reflect in the company of a delightful record.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham, Monday 8th February 2016

Otis Gibbs coined the phrase ‘there are only two things that matter in music, the artist creating it and the listener receiving it; everything else is an artificial filter’. Well there was no artificial filter in the Kitchen Garden Café this evening as Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin created the perfect union between performer and audience. Although this was the third occasion seeing the duo at the venue, the stars must have been aligned tonight to surpass the high standards from the previous dates. From a countless array of instruments, the Devon-based duo worked their way through a couple of sets exemplary in showcasing the multi talents of Phil and Hannah spanning extraordinary musicianship and purposeful song writing.

The packed venue was testament to an act devoted to touring their show and being prepared for many repeat visits to grow an audience. They possess an incredible knack of leaving an impressive mark on the minds of gig goers. Specialist industry acclaim has shadowed the duo which has evolved to be the archetypical hybrid act in folk-Americana circles. From the perspective of preserving the past through song and Hannah’s pristine vocal style, they have wooed the British folk community leading them to award winning status. There is little doubt that musically, one foot is firmly placed in the Appalachia Americana sound, not only in the prevalence of numerous slide guitars, banjo, fiddle and extensive creative use of harmonica, but also in the synergy their music has to the American roots movement.

Although there are many intriguing facets to their act, Phil’s solo harmonica pieces seem to create an individual aura to themselves. The breath gasping ‘Underground Railroad’ has become a staple of a Henry and Martin show over the last couple of years and never fails to impress, even if you feel Phil needs a breather after evoking the train spirit that helped form 19th Century America. In the second set, Phil once again commandeered the harmonica to present ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’. It was introduced as a tune tried out on a late night student crowd and it didn’t need much imagination to envisage even that audience mesmerised by the playing.

While on the subject of Phil’s instrumentation, the unveiling of a 4-in-1 ultra-impressive Indian slide guitar was enough to have serious pickers drooling. Announced as one tricky in the tuning department, it was only used for one song and emanated a beautiful string sound, as you would expect part sitar. Elsewhere Phil majored on a pair of more conventional Dobro’s, while Hannah was equally as adept flitting between banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar. She proudly displayed a brand new guitar acquisition towards the end of the show and shared an excellent new song titled ‘Albatross’, which was the immediate result of connecting with this latest addition to the Henry and Martin extensive instrument collection.

Primarily, Phil and Hannah were touring their latest album WATERSHED which saw the light of day last autumn. The opening track also had the honour of opening the show and several others were shared with this fixated Kitchen Garden audience. Phil introduced his personalised contribution to the album and also sang lead on ‘Yarrow Mill’. Hannah’s impeccable vocal performance peaked on ‘January’. Amongst the others to feature, ’Tonight’ was hailed as their Glastonbury headline tune, while ‘Taxis’ referred to their perpetual status as travelling musicians.

Most of the rest of the songs were lifted from 2013’s MYND including the James Taylor cover ‘Close Your Eyes’ which is the duo’s usual encore number. ‘Silbury Hill’ opened the second set, which was brought to a close nearly an hour later with ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike’. Hannah commented that it was extra special to play this song so close to the origin of the story which was based on a 19th Century march from Halesowen to Bromsgrove in support of beleaguered workers. Two further story songs from this album made an appearance during the show with Hannah informatively explaining the background of ‘Last Broadcast’ and ‘Song for Caroline Herschel’.

Whether or not the term artificial filter includes those who relay the content and experience of live music, the sentiment of the quote existed while sitting barely five paces away from Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin while they shared the fruits of their craft. Connectivity was without blemish and for two hours in the Kitchen Garden Café nothing else mattered while a pair of exceedingly talented artists performed for this attentive listener.