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!