Monday, 28 March 2016

Cale Tyson - Careless Soul : Clubhouse Records

Following his introduction to UK audiences last year, the big question is how would Cale Tyson build on this impressive beginning? The answer is about to be revealed when CARELESS SOUL gets its release on April 8 and folks are not going to be disappointed. Think – Louisiana Hayride meets Phil Spector meets Muscle Shoals in its heyday – and you can start to aurally imagine the sound that is going to pour out of your chosen listening device. There is a little bit of adjustment needed from the debut recordings that had multiple issues across the continents and get prepared for the horns influence straight from the early bars of the opening track. Once the necessary adjustments have been made, sit back and enjoy a masterclass of country soul – 2016 style.

CARELESS SOUL gets its UK release on Clubhouse Records and the notion of any gamble is erased immediately once this record sinks its mighty grooves into your pores. You will not be surprised to learn that it was recorded at the immortalised Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals with a production team and list of players worthy of acclaim when you gaze at their musical associations. Expect loads of strings and horns arrangements, courtesy of Jordan Lehning alongside the usual heavy dose of pedal steel, keys, bass, drums and assorted guitars. Sonically they pull together the other excellent traits of stellar song writing and Cale’s innate ability to express believable feeling through his voice. The twelves tracks emerge to be a roller coaster of emotions, treading the fine lines between love, loss, pity, redemption and all aspects of introspective analysis. But did you really expect anything less?

Cale Tyson is the master interpreter of the sad song and there’s plenty to wallow in on this outstanding record. His debut UK shows last year presented a performer with a striking presence and the good news this year is that the live show is being extended to a four piece band, sadly probably no horns but plenty of pedal steel no doubt. As earlier indicated, the musicianship on the new record is second to none, whether detected via the pedal steel on the re-assuring sad ‘Dark Dark’ or the scintillating keyboard piece on ‘Railroad Blues’, a song title straight out of the annals of traditional country music. 

The high spots on this record can almost be on a rotation and at the time of writing, the back to back blissful duo of ‘Travelling Man’ and ‘Pain in My Heart’ soar to the top of the pile. They epitomise Cale at his heartfelt best, imploding with tear jerking passion and leaving the listener in a drooling state of mind. Depending on your mood there is other significant port of calls including the soul stomping title track ‘Careless Soul’ packed with strings and embodying the appeal of early 60’s pop music. For a more earthy rock ‘n’ roll style number look no further than the subsequent track ‘Easy’ complete with stimulating instrumental solos. If you are looking for stylish writing then ‘Gonna Love a Woman’ will meet your approval and leave you to decide whether Cale is being witty or bitter in a ditty laden track bestowed with the catchy chorus line ‘if you’re gonna love a woman, you’re gonna be blue’.

The album starts and finishes in contrasting styles. Opener ‘Staying Kind’ leaves you in no doubt of the direction the record is going to take with horns immediately kicking in and a theme of clinging on to what you’ve got. On the other hand, ‘Ain’t it Strange’ acts as a restful closer, almost bringing you down from the pleasurable turmoil that the other tracks have generated. The second track on the record, ‘Somebody Save Me’ is a stark reminder that amongst all the lavish additions, Cale Tyson is essentially a country singer from Fort Worth Texas making the well-trodden route to Nashville Tennessee. The riveting keys and steel enhance this track which very much looks inwards with redemption. Apart from the short track that is fully explained in the title, ‘Pain Reprise’, the final song for consideration is ‘High Lonesome Hill’ which proves the most difficult one on the album to put a finger on. Either way, it fits perfectly with the vibes of the record and contains further evidence of Cale’s emotive vocals pouring out a multitude of expressive feelings.

CARELESS SOUL is an exceptional album showcasing country soul at its very best. It is a wonderful experience conjuring up images of wandering across the AM dial. There are no half measures; this is a full on release honing in on a heady mix of addictive pleasure and pain. Cale Tyson is a performer with natural charisma, possessing the nous for delivering explicit feelings in his songs. Any doubts that the promise of 2015 couldn’t be followed up are now distinctly obsolete. 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ashley Riley - Through the Thin : Self Released

It has been said that Americana music is more a state of mind than a definable art form. Likewise a host of superlatives and assorted literary devices only scratch the surface of the impact from listening intently to the new album by Ashley Riley. The thirteen songs that comprise THROUGH THE THIN are strikingly impressive in how they generate a mixture of moods and ambience, with the stark effect of initiating constant repeat listens. In essence this is an expertly curated album, driven by a controlled and well-judged guitar presence merging splendidly with Ashley’s hazy vocals. It’s a substantial release, weighing in at over three quarters of an hour, which gathers momentum from the early stages and packs a core punch with some sublime melodic tunes.

The connection with Ashley’s music is a mere product of the digital age which enables a relatively low key indie performer from Decatur Illinois to resonate with a UK blogger. Two years ago, her album ALL THE PRETTY THINGS was literally stumbled upon with a grateful ending and this follow up has been wired down a similar route with an effect that shows a significant upgrade. This is once again a self-driven project working closely with bass player Matt Comerford. The pair was joined by Tyler Bundy (lead guitar) and Ian Grindstaff (drums) in the studio and collectively they have done a superb job in getting the tracks primed for release in early April.

Fans of sophisticated and smooth indie/Americana music will have little problem connecting with the album and it will also comfortably sit in the contemporary roots rock field. There is a minimalist hint of twang to flicker in alt-country circles and shades of folk rock in the lyrical side to the output. The core of the album which makes the overall record come on leaps and bounds is a quartet of tracks to drool over. The fabulous song structure of ‘This Town’ rattles your senses before leading into the stand-out track ‘See You Around’. This song has been around for a while and almost bridges the gap between the last two albums. A video is available to share the song with the wider online community and it rolls out as a heartfelt (but somewhat distant) interaction with the memorable line ‘we could talk about your family or the baby on my hip’. ‘Potion’ sees the hint of twang decorating another inspiring song and ‘Misery’ completes this mid-album sequence with the full band in increased rock ‘n’ roll mode.

Either side of this album defining segment, there is no shortage of high spots. ‘Times’ kicks things off in a low key but essential building mood and implicitly leads into ‘Out to Sea’ which contains some serious guitar work. ‘Days Like This’ rolls out as track #3 with the mood and temperate atmosphere being securely set. By the time the album’s lengthy finale takes the home turn, the listener is entirely under the spell of Ashley and her band. The gorgeous ‘Stay’ shines in this part of the record and provides a warm glow to what can be described as a kinaesthetic album in how it touches you.

THROUGH THE THIN is a hugely impressive contemplative album, pensive in places and wholly seductive in its presence. The pace and the balance are finely tuned with its long lasting appeal a secure lock in. While circumstance will no doubt retain the distance between Decatur Illinois and the West Midlands gig scene, there is gratitude that the music of Ashley Riley found its way across the wires to a distant land. This album will be enjoyed on many more listens and it warrants Ashley enhanced success.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Birds of Chicago - Real Midnight : Five Head Entertainment

The impatient wait for new recorded material from Birds of Chicago is now over and not a single second of the four year period between studio albums appears to be wasted. REAL MIDNIGHT is the band’s re-emergence record and it rolls out with heavyweight appeal. The rock ‘n’ soul emotion pouring out of the eleven tracks evokes a jaw dropping reaction. JT and Allison prove once again to be the dream pairing, fusing a tight bond to ensure the body of their work unveils as an ethereal formula. The spirit of this record lies in the vocal contribution whether harmony, duet or solo as Allison’s soulful passion spars endlessly with the aching rock tones of JT.

While forever being the core of JT Nero and Allison Russell, Birds of Chicago cover a multitude of instrumental bases whether in the studio or on the road with their contributors. Acclaimed Joe Henry has done a sterling production job on the record, which surfaced in the wake of the now customary crowd funding campaign, so essential these days for independent artists. It was noted that the same producer has worked with Carolina Chocolate Drops alongside a pantheon of great American artists, and there is more than a hint of Rhiannon Giddens when Allison hits full throttle. This is most evident in the rivetingly uplifting ‘Barley’ which begins with the brutal beauty of Allison’s vocals before accompanying percussion kicks in; a pure display of secular gospel. This is one of two tracks that did see the light of day in some recorded format when appearing on the band’s 2014 live album, the other being ‘Sparrow’.

This live album which sparkled with such precision has proved the buffer between the new release and their eponymously titled debut in 2012. It was apt that the band embarked on a live release so early in their existence as the road proves to be very much their home. I can recall the couple’s newly born daughter being upstairs at a venue when they visited Birmingham a couple of years ago and this appears to be a continual pattern courtesy of sharing their touring tales via social media. Full appreciation of the chemistry between Allison and JT was fulfilled that night. Although, the talents of Allison had previously crossed my path in her Po Girl days and the clarinet playing evident then also appears on the new record. This is primarily on the excellent ‘Remember Wild Horses’ which also displays the couple in superb duet mode.

While the vocal contribution edges more in Allison’s direction, the writing is almost the sole domain of JT for the record. Not that Allison doesn’t excel in this field as well, especially as ‘Barley’ is her contribution and she played a significant writing role in Po Girl alongside the supremely similarly talented Awna Teixeira. Occasionally JT takes full reins of the vocals as evidenced at the start of ‘Estrella Goodbye’ and later features prominently in the solid track ‘Time and Times’ which bolsters up the latter stages of the record. The penultimate song on the album’s standard format proves to be one of the stand-out moments with ‘The Good Fight’ drenched in rousing positivity. Earlier eleven tracks were referred to, but Kick Starter activists were gift wrapped two bonus songs in ‘Love Kills Shadows’ and ‘Good Dream’.

Eyes are peeled for when Birds of Chicago decide to descend on our shores to promote this fine record and presently there only appears a solitary London date tagged onto a European visit in late spring. While the constraint of overseas touring is appreciated for a self-funding act, this record has the potential for Birds of Chicago to gain a further entrenched foothold in the UK. So hope prevails for an extended UK provincial tour at some point in the future to give this album greater exposure over here it undoubtedly warrants.

From the stimulating piano accompanied opener ‘Dim Star of the Palisades’, through the centrally placed title track ‘Real Midnight’ to the imaginative closer ‘Pelicans’, this record fails to reveal any weak points. It is decorated from head to toe in rich wealth and totally embodies the ideals of complete autonomy. REAL MIDNIGHT perfectly frames the musical philosophies of Allison Russell and JT Nero thus delivering a Birds of Chicago album to reside comfortably with the other big hitters to grace the contemporary roots scene in 2016. It’s a record bursting at the seams to reach the cultured ears, so why not yours?

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Red Sky July - The Truth and the Lie : Shadowbirds Records

The immediate challenge when listening to this new album from Red Sky July would be taking to it so effortlessly as their previous release SHADOWBIRDS. This 2014 record garnered much praise and landed the experienced trio an intriguing placement in the world of Americana leaning music. Of course good musicians and performers can evolve into a multitude of musical styles. Husband and wife pairing, Ally and Shelly McErlaine, alongside Charity Hair fell into this category and were able to mould their artistic talents of gorgeous harmonies and exquisite musicianship into a twang filled feast of lyric laden songs. It is proud to report that THE TRUTH AND THE LIE rolls out to be a seamless extension of their sophomore effort and presents itself as a luxurious listen.

There has certainly been a buzz about the release of Red Sky July’s third album and it scores highly on many fronts especially in its exemplary band chemistry alongside a feeling that the songs will grow further from a lofty first impression. There are many attributes to feed the appetite of demanding music followers, with the band spinning a number of genre plates, probably more out of artistic instinct rather than any marketing pursuance. If anything it resides on the genre fault lines with shades of country, folk, pop and Americana. Nevertheless, the album emerges as a heady mix possessing the necessary traits to court wide appeal.

The introduction of Red Sky July to me came via a support slot they played for Beth Nielsen Chapman just over two years ago and the two have re-united to play a significant part on this record. Beth gets her name on the sleeve credits for ‘Strathconon’, one of a number of ace tracks, and teamed up with Shelly to co-write two further songs. The input from one of Nashville’s most accomplished songwriters was probably invaluable. The same could also be said for the three other session musicians completing the studio line up adding the percussion, bass, Wurlitzer and pedal steel. Essentially however, Ally, with his many years of anchoring the guitar sound of Scottish rock band Texas, provides the stable base for Red Sky July to flourish and the two ladies who flank him on stage prosper in such surroundings. Charity also provides the fiddle input, but it is her vocal union with Shelly which really blossoms on the assortment of melody-blessed songs.

This album, produced in the band’s own studio, is a delight for those seeking their long playing records in a neat and tidy format. Ten tracks of a similar length ensure that not too much of your valuable listening time is demanded, but cleverly the album maximises each second of its luscious optimum existence. It wastes little time in making a statement and is not afraid to steer into pop territory in the opening track ‘Jet Trails’, but this is far from definitive of the album’s core and soul. The strongest claim for this is the stellar closing track ‘Sway’ which reveals itself as a divine and classy piece of work rich in pedal steel and electric guitar. A potential popular song syphoned off for extra promotion is ‘Walking Country Song’. Admittedly this track took a few listens to grasp and shake off the slightly clichéd name dropping which forms its base. From being an initial risk to engage me, the value eventually appeared. There was no similar stuttering process for the stunning ‘In Black’ which saw all three band members get the sleeve credit, but Shelly get the press release writing nod for penning such an impressively structured composition detailing Ally’s well documented illness from a different perspective.

Elsewhere the album bubbles with interesting tracks. Following the spritely opener, second number and title track ‘The Truth and the Lie’ comes across contrastingly earthy. Later in the record the band makes a brave attempt to create a slightly alternative engaging melody and succeed with the curious and partially acoustic ‘Earthwards’. The other Beth Nielsen Chapman contributions sparkle with song writing class, ‘Taking Myself Back’ slips easily into your listening sphere with a decent hook, while ‘Dodge’ contains some of the album’s most impressive guitar work. ‘Long Time Dead’ completes the offering and delivers the quintessential country ballad to a standard befitting an album steadily improving upon each listen.

THE TRUTH AND THE LIE is truly a worthy follow up to SHADOWBIRDS. It stands up to stern scrutiny and showers countless positive attributes on the ears of listeners seeking the eternal music trinity of melody, vocals and instrumentation. Red Sky July continue to be a trio successful in harnessing the talents bestowed on them and make music that runs far deeper than superficial appeal.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Country to Country Festival Pop Up Stages - The O2 Arena, London. Friday 11th March to Sunday 13th March 2016.

Charlie Worsham 
A popular feature of the Country to Country Festival is the pop up stages that frequent the outer ring of the O2 Arena over the course of the weekend. Each year these continue to expand to the extent where the periphery has been extended to ticketed events, converted venues and special promotions, in addition to the core free stages. With this year’s festival growing from two to three days, there was a mini explosion of artists from both sides of the Atlantic happy to see their application turn into an invitation to perform. Another development from attending the event for the first two years is that the alternative schedule progresses well into the evening, thus creating a viable choice for those not wanting to invest in the pricey arena shows. Inevitably any individual can only see a finite number of acts and the pre-festival dilemma is whether to play safe with artists you know or take a gamble of seeking out new talent. For many the best of both these worlds is usually the case and 2016 was no exception for me.

Ashley Campbell 
Between arriving at the festival on Friday afternoon and entering the arena for the final time almost exactly 48 hours later, fifteen artists had their sets intensely watched, periodically punctuated by the odd slightly over priced liquid refreshment. While there is a tendency for many artists from the UK country pop wing to dominate the fringes, it doesn’t take too much digging to find something slightly alternative. Two artists who are well known to me played thirty minute sets on the Big Entrance Stage on Saturday and provided a timely reminder of the style which acts as my bread and butter for fifty one weekends of the year. Ben Folke Thomas, minus his band on this occasion, was probably the only artist all the weekend to introduce a song based on Swedish war time resistance and it was re-assuring to be in familiar engaging song territory. Later in the afternoon on the same stage, Pete Gow introduced his band Case Hardin as probably the ‘least country act you’ll see all weekend’. Depending on your interpretation, this was far from the case as modern trends re-define the genre in populist terms.

Ben Folke Thomas 
A decision was made on Friday afternoon to catch two artists play extended sets back to back in the Brooklyn Bowl. Part of the logic to spending nearly two hours in a venue within a venue was to get more of a gig feel to the day after spending a near fortune to see the main show that evening. It was certainly an upbeat start to my festival with Jess and the Bandits bounding onto the stage with gusty vigour and keeping up the pace for forty five minutes. The more established US country artist Phil Vassar entered the stage upon Jess’s departure and played an entertaining set to seemingly many fans. Possibly unique to this festival was Phil playing country rock ‘n’ roll piano during the entirety of his time on stage and presenting many songs that edged up towards the upper echelons of the country music charts in his heyday.

While staying on the Friday evening, two further acts were caught just before entering the main arena and both were known to me to differing extents. All the way from Northern Ireland, The Rising played a rousing set of predominately rock infused music and came across as an impressive live act with plenty of passionate spirit within a line-up containing the usual drums, keys and guitars. Emma Stevens easily won the battle between her and Thomas Rhett for my attention and she carried on as seen twice before with a breezy batch of catchy folk pop songs. Maybe brave to try a little bluegrass in its infancy, but Emma is forever ‘moving’ when venturing into the territory of the songs that frame her reason for playing.

Case Hardin
Jumping ahead a little and onto Sunday afternoon where the Town Square Stage housed two American artists back to back who have created quite a stir on this current visit to our country. Moving out of her family shadow is always going to be a challenge for Ashley Campbell, but she showed the genes haven’t gone astray with a smart ear for a tune and the musical expertise heading in the banjo direction. Her set was an enticing introduction with a view to checking out her material sometime in the near future. A similar feeling was reserved for Charlie Worsham who lit up a stage surrounded by many of your usual festival stores with an exalted performance of charismatic song and guitar presentation. The potential is there, with the next stage to check out how this talent is being channelled in the recording world.

Lori McKenna 
Although Lori McKenna does occasionally venture into the recording world, she earns her crust in the song writing circles and does exceedingly well. A large crowd assembled around the Big Entrance Stage to hang onto the words of Lori in more than one way. It was interesting to learn of both her background and those of her songs which have proved rather successful in their commercial state. Lori hails from the north east part of the US in contrast to Texas Martha and the House of Twang, who you’ve guessed come from way out west. In fact Martha finds the European country music circuit quite favourable in the summer months basing herself in France and she possesses an authentic honky tonk sound which is synonymous with the Lone Star State. Completing an American trilogy on a stage which in my opinion had a better sound quality than its larger Town Square counterpart, was the forever feisty Sonia Leigh. Backed by a new and impressive band, Sonia was fired up to play some rock ‘n’ roll and crikey her voice gets more delightfully bruised and harsh with each listen. She continues to evolve as the real deal with absolutely nothing fake about her act.

Paul Carella and Caddy Cooper
The finishing line is getting closer and let’s get there with four home grown acts which embody the very essence of this being a festival bringing the music of two countries together. Make that three when on Saturday morning the Big Entrance Stage opened up with the wonderful Aussie, Caddy Cooper making a duet appearance alongside the billed Paul Carella. Song names have been deliberately omitted from this feature, but it would be remiss to not casually refer to the duet featured on Caddy’s latest album that sounded blissful upon hearing it live for the first time. That wraps up the Big Entrance acts caught live, leaving just three more which played the Town Square Stage. Red Sky July proved a big hit with me with the release of their second album two years ago and this appearance at the O2 was very much focussed on their upcoming follow up release. The trio of Aly, Shelly and Charity continue to make beautiful music spanning the sounds of folk, Americana and country, making them extremely attractive for my ears. Callaghan is another vocalist with a gorgeous voice and while this wasn’t the best environment for it to flourish, she optimised the moment to continue to spread the word about her wide appealing songs. One band also determined to capture the moment was Dexeter and they too were keen not to waste the opportunity to engage with an enthusiastic and populous gathering.

Sonia Leigh 
Looking back at the programme, and reality dawns of how many other venues, set ups and artists were missed, but only a snapshot is practically viable. Outside of the two arena shows that were attended (Saturday was not really my cup of tea), the pop ups played a valuable part in making this a successful weekend as you have the choice of hitting them hard or accepting them as a casual backdrop. It was noted that many base their weekend entirely around the pop ups, although this would probably not warrant a lengthy journey. However the pop up fringe seems to set to play a regular role in the Country to Country Festival weekend and it is without doubt that the application line will be jammed in twelve months. To what extent they develop remains to be seen especially with the roll out to other venues within the O2 arena and specifically the continual evolution of Bob Harris's Under the Apple Tree project. Interesting times indeed. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Andrew Combs - Country to Country Festival, London. Sunday 13th March 2016

It was the night Country to Country got the line up right. Not that the Saturday of two years ago didn’t make an equally as compelling case, but Sunday this year had four artists brimming with contemporary class and highly charged with making music the right way. Each act purveys their craft from a different direction, yet is successful in meeting at the point where country music drives deep through your pores. The debate of credibility will rage on and an air of subjectivity will always prevail, but from the pool of consolidated talent to select their artists, the decision to schedule Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton and Andrew Combs was one from a smart perspective.This proved to be the finale of a festival which for the first time was extended to three days and probably achieved a desired objective of reaching across the spectrum of modern country music.

The left field decision to secure the services of Andrew Combs was by far the most eye opening event of the festival’s four years. Was this the ultimate reach out to a community thriving outside the cut throat world of the major label? Of course the world outside the Music Row bubble is thriving and respect must be paid to the organisers for recognising that. Maybe for half an hour on this late Sunday afternoon, the ever widening gulf between mainstream country music and that burgeoning state of mind known as Americana did reverse the trend. From a quality angle there was no doubt that Andrew Combs and his band would rise to the challenge of this much bloated platform. It was certainly a long way from catching Andrew play a duo show eighteen months ago in an upstairs Birmingham pub. It was also a big coup for UK indie label Loose Music to see a Nashville based artist they have nurtured over here flourish in the company of so many active music consumers. Hopefully the latest album ALL THESE DREAMS will get a timely re-boost and if folks new to Andrew had one abiding memory, it surely had to be the catchy ‘Emily’ being spelt around the UK’s premier concert venue.

The irony of this stellar billing can be traced back to last November and the evening of the CMAs. More on the marketing stunt by Eric Church later, but who was to know that Chris Stapleton was to take the industry by the scruff of the neck and threaten Music Row revolution. To prove that the incredible response to his debut album TRAVELLER was no throwaway reactionary act, Chris extended this insurgence to a totally captivated London arena crowd. The reception awarded a performer seemingly let off the leash of penning contrived hits was apparently unprecedented in festival history. The set up on the stage was probably about as minimalist as you will get at C2C, but when you’ve got the voice, guitar and extraordinary ability to extract the depth of a song then why water down your talent. The added spice was Chris’s wife Morgane sharing the vocal spotlight and nearly stealing the set with a powerful, spiritual version of ‘You are My Sunshine’. Needless to say it was the songs of that album, smugly in my possession now for over nine months, which defined the magical moment of this all too short display of gut wrenching country soul and blues. The standing ovation only begins to convey the emotion that emanated around the arena and if ever there was a time to wallow in the proverbial theme of whiskey you couldn’t choose a more opportune moment.

How on earth was Kacey Musgraves going to follow Chris Stapleton after that set? The answer wasn’t to compete and from the floor the lighter delivery did take a few songs to adjust to. However Kacey hasn’t built up a crusading reputation for courting acclaim from both the inner sanctum of country music and the wider roots world without having the nous to deliver outstanding sets. As soon as these adjusting songs were out of the way, the arena was well and truly under the spell of the Rhinestone Revue. Parody or not, the deluge of smart songs successfully link the generations, many possessing excellent hooks and providing countless opportunities for audience sing back. This was a performance where pedal steel guitar holds its own, with Kacey effortlessly swinging between breezy modest tempo numbers and enticing ballads. The latter was pristinely presented in the guise of ‘Fine’ and ‘It is What It is’ showing the depth of her two successful major albums to date. For me the golden moment delivered by the girl from Golden Texas, was an awe-inspiring stripped back version of the modern social classic ‘Merry Go Round’. My three Kacey gigs have progressed from academy to large hall to arena. Although it is tough to replicate the connection as the capacities rise, Kacey continues to excel and hugely impress. After deliberation the unbelievable conclusion can now be drawn that this set in the O2 Arena outshone the Royal Albert Hall show last November, strange but true!

Eric Church is a curious artist and often tricky to pinpoint. Amongst the brash rock ‘n’ roll persona and sound there is a significant strand of country influence. Views range from an outsider to someone who rebels from within, yet all surfacing from a backdrop of a blossoming back catalogue that is rife with gems. The latest release was interestingly sprung upon a music industry free of any pre-sale hype on CMA day, only to get swallowed up by the equally as surprising Chris Stapleton explosion. Leaping straight to the present and the glory of this excellent album introspectively titled MR MISUNDERSTOOD was revealed from song #1 on this headline set, ‘The Knives of New Orleans’. The following hour and half saw Eric and his comprehensive band in fully functioning mode, swaying between the raucous (‘That’s Damn Rock ‘n’ Roll’), the nostalgic (‘Talladega’), the inviting (‘These Boots’) and the poignant (‘Give Me Back My Hometown’). A slightly under the weather Eric was not going to let this final date of a European tour dampen the performance and non-believers were surely scarce by the time ‘Springsteen’ raised the roof. Eric Church is an artist that rewards those who file down his line. Maybe this line does run close to boundaries and debate will never be too far away. My belief in Eric Church was strengthened by this arena show and it upstaged the gig he played in Manchester a couple of years ago.

During this four hour spectacle of American roots music, the stature of all four artists grew in my estimation. Maybe it pushed away from the country core in places, but still retained the utmost performing quality, band excellence and faith in the fulfilling medium of song. Despite the solidity and experience of the acts scheduled for this closing night, cases can be made that all have their best recording years ahead of them. Inevitably their directions will differ, but the joy of seeing them in a panache-filled procession has been sealed in the memory vaults. Can Country to Country Festival from a realistic personal standpoint improve on the four timer line up of Andrew Combs, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church? Theoretically yes, but practically from their chosen pool and desire to feast on modern trends probably not. However let’s finish by basking in the limelight of a special night where the ideals of the organisers matched mine.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Miranda Lambert + Dwight Yoakam - Country to Country Festival, O2 Arena, London. Friday 11th March 2016

Any concerns for a lack of impartiality regarding this review were well and truly extinguished at 10:48 PM on the Friday of the fourth Country to Country Festival. At this exact minute Miranda Lambert exited the stage at London’s O2 Arena following her inaugural overseas show. This feat answered the wishes for legions of her fans in the UK and one in particular who was hooked nearly a decade ago when first listening to ‘Famous in a Small Town’. Alas this track didn’t make the set list on the evening, along with much of her best material which gets buried on albums, but what we did witness was a supreme performer sealing the deal with a scintillating performance.

You would expect an artist of Miranda’s stature to assemble a top notch touring band and it was no surprise to marvel at their ace accompaniment to a string of numbers spanning the length of her recording career. Fiddle and especially steel was given the oxygen to flourish among the cacophony of blistering guitar pieces acutely projecting song after song around the arena. When the pitch eased off Miranda stepped up her game and left many emotionally drained with the poignantly uplifting ‘The House That Built Me’. This track, actually one of only a few of her hits which make my virtual ‘Miranda Top 20’, was part of a mesmerising parade of songs in the latter stages of her set which demanded a frozen in time moment.  The band’s cover of the Danny O’Keefe song ‘Covered Wagon’ saw all facets of the onstage ensemble in harmonious heaven and a major musical highlight was the end instrumental segment to ‘White Liar’.

However there were two downsides to the set which headlined the first day of this growing festival. A little over an hour and a quarter could have been extended by ten minutes and just when it seemed we were going to hear the John Prine cover ‘That’s the Way the World Goes Round’, reality dawned that the intended song was ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’. Anything that Miranda and the band played tonight would have been exemplary. ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’, way down on my list of favourite songs from PLATINUM, was brought to life by some emotive pedal steel, while the lead single from that album ‘Automatic’ circulated the venue with more than an air of nostalgia.

Early-Miranda Lambert bookended the pre-encore set in the guise of the electrifying ‘Kerosene’ and the impassioned ‘Gunpowder and Lead’. Sadly that was it from the first two Miranda albums, but things were brought right up to date with an airing of ‘Sweet By and By’ from the new Dave Cobb produced compilation record: SOUTHERN FAMILY. Many interpretations of PLATINUM framed it as a gender album and to complete the pickings from it tonight, ‘Bathroom Sink’ and ‘Little Red Wagon’ played to this gallery. The latter saw Miranda in full sass mode and a phase that engages many.

Word got around on the wires that Miranda had gate crashed the songwriters’ event the previous evening  to sing ‘Heart Like Mine’ with her good friend Ashley Monroe and this double reunion was in repeat mode twenty four hours later. She had included the song in her arena set list and further extended the invitation for Ashley to join her for the first encore song and an apt choice to sing the James Taylor standard ‘You’ve Got a Friend’. The inevitable sad moment was about to arrive as the band returned to the stage to close a fabulous night with a rocking version of ‘Bitch’ originally on the Stones STICKY FINGERS album.

Before the final words on Miranda Lambert’s debut UK performance, full credit must be given to the legendary Dwight Yoakam who played an impressive relentless hour of a musical style steeped in the psyche of honky tonk country. A visitor to the UK on several occasions over the last thirty years, Dwight hones in on a certain sound and preserves its integrity with impressive gusto. It took about twenty minutes of Dwight’s hour long set to connect with the groove, but once coupling occurred, there was no looking back. ‘Honky Tonk Man’ injected renewed vigour into the set about half way through and by the time we reached the classic ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’, the man who single handedly champions the Bakersfield Sound had delivered his part of country music legacy. A similar trait between the sets of Dwight and Miranda was the lack of general chat from the stage, but perhaps festival arenas are the place where music does the best talking and more than a few column inches on these two stars can be found elsewhere.

While full commendation is reserved for the organisers in the back to back scheduling of Miranda Lambert and Dwight Yoakam, there was a feeling that Friday night punters were a little short changed from one less act for the same outlay compared with the Saturday and Sunday shows. Thomas Rhett was awarded the slot of opening the festival’s arena weekend and I’ll let others invest more keyboard time in conducting an analysis. Ashley Monroe was used by the organisers to promote the Friday; however it was disappointing that she was awarded only ten minutes on the satellite stage. Surely the arena could have had the same opening times throughout the weekend and thus allow Ashley a better platform her talent warrants. On the plus side, listening to her best song ‘Like a Rose’ from only half a dozen paces away was one of the highlights of a weekend which ebbed and flowed before a barnstorming conclusion.

Will this show be the catalyst for a Miranda Lambert love affair with the UK? A similar question with an unknown answer is in what direction she will seek to take her music. Influences across the spectrum are rife and Miranda has succeeded immensely in most of her choices. The future is going to be fascinating and if half as good as the last decade, treats will be aplenty. Let’s end with dismissing the past and the future, by focussing on the present and specifically the moment when Miranda Lambert arrived as a performing artist on British soil. The promise of listening to ‘Famous in a Small Town’ back in 2007 was absolutely fulfilled.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Bros. Landreth - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 6th March 2016

One footnote from tonight’s hugely impressive gig is the pondering thought that all intended folks for the original venue made the couple of miles detour at the ‘eleventh hour’. It would have been a massive shame for anyone to miss out as this Oobleck gig was hastily re-scheduled to the Hare and Hounds barely eight hours before the first band hit the stage. The message though had got out to a vibrant gathering of gig goers and at eight o’clock they were on the cusp of witnessing an exceptional performance. By eleven, The Bros. Landreth had laid their cards on the table and one incredible band had announced their arrival on the UK live music scene. Of course this reaction had been happening on all the preceding eight or nine dates of this inaugural nationwide tour and there is little chance of this four-piece Winnipeg based band being kept a secret.

Happy to share their wares with a standing audience literally a stride from the stage spurred the guys on as they let rip through a bulk of their award winning debut album and a smart selection of choice covers nailing their influences right to the mast. Junior brother Joey led the way with an exhilarating exhibition of electric guitar virtuosity heavily influenced by a slide playing style. Every known note was seemingly extracted as the four musicians on stage morphed into the embodiment of a top notch exemplar band.  Elder brother David held court on bass and contributed significantly on harmony vocals. The percussion of Cody Iwasuik kept immaculate time, while Darryl Havers added the finesse with a sumptuous keyboard display. The result was an accentuated amalgam of classic country rock, rampant roots, spine tingling soul and fiery folk for the modern age.

LET IT LIE is the perfect example of a debut album gathering momentum. Independently released in Canada in 2013, it found a wider North American audience courtesy of Slate Creek Records, before hitting great heights in 2015 with a coveted Juno award for the Best Roots and Traditional Album. 2016 sees the record still finding new homes as the band build on their solitary UK date last year with a current nationwide gig roll out.  Those who have raved about the track ‘Runaway Train’ would be left drooling with the live version as Darryl needed little invitation to move through the keyboard gears. Elsewhere from the album we were spoiled with super servings of ‘Firecracker’, ‘Let it Lie’, ‘Made up Mind’ and ‘Tappin’ on the Glass’. ‘I am the Fool’ made a great case for following in the slip stream of the aforementioned standout track, although others would strongly argue for the mesmerising five minutes the band spent around that iconic single mic. This demanded a pin drop sound environment as, accompanied solely by soft guitar and blessed harmonies from his colleagues, Joey evocatively sang ‘Greenhouse’.

From a covers angle, The Bros. Landreth served up a delight of cutting treats. Opening with the popular Wings number ‘Let ‘Em In’ was a pleasant surprise and there was a hearty vocal accompaniment from the audience when a version of The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ closed the encore. Other interesting inclusions were the excellent ‘Jesus on the Mainline’ by Ry Cooder and a rendition of John Hiatt’s ‘Alone in the Dark’. The latter was one of many great songs introduced to the brothers by their musician father Wally. Whether sharing the gifts of their original material or adding value to inspired covers, this tight knit band extolled many virtues and possess an innate knack of letting their music create a special ambient atmosphere.

Prior to The Bros. Landreth excelling in the headline slot, two other acts were given half an hour to warm the audience up on this chilly evening. Local singer-songwriter Guy Jones played an engaging solo set to commence the show and followed up a fine performance he delivered when opening at the nearby Kitchen Garden Café last year. Five piece rock band Klassside left their highly charged electric guitars at home for the evening to play a predominately acoustic set, albeit not short of fiery passion. The link between this Midlands based band and the headliners was explained by the lead guitarist's association with Wally Landreth across the miles via the World Wide Web.

Both supporting acts played a decent role in setting the main event up. However The Bros. Landreth wasted little time in making their mark and a privilege of seeing a band play a venue way below their potential was not taken for granted. Not that the brothers showed any airs and graces, fully appreciative of any number of music fans preparing to take a chance on a relatively unknown band. In reality this was far from a ‘gig goers’ gamble as The Bros. Landreth starkly demonstrated they are a force to be reckoned and a band massively armed with a potential to die for. The detour from Digbeth to Kings Heath was not going to deter this or many other fan. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Angel Snow + Matthew Perryman Jones - St.George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 4th March 2016

If great songs are currency then Angel Snow and Matthew Perryman Jones are well and truly in the millionaire set. Add in the capacity to present their compositions in such an engaging and enthralling style leaves you pondering with the thought that many more people should be hooked into their music. Around a hundred folks in Bewdley this evening were not guilty of missing out as these pair of finely tuned singer-songwriters meandered their way from Nashville Tennessee to a sleepy town in North Worcestershire. The local promoters continue to spearhead an impassioned project to raise awareness of highly crafted music and they successfully unearthed a couple of gems for this month’s show.

In contrast to Angel’s last UK tour, which also took on a co-headline format, a sensible decision was made to give both performers the breathing space to deliver a solo set, with just a few fleeting moments of collaboration. Twelve months ago Angel performed more of a songwriter’s circle co-stage show with Ben Glover which worked as both artists possessed a reasonable profile in the UK. As this was just Matthew’s second trip and he was admittedly unknown in many quarters, it was very useful to grasp his skills from an extended and concentrated view. The positive result of this approach to the evening was that each artist flourished on their own terms, whether basking in the beautiful vocals Angel wraps round her songs or the gripping way in which Matthew shares the fruits of his talent.

Angel had arranged to play the opening set on this short tour and thus get first bite at freezing an audience’s attention with a paradoxical warm glow. Midway through her set, the stunning ‘Lie Awake’ gets its inevitable airing showering deep thoughts of where on earth this spine tingling song got its inspiration from. The flow, mood and elegance of this song profusely captured the moment with Angel herself giving a glimpse into its inspiration. Obviously those knowing a little of Angel’s background were not surprised to hear of the Alison Krauss connection with ‘These Days’ also making a welcome appearance in a set list that was occasionally improvised on. From two songs which showed that Angel’s writing can turn the heads of the big stars, we were brought up to date with ‘Secret’ from her latest EP and a song called ‘Disguises’ slated to be on her new album which is likely to emerge later this year.

Older songs such as ‘Coals and Water’ and ‘Holiday’ also made welcome appearances during Angel’s time in the spotlight, but these were probably eclipsed by a newer tune in the sublime ‘I Need You’. There has been plenty of indication that Angel is going to delve a little more into an indie rock sound with new material, but this evening was all about the acoustic presentation. Perhaps the merits of what is the ideal role for Angel can be debated when sufficient contrasting sounds appear, however her emotional approach to song writing will prevail and don’t expect too many upbeat happy numbers. This is what makes Angel Snow admired and after getting further exposure via the ‘Back to Beth’s’ house concert documentary that Bob Harris presented on BBC TV last year, this current tour is enhancing her credibility.

We were briefly introduced to Matthew Perryman Jones when Angel invited him to join her on ‘Secret’ and after the break he commandeered the spotlight himself to reveal the heart and soul of a songwriter. Matthew’s first UK trip a couple of years ago was supporting Mindy Smith and this time his focus was to promote his seven-track mini album COLD ANSWER. No sooner was the set underway and Matthew referred to the TV series based on his hometown with fond memories of his song ‘I Can’t Go Back Now’ being used. However we did learn that Matthew was more aligned with the true grit of Music City rather than superficial presentations, thus positioning himself in the ever growing camp of those writers avoiding the scramble for that compromised Music Row cut.

Also revealed was a songwriter forever searching the ultimate inspiration of that perfect song with the background to ‘Waking the Dead’, ‘Table for Two’ and ‘O Theo’ spawning deep origins. Whether seeking retreat in Illinois, linking the twin subjects of love and gambling or peering into the artistic world of Vincent Van Gogh, Matthew dismisses the song writing boundaries. One of the framed moments from his almost hour-long set was a rendition of an older song ‘Save You’, with Angel getting the reciprocated invitation to share the vocals.

On an evening of a split bill intrinsically linked by moments of entwined authenticity, Angel did remain on stage to join Matthew for the two finale numbers which saw these two esteemed singer-songwriters ease into the world of their fellow luminaries. A gorgeous version of the Tom Waites song ‘Take it With Me’, a previously covered piece from both artists, sprinkled some gold dust on an already hefty collection of songs, before a fun singalong of Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’ ensured the audience could add a light hearted conclusion to a seriously impressive evening.

Unfortunately the delayed arrival to St. George’s Hall meant the opening set by local performer Elisha Green was missed, but on all accounts the reports were good and once again substantiate the fine job the promoters are doing to furnish the community with opportunities to enjoy quality music. This was a second visit to the venue after the successful Dreaming Spires gig last year and this enhanced turnout highlighted the momentum the shows are gathering. It also helps when you acquire the services of artists the calibre of Angel Snow and Matthew Perryman Jones for the evening. It was a case of the better artists of Nashville being transported to the better listening audiences of the UK with all the factors of a gig to savour flourishing to the maximum extent.