Monday, 29 August 2016

Margo Price - The Exchange, Bristol. Sunday 28th August 2016

Torchbearer and spiritual exponent of country music are two possible labels to attach to Margo Price. But why not just go with the personification of ‘three chords and the truth’. Maybe labels are too simplistic and straightjacketed to define an artist who naturally oozes cutting lyrics and songs wrapped in an explicit coating of real life feelings. 2016 is continuing to evolve as the door opening year for Margo, and her debut full band English tour kicked off with a date at The Exchange in Bristol. A smallish venue that rocked from start to finish with sounds more akin to The Grand Ole Opry, a Broadway honky tonk and a rural Illinois back porch. For eighty minutes this evening the country music hype surrounding Margo Price evaporated in a haze of reality.

While Margo is no doubt just being herself, the sass of Elizabeth Cook is evident alongside the endearing vibrancy of Lindi Ortega (complete with trademark little red boots) and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn. This is music shunned by the mainstream, picked up by Jack White’s Third Man organisation and now thriving in a crossover world linked by a passion for true authenticity and utmost integrity. Two provisos of getting the most from this gig were tuning into the psyche of what makes this artist tick and a love for traditional country music twang.

Margo explained early in the show that an injured finger prevented her from playing guitar this evening. The upshot from this is that she had to play the mic for the entire set and perhaps the audience got a starker glimpse of an artist totally immersed in the undercurrent of each song, aligning feelings and movement. Regardless of Margo’s musical abstention, her five piece band gave a sterling exhibition of delivering a country music soundtrack with her husband Jeremy Ivey stepping in on the acoustic guitar alongside the key quartet of drums, lead, bass and pedal steel guitar. The stage was set to savour an almost entire playing of Margo’s debut solo album MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTER and wonder what covers were going to flavour the remainder of the show.

While nine fantastic originals lifted from this stellar album release were undeniably the highlight of the show, the seven covers selected left in no doubt the iconic status of Margo’s influences. Each of the tracks chosen from a list of Levon Helm, Gram Parsons, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jernnings, Loretta Lynn, Janis Joplin and Neil Young cut an individual niche into the set list. My favourites were Levon’s ‘Poor Old Dirt Farmer’ (sung in vocal harmony), Gram’s ‘Ooh Las Vegas’ (segmented into a rockin’ finale) and Loretta’s ‘Rated X’ (exuding so much synergy with the original material of Margo).

It’s pure educational bliss marvelling at the lyrical content of each Margo Price song. ‘Weekender’ was given a stunning rendition with the striking line ‘she said she beat her boyfriend up while high on crack cocaine’.The words ‘but you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass’ raises a smiles each time ‘About to Find Out’ is heard and ‘they’re sucking all the good blood out of this town’ goes a long way to placing ‘Since You Put Me Down’ as one of her standout tracks.  Quite simply each of the nine tracks from the album were 5* performances (the missing two were ‘World’s Greatest Loser’ and ‘How the Mighty Have Fallen’.)

From a popularity and exposure point of view, the well documented classic ‘Hands of Time’ and the belting stomper ‘Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)’ simmered and rocked in their respective glory. On an evening where Margo concentrated the communication process through her songs, she lifted the mask on ‘Four Years of Chances’ with a dedication to all divorcees and ensured certain lines from her biting industry attack number ‘This Town Gets Around’ were emphasised. ‘Tennessee Song’ got the packed audience in rhythmic movement early in the gig and band introductions were reserved for the instrumental segments during the song ‘Paper Cowboy’ which is a non-album cut written by bass player Matt Gardner.

Siddy Bennett 
The term England was referred to in the introduction as it’s only the folks of London, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester who get the opportunity to see a full Margo Price band gig on this tour, apart from those of us willing to travel. It has surely got to be Scotland next time as the support up there will be phenomenal and widening the coverage to the North East of England and the Midlands will also reap rewards.

This Bristol show had the added bonus of a half hour opening set from local based band Wildflowers, and a highly engaging one to boot. Led by vivacious and energetic vocalist Siddy Bennett, the trio completed by sister, Kit on keyboards and guitarist James Asbury railroaded through songs mainly from their album ON THE INSIDE and performed the perfect warm up role. Although you get the feeling that ‘warm up’ might just be the start for this infectious group who are beginning to surface as a recognised emerging talent from a multitude of sources. Pop tinges and incredibly catchy melodies prove the mere overlay to their music which is substantiated by a perceptive writing outlook and a feel synonymous with singer-song writing vibes of classic Americana. A real coup for those of us not previously acquainted with the band.

The emergence of Margo Price in 2016, and especially the mission to bring her music to Europe many miles from her Tennessee home, is proving a serious highlight of the year. All the traits are in place including fabulous song writing, a top band in tow and an inner desire to spill the beans of her heart to an attentive audience in the endearing art of song. It is a privilege to be a fan, support her music and share a sound that has the ability to move in so many ways.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Joan Shelley - The Musician, Leicester. Monday 22nd August 2016

On a sweltering afternoon at a festival in Kentucky around a month ago, the hot sun was braved for fifteen minutes to catch part of a set by Louisville based folk musician Joan Shelley. Amidst an event dominated by fuller sounding brasher rock acts, thoughts turned to what Joan would sound like in a more intimate setting. This was not meant in a detrimental way, just a realisation of the many artists who have been witnessed flourishing in such an environment over the years. Admittedly at this point it was known that Joan was making a brief trip to Europe soon and choosing to play The Musician in Leicester as her only club show of the UK segment. It may not have been 38c in the English Midlands on the evening of her visit, but the positive promise of that afternoon materialised into a majestic sense of reality.

With its close knit layout and dedicated audience, The Musician provided the ideal backdrop for Joan to ease into her velvet groove of folk song delivery and embrace those present with her soothing musical presence. Joan’s vocals find the sweet spot with little effort and tantalisingly move around the scale of pristineness. The lo-fi elegance of her songs lures you into a fixated zone and swims around your senses with the smoothest of sensations.

While Joan’s festival performance was in a full band format, this evening’s show was in duo mode and the chemistry from working alongside guitarist Nathan Salsburg exuded in magical portions. Their contrasting playing styles complemented perfectly to create the ideal backdrop for her softly presented songs to prosper. With minimalist variety, Joan ditched her own guitar for a couple of songs, ditched Nathan for one and returned solo once more for the first encore song singing a wonderful unplugged version of the traditional Appalachian folk song ‘Darling Don’t You Know That’s Wrong’, previously popularised by Addie Graham.

Joan was recently featured in a ‘Guardian online’ article as one of the artists redefining the American roots agenda in the twenty first century. The retro effect of listening to Joan live is certainly minimal. Working alongside the accredited folklorist Nathan will always keep her musical heritage rooted in the ideals of the past, but her writing and persona freshens up the whole folk music process. Apart from the encore excursion and a cover of Kate Wolf’s ‘Here in California’, the rest of the songs populating Joan’s seventy minutes on stage were self-composed originals.

These were mainly based on her most recent album OVER AND EVEN, which is one of the most beautiful and tranquil records to hit my ears this year. The title track acted as the show opener, with ‘Subtle Love’, ‘No More Shelter’ and ‘Not Over By Half’ also surfacing as stand-out songs on the evening. The latter was placed in the pre-encore slot and probably emerged as the highlight on the basis of its immense melody. Either side of her most recent album, Joan dipped a little into an older record ELECTRIC URSO and previewed a couple of new songs promising more of the same.

The gorgeous array of songs, vocals and guitar playing held the audience’s attention in frozen capsule status, thus leading to frenzied activity at the merchandise table at the end. Joan prefers to let her songs do the communicating and kept the between track banter to a minimum. However when the effect of her songs are this good, few would argue with her chosen and probably most comfortable stage presence.

Two credits need to be made surrounding this show. Firstly, the innovative Green Man Festival for inviting Joan to the UK and the Magic Teapot promotion team for arranging a diversion to Leicester as the duo journeyed from Wales to Cornwall. Joan Shelley may be a name not widely known, but a return visit will further ignite interest within the folk, indie and Americana communities in the UK. Good people will relish a talented, respectful and progressive artist; all the qualities that make Joan Shelley one to watch and savour.  

Monday, 22 August 2016

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - Shine a Light - Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad : Cooking Vinyl

Billy Bragg has never hid his passion for the great American roots songbook. His work on advancing the legacy of Woody Guthrie is well noted and the latest studio album from the Bard of Barking adopted a very Americana feel. For this new project Billy has once again teamed up with the producer of TOOTH AND NAIL, but this time the credits are shared with Joe Henry as the pair embarks on a journey celebrating the history of the American railroad and its influence at the onset of rock ‘n’ roll. The result is a collection of field recordings with a difference and an intriguing take on a bunch of songs framed by their familiarity and iconic status.

Basically SHINE A LIGHT: FIELD RECORDINGS FROM THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD is an explicitly simple title introducing thirteen railroad themed songs recorded live on a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. The bare outtakes complete with the backing track of a real life station presents each song in its most desired and appropriate form. As you would expect musically, the acoustic guitar reigns supreme with a little harmonica help, while vocally there is a stark contrast between Joe’s bluesy rasp and Billy’s deadpan delivery; a case of southern England meets southern USA. The light touch and sparse production is what each of these songs warrants as they breathe the life of a thousand stories, crowning the impact that the railroad had on song writing, mainly in an expansive age.

Perhaps the surprise inclusion is a version of the John Hartford penned Grammy winning standard classic ‘Gentle on My Mind’. Although its free spirited feel is akin to the effect the railroad had when it was the dominating means of travelling the vast distances of a wide continent. This version dominated vocally by Joe, surfaces as a credible addition to the vaults of its recordings and nestles neatly on an album dedicated to celebrating the longevity of the travelling song.

The good news is that the duo are teaming up for some UK shows to share the songs, quite an achievement relating to Billy’s never ending commitment to touring his own material and Joe’s forever in demand status as one of America’s leading producers. The planned evenings should be quite special and the perfect accompaniment to the recordings that adorn this valued CD.

Many folks will be familiar with a bulk of the tracks as the work of Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers amongst others is heralded. The question may be asked ‘do we need another version of ‘The Midnight Special’, ‘Waiting for a Train’, ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and ‘In the Pines’?  Without any doubt, the answer in this collectable format is yes and there is always a new audience to be gathered, with Joe and Billy just being temporary custodians and disciples.

Maybe the most interesting inclusion on the record is a cut of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’, perfectly aligning the feeling of settling for the railroad when the excitement of air travel is tantalisingly out of reach. This track brings the album to a suitable close, around forty minutes after Billy had led off with his shared passion for the legacy of Lonnie Donegan and a celebratory version of his 1956 hit ‘Rock Island Line’.

This project has been an unequivocal labour of love and each discerning attentive listener is willingly displaced to a time in history heavily frequented by musical romanticists. SHINE A LIGHT: FIELD RECORDINGS FROM THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD works with undoubted ease whilst showcasing the ultra-commitment of its two protagonists. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have made great music in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Indulging in their present is worthy of your valued time.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Stray Birds - Magic Fire : Yep Roc Records

When you’ve made a great album and yielded warm appreciation, the next move can be a critical one. The Stray Birds have reached such a point and the result is a bold diversion which has reaped dividends with stupendous quality. MAGIC FIRE has emerged as a masterclass in merging tradition with modernity revealing an album that takes this trio in a far more contemporary direction than their earlier material indicated. Working with Grammy winning producer Larry Campbell has provided the golden ticket for Maya, Charles and Oliver, with the excellent label Yep Roc proving the ideal vehicle for them to evolve their music.

Although active since 2010, The Stray Birds made the most prominent advancement with the release of BEST MEDICINE in 2014 and followed this up with an acclaimed performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year. Seeing the band live in Stafford on the accompanying UK tour really brought home their talent in the field of instrument exchange, sumptuous harmonies and ability to thrive in purveying the art of the old time string band. The new record maintains all these admirable traits while adding a more up to date overlay with drums, guitars and keys. The production ensures the intermittent twang retains a country sound, while various other techniques flavour a few tracks with the classic 70s singer-songwriter rock sound. Right through the record the fiddle thread keeps the roots intact as well as the band’s trademark vocal switch and harmony features.

In line with the previous record serving up a pivotal stand out track with the title song, this new one also possesses a number with a terrific melody to the extent that ‘Sabrina’ has the potential to be one of the most popular tracks to hit the waves this year. The chorus, verses, light hearted mood, toe tapping feel and fabulous fiddle parts give the tune an amazing gloss and an already good record an elevated lift. Not to be too intimidated by this heady highlight, the alluring ‘Radio’ glistens intensely and the retro sounding country pop piece ‘Somehow’ blossoms to a high degree.

Referring back to the 70s comment, ‘Third Day in a Row’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ are both guilty in the pleasure stakes with visions of classic artists locking in the guitars and keys to a laid back sound. The producer has worked with several great artists in the past including Levon Helm and his input in framing the sound is profoundly detectable. The dark undertones to ‘Hands of Man’ adds to the diversity alongside the jaunty ‘All the News’ and the kick back feel to ‘Mississippi Pearl’.

The song writing on all twelve tracks has been a collaborative effort and once you’ve seen The Stray Birds live, the entity of their performance is a key feature. Fellow American Lindsay Lou helped out in the writing of album opener ‘Shining in the Distance, a distinct track which while being the unmistakeable Stray Birds sound, does herald the changes that lie ahead.

The Stray Birds are due to tour the UK in October and the mouth-watering prospect of hearing these songs live increases with each album spin. MAGIC FIRE has the legs of a long distance runner, explosive parts of a ten second sprinter and is a gold medal candidate from start to finish. The permanent class of this trio ensured that this exploration process has thrived, with a vital record to enrich the Americana roots scene the towering result. 

Check out the UK Tour Dates

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Anna and Elizabeth - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 15th August 2016

The future of reviving old time folk music is always going to be in safe hands with artists such as Anna and Elizabeth sharing the wares of their passionate endeavours. This talented duo from the eastern states of the US have been wooing British audiences on the current tour and brought the ‘house full’ sign to Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden CafĂ© on this warm August evening. Those inside, and outside, the regular viewing area were treated to an utterly compelling show – multi-media in its purest form. Not only was beautiful musicianship, enchanting song and enlightening inspiration on the menu, but also the charming world of crankies was revealed to a visual delight.

On several occasions during the brace of sets the duo delivered, a manually operated canvas scroll was ‘cranked’ into action adding an eye catching attraction to the song or tale being sung or orated. This unique art form is at the core of how Anna and Elizabeth play out their desire to keep the flame of the past burning, alongside giving a voice to the otherwise forgotten. Self-confessed historians and archive hunters is the part the duo communicate, while the audience unanimously marvels at the seamless harmonies, exquisite playing and sheer dedication to an admirable cause.

The duo’s instrumental presentation is focussed on the stringed trio of a 1937 Martin guitar, fiddle and banjo. Anna Roberts–Gevalt, originally from Vermont but now based in Baltimore Maryland, splendidly majors on the first two, while she shares the banjo playing with Elizabeth Laprelle, a performer heavily steeped in the music tradition of her native Virginia. Elizabeth also played the shruti box on a couple of songs and adds a special dimension to the overall sound with her distinct Appalachian vocals.

Themes surrounding the songs ranged from the personal experiences of meeting inspirational people, the spirit of fiddle playing camps in the wee small hours and significant historical moments like the American Civil War. Mixed in with reams of traditional songs were readings, poems and narrations, all given context whetted by the artist’s enthusiasm.

Among the most memorable songs were ‘Goin' Across the Mountain’ – the story of a Civil War soldier changing sides, a Kentucky version of ‘The Cruel Mother/Greenwood Sidey’ – complete with crankie, and one deep in the second set titled ‘Sing Hymns’. The crankie also provided the backdrop to the story of Lella Todd, narrated by Anna and evoking memories of an immortal past frozen in its deepest sincerity. It also made a final appearance for ‘Father Neptune’ and a poignant representation of the sea’s mundanity complete with an atmospheric fiddle accompaniment.

As if to keep in line with the evening’s traditional theme, the chosen opener was local based folk singer Alice Dillon, who leans heavily in this direction with her song selection. Alice’s thirty minute support slot was the perfect warm up performance with her stunning cultured vocals showing an equilibrium effect whether being guided by a subtle acoustic accompaniment or excelling in stand-alone mode. Alice showed no intent in hiding her love for the music of Joan Baez and included a version of ‘Plaisir D’ Armour’ in her set, alongside standard traditional songs like ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ and ‘Black is the Colour’. Alice has already been recognised by judges in the BBC Young Folk Performer awards with a semi-final place and on the evidence of this short showcase is likely to receive further acclaim in the future.

The impression Anna and Elizabeth left on this fleeting visit to Birmingham is likely to last a while. It was a privilege to be in the presence of their captivating show and part of an artist-audience interaction packed with mutual gratitude. This was pure unfiltered pristine music of a bygone age presented in a truly innovative way. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

John Paul White - Beulah : Single Lock Records

Songs are such an intrinsic part of John Paul White’s DNA that inevitably they will continue to seep out. Resisting the latest batch has proved difficult for one half of the hugely successful duo The Civil Wars and luckily for a widening fan base they have evolved into a significant album. BEULAH is John Paul’s first full length release since the high profile split with musical partner Joy Williams midway through a UK tour in 2012. The ten song collection sees John Paul in explorative mode largely taking you in search of the roots of Southern rock ‘n’ soul, albeit in an intimate stripped back style.

Hailing from the area, and now residing in Florence Alabama, indicates that John Paul has a heritage steeped in the lore of the Yellowhammer state and what better place to visit and record a couple of tracks than the legendary FAME Studio in nearby Muscle Shoals. Throw in the production expertise of Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner and the infrastructure is in place to maximise the fruits of John Paul’s inspiration. The result is an undemanding presentation, adept at offering a blank canvas side dish to enable individual interpretation. What does make this record work is the way the vocals melt into the instrumentation thus engaging immediate listener attention.

Apart from the couple of tracks recorded at FAME ,the bulk of the material surfaced at White’s own Single Lock studio of which the in-house label has proudly churned out records for St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Dylan LeBlanc among others. Going back to the two songs getting the retro Muscle Shoals treatment, it isn’t too difficult to detect the rock riffs in ‘What’s So’ and savour the moment the organ kicks into ‘The Martyr’.

Two numbers which stand out probably owe that to their left field stature in the context of the collection. The feisty acoustic rocker ‘Fight for You’ has the detected influence of Tanner in terms of his other job and sees White turn up the heat a notch. In contrast the retro pop flavour to ‘I’ve Been Over This Before’, equipped with the ethereal backing and accompanying vocals of The Secret Sisters, leaps out as a pleasing deviant. While on the topic of pop melodies, ‘The Once & Future Queen’ is a prime example of this being a record not too difficult to find its listening groove. 

Essentially the overall vibes of BEULAH are defined by the lo-fi echoes of the evocative opener ‘Black Leaf’, the sensitive ‘Make You Cry’ and the simple but effective closer ‘I’ll Get Even’. The catchy ‘Hate the Way You Love Me’ also fits this interpretation of the record, while ‘Hope I Die’ does possess a funky beat as the whispering vocals bridge into a soulful chorus. Lyrically John Paul is in a deeply personal and reflective mood with an open invitation to share in his inner thoughts.

The wider music world knows what John Paul White can do in duo collaboration and the release of BEULAH reveals his solo work to be fully prepared for similar adulation. It is entirely free of agenda and beautifully crafted to get the measure of its originator, and surroundings steeped in the heritage of outstanding music. 

Kelsey Waldon - I've Got a Way : Monkey's Eyebrow Recordings

Whilst observing country music from a distant land, there are a handful of traits that form an identikit well before the first sound is heard. Hail from a small town with a memorable name, work your way up from the depths of the employment ladder and inject some real life anguish into your songs. Even if none of these traits applied to Kelsey Waldon, it wouldn’t take long to realise that she was born to sing country music, in fact one line on the opening track of her new album will do. I’VE GOT A WAY is Kelsey’s highly anticipated sophomore record and is set to confirm her status as one of the rising stars of the country music scene as anointed by several respected observers.

So before we delve deep into the riches of this enthralling album, let’s bask in Kelsey’s delightful hometown name of Monkey’s Eyebrow Kentucky, respect that she pitched her songs in the bars of Nashville whilst supporting herself via low paid jobs and acknowledge the inspiration to find music as therapy for teenage family difficulties. The background to Kelsey is supplemented by a stellar list of influences leaving you in no doubt as to where her genre leanings lie. Regardless of the backdrop, the proof of her talent blossoms in the glorious tracks that form this self-released album which burns to the embers any remnants of throwaway country pop.

In a year where doors opened for Margo Price 4000 miles across the pond, those seduced by the authentic sound of real country music will also fall in love with Kelsey and lap up every inch of this record. Right from the opening steel driving straight up rocker ‘Dirty Old Town’ (not the Anglo folk song but just as good) to the tear jerking exit track ‘The Heartbreak’, the vocals, music and essence brim with glorious country music authenticity.

Every slice of this sentimental stab at making a respected record is dripping in pure gold. Whether tackling a couple of unconventional covers or bringing her own compositions to fruition, the production is a credit to Kelsey and her band of helpers. The covers consist of a version of The Gosdin Brothers’ ‘There Must Be a Someone’ in all its crooning glory and a take on Bill Monroe’s ‘Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road’ with a slightly dark and alternative edge.

The originals are headed by the lead promo track ‘All By Myself’, but this is just eclipsed in the stand-out stakes by the timeless beauty ‘Life Moves Slow’, the classic country kiss-off ‘You Can Have It’ and the cleverly written ‘False King’. In fact so effortlessly and seamless that the eleven tracks roll along, it is tough to single songs out, but ‘I’d Rather Go On’ makes a valiant case to banish this theory.

Kelsey’s student of life status has served her well in pursuit of making music that matters and the result is a relentless release that refuses to yield. Facile to the core and a contemporary marker for country music ambience, I’VE GOT A WAY will bore a hole in you record collection as it finds its niche. Lashes of rocking pedal steel added to a vocalist who sings as she means it makes this a full on album revealing Kelsey Waldon as an artist ready to repay those who cited her potential.

Ultimately it is an album that’s far too retro for a major label. However the winners are those who seek it out and marvel at its sheer composure. Quenching the thirst for unrepentant classic tinged contemporary country music is a deserved final word.