Thursday, 29 September 2016

Jim Lauderdale - This Changes Everything : Sky Crunch Records

Some records encircle your senses before making their mark, while others don’t hesitate with the impact. Needless to say the brand new album from Jim Lauderdale wasted no opportunity with a straight off bulls eye appeal, but that will hardly be news to the legions of country and Americana fans endeared to this acclaimed legend. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING ensures that Jim hasn’t rested on his laurels especially with the latest round of appreciative award giving at the recent Americana’s.Without any doubt the eleven tracks whisk you down Texas way and whirl around the state regardless whether you are a resident or live thousands of miles away.

Before any further comment is made, attention must be drawn to the absolute gem of a track ‘All the Rage in Paris’ nestling right at the album’s core. This Jim Lauderdale/Daryl Burgess co-write saw the light of day a few years back with multiple cuts and its re-issue in 2016 can bring it a new audience. Tongue in cheek maybe, far from subtle in its namedropping and sentiment, this song drools in Texas gold (not the black stuff) and escalates right into the best song re-issue nominee category for the year.  Serious addiction to this track is far from bad for your health, in fact look at it as a casual remedy to your minor woes.

Jim may not be a native Texan, but he has dipped right into the heart of the music scene to enlist a talented band of helpers to bring this record to fruition. Under the guidance of Tommy Detamore, and largely recorded in Austin in a single day, all eleven tracks had the five star treatment from an exalted list of musicians including some electric guitar input by Chris Masterson and vocals by the trio of Noel McKay, Brennan Leigh and Sunny Sweeney.

While Jim had at least a co-write share in all the songs, some others have also materialised elsewhere notably the George Strait 90’s hit ‘We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This’ and more subtly ‘Drive’, the lead track from Hayes Carll’s latest album LOVERS AND LEAVERS. Two cuts have come from the combined pens of Lauderdale and Texan song writing icon Bruce Robison including the title and opening piece ‘This Changes Everything’. The ultimate affection for this album is that it captures the charm of old time country meets Western Swing meets a sound right to the very core of what attracts folks far and wide to a style epitomising a region.

The album is released on Jim’s own Sky Crunch Records and is set to match up well with his extensive back catalogue, now running into the high twenties. Apart from the standout track eulogised about earlier, the strength of the album is in the entity and multiple plays are guaranteed once your ear is tuned in. Whether you are taken by the swing influenced ‘You Turn Me Around’, smitten by the crooner ‘It All Started and Ended With You’ or seduced by the classic country tinge to ‘The Weakness of Two Hearts’, the album will barely need a second chance to impress.

2016 is set to be as relevant a year for Jim Lauderdale as any of the previous thirty since he set out on this path to make fine distinguished music. This well produced and totally infectious album can have a short term legacy of reaching out to new listeners ripe to be hooked on country music made the Texas way - and made very well. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING is likely to thrill the devotees, with that little extra reach out maybe making a greater impact on steering future generations in the right direction.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Trevor Alguire - Perish in the Light : Self-Released

It has been a busy decade for Canadian artist Trevor Alguire from a recording perspective and it’s likely to get busier once the praise floods in for his brand new album PERISH IN THE LIGHT. This sophisticated yet accessible album raises the bar for band driven singer-songwriter releases in 2016 and it would be a massive injustice if the Canadian awarding organisations don’t come calling when the time arrives to formalise the year. Not a moment is wasted on the neatly rounded ten tracks as the sounds of country, folk and rock are explored within the expansive confines of a mind wandering troubadour.

Comparisons with classic and contemporary Canadian singer-songwriters are bound to be forthcoming, but there’s a comparable voice simmering under the surface in the guise of Zac Brown delivering his stripped down material. This jumped straight at me in the exceptional opening track ‘The Ghost of Him’ as Trevor announces his arrival with a confident number while opening his heart in a plea. This song also contains the album’s title buried in the superb lyrics ‘comfort in the shadow, perish in the light'.

Following this track would be a tough ask but the next three at least rival it in the quality stakes. The harmonica intro to ‘Long Way Home’ gives it a folk-blues feel which leads into a damn good rockin’ tune topped with one of the album’s many strong chorus parts. If you want the most prominent country focus to the record then the delightful ‘Out of Sight/Out of Mind’ will deliver as the fiddle and steel kicks in on a number that wouldn’t be out of place on a George Strait record. The narrative of loneliness, lifelong reflection and a memory perspective, all fall in line with the lyrical quality that makes country music a marvellous storytelling genre.

Track four sees no reduction in quality and impact as the album’s solitary collaboration appears. Fellow Canadian Catherine MacLellan is the ideal choice to sing a duet with and the record’s chief promotional track ‘My Sweet Rosetta’ unfolds as a haunting folk delicacy. Although an original solo write, like the entire album, there is a traditional feel to this song.

Violin on this, and several other tracks, comes courtesy of Miranda Mulholland and this rolls out as the instrument highlight alongside Bob Egan’s pedal steel and the variety of keys from Jesse O’Brien. The detected sound of the latter’s organ adds a soulful tinge to the ballad ‘Wasted Ways’, a song guilty for the album’s standout line ‘and the whiskey is just not doing what it has been told’. Serious song writing is maintained in the determined waltz-like message number ‘I’ll Be Who I Am’ and further immensely catchy chorus’ can be found in the alt-country style rocker ‘You Don’t Write Anymore’ and the fiddle led regret piece ‘Wasting My Time With You’.

A fairly low key but far from undistinguished closer exists in ‘If I'd Stayed in School’, perhaps slightly overshadowed by its big hitting predecessors. The remaining track sits neatly in the album’s heart and the full band impact exists in the toe tapping rockin’ roller ‘Flash Flood’. The tempo of this tune reflects the record’s undulating sound, demonstrating its architect as the master of a range of differently paced songs.

From the listener’s perspective, PERISH IN THIS LIGHT comes across as a therapeutic release with its slick makeover capable of turning many heads. Nights might be drawing in, but Trevor Alguire has a definite spring in his step. This articulate songwriter might be a dream chaser, poetic pursuer and playing life’s chance game with his work, but his message is clearly understood and he is proudly in the possession of an album that is equipped to move his career forward.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Michele Stodart - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 26th September 2016

Serial gig goers would be hard pressed to see a more impassioned and dedicated performance than what Michele Stodart and her band put on this evening at the Kitchen Garden Café. Throw in an almost mystical chemistry with lead guitarist Raevennan Husbandes and a venue usually the domain of the strictly acoustic melted in a haze of finely tuned folk rock. Spells of acoustic paradise were aplenty, but it was the moments when the controls were turned slightly up that raised the intensity of this show. The enhanced sound which was still sufficiently subtle to embrace the surroundings was aided and abetted by a vocalist exuding such depth and emotion in each chosen song. Michele left a truly favourable impression to suggest even greater levels than currently surmounted as an independent solo artist.

Early into her set, Michele did re-assure the audience that the Magic Numbers were still active with album #5 set to feature soon. However this show was primarily about the two solo albums Michele has put out with an understandable focus on this summer’s release PIECES. With the exception of a new song to open the set, a finale cover of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ and two new co-writes with Raevennan, the remaining nine tracks to grace the set list reminded folks of the unlimited appeal of her recorded solo work.

The set up for Michele’s headline set after a couple of support slots was the four piece format with keys and percussion adding a valuable touch. Michele herself eased between acoustic, electric and bass depending on the mood of the song and the multi-sparing with Raevennan saw metaphorical sparks fly around the place. Raevennan was showing the full breadth of her talents at this point and confirming why she is so in-demand as a musician highlighted by her ongoing membership of The Moulettes. Of course, like Michele’s current status, Raevennan’s de facto position is a singer-songwriter and grasped the opportunity to showcase some of her own compositions during the second support slot.

The evening started some three hours prior to the blistering finale with a short set by a lo-fi singing guitarist going by the name of WAYLOR who managed to inject some minimalist electrification into a bunch of softly spoken songs. He was followed by Raevennan and her more conventional song delivery. She picked a couple of tracks from her BOX OF INNOCENCE EP including the title piece and concluded her brief thirty minutes of solo spotlight with the number ‘To The Sea’  off her duet album with Tracey Browne. This in effect acted as a mere introduction to her evening input which later emerged into spirited lead guitarist, harmony vocalist and key song writing contributor.

Michele’s headlining set began in solo format before the band joined her for ‘Something About You’ from the new record. Amongst the tracks lifted from the album and transplanted into a live setting was the single ‘Ain’t No Woman’ and the standout tune on the evening ‘Just Anyone Won’t Do’. Check out the links to online versions of both these songs. The pick of the tracks chosen off her 2012 debut solo release WIDE-EYED CROSSING was ‘Foolish Love’, one of the set’s up tempo offerings. Another highlight worthy of mention was the Michele/Raevennan co-write ‘Fall into You’, beautifully sung in harmony and duet.

One overriding memory of this show was the diverse effect of Michele’s ability to infiltrate rock, soul, folk, and even country, styles into her songs. The ultimate effect left an appreciative audience in awe of the startling presentation on offer for a highly reasonable outlay. Shows like this make venturing out on a Monday night totally worthwhile. Full credit to all players, with a final word of thanks to Michele Stodart for sharing the soul of her music in such a truly touching measure.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Ags Connolly - Tower of Song, Birmingham. Friday 23rd September 2016

While Ags Connolly continues to seek his niche in the UK music scene, those listeners who tap into his distinctive style will reap the rewards of their wise artistic choice. If you want to wear the badge of country music in the UK then the unfiltered version purveyed by Ags is an essential schooling. Not only does this Oxfordshire based singer-songwriter rustle up some pinpointed songs, they are all sung in a gut driven spiral of absolute authenticity. Alongside his mission to preserve the ideals, a student, advocate and impressionist of country music shapes a performer dedicated and hell bent to a cause.

2016, especially the latter part, sees Ags in interim mode. Live dates are more sporadic rather than a structured tour. New songs are teased, supported only by the anticipation of a follow up album to his 2014 release HOW ABOUT NOW. Hopefully this will materialise in early 2017 and cement the embryonic relationship with South Coast music operation At The Helm Records, along with their partners. Of course such a state of mind does allow a little experimentation, exploration and fine tuning especially in an intimate live setting. This release will be an important moment for Ags and his pursuit of an independent yet thriving career.

On the evidence of this inaugural show in Birmingham, the new material will not disappoint, with even the first hint of an upgrade. The bias of the set’s content was tilted in the direction of the future with no sign of compromising the past. The full band versions will without doubt enhance the recorded format, but one man, guitar and a voice immersed in the song’s emotion are a conduit to solo delivery success.

While a desire for originality inspires Ags to major on self-penned efforts, he is not averse to celebrating the work of others who have played a significant role in his musical education. So during this performance at the Tower of Song, appropriately the work of Leonard Cohen was covered alongside his own song writing hero Louden Wainwright III. Throw in an excellent version of Shel Siverstein’s much covered ‘Jennifer Johnson & Me’ plus Nick Lowe’s acclaimed rock ‘n’ roller ‘I Knew the Bride’ and the breadth of the show was stretched. Although closer to the core was the work of David Allan Coe.

There has been a limited CD only release during 2016 and TRADIITONAL, his take on 12 cowboy songs is an indulgent passion which crosses the line into listener appreciation territory. Ags borrowed ‘Rambling Gambler’ from this selection of old time songs for the set list and it is well worth grabbing a copy of the album, available either through his website or at a show. The record has gained some respected specialist airplay and a good review from Country Music People, with a further endorsement from yours truly.

While the new album will partially close the book on HOW ABOUT NOW, there’s still plenty of life in the tracks with ‘The Dim and Distant Past’ and ‘Trusty Companion’ sounding good this evening. In fact on the evidence of the whole show, Ags has the potential the grab a foothold in many new towns across the country. There is a market for folks who base their country on Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. So why not hook up with an English country singer, writing and delivering superb material in a similar style. Let’s put the terms Ameripolitan, Americana and sub genres to one side for a moment and just use the simple word ‘country’ to describe Ags Connolly. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Brandy Clark + Ben Glover - Glee Club, Birmingham. Tuesday 20th September 2016

Back in 2011 a small town in the Pacific North West state of Washington by the name of Morton played host to us for one night on a tour of the area. Nestled at the foot of Mt. St. Helens, it was your quintessential small town and not one designed to pamper to the needs of tourists. Two years later a striving singer-songwriter broke through the recording barrier with the release of her debut album. Coincidentally, it was revealed that Brandy Clark, the artist in question, also hailed from Morton giving added relevance to that specific travel memory.

As the song writing and lyrical substance of Brandy unravelled over the course of two albums, the strong influence of small town America surfaced along with the hopes, fears, characters and a good ole dose of emphatic reality. The link between Morton, 12 STORIES and the subsequent ascension of an exceptional songwriter has now been further strengthened by the experience of Brandy bringing her live presence to the UK in an extended tour format.

It was a honour that Birmingham’s Glee Club hosted the first night of Brandy’s inaugural UK tour and it evolved into the true country music follow up to her namesake Terri’s appearance on the same stage four years ago. The addition of Ben Glover for the supporting role sealed the deal of showcasing a top notch bill, with the Nashville-based Ulsterman returning to a venue where he opened for Mary Gauthier a couple of years back. Throw in Ben’s association with the much loved multi UK returnee Gretchen Peters and in the space of a few sentences a mini song writing hall of fame has sprung up.
Photo credit: Andy D.
It is the art of beautifully conveying the meaning of words in the wondrous habitat of a sweet melody that places Brandy Clark at the forefront of country music song writing, in particular the cluster courted by the mainstream. However you get the impression that Brandy would flourish in any setting and the reality is that her recently acquired status of a signed artist is a stroke of mere good fortune among a lifelong passion of seeking the ultimate song. For seventy five minutes, a packed out venue was elevated into a superior state of song writing bliss as the true wealth of Brandy’s immense talent thrived in the acoustic model.

Understandably 2016’s BIG DAY IN A SMALL TOWN edged 2013’s 12 STORIES eight to five in the set list composition, yet the strength and calibre of the choices were comparable. Stark differences in the production backdrop of both albums has prompted much debate, but that line of thought was rendered obsolete with Brandy stripping back each song to a bare equilibrium. The bold vocal style coupled with the contrasting guitar styles of Brandy and her lead companion Miles Aubrey was all that was needed to parade the majesty of each song.

Photo credit: Andy D. 
There was no introduction necessary that you were attending a country music concert when Brandy strode onto the stage and launched straight into ‘Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’. You were also left in no doubt of Brandy’s enormous capacity to move – cue – ‘Three Kids No Husband’ and the penultimate number, ‘Since You’ve Gone to Heaven’. Brandy did show a glimpse of optimistic wry with the closer ‘Pray to Jesus’ and if you want one song raising its profile in a live setting then ‘Hold My Hand’ was the one. In fact listening to the song live and several recent spins of its album home – 12 STORIES -  has spawned random thoughts of its likeness to Allison Moorer at her sincerest best. Tonight amongst several other insightful moments, this song was remembered for its Grammy collaboration with Dwight Yoakam.

How these songs would play out in full band mode seemed a distant thought during this show with perhaps just a slight vision of fiddle and steel illuminating proceedings. The biggest adjustment in the set was the latest album’s lead single ‘Girl Next Door’ being considerably eased down, yet vigorously flying the flag for lyrical brilliance in the line ‘some Virgin Mary metaphor’.

On four occasions Brandy ventured outside her two albums. Two were obviously for the loaned out smash hit singles – ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ and ‘Better Dig Two’. The solitary cover was reserved for one from George Strait’s back catalogue in ‘The Chair’, with the indication that a different cover will be reserved for the four dates on this tour. The final non-album song was one yet to acquire a recording status, exploring the age old vice of drinking and 100% Brandy Clark.

On a night celebrating the art of song, there was no finer opening choice than Ben Glover, who gained many new fans with his peerless selection of serious material. The range of Ben’s recent recording career was explored during his set from the award winning Gretchen Peters co-write ‘Blackbirds’, through his haunted masterpiece under The Orphan Brigade moniker with the ghostly sensual ‘ Oh Harriett’ and landing with a smart sample from his brand new record THE EMIGRANT. Whether honing in on the sounds of Americana, roots, blues or his Celtic heritage, the songs of Ben Glover are rich in texture. The vocal style may have been in contrast to the unabated country sound of Brandy but this opening set met its remit from all angles – a warmed up appreciative crowd and a few interval album sales in the bag.

12 STORIES is, and will remain, a modern classic and a blueprint to how an independent release can shape the cultured song. It heralded a golden period of records springing out of the Slate Creek Record label alongside The Bros. Landreth and Angaleena Presley. Whatever Brandy Clark goes on to achieve in her career, it will always have the significance of the pivotal launching pad from industry writer to influential performer. This evening was all about completing the unbroken circle that inadvertently started in Morton five years ago and ended phase one in Birmingham UK. The future of Brandy Clark is one of exciting and unlimited potential securely based on the evidence that hoisted this show into the premium set of 2016 gigs.

Review of 12 Stories - Favourite album of 2013

Review of Ben Glover - The Emigrant

Friday, 16 September 2016

Madison Violet - Glee Club, Birmingham. Thursday 15th September 2016

It was a night of momentum, renewal and accomplishment. The latter is based on a personal odyssey of finally catching a Madison Violet show after unfortunate cancellations and the inconvenient interception of that rare British hindrance – snow. Renewal is the underlying inference of their current ‘The Back to The Roots Tour’ following an experimental period of artistic diversion. This fabulous show at Birmingham’s Glee Club took a few songs to get into its groove, but soon the Canadian duo of Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac found the sweet spot and glided effortlessly towards a fitting finale of ‘Small of My Heart’ and ‘Cindy Cindy’.

2013 was the year of missed opportunities to see the band live in the UK and also one where they released an excellent live album titled COME AS YOU ARE: LIVE which captured the band’s ascendancy following the release of 2009’s NO FOOL FOR TRYING. The success and acclaim that headed in the direction of Brenley and Lisa was no more than they deserved after starting out in Toronto just prior to the millennium switchover. Segments of this evening’s show reflected fondly on those early days with the track ‘Haight Ashbury’ representing that recording period for Madison Violet and being preluded by their love for San Francisco. Perhaps nostalgia has skewed the misty thoughts of Toronto’s Green Room back then.

This two set show was housed in the venue’s studio room and the intimate gathering created the ideal ambience for the beautiful songs to flourish. These songs tended to fall into two camps; the old favourites and the entire playing of the duo’s new album THE KNIGHT SESSIONS. This record sees them fall back into a folk state of mind to the extent that half a dozen songs from their interim pop album THE YEAR OF THE HORSE have been re-worked in an acoustic format. It has to be admitted that this record must have passed me by or more than likely marketed in an alternative direction.

Brenley MacEachern
The lead single from that project, in this renewed format, was among the pick of the newish songs with ‘These Ships’ getting the pre-encore slot on the set list. Another song from the new album ‘Same Sun’ also nestled into the memory bank, likely on the back of Lisa’s heartfelt story of a communication between her mother and late brother. This was one of many anecdotal interludes by both ladies as they reached out to bond with an audience, of whom many were familiar with the older songs but were a little starved of chances to hear them live.

Closely pushing the two encore tracks mentioned in the introduction, other seasoned favourites were savoured such as ‘No Fool for Trying’, the wonderfully melodic ‘Crying’, the invited singalong ‘Come as You Are’ and the competition winning ‘The Ransom’. Whilst these numbers represent probably Madison Violet’s most influential recording period, there is still the optimism that many fruitful years lie ahead. The song writing skills are still smart and acute, aligned with a harmonious slice of vocal nirvana and the pair being no mean artisans when it comes to stringed instrumentation playing.

Lisa MacIsaac
Lisa extols the diversity in the musician stakes, exercising her skills on both electric and acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin. She played most of the significant musical segments leaving Brenley to support from the moments flitting between six-string and four string acoustic guitars coupled with occasional harmonica. In fact the four-string had a worn exterior suggesting many musical miles, endless adventures and the delightful custodian of many self-generating songs. In fact Madison Violet are a self-fulfilling entity of original songs, leaving room for only one cover this evening and a version of Beyoncé’s ‘Daddy Lessons’; a song turning more than a few heads in folk and Americana circles.

This successful show was the second of the duo’s extensive ‘The Back to the Roots Tour’ which extends to over forty dates across the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. On the evidence of the live album released a couple of years ago, the reception the band will get in Germany is likely to be special. This theory is rubber stamped by finally getting the opportunity to see the live performing skills of Lisa and Brenley at close quarters. Madison Violet remains one of my favourite Canadian folk and roots bands alongside the Good Lovelies, Wailin’ Jennies, Po Girl and the Be Good Tanyas. The good news is that they are sounding sweet in 2016 and set to reign long into the future.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Jenn Bostic, Kyshona Armstrong and Sarah Darling - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 12th September 2016

Three artists bound by their Nashville calling. Three artists intrinsically linked by the concept of dreams. Three artists emotionally drawn to sharing their deepest personal songs. Sarah Darling – a stylish measured dreamer, Jenn Bostic – a therapeutic dreamer, Kyshona Armstrong – a spiritual dreamer, three independent artists making meaningful music and now performing collaborators in their deeply connective ‘in the round’ show.

Maybe more rotating songs than literally in the round, this trio have hit the sweet spot on a short English tour taking in several keynote venues where serious content supersedes superficial surroundings. If you’re seeking that heady moment of pure telepathic interaction, a sold out Kitchen Garden Café absorbing the songs of this trio was the place to be. Bands were left at home, exposing the naked reality of sincere songs delivered in a range of styles from cultured pristineness to earthy soul. This music was far from free of ambition, yet retained a mark of control.

All three artists reside at different levels of UK exposure, although for two hours at each show on this tour the equilibrium is stark. The pursuit and success of Jenn Bostic’s Radio 2 foray has been the result of several visits. She mentioned playing a fundraising show in Birmingham recently, but you can go back a little further to February 2013 when the Bull’s Head in Moseley hosted her. That night the door was opened for many to hear her emotive signature song live for the first time and three and a half years on, ‘Jealous of the Angels’ possesses the same personal therapy to move both artist and audience alike. This was the climax of Jenn’s five songs which were mainly presented from behind the keyboard and wrapped in sentimental vocal prowess. Pride oozed from the introduction when the current Radio 2 play listed ‘What Love Feels Like’ appeared. One of her older songs, ‘Not Yet’ demonstrated the range of her vocals and ‘Hollywood’ surfaced as one of the many moments on the evening invoking audience participation. Kyshona gave a little insight into the world of Jenn when referring to her planning tendencies and this rolls out in her structured approach to making music.

While Sarah Darling has been active in the Nashville music scene for quite a while, her overseas aspirations appear to be a relatively new addition. A ready-made growing audience is one attraction but also one prepared to show extraordinary listening potential. This appealing market quality is heaven sent for a performer staking so much on their song writing calibre. Whether or not, the mainstream industry comes calling, Sarah presses on with her independent project and this current tour acts as a showcase teaser for a new crowd funded album under the apt title of DREAM COUNTRY. Across the five songs she shared this evening, the first and last probably had the most appeal. ‘You Take Me All The Way’ opened the trio’s first set and confirmed its wise choice as an upcoming single with a sensual subtlety. ‘Stargazer’ was Sarah’s final offering and an attention grabbing delight.

This tour has been the UK’s introduction to Kyshona Armstrong and few exposed to her soulful spiritual depth will fail to be moved. It may sound contradictory but fragility came across as Kyshona’s strength, seeking solace in an innate capability to fire up the wounded soul. This is a performer who shared so many trepidations about moving to Nashville a couple of years ago from her ‘Deeper’ South roots. But Nashville’s Music City status is so much more than the perceived cliché and a fulfilling residency is locked in on tonight's evidence. Without hesitation, Kyshona’s sideways shuffle to belt out ‘Lonely’ from behind Jenn’s keyboards was the show’s golden highlight, closely followed by a calming segmented version of ‘Amazing Grace’ in one of Jenn’s songs. In contrast to Sarah’s upcoming album and Jenn’s latest from 2015, Kyshona’s THE RIDE is literally a month hot off the press and this evening she shared the title track, ‘Do Nothin’’ and ‘The Best of You’ from it, along with the aforementioned stand out performance in her quintet of songs.

With this tour being put together and managed by the Stafford based multi-music operation Fish Records, it was no surprise see one of the UK artists that they are associated with in Robert Lane being selected to open each show. Hailing from Birmingham and no stranger to the Kitchen Garden Café (he supported Caddy Cooper last November), Robert wasted little time in rising to the challenge of playing the archetypal opener. His confidence, wit and persona reflect a performer born for the stage. Intriguing short stories, Elvis singalongs, fine songs and a folk murder ballad, it was job done for Robert and he is surely set to thrive in the future on both the local and wider singer-songwriter circuit. In addition to Robert’s rousing version of ‘Suspicious Minds’, the other significant cover song on the evening was reserved for the encore with ‘Fields of Gold’ given an elegant coating of three beautiful voices.

So ‘A Night in Nashville’ became 'A Night in Kings Heath for one evening only with the quality of artists on show leading to the event being a resounding success. This was music in its purest form, reaching out in a format that engages an audience matching an assured level of performance with the ideals of what song writing can achieve. The Kitchen Garden Café proved to be the optimum venue for the intimate exposure of three artists, comfortable in their own words and so appreciative of each other's work. Where the future paths of Sarah Darling, Jenn Bostic and Kyshona Armstrong lead who knows, but for a solitary night, converging on York Road, Kings Heath proved a winner.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Danny & the Champions of the World + Dean Owens - The Donkey, Leicester. Friday 9th September 2016

Music is the voice of the soul and deep down where the soul resides you’ll find Danny and the Champs pouring their heart into a live show. That show won’t be large, pretentious and full of superficial content. It will resonate with a fulfilling sound, spirited musicianship and a set of guys who passionately care about the music they create. The audience will buy into the simple ideals of Danny George Wilson and revel in the moment. Filters such as phones and reviews are mere superfluous to the air of connectivity , Contradictions aside, Danny and the Champions of the World continue to be the worst kept secret on the UK live music scene, reaching out to a loyal fan base, courting industry acclaim and maintaining the highest possible standards. This evening at The Donkey, just outside Leicester city centre, was not revolutionary, but pure Danny and the Champs staple and a firm reassurance why music will always rule in its live environment.

To the names of Ags Connolly, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou and The Dreaming Spires, you can add Dean Owens to the esteemed list that have had the honour of supporting Danny in a gig in my presence over the last few years. Like Danny, Dean is no newcomer to the circuit but nevertheless it is good to welcome him south of the border for a decent run of gigs as his music has so much to offer. This evening he took advantage of an extended forty minute opening set to share several of his songs, strongly leaning in the misery direction in contrast to the anticipated feel good Champs show. Dean had little problem holding most of a Friday night’s audience attention with an assured demeanour and standard of song to demand focus.

Dean’s excellent 2015 album INTO THE SEA provided a fruitful source for a fair chunk of the set list including ‘Valentine’s Day in New York’, ‘Evergreen’ and ‘Virginia Street’. The latter, a song mixing Glasgow and Kris Kristofferson, was announced as the new single with more than a nod to Bob Harris’s approval. Outside the latest record the strongest offerings were ‘The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’ and ‘Lost Time’, with the former being lifted from Dean’s 2012 cut CASH BACK: SONGS I LEARNED FROM JOHNNY CASH. The influences and style of Dean Owens are not too difficult to detect and ascertain, with the presiding overview that he interprets them successfully.

While inference of far from revolutionary was hinted at previously there was one significant change since I saw the band in Oxford last year. That Bullingdon show was one of my gigs of the year, right in the mix of their new album tour and forever remembered for the Free Jazz Geoff-led sax conga. However for the first time that can be recalled over the last few years, there was no Geoff or sax, replaced by the intriguing full blown addition of Hammond organ brought by a new Champ – Andy Fairclough. After the required necessary adjustment, enhanced soulful keys to the current Champs style played a major part and it will be interesting to see the level of impact on the band’s new album due out in the New Year.

While on the theme of the new record, one track was introduced by Danny, in the form of the Paul Lush penned ‘Never in the Moment’. A further innovation for the show was the limelight afforded to pedal steel player Henry Senior Jr with the opportunity to share a tune from his brand new instrumental album. PLATES OF MEAT is the inaugural release from the Maiden Voyage Recording Company, a project jointly launched by Danny and Del Day.

The majority of the show was a lesson in reassurance. Paul Lush persistently excelled on lead guitar while Chris Clarke steadied the ship on bass aligned with Steve Brookes supplying the driving percussion beat. Danny was just Danny, the grateful and humbled entertainer further buoyed by the recognition the band received from this year’s Americana awards. The sweaty, packed and earthy Donkey venue was fertile Champs ground with oodles of mutual appreciation in a heady and cramped atmosphere.

The set list was extensive, familiar and rich, with mainly upbeat dance friendly material. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ remains a personal favourite and a choice slice of Danny idealism. ‘Colonel and the King’ retains its extended infectious appeal and ‘Henry the Van’ will never be forgotten. Perhaps one song beginning to ripen as a live masterpiece is ‘Clear Water’, surely heading in the legendary direction of ‘Restless Feet’ and ‘Every Beat of My Heart’.

Any review of a Danny and the Champions of the World show should end with an invitation to personally seek out this live experience. Many Leicester folks did just that and opportunities in the future around the land are likely to be countless . Hopefully the same can be said of Dean Owens and more excursions south from his Edinburgh base. The quality of a live performer will rise to the top and the two artists on show this evening personify this assertion.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Ben Glover - The Emigrant : Proper Records

The word immigrant and emigrant will always pose contrasting images, reactions, feelings and experiences. While forever being a theme of a changing world, they will often be the staple of song writing activity. Irish born Nashville based singer-songwriter Ben Glover has extracted his personal experience of the latter to spearhead a project drawing on a set of themed songs from a range of sources.

In line with his two most recent excursions into the recording world – the solo album ATLANTIC and the collaborative effort THE ORPHAN BRIGADE – Ben once again submerges his whole creative being into a collection of songs wringing in the depth of emotive soul. The backdrop does veer away from his adopted home and the overall Celtic feel resonates with an outlook to peer into the distance. Through a journey of solo/co-writes, covers and traditional arrangements, THE EMIGRANT hooks in the listener and refuses to relinquish their attention until the task of extolling an imaginative experience is complete.

Familiarity with the work of Ben Glover is easy to detect as the album pans out. He has once again turned to acclaimed producer Nielson Hubbard for help in the steering compartment. Similarly the deep song writing seams of Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier has once again been collaboratively mined to pen a pair of gems. The vocals of Ben continue to be as rugged as the Irish coastline to which many an emigrant left in search of a new life. Musically, whistles and pipes have steered the sound away from the trademark Americana stance, but folk music from the British Isles is embedded deep in the roots of American music alongside that of fellow, and less willing, emigrants.

While the order of the ten tracks appears in a strain of randomness, analysis is best served by breaking the sources down and acknowledging their value to a process of forming an outstanding record. Three songs of traditional origin make the cut with the first thoughts of hearing Ben sing ‘The Parting Glass’ is to contrast his vocals with a version recorded by the Wailin Jennys. Great songs are malleable in their interpretation and this comparison is unedited proof. ‘Moonshiner’ and ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’ are the other two of unnamed origin with the latter a superb fit for closer position complete with a tearful piano accompaniment.

Next stop on this analytical trail is the four originals to see the light of day headed by the title track. ‘The Emigrant’ is a co-write with Gretchen Peters, re-uniting an association that gave Ben’s UK profile a real lift when he opened for her a couple of years ago. If the subsequent ‘Blackbirds’ is their co-writing standard then the new song matches up well. A dark and luscious piano opening greets a song that runs deep into the perspective of those who seek a new land. Loneliness, curses and the wondrous line ‘cuts loose from all you knew’ shape a track adorned with Irish pipes and one that makes a case for the album’s beacon. Ben’s other esteemed writing partner is Mary Gauthier and their offering ‘Heart in My Hand’ is the most melody friendly of the originals. The track rolls along comfortably with the fiddle segment far more in the Celtic camp than the Americana one. ‘A Song for Home’ is the third co-write (this time with Tony Kerr), sits at number two position in the album running order and unravels as a rousing ballad. Perhaps it leaves the term ‘home’ as one to ponder for the emigrant. Ben’s solo write ‘Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers’ completes the newbie section and is a short strapline fiddle piece containing a lyrical message printed on the album’s inside cover. Once again, it could be suggested as Ben’s overriding message from the record. (The copy of the album awaiting you will reveal more.)

Finally onto the remainder of the album, and a celebration of other writers leading off with Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare to Here’. This much covered ballad of Irish emigration is a suitable fit for the album and fully deserves its core position. ‘The Auld Triangle’ is another established Irish standard and brings back memories of the Punch Brothers covering it at Southern Fried Festival last year. The set is completed with an antipodean emigration song albeit one with a moving complete story packed with many stark messages and morals. Every second of the 7:49 version of ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is a million miles from being wasted and paints a painful picture of life’s cruelties from an emigrant’s perspective.

You should be now getting the message that THE EMIGRANT is full of substantial artistic merit and a conceptual piece of multi-song writing excellence. If you like your music brimming with history, context, emotion and perception, Ben Glover will deliver.

Sera - Little Girl : Folkstock

As summer gives way to autumn, do yourself a favour and tag onto the seasonal journey undertaken by Welsh singer-songwriter SERA in her brand new debut album LITTLE GIRL. The whole effect of this record is to glide you around a virtual landscape exploiting the sweeping serenity garnered by the production process. From tracks one to twelve, SERA hits on a winning formula to present an intoxicating release to music followers tempted by the process of checking out a new artist.

Hailing from North Wales and also professionally active in the Welsh language, SERA is the latest female artist to benefit from the active strategy of the Folkstock team in promoting predominately gender based music. The sound and feel of LITTLE GIRL is a significant diversion for Folkstock who are more widely known for their work with the greater traditional leaning of Kelly Oliver. This movement in sound drifts to the outer alternative edges of the folk genre, while blending in small contrasting elements of swirling dark Americana and fragments of engaging pop. Labels aside, the celestial energy generated by the spinning of this record a multitude of times make it an attractive release.

The album gets an explosive start with the tone setting opening track ‘Through the Wild’ which melts your senses in a way that its immediate candidacy for stand out song never relents. The pace of the record undulates during its playtime pivoted by a mellow core in the guise of the sensitive mid album track ‘Waterside’, complete with calming opening piano and darker cello parts finding a home later in the tune. By the time we reach the concluding piece ‘Through the Night’ a rock feel has emerged leading to a lengthy instrumental playout.

The vocals are generally uplifting, often classical in phases whilst always retaining a velvet soothing influence. Heady heights are reached in the rousing parts of the title track and a significant change emerges deep into the record where the lyrics switch to the language of SERA’s native land in ‘Mond am Eiliad’. If you are inclined to be drawn to the greater melody driven tracks then the catchy trio of ‘Carry Me’, ‘Creative Sound’ and ‘Storm Cloud’ in the album’s first half will be an instant attraction. ‘Your Joy’ and the sobering ‘Optimist’ in the second half (perhaps side 2 on a vinyl release!) give the record a seriously good balanced sound, thus ensuring an engaged listen is enjoyed.

LITTLE GIRL has surfaced as a highly credible album and one for SERA to further her career on. Discovering this artist is akin to the journey of discovery experienced by immersing into the wealth of the record. The anthem style in places helps make it accessible and it should appeal to a range of listeners into such diverse sounds as edgy pop, alt-folk and ethereal Americana. 

Order the album

Monday, 5 September 2016

Moseley Folk Festival - Moseley Park, Birmingham. Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th September 2016

Moseley Folk Festival, an idyllic delight within gritty inner suburbia. A place where with one swivel of the head you can digest a near continual diet of eclectic music over the course of thirty hours. A festival with a difference, reaching out across a broad range of clientele. It attracts the dedicated, the casual, the young and the seasoned, but most all it provides a fitting festival finale for the folks of Birmingham and beyond on the first weekend of September.

The 2016 offering retained the blueprint precedent ensuring a spritely mix of the popular, the frivolous, the moving and the influential. It would be a tough ask to buy into the whole package, but that is likely not the organiser’s ideal. It is often wondered whether the high profile headliners are essential for festival viability and perhaps that notion will remain eternally unanswered. Anyhow the true spirit of Moseley Folk Festival from a personal perspective lies within a band of bookings threaded by an intense bout of devoted observation. Artists that reward a listener digging a little deeper.

Laura Gibson 
Without venturing too far into the negative void of critical territory, the final thoughts of comparing The Proclaimers with The Jayhawks, Laura Gibson and the Sam Beam/Jesca Hoop duet went a long way down the route of personal summation. These four artists were among the Sunday twin stage showcase. A day where the weather settled into an acceptable September groove after the damp start to the previous day. This was also a day where the above three bracketed acts were seen live for the first time and created a mind indent of sunken treasure. The odd one out of the trio was Laura Gibson who only flashed across my horizon in the midst of this festival booking. With everything to gain from a blank canvas, and the heavy expectation of the heady new album EMPIRE BUILDER, Laura’s vocals and sound floated around Moseley Park like a celestial haze. Once again the comparison with Johanna and Klara of First Aid Kit is undeniable. When the dust settles on the year’s festival season and memories re-organise themselves, this half hour set will find its rightful place.

Before we continue to reflect on the music that matters, a quick mention for the three headliners. Preceding The Proclaimers by a day was The Coral with their slightly more youthful attraction and fairly newbie status as a retro act. A band at their peak when my mind was musically diverted elsewhere, they were given an open intriguing listen and probably peaked with the more indulgent new material. If The Proclaimers are the eighties, The Coral are the noughties, then the early nineties saw The Levellers at their commercial peak. Their brand of high octane folk/indie/punk rolled back the years on Friday night, mosh pit et al.

Sam Lee 
The word ‘folk’ has just been used and Moseley does intermittently indulge the purists. Sam Lee thrives as the quintessential oxymoron. A staunch contemporary traditionalist steeped in the art of reviving song, forever mining the communities of England. A sun drenched Friday afternoon was the perfect setting for Sam who improvised in the festival’s opportune moment of continuing his set in the audience after the strict curfew was reached. It has to be said at this point that the impeccable timing of the sets is a credit to the guys behind the scene at this festival, who maximise the absolute potential of the twin stage opportunity. Two iconic folk artists featured on Sunday afternoon with Steve Tilston marking the ‘one man and his guitar plus a bucketful of fine songs card’ and Jacqui McShee leading her 2016 version of Pentangle defined by some sultry sax drifting across the park and coaxing a slither of sunshine to briefly appear.

Let’s go back to The Jayhawks and enter the world of classic Americana alt-country rock which is welcome at any folk festival. Well fellow American band Dawes did state at a festival last year that ‘strip away all the amplification and what is left is just a simple folk song’. What The Jayhawks did remind everybody this year is the sheer magic of their three pronged cultured guitar attack with acoustic and pedal steel periodically mixing it with the omnipresent electric and bass. This was also a timely reminder of their status as a pioneering band of alt-country rock with Gary Louris leading this 2016 re-incarnation as slick as you would expect. Twenty four hours earlier another Americana rock band adorned the main stage with Phosphorescent raising the tempo in an alluring concoction of rousing guitar, keys and an impeccable beat. Matthew Houck continues to create a rock ‘n’ roll furrow for the music of his moniker to flourish and his dedicated fans lapped up every song, riff and effect from the sixty minute set. Before we leave this style, a quick mention for London based Treetop Flyers who returned to Moseley and headlined the smaller neighbouring Lunar Stage on Saturday evening. These boys continue to prosper as one of the UK’s leading alt-country rock Americana bands and seriously impress with a marvellous melange of guitar, keyboards and great songs; many found on their imposing new album PALOMINO.

Billy Bragg 
Another act returning to Moseley Folk Festival after a few years break was Billy Bragg. Last time he was the Sunday headliner and appeared solo. This year there was a slight downgrading in stage time with a Friday early evening slot, but absolutely no diminishing of the fire, fury and assault on the now post-Brexit fear of cynicism. This was also the year where Billy’s Americana influence takes on a more sound and vision stance, dressed in cowboy shirt and joined by one of the UK’s leading pedal steel guitarists, CJ Hillman. The structure, rhetoric and song selection remains intact, as does the Woody Guthrie appreciation, total fan adulation and the verse dedicated to Kirsty MacColl. No American railroad songs this evening, those will come in November. 'New England', 'The Mikman of Human Kindness' and 'Sexuality' have been festival favourites for years and their audience appeal shows no sign receding, just as the need for artistic political fight. 

There will always be a local flavour to the Moseley Folk Festival and 2016 was no different. Prominent Birmingham singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse was awarded a main stage slot on Friday afternoon and used the set to share some songs from his freshly released album. Sunday afternoon saw a tribute to the late and extremely popular Birmingham musician Paul Murphy with some of the artists who had worked with him curating a tribute on the Lunar Stage. These included singer-songwriter Katie Bennett and architect of an excellent new album this year, Abi Budgen who played a solo set on the same stage last year and Amit Dattani, a regular on the Birmingham music scene with his band Mellow Peaches.

As we head towards the final detailed festival mentions, it’s full respect to every artist, musician, songwriter and performer who appeared across the weekend. Each playing the part of keeping the spirit of live music alive and having the creative intent to share their work with an audience, of which many will find their niche.

Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop 
Four artists left to digest and let’s first return to one mentioned earlier. Sam Beam in his Iron and Wine guise will need little introduction to fans of folk Americana rock, but a different side to him was introduced this year as his acclaimed duet act with fellow American songwriter Jesca Hoop emerged as a late festival booking. The broadsheet equivalent of the music press heralded the release of the duo’s first album earlier this year and LOVE LETTER FOR FIRE formed an integral part of their hour-long Sunday teatime set. Identifying the synchronicity of their voices appears an easy find having now witnessed the duo perform from a near distance. The music was a triumph of collaboration, tantalising the ear buds of serious song listeners and emanating an aura of compatible marvel. ‘Islands in the Stream’ and ‘Love is a Stranger’ will never sound the same again, but the beautiful original music of Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop has an endless potential to prosper, other projects permitting. However it is entirely relevant in the present.

This is the Kit 
Oysterband, Dawn Landes and This is the Kit represents three entirely different strands of the Moseley Folk Festival presentation and each stand the test of their merit. Not a trio you will likely see linked again and they merely independently exist as an entity to highlight the favourite moments of the festival. Oysterband should not be overly displeased with the tag ‘stalwart’ after countless years on the folk circuit. Their simplistic approach to good time festival music eliminates any need for implicit detection and ‘getting’ this band from an hour long set is entirely possible. This is the Kit, the alias of British musician Kate Stables, is a much more intriguing observation and listen. The music takes you into a wonderful mesmerising world of indie-folk, delicate in its perception and endearing with a wave of emotion. Occasionally, the ethereal sound is injected with an electric explosion just to keep folk on their toes. In contrast to the other two home grown acts, Dawn Landes is a Kentucky based country folk singer who flew an isolated flag for this style of music over the weekend. Dawn has been a regular visitor to our shores over the last few years and her band of followers was no doubt enhanced after her Saturday afternoon set on the Lunar Stage.

The time as arrived to draw the curtain on the 2016 Moseley Folk Festival and close the artist reflection book. On the surface, this late summer/early autumn gathering looks set to progress and continue to provide a contrasting rural-urban musical feast. Maybe it will always gamble the weather, logistics restricting the marquee route, and balance the line up with a steady mix of the familiar and those artists that will be by the end of the Sunday evening. The festival will continue to reach out and maintain its inclusive remit. Music fans of Birmingham,and its hinterlands, should treasure its existence.

Dan Whitehouse
Dawn Landes
Katie Bennett 
Treetop Flyers

The Jayhawks

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Ben Folke Thomas - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 31st August 2016

Sharp wit, improvisation and audience interaction were all on the agenda when Ben Folke Thomas called into Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden Café on this latest short set of dates around the land of his second home. The dry charm of an artist, suggestively nomadically labelled as ‘Swedish Americana’, aligns well with his supremely crafted straightforward songs and a vocal style as deep as the subterranean substance of his lyrical material. Without hesitation this evening can be classed as a success.

This return trip to Birmingham saw Ben cross the road from his last appearance at the Hare and Hounds, and the more intimate surroundings of the Kitchen Garden Café were more suited to this solo performance. The solo status was taken to the extreme that no support was allotted to the show thus presenting Ben with the two set opportunity to showcase material from both his albums and a few other songs lacking a recorded home at the moment.

While the strength of Ben’s songs is the ultimate currency of a professional living, the irreverent banter helped further fuel the enjoyment of this gig. Quintessentially a live show is just that with the personal connection being irreplaceable via any other medium. This is probably the most appropriate summary of the evening, leaving the best outcome of a review in tempting others to seek out the live experience for themselves. Quite simply Ben Folke Thomas makes venturing out to see an engaging singer-songwriter in the domain of their expertise a worthwhile choice of leisure pursuit.

For a brief record on some of the noted pinpointed moments, ‘Woman I Love’ is my favourite track of Ben’s and continues to retain that status after hearing it live again. ‘Sex Addict’ has the most surreal of lyrical inspirations and remains an easy song for a fully warmed up audience to join in. ‘Dream About You Baby’ was the most enhanced song heard on the evening and raced up the appreciation ladder. Finally ‘Finn’ continues to sum up Ben’s outlook as a songwriter refusing to be bound by borders, a recurring theme on the evening.

One thing guaranteed is that Ben Folke Thomas is going to be around for a long time and there should be plenty of opportunities to see both his band and solo shows in the future. Having seen each format, you can take your pick as the merit flows equally. The certainty of Ben appealing from a multitude of angles is a priceless quality to possess and the live acoustic/folk/roots/country/Americana or any respectful music scene is strengthened by his presence.