Thursday, 27 October 2016

Kelley McRae - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 26th October 2016

The state of any movement/scene is the strength of the grassroots. On the evidence witnessed at this show, the health of the country-folk touring contingent from the US is fighting fit. Of course there is the contention of the grassroots market being sufficient to host both home grown and overseas talent, with the counter argument being based around the complementary nature of inspirations, observations and overall style. Kelley McRae is an American artist at the heart of such a scene, talented enough to take her music far and wide, while operating at a level where every single opportunity has to be exploited to keep the show on the road, The Kitchen Garden Café is renowned for hosting similar artists and the invitation for Kelley to play was a repeat of the show she co-headlined with Josh Harty around eighteen months ago - minus Josh.

In the interim period, Kelley has recorded a new album with THE WAYSIDE being both showcased heavily and made available for sale at each show on this latest sortie across the Atlantic. As per last year, and an intrinsic member of the Kelley McRae performing entity, is both husband and guitarist sidekick Matt Castelein. Together they pool their talents to display an abundance of skill in the music, song and vocal departments. It can be a tough ask to continually get folks out on a midweek evening to see a relatively unknown artist, but those who do, get constantly rewarded with a high degree of quality often outweighing the usual modest outlay. Hopefully it is not being too unkind to address Kelley and Matt as the bread and butter of touring acoustic artists. However they are definitely artisan product.

This evening’s show was at the end of a busy run of consecutive gigs at the venue, especially with the previous one running to an extensive length. The set up was to give local singer-songwriter Guy Jones a forty-five minute slot before Kelley and Matt shared their wares for just over an hour. A sufficient time span of music to get a flavour of both acts and to keep the curfew down to a sensible midweek hour. Guy is no stranger to the venues of Birmingham and just this year he has been seen supporting such touring acts as The Bros. Landreth and Mandolin Orange. He succeeded in matching the strength of his song delivery to the intimate surroundings of this venue and the heightened structure of his original compositions such as ‘Albany, Honey’ and ‘Sky High’ was shown in a good light.

A couple of covers of Tom Petty and Eric Clapton plus the essential relevant background chat required for this type of evening, and Guy had done an endearing job in the support role, thus paving the way for Kelley to show her scope of the song writing perspective from a transatlantic angle. This has been formed by the well documented story of Matt and Kelley giving up their home comforts to head out from New York City and spend the next two years playing the troubadour role while living in a VW Campervan. They have both come through this experience stronger and now prefer their inspirational locations to be more of a temporary basis such as song writing retreats in Canada. However the road will always be a key point of their lives as the theme of the new record suggests the heavy influence of their travel discoveries and experiences.

The wealth of the instrumental sound the duo has is primarily the responsibility of Matt’s unplugged resonator guitar, exuding significant twang and supremely played. Even Kelley selected the closing track off the new album as the final encore song to indulge both herself and the audience with some serious slide guitar playing. Elsewhere Kelley mixed original compositions with the celebrated works of Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and Ryan Adams, the latter the obvious choice of ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, though one that is never tired of being listened to especially when beautifully sung. The pick of the originals was any one of ‘Rare Bird’, ‘If You Need Me’ and the Oklahoma inspired effort ‘Red Dirt Road’.

Without doubt Kelley McRae and Matt Castelein will succeed with their calling on the basis of sheer fortitude mixed with a talent blessing and an instinct to convey the affable intricacies of the country folk acoustic sound. There is an important role in bolstering the substance of the touring contingent and artists like Kelley McRae add significant value to the music being offered at listening venues up and down the land. 

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