Tuesday, 22 November 2016

High & Lonesome Festival - Brudenell Social Club/Left Bank, Leeds. Saturday 19th November 2016

Robert Ellis
Americana is one of the most contentious and open to individual interpretation labels attached to music in the second decade of the twenty-first century. However if you can squeeze another stab at personifying the term look no further than Robert Ellis. Too country for rock and too rock for country fits the bill neatly, as does a left field approach to making music. Throw in a stellar band and a rack of songs bulging with imaginative lyrics and you start to build a picture of an artist at the cutting edge of progressive roots music. Amongst an array of dates forming his latest tour to the UK, the eclectic and fiercely independent High and Lonesome Festival in Leeds awarded Robert the headline slot in the Left Bank Saturday evening presentation of this burgeoning event. Together with a three piece band hailed as the Perfect Strangers, Robert set about showing why he is such a respected artist and proved a fitting finale to a successful festival first day.

Like any multi-site event, choices have to be made from a personal angle which bands to see, but the organisers made it a fairly easy decision here when they billed Robert Ellis, Applewood Road and The Leisure Society as the line up in the associate festival venue of the Left Bank. So after an afternoon soaking up a variety of artists in the event’s main site – the legendary Brudenell Social Club – it was the short walk to the salubrious confines of a decommissioned church in the heart of a gritty Leeds inner city suburb.

Applewood Road
Applewood Road is a side project for three talented performers spanning oceans in their residency and homeland. Together the trio of Amy Speace, Amber Rubarth and Emily Baker announced their arrival as a recording entity with a delightful self-titled album earlier this year. A handful of UK visits have promoted the record and it was a privilege to finally catch one of their shows in a venue built for the angelic voice. The trio responded with a stunning reproduction of a fair proportion of the record alongside a mesmeric cover of ‘Losing My Religion’ and a tribute to that other fabled ‘trio’ – Dolly, Linda and Emmylou – by following in their footsteps with another version of the much loved Jean Ritchie song ‘My Dear Companion’.

While collaboration is a strong theme for Applewood Road, Emily Barker came across as the most diverse contributor adding percussion, banjo and harmonica to a sound sparse enough to let the songs flourish and prosper. Vocally the trio share a common bond with the three voices frequently melting into an eternal harmonious pool. From a song perspective, all the chosen pieces for this thirty-five minute set ached with sheer beauty, and an arm twist would probably elevate ‘Lovin’ Eyes’ to the first among equals.

Charlotte Carpenter
Sandwiched between the predominately stateside origin of Robert Ellis and Applewood Road was an established English folk pop trio in The Leisure Society, appearing this evening in a slimmed down trio format. Essentially the band landed in a halfway slot between the acoustic charm of Applewood Road and the full on electrification of Robert’s band. Although on this occasion, the fiddle, acoustic guitar and keyboards lent more in the direction of the act they followed rather than one we had yet to witness. A link between all three artists scheduled for the Left Bank was a debut appearance in my presence. Whilst The Leisure Society were always going to be hard pushed to make a greater impact here than their fellow artists, the songs shared and the accompanying style possessed much merit with the forty minute set upholding the spirit of thriving independent song writing with an alternative spin – the true ethos of the High and Lonesome Festival.

Nathan Boules
Clad in a bizarre suit and a matching persona frequently dipping into surreal territory, Robert Ellis wasted little time in creating an appealing first impression and followed this up with a raft of serious songs from his two highly innovative album releases. The surroundings were to prove no inhibition for the band led by ace lead guitarist Kelly Doyle. Robert himself fluctuated between guitar and keyboards, forever proving a compelling front man whether majoring on the irreverent or the informed. Learning a lot about an artist is always a good sign of a successful gig and Robert left plenty to ponder with the theme of songs such as ‘Elephant’, ‘Houston’, ‘Singalong’ and ‘Couples Skate’. The hour on stage vanished too quickly, but fully grasping the aura around Robert Ellis was accomplished by the time the curfew won the day.

Albert AF Ekenstam
While no report can be made on the Saturday evening Brudenell bands, the afternoon session in the venue’s two music rooms threw up an interesting mix of artists covering a multitude of styles. Solo, band, electric, acoustic, guitar and banjo were just some of the assorted offerings from an event kicking off at 1:00 PM and lasting into a second day with a trimmed down Sunday selection. Each artist had just thirty minutes to grab the attention of a floating audience with four probably doing enough to warrant reflection four days later.

Leading this pack is an artist known from many listings and appearing in the main room in a full band format. Charlotte Carpenter shared an appetising style of appealing indie-rock reflecting a variety of moods at contrasting paces. She meant business with the rack of electric guitars and a fellow picker who delved into slide lap playing for one of the set’s slower songs. While her style was quintessentially English, two further artists to impress had the roots firmly in the US. California folk songstress Jenny O came across as a curious performer, yet there was an endearing charm to the way she presented her songs and being engulfed in her captivating performance was not a bad way to spend half an hour.

Jenny O
As previously indicated, this was the time allotted to all the afternoon performances and banjoist Nathan Boules used his moment in the spotlight to extract some smart tunes from his timeless art form. Maybe there is a time shelf limit to a deluge of banjo instrumentals but half an hour kept the positivity in credit. Earlier in the afternoon, Swedish guitarist Albert AF Ekenstam had impressed with a selection of atmospheric moody tunes, hinting at a slice of Scandinavian noir. Fair play to the organisers with getting the acts on swiftly, with a constant flow of music being on offer to the early birds prepared for a short amble from one room in the venue to another.

Previous set ups for the High and Lonesome Festival included a similar style of line up, but in a couple of city centre venues. This year’s did have a more settled base with the bulk of the action taking place in the Brudenell across the weekend. However as soon as the two key festival protagonists from a personal angle formed the bulk of the schedule in the aptly named Left Bank, the potential event highlight was narrowed down to a binary choice.

Applewood Road and Robert Ellis were peerless exponents of Americana/roots music at varying ends of a vast spectrum, but both brought something special to this event. While Robert Ellis had the privilege of the introduction and a highly charged entry into the 2016 festival set pantheon, it is perhaps Applewood Road and their divine rendition of the succinct three part harmony which warrants the final word.

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