Friday, 28 October 2016

Simone Felice - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Thursday 27th October 2016

It doesn’t matter when you latched onto Simone Felice, the results will always be the same. Whether you have been there right at the start with the Felice Brothers or through his latest acclaimed production and writing work with The Lumineers and Bat for Lashes, an extraordinary creative talent will be looming over the music being made. Away from his sibling collaboration and new found major producing role, there was a significant growth in his appeal in the UK with the branching out in the duo Duke and the King, subsequently followed by two stunning solo album releases. Since the tour to support his most recent album STRANGERS in 2014, which did feature a full band, the appearances in the UK have been trimmed to a solo status, although last year’s gig at The Glee Club did tag the excellent Anna Mitchell along for support.

This evening’s Birmingham return to the same venue, also promoted by the established East Midlands guys at Cosmic American, was billed as ‘An Evening with Simone Felice’, thus presenting one man and a multitude of marvellous music. Edging onto the stage at half eight, Simone cuts a quirky figure, painting a unique portrait of an artist totally wrapped up in the sanctity of song. This is a performer tapping into a poetic licence to deal with the seemingly endless stream of song writing ideas. Sharing his songs with often committed audiences in such as profound style adds to the zest of catching Simone live and over the course of a near hour and half on stage, a well-attended studio room at The Glee Club was caught in the spell of a mesmerising performance.

Non-conformity is the defining observation of Simone’s stage presence, and probably what makes many left of centre performers stand out. The first half a dozen songs were reeled off without comment and then just as you get settled into the mode of ‘it’s only the delivery of the song that matters’, the show evolves into a sphere of interactivity with Simone temporarily opening up. This is followed by three invited singalongs culminating in a wonderful encore rendition of his hometown ode ‘Bye Bye Palenville’. By then the process of mutual artist-audience affinity had been sealed.

If the STRANGERS album had been your peak interest of his career to date then apart from the encore number, you would have been moved by ‘ Lady of the Gun’, the highly catchy alternative love song ‘Molly-O’ and another invited singalong tune in the emotively pleasing ‘Running Through Your Head’. The only regret from the evening was not hearing album favourite ‘If You Go to LA’, but there is only one person in charge and a common feeling of ‘in Simone we trust’.

Older fans had their moments too, with Simone reflecting on the decade passing since setting out on the road with his brothers and thus featured ‘Radio Song’ alongside other favourites like ‘Don’t Wake the Scarecrow’. ‘Union Street’ and ‘If You Ever Get Famous’ reflect the Duke and the King days, while ‘New York Times’ and ‘Hey Bobby Ray’ gave a feel for his debut solo album. The second of these from the 2012 self-titled album proposed an angle of social justice and paved the way for the audience to become an apocalyptic choir for five minutes.

While expecting a reveal all performance from Simone Felice is not going to happen, you can learn much from his songs and how a person raised in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York has grown into a revered song writing musician in the world of Americana, contemporary folk and alternative music. Taking in the music of this intense, dark and mysterious character can be an absorbing experience but the riches of his deeply penetrating songs hang like accessible ripe fruit. Enigmatic performers are often the source of rewarding musical experiences and Simone Felice makes this analogy quite real. 

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. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 25th October 2016

On the night the Cubs began their quest for a first World Series win since 1908, you could easily have envisaged being transported back in time to that year when spending an evening in the company of Jerron ‘Blind Boy Paxton’. The term revivalist could be mulled over when attempting to define him as an artist, but that involves some foot in the contemporary world. This multi-instrumentalist interpreter of old time songs hails from Los Angeles, encompasses the whole ethos of the singing Southern black person, while evolving into the personified spirit of American roots music. Blues is the starting and anchor point for Jerron, but his random demeanour floats between old time country, traditional folk, jazz and general music hall.

First and foremost, Jerron extols the virtue of a majestically crafted musician wielding the magic of an 1848 banjo, regular guitar, fleeting violin, evocative harmonica and impromptu piano. Word is significantly getting around about Jerron  – and his ‘Blind Boy’ moniker – as a sold out Kitchen Garden Café testified, providing the suitable non-conformist setting that creates the perfect backdrop for Jerron’s semi-chaotic ramblings. This was almost twelve months to the timing of his debut at the venue and three years since he first crossed my path with a part in a Sunday morning gospel set at the Calgary Folk Festival in Canada. To this day Jerron  does remain a conundrum with undoubted precision skills in the musical department, while remaining a tricky character to pinpoint effect, connection and place in a structured world.

Possibly there is no place in a structured world for Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton and that is part of a curious appeal. If you have a wardrobe mind, the coat hangers are missing with just a heap of clothes to wade through. This was a rare evening at the Kitchen Garden Café which was definitely drifting in an infinite direction when time was called on the proceedings. You got the impression that Jerron was settled in for the long haul and there was no doubt that many members of the audience were fully with him on a journey which started with a chronological reference; a notion which got to the Civil War before evaporating in the ether of spontaneous song.

The parts of this lengthy show that lingered most prominently were based around the music. The playing was absolutely mesmerising. Going back to the baseball analogy at the start, if a pitcher needs four or five days rest after a start, surely does the fragility of Jerron’s prized banjo. Together with the guitar, like all instruments filtering through the central mic, they were in essence weapons of emancipation in the early throes of the set as the focus was on the establishment of the black folks identity in early 19th century America. The shift into fiddle paved the way for an alternative immigration source and that from the British Isles, while the enticing harmonica pieces had a definite wandering theme to their improvised status. Eventually the sound and mood drifted into pure entertainer mode with the crowd shouting out standards, Jerron weighing them up in his inimitable style and the irreverent mood moving up a notch. All this followed Jerron starting his second set in the venue’s foyer-type room playing the piano while folks were settling down.

Being in the company of Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton does require an uncluttered state of mind. This open approach will soon be taken up by the many nuances of an artist – part caricature, wholly authentic, highly talented and the potential to intoxicate. Evolution is probably not a word you are going to associate with his music and the ultimate connection with him is entirely in the sphere of an individual’s psyche. However his presence is highly valued in the not over-populated pool of without compromise American roots music exponents. His growing stature over here is apparent and experiencing at least one night in the musical company of Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton is essential to anyone with a historical interest. From then on, perception takes a deeply personal stance. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Stray Birds - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 21st October 2016

With so much unsubstantial and bland music getting peddled around the UK under the country banner these days, it is refreshing when a touring band free of label pretensions shows the true qualities of the genre. In fact, The Stray Birds have been primarily courted by the folk fraternity on these shores with the obvious attraction being the band’s entirely acoustic live sound blending vibes from the roots tradition. Yet observing the band from a close up quarter as they headed into the final shows of their latest UK tour, there was an avalanche of evidence to suggest that they should be an example of the marker to assess country music genre claimants.

For this tour, The Stray Birds have expanded from a core trio to an enhanced quartet with the addition of Dominic Billet on percussion. This was in line with the evolution of their overall sound on the new album MAGIC FIRE which had a more contemporary feel to it. As expected, this top notch record was the focal point of the set list at The Bullingdon in Oxford, a popular venue hosting the band for the first time. Having seen them in their previous format last summer when they tagged on a series of dates around their prestigious and acclaimed Cambridge Folk Festival slot, there was zero danger of a 150 mile round trip not being worthwhile.

The obvious initial impact of assessing The Stray Birds’ ability to impress is the unison of Maya, Oliver and Charlie as focussed by their trademark single mic approach. A distinctive edge of vocal diversity pours out of their focal point, whether in traded lead, exquisite duet or sublime harmony. Charlie, the permanent double bassist, stepped up with some of the intended country numbers such as a cover of ‘Blue Yodel #7’ and a song introduced early in the set titled ‘New Shoes’. Oliver, a triple instrumentalist on fiddle, standard acoustic and resonator guitar, had possibly the strongest vocal output of the three, yet it was the sound of Maya that made the proverbial hairs stand to attention. You were left to wander where on earth the vocals were being dragged up from; a clear expression of a gut driven sound echoing the aural pleasure of Gillian Welch at her best.

Of course Maya’s effortless input didn’t just end at the vocals as she proved to be an exceptional fiddle player and adept guitar picker. Perhaps Oliver shaded the instrumental stakes in overall impact with his stellar fiddle playing and the blow away sound from his unplugged resonator utilising the central mic set up. Needless to say the double pronged rhythm section set the pace and the luscious onslaught of a twenty-song strong set list soared the evening to a stratospheric success level.

Although as mentioned previously MAGIC FIRE was the album being showcased, the evening began with the finest song from their back catalogue in ‘Best Medicine’. The position as set opener meant the back story to this song was omitted and this was generally the tone of the evening with the continual flow of songs supplanting meaningful insightful interludes. Not a bad thing when your venue imposes a pre-club night early curfew. It wasn’t long before the new music took hold and over the duration of the set, eleven of the twelve tracks from the new album were featured.

My three highlights from the gig were in this bunch of tracks, with the vibrant and rather excellent, ‘Sabrina’ being lined up as one of the songs that will shape 2016. This was closely followed by the powerful encore number ‘When I Die’ and the blissful country duet ‘Somehow’ delivered perfectly by Oliver and Maya at their primary best. The strength and immense stature of the new album was exemplified by further incursions into it to reveal: ‘Third Day in a Row’, ‘Mississippi Pearl’ and ‘Shining in the Distance’.

We have already mentioned one of the three moments when the band went off ‘The Stray Birds script’ with a hat tipped to Jimmy Rodgers c/o Doc Watson. The others were a tribute to Townes Van Zandt with a triumphant version of ‘Loretta’ and a take on Susanna Clark’s ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’ inspired by Maya listening to Emmylou Harris singing it.

This show was promoted by the established and enlightened Empty Rooms team who without doubt know their music. For the evening’s support artist, they acted quickly to secure the services of local based American sibling duo Loud Mountains when the original planned performer had to pull out. The brothers, Kevin and Sean Duggan, were first seen when supporting Cale Tyson at the same venue in May and this evening were just celebrating being the latest addition to the Clubhouse Records stable. Their bold Americana sound displayed distinct potential with the clearest evidence of this being in the final song of the set – ‘Remedy’. Vocally the duo was spot on and further liaison with more experienced practitioners of their chosen style will enable the raw components to evolve into a meaningful addition to the UK Americana circuit.

If they only match The Stray Birds half the distance, the effect will be profound. The core trio of Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench plus Dominic on percussion continue to be a band capable of moving audiences and exploiting the vast expanses of what is deemed to be Americana music. For me they press all the country music buttons, led by highly crafted musicianship, a vocal depth from an infinite core and songs dressed with rich trimmings. The Stray Birds continue to attract plaudits endlessly seeking music utopia and kindly return the compliments with a step in this direction. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

Anna Elizabeth Laube - Tree : Ahh…Pockets! Records

Anna Laube crossed my path for the first time last year with her delightful eponymous album. She now returns in 2016 with record number 4 and her middle name added to the credits. The good news is that there is very little change in the album’s reception as TREE shapes up to be one of the year’s chill out releases. Straddling the imaginary boundary between country and folk is probably far from the thoughts of Anna Elizabeth Laube when she sets out on the path of filtering her creative thoughts into a packaged offering. Yet those in tune with this virtual marker will lap up each of the nine tracks that make the sum of the album.

These tracks are spit between seven of Anna’s originals and two interesting covers that add value rather than mere repetition. Bob Dylan’s ‘Wallflower’ took a while to surface in the recording world and has since been picked up by artists such as Buddy Miller and Uncle Earl. Anna’s gorgeously sung version opens the record and is always going to be in stark contrast to that of its master originator. The other cover has a more contemporary origin and there will always be a significant minority who will enjoy Anna’s sensually passive version of Beyoncé’s ‘XO’ over the popped up original. But good songs stand an alternative take and this one delivers.

The soul of the album resides in Anna’s originals which are blessed with engaging lyrical structure, graceful melodies and liberally sprinkled with magical tunes. ‘Please Let it Rain in California Tonight’ may or may not have literal tendencies but its interpreted plea for a better world is spot on and certainly profound in sentiment. Its structure is also akin to some of Danny Schmidt’s work. While in the namedropping territory, the opening bar to ‘I Miss You So Much’ immediately brings Hannah Aldridge to mind and her most striking opening line. Also the chorus part of the final track ‘All My Runnin’’ throws up a glimpse of Jason Isbell’s ‘Alabama Pines’. Of course the general gentle sound of Anna is far different overall, but great song writing transcends this.

There is a definite theme of stripping away life’s excessive layer whether seeking solace in a natural haven or getting to grips with emotive feelings in a personal setting. The back-to-back tracks in the record’s opening phase convey the former with the title song ‘Tree’ ripe with folk basics and the carefree figurative number ‘Sunny Days’ possessing a dreamy jazz-like feel. If shelter, refuge and safety are life’s basics then the ‘Longshoreman’ does its bit to transfer such feelings into the serene medium of the crafted song. ‘Lose, Lose, Lose’ is another top notch offering albeit with a mood switch amidst a similar soft approach. Here Anna lyrically excels with the lines ‘’cause you’re more like a bottle of whiskey. And a razor blade wrapped in two’. Listener complacency is jettisoned at this point, if existing at all.

The journey for Anna has been from Iowa to Seattle via Wisconsin and Europe, with perhaps a little hope that the latter can be visited again to share some her work in a live setting. The soothing and satin vocals found on the record will blossom in the idyllic listening environment. This cordial body of work minimally sound tracked at its best with piano, fiddle and pedal steel is primed for discerning destinations. Ultimately it’s a beautiful piece of artistic elegance using the spirit of song to burrow deep into the basement of the natural and intimate world.

Jess Morgan - Edison Gloriette : Drabant Music

One admirable quality of a recording artist is an ability to develop and build on a core sound which has been initially responsible for turning heads. Upon release of her fourth album EDISON GLORIETTE, Jess Morgan is one such artist with the vibes from the record suggesting the bravest and biggest step to date. This Norwich-based singer-songwriter has made her name on the national folk and acoustic circuit as a stylish solo act. An opportunity to have a more varied instrument input has been grasped during the recording progress on this latest release. The result is an absorbing collection of eleven self-penned songs, never losing sight of Jess’s trademark slightly husky vocals giving the sound a reassuring warm feel.

The music of Jess Morgan first crossed my path in spring 2013 when one of her many gigs came to town and this sealed an intent to casually keep track of her across the wires, circuit and ever increasing world of social media connectivity. The ability to put to song many an engaging story has long been an innate trait of Jess and wide reaching evidence exists to re-enforce this view on the new record.

Characters, life observations and deep inner thoughts are the starting points for many of Jess’s songs and quite often in the past it has been the live performance, with accompanying narrative, which truly allows them to bloom. While Jess’s albums and shows are almost at one, the new record sparkles with a sense of independence suggesting a reach out far from the gig sale. The mood of the album indicates it is best savoured during one of life’s quieter moments when you can let the overall vibes soothe you and full attention can be paid to the literary content. To aid this process, the record does make great strides in the melody department, an area work-in-progress across her back catalogue. While there perhaps is not a song as strong as her finest composition to date in my opinion, ‘Freckles in the Sun’, the overall balance of the eleven tracks as an entity enhances the album’s accessibility and sustainability.

The word Americana has been banded around this album in the run up to its release, but the label contemporary roots sits more comfortably with the liberal use of harmonica and the welcome twang via the Dobro clearly being advancements in the instrumental stakes. Labels aside, Jess continues to make music the right way and her growing popularity aided by the successful crowd funding campaign preluding the album release continues to reflect well on her hard work and talent.

These two attributes are an essential tandem to success and throw in Jess’s open response to sharing her artistic flair, the blossoming of her recording career has been a shoe in for a long time. The continual full length playing of EDISON GLORIETTE has been a satisfying experience and this is set to continue especially when an opportunity to catch her live again presents itself. The stand out track award for this album is going to be shared evenly between all eleven songs to reflect the raising of the consistency bar and fully embracing the strong album concept.

Jess Morgan succeeds in making this singer-songwriter thing a breeze and has rewarded those who have supported her over the years with a record of true quality. Of course this further opens the door to new admirers and if you wish to soak up the emotive tones of many songs pulsating with real life feeling, EDISON GLORIETTE should head your way.

Austin Lucas with The Dreaming Spires - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham. Wednesday 19th October 2016

Last November the supertruth was found in the small rural town of Bewdley, this evening it appeared somewhere between the moon and the Midwest. At the end of 2015 SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH was hailed as one of the favourite albums to hit the stores over the year and now momentum is building as to whether BETWEEN THE MOON AND THE MIDWEST reaches similar lofty accolade territory when the book for this year closes in two months. Sneaking up on the blind side though is SONGS OF THE RIVER REA, but more on that later.

For the initiated, The Dreaming Spires and Austin Lucas will need little introduction as recording artists of distinction. For others they lie in wait as the discovery to edge you a little closer to finding the golden key of live connective music. Opportunity had presented itself when their combined tour was announced, no doubt on the back of the At The Helm Records connection. The result was a classic display of cultured musicianship, devoid of external control and ripe with the ideals of artists exploiting the mood of a distinctive style.

Travelling to Birmingham this evening all the way from Bloomington Indiana (well semi-literally) was Austin Lucas. Although a seasoned visitor to these shores, this year the focus has been from a different angle with a brand new record successfully turning heads and a new team providing the industry structure. While Austin toured the album release earlier this year, it was the delightfully anointed ‘leftist Mecca in a sea of red’ aka Asheville North Carolina which hosted my first experience of catching him live. The upgrade from that evening in The Mothlight was the involvement of a four piece backing band in The Dreaming Spires, while the downgrade was the sad passing of Austin’s trusty sidekick Sally. Surely her spirit is there at every show.

The set up at the Hare and Hounds this evening aided the ease of getting up close and personal with the emotive spontaneity of Austin Lucas’s artistic expression. Fired up by a mid-set rant-fuelled outburst on a shared sentiment, this crowned the tone of a performance which began and almost ended in solo mode, the latter unplugged among the audience; the ultimate uncensored and unfiltered moment of music consumption. The focus throughout was primarily on the excellent current album BETWEEN THE MOON AND THE MIDWEST. Its stellar lead-off track ‘Unbroken Hearts’ is now almost sealed as one of the songs that will shape 2016, with tonight possibly just missing the pedal steel input from perfection. Regardless of this, it is deeply personal, highly emotive and a potential anthem for the unsigned. This along with others such as ‘Pray for Rain’, ‘Wrong Side of the Dream’, ‘Ain’t We Free’ and ‘Kristie Rae’ is country music you won’t hear packaged. Any tampering would be purely superfluous to a successful feat of making music that matters. The pick of Austin’s oldies was the wonderfully catchy ‘Alone in Memphis’, which conveniently allows us to rewind to The Dreaming Spires, and their own homage to west Tennessee.

Apart from playing an important part in this evening’s upgrade of Austin Lucas from that hot July night across the pond, The Dreaming Spires played a forty-five minute support set packed with an abundance of stylish cultured moments. Austin’s aforementioned classic ‘Unbroken Hearts’ ascension into the ‘songs that shape the year’ category will follow in the footsteps to what ‘Dusty in Memphis’ did for The Dreaming Spires in 2015. Once again this was a strong candidate for the pick of the set, with a pulsating opening version of ‘Easy Rider’ and the finely executed playing of a now Spires oldie ‘Not Every Song From the Sixties is a Classic’, making similar exalted cases.

Give The Dreaming Spires a five minutes sample of your valuable limited listening time and the rewards will be long lasting. They rarely stay still as active collaborators even in years where a full length band record is not on the agenda. Folks could enjoy their PAISLEY OVERGROUND interim release this year, but the highly anticipated moment is when the brilliant SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH (and its unlimited pun potential) gets its fully fledged follow up. In the meantime, The Dreaming Spires continue to cultivate a niche as England’s premium purveyors of transatlantic alt-country rock laced with an inner layer of classic melody driven alt-pop.

On a gig held in Birmingham, it is only apt to hear a bunch of songs to open the evening from an album inspired by the city’s hidden river, SONGS OF THE RIVER REA. The architect of this fine album is Katy Rose Bennett, a Birmingham resident and conveniently this evening the sister of Robin and Joe Bennett from The Dreaming Spires. Hence Joe accompanied Katy on a couple of songs with backing vocals and lap steel, while the full band (only Austin missing) joining her for the final number ‘My Friend’. Katy’s album surfaced earlier this year and has evolved into one of the surprise hits of the year, if only in the fact that it has probably been down on her priority list over the last few years. However ‘Rusted Ring’, ‘Jack and Ivy’ and ‘Cold November Day’ all sounded great live for the first time and now the spotlight turns to Katy’s headline full band show in early November. Ironically in Bewdley, at the scene of the supertruth discovery, though alas no Dreaming Spires!

Nights like this make venturing out to live music a magical experience. Three artists compounding the innovation of original music; fully committed to sharing the wares of their creative endeavours and fusing the art of reactionary song. If ‘music of the soul’ needs three ambassadors, look no further than Austin Lucas, The Dreaming Spires and Katy Rose Bennett.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker - Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 12th October 2016

There is both a dividing and unifying side to the aura surrounding pioneering folk duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. A tuned-in mind of synchronised misery is helpful to buy into their ideals of music dealing with one of life’s most profound emotions. However aligning your stars with Josienne’s dry stage persona opens your mind to a mesmerising cavern of alluring sentiment providing a dark wrapping for the intoxicating music that immortalises moments in their musical company. On a more literal level, the intrinsic delicacy of her diverse vocal acumen and the virtuoso optimised guitar playing of Ben closes all doors of artistic detachment.

This evening Josienne and Ben were the weekly guests of the Red Lion Folk Club in Kings Heath Birmingham and were afforded a couple of slots edging into the overall hour and half realm to showcase the depth and psyche to their music. The focal point of their time in the spotlight was the delights unveiled from their upcoming new album OVERNIGHT ahead of its October 14th release day. Maybe the pioneering statement made in the opening sentence is reflected in their link up with the iconic record label Rough Trade for the new record. This led to Josienne mischievously heralding the genre of corduroy punk. On a more serious note, there is enormous exposure potential for the new record and the duo will not disappoint fans old and new who like a touch of depth, class and substantive intelligence to their music.

Dietrich Strause
If the lure of catching Josienne and Ben live was not sufficient enough, they brought along a supporting artist they recently hooked with at the prestigious Folk Alliance gathering in Kansas City earlier this year. Dietrich Strause left observers in little doubt as to his influences, inspiration and style models. This was straight down the middle early sixties American folk revival territory and for a near forty five minute stage time allotted to him you could quite easily be watching a scene from the acclaimed cult film Inside Llewyn Davies. The crux of the observation is that the highly crafted Dietrich did this really well, matching a variety of acoustic guitar pieces with strong vocals delivering the messages of his songs. He is a native of Boston Massachusetts, an area renowned for its thriving folk scene, and the architect of a brand new album HOW CRUEL THAT HUNGER BINDS that gets a formal UK launch in November. In addition to supporting his buddies Josienne and Ben on a number of dates, he has also landed the opening slot for Sarah Jarosz in the UK soon, thus ample opportunities to engage with fans this side of the pond. While boundaries may not be stretched, there is a distinguished assuredness to how Dietrich presents his songs and there is little hesitation in marking him as one to watch.

Ben Walker
While it was previously stated that the music of Josienne and Ben is unifying, there are two distinct strands to her vocal style. Some folk fans will drool over the celestial neo classical moments when you have to reach high to connect, while others are more drawn to the closer terra firma feel that accompanies some of her songs. Repeat listens to the new album does reveal these contrasts and more so live when she wanders into the song sphere of Gillian Welch, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Throw in Nina Simone and Elgar moments and echoes of a structured randomness emerge in the mix. One constant though is the acute skilled picking of Ben who succeeds in matching the mood perfectly with his accompaniment for each song. Occasionally a more prolonged instrumental segment emerged and it would be no hardship if future compositions headed more in this direction.

The keys to success for this evening were surrounded around Josienne’s introduction to the new album and its conceptual origin. Subsequent plays have proved compelling and it is sure to be lauded as one of the most significant British folk releases of the year. Maybe in this age of national re-alignment it is more pertinent to hail it as a triumph of English sensibility. Literal words aside, the spiralling deluge of melancholic misery housing an inner beauty best sums up the work of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. This show revealed and tantalised so much leaving those of us in tune with this artistic approach delightfully satisfied.

Otis Gibbs - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 11th October 2016

Over the last decade there has always been an air of familiarity when Otis Gibbs hits town. The old stories never lose their charm and frequently Otis updates his song base with a new record of unrelenting quality. With my occasions of seeing Otis live now possibly running into double figures there was a double pronged freshness to his return to Birmingham and a renewal date at the Kitchen Garden Café.

On one hand the evening was blessed with a bunch of new songs as an Otis Gibbs ‘below the radar’ album has emerged over the summer months. To a greater extent, the opening set did not feature a single old time story, a definite first from a hazy but reliable memory of so many Otis shows. However any sense of re-assurance lacking was firmly rectified after the break with the return of ‘tractor day’, ‘interesting uncles’ and ‘work comradeship’. Essentially these provide the backdrop to two Otis Gibbs classics and the twin tracks of ‘Small Town Saturday Night’ and ‘Something More’ should always remain staples of his show.

While other old songs such as ‘Kansas City’, ‘Caroline’ and ‘Town That Killed Kennedy’ retain a timeless appeal, the key to the success of this show was the unveiling of a number of tracks from the album Otis recorded in his home over the summer. MOUNT RENRAW was introduced as an indulgent milestone birthday present and has provided the ideal outlet to house yet another supreme bunch of songs. Five of these had their Birmingham premiere this evening with ‘Great American Roadside’ and ‘Sputnik Monroe’ leaving the most distinct mark on first listens. The first of these goes a long way into defining the curiosity surrounding Otis’s song writing purpose as he revealed the sheer inspiration derived from surveying the vastness and quirkiness of his home land. The second formed the basis of the evening’s most interesting story following his account of a wrestler in Memphis Tennessee being at the centre of a chain of circumstances leading to a seismic moment in the advance of de-segregated entertainment in America’s South.

Empire Hole’, a song based on the cultural and economic impact of Indiana’s limestone quarrying industry, ‘Ed’s Blues (Survival)’ and ‘Bison’ were the other new songs revealed. The latter took its inspiration from the occupants of his East Nashville home a long time before modern life entrenched its practices and values. The surname of a key person in the backdrop story to the song – Warner – was intriguingly reflected in the album’s title. MOUNT RENRAW has not had a conventional release yet and it remains to be seen whether this happens. Copies have been available at the shows and it is important in the widening of the appeal of Otis Gibbs that as many folks as possible get to listen to this and any other record that has emerged under his name over the last fifteen years. This guy is a song writing legend and a body of legacy-laden work is already intact for future generations to discover.

Otis Gibbs will always be a touring treasure and a creative person powered by an independent spirit devoid of trend setting gimmicks. Grateful, humble and sincere are other attributes that spring to mind. His songs combined with a serious desire to preserve and further signify the unfiltered relationship between artisan and partisan make him stand out in a crowded environment. Long may the Kitchen Garden Café and many other venues around Britain continue to host a welcome visitor from Wanamaker Indiana, via East Nashville Tennessee.

Friday, 14 October 2016

My Darling Clementine - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 13th October 2016

Three years ago the same seven piece line-up graced the stage at the Hare and Hounds, Birmingham to herald the launch of the second My Darling Clementine album. That evening proved a resounding success and a repeat was always on the cards at this re-convening to effectively launch the next phase of the project. Maybe project is a word that should be confined to history as Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish have cultivated a distinguished niche in the My Darling Clementine duo format which is now set to branch out from its classic country revue style. While the song from their back catalogue ‘Our Race Is Run’ stood out on the evening, the sentiment of the saying is far from reality for My Darling Clementine and the plenty they still have to offer.

With the new songs in the bank, the next hurdle is to get them out in the available recording world and when accessible, the reception is sure to be positive. Michael and Lou previewed over half a dozen of them across the two hours on stage in a show that was hailed ‘a homecoming’, although Michael reminded folks of his non-Birmingham roots. It had been indicated that the style would see a movement away from the traditional country sound in a more soulful direction. The extent of this will be increasingly evident when the horns are added, both on record and when opportunity presents a full live rendition. One constant between the old and new My Darling Clementine is a retro feel to the sound, and while country elements could still be detected, the overall feel was akin to classic sixties soul and pop. However great songs transcend genres and the initial impact of first hearing these shed any remnants of disappointment. Expect more on this in the run up to the release, but look out for a great personal piece courtesy of Lou’s American experience from a West Coast road trip, a dark twist to ‘Tear Stained Smile’ and some stark references to the petroleum industry.

While the bridging analogy to this gig has been implied, the songs and tunes from the two My Darling Clementine albums to date still sound as fresh as their first airing and will always remain core to how Michael and Lou formalised their performing arrangement. 2011’s HOW DO YOU PLEAD will live long in my interpretation of a strong concept album that could easily evolve into another art form. This has happened to a degree with their work with crime writer Mark Billingham on The Other Half project. This was effectively weaving the songs into a story courtesy of a Memphis background, but adrift to what could have been done with the marital disintegration laid out in the first album. It’s all about the rich tapestry of subjective artistic interpretation I suppose.

Lou and Michael at Cambridge in 2014 
Anyhow back to the gig and from the first album ‘Going Back to Memphis’ and ‘Departure Lounge’ formed part of a seamless opening segment. In contrast ‘Goodbye Week’ and the ‘hit’ ‘100,000 Words’ were essential components of a rousing finale, and thus letting a fine band loose from a tight leash. Also from that album, ‘Put Your Hair Back’ acted as one of the show’s stripped back moments when the contrasting heights of the duo’s individual vocal styles can shine. This segment saw a couple of covers giving the MDC originals a breather with Lou returning to deliver her piano-led version of ‘Good Year For The Roses’ and Michael celebrating the legacy of Hank with ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’.

A strong candidate for the golden moment of My Darling Clementine’s time in the spotlight is their ‘Stand by your Man’ response, and ‘No Matter What Tammy Said’ has just had the honour of being in Country Music People magazine ’50 Best Country Songs of the last 30 Years’. While I have issues with the word ‘best’ being bounded around, the song has always been a winner with me. This was lifted from THE RECONCILIATION album as was set entrants – ‘No Heart in this Heartache’, ‘King of the Carnaval’, the previously mentioned ‘Our Race is Run’ and the Ronnie Self song ‘I Can’t Live With You’. The latter won my award as the song which raised its head most above the album version.

Apart from the song excellence, other factors making this a gig to remember included the now infamous dry, cutting banter between the pair, executed by the sharp wit of Lou and the high degree of competence exuding from the five assembled players. From left to right in stage position, and remaining in place from 2013, were Liam Grundy (keys/organ), Martin Belmont (lead guitar), Neil Bullock (drums), Kevin Foster (bass guitar) and Alan Cook (pedal steel/mandolin/Dobro). Hats off guys you did a grand job.

So the gun has been fired to ignite the next phase of My Darling Clementine. They are a core duo/occasional enhanced band who make very good accessible music that succeeds with fusing the wire between artist and audience. The spirit of 2013 was re-visited, with Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish demonstrating a talent to share music that matters to them with like minded folks.

Jack Ingram - Midnight Motel : Rounder Records

Sometimes all you want in a country record is for an artist to be true to its roots, be totally in control of the sincerity, and surface at the end of it free of any superficial trappings. If you can drop the needle, or press the play button, and then experience a moment of unfiltered connectivity, the album has met one of the recording objectives, in fact the most important one from a listener perspective. Total immersion into MIDNIGHT MOTEL, the new release by Jack Ingram, will leave this very impression and most of all present a satisfied artist at peace with the art being created. Belief in Jack Ingram – the singer-songwriter – is another prime guarantee from interacting with this record.

MIDNIGHT MOTEL is Jack’s first foray into the recording world since his association with Big Machine Records ended, now over half a decade ago. This brought the curtain down on a phase of his career which heralded hit records and industry awards. It was probably the culmination of many years hard work for this experienced Texan and also at a moment when mainstream country music was heading in a different direction to the ideals of Jack. Now working with established eclectic American music label Rounder Records, a free hand has been given and a highly personal back to roots bunch of songs have arisen. Most are from the pen of Jack, some in esteemed collaboration and it has been interesting comparing the songs of alternative origins.

The core structure of the album is eleven songs, joined by a spoken narrative piece and a not so unlucky thirteenth track being an acoustic version of the opening number ‘Old Motel’. The sound is sprinkled with outtake chat and occasional irreverent comments giving the record a sense of reality born out of the natural recording environment afforded the production process. Frequently this was just Jack and a trusty acoustic guitar, allowing the sense of utmost authenticity to radiant from musician to listener. Quintessentially this is an artist in classic troubadour mode, spanning the country-folk blurred divide and spinning the staple sound of the iconic Texas singer-songwriter. During one of the muttered moments, the names of Hayes Carll, Todd Snider, Bruce and Charlie Robison are recalled for starters and the effect of MIDNIGHT MOTEL can lift Jack Ingram into this company.

Outside of Jack’s writing circle, a couple of songs have been selected including the previously mentioned twangy opening track penned by Blu Sanders, and a Will Kimbrough composition in ‘Champion of the World’. This proves a good choice and one previously recorded by Little Feat. However my nominees for album stand out song come from five picks that epitomise the strength of the record. These include two staple country titles and themes in ‘I Feel Like Drinking Tonight’ and ‘I’m Drinking Through It’. Dismiss country clichés and stereotypes as both songs work well. The first sees Jack excelling in the solo write and perform process, while the second sees him hook up with stellar Nashville songwriters Liz Rose and Lori McKenna. In fact the latter’s influence is there to such a degree that auditory visions of her super cut ‘Humble and Kind’ can be detected. The five are completed by a 70s style rocker complete with vivid keys and appearing Bruce Robison on guest vocals, ‘Can’t Get Any Better Than This’, another super solo piece in the emotive ‘Trying’ and an immensely interesting story song titled ‘Blaine’s Ferris Wheel’. The narrative piece that preluded the song gave full background to this real life character.

MIDNIGHT MOTEL took its inspiration from the road weariness which forms the life of a travelling musician and the hour so often referred to as the most creative one by many song writers. The album took its US bow in the summer to widespread acclaim, surely to be replicated when the UK can grab this record from October 14th. Additionally, Jack will visit London in December as part of the Texas Music Takeover project with promotion of this album certain to be top of the agenda.

This album succeeds in portraying the honest thoughts of one man seeking refuge in the sanctuary of song. Its meaty content provides the substance and the story telling model is pulled off to a tee. Ultimately MIDNIGHT MOTEL makes that artist-listener connection and Jack Ingram is well set to thrive in the next phase of an already successful career.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Shovels & Rope - Little Seeds : New West Records

Savouring LITTLE SEEDS, the new album from Shovels & Rope, is allied to a fascinating pre-occupation of exploring shoreline rock pools, and its many discoveries make this one of the most valuable albums to be released this year. This follow up to the excellent 2014 album SWIMMIN’ TIME is the duo’s debut issue on New West Records and unveils itself as meaningful music with a conscious. Edgy and exciting in phases, moody and reflective elsewhere, essentially there are twelve tracks (a thirteenth is a short accompanied spoken word recording preluding the final track). If you like a scattered melange of folk-indie-Americana spiked with a little punk, fast track this album into your collection upon release.

Husband and wife pairing, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have been active as the duo Shovels & Rope since 2008, accruing heaps of industry praise especially in recent times. For this sure-to be much celebrated release, Trent has undertaken the production duty and kept the work further in-house by sharing all writing, instrumentation and vocals with Hearst. This element of control has allowed an inventive production process to prosper thus creating a piece of art ripe for positive perception. You are entirely kept on your toes throughout the album’s evolution with the duo rarely settling on a straightforward sound. This enhances the enjoyment capacity.

The scratchy opener emerges as a rampant indie number complete with fuzzy guitars and fiery duet vocals. ‘I Know’ has been selected as one of the record’s promotional tracks and rather than defining the album settles as one of its numerous landing points. More in the same vein is the utterly compelling ‘Invisible Man’, a slice of melodic punk and steering the lyrical content in an Alzheimer’s direction. To complete a trio of left field racy efforts, second track ‘Botched Execution’ explodes from its acoustically strummed opening to evolve into a lyric-laden pacey track.

The more folk and roots appeal generally lies in the slower numbers introduced early in the record with the unveiling of another promoted track, the mandolin-featuring ‘St. Anne’s Parade’ complete with fascinating story backdrop. On the topic of interesting folk style songs, a trio of latter stage album tracks add to the record’s depth. A strong cutting chorus to ‘Johnny Come Outside’ flavours this harmonica-featuring song addressing the issue of over-medicating children. Another appealing chorus, or rather strapline, ‘don’t going whistling Dixie on Missionary Ridge’ adorns the Civil War story ballad, understandably titled ‘Missionary Ridge’.

There was a fabulous metaphorical song about the San Andreas Fault written by Canadian songstress Amelia Curran a few years ago and this geological feature is the dividing line for the rather impressive track ‘San Andreas Fault Blues’. Here the couple from South Carolina, settle on a Golden State theme thousands of miles west with references to Tom Joad, Bakersfield, Nudie suits and a certain Grievous Angel. To further spin the album on a geographical/historical axis, alt-country style heartland rocker ‘The Last Hawk’ opens with references to Woodstock and 1968 before unravelling as one of the stand-out numbers.

The joy of exploring this album extends into two lower key tracks from this viewpoint, namely the punchy alternative ‘Buffalo Nickel’ and the tuneful slow burner ‘Mourning Song’. On a more explicit level, the subject of racial unity is championed in the evocative, minimal and intensely principled ‘BWYR’ showcasing the power of purposeful music. The final two tracks are presumed existentially linked with the recorded re-collection of the circumstances surrounding ‘Eric’s Birthday’ leading into the escalating climactic closer ‘The Ride’. Ultimately this represents the many nooks and crannies of LITTLE SEEDS that will only be fully discovered with a multiple of intense plays.

The good news in the run up to the release of LITTLE SEEDS is that Shovels & Rope have announced a trio of UK show dates in early 2017, where the new material is sure to feature prominently alongside their equally as impressive older songs. In the meantime, grab a copy of the new record and wallow in a collection of eclectic sounds and themes which will without doubt seep into your DNA.

Tour Dates including 2017 UK

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Blue Rose Code - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 4th October 2016

The backbone of this gig ran from ‘Pokesdown Waltz’ to ‘Grateful’, a journey which pretty much epitomises the recent travails of Scottish born, and now re-based, singer-songwriter Ross Wilson. Under the widely known and acclaimed recording name Blue Rose Code, Ross has accrued much praise over the recent past with his sincere prose and acute ability to communicate via the medium of song. The irony of him starting his multi consecutive run of Scottish shows three hundred miles south in the English Midlands was not lost on Ross and a committed turnout at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham had little issue with this geographical diversion.

Those who may not have been au fait with Blue Rose Code prior to this show had a wealth of opportunities to get to know Ross Wilson – the writer, the vocalist and an artist conquering the grail of audience connectivity. Whether it was just sitting back and taking in the ‘Celtic lullabies and Caledonian soul’ or intensely learning how a person grapples with their artistic calling, the two sets on offer this evening had the content to deliver. There was an inherent and marginally impish charm to Ross’s affable persona and he certainly possessed the aura in his stage presence to lure an audience’s attention. The Kitchen’s intimate surroundings provide the conducive atmosphere for the connectivity process to be sealed and few present would argue that this show didn’t deliver.

Prior to Ross easing into the performer’s spotlight, local acoustic duo Ashland took up the opportunity to return to the venue to deliver an enjoyable half hour slot of original material. A bunch of well-crafted songs were delightfully sung by Kathryn Marsh with accomplished guitar accompaniment and occasional harmony vocals from Dave Sutherland. The duo recently released an EP and tracks from this were included such as ‘Blue’ along with a new song, presumed to be in the running for recorded status when the opportunity to hit the studio arrives again. The performance ranked highly when matched up with other local artists selected to support touring acts and they could easily be recommended for other suitable slots.

Ross was also appreciative of Kathryn and Dave’s set, along with the choice of a Van Morrison album to accompany the break, where there were plenty of opportunities to peruse the merchandise table including the latest album release …AND LO! THE BIRD IS ON THE WING. Live offerings from this record included Ross at his most melancholic and contrastingly his most optimistic as referred to in the opening sentence of this piece. Throw in ‘Rebecca’ from this record and you start to get an insight to what drives Ross to write songs. This comes across as responding to inspiration and seeking a therapeutic haven when life doesn’t go to plan. Not an uncommon source of song writing excellence.

When querying a label of Americana, Ross’s response of a home grown stereotype was first class and you were left in no doubt that is one proud Scot, expressively captured in the song ‘Edina’. The Celtic background features strongly in the vocal prowess of Ross communicating in the art of song and fellow Scot Karine Polwart has worked closely with him in the past. Other numbers such as ‘Wester Ross to Nova Scotia’ have their roots north of the border and if those lyrics sound familiar to another duo from Edinburgh, then the link was compounded with a Hibernian sticker adorning a battered old guitar. Not that this trusty old friend didn’t deliver as Ross indicated a more expensive instrument remaining at home in a near redundant state. On the subject of guitar playing, this evening’s display had lofty moments when innovative channels of churning out the sound accompaniment were found.

Although the crux of this show lay within the previously mentioned, and deeply personal, opening and closing tracks, perhaps the key moment of poignancy occurred in the encore which began with a re-working of the poem ‘Acquainted with the Night’. It was strongly perceived that Ross wants his audience to believe in the dream that boundaries don’t exist in the pursuit of art and culture. This was perfectly understood with the notion that Blue Rose Code has realised this for Ross Wilson.