Thursday, 14 December 2017

Sofia Talvik - When Winter Comes - A Christmas Album : Makaki Music

Maybe it is the scar of Bono’s infamous 1984 line healing or a timely visit from one of those Dickensian spirits, but a record clambering for room in the crowded seasonal market has burrowed into one’s mind to conjure up a few end of year thoughts. Original Christmas music can often present a crossroads for those artists tempted to indulge in it, either pop down the safe populist route or score some points with an alternative stab. It does not take too much deduction to expect someone from a folk-Americana slant to adopt the second stance and this collection from Sofia Talvik resides firmly in this camp. Regardless to where you stand on this type of themed music, the offering from this Swedish singer-songwriter is rather impressive and well equipped to soothe any cynics in the room.

This album has been a project ten years in the making, with Sofia maintaining a self-pact to write a new song each winter that attempts to throw a light on some of the less salubrious issues associated especially within a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. On the surface, a proliferation of titles containing the words: winter, cold and Christmas does suggest a little drift into cliché status, but the old adage of ‘do not judge the contents by the cover’ has never been more pertinent. What the album does reveal is a hour-long exhibition on how to blend a vocal style packed with glowing warmth into the sombre instrumental triangle of soft piano, morbid cello and haunting pedal steel. Yes, the subject content does focus away from a joyous tendency, exactly what would expect from titles such as ‘When It Rains on Christmas Day’, ‘Cold, Cold Feet’, ‘Clothe Yourself for Christmas’ and ‘A Carol for the Lonely’.

While a Nordic charm adorns these tracks, you cannot escape the Americana influence that has formed an artist who spends a large degree of her touring days stateside. Perhaps, this is the ultimate appeal alongside spending a captivating hour soaking up the ambient nature of these songs. Obviously, the shelf life of such a record is limited, but with it taking a decade to surface in this collective format, filing it away in a convenient place for retrieval in twelve months’ time should just be a small part of the preservation process.

Outside this seasonal release, Sofia Talvik is a highly active touring and recording musician, best known in the UK for the release of her 2015 album BIG SKY COUNTRY. Mainly, though it is continental Europe and USA that has been the geographical focus for her music, but you never know motives may change. There is ample evidence on this record to suggest there is a great deal more to come in conventional surroundings.

Whether WHEN WINTER COMES – A CHRISTMAS ALBUM opens the door for a deluge of seasonal releases to spark a response is highly unlikely. However, this Sofia Talvik album has found a chink in the armour and its blessings, sentiment and elegance have been embraced. So at a time when many of the favourite releases of the year are given one final spin to confirm their position on the annual wrap, there may just be a slight deviation into a record that adds a touch of credence to a maligned genre.

www.sofiatalvik.com



music.sofiatalvik.com/album/when-winter-comes-a-christmas-album

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Robert Vincent and Dean Owens - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 4th December 2017

United by a record label; united by the rhetoric of song and now united in planting the roots firmly in the ever-popular songwriters’ round. Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are far from novices on a UK circuit that branches out from a core of Springsteen, Dylan and Young. Their latest venture is to team up with the Worry Dolls for a Roots in the Round tour that leaves Nashville out of the title, but is forever tinged with the song writing spirit that epitomises Music City. Midway through this string of early winter UK dates, the guys set about appearing in a couple of duo-only gigs; more roots in the semi-circle than the round. Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden has seen its fair share of highly crafted singer-songwriters pass through the brick-walled interior in 2017 alone, but sufficient room was made for a couple more, and our two protagonists perfectly fitted the bill.

At The Helm Records is the operation responsible for Robert’s award nominated 2017 album I’LL MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS and if the wheel of fortune pays heed, similar acclaim may await Dean’s upcoming release SOUTHERN WIND, likewise a debut effort on this South Coast-based label. Both records offered material for this evening’s show as each artist set about stripping down a bunch of songs to expose their raw bones to a respectful audience. While there was ample synergy in how these two songwriters ply their trade, significant markers of differentiation enabled this show to flourish without the feel of a procession. Dean has a far more literal side to his art and a grounded vocal style greets the subject of his compositions on a platform of terra firma. In contrast, there is more flair to Robert’s style. This begins with a vocal range that cuts a rock thrust amidst material that appears to veer further in an abstract direction. Both artists were refreshingly candid about their influences that frequently were born from a deep personal experience or feeling.

It was no surprise in deducing Robert’s acoustic version of ‘Demons’ being the prime moment of the evening. Although it was closely followed by, ‘I’ll Make The Most of My Sins’, which seemed to evolve as a country piece when all the full-band faculties were stripped out. Probably the pick of his older songs was ‘The Passage’, and it was of added interest to get an insight to the origin of ‘The Bomb’.

An older song, with a combination of personal connections, titled ‘Man From Leith’ came out tops when reflecting upon Dean’s contribution, which amounted to around eight rotated songs in a brace of sets. It also bodes well that two new picks from the upcoming album, ‘Southern Wind’ and ‘Last Song’, came across as impressive live efforts, the latter constructed in association with legendary Nashville operator Will Kimbrough. Dean was the keener of the pair to invite the inevitable audience participation, with this number in addition to ‘Lost Time’ presenting opportunities for folks to offer a muffled accompaniment.

On an evening where the cast had to re-adjust to their temporarily slimmed down tour set up, there were certainly no complaints in hearing more Robert Vincent and Dean Owens, especially as Birmingham has not been on their touring horizon in recent times. What we were privileged to witness were two outstanding exponents of filtering the ware of their creative inspirations through the precious medium of song. Rob especially has spent a fair amount of time with his band this year and this solo show spun his music in a new and welcome light. Dean often ventures south from his Scottish base in solo mode, but you never know, the new album may present band opportunities this side of the border in the New Year.

Three key North American legends were namechecked in the opening paragraph, but lately, and in sad circumstances, Petty has been the go-to cover in the last month or two. ‘Learning to Fly’ may have lacked the Worry Dolls harmony vocals, but it crowned an enjoyable evening. Conclusively sealing a view that Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are two singer-songwriters fit to enrich any scene that they frequent. 

www.robertvincent.com



www.deanowens.com

Friday, 1 December 2017

Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation - New Cloud in Motion : Invisible King

The first advisable rule for making an album grab a listener’s attention is to toss in a memorable opening track. Obviously, this needs to be followed up with the remainder of the content being of a similar quality; a feat that has been achieved with the brand new album from Scottish –based singer-songwriter Willie Campbell. Along with the assembled ensemble billed as The Open Day Rotation, this artist -more specifically from the Outer Hebrides- has produced an extremely engaging and accessible album that never veers off a high plane highway. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION greets the listener with a striking sky image on the cover before unleashing a dozen original tracks in a mature transition from artist to listener. Perhaps by design, not an album for genre purists, but definitely one for those possessing an open ear.

For descriptive purposes, take this record as a fringed-pop piece of adult contemporary rock, moulded into a package that would appeal to fans exploring the outer edges of folk, country and Americana. Where the record does score high is on the plentiful supply of chorus friendly melodies, occasionally heading into anthem territory, but never coming across as trend-chasing efforts. Willie’s experience working with Craig Wiseman in a Nashville song-writing role around a decade ago is certainly evident in the standard of song construction. The superior level of Music City song writing is indisputable in its ability to meet the needs of different markets and its imprint is found on these songs.

This album’s strength is that most of the tracks could be singled out as the focal point, but for me the two strongest are the superb and engaging opener ‘Mary Rest Your Head’ and the character-led high tensile metaphorical ballad ‘Winter Late in Spring’. The latter ends on a subtle twist and indicates a depth to the writing.

Throughout the duration of the record, which gets close to the hour mark, the fullness of the band sound makes a significant mark. An organ/sax input adds spice to ‘Going Through the Motions’, while the cello gives a sombre folk feel to ‘Circles’. If you want a connotation for these two tracks settle on The E Street Band meets Blue Rose Code. In other words, contemporary working class America with a classic Scottish twist.

While Willie takes control on a majority of the vocals, he does stand aside for Fiona McLeod to adopt the lead on ‘Toxic & Sweet’. The feel of this track raised comparisons with Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers, who made a similarly excellent album a couple of years ago. There is a slight switch in the overall tempo in a couple of tracks towards the end of the album especially in ‘What We Are Now’. Interestingly, the key feature of this nostalgia-inspired song is the line ‘mortality hit me at 30’. Oh for the thought!

Critically, this is an album free of formula, despite coming across as an easy ear friendly listen. It succeeds in drawing in those who make an enquiry into its worth and prospers by holding their attention. One possible amendment could have been slicing ten to fifteen minutes off the listening time and thus making the quality ultra-focussed. To Willie’s credit, I would not know where to make the cut.

While this album falls into the sizeable category of acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriters, to name Justin Currie, Roddy Frame and Ross Wilson to get the list underway, it is packed with credentials to spread far from the domain of its homeland. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION does not indulge in a populist chase, but with the prevailing winds of good fortune, it will resonate with many people who it comes into contact with. Whatever your prior experience of Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation, the songs enrich the listener and make this a late candidate when considering releases that have made a significant effect in 2017. 

www.wiiliecampbell.co.uk

Monday, 27 November 2017

Emily Barker - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 26th November 2017

Back in January, the gig year began with a show featuring Emily Barker, and it was a pleasure to welcome her back to the Midlands area as part of a tour that has formally put a seal on her latest album. Although songs from SWEET KIND OF BLUE were previewed on that last visit to the nearby Worcestershire town of Bewdley, which was in a duo format with Lukas Drinkwater, the assembled band format for this Glee Club date gave the tracks the deeper sound that they warranted. Emily Barker is more than the sum of any record she has released and remains one of the most fascinating artists on any circuit that embraces her style. This may be a style forever tinkered with, but a gold leaf streak has been consistently threaded within her releases.

Emily is no stranger to The Glee Club and wasted little time in reminding folks how she has become a valued artist who constantly seeks to explore the wider canvas of contemporary roots music. ‘Dear River’ opened her ninety-minute set and still sits on the pedestal of her recorded tracks. No doubt, fans will proclaim the widely acclaimed ‘Nostalgia’, but from my perspective that comes a close second to the sound that gave her most credence to being classed as an Americana artist. There is an argument for the best not being served up first in a live outing, but the harmonium to electric guitar intro perfectly set up the breaks and melodies that make this track such a pleasure to hear time and again.

The architect of this harmonium to guitar part was Pete Roe, who proved the busiest person on stage during the evening. As well as this segment, he excelled on the keys, which is such an integral element of the soulful direction that Emily explored on the new record. This was also in addition to the thirty-minute opening set he played to warm up a Sunday evening crowd almost caught out by the 7:15 start. After this brief stint in the limelight, Pete settled back into the supporting role alongside regular bassist (both stand-up and electric) Lukas Drinkwater and Rob Pemberton on drums. Together they proved the perfect foil for Emily’s songs to flourish, in tune with her own guitar and harmonica playing.

In addition to the two older songs previously mentioned (with ‘Nostalgia’ getting its accustomed Wallander connected story), a memorable version of ‘Ghost Narrative’ from the 2013 DEAR RIVER album was among the pick of a set list, which eventually ran to seventeen pristinely delivered songs. Inevitably, it was the tracks from SWEET KIND OF BLUE that proved the spine of this gig, with the title number being given renewed vigour in light of its live version.

This album was Emily’s metaphorical and literal trip down Memphis way and a lauded attempt to capture a sound swinging from the dark bluesy tones of  ‘Sister Goodbye’  to the right up-to-date groovin’ vibes of ‘If We Forget to Dance’. While the album itself has taken a while to settle within my listening repertoire, the songs possessed a strong feel in the live arena with these two tracks  being the pick of the new material alongside the rather gorgeous ‘No. 5 Hurricane’. Maybe the upbeat material would have felt more at home on a late night Friday or Saturday than early Sunday evening, but the notion of ‘inside I’m dancing’ could not have been truer.

There was still time for Emily to excel in the encore when she strolled back on stage to deliver a perfectly executed unaccompanied version of ‘Precious Memories’. This ensured the evening had one more hairs-standing moment before everyone dispersed into Birmingham city centre for an early finish. Of course, we know that she will be back, but what may not be so certain is what style is next on her agenda of discovery. Soul, folk, Americana, lo-fi indie and cinematic ballads have previously caught her ear, and maybe there is further mileage in the traditional country sound that inspired the Applewood Road project. Whatever course she undertakes, the quality stamp mark via her talent and astuteness will be proudly displayed.

Debate may exist when considering the overall impact of the Emily Barker shows in Bewdley and Birmingham this year. In my opinion, the fullness of the latter won hands down, and another example surfaced of a live show illuminating an album that perhaps needed a little nudge. 


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Lucy Rose - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Tuesday 21st November 2017

Regardless of what has happened in the past or may do in the future, 2017 will go down as the year Lucy Rose released the most adorable album and took all its divine beauty on the road with her. SOMETHING’S CHANGING also possessed an intriguing backdrop fuelled by an artist asking some of the most fundamental questions as to their creative existence. Therefore, it was no surprise to see Lucy in a candid frame of mind as she set about sharing some of her craft with a packed Glee Club audience. Amidst the lucid concerns and musings, the subliminal art of serving a record in a format that defined its personal intensity was plain to see.

It helped that the couple of hundred souls cramming into the venue’s main room created the pin drop atmosphere required to savour the album’s subtle brilliance. However, this presented the evening’s first conundrum as Lucy came across between songs as being slightly unnerved by the surroundings. This did not affect any of the songs’ pristine delivery, but further suggested an artist seeking an identity. This assertion is made without any prior experience of a Lucy Rose concert; yet sampling the production found on her previous two albums would suggest a more upbeat environment. One hope from a personal angle is that Lucy enhances the tentative steps that she has taken in the new direction and grows fully into the role. The vocal style, song writing sentiment and subtle production are all in place to make evenings like this a regular occurrence.

Lucy was joined for this tour by four other flexible musicians, with segments of violin being most pertinent to the feel of the new record. Lucy herself shifted between guitars and piano, the latter the accompaniment to the set’s standout moment in ‘Second Chance’ and an old song. ‘Our Eyes’, which was introduced as a stripped down version of a previously highly produced track. This was also the band responsible for the new album, so they were finely tuned in their roles to ensure the presentation was precisely shaped. Therein laid a similar thought to another accomplished artist heard live recently, in finding a differentiation between a studio and stage version. To some, a seamless ear is an expectation, while others prefer to find some distance between the different formats.

Apart from, by memory, the entirety of the new album being played, the set occasionally delved back into the past catalogue to serve up numbers like ‘Middle of the Bed’ and ‘Like an Arrow’. These by encouragement were given the pin drop exclusion and gained enthusiastic responses. By admission, I attended solely because of the new record, but it was difficult to gauge the extent of this across the room. Obviously, the response was rapturous at the end, although the general feel was a little different to when other artists, especially from overseas, play this type of music. Like all the questions being pondered, time will be adjudicator, especially in where Lucy finds the next inspiration for future projects.

It is always good though to focus your mind on the present and listening to songs like ‘Floral Dresses’. ‘Moirai’ and ‘Find Myself’ in this situation was an absolute pleasure. Aside from a slight sense of identity issue, Lucy was frank with the inspiration for her current direction and this was best summed up with the album’s closing track ‘I Can’t Change It All’. Maybe in the future similar inspirational ideas will crop up just like a South America trip did for 2017.

To add to the evening’s presentation, a singer-songwriter from Leighton Buzzard by the name of Charlie Cunningham entertained the gathering with a batch of self-penned material. A prominent vocal style matched with some intuitive guitar playing, crowned with a mini Flamenco piece, eventually placed his performance in the credit column. He was certainly an artist who thrived in the pin drop atmosphere and possessed the talent to carve out a niche on any circuit he frequents.

While it will be fascinating to observe how Lucy Rose creatively evolves in the future, the existing memories of this year’s precious album will always remain, alongside the evening in Birmingham when its heart and soul were beautifully shared. 


Monday, 20 November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens - Town Hall, Birmingham. Sunday 19th November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens has to be one of the most vibrant and dedicated advocates of American roots music currently active in the public eye. Throw in an extraordinary talent that spans the artistic spectrum and you have a sure fire way of ensuring your message gets across to expanding audiences. Spare seats were at a minimum in the Town Hall this evening as Rhiannon and her band set about ensuring this return to a Birmingham venue ended up a resounding success. In contrast to a recently seen gig at this venue, this show went beyond the ninety minutes set mark, thus maximising the diversity that bubbled in the musical presentation. Whether celebrating original British Isles emigration to the Carolinas or a revival of Cajun/Creole culture in the sixties, the quality and absorbing nature of the music beamed in harmony with the venue’s ever manoeuvring lights.

The crowning moment of Rhiannon’s post-Carolina Chocolate Drops work has been her latest album FREEDOM HIGHWAY, and the fruits of this ambitious project have really come to life on this current UK tour. There has been moments since the record’s release in February when it struggled to make a similar impact to her solo debut TOMORROW IS MY TURN. This was purely from a personal perspective and one significantly altered since returning to the record in the run up to the tour followed by witnessing the album act as the cornerstone of the live show.

For this tour, Rhiannon has surrounded herself with all the key architects of the album. Its co-producer, and frequent Transatlantic Sessions participant, Dirk Powell flanked Rhiannon to her left on everything from fiddle, guitar to piano and accordion. To her right was long-term band mate Hubby Jenkins, adding to the sound some sterling electric guitar work and occasionally the inventive bones percussion. Behind the front three were two other players on the studio album in the guise of Jason Sypher on bass and Jamie Dick on percussion. Whether in perfect unison or individual flair, the effect from this fine band of musicians provided the perfect framework for a bunch of traditional and original songs to flourish.

Peaks to the show were plentiful to consider, but the mid-set duo of ‘Water Boy’ and ‘We Could Fly’ lay the marker down for any other segment of the evening to follow. The strains of Rhiannon’s vocals on the former, a tribute to Odetta, left the audience gasping. This took her talents to a new height alongside the banjo, fiddle and creative nous to dig deep into the past to illuminate the world of folk music.

While on the subject of vocal prowess, Rhiannon was frequently joined by her sister, Lalenja Harrington, which included a slice of sibling gospel harmony on one song. Just to ensure the authenticity of the new album was relayed on stage, Rhiannon’s nephew Justin Harrington appeared, to re-enact his spoken word part on ‘Better Get It Right The First Time’ and give the proceedings an ultra-contemporary edge.

If you wanted a pointer to the significance of Rhiannon’s archivist work, the introduction to ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ was the starkest evidence. Frequently, we were reminded that the battles of one hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago are not quite over, validated further by references to her homeland since January 20 2017. Ultimately, the evening wished to balance the inevitable melancholy of digging deep into a history of struggle with a perpetual hope. This was best initiated in a cover of Pop Staples’ ‘Freedom Highway’ as the pre-encore stomping closer, and a dual cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Lonesome Road’ and ‘Up Above My Head’ to bring the overall evening to a sumptuous close.

This was an evening that began two and a half hours earlier with an opening set by Canadian roots artist Kaia Kater, complete with banjo and a bundle of growing charisma. This was actually the second of three Birmingham visits for Kaia in a six –month period. Back in the dying embers of the summer, she impressed with a set at Moseley Folk Festival, and is due to return for a headline show at the Kitchen Garden in February. You have a feeling this artist is going to develop neatly in the slipstream of Rhiannon Giddens on the evidence of the work she has produced and is likely to in the future.

The future is also looking rosy for Rhiannon, especially with the role she has been offered of guest curator for next year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. Part of this will lead to her unveiling some new talent on a UK audience and signals a desire to re-acquaint oneself with this mid-summer extravaganza of roots music. However, this Birmingham Town Hall show was all about the present and the eventual showcasing of Rhiannon Giddens as a world-class artist on a stage that she totally owned. American roots music could not be in better hands than this interpreter, revivalist and all round exceptionally talented artist. 

www,rhiannongiddens.com

Friday, 17 November 2017

Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black : Anti Records

When Mavis Staples was musically active at the heart of the Civil Rights era, she probably didn't envisage having to make this album in 2017. Regardless of the cause or mission, this icon of the gospel-soul world would have always found a suitable outlet for her talent. Ultimately, songs can only play a small part in repairing society’s ills, but when you have Mavis Staples in unison with Jeff Tweedy, the healing process is made a touch easier. IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK joins a lengthening list of albums dedicated to voicing a strong opinion against the wrongs afflicting the world and ensures the power of song carves its niche in the discourse of the day.

This album is the third collaboration between Staples and Tweedy, with the Wilco frontman being the architect of all ten songs to adorn the record. The Grammys have acknowledged their previous efforts to varying degrees and it would be no surprise if accredited acclaim came knocking again. The sound comes across as a slick and moving body of work with the guitar work forming the spine for the vocals to prosper. This latter element shows no sign of deterioration for a vocalist closing in on an octogenarian existence. Rock ‘n’ soul as a combined entity may have had its heyday in Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios in the late sixties, but the flames of Stax and Fame shine brightly throughout this record.

The focal point of this album is likely to be the title track, which rolls out as a classic seventies dance number, complete with backing singers and packed to the hilt with the message of a call for love. ‘If All I Was Was Black’ sits at position two in the running order, following the scene setting opener ‘Little Bit’, which sets down a marker by referencing a shot kid. As the album races to its concise thirty-five minute finishing line, the theme zooms out from the specific and takes a more philosophical view on issues of race and hate. Eventually, this record settles on a call for unity by healing the divisions; a notion best portrayed in ‘Build a Bridge’. A track itself built on the theme of ‘all lives matter’.

Throughout the duration, pivotal moments frequently pop up including the smooth duet between the pair on ‘Ain’t No Doubt About It’ and the defiant sentiment expressed in ‘No Time For Crying’. ‘We Go High’ heeds a call to ensure the forces of good maintain the moral ground, while ‘Try Harder’ carries the message of perseverance. Perhaps the most poignant song acts as the retrospective generating closer in ‘All Over Again’, a low key acoustic piece to add to the sound’s diverse appeal.

One assertion from many listens to this record is that it lands a soft punch in the protest stakes. This could be by pacifist design to enlist a degree of moderation to the brigade. There is no denying its accessible nature can spread the force of good and from a pure artistic viewpoint, it lands on the listener as a trademark blueprint of collaborative American roots music.

There is the danger of IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK falling only into the domain of the converted and maybe if there was a more forceful track then barriers could be broken. Primarily Mavis Staples, in conjunction with Jeff Tweedy, has recorded an album to put a late seal on a legacy that was probably already locked in. It does move the cause forward and that alone makes this a record to engage with.

www.mavisstaples.com

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Stray Birds - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 15th November 2017

It has been just over two years since The Stray Birds first caught my ear, and the subsequent evolution of their sound is now gathering pace. Essentially, a strong core of the band’s ethos will always be rooted in the old time roots camp. However, the transition to blend in a finely tuned country rock sound is taking hold to the extent of now being on the cusp of dominating their live show. Whatever style they adopt, a stark talent shines through, and a continual approach to have the UK on their touring horizon is reaping rewards in growing a fan base. This latest excursion from their US homeland has included a first Birmingham date, and a Hare and Hounds audience revelled in a performance still rising to a peak when time was called on a fabulous gig.

For those who have had the privilege of attending a previous Stray Birds show, the wandering thought from the early stages of the set was when the vintage single mic would be utilised. This format had become a trademark feature of Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench sharing their delightful musical talents with a live audience. Eventually it did take centre stage, albeit only for a pair of songs including a version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel #7’, a familiar inclusion into their live shows.

However, by this stage the mould had been cast in Oliver’s guitar playing, particular the electric model, stealing the show. This aspect of the performance had stiff competition from the exquisite fiddle playing from both Oliver and Maya, often part of the continual instrument switch between the pair that has been another popular trait to illuminate a Stray Birds show. During this array of superlative musicianship, Charlie continues to hold the bassline with the stand-up version and the ever-increasing presence of a drummer in the line-up keeps up the rock beat, with for this tour Sean Trischka parading the sticks and brushes.

Another key factor guiding the band towards acclaimed status is the strength of their original songs. The soul-pumping ‘Best Medicine’ and infectious ‘Sabrina’ keenly retain prime position in any Stray Birds repertoire and the versions heard first in Birmingham this evening further cemented this view. Two other songs to leap up the appreciation ladder from this show were Maya’s beautifully delivered personal piece ‘Birds of the Borderland’ and ‘Third Day in a Row’. The former stretches all the way back half a dozen years ago to when the trio set out on the recording road, while the latter proved an exceptional piece of divine riff-laden cultured rock to close the overall show on a significant high.

Casting the mind back to previous Stray Birds shows, the overriding resemblance of Maya’s vocal style to that of Gillian Welch never wanes from the mind when listening to the emotive way she portrays the depth of the songs. This always comes to a pinnacle when the band cover the roots standard ‘Make Me Down a Pallet on the Floor’; an old song probably best defined by Gillian’s version in recent times.

While the overall feel of this show lent heavily in a new direction, it was first hearing the MAGIC FIRE album last year, which raised the ear lobes to a jolt away from the sole domain of being an old time string band. Cracking tunes from that release, including ‘Shining in the Distance’, ‘Radio’ and ‘When I Die’, still play a huge part in promoting the record and were welcome additions to the evening’s set list.

This was an evening that began in fine style with a splendid opening performance from UK roots band SJ & the Flying Pigs. This Cambridge-based quartet proved the ideal opening foil for The Stray Birds with an array of catchy tunes predominately fuelled by the fiddle playing of Nicky Terry and voraciously led by bandleader SJ Mortimer. Their enthusiasm for the music of The Stray Birds also signalled a sound port of influence to call upon.

Alongside Stafford in 2015 and Oxford 2016, you can now add Birmingham 2017 as a key entry in the mental diary of The Stray Birds flexing their musical muscles to deliver a first rate show. Where they eventually find a niche is likely to be an enriched zone, and maybe the fusion of roots ‘n’ rock becomes the ultimate pedestal to place this band upon. An increasingly established position on the UK touring circuit for them raises the bar for top US bands of a similar ilk to follow. 




Monday, 13 November 2017

Blue Rose Code - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 12th November 2017

There are only certain artists that can get away with an opening live song as a tribute to a recently departed friend. This was certainly no warm up number for Blue Rose Code as Ross explained the circumstances to a packed Kitchen Garden audience, ensuring the faithful were with him right from the off. Further relevance for ‘Over the Fields (For John)’ opening the set was unravelled with a dedicated intent to play the new album in its recorded sequence. A brave attempt to re-enact an album that froths will all the trademark creative energy, which has defined the evolution of Blue Rose Code as a fluid outfit.

This was Ross Wilson’s second visit to the Kitchen Garden in just over twelve months. Last October he played a solo gig and gave a special performance extracting all the traits that make him such an innovative singer-songwriter. This time, in true Blue Rose Code pot pourri, the format was extended to a trio, though still a far distance from the double figure ensembles that present the operation in full flow. Fair enough, venue constraints play a big part, alongside other factors, but whatever the configuration there is no mistaking the outstanding attributes of an artist, now re-established as a Scot in exile.

In harness with guitar player Lyle Watt and Andy Lucas on piano, Ross set about delivering the bulk of THE WATER OF LEITH in the first part of the gig before reverting to some old favourites in the latter stages of the show. The highlight of this portion of the evening was the exceptional album closer ‘Child’, originally designed as a message to a younger Ross, but taking on a new focus in light of his impending fatherhood. This state perhaps had him more on edge than usual, but in a positive way. Without the lavish stringed arrangements, extended brass, ten-minute jazz instrumentals and the multi-lingual vocals of Kathleen MacInnes and Julie Fowlis, it was always a tough task to capture the true essence of a record. Yet the stripped down arrangements and accomplished musicianship of his trio partners gave an intriguing slanted view that spun the record on a different axis without losing any of its craft.

Highlights in the second segment of the show were the up tempo numbers ‘One Day at a Time’ and ‘Chasing Sunlight’, which brought a degree of animation to a crowd, who were probably quite content to just sit back and soak up the music on offer. Alongside the two earlier mentioned songs which bookend the new album, the other pick of the evening was another splendid airing of ‘Edina’. The local references to his Edinburgh upbringing have since taken on a new twist with Ross curtailing his long awaited return to settling in his homeland and reverting back to being ‘a Scot’ south of the border. For an artist who repeatedly is likened to John Martyn, we were left the closing gift of Ross covering the great man’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Know About Evil’. A suitable end to an evening bristling with homegrown artistry.

Reverting to a post gig play of THE WATER OF LEITH does draw a thick line between the recorded status and how it was presented this evening, but merits co-exist. This concisely defines Blue Rose Code, a loose amalgamation of sounds, formats and creative whims. Where Ross Wilson meanders to in the future is anybody’s guess. One final certainty is that it will be filled with boundless quality and continue to cement his role as one of the country’s leading all-round singer-songwriter, and wider musical talents. 


Friday, 10 November 2017

Kirsty Merryn - She & I : Self-Released

The new album from Kirsty Merryn may only be eight tracks and twenty-eight minutes long, but it is a gorgeous blueprint on how to deliver a record succinctly packed to the rafters with treasurable discoveries. This may well be classed by the authoritative sources as one of the leading UK folk albums of the year when the dust settles, and few disputes are offered here. Apart from Kirsty’s pristine vocal prowess, the amazing notion from listening to the album cold is that this is not a dip into the world of the traditional song. Such is the magnitude of Kirsty’s compositions, folklorists in centuries to come may well class these songs as important as those passed on by word of mouth.

The big clue is in the title, and gender focus is at the core of SHE & I. The eight tracks are dominated by a female character at the centre of the story. These possess a fluctuating level of historical importance, ranging from the well-told story of Grace Darling in ‘Forfarshire’ to the unknown woman featured in ‘The Birds are Drunk’. Kirsty’s horizons also wander from the deeply personal in ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’, with a focus closer to home, to a leap across the ocean to tell the story of Annie Edison Tyler in ‘Queen of the Mist’. Familiar name? if not, buying this album and adopting some investigative skills will broaden your horizon.

Kirsty is joined by two vocal collaborators in Steve Knightley and Luke Jackson on a couple of the tracks. However, the biggest compliment to pay is her voice blossoms best when in solo mode where its unblemished attributes can totally own a song. Knightley's impact does not end with his vocal part as he has been Kirsty’s biggest advocate, including inviting her to open for Show of Hands on a run of UK cathedral dates. Ultimately, Kirsty’s music, whether in her instrumental, vocal or writing skills, will stand alone on their merits and every indication is that this will be at a high elevation.

Picking out a standout track is a tricky choice, but the piano led piece ‘An Evening At Home in Spiritual Séance’, not surprisingly featuring Kirsty in solo mode, would comfortably fit on any shortlist. If pushed to pick one though, ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’ is a strong album defining number and highly influential in the opening track position.

Regardless of how the narrative plays out, Kirsty Merryn has staked a claim to be a rich exhibitor in contemporary folk music. Elegance and a natural beauty to her music frame an album weighing strong in traditional charm. SHE & I is an impressive catalyst for projecting the talents of an artist destined to court and attract widespread appeal. 


The Lost Notes - Run free Right Now : Self-Released

While roaming the world digitally for romanticised music has long been an influential source, occasionally it is worth pulling your horns in a touch to check out what is happening under your nose. Birmingham based band, The Lost Notes have been knocking on doors around the local scene for a while, often getting opening slots for overseas touring acts. With most of these artists being of a folk/Americana/acoustic tilt, this local combo have proved an ideal fit with their authentic approach to stripping innovative lyrical-laden music down to an agreeable form. Now it’s the turn of The Lost Notes to take on the role of a recorded outfit with the release of a debut album titled RUN FREE RIGHT NOW.

Essentially, the album rolls out with eleven self-penned tracks plus a bonus of two offered in an alternative format of a live version and vocal remix. ‘Bobby’ is one of these tracks, with a live recording captured at the Tower of Song, and probably sits at the summit of the album’s appeal when conclusions are drawn on a track-by-track analysis. The band revolves around a core of Ben and Lucy Mills sharing vocal duties alongside Oli Jobes seemingly being the prime instrumental architect. Lucy takes vocal lead on ‘Bobby’ before the trademark harmonies kick in, and is the band’s singular stab at writing a traditional country ballad. As intimated, this album does not settle on a signature sound, but the impressive attributes of this number provide food for pondering.

Essentially, The Lost Notes comes across as a jaunty upbeat outfit, expressing itchy feet across the acoustic spectrum. A light hearted approach  underpins the initial appeal of the music, although issues do emerge in songs like ‘Banker’s Blues’ and ‘Leader of Men’, whether tongue -in- cheek mode or not. Spritely opener ‘Green Grass’ does possess some philosophical undertones if you choose to delve deeper, but the overall vibes is that of it being unconditional music leaving the listener at their entire leisure to how they take the offering.

Other tracks that score highly include the initially impressive ‘Take My Hand’, the harp blowing bluesy effort ‘Stone in My Shoe’ and ‘I’ll Wait Until the Sunrise’; the latter came more to the fore after seeing The Lost Notes support the Wild Ponies at a recent gig. Frequently, they perform in a streamline trio, but studio-wise the sum is expanded into a full band operation including bass and drums. This format occasionally gets a live outing and this will certainly be the case when the album gets its full launch at a headline show in early December.

Living the dream is a commendable place to be, whether recording an album or composing written reviews. Letting the breadth of your talents roam free, seeing where they lead and enjoying the journey is the perfect idealistic stance. RUN FREE RIGHT NOW is the sum of a journey that comes across as one being enjoyed. The Lost Notes have also crossed the boundary to where a record can do the heavy lifting in lieu of continual gigging and it possesses an entertaining streak to ensure the journey keeps right on. 





Steph Cameron - Daybreak Over Jackson Street : At The Helm Records

The magnitude of the sophomore album from Canadian folk artist Steph Cameron is that each play opens another window on the world of a lyricist on top of their game. DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET had its Canadian birth in the spring and, with a helping hand from UK label At The Helm Records, it now takes flight across the Atlantic to mesmerise European audiences. This record may take a while to grasp, but the journey is a mighty satisfying one.

While there is a degree of complex sophistication in Steph’s approach to song writing, an air of simplicity underpins the sound. This is a raw as acoustic sound as you could possibly get from a studio album. Without access to any credits, all you basically hear is Steph; her guitar and occasional harmonica, but that is sufficient to portray the worth of a high tensile record. With the UK release heralding a significant change in the seasons, you do feel the starkness of a Canadian winter running through the sound. Albeit, the homely vocals and perception of the guitar being a comfort blanket does ensure a warm glow permeates the cold.

There is a strong folk revivalist feel to this record, thus cementing a sound akin with the street songs that represent the northern part of the American continent. With a fair proportion of UK folk vocalists heading into neo-classical territory, there is an opening for the more grounded singer-songwriter and the music of Steph Cameron fits the bill.

The eleven tracks that form this album cover a diverse band of themes, moods and subjects. Any song analysis has to begin with the two-minute masterpiece of social commentary, which opens the album. ‘Daybreak Over Jackson Street’ doubles up as the  title track and the coat hanger upon which to file this album in your mind. Whatever you take from the record as a whole, the melody adorning the lines ‘I tried to leave, I tried to run – They  got me on the stunt I done’ is worth the admission price alone.

Elsewhere, the tracks settle in little pockets. A dose of melancholy resides in the hard hitting and punchy ‘On My Mind’ and the narrative character-heavy ‘Richard’. Of course, sad songs = happy listener. Disagree – and you’re probably in the wrong place. However, Steph does make room for a little light and ‘Little Blue Bird’ opens the door to some feel-good relief. Later in the track running order, ‘Sing For Me’ relights the flame of positivity from an idealistic standpoint.

The song that probably travels the furthest to epitomise the record is ‘Winterwood’. Apart from the obvious seasonal connotation and maybe autobiographical slant with Steph’s home town of Saskatoon being referenced, its perceived radiance of peace in solitude may resonate with singer-songwriters ploughing a lonely furrow in pursuit of their art.

Of course, every album needs a decent selling hook and ‘Young and Living Free’ does the job here with a high degree of class. A pertinent, pondering closer suits this type of ‘thinking’ record and ‘Peace is Hard to Find’ slots in neatly with its traditional feel and more than a nod in the melody direction to ‘Shady Grove’. All that is required now is a nostalgic epic, and at five minutes long, the lyric laden ‘California’ conforms to type. ‘You Oughta Know By Now’ and ‘That is What Love Is’ complete the line-up and synchronise perfectly into the album’s ambience without veering too much into comment territory.

On the day that this album is released in the UK, news surfaced of dates over here in the New Year. This will be the perfect opportunity for the artist to furnish the listener with further thoughts on influence and interpretation. In the meantime, the pedigree status of DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET will ensure the music of Steph Cameron gets a warm reception overseas. An album to savour for all those smart enough to check in. 

www.stephcameron.com

Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 9th November 2017

The Kitchen Garden is a well-renowned venue for its conducive acoustics, and it accrues praise almost each time an artist sets foot in its interior. Over the last decade, many fine nights have been enjoyed in this suburban Birmingham venue, but from a sound perspective, few come close to eclipsing what was heard when Angel Snow and Ida WenØe came to town for a very special gig. 

While artists and sound team are not doubt quick to salute each other, the stars were certainly aligned this evening, whether your ears were tuned into the vocals, electric or acoustic guitar. The sum of these parts led to a gig that rampantly surpassed expectation and projected both artists to a new level.

Angel Snow has had a presence in the UK for a few years and has been previously seen in a joint touring role with both, Ben Glover and Matthew Perryman Jones. Maybe it was seeing her for the first time in this venue (although it was not her first show here) that proved the catalyst, but she used her time in the spotlight majestically to cast a spell over the audience with a bunch of beautifully crafted songs. Perhaps, it may have been the solo limelight in the billing coupled with the placidity of the setting, which illuminated the treasures of a precious gift, but there was a special ambience that could never be captured by digital means.

The nature of the set up for this Angel Snow tour meant that the indie-electronica fuelled vibes of her latest album MAGNETIC had been left at home in Nashville. This was no challenge for an accomplished artist to strip down a group of songs that are strong in organic appeal before any trappings are added. In the past, Angel has had the fortune to work alongside some seriously impressive Nashville luminaries and listening to another live version of ‘Lie Awake’ re-affirms the wise decision Alison Krauss made to cut it for her PAPER AIRPLANE album.

Most of Angel’s set revolved around the new songs though, with ‘Vienna’, ‘Disguises’ and ‘I Need You’ rising to the top of the appreciation list. The latter proved the sole outing for the electric guitar, which was a pity as Angel’s delicate strumming extracted the most exalted of simple low spun sounds. The compensation was the near perfection of the acoustic alternative, combined with a vocal skill that allowed each song to blossom. As Angel guided the audience blissfully through around a dozen ear-pleasing songs, a state of mesmeric fixation was not difficult to slip into. This shed the music of Angel Snow in a new light and created anticipation for more.

Joining Angel for this tour is the highly impressive Ida WenØe, and as far as openers are concerned, this supporting performance was easily the highlight of any gig year. Ida was afforded a generous extension to the normal half hour opening slot and gloriously filled it with a fascinating display of addictive alt-folk music from a pan European perspective. Being of Danish origin and currently a resident of Berlin (at the moment anyway) only provides a brief narrative introduction for an artist who possesses the most alluring of performing styles. Right from the opening lines of her first song ‘Changing of the Seasons’, from the current album TIME OF GHOSTS, the audience was captivated by a performer blessed with expert playing skills, an affable demeanour, a fine voice and a raft of delectable songs. Her self-penned tribute to Leonard Cohen was a treat and a majority of the audience unaware previously, had now warmed to a new artist.

From a small acorn on the gig horizon, a splendid evening of artistic superiority flowered, bloomed and blossomed. The Kitchen Garden was at its best, and so was the music of Angel Snow and Ida WenØe. If music is the voice of the soul, the live version spoke loud this evening.  

www.angelsnow.net



www.idawenoe.com

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Tuesday 31st October 2017

Jason Isbell is currently on the sort of hot streak that would be the envy of a sports team anywhere in the world, akin to the domineering days of his beloved Braves. His song writing, album making and performing skills are firmly planted on a plateau, peering down into the distance of the chasing pack. All these attributes are in stark evidence when he takes to the stage, and shows like what we witnessed in Birmingham this evening veer very much towards defining where this artist stands in 2017. This was a gilt-edged artisan on top of his game and a supporting cast in the 400 Unit matching him each note, chord and interlude.

Of course, it has not been all plain sailing for Jason, but adversity and genius often go hand in hand. In addition, contrasting views are held on the differences between polished perfection and good old dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Although it has been a while since Jason dabbled in the latter, you feel that it will be always be part of his DNA, and the sidestep from the plush surroundings of the Symphony Hall to your grittier institutions is a mere small movement of intent. However, with a new record regally titled THE NASHVILLE SOUND and on the back of six sold out shows at the Ryman Auditorium, he is perfectly at home in the sort of environment that greeted him this evening.

The new album took centre stage in a set list that has revolved around an extensive core during this latest run of UK dates. This stretched back to Jason’s formative years as a member of the Southern alt-rock band Drive By Truckers. Many long term fans could make a compelling case for ‘Decoration Day’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ being the outstanding moments; the former displaying its imperious anthem qualities, while the latter forming the ideal scintillating closer complete with ultra-rock style guitar duals. Whenever the services of the 400 Unit are called upon to either record or perform with Jason Isbell, they know instinctively what to do to project each song at its best. Having returned to the title credits for the latest album, the quartet of Sadler Vader (lead guitar), Jimbo Hart (bass guitar), Chad Gamble (drums) and Derry deBorja (keyboards) brought specific life to the new songs especially the rockers like ‘Hope the High Road’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’.

Just as positioned on the album, the last song mentioned was followed in the running order by ‘Tupelo’ Lyrically they perfectly complement each other in the perception, sentiment and feeling; sonically they display the versatility of Jason treading the fine line between the hard and soft rocker. The song from the new album that soared immensely tonight was ‘Last of My Kind’. It slowed things down at an opportune moment, allowed Jason to inject greater personal feelings into his vocals and showcase how his writing gravitates to another level when the inspiration cuts deep.

This last point seamlessly moves onto the incredibly moving versions of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Cover Me Up’ that had the impact to tear away at the heart of a pin drop audience sitting comfortably in their upholstered seats. The masses who framed these moments as their highlight would struggle to attract too many adversaries. They resonate as prime examples of why a sizable chunk of the Jason Isbell fan base consider 2013’s SOUTH EASTERN to be his finest work, coupled with the context.

In the year that Jason Isbell acquired a CMA nomination (probably more a case of the latter reaching out than the artist churning out a country record), we were served a helping of ‘If It Takes a Lifetime’ from his 2015 album SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE. While that remains his most recent boldest step in the direction of a straight up country song, it retains a certain charm and reasonably represented the wares of this album alongside the title track and the additionally excellent ’24 Frames’.

For those fans who like to hark back to the post-Truckers/pre-SOUTH EASTERN days, ‘Codeine’ and ‘Alabama Pines’ would have neatly fitted the bill. With this show being at least Jason’s first visit to the ‘proper’ Birmingham since he broke into the world of the solo artist, there is still a remaining hope that he will one day play ‘Cigarettes and Wine’ in a live setting once again.

A sly prior look at the tour’s set lists suggested that a Tom Petty song was likely to feature in the finale and Birmingham had the treat of ‘Refugee’ as the night’s final encore song. This was probably the hardest the band rocked all night and ensured an audience did not sink back into their seats after greeting the main set closer with the inevitable standing ovation. The added good news was that the set time well-exceeded my ninety-minute benchmark that had risen as an issue a few days earlier with another gig. This was probably never going to refer to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. 

There is a tendency for high quality American touring artists to select their opening acts from a similar gene pool. Tift Merritt was a good choice for these UK shows as she shares the rare talent of exceptional song writing skills with the headliner. Her own solo recording career stretches back a little further than Jason’s, and each time she arrives over here for some kind of show, the breadth of her talent is instantly recognisable. In this evening’s packed thirty-minute support slot, she flittered between acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano. She sung the title track off two albums from her expanding back catalogue – STITCH OF THE WORLD and TRAVELING ALONE , and two excellent songs from other releases including‘Feel the World’ (a personalised sentimental version this evening) and her signature song ‘Good Hearted Man’. This was Tift’s second appearance on the Symphony Hall stage this year after her inclusion on the Transatlantic Sessions cast.  Moreover, this was the fourth time seeing Tift in Birmingham over the last decade, but all have been frustratingly short sets. The opportunity to finally catch this captivating artist in a full show will surely come to the fore one day.

Anticipation had been high for finally seeing a Jason Isbell show in Birmingham since the tickets went on sales months ago. From the moment he strolled onto the stage to greet the audience with the superb ‘Anxiety’ there was to be no looking back. If this artist accrues a lot more column inches than his peers do, it is probably due to the sheer amount of thought provoking issues that emanate from his music. Even regarding this show, there is the inconclusive debate about whether the Symphony Hall was the most appropriate venue to get the best out of Jason Isbell, especially if you want to taste and feel the music in addition to just watching and listening. Sonically, the Symphony Hall was pitch-perfect, and at times the band’s attention to detail replicated a home listening environment, complete with all the comforts. Purists will drool, while others may wish to get their hands a little dirtier. This show was geared towards the purist and there is probably no tighter band around today than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.


Saturday, 28 October 2017

Brandy Clark + Jim Lauderdale - Town Hall, Birmingham. Friday 27th October 2017

Cutting an isolated figure on stage, Brandy Clark adopted the pose of the archetypal country music singer and ensured that true to the genre’s identity, the songs nestled right at the heart of the show. For just over an hour tonight, you were taken back to the idealistic days of 2013. This was when 12 STORIES emerged from a little known label in Texas called Slate Creek Records and an established songwriter from Morton WA edged tentatively into the world of the recording artist. Four years on and the continued most important assertion is that the music of Brandy Clark matters.

Presently, Brandy retains the status of an artist signed to a major Nashville label. Therefore, exposure and connectivity has enabled her to develop a fan base sufficiently to grow the Birmingham show from the homely surroundings of The Glee Club to the more lavish environment of the Town Hall in twelve months. While the audience growth settled somewhere between the size of both venues, there was only a minor adjustment to the presentation. When this gig sprung up, thoughts turned to a full band operation and a sound more akin to what greeted fans during the first half of her sophomore album BIG DAY IN A SMALL TOWN. However, what we were introduced  to was a similar acoustic show with just the double bass of Vanessa McGowan joining Brandy and her regular lead guitarist Miles Aubrey.

Long may this remain the de facto format for Brandy Clark as it optimises the baring of her songs’ souls. Even numbers like ‘Girl Next Door’, which had designs for more populous platforms, take on a new light when stripped down. The gentle caressing of the bass with a bow added a slice of morbidity to ‘Three Kids No Husband’, and while you think Miles could excel on his own in another setting, the supporting role he plays is invaluable when applying the thought generating interludes to Brandy’s songs. One development pleading out for is a pedal steel player in this format. The songs ache and what better accompaniment that some soothing twang.

For the second leg of the UK tour, Jim Lauderdale has jumped on board to take on the role of the supporting act. It is a credit to his overall integrity and versatility that such a legend, not just of the Nashville scene but across the wide spectrum of American roots music, can adjust to this mode and pull it off with a double dose of humility and class. It is likely that some new converts to Brandy are not aware of who Jim Lauderdale is. Watching him for half an hour renders that ignorance obsolete. Just soaking up the influence for ‘King of Broken Hearts’ was worth taking your seat in the hall early and if one person left thinking ‘I should check out this Gram Parsons guy’ then mission accomplished. Of course, Jim has his own albums to sell and the latest release LONDON SOUTHERN is probably one of the main reasons he has come to Britain on at least three occasions this year to play a variety of different shows.

Just a minor gripe now and one which savouring Jim Lauderdale slightly alleviated. For an artist of Brandy’s stature and the outlay for the show, she should be playing for a minimum of ninety minutes not the seventy allotted to this performance. The vast majority of touring artists at all levels offer this and any rationale will not wash here.

Gripe over and now back to the reasons that this was still pushing the upper echelons of a lengthy 2017 gig schedule. The set list was almost evenly split comprising  of half a dozen songs from each album plus an assortment of unrecorded material and the ubiquitous cover. The latter for this show was the Dean Dillon/Hank Cochrane song ‘The Chair’, famously cut by George Strait. The other unrecorded songs included ‘Apologies’ – introduced as a new one – and ‘When I Get to Drinkin'’, which recently appeared on the live album. Another unfamiliar song in ‘Favourite Lie’ joined an outstanding opening set trio alongside ‘Hold My Hand’, setting a near unparalleled lofty bar, and ‘Love Can Go To Hell’, showing the power of the stripped back version.

Despite the general low key vibes of the show, popular numbers like ‘Stripes’ and ‘Pray to Jesus’ got the crowd involved. Vociferous reactions were also reserved for the substance-inspired song ‘Get High’ and the alternative revenge piece ‘Daughter’. Apart from the opening number previously mentioned, the other personal highlights were the intrinsically countrified ‘Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’’ (what else do you expect from an apostrophe overload) and the satisfying singalong ‘Big Day in a Small Town’.

Brandy herself has slipped into the consummate role of the relaxed touring performer, at ease with audience interaction and introducing her songs with an element of impish vagueness. The usual subjects for country music material are aplenty and we were even given a hint of a complete album of drinking songs, should there be room for one! While Brandy tends to guide her writing in the direction of the third person character, it does ponder a thought in how she might focus her exceptional skill inward, with no doubt many a story to tell. Observing this performance also lent a moment to wander into the future zone of where her career is heading. This relates to the current construction of the country music landscape, especially on the fringes of the mainstream. What Brandy can do is cut her own niche and build on the momentum of the last four years to develop her trade in a conducive environment.

Hindsight may well elevate the pairing of Jim Lauderdale and Brandy Clark to another level. Together they put on a super show majoring on what is important and crucial to the preservation of country music as a standalone art form. Brandy ended by saying ‘continue to buy my albums and I will continue to cross the pond to play’. As long as she gets the astute decisions right, opportunities will prevail.

www.brandyclark.com



Thursday, 26 October 2017

Wild Ponies - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 25th October 2017

If prizes were handed out for how you present an album then the book can be closed on the page of the Wild Ponies. Not only is the mystical music mood of Galax available in your living rooms, it can also transfix an intimate listening venue from literally anywhere in the world. Suburban Kings Heath to rural Virginia may or may not be a universe away depending on your mind-set, but the miles were gently erased during the first part of this Kitchen Garden show.

Doug and Telisha Williams aka Wild Ponies are fast becoming perennial favourites on the UK touring circuit for American roots artists. Since their last visit to the West Midlands area in January, the East Nashville based duo has released a brand new album titled GALAX and are currently in the midst of comprehensively touring it across Europe and the States. The vinyl copy was perched proudly behind the Kitchen’s performing space and there could not have been a better promotional opportunity than dedicating eight songs from the record during the first set.

The unanimous highlight from this segment of the show had to be Telisha’s stunning take on the Hazel Dickens song ‘Pretty Bird’. Without putting the album version too much in the shade, the live performance melted any aversion to a heart rendering emotive song. The pattern for the evening soon emerged and the full quota of informative chat was reserved for the first set. This ensured everybody present was well versed in the making of GALAX, the background to its fruition and the effects that emanated from a project that literally captured the very fundamentals of roots music.  

Just to back up a prior view on the tracks selected to feature on this record, ‘Jackknife’ came across exceptionally well and enjoyed a vociferous reception from the assembled music lovers. It may have lacked the critical fiddle parts, but it wasn’t too difficult to detect the communal love radiating from ‘Sally Ann’. As we approached the interval, Doug promised more rock ‘n’ roll courtesy of the Telecaster in the second half and concluded the contents of GALAX with the greater upbeat vibes of ‘Will They Still Know Me’; a co-write with another Kitchen Garden favourite: Ben Glover.

At this point, it is timely to acknowledge the evening’s supporting cast. Joining Doug and Telisha for this UK tour is Austin based musician Katie Marie, who majored mainly on mandolin for the first half before reverting to drums for the numbers which benefitted from a more pulsating beat. She has been part of the Wild Ponies US tour and made a telling impact on this show as well. In replicating their role for the Wild Ponies January gig at the nearby Thimblemill Library, The Lost Notes opened the evening and played a spritely set of well-crafted tunes, liberally sprinkled across the acoustic spectrum and containing some sublime harmonies. Appearing in the usual stripped down trio format for these type of shows, the band are gearing up for a debut album release, and showcasing fine songs like ‘Bobby’ and ‘I’ll Wait Until the Sunrise’ will do the promotion no harm.

How were the Wild Ponies going to follow the songs from GALAX in the second half? There was obviously a big clue in Doug’s prior preview, but he kept to his word and yes, rock ‘n’ roll was the answer. Starting with ‘Born with a Broken Heart’ and climaxing with ‘Unplug the Machine’, the tempo was seamless, with on this occasion the chat being kept to a minimum; Not that they don’t have an interesting story about most of their songs. All the ‘greatest hits’ were featured including ‘Love is Not a Sin’, ‘Trigger’, ‘Things That Used to Shine’ and ‘Broken’. Inevitably, the temptation to tread the well-worn ground of ditching the mics to test the acoustic surroundings was adhered to and a beautiful version of ‘Radiant’ ensured the evening closed on a moment as high as what we were greeted to a couple of hours earlier.

Hooking into the Wild Ponies style, ideals, ethos and music is a compulsive act for anybody with a remote interest in contemporary roots music. This is country, folk, rock ‘n’ roll or anything you want it to be, as long as you respect tradition, integrity and the power of song. This show signposted the right way and every new Wild Ponies convert furthers the cause of ensuring the UK remains firmly on the horizon of a band dedicated to sharing their music anywhere in the world.


www.wildponies.net

Review of Galax





Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Emily Mae Winters - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday October 24th 2017

Some artists require a shoehorn to slide into their intended genre, while others effortlessly glide between different camps. Emily Mae Winters possesses the ultimate entertainer’s gift of being completely at ease in whichever facet of her singer-songwriter art comes under the microscope. With a debut album now in the locker, and an increasing run of live shows under her belt, the cork to her potential has been popped. Where this leads her will no doubt be down to a combination of fortune and desire, but the eager anticipation of being party to this in a fan role is an exciting proposition. To be on the brink of a sell-out on a first headline appearance at the Kitchen Garden is no mean achievement and the evidence of her innate talent was on stark display during the time in the spotlight. Make no mistake; Emily is here for the long term on a platform that may yet evolve.

Maybe driven by a spate of artistic independence, Emily is steering clear of the pigeon hole status, while putting down some exceedingly deep rooted markers. It would take a bout of stubborn ignorance for the folk world not to embrace her style, especially when she saunters into the realm of the traditional song. This evening Emily’s versatility stretched from re-connecting with her partial Irish roots through the fairly conventional ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ to a braver dip into the English scene with a version of John Connolly’s popular tune ‘Fiddlers Green’. Two commendable efforts, although she did reveal an occasional mixed reaction in folk club land to the latter. Perhaps tinged with a little trepidation.

Yet for me, on the evidence of catching her live for two hours across a couple of contrasting Birmingham venues in the last few months there is an embedded trait to successfully spearhead a uniquely British challenge to the classicist contemporary American singer-songwriters who reign supreme in such a domain. Evidence for this came threefold, initially in the guise of two beautifully crafted covers of Emmylou Harris’s ‘Red Dirt Girl’ and ‘Killing the Blues’, taken from the iconic Krauss-Plant RAISING SANDS album. However the prime mover in rationalising my view on Emily’s strength is a gentle wobble in her voice that is so reminiscent of Natalie Maines when she took those Dixie Chicks ballads such as ‘Without You’ and ‘Top of the World’ to another level. It also differentiates Emily from the archetypal English folk singer, often formed by a crystal fragility. From this evening’s show, ‘Hook, Line and Sinker’, ‘Miles to Go’, and most pertinently, ‘Blackberry Lane’ further cemented this highly valued assertion.

Aside the covers, of which we had an encore treat as well, and the traditional pieces, Emily’s ability to write her own songs is proving to be a significant part of the skillset. A love of literature especially the poetic verse has a major input in this area. Joining the three songs just previously mentioned, ‘Siren Serenade’ is another outstanding effort in this field. As well as doubling up as the title of the album, this song is emerging as a popular live number, with this evening’s configuration of the Kitchen Garden perfectly adhering itself to the dual blending of audience generated harmonies. The effect was like something straight out of Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

Joining Emily for the show were regular double bassist John Parker and Virginia Mahieu on fiddle. Both played their part in the success of the evening. Although strength in numbers is always a smart way forward when practical, you do get the feeling that Emily retains the natural charisma and flair to hold an audience on her own, especially in intimate venues like the Kitchen Garden. This side of her personality stems from an unfulfilled theatrical desire, though if you are going to appear in one film as an extra, why not it be a Ken Loach production. Certainly a reason to view The Wind That Shakes the Barley when it is aired again.

By the time Emily sent the audience on their merry way with a final dip into the popular songbook via a communal version of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, the deal had been sealed. Maybe audience – performer song keys were not perfectly aligned, but classic songs transcend awkward moments. What had been nailed on was an artist of extraordinary talent and one to absolutely take the vision of the contemporary singer-songwriter forward in this country, and perhaps beyond.

Joining Emily on the bill for this show was another emerging singer-songwriter by the name of Jack Hopkinson. He used the window of the opening set to make a valid case for engaging in his credentials, which once again spread out from a UK base to absorb some of the influences spawned from venturing thousands of miles in a westward direction. Alongside a song about Nashville, a cover of the James Taylor standard ‘You Got a Friend’ and numbers from his latest EP SECOND HAND LOVE, the most profound moment from Jack’s set was a new song titled, from memory, ‘Take It From Me’.

Who knows where Emily Mae Winters is going to take her music? There is a school of thought to just enjoy the present, but an artist who stands still will wither and fade. This is unlikely to happen here with so much burgeoning talent and hopefully the passion to develop it. The winners are destined to be those who connect with her music. Maybe the final destination or not, but the thought of taking on our American cousins at their own game has just flickered a little brighter after discovering this artist.