Friday, 20 October 2017

Megan Henwood - River : Dharma Records

The new album by Megan Henwood epitomises some of the real strengths that exist today within the realm of artists that set out from a folk music base. This is not necessarily purely in the traditional form, but more from an alternative/contemporary angle where conventions wither in a tide of creative whim. To shed some light on the song style that lends itself to the material that forms RIVER, think of Megan co-habiting in the territory that has yielded exceptional albums from Laura Marling and Lucy Rose this year. This is British music almost boring a new hole to create a yet unnamed genre. Essentially, it’s innovative acoustic music, luring an audience with a captivating vocal appeal proving the ideal vehicle for deep meaningful songs.

Megan first caught my ear a couple of years ago with the release of her second album HEAD HEART HAND. If the judge is the number of plays far exceeding those required for review evaluation, then RIVER is surpassing the previous record and proving an essential album for a variety of moods. Without putting an overriding emphasis on a single particular quality, the hushed vocals exude both a warm and fragile emotion, whilst enriching a hypnotic listening experience. A compulsive beat and liberal sprinkling of engaging melodies will further push this album into the listening sphere of folks looking to expand from their comfort base.

All twelve tracks are self-penned efforts and in line with the connotation of the album title, have an aqua flavour. A brief delve into some of Megan’s thoughts towards making the album reveal more of this inspiration including the contrasting water features associated with past and present existences in Oxford and Cornwall. The quality of the songs, whether in implicit or explicit mode, will keep an inquisitive listener busy for a considerable amount of time; this is not exactly an ordeal when the music is so satisfying.

High spots from this record are aplenty, but few will argue against the immense effect of the opening two numbers. ‘Fresh Water’ just about edges ‘Join the Dots’ partly due to its chorus inducing shivers, but the preference is marginal. The choice may also be influenced by the inclusion of some trumpet, thus edging further away from the folk starting point.

Megan focusses on her home city of Oxford in ‘The Dolly’, repeatedly calling out ‘I’m not ready to leave this city yet’ amidst references to locations like the bubbling and bohemian Cowley Road. This is Megan probably at her most explicit, in contrast to the following track ‘Seventh’ and one, which leaves the listener room to dissect the evolving nature of yet another fascinating chorus.

Further into this album, the delightful ‘Rainbows’ and the moderating ‘Peace Be the Alien’ catch the ear to maintain the momentum right up to a slightly different sounding track to bring the record to a finish. ‘L’Appel du Vide’ translated to ‘the call of the void’ fills this spot, successful in displaying the delicate vocals unaccompanied before the faint music kicks in for a final time.

At times RIVER does straddle the line between cultured pop and a more abstract piece of art. It sets out to court listeners on an artist’s terms and for me that siphons out those designed on chasing trends rather than leading them. Megan Henwood falls entirely in the camp of the innovator and any accrued success for this album will entirely justify the approach to wander creatively. Mature, intriguing or any other descriptive elements only begin the process of where this record can register on the listener scale. Road testing it is an opportunity to be grasped.

Dori Freeman - Letters Never Read

Dori Freeman does not need an expansive canvas to weave her magical spell. In fact, the more minimalist the environment the better and LETTERS NEVER READ has provided the perfect vehicle to tantalise the discerning ear. Spreading its beauty in a concise twenty-eight minutes sees Dori skirting a touch with brevity, but the acute song selection and optimum production reaches out far from this homely base. Initial spins of this record gave a different feel to last year’s debut self-titled album, although closer aural examination yielded much of the same qualities. This is ideal, as the previous record was absolutely adored and the new one is racing to a similar status.

Similarities are also extended to the presence of Teddy Thompson once again in the production role. Dori’s velvet lined country vocals make the same delightful impact and totally own the airwaves from the moment the first bar is sung. The golden voice from Galax Virginia is the ideal strapline for Dori’s music, with its subtle roots underlay and pivotal position at the crossroads of traditional and contemporary roots music.

To grasp the structure of this album, it is worth analysing the impact of six original compositions mixed into the potpourri with four other tunes from a diverse range of sources. The listener is immediately exposed to the wealth of Dori’s song writing via a four-strong run of tunes led off by the sweet sounding waltz-like tones of ‘If I Could Make You My Own’. There is almost a seamless thread in this segment with ‘Just Say It Now’ carrying on the mantle of the opener. ‘Lovers on the Run’ follows, housing the album title in one of its lines and intimating that some songs written for past acquaintances never reach their intended destination.

One tempering feature that surfaces at this point is the more profound impact of the melody in the verses rather than the chorus. In the early stages of getting to grips with this record, it appears to lack a gem of a track in the vein that ‘Go on Lovin’’ illuminated the previous album. Maybe in time one will emerge, but if you’re seeking the ingrained earworm moments, the non-originals are more likely to deliver.

The Thompson family influence is extended to Dori decorating her adorable vocals around the classic ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ from the brilliant pen of Teddy’s father, Richard. There can hardly be a more contrasting vocal experience than between the original and Dori's version. Take your pick or appreciate the value in both.

To shore up the roots impact of this album, a moving a Capella version of a song written by Dori’s grandfather Willard Gayheart ensures time stands still for a brief couple of minutes at the midway point. ‘Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog’ is a tale that you would only expect to find in the backwoods of the rural South and it certainly warms the heart of those listening from afar. To further re-enforce the southern feel, a banjo-led old time gospel tune in ‘Over There’ offers a communal feel with it harking back to humbler times. The fourth and final outside song that Dori wraps her vocal chords around is a version of Jim Reeves’ ‘Yonder Comes a Sucker’, complete with drum roll and a comfortable fit as the album closer.

Cold Waves’, ‘Turtle Dove’ and the twang laden ‘That’s Alright’ complete the set of originals; all well-equipped to showcase Dori's qualities without quite hitting the heights of the three previously mentioned self-penned tunes. This far from waters down the overall feel to the album and the ultimate congenial beauty in its sparsity. Dori’s song writing does contain some interesting structural parts to arouse those who like to explore this aspect of the art. Also this album errs more on the upbeat side of love, in contrast to what we have come to expect from the genre in which she is rooted.

It has taken a little under two years for Dori Freeman to emerge as a recorded treasure and she is positively flourishing musically in the current set up that she operates in. The sleek and concise LETTERS NEVER READ has the potential for her to continue to make a leap forward. It does leave a little of the innocence of the first album behind, but significantly builds on the imperious qualities that Dori possesses. 

Wild Ponies - Galax : Gearbox Records

Another first class independent record tumbles out of Nashville and guess what…Neilson Hubbard is on top deck again guiding the talent. Without hesitation, Doug and Telisha Williams aka Wild Ponies will be first in the queue to praise the diverse team of accomplices who have conspired to create GALAX, surely one of the most heart rendering records to hit the shelves this year. This is explicitly the album that Doug and Telisha wanted to make. From start to finish, the listener is enfranchised to become part of a simpler and more basic world where values reign supreme over any agenda.

Wherever you listen to this record, your mind and soul will be transported to a little place of timeless solitude in rural Virginia. A place where imperfections are re-configured to fuel what matters in life and music remains the voice of liberation. GALAX the record, houses ten varied tunes that encompass what is unequivocal about authentic country and rural roots folk music; Galax the location, is where these songs were initially recorded and the original home of Doug’s family. A recurring theme as the songs roll out.

Just to put a few facts on the page, Nielson Hubbard took the ten tracks recorded in a disused farm that used to be the home of Doug’s grandparents back to Nashville to turn them into a practical shared format. Joining Doug and Telisha on this album were a mixture of fellow contemporary musicians from the Nashville community including Will Kimbrough, and a bunch of local players. These are folks who will continue to be keepers of the traditional music flame, in communities like this and likewise across the land. Gearbox Records is the ideal outlet to get the music issued to the wider world, with their recent back catalogue of releases including a similar sounding record by Applewood Road last year. In addition, the ten tracks were a carefully chosen selection of covers, new and older originals, plus a traditional fiddle-led tune, which launches the album in a manner that is retained for the forty-minute duration.

There is extensive blurb online and within the liner notes documenting the background story to this record, but the true effect of any deemed commercial release is how this transpires to a listener not party to the recording process. On this account, the Wild Ponies need have no worries as its impact carries the intended weight. The clarity of the instrumentation stands out alongside the impromptu sound effects that breathe life into the project. You can take your pick for a favourite track, but if you are au fait with their latest album, there is a re-working of ‘Tower and the Wheel’, which also featured there. The song that jumped out to me from first listen and remains a key component as plays rally into double figures is ‘Jackknife’, a cover of a Jon Byrd song (not to be confused with Jonathan Byrd, familiar with many folks here in the UK). The track is so reminiscent of classic Kris Kristofferson and Telisha’s graceful vocals do the song justice.

Like all records with longevity traits, each play reveals a little more about the song and that is certain to be the case with GALAX. Telisha once again hits the perfect note with a version  of ‘Pretty Bird’ made famous by Hazel Dickens, while the idealistic sense of communal bliss perspires from the joint endeavours that go into the opening traditional tune ‘Sally Ann’. A song complete with toe tapping fiddle and the revelation of this being referred to locally as the 'national anthem' around these parts.

You have to wait until the final stages before this record cracks the code of its source. ‘Goodnight Partner’ acts as the penultimate track and is a song credited to Doug’s family members. Like much of the album, Telisha makes use of her outstanding vocal ability to convey the conviction of a song to take lead, in what is quite a musically diverse piece, complete with pedal steel leading it off. This perfectly sets up a fitting finale with Doug taking up the reins to deliver a thoughtful ballad titled 'Here With Me' adapted from one of his grandfather’s poems. The crowning glory of a record soaked in a vintage tipple.

Earlier in the album, further collaborations that are more contemporary spring up on the writing front. Fine writers in the guise of Amelia Curran, Ben Glover and Amelia White add their weight to ‘Hearts and Bones’, ‘Will They Still Know Me’ and ‘Mamma Bird’ respectively. The former lent heavily to the promotion aspect of the record via the featured video, but the tight containment of the songs meant any could quite conceivably have risen from the pack to spearhead the assault to drum up sales.

The remaining track is quintessential Wild Ponies and it is fitting that ‘To My Grave’ is a pure co-write between Doug and Telisha. It could quite easily have been lifted from the record that pre-dated the name ‘Wild Ponies’ and captures the very essence of the sound that is perceived they set out to create.

On last year’s Wild Ponies album, we were temporarily advised to ‘unplug the machine’. It appears Doug and Telisha have heeded their own advice, as far as you can go when making a record. GALAX scores highly in its intended aims and finding a fault remains a futile search in such a highly personalised piece of work. While the record is obviously steeped in the past, its ultimate appeal is how it illuminates the present. When both listener and artist enthuse on the same page, the job is done for now. Celebrating the frozen moment of the present is something we should never shy away from doing.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

John Craigie - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick, West Midlands. Friday 13th October 2017

John Craigie may not be a well-known name yet on the UK circuit for touring American artists, but this is set to change. While it is easy these days to seek recorded material online, the counter balance is the sheer magnitude of what is out there competing for your leisure pound and afforded time. Networking, connections and recommendations play a substantial part in spreading the word of an artist, more increasingly imperative when resources restrict the level of funded PR. However, the biggest stake artists like John Craigie can put in the ground is to get in front of folks and let the blossom of their talent takeover.

For this inaugural tour of our shores, John has secured a comprehensive list of dates the length of the country and one guarantee is that audiences will be captivated by the show he puts on. It helps if you possess an extraordinary flair for nailing the art of entertainment, especially when it comes to marrying the close alliance of wit, satire and conviction with the timeless appeal of the folk-inspired acoustic guitar.

As the tour reached the midpoint, there was no more appropriate place for an artist like John Craigie to be than the homely surroundings of a community library. Among the throngs of literary content, the wares of a travelling troubadour settle and prosper. Such wares mingle in the guise of stories and songs, often infusing a social awareness, while balancing the microcosm of personal experience with the progressive tendencies of a wider world.

The label says it all
Apart from a comfortable backdrop and warm welcome, Thimblemill Library, in the deepest confines of the expansive urban West Midlands, afforded John the spacious zone of over an hour and half in the spotlight. Maybe a touch different to thirty minutes supporting Jack Johnson in a twenty thousand packed arena, but the true test of any performer is to let your art work its magic in any environment.

At this point, readers can become listeners to grasp more about the music of John Craigie in the usual sources. This is highly recommended. Without preaching too much about the obvious, you will discover the archetypal American folk troubadour. A performer holding onto the traditional ideals that forged ahead in the sixties, while also applying a nod to Woody Guthrie, without harking back too much to the past. Most importantly though, John is fully embedded into the contemporary power of song.

As you would come to expect from a folk singer based in Portland Oregon, politics does play a small part, but it is probably a more general liberal outlook on life and perceived social commentary, which spearheads John’s songs and stage presence. Aside from the songs, many of which can be found on his albums, this show shed an entertaining light on growing up and residing on the West Coast and how its communities interact. Ranging from the relationship between Seattle and Portland, ordering a late night mac ‘n’ cheese to receiving a certain kind of university education and serving brownies at an election party, the lengthy interludes between songs never outstayed their welcome.

Right from the off, John played a bunch of songs that fluctuated from the humorous to the cutting. Each one made an impact, either to bridge a story or just put a Friday night smile on the faces of the audience. His only diversion from the self-penned effort  was an encore version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’, poignant in its sentiment towards John’s home state and the proximity he was currently in regarding the roots of  the original’s lead singer.

To launch another successful evening presented by the events team at Thimblemill Library, Coventry based singer-songwriter Izzie Derry made a return appearance in the area to share her songs and prove an ideal opening act for John. Izzie is beginning to make a name on the local scene and what she brings to the stage is the innovation to stretch her talented vocals. The songs are showing positive signs of developing alongside how she utilises the acoustic guitar. She is definitely an artist to look out for as she forges a path for her music alongside life’s other demands. John’s continual courtesy towards Izzie added to the cordial atmosphere of an evening that resounded to the artistry that a single performer and their powerful plugged-in accomplice can weave.

In what can be a crowded world of the solo acoustic performer, even those crossing the Atlantic to reach out further, John Craigie commendably stood out from the posse with a welcoming left field effect. Hopefully, sufficient interest can be generated from this visit to make these trips a regular occurrence. Thoughts turn back a decade to when Otis Gibbs first made tentative steps to share his songs in our listening rooms. If John Craigie comes even close to replicating the onward trajectory that rolled out from that point, there will be a load of satisfied music fans throughout the land. Allow him the space and time, and this guy will deliver. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Good Lovelies - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 9th October 2017

Four years gone in the blink of an eye. Well, technically two since the Good Lovelies last hit our shores with a short curtailed visit to promote their last album. However, you have to go back to 2013 when they previously played the West Midlands and that never to be forgotten gig at Star City. The curiosity of that show has grown over the years despite not even being present, although over an extended weekend of that tour their sets in Oxford and the Maverick Festival were both delightfully savoured. So in effect, this Kitchen Garden show rolled out as a renewed Birmingham debut and the Canadian trio succeeded in impressing fans, both new and old.

The province of Ontario had been the original base for the trio of Kerri Ough, Caroline Brookes, Sue Passmore (although Kerri announced early in the gig that she now lives in New Foundland), and they have represented their homeland splendidly on the international music stage for close on a decade. Their affable style of harmony-blessed acoustic folk has warmed the hearts of many an audience with a sound that has ebbed from the staunchly traditional to a venture into a more contemporary pop feel. Possibly the biggest sonic step was the production vibes that steered the latest album BURN THE PLAN. Having missed out promoting this 2015 release in these parts on the previous tour, it formed the centrepiece of this evening’s twin sets. Opening with ‘Don’t Hold Back’ and closing the pre-encore segment a couple of hours later with ‘Old Fashioned Love’, the tempo of the newish songs was defined by the delicate strumming of Caroline’s electric guitar and the keyboard excerpts of Kerri, to complement her banjo and acoustic guitar playing.

One aspect of the Good Lovelies that is inescapable is their organic roots DNA. It only took the second song of the evening for Sue to step up from her percussion role to lead on ‘Made for Rain’, which was close to defining the traditional leaning sound that formed the material housed within the 2011 album LET THE RAIN FALL. Also from this record, ‘Crabbuckit’ sounded as fresh as its first airing a number of years ago, delivered with the sole accompaniment of MJ Dandeneau’s stand-up bass. In a burgeoning role as one of Canada’s top ‘go-to’ touring bassists, MJ has reunited a  previous stint of being the ‘fourth Lovely’ for this tour and continued to play an integral part of providing the framework for the songs to blossom.

Perhaps, the key factor projecting the value of the Good Lovelies is the impeccable timing and close-knit composition of their varied harmonies. These were prevalent throughout the show and closely followed by illuminous stories bridging into such revealing songs as ‘Best I Know’ and ‘Sleepwalking’. The informal chat was held in the same egalitarian manner as the way the vocals are shared. Vocally, it was hard to top the off mic encore version of ‘Your Long Journey’, although another foray into the works of others via a stunning rendition of the David Francey song ‘Torn Screen Door’ was almost its equal.

As you would expect in an intimate Kitchen Garden gig, invited polite audience participation came to the fore, ranging from murmured interludes to the infectious lengthy chorus of ‘Lie Down’. Outside the aforementioned songs, ‘Daylight’ came across as a strong offering and ‘Waiting For You’ possessed a more stripped down feel than the version that was heavily promoted with the last album. The future was also not left out with the band announcing a new album set for release in the New Year, whilst giving an insight to its wares via the tracks ‘I See Gold’ and ‘This Little Heart’. The most positive promise of the evening was Kerri keen to not repeat the significant gaps between touring comprehensively, although expanding families has been a valid reason.

To open for the Good Lovelies, a new name was presented to the Kitchen Garden faithful in Leamington Spa based young singer-songwriter Joe Dolman. An innate vibrancy adorned his acoustic style as he confidently displayed the traits and song writing adeptness to court a significant following. Possessing a smart mind to go along with an acute ear is a useful ally and one set to serve Joe well as he plots a strident course in what can be a crowded field.  

Knowing how to present a warm glow to an appreciative audience has long been a redeeming feature of the Good Lovelies. In the four years since last catching them live, none of the magnetism has faded. The songs continue to effortlessly breeze into a hushed zone and the often overused ‘less is more’ analogy has never been better suited than to the music that this band creates. Finally, if those harmonies can be bottled…

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Opinion Piece : The Death of the Negative Music Review

There is an increasing amount of talk in the chattering circles about the death of the negative music review. This comes at a time where the art of journalism is undergoing substantial structural change alongside the mode of publication being forever turbulent to the tide of technological advance. Traditional outlets, even in the online form, are no doubt under a constant threat of diminishing revenue streams, and thus the stranglehold of commercial reality over artistic integrity continues to strengthen. At this juncture, it would be moot to consider the impact of the favourable review over the one not so kind. With advertising revenue being the obvious king, the biggest driver is traffic, so therein lies the conundrum of what kind of review accrues the target numbers.

Descending several steps down the ladder, advances in technology continue to entirely democratise the independent voice and thus the proliferation of the amateur publication, which indulges in the timeless art of music criticism. Whether in the guise of the solo blogger or the more polished websites operating in the shadows of the pseudo content elite, opinion has never been more open and accessible. By and large though, this is almost entirely positive from top to bottom, even when the financial stake can only have a token effect.

From a personal perspective, I fall wholeheartedly into this solo category with seven hundred plus reviews in the book over the last five years. The ethos to remain positive and independent has evolved over time to become the main driver and writing guide light. Any change in the positivity tone has always been tempered by where do you start. Do you randomly pick an album you don’t like and then choose to dissect the rationale? This may be a record you perversely chose to purchase or likewise, chose to spend a lot of time listening to in order to come to a rational conclusion. On the other hand, it may be a promo where a publicist is keen to read a review – good or bad!

However, it is likely that if you are receiving promo copies for review there is a strong element of positivity in your writing. Developing a smart notion of the stakeholder in the music chain is useful if you enter some part of it. In addition, there is a chance that if a publicist is sending you multiple artists, the likelihood is that some are going to appeal. So if you reside in the finite world of leisure time, stark choices in the way you take to an album are presented in the review opportunities. Now there is the obvious route of balancing your output, should you choose it. This comes back to the previous assertion of allocating time to something, which doesn’t really appeal.

The whole value of a review is also something to ponder. These days it is easy to sample all material purchased, so any review is likely to be a signpost rather than influence taste. Of course, artists, publicists and any other stakeholders can feast on a positive review; some to greater extent than others do and not always, where you predict. Social media presents endless reach for the positive review. As long as it’s written from a genuine independent stance, they can be a force for good. The art of constructive criticism is a peculiar one in terms of it suggesting what would make a record appeal more to you – the individual. Although, you should never lose sight that all reviews are subjective by their nature.

If the demise of the negative review continues, does this signal the end of the review possessing any valuable credibility? The true test to its survival is in the quality of the piece and to the extent that the style appeals to the reader. It also must be totally independent to the PR blurb, which is increasingly being written with such flair. Perhaps an indication of the flight of the journalist to the other side.The strength of the positive review is to remain grounded, while indulging in the odd bout of hyperbole should the feeling arise. Stressing why you think a record has appealed should be the goal and perhaps why folks should come round to your trail of thought. Only after they have listened to it, mind you.

Developing an effective filter system is a good trait, should you get embroiled in the the web of PR and possess the desire to remain independent. I am fortunate to be in the position where submissions easily double the review limit that life imposes. Of course any publicist worth their salt will get a grasp on what moves you as a listener. This will obviously lead to more reviews in their direction, but this is not necessarily a major issue as long as your filter system is strong and working.

One danger of getting too embroiled in a publicist network is leaving too little time to use the power of your own feelers. Some bloggers choose to open up their reviews to the purchased content, this firms up the positivity angle, while strengthening the independent nature. Over the years, I have resisted this route. To this extent, I am quite pleased with the current balance of roughly 50/50 when looking at my evolving albums of the year list in terms of promo and purchased. The most important thing about music blogging is its freedom to do whatever you want. Over the years, I have toyed with following others by going down the content route. Gladly this didn’t prevail and now I am totally comfortable with the format of the near entirety of independent self-written album and gig reviews.

The art of blog and website analysis is to truly understand where a writer is coming from. Hits and traffic that massage an ego can be harmless and perfectly fine, especially for those who know the romanticism of their role. If the demise of the negative review is likely to continue, then it becomes more important to evaluate the product and substance of the source.

Essentially, there will be a response to assertions of demise from those who do actively partake in balancing the thoughts of their mind in print or online. It is important though to stand back and consider that we are all just playing a subjective game. Alternatively, it may be viewed that standing up to weighted interest is vital in this day and age. Regardless of your point of view, music reviewing should remain fun, especially when operating on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, being smart and astute is more fun. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Sophia Marshall - Bye Bye : Self-released

BYE BYE is the debut full length solo release from English singer-songwriter Sophia Marshall and unwraps as a highly desirable record. Its stylish façade and steely interior presents an artist with an acute ear to formulating a sound successful in alerting many a discerning listener. The album refuses to adopt a static stance, with its half hour duration keeping folks on alert to which way the music is going to turn. Sophia does a good job in keeping the sound and vocals internationally neutral thus you never really grasp whether it’s majoring on her English roots or the obvious Americana pretensions. This trait helps create a door-opening niche.

Sophia first crossed my path when she played an invited set at this year’s Maverick festival as part of the AMA UK Friday evening showcase. On that occasion, it was her previous material as a member of the Have Nots that made the most initial impact. This is probably due to any new songs not featuring a killer instant hook, which is confirmed by listening intensely to the nine tracks forming this album. However, this should not detract listeners from grasping the overriding vibes of the music and mining deep into Sophia’s classy style.

All nine tracks possess original status with all but one being solo written. Lead single ‘Losing You’ is the exception with Sophia teaming up with band partner Liam Dullaghan. Checking out this track via its posted video is a good taster to the album, although it resides more on the conventional side rather than those where Sophia edges into experimental territory. ‘Catch Me’ is the song that arouses the listener’s curiosity with a crackly and scratchy vocal presence projected by some enhanced amplification for the final part. Largely, the beautiful vocal range of Sophia is one of the album’s redeeming features, hitting the high notes with effect. This gives the album a folk-tinge akin to some of the iconic female voices who have soared to the heights of the genre on both sides of the Atlantic.

Remaining with the folk tendencies for a moment, an original acapella sea shanty brings the album to an unexpected close. ‘Drunken Sailor’ possesses all the aura of a gospel-blues piece and seals the diversity to a tee. This is in stark contrast to the jaunty opener ‘Bye Bye’ with its pop-infused beat and jangly guitars. There is an uncanny resemblance to Frazey Ford in the vocals and this falls into place when reading more about Sophia’s background including a support slot for the Be Good Tanyas. This track could quite easily have been the chosen song to promote the album.

Following the album’s fairly upbeat start, we soon head into passive haunting territory with ‘Sarah’s Room’ and the sensitive ‘Flares’. By the time we get to ‘Beauty Sleep’, the tender style has been cracked and any thoughts about the opening two lively numbers defining the album have been trashed. Perhaps this is why the album hangs around long enough to garner sufficient listens to grasp its worth. ‘Hey Al, Woah!’ is another interesting track in the penultimate running order position and its alternative edge adds value. ‘Missing Piece’ is a slightly more upbeat offering and its central positioning gives the album a degree of balance. This is assuming a listener doesn’t cherry pick from a digital standpoint. Personally, it is felt that the album doesn’t court this approach and thirty minutes is hardly an exhaustive listening time.

BYE BYE is an assured body of work and acts as a card marker for folks aiming high with their music selection. Sophia Marshall, as a solo performer, is a welcome addition to the UK music scene and reaches out to many quarters from the cultured outer edge of pop to the hardened core of electric roots.

Whitney Rose - Rule 62 : Six Shooter Records

2017 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for Whitney Rose. A tantalisingly short but rather good EP release at the start of the year was followed by an extensive tour that saw a fair few dates in Europe and the UK. It was in fact the Nottingham gig back in May, which showed Whitney and her band in a wider focus. Now the calendar year is about to be crowned with the unveiling of a brand new full-length album titled RULE 62. Whether this is the true follow up to the EP or 2015’s HEARTBREAKER OF THE YEAR is immaterial, but a renewed acquaintance with Raul Malo, who was a key component on the latter, has paid dividends on the new album.

First and foremost, this is a record of the highest quality. It mixes incisive song writing with a throwback sound that retains a vibrancy and freshness. Pooling a classic soulful pop feel with traditional country is an immediate winning formula, especially buoyed when you have some top notch players in harness within a Nashville studio. Of course, the core talent is Whitney’s intuitive knack of creating a great song and this album houses plenty.

The title aroused an interest and is based on a notion of not taking yourself too seriously. However, alternative connotations sprang up from the distinctive album cover with the number framed within a road sign. A little investigation reveals that H-Way 62 links Whitney’s home nation of Canada with the Texas base where she has made her name. There is also a sporadic road theme throughout the eleven tracks alongside the continual laments about lost, failed and doomed love. Anyhow, let’s put loose associations on one side for a moment and concentration on the treasures, which make this album stand out.

Where better to start than the opening line of the first track with Whitney explicitly calling out the sentiment of the title ‘I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out)’.Straight to the point song writing is an inherent appeal of country music. Throw in some fiddle and steel interludes into this opening piece and you have the genre at its most primal. Three quarters of an hour later the listener can finally take a breather with the revenge pop country piece ‘Time to Cry’ acting as a charismatic closer, complete with scintillating guitar parts and a infectious chorus to glue the components of a top song. By the way, any references to pop need not excite fans of the Nashville mainstream variety. This is pure hazy fuelled nostalgia filled stuff best exemplified by the frustrations purveyed in ‘You’re a Mess’.

Two contrasting tracks have seeped out in the run up to the album release. ‘Can’t Stop Shakin’’ (complete with the unmistakeable country apostrophe) is the major soulful inclusion on the record with horns and keys illuminating it as a hip-moving dance track. ‘Arizona’ is less soulful but still a lively spritely stomper and induces immediate lyrical inferences when you partake in the essential act of digesting Whitney’s writing. Is the title to be taken literally or a metaphor for a better place to be? Great songs can provoke thought as much as act as a message piece.

While the last track resides within the upper echelons of the record, the true heights surface in a trio of compositions running consecutively in the second half. The filling of this gourmet sandwich is the imperious ‘Trucker’s Funeral’; an exemplary display of fine story song writing elevating a quirky notion, while presenting some of the romantic escapist aspects of Americana music to those viewing from afar. The trio starts with the accordion inspired ‘Tied to the Wheel’ and a philosophical perception of an activity that steers our lives. Superbly summed up in the line "Am I drivin' it or is it drivin' me?".‘Wake Up in Wyoming’ is another piece of heartfelt Americana taking in the travails of touring, alongside shoring up the road content.

Two of the remaining three tracks show the Raul Malo influence. The duet vocals add strength to ‘You Don’t Scare Me’ and back up the sentiment of the song. ‘Better to My Baby’ possesses a Tex-Mex pop feel and could quite conceivably be a track lifted from a Mavericks or Raul Malo album. It is tough on ‘You Never Cross My Mind’ to be the last track referred to especially as if you drill down deep into the lyrics, a clever dose of irony pours out. It goes a long way to sealing what a well-written album this is from beginning to end.

To the extent that the excellent SOUTH TEXAS SUITE EP was frustratingly short, RULE 62 is majestically complete. While Whitney Rose is not a powerhouse vocalist, the way it is utilised across the record is effective. There is a little synergy with Margo Price in this respect. The influences of her collaborators have also been absorbed wonderfully. RULE 62 is an album that matters and will reign supreme in many record collections for a long time.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Orphan Brigade - Heart of the Cave : At The Helm Records

Capturing the essence of an experience, The Orphan Brigade has re-assembled to once again bring the spiritual to life. This time they have left the New World of Octagon Hall Kentucky and taken their tunes of discovery to the Old World, or to be more precise: the caves beneath the town of Osimo on Italy’s Adriatic coast. What has been repeated though is the knack of absorbing a moving experience and re-creating its effects in song and music. The true test of this type of project is, does it cross the line to convey the emotion to the listener? This can only be truly answered on an individual basis, but there is sufficient craft, guile and panache in The Orphan Brigade project to present a compelling case.

Essentially, now that the Nashville based trio and band core of Ben Glover, Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard have re-convened for a second recording, the term ‘project’ can possibly be dropped. However, such is the concept nature of HEART OF THE CAVE, you can only appreciate the depth each artist went, to put their experience to art. This is a fairly intense album, unlocking the trapped potential of a mystical and spiritual world. The fact that the musicianship and song writing is first class has helped considerably to tell the subterranean stories that were inventively mined through personal experience and accessing astute local authority. The trio made a return visit to write and record the songs in Osimo, thus ensuring every ounce of atmosphere went unfiltered into the album. Of course, studio producing in Nashville tailored it for a contained audience experience and a willing label in At The Helm records has been suitably impressed to release the album in the UK.

A major pause for thought when assessing the album is to what extent the accompanying background story and information becomes essential to grasping the record. Maybe, it is a precursor to maximising its value and likewise to the previous record – SOUNDTRACK TO A GHOST STORY – extensive details were at hand during the review process. Accessing this information is still highly recommended, although casual observers aren’t precluded, purely on the grounds of how the record has been produced for the listener.

It helps that three of the most accessible tracks appear early on the album, thus enticing the listener to hang in even when a touch of stamina is required in the latter stages. Of the three tracks, the roots chanting stomper ‘Pile of Bones’ inverts the opening role by taking the listener to the ultimate end of life (unless anyone knows different!). This is closely followed by a more conventional scene setter in ‘Town of a Hundred Churches’, with its popular structure. ‘Flying Joe’ has emerged as a catchy singalong story of a 17th century Friar with a capacity to levitate. A tune that immediately stuck when Ben Glover previewed a few of the songs while visiting the UK earlier this year.

HEART OF THE CAVE is definitely a shared project with all three main protagonists getting the writing credit across the board. Local historian Simona Palombarani helped on ‘Pain is Gone’ alongside furnishing the project with numerous invaluable stories associated with the caves. There are also various other celebrated contributors in the extended Orphan Brigade family such as Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh and Will Kimbrough. As the album progresses, it does spread its emotional wings from the magical chants surrounding ‘Alchemy’, through the upbeat ‘The Bells are Ringing’ to the powerful ‘The Birds are Silent’ and the haunting ‘Meet Me in the Shadows’. There is so much more to discover in these songs and as previously stated, check out the comprehensive blurb either online or likely within the packaged liner.

The ultimate value in HEART OF THE CAVE is its ability to both educate and entertain in similar proportion. Folk music has been an important tool in disseminating learning over the centuries and you can view this record as an important archive for the 21st century putting down its marker in the long lineage of history through song. From a sound perspective, The Orphan Brigade has added an Americana coating to a slice of European history. When it is done this well, the winner is the listener.

Michael McDermott + Heather Lynne Horton - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 24th September 2017

While the Kitchen Garden is renowned for its warm and intimate atmosphere, occasionally its hardened stone floor and bricked walls can be the perfect setting for the steely songwriter. Michael McDermott is one such artist who fits this bill and certainly packs a powerful punch when fully immersed into his songs. Along with his wife and fellow performer Heather Lynne Horton, Michael made his Birmingham debut in this Kings Heath oasis and left an imprint as profound as the way he approaches the subject of his songs. There was probably a varying degree of artist awareness at the start of this show within a healthy gathering that frequented the venue on a Sunday night. However, at the end each left a lot wiser in understanding a songwriter personifying the well-worn statement of ‘heart on your sleeve’.

Think the poetry of Dylan, the ground game of Springsteen and the inspiration of Van Zandt, to begin to unravel this Chicago-based artist. The tough façade did at times mask a tender interior, but it’s these traits and the sharpest of minds that make Michael McDermott a compelling artist to discover. A particular thought cropping up during and after this gig was, ‘did music save Michael McDermott or is he saving music’. No doubt there is a touch of both, especially the latter in the evolution of the literary songwriter.

On an evening that sprang a number of surprises, the first act on was a Northern poet by the name of Paul Cookson who capably crossed the line from writer to performer to share the wealth of his creativity in an interactive manner. While adrift from your usual opener, there was an engaging appeal to his twenty-plus minutes in the spotlight and in the context of an evening when words mattered, his billing proved a shrewd move.

It transpired that first and foremost, Heather Lynne Horton was accompanying Michael on the tour to re-enact the duo role with her violin playing and sumptuous vocals. Although their solo work stretches back a few years, indeed Michael as far back as the nineties, they have become better known recently, especially in the UK, as recording act The Westies. This project in name seems to be put on hold with Michael now back into the swing of releasing solo albums and indeed Heather herself returning to the studio to release a record this summer. In a fairly short second support slot, Heather shared four of her new songs with the audience to give them a sample of what to expect should they make the sensible choice to delve deeper into DON’T MESS WITH MRS MURPHY. This was clearly Heather’s tentative first steps in taking her new music out of the studio following a lengthy family-raising hiatus. The chosen songs, especially those she stripped down organically ‘Did You Feel That’ and ‘Fu’, sounded great and the challenge now is for her to re-connect with the appetite to share more of her fine music in this capacity.

For those in the audience who had only previously engaged with the recorded music of Michael McDermott, the next hour and half proved to be an eye opening and moving experience. Although primarily accompanied by the acoustic guitar, the two gut wrenching moments when the delivery mode was switched to piano were absolutely stunning. ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Shadow in the Window’ were both on Michael’s latest solo album WILLOW SPRINGS and proved the most revealing of heartfelt ballads. The general backdrop to these songs has been widely shared online in articles and interviews, also Michael is quite candid onstage about some of his past troubles, but the strength of the live delivery was simply straight to your heart.

For a little respite across the board, Michael and Heather followed these two songs with their alternative take on the pop classic ‘You’re the One That I Want’; the hidden track on her new album. Elsewhere, Michael kept up a brisk pace of carefully selected songs mixed with revealing, informative and entertaining chat. The encore pairing of ‘I Know a Place’ and ‘Still Ain’t Over You Yet’ were stellar choices, with the latter acting as a fitting finale in the way that Michael dives deep into the passion of a song. Right from the off, Michael and Heather found their groove with ‘These Last Few Days’ and ‘Getaway Car’ also proudly representing his latest album. Perhaps the strongest pride was reserved for the song about their daughter ‘Willie Rain’, with Michael poignantly remarking what he would have thought about recording such a song in his darker days around a decade ago.

Other highlights from the set included ‘The Great American Novel’ featuring Michael in full literary flow linking the names of Salinger and Hemmingway with Wilco and Ryan Adams. There was also a new song presented which sounded great and further post-gig investigation revealed the funding process is underway for a brand new Michael McDermott album.

While acclaim is widespread in his native US, many more shows like this Birmingham one will raise the awareness of Michael McDermott tenfold in the UK. He is an outstanding songwriter with an unbelievable strength of living and breathing every lyric of his work and exposing them for an audience to share the effect. Michael and Heather are a dynamic force at the moment and their artistic trajectory is taking the singer–songwriter genre to another level.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Danny & the Champions of the World + William the Conqueror - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 22nd September 2017

It was a case of slender evolution as Danny & the Champions of the World set about crowning their activities of 2017. A year when a new album rose from the embers of creative freedom and a tour rolled around the country with a near total domination of fresh material. It has also been a year where a familiar face convened behind the keyboards and faces that are even more familiar set about re-creating an excitement never short of uplifting inspiration. Danny Wilson will forever be the humble front person of a band that has cracked the code of giving an exhilarating live experience. An Oxford gig courtesy of Empty Rooms Promotions on a non-school night is as good a guarantee as you’re likely to get for a top show and a packed Bullingdon rocked passionately until time came to pass the baton onto the disco kids.

Friday curfew gigs can work in different ways. An early finish can benefit the long distance travellers and a band can be more focussed on delivering the goods, but you have to be on your toes to catch the support act. This is especially true when new kids on the block trio William the Conqueror are on the bill. Maybe this description is more suitable for the recording entity rather than its creator Ruarri Joseph, with his varied recent history of searching for a secure footing in the music world. Accolades are raining in for this band, especially on the back of their debut summer release PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE, and a brief thirty minutes catching them live backed up this promise wholeheartedly.

Starting off with ‘Pedestals’ from the new record, Ruarri displayed a classy assured on-stage persona ensuring his guitar-fuelled semi rock vibes flickered brightly within a tuned-in venue sound system. Alongside bassist Naomi Holmes and drummer Harry Harding, he focussed heavily on the record, as you would expect, generally using the slot as a showcase for material such as the excellent 'In My Dreams' and 'Cold Ontario' rather than revealing more about him as an artist. This will come later, but a run of support slots for their Loose Music label mates will do no harm in raising the profile of a band quickly living up to a pre-ordained tag of releasing one of the year’s 'most relevant’ albums.  

On the stroke of 8:15, with no messing around, a six-piece Champs line up ignited into action. The mystery around the tour’s stage formation became known earlier in the evening when understanding that Free Jazz Geoff had only been available for certain southern shows. However, this evening was probably a first for the band with its horn section arriving mid-gig before seamlessly joining in on the old favourite ‘Every Beat of My Heart’.

On the topic of old favourites, the most pertinent moment of this show was the elimination of ‘Henry the Van’ and ‘Colonel and the King’ from the set list. However, the sun still rose on the following morning and in a sign of true evolution, a new monarch was crowned. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ has been an instant favourite since appearing first on the 2013 STAY TRUE album. Frequently it has opened sets when the band are still hitting their stride. For this Oxford gig, it was the perfect show closer and fully embraced by a vocally strong dedicated audience.

The BRILLIANT LIGHT record illuminated a release Friday in June this year and was acclaimed as the ‘soundtrack of the summer’ until the rain set in. Any illusion of this album getting the light touch live treatment was  dismissed from the outset with the band dealing ‘Let the Water Wash Over You (Don't You Know)’, ‘Consider Me’ and ‘Never in the Moment’ before Danny had the first opportunity to greet the audience with the usual “alright” and “any questions?”

Subsequently, the new album commandeered around two-thirds of the set list and a stage time that edged into the period where the venue staff were on guard to clear the place for the arrival of the drum ‘n’ bass brigade. In line with many gigs over the years, there is often an album track that soars to new heights in the live arena and this evening that honour went to ‘Coley Point’. ‘Waiting for the Right Time’ and ‘You’ll Remember Me’ were two of the other new tracks to prosper in a first show seen dedicated to the new record.

The latter acted as the backdrop to the band introductions, not that the ‘dapper’ Chris Clarke, the master of the ‘ironing board of love’ Henry Senior Jr, and the ‘font of all knowledge’ Steve Brookes, needed much announcing. Apart from hailing from Armidale New South Wales, I can’t recall what Danny’s quip about Paul Lush was, but let’s just settle on ‘one of the finest lead guitarists in the land’. Free Jazz Geoff had previously had his own personal intro of ‘What took ya’, which just leaves Thomas Collison as the new keyboard player. Initially inaugurated by Danny as ‘TC’, he is far from a new guy on the circuit as fans of The Dreaming Spires, Don Gallardo and Hannah Rose Platt will concur. This incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist slotted into a Champs role with immaculate ease, often bringing cheerleading exuberance to his stellar playing.

While you expect a new album to feature prominently, it was surprising to see the previous record WHAT KIND OF LOVE only supply two tracks. However, one of the these was a clear candidate for the show’s stand out moment, with Danny commenting on the curfew reasons before launching into the now secure Champs dance classic ‘Clear Water’. On an evening where the music reigned supreme, there was one poignant moment when Danny returned to the stage solo to deliver the strong sentimental piece ‘Swift Street’. A song worthy of a decent introduction in less hurried circumstances.

So once again, Danny & the Champions of the World lived up to their brash name. Evolution or not, this was another classic performance from a band in perfect tune with their surroundings, audience, intent and motives. It was a case of the best of British, in a musical community where we are quite content to let our American cousins lead the way. On nights like this though, we fight back.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Jeremy Pinnell - Ties of Blood and Affection : SofaBurn

One verse into the opening track of the new Jeremy Pinnell album is enough to announce that this record is going to resonate. True to form, TIES OF BLOOD AND AFFECTION sticks to the rulebook, carrying on in a similar vein right up until the final track where the peak is scaled. This rulebook is straight down the middle-no frills country music undeterred from dipping into life’s darker side, often born out of the bars, dancehalls and honky tonks stretching across the land. This brand new nine-track album is the second release from a no doubt proud Northern Kentuckian, a location that is not shied away from being referred. This is a continuation of the previous record, which contained the simple State abbreviated title OH / KY. Maybe the geographical references do have some impact on a writer acknowledging the influence of their roots, but the stellar selling value of the record is Pinnell’s acute ability to capture the spiritual embodiment of country music.

Strong melodies primarily adorned with pedal steel and twangy guitar tumble out of a series of songs, sung with the earthy grit of a seasoned artist who has long moved on from first base. This is suitcase music channelling a performer forever on the move, if not literally, certainly from a mind-wandering perspective. The rhythmic undertones ensure it keeps its head above the mayhem of a crowded room, heaven forbid even possibly garnering some airplay. One certainty is that country music in its purest form will never die as long as artists like Jeremy Pinnell are plying their trade.

“Laid up in the house full of hookers and wine” is the corker of a line that opens the album in the track ‘Ballad of 1892’, one that is only eclipsed just over half an hour later when perhaps the standout track acts as the untimely closer. ‘The Way We See Heaven’ is the song to claim this mantle and is a glorious/inglorious take on religion dependent on your persuasion. The line combo “in nineteen hundred and seventy seven my mama thought I came from heaven…later in life she knew I came from hell” has not been touched all year in its instant impact. To complete the lyrical nous, things get a little risky in ‘Feel This Right’, with “son, we broke the bed when we made you” being proclaimed in the chorus of yet another song that truly is embedded in your mind – for the right reasons.

Elsewhere on the album, standards refuse to drop. When the rockers kick in such as ‘Ain’t Nothing Wrong’ and ‘I Don’t Believe’, they contain the ability to transport the listener from wherever they reside in the world to the mythical existence of living and breathing a country song. On the more temperate tracks such as the poignant ‘Different Kind of Love’, as well as the honest and frank standard ‘Best I Could Do’, Pinnell takes the listener in his confidence and rewards their attention with music to pin your hopes on.

Take the Wheel’ leads the final two tracks and holds most merit in the sumptuous musical interludes that piece together its verses and chorus. Likewise, some great music backs the seventies-style light rocker ‘I’m Alright With This’. Critically, all nine tracks play a part in making this record a riveting listen from start to finish.

For its UK launch, TIES OF BLOOD AND AFFECTION is getting a helping hand from At The Helm Records, though the release remains on SofaBurn. A few UK dates have been lined up alongside Ags Connolly, on the surface one of the more astute UK-US collaborations you are likely to see this year. Folks discovering Jeremy Pinnell, either through one of those shows or engaging with the new record, are in for a treat. Ultimately, this is country music that you can dance, drink and cry to. What more is required?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Dylan LeBlanc + Aubrie Sellers - The Lantern, Bristol. Friday 15th September 2017

The first ‘cautionary tale’ was not to expect the similar chilled out mellow vibes from the latest Dylan LeBlanc album of the same name. The second was to inject a degree of ear-adjusted patience before waiting for this gig to ignite. Once these parameters were applied, the true worth of this enigmatic artist surfaced. On a night where both the headliner and invited support act Aubrie Sellers had to compete with the sonic deviances of a vacuous venue, you had to dig a little deeper to discover the true worth of two artists blessed with innate musical qualities.

If a little push was needed to venture down the M5 to Bristol on a Friday evening to see Dylan Le Blanc, the late addition of Aubrie Sellers to open his UK shows sealed the decision. Apologies for any misguided sentiment in suggesting via the title of this review that the show was a co-bill. The excitement of catching Aubrie on one of her first appearances this side of the pond had been buoyed by last year’s release of NEW CITY BLUES securing a place in that ‘sacred’ December album list. Maybe this introduction was a touch low key, comprising of seven tracks in a set falling short of the half hour mark, but there was sufficient evidence to suggest the talent genes were in good working order.

Appearing in a trio format led by Nashville guitarist Ethan Ballinger, Aubrie wasted little time in reeling off half a dozen tracks from her debut album. In addition there was a cover of Gram Parsons’ ‘Luxury Liner’ all in a distinct style labelled with a degree of credibility as ‘Garage Country’. Now from a personal perspective, if you’re going to crossover, three chord thrash is a better territory than high production pop; it has far more synergy with the roots of traditional country music. The trio nailed this totally in their limited time in the spotlight, even when it became evident from the opening bars that the sound level from the guitar and drums was going to drown out the vocals. To Aubrie’s credit she eventually won the battle and was probably hitting her peak when the final track ‘Just to be With You’ was dealt. Throughout the set, a classy vocal style was evident thus confirming there were more than the striking features of her mother Lee Ann Womack being passed down.

On the surface, Aubrie Sellers is making an independent stance with her music. The album bubbled under the radar until getting a label release and her style in its present form wanders away from the mainstream. There was no disputing the raw energy that radiated from her stage presence and this coupled with the quality of the recorded material suggests a talent that will continue to prosper. 

Sadly, The Lantern in its seated format, was not the ideal venue for a turnout around the fifty mark. There was also a combination of factors that led to the first half hour of Dylan LeBlanc’s set missing the mark. First up, this was loud. Probably not by some standards, but definitely by the benchmark of similar Americana touring acts. Secondly, Dylan’s vocal style is a somewhat acquired taste that worked especially well on the latest album, but can strain opinion when in harness with a six-piece full-on rock band. From a personal perspective, it floated out the microphone and ended up half way down the Bristol Channel at times rather than on the intended listener.

Yet midway through the set, something clicked into place. It was during an extended instrumental piece, quoted as very much in the vein of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, that everything in the band came together. Incidentally, they are actually Nashville/Muscle Shoals based four-piece outfit The Pollies, joined for this tour by Courtney Blackwell on cello. Perhaps it helped that the two standout songs came in this section – ‘Easy Way Out’ and ‘Cautionary Tale’ – plus a new song introduced as a take on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which sounded pretty good. Also in this section, the sound seemed to find its optimum channel, although this could have been down to some individual ear adjustment within the listener. However, there was always the tendency for the keys to be drowned out, which is a pity as they are often an integral part of a Muscle Shoals band. On the positive side, the dulcet sombre tones of the cello worked well, probably operating as a tempering influence.

By the time Dylan closed the show with a couple of tracks featuring just acoustic guitar and cello, the appreciative humility shone through and the evening as a whole resided comfortably in the credit column. Without a shadow of doubt, Dylan LeBlanc is a highly talented musician, an effective bandleader and successful in channelling a few idiosyncratic tendencies into a rich sound. There is a versatility in marrying the vibes of the studio album with those displayed in Bristol this evening. Essentially, he is the ‘carved in stone’ Americana artist, for those who view the genre as a refuge for homeless rock acts. All the components evident on stage tonight support this train of thought.

Peter Bruntnell - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 14th September 2017

Peter Bruntnell is one of those artists where you don’t have to search too hard to find someone who has a good word to say about him. Whatever you want to call the scene that he has been part of for over twenty years – alt country, roots rock, Americana - , the song writing prowess and the knack of delivering knockout full band performances has led to many plaudits. From a hazy memory, the West Midlands hasn’t seen too many live performances from him in recent times, so it was good to anticipate a few tunes being caught when a show at the Kitchen Garden was announced.

Peter admitted that his solo acoustic shows are bit sparse these days, so he was prepared to go with the flow leading to an element of spontaneity sparked by a series of invited audience requests. The pattern of these songs was characterised by their popular appeal especially ‘Sea of Japan’ and ‘Caroline’. One request that did present a challenge was ‘Jurassic Parking Lot’, but not to be outdone this was duly delivered after a few pauses for thought.

Leading the way from his own choice of songs was the excellent ‘Here Comes the Swells’. The breadth of his career was covered straight from the off with the title track from the 1995 album CANNIBAL right up to the current day with ‘Long Way From Home’ lifted off the latest record NOS DA COMRADE. This acted as the first encore song before the evening closed with a version of the classic Smiths track ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, the lyrics being whispered under the breath of more than a few audience members.

Part of the appeal of this show was Peter’s generally laid back approach, which steered clear of any pretence and created a cordial relaxed atmosphere in the venue. His gratitude towards a fine opening set from Birmingham’s own singer-songwriter Dannielle Cawdell was in accordance with the overall mood established as soon as the curtain partitioning the performing area was closed just after eight. Indeed, Dannielle’s own set showed a marked increase in confidence since seeing her perform at the venue earlier in the summer. An assurance that she will continue to get an increasing number of local gig offers to fit into her busy schedule.

Although the overall  feel of the show was decidedly low key, this didn’t detract from its enjoyable aspect especially when folks are enlightened by the true story surrounding the song ‘By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix’. On a more serious note, Peter didn’t shy away from darker offerings such as ‘One Drink Away’ and songs with a personal connection like ‘Have You Seen That Girl Again’. One new composition was shared in ‘National Library’ with its dedication to the Conservative party.

While the audience was frequented by many long term Peter Bruntnell admirers, others did learn a little about what makes him tick and his style of song delivery. In fact, this format is more akin to a level of discovery rather than the standard band performance, which is characterised by its energy and excitement. Ultimately, this is the type of show that the Kitchen Garden excels at and those attending would undoubtedly have joined the lengthy list of Peter Bruntnell plaudits.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Album Launch Show, Artrix Arts, Bromsgrove. Friday 8th September 2017

Two years ago, Stourbridge-based folk musician Kim Lowings stubbornly battled the ailments to get through the launch show of a new album. This time there was no uninvited obstacles as she both, hosted a memorable evening and glided through her own set. Thus presenting the whole of WILD & WICKED YOUTH in its crafted splendour. For the evening to celebrate the official release of this acclaimed album, the studio venue at Bromsgrove’s Artrix Arts centre proved the ideal setting. Friends, family, fans and fellow musicians flocked to the location from places near and far, all amply rewarded with a full evening of folk music in contrasting forms.

In order to give the faithful a music packed evening, two opening acts were invited to perform providing a near three hour feast, give or take the minimum changeover/refreshment breaks. Susie Dobson alongside guitarist Ant Miles played a low-key short set to get the evening underway. Her music was a gentle mix of traditional and cover songs with the latter featuring a version of Anais Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall’. Following Susie, the tempo was raised with the appearance of London Folk band Apples… I’m Home. Surely, the most curious band name to cross your path for a long time. Their extended set was characterised by a folk rock style, albeit wholly in the acoustic realm. They made a significant presence with a five-piece line-up and took the warm-up role to its limit by using the dynamics of their repertoire.

By now, the audience were ready for Kim to relinquish the MC role and take them on a journey to share the fruits of a third foray into recording a full-length album. Starting on the trademark dulcimer, Kim kicked off the set with ‘The Newry Highwayman’, a traditional tale housing the album’s title in one of its lines and acting as the initial promotional track. The audience was frequented by a few who had supported the album through the Pledge process alongside some others privileged to get a sneak preview. However, the bulk of the gathering got an exciting initial insight into the delights of this twelve-track record, even to the extent of learning about some of the more curious reviews.

The beauty of a launch gig is the opportunity for the artist to provide some background to the songs, whether the source of the selection or inspiration for the composition. This evening was no different, with particular tracks being heard in a fresh context from during the review process including ‘Oh the Wind and Rain’ and ‘In Spirit’. What was concretely confirmed was the utter beauty emanating from the two stunning ballads on the record, both getting the full piano treatment from Kim, precisely replicating the album version. The only differentiation between ‘Firestones’ and ‘Fly Away’ is the former just marginally pulling ahead in the preference stakes.

There was enough time to treat folks with three older songs: a neat combination of the original, cover and traditional song. All three are integral parts of the audience singalong opportunities leading off with the infectious ‘Maggie’s Song’, a firm favourite from the previous album HISTORIA. Kim has been covering the Be Good Tanyas’ song ‘Littlest Birds’ for a long time and this evening’s performance in the usual instrument-free vocalist role was just as good as hearing it when first discovering her four years ago. ‘The Begging Song’ has also been a staple fixture of a Kim Lowings and the Greenwood show and its encore role brought the evening to a rousing conclusion. ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ off the new album has been making valiant attempts to replace this traditional piece as the prime interactive moment, but upon reflection it still has ground to make up.

As usual, the Greenwood backing trio gave Kim stellar support, although for this launch show the trio became a quartet with the addition of Ben Moss on melodeon and fiddle. The use of the latter is one of the album’s redeeming instrumental features and while it only gets an occasional Greenwood outing, it played a grand part in the success of the show. The other Greenwood contribution was highlighted by the bouzouki playing of Andrew Lowings and Dave Sutherland’s double bass riffs on ‘Farewell My Love So Dear’, all soundly kept in rhythm by Tim Rogers’ cajon and assorted percussion playing.

By the end of the evening, there were few excuses for folks not to grab their copy of WILD & WICKED YOUTH and many others will get a previewed opportunity as Kim Lowings and the Greenwood undertake a series of tour dates around the country during the remainder of the year. For everyone else, the record is now available on a wide selection of platforms and wherever your preference lies, the merits of this distinguished album are boldly on display. By their nature, launch gigs are often portrayed as an unqualified success and this one proved no exception. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Moseley Folk Festival - Moseley Park, Moseley, Birmingham. Friday 1st September to Sunday 3rd September 2017

Moseley Folk: the only festival where you can watch a mid-Atlantic-styled alt-country act amidst a band of scurrying youngsters having a hay fight. Moseley Folk: the only festival which epitomised the sentiment of ‘Sunday morning coming down’ on a Friday teatime by the sequential scheduling of Seth Lakeman’s fiery fiddle playing and Nadia Reid’s absorbing Kiwi noir. Moseley Folk: the only festival where the blissful tones of Laura Marling persuaded the rain clouds to halt their activity. Regardless of where the 2017 renewal of the Moseley Folk Festival stands in comparison to its eleven previous stagings, this year’s had an alluring pulse that ignited a weekend of eclectic music. Whatever the persuasion, style or origin of influence, it’s all folk music dressed in many coats.

John Moreland
Is Moseley Folk Festival about the headliners across the weekend; the equally important artists plotting their road to stardom via the Kitchen Garden stage or the attendees content to just sit back and soak up the vibes of an event hailing the change of the seasons? The last point was especially pertinent when comparing the bright sunshine greeting John Moreland’s slant on bringing some Oklahoma dust to the English Midlands to the eventual rain showers aptly accompanying Kate Rusby’s warm Yorkshire view of the world on a cool Sunday evening.

Although the scheduling does allow the utmost dedicated festival music fan to absorb themselves into close on forty acts across the twin main and Lunar stages, reality requires brief periods of easing off. Of course when to vacate that close up stage proximity can add to the conjecture and lead to just offering casual observations on artists like Jose Gonzalez wooing an enthusiastic main stage gathering on Saturday. Similarly, positive reports of Roddy Woomble doing likewise the following day surfaced, but there are times for a cup of tea and the lure of the mightily impressive Emily Mae Winters playing a super set on the aforementioned Kitchen Garden stage tucked away in a corner of Moseley Park.

Courtney Marie Andrews
On the other hand, close up and personal was the only place to witness the Americana quartet, which raised the bar of the transatlantic serving dished up by the organisers this year. Courtney Marie Andrews has burst onto the UK scene this year with the release of her latest album HONEST LIFE and this second visit to our shores has ratcheted up the momentum. Looking every inch the consummate performer, Courtney and her band transfixed main stage watchers late on Friday afternoon with a gorgeous bunch of highly crafted songs delivered with such class and a mesmerising gaze to suit. Fast forward twenty-four hours and the same location hosted a frenetic hour of Shovels & Rope. The energy, buzz and interaction between Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were intoxicating. In a sign of humility towards their hosts, Cary apologised for the pronunciation of ‘Birmingham’ ahead of launching into one of their top songs, while stating the need for its rhyming role. Courtney was just happy to be in "Brum" Rehearsing the local lingo paid off. 

Nadia Reid
As indicated earlier, John Moreland brought his own distinctive style of roots music in a format best described as focussed, solitary and an absolute belief in the power of the song. The Americana quartet was completed with a full band Saturday lunchtime set from Scott Hirsch on the main stage. In these times where the term ‘Americana’ twists across the musical plateau like a manoeuvring rattle snake, the guitar-drums-keys of this outfit was as core to the term as you are likely to find. Throw in a Californian vibe combined with the welcome sunshine, and the sound made Moseley Park feel like a small part of the Golden State for forty-five minutes.

Before we head back to the core of Moseley Folk and the songs of our home isles, a quick mention for Kaia Kater and a brief glimpse into the roots world of this Canadian banjo player. Noon hadn’t yet struck when she took to the stage, but soon had the early gatherers hooked with her style of folk music, even to the extent of inducing a little dancing. For those interested Kaia returns to Birmingham later in the year to open for Rhiannon Giddens in the Town Hall show; this is an event not to be missed.

Scott Hirsch
Undoubtedly, for many the highlight of the festival would have been securing the services of Fairport Convention to effectively headline on Saturday evening. This legendary outfit, quite rightly labelled as the pioneers of folk rock, are in the throes of celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with founder member Simon Nicol still at the core alongside Dave Pegg who joined soon after their beginning. A comprehensive set covering a raft of traditional, trademark and cover songs was delivered as the curfew was taken to its limit. The genuineness, affable demeanour and accessibility of the performance reached out beyond the Fairport base, with all present being reassured that time has yet to be called on the longevity of their performing status.

Amy Macdonald and Laura Marling were the respective Friday and Sunday night headliners. Comparisons are aplenty on a literal level including a rapid rise to the top barely before reaching the ripe old age of twenty. Both brought plenty of fans to the festival, no doubt hooked into their contrasting performing styles. Amy decided to break away from her full band sound that has formed her pop-rock tonality for this event, bravely stripping all the electrification out and letting her popular songs feed an expected audience. Laura maintained the convention that surrounded her touring year in support of the excellent album SEMPER FEMINA, even to the extent of keeping the set list in tact including a spinetingling rendition of the Townes Van Zandt composition ‘For the Sake of the Song’. This format is a fuller sound than some of her previous acoustic outings and generally in line with the tones of her latest two records.

Shovels & Rope
In a brief foray into the world of objectivity, Laura won this ‘contest’ hands down with a super cool aura protruding a series of incredibly deep songs to an audience blissfully silent (in front of the stage anyhow). This was announced as her final gig of the year and it didn’t disappoint, almost to the degree of eclipsing her Institute show in the city back in March. Maybe there was a slight downer on cutting the set short, fifteen minutes ahead of curfew, but the coronation had taken place at the end of the final song ‘Rambling Man’.

We now are entering the territory where folks may be screaming ‘what about this highlight or that band’. So to tackle just a few, let’s start with The Magic Numbers rolling back the years with a main stage set on Friday evening. This double brother-sister combo cranked up the volume considerably, probably rocking out most over the weekend, capably led by Romeo Stodart on lead guitar and impressively supported by Michele on bass. The set was a mixture of singalong crowd favourites at the beginning and end, sandwiching a batch of new songs signalling an attempt to re-capture the heady days. To an outsider, they brought vitality to the festival and variation to add to the eclectic nature.

Emily Mae Winters
The pick of the English folk acts for me was the outstanding performance of Josienne Clark and Ben Walker on the main stage late on Saturday afternoon. Ben’s caressing of the guitar is a joy to savour, while the way Josienne wraps herself wholly around each song is utterly fascinating. The humour and irony is projected out there for folks to judge, but essentially the most beautiful of music speaks for itself. Other traditional acts enjoyed included The Furrow Collective with their stellar line-up of Emily Portman. Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrrell and the ever-busy Alasdair Roberts, plus the fervent Irish folk of Lankum, fully in the throes of casting off the Lynched label. Michael Chapman brought his wealth of experience to the main stage on Saturday afternoon proving that age is no barrier for one man and his guitar to hold a festival audience in the palm of their hands for forty-five minutes.

The festival’s Lunar stage is often the source of the eclectic offering and this was exemplified by the toe tapping rhythmic tones of Nifeco Costa & Babcock Jazz, just as the threatening rain kept its distance on Sunday afternoon. Later in the evening, Birmingham’s own crazy band The Destroyers thrilled newbies and regular festival goers alike with a raucous set splitting the more cultured acts of Kate Rusby and Laura Marling. The Trembling Bells proved regular visitors to this stage, playing to their loyal Birmingham followers twice, including a set with Mike Heron of Incredible String Band fame.

Laura Marling
While a host of different performers drifted across this stage during the weekend, three solo artists with very early slots did their reputation a power of good with impressive sets. Jess Morgan is an increasingly well-known acoustic singer-songwriter and she did her growing profile no harm with an assured bunch of Sunday morning songs. Izzie Derry is a lot less experienced than the well-travelled Jess, but raised her profile significantly during the Saturday morning billing. Fenne Lily was the odd one out of this trio by virtue of her chosen tool being wholly plugged in and fully electric, though extracting a softly lo-fi sound. A few teething problems at the end failed to take the shine off a performance that succeeded in creating some lovely ambience.

Just a final few quick words for Standing Waves who were that band enjoyed amongst the hay throwing and all the artists playing the Kitchen Garden stage. Sadly, only Ashland on Friday and Emily Mae Winters likewise on Sunday drew me away from the main two stages, but this is no slight on the artists who make this an essential festival feature, alongside the bar!

So apologies for not mentioning your favourite act of the weekend, or not eulogising enough about them. There is also no guilt in stating that the three pre-festival transatlantic favourites lived up to expectation with Scott Hirsch joining them. On Friday night, Courtney Marie Andrews was the star. By Saturday, Shovels & Rope had pushed her to the limit. However, the final word lies closer to home. Laura Marling, you were magnificent and the perfect send off until Moseley Folk Festival resumes its position as the city’s leading outdoor music attraction twelve months from now.