Saturday, 19 August 2017

Miranda Lambert - Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham. Friday 18th August 2017

Six albums and twelve years into a commercial recording career may yet prove to be just the starter for Miranda Lambert. As the Texas dust settled on her ‘full’ UK stage debut, thoughts turned to how exciting the next decade, and the subsequent ones after that, can be for an artist at the pulse of contemporary country music. Of course, this is dependent on evolution and maximising the enormous potential of development at her fingertips. These range from establishing herself on an international platform to forming a body of work that adds a legacy impact to one of commercial success. She is in the midst of the first part of this and a Birmingham audience had an early opportunity to revel in very much the present of this next significant phase of her career.

Elements of this development are making smart moves, not always dictated by the bottom dollar. For instance, there was scepticism about staging her first UK main show in such a large venue. A re-configured Barclaycard Arena just about succeeded in providing a suitable setting, but from a personal perspective how much elevation could have been secured from staging it at the city’s Symphony Hall, Institute or Academy. The eventual turnout may likely to have been squeezed, but the pay off in raising the roof would have prevailed. First and foremost, Miranda Lambert is not a UK arena act in 2017. However, size of venue is not the only measure of an artist’s stature within an industry.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay Miranda Lambert is that the set list that accompanied her on this European excursion is merely the icing on a substantial back catalogue. Once again, from a personal perspective, there are at least a dozen of her recorded songs that are preferred to what was offered on stage. Prior research advised of this situation, but from a general viewpoint, it is hard to dispute the popular appeal of the songs chosen. Indeed one of the aims of this concert was to see which of the set list stood out to prove the eventual highlights.

For me there were four specific songs that created a lasting memory of their live airing. First up was ‘Ugly Lights’ off the new WEIGHT OF THESE WINGS album and one of the few tracks to get a brief introduction. The concept of this record with all its break up connotations was brought to stark life in the next three minutes of tearing away the layers of a heart. Earlier in the set, ‘All Kinds of Kinds’ had brought the arena to frenzied activity with its heartfelt sentiment and enjoyable interaction. This song has taken on a new lease of life since listening to its writer Don Henry play it at The Bluebird CafĂ© in Nashville last year. The other two songs to really stand out came in just ahead of the fiery finale of ‘White Liar’ and ‘Gunpowder and Lead’. ‘Little Red Wagon’ preceded these and its live version was a substantial upgrade on an album track that struggles to make an impact among the heavyweight offerings on PLATINUM. Also from that record and starring during this show was ‘Automatic’, which probably saw Miranda reach her optimum peak on the evening as she strolled around the stage belting out this nostalgia-fuelled classic.

Elsewhere the usual suspects went down a storm. ‘House That Built Me’ and ‘Tin Man’, the latter beginning a two-song encore segment, brought a tear to many an eye, while ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ probably maximised the audience reaction. ‘Pink Sunglasses’ emerges as a light hearted crowd  pleaser, disguising its more serious message. While professing not to being everyone’s cup of tea, the fun element ensures its tenure at least for the moment.

Away from the recorded content, Miranda and her strong eight-piece band celebrated the work of other artists on two occasions. By far the best of these was a rollicking version of Rodney Crowell’s ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’. This saw the band significantly raise their game and left a pondering thought that maybe an area for development could be bringing them more to the fore in future shows. There also could have been room for raising the profile of the keys and pedal steel, thus giving the constant guitar breaks a relief. In essence, there was a general feel to widen the scope of the country sound. The other cover posed as the end point with Miranda celebrating a recent enlightenment to the power of music courtesy of U2. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ was the chosen piece led by Miranda handily joined at this stage by her supporting cast, both on and off the stage.

Part of Miranda’s on-stage team is independent recording vocalist Gwen Sebastian who was afforded a brief moment in the spotlight to share her new song ‘Cadillac’ with the audience. This came over as a strong piece sung with great panache and also revealed Miranda’s increasing prowess as a songwriter. Earlier in the evening had seen English duo Ward Thomas open the show and given the chance by their new label Sony to prosper on a bigger stage.

The magnitude of this big night for Miranda was not lost as she set about a first lone show, following last year’s C2C appearance, on the soil of a country that continues to give her serious love. She did admit to apprehensive nerves, but these failed to hinder any of the twenty-one songs served up. One aspect that she needs to grasp is the reserved nature of UK audiences. She is not the first and will not be the last to comment, but it is a prominent reality of the difference an entire ocean can make. However, she will be held to her promise to return.

Returning to the wider aspect of Miranda’s career and where next could it head. The first decade has yielded enormous success, give or take the odd bump, and this has been done with a loosening of the reins as a signed artist. Further development in this area will help fuel the legacy. She definitely seeks influence in the right areas and maybe this could lead to collaborations, extended duets, more solo writing adventures, legendary tributes or specific switches across the genre platforms. As a commercial performer, she has built up a considerable fan base and the test of  a true artist is to take them with you rather than being dictated by them.

At this moment, let’s just rejoice in the present and be grateful that Miranda Lambert has gravitated to an international platform. She remains my number one contemporary recording artist and it was a privilege to be in her presence (with a few thousand others) for a thankful, fabulous hour and a half. Hopefully in the future she can rise to number one in the live charts, with her Birmingham debut being a very high new entry. The thought of six albums being the mere aperitif is an exciting one and maybe the overseas tour of 2017 will be a pivotal moment. 


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Hurray for the Riff Raff - The Cookie, Leicester. Monday 14th August 2017

Are we in a golden age of American protest music? Although far from year dot, November 2016 re-invigorated the re-set button and will surely be the catalyst for an eventual deluge of material to remove any doubt from the opening statement. This assertion grows rapidly with each touring American artist taking a European stage, an effect that is light years away from Shepherd’s Bush London 2003. Prior to recent events, including a significant one just two days previous to this show, Hurray for the Riff Raff had constructed their own ‘ode to resistance’, based on the many injustices afflicting minorities, particularly the plight of the Puerto Rican in America. This powerful album strategically titled THE NAVIGATOR is once again the centrepiece of an overseas trip for the band, this time mainly focussed on Scandinavia and a prestigious spot at the Green Man Festival in Wales.

British fans are being spoiled this year, with a vague count of this visit being number three of four planned in 2017. Only a couple of small shows have been scheduled within the shadow of the festival, but one of these was at The Cookie in Leicester. This was the band’s first visit to the English Midlands since last summer and one now with the new album completely bedded in. If any doubts lingered about the record being one of the hottest and most powerful releases of the year, then spending just over an hour in the company of Alynda Segarra and her four band members unequivocally removed them.

Empowered by her music and forever feisty, Alynda is a totally absorbing character on stage. Pouring everything into each song is a given, especially those when she ditches the guitar and throws enigmatic vocally inspired body movements into the mix. The first of these was three songs into the set when the performance was ignited by an exhilarated version of ‘Hungry Ghost’ from the new album. Almost an hour later, the main body of the set was concluded with the passionate anthem ‘Pa'lante’. The appetite for a live experience of listening to this song was whetted by the band’s South by South West performance being expertly recorded for digital share. However, this did not come close to the shivers generated from the alternative existence of standing literally two paces from it being belted out.

You should be getting the drift that this was a somewhat intimate gig in a venue doing its best to replicate a New Orleans summers day, in the midst of a typically British one. The cramped confines of this city centre cellar venue, plus the stage at the same level as the standing audience can go one of two ways. Engineering a good position was useful especially if your design was to get the most out of this show. With that intact, the band played their part via a scintillating performance right from the opening bars of ‘Life to Save’ to a rousing finale rendition of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ to send folks home singing and happy.

Alynda greeted the concluding number with an assertion of this being the only Boss she pays attention to. The other spoken contributions reflected the serious and impassioned approach that she takes to using her music as a voice for resistance. Opening the spoken part of the show with ‘we are Hurray for the Riff Raff, we are Americans and we come in peace’ sets the tone for a band that quite simply play modern day folk songs in a rock ‘n’ roll style.

As previously indicated, THE NAVIGATOR supplied the bulk of the song material. ‘Living in the City’ and ‘Rican Beach’ reciprocated their prominent album positions with similarly live epics, while ’Fourteen Floors’ was elevated (excuse the pun) by Alynda switching to the keys to deliver this song in a stripped back format. Outside the new album, ‘Lake of Fire’, ‘The Body Electric’ and ‘Good Time Blues’ featured, although specified tracks on the printed set list ‘Blue Ridge Mountain’ and ‘St. Roch Blues’ were either replaced or omitted. The latter was planned to join the Springsteen cover in the encore, but for some reason this part of the show was frustratingly curtailed.

However, this was just a mere mark on a performance that bristled with emotion, musical chemistry, and a lead protagonist emerging as a spokesperson for resistance through song. Hurray for the Riff Raff is riding a wave of sincere artistic credibility and taking an ever expanding band of admirers with them. The quirky environment of The Cookie in Leicester probably made more of an imprint on the audience than affecting what Hurray for the Riff Raff do on stage. Essentially, Alynda Segarra gave an absolute dominant performance and the musical world of many folks was enriched. 


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Rachel Harrington - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 8th August 2017

It was as if time had stood still, five years gone in the blink of an eye. Technically, it was longer as the 2012 tour saw Rachel Harrington in a very different guise when fronting her honky tonk band The Knockouts. This was more akin to the days where she toured often in a duo format, and it was these frequent tours, which effectively took their toll leading to an eventual lengthy hiatus. Now refreshed, and the guitar handled on a daily basis rather than locked away, Rachel has made tentative yet significant steps to returning to the fold. While bold on the surface, a decent run of dates thousands of miles from your home on the North West Pacific coast saw a reunion with many familiar faces that have supported her career with great dedication over the years.

Although not a stranger to playing venues in the West Midlands, remarkably this was Rachel’s first show at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham, a setting perfectly suited for her mode of acoustic delivery. A dedicated bunch of folks gathered to witness her return to the area and it was a delightful experience to confirm that none of the craft, sincerity and confidence was missing. Maybe the ultimate step of re-convening the knack of penning original material has yet to be reached, but Rachel skilfully utilised a range of locker attributes to present a highly enjoyable evening of who she is from a musical perspective.

This is primarily the architect of three impressive solo album releases between 2007 and 2011, leaving a catalogue of songs that sounded fresh nearly a decade on. Rachel decided to make the first set almost entirely full of material from these records, including self-penned efforts such as ‘Goodbye Amsterdam’, ‘He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven’, ‘You’ll Do’ and ‘Shoeless Joe’. It was literally moments after stepping into the performance area before Rachel hit her stride, both pristinely delivering the songs, and providing warm, insightful and charming inter-song chat. Some stories were throwback, but the overall feel of the first half was that the show emerged as endearing to newbies as those who have been literally yards in front of Rachel performing for close on a decade. Perhaps the pick of these songs on the evening was ‘Spokane’ from the CELILO FALLS album.

The second half saw Rachel share a host of her favourite songs from other writers. This was probably a safe option in light of no new material and entirely reasonable when you think of the risk an artist is taking when making such a long trip in somewhat unusual circumstances. While the songs were fairly standard offerings – ‘Unknown Legend’, ‘If I Needed You’, ‘Dublin Blues’ and ‘It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ for starters – Rachel does have the knack of knocking out a good cover, with the added bonus of explaining the choice entertainingly well. This led to the audience learning of close encounters with Guy Clark, confusing Young with Springsteen and getting an early feel for classic country music. Alternately, Rachel has not steered away from slotting the odd cover song in her records with ‘Ode to Billy Joe’, both making the CITY OF REFUGE album and tonight’s set list.

If the evening began with an air of Rachel Harrington familiarity, it certainly ended on one as well. Old time gospel favourite ‘I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World’ has concluded many a Rachel Harrington show in the past, so why not a debut performance at Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden in 2017. This crowned a fabulous show that rolled back the years in an unassuming and assured way. Where/What next, for Rachel Harrington – the performing/recording artist - is probably best left for another day. The present is all about a renewal and a successful one at that. 


Friday, 4 August 2017

William the Conqueror - Proud Disturber of the Peace : Loose Music

Two eye-catching titles are a good start before any content of a record is revealed. Ruarri Joseph may be proud to disturb the peace, but those submerging themselves into the deep canyon of William the Conqueror’s debut album will not be too perturbed to have theirs disturbed. PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE is the opening shot of a former signed folk-singer turned full on band unit and it unravels as a high impact release. It is quite easy to be caught up in industry mutterings especially when the product is still mainly kept under wraps. However, there is no denying that William the Conqueror have firmly delivered with this neatly packaged fully fledged record.

The back-story of bandleader Ruarri Joseph has been widely documented and in essence, it reveals an artist forever searching that moment of satisfied integrity. Where the William the Conqueror project leads him only time will tell, but there is a deep rooted appeal in a collection of tunes fluctuating between folk rock and its grittier indie cousin. Associations of Americana have been banded around, yet there is so much classic British distinction to the sound. This is from an artist who spent his formative years in both Scotland and New Zealand before eventually finding a secure base in Cornwall. The track ‘Manawatu’ offers a down under experience and eventually closes an album that tantalises those trying to nail the overall feel to the sound.

This follows a three pronged beginning where the rhythmic guitar beats of ‘In My Dreams’ and ‘Tend to the Thorns’, partially in Wedding Present mode, in addition to the profound chorus on ‘Did You Wrong’ take hold. Any notion of this railroading onto being a complete hardened rock album evaporates at this point as a more temperate mood takes hold. The intrinsically messaged ‘Pedestals’ and slow bluesy tones to ‘The Many Faces of a Good Truth’ make a stern stab at being the record’s highlights from a personal perspective. These are closely followed by a narrative piece in the latter stages titled ‘Cold Ontario’ complete with an ear catching fuzzy call and response segment.

The title track also appears in the second half (side two to those who will inevitably savour the vinyl), which, while changing the pace, is not quite the rouser that the word ‘disturber’ suggests. What does ignite the record is its perfectly measured pace, exemplified by the harmonica infused folk number ‘Sunny is the Style’ and the grooving piece ‘Mind Keeps Changing’.

Although eventual impact is high, there is a slow burning element to the record. Ultimately, the tracks achieve the required objective of getting under your skin, even to the extent of possessing anthem potential. Indeed, there are so many facets of the ten ten tracks to discover, that any review can only be a mere introduction. Whether you view this album as Americana or one of several stages of clear cut rock, the important thing is that it is one of the year’s most intriguing and relevant releases.

PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE gets its release via Loose Music on the day that this review is published and William the Conqueror significantly move from being an industry murmur to one of significant recording artist. This album will be judged by a few and enjoyed by many. Falling into either camp is fine. 

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Joey Landreth - White House Unique Social Club, Ashington. Monday 24th July 2017

Can the grass be greener? A twist on this time tested analogy that can also apply to whether the gigs you regularly frequent are better attended elsewhere in the country. The answer was clearly yes on a Monday night in Ashington where many folks can quite legitimately state that ‘they were there the night Joey Landreth came to town’. The White House Unique Social Club is located in this old Northumberland colliery town twenty miles north of Newcastle. It is not your usual domain of an award winning Canadian folk rock artist, who together with his brother had brought the delectable sibling harmonies to a wider world via the band The Bros. Landreth. Yet on this latest trip to the UK, during a period of Joey branching out on his own, circumstance and fate led to the sold out sticker being plastered right across the gig poster.

For a bit more context, the event was organised by Ashington Town Council as part of its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the first mineshaft being sunk in the area. The individual behind the project also happens to be a massive music fan and a series of connections led him to discover that Joey Landreth was struggling to get a gig in the North East. Well one and one generally makes two, but in this instance add a couple of noughts in light of the popularity of the eventual show. This was also no social event, as the packed room offered the utmost courtesy to both Joey and the opening act Paul Liddle. Indications were that a few folks had travelled (though not as far as two refugees from the nearby SummerTyne Festival and over two hundred miles from home), but this evening was very much owned by the people of Ashington and they put on a grand display.

Having enjoyed a Bros. Landreth show around twelve months ago to the extent that it made the Top 20 Favourite Gigs of the Year, there was always the danger that Joey with just his guitar minus brother and band would be a tough act to follow. If you were comparing like with like that would have been the case, but putting the performance in its own context was the best way to establish the merit.

Joey began the show armed with the acoustic guitar before switching to the electric version around midway into a set that probably spanned an hour and a quarter. While there were many references to The Bros. Landreth including versions of fine songs like ‘Firecracker’ and ‘Let it Lie’, little was shared about Joey’s move to pursue a solo challenge. He did refer to a previous UK tour earlier in the year, so these shores must be high on the list of markets he wants to focus on. To support his new venture, Joey has released a seven track mini album titled WHISKEY. The lead and title track off this record was held back until the pre-encore song, but when finally heard live ‘Whiskey’ was the standout moment of the original material.

Maybe this moment was just eclipsed as the eventual standout by a beautifully delivered version of the Leonard Cohen classic ‘Bird on a Wire’ as a tribute to his late grandfather. Sometimes it can be a touch disrespectful favouring a songwriter’s cover choice to their original material, but this had so much punchy meaning and sincerity, I’m sure the praise is understood.

Away from the classy vocals, fine guitar playing and serious song selection, Joey displayed a relaxed demeanour. This included a couple of ‘what’s said at the gig stays at the gig’ stories along with simple irreverent chat that continued to hold the undivided attention of an appreciative audience.

It may just have been a one off but Ashington gave Joey Landreth a night he’ll never forget. Now the next time a Monday evening gig struggles to sell, you can always say Northumberland did it – once.


SummerTyne Americana Festival (Overview) - Sage Gateshead. Friday 21st July to Sunday 23rd July 2017

Is it a festival or a collection of gigs? No doubt, a strange question for many SummerTyne Americana devotees, but one pondered several times across the weekend of a first visit to this jewel of the North East. There are similarities with the likeminded Southern Fried Festival in Perth, but there is more of a compartmentalised feel to SummerTyne. While the outdoor Jumping Hot Club stage and the indoor concourse stage in the Sage’s ground floor foyer are integral parts of the event, the lifeblood and true pull are the array of independent ticketed events that are liberally strewn across the transformed venue.

An early decision to maximise the paid offering via purchasing tickets for six shows meant that there was always going to be a chance of the other two performing areas becoming a peripheral attraction. This proved the case after an initial sampling of the SummerTyne experience, with essentially the outdoor location being at the mercy of the weather and the concourse sonically hampered by its temporary transfer into a venue. Yet there were still plenty of golden moments to enjoy, if perhaps not to the intensity of the gigs.

Massy Ferguson
With the Gateshead weather set fair for the Friday afternoon, the Jumping Hot Club stage proved a popular place for both locals and those travelling from further afield to sample music with a distinct North East roots. The remit of the Sage for this opening segment of the festival is plain to see and highly commendable. The staging of SummerTyne surely has to fight its corner with the wider local arts scene and embracing the locality is an essential selling point. Most of the local acts on Friday afternoon had a least part of their sets seen, although you had to arrive early to get one of the intense watching seats. Alternatively, the amphitheatre setting of this location via the grassy terracing made viewing accessible. The pick of the local artists was a band called Buffalo Skinners, but all slated acts played a key role in getting the show under way.

As the weekend proceeded, the outdoor stage has to compete with the concourse stage for the afternoon’s free entertainment. Obviously, the weather can be an important factor with options on the table as we were to find out on Sunday. However, with tickets to see the Angaleena Presley show on Saturday afternoon only a couple of artists were seen outside. These included Fargo Railroad Company, following up their Maverick Festival set with a hearty mash of Southern Rock, and the impressive Amythyst Kiah putting an old time roots spin on her Appalachian inspired music.

Robert Vincent
While general viewing of bands on the outdoor stage was fairly limited, there was another opportunity to see Robert Vincent play a full band set on Sunday and further solidify the progress being made. An increasingly similar variety of excellent songs was played from his two albums, just prior to the inclement weather setting in. With little sign of it abating, a couple of brief sorties outside after the afternoon paid show provided a short but wet sample of High Plains Jamboree and the Savoy Family Cajun  Band. Fair play to the hearty souls who braved the rain to embrace both bands in the entirety, but generally the pull of drier entertainment prevailed.

For the whole of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the concourse stage was commissioned by the AMA UK to give an opportunity for some of its member artists to play a festival show. The audience was a mix of seated and standing folks watching intensely and a sizeable chunk passing through. As previously indicated, the band sound did struggle with the environment, but all witnessed artists embraced the opportunity. The pick of these was definitely Massy Ferguson, who probably had the biggest sound of the artists scheduled, but stuck to the task of showing why they are such a highly rated band. A bonus from the performance was UK artist Danni Nicholls joining the band on stage to sing the Zoe Muth part on ‘The Hard Way’. Not a bad substitute!

Jim Lauderdale, Chuck Prophet, Ashley Campbell, Amythyst Kiah
Two events that went down really well on the concourse stage were at the bookends of the festival. Just before the ticketed shows began on Friday, young multi-piece soul combo Stax Academy Revue wowed early Sage arrivals with a stellar take on the endless supply of classics that flowed out of a small Memphis studio in the sixties. This act also had a supreme support slot for Stax legend William Bell on the following evening in the Sage main hall and won over many fans during their weekend stay in Gateshead. Likewise, High Plains Jamboree had a successful SummerTyne and was granted a late Sunday night slot on the concourse stage, which gave folks an alternative to the ticketed events. The bonus was being able to catch the last half hour after the Chuck Prophet show finished and this traditional country outfit, led by Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, duly rounded off the weekend in fine style.

High Plains Jamboree
For the record, and recorded in greater detail elsewhere, the six ticketed shows seen began on Friday evening with Merle Haggard's Strangers and Ashley Campbell just edging out The Shires. Marlon Williams played the only late night paid show of the weekend and this was not to be missed. The two afternoon show pairings of Angaleena Presley and Danni Nicholls on Saturday plus Jo Harman and LisaMills on Sunday both beat off the competition from further free stuff. Where tempting choices were available, Jim Lauderdale and Sam Outlaw won over William Bell on genre preference, while the power of Chuck Prophet was never going to be really challenged by the grace of Beth Nielsen Chapman as the festival closer.

However, there was one impromptu event that proved the pick of the free presentation. It was hastily announced and posted around the Sage that on Saturday evening Jim Lauderdale would host a songwriters in the round show in Hall 2 after his show. Therefore, plenty of dedicated diehards queued up to see Jim joined by Chuck Prophet, Ashley Campbell and Amyhtyst Kiah each perform a quartet of acoustic songs that took us well into Sunday morning. Following a general theme of relationships, each songwriter took the topic in a different direction especially Amythyst with some deep rooted offerings and Chuck, as you would expect, heading deep into left field.

As the dust settled on a successful first trip to SummerTyne, thoughts turned to maybe another visit in the future. The festival appears fairly established with its ten plus years existence, but no doubt will always have to fight its corner from a funding point of view, especially with little sign of heavy corporate backing. It doesn’t take too much digging to understand what the event means to the dedicated Americana community of the North East and from a distance, it is essential that it be preserved. 

Just returning to the opening question, and perhaps a personal emphasis on the six gigs did make this festival a little different. Maybe like the term ‘Americana’, a festival can take whatever form you want it to be. The proof is in the enjoyment of the event and SummerTyne delivered wholeheartedly on that front. 

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express + Curse of Lono - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Sage 2, Gateshead. Sunday 23rd July 2017

2017 is turning out to be just as big a year for Chuck Prophet as 2016 was a bad one for rock ‘n’ roll. Putting corny associations aside for a moment, Chuck is currently finding renewed love in the UK for his music and in return, he has gifted his fans an excellent album in BOBBY FULLER DIED FOR YOUR SINS. This Sunday evening headline set in Sage 2 at SummerTyne exploded into a rock ‘n’ roll fantasia with the full Mission Express band firing on all cylinders. This was the band’s opening night of a second run of UK dates this year. It eventually rolled out as a two-hour performance, which ran very close to their gig of the year candidate in Nottingham at the back end of the winter.

Opening with the title track from the latest album, the band quickly seamlessly wove the new material into the set. Songs like ‘Bad Year for Rock ‘n’ Roll’, ‘Jesus was a Social Drinker’, and ‘We Got Up and Played’ are fast becoming stage favourites and that is a credit to Chuck with his pretty awesome back catalogue. A full Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express show is an intoxicating experience especially when the lead protagonist is in imperious form. ‘Temple Beautiful’, ‘You Did’ and the closing pre-encore anthem ‘Willie Mays is Up At Bat’ quite rightly form the pinnacle of the show from many perspectives, yet this wouldn’t be possible without Chuck’s trusted team of players – now the longest stable Mission Express line up.

Led by bandleader Stephanie Finch on keys plus much more, the extended trio of James DePrato (lead guitar), Kevin White (bass) and Vicente Rodriguez (drums) each played an highly charged role to fuel the adrenalin. The whole band feel probably peaked on the never ending ‘Summertime Thing’, while Stephanie eased into a duet role for ‘In the Mausoleum’ from the new album and a cover of ‘Amanda Ruth’ from Austin country punk band Rank and File.

There are times when you feel the term ‘Americana’ was designed with Chuck Prophet in mind. Basically, just an old punk sliding into alt-country rock, with a fascinating articulate view on the world, mirrored in his writing. Barely twenty-four hours earlier, and literally straight off the plane, Chuck had participated in a songwriter’s session. The highlight from his four track selection for that show was translated into the full band format a day later with ‘The Left Hand and the Right Hand’ still being preluded by the story of two infamous and notorious San Francisco brothers.

It was clear Chuck did not want this show to end and was only prevented from joining the audience by the lack of steps from the raised stage. He was clearly in the mood for more impromptu stuff and subsided to calls for a cover of ‘Shake Some Action’ by the Flaming Groovies. This eventually closed the show, but not before one final story of a wide eyed fifteen year old falling in love with his life’s destination at a gig by the aforementioned band.

The opening act for this Sage 2 finale at the SummerTyne Americana Festival, and also on Chuck’s other dates, was UK band Curse of Lono. This five piece outfit are beginning to make prominent inroads with their style of darkened alt-rock music, illuminated by some fine harmony vocal parts and a soundtrack that excites in its diversity. They represent the good side of Americana elasticity and some stage reference to college rock also helped define their presence. A connotation of The Doors meet Dawes sprang to mind during their forty-minute set, which peaked with ‘Don’t Look Down’, a song chosen for inclusion on the US TV series Kingdom. Bandleader Felix Bechtolsheimer gleefully shared that the cheque had cleared before launching into this final number.

Like so much of this year’s SummerTyne Festival, the pairing here was spot on. Probably to a similar extent of the Beth Nielsen Chapman and Callaghan gig that went head to head with this in the Sage 1 finale. The choice was stark in style and Chuck Prophet ensured those who wanted their festival to end in a frenzied haze had their desires fulfilled. 

Jo Harman + Lisa Mills - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Sage 2, Gateshead. Sunday 223rd July 2017

While the general SummerTyne main evening choice is between two ticketed shows, the afternoon offering pits a paid event in Sage 2 against the free outdoors and concourse stages. This year the festival organisers decided to wholly make these afternoon events the domain of the female artist with a double bill of Jo Harman and Lisa Mills following up a previous day scheduling of Angaleena Presley and Danni Nicholls. Whereas the Saturday show leaned heavily in a country direction, the corresponding Sunday event brought a slice of the blues with two powerhouse vocalists.

It is always a welcoming touch when artists are matched with a plethora of contrasts and comparisons that make the art of complementation work well. Both Lisa Mills and Jo Harman draw on the magnitude of their vocal strength to form their work. For this twin show, Jo was afforded the slightly longer set, but both performances gave fascinating insights in how the voice can be utilised so well.

Ultimately, it is probably the duality of their styles and backgrounds, which formed the lasting memory of the show. First up are their national roots, with Lisa being a proud southern girl who was raised in Mississippi and now lives in Mobile Alabama. Although you generally find her touring the UK during the summer months, probably a wise climatic choice. Lisa played her music solo with just the simple help of a single guitar, while mining deep into the barrels of her soul to extract earthy vocal ammunition. There was an incredible amount of warmth and humility in her stage presence alongside a desire to connect with the audience. The background stories to the origin of her material were often heartfelt, whether sourcing material close to her family or borrowing the work of the greats such as Etta James.

Jo Harman hails from southern England and came across as a more refined vocalist. For this show, she was appearing in a trio format. We did learn that this was a rare stripped down outfit and one that the band were still trying to adjust to. Grand piano and gentle electric guitar were the chosen instrumental accompaniments to Jo’s voice, which possessed all the hallmarks of a trained attribute benefitting from as much nurture as nature. It was compelling to watch such an accomplished vocalist effortlessly work the mic. The musical is equally at home in a late night blues setting as well as a semi-jazz or theatre environment. 

Whereas Lisa did race out the blocks with instant appeal, Jo appeared to tread more carefully in her set. It could be construed as a slow burner, which really ignited in the stunning finale. ‘When We Were Young’ and ‘Sweet Man Moses’ were the responsible numbers for the afternoon ending on a serious high. The latter saw Jo infect her voice with acres of heartfelt sentiment and blast off any covers of pretence. This was the vision of Jo Harman to take home with and preserve for future acquaintance.

If the widely defined genre of Americana music needed further proof of an acceptable eclectic existence, then Lisa Mills and Jo Harman provided that. Maybe Lisa’s style is probably an overall better fit for the genre, but Jo too played her part in the success of this presentation.

Sam Outlaw Band + Jim Lauderdale - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Sage 2, Gateshead. Saturday 22nd July 2017

The match up on Saturday night of SummerTyne was predominately classic soul versus classic country. While Stax legend William Bell rolled back the years with a reported stunning show in the larger hall of Sage 1, the main alternative paired the old and the new in Jim Lauderdale and Sam Outlaw. The contrasts didn’t end at the positions on the career longevity ladder as Jim opted for the solo performance while Sam went down the band route. This probably led to the latter grabbing the headline slot in what was essentially a double bill. Offered a similar amount of time, both artists gave a snapshot performance of where their careers currently stand with many positives being extracted from each hour of music.

Jim Lauderdale is going through an Anglicised phase in his career. Not only is there a big clue in the title of the new album LONDON SOUTHERN, but the record was also made over here with significant help from Nick Lowe’s band. A fleeting visit earlier in the New Year saw him pop up on the Transatlantic Sessions line up and now a more extensive summer run of solo dates is further cementing an Americana music legend in the hearts of a UK audience. 'Statesman' accurately sums up the persona of Jim Lauderdale alongside a willingness to adopt the role of student/teacher when it comes to American roots music.

On one hand, you feel that Jim never stops learning and evolving. However, there is also the side to him that willingly imparts his enormous experience and knowledge on the upcoming generation. During this affable hour in the company of Jim Lauderdale, we learned of his inspiration from George Jones/Gram Parsons, perfectly summed up in the song ‘King of Broken Hearts’. Further namedropping included his work with Elvis Costello via the song ‘I Lost You’, his bluegrass appreciation via a nod to Ralph Stanley and the co-write with Buddy Miller, which led to ‘Hole in My Head’ finding fame when cut by the Dixie Chicks on their second album.

In a totally accomplished set, which both included the audience and held their devout attention for its entirety, a popular version of ‘Headed for the Hills’, co-written with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, proved the standout moment. At the conclusion of his set, it was appropriate for Jim to hand over the baton to the next generation, although there was one little surprise left later in the evening.

Before Sage 2 was cleared for an impromptu Songwriters in the Round session led by Jim Lauderdale, there was the little matter of Sam Outlaw rocking it out in full band glory. This rolled out to be an intriguing hour of straight up high octane country music helping to put some more meat on the style of an artist growing in popularity.

Sam Outlaw has forged an impressive path in independent country music over the last couple of years. Debut album ANGELENO exploded out of the blocks at the start of last year and hung around for inclusion on the end of year lists. The latest release TENDERHEART has taken a little more time to eventually reach the vicinity of its sister record, give or take a couple of outstanding tracks making an instant impression. On the live front, Sam’s initial appearance over here with Danny Garcia on accompanying guitar proved an eye catching experience. A couple of further UK tours followed with Sam expanding his show to a band format especially required for summer festival shows. 

The enhanced 2017 touring set up saw Molly Jenson play on all shows and a pedal steel guitarist added. Despite a muffled start to the set, the loud sound did settle down and it was pleasing to see this Sam Outlaw band performance move significantly in the right direction. A wise decision to just crack on with the music led to a populous offering of songs from both albums. It’s still the ones from ANGELENO which hold the biggest sway with set highlights being ‘Trouble’, ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Country Love Song’. The latter was inevitably sung as a duet with Molly, as the band took a brief breather. Also joining the band for this tour is up and coming Nashville based country singer-songwriter Michaela Anne and a sample of her work (‘Luisa’) was handed over to Sam and the others to work wonders with. She is also playing a short opening set on a majority of dates on this extensive summer tour, alas there was no fitting into the tight SummerTyne schedule.

A final thought on this show had to end with the outstanding piece ‘All of My Life’, which still reigns supreme at the top of the personal favourite songs of the year list at the midway point. The full band live version was top notch and topped a performance that sent out a signal that Sam Outlaw remains an important artist in preserving a style of country music often under attack in corporate circles. 

Angaleena Presley + Danni Nicholls - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Sage 2, Gateshead. Saturday 22nd July 2017

Sometimes you just have to wait patiently for that moment when an artist puts all their attributes on the table and the full potential explodes. This show was scheduled for the Saturday afternoon of Gateshead’s very own Summertyne Americana festival and the occasion which proved third time time lucky seeing Angaleena Presley really flourish. While a debut solo performance in another city a couple of years ago revealed an artist feeling her way and a subsequent support slot that didn’t really play to the appropriate gallery, this show was absolutely right on the mark. No band was required, just an exceptional singer-songwriter at ease with their wares, a brave wit and a bucketful of songs saturated in the simple sentiment of country music.

It may have helped that unlike on a previous occasion, she was largely preaching to a converted congregation. Tuning into Angaleena’s wavelength was entirely accessible as she set about proving that song-writing riches are aplenty far from the confines of Music Row. This is an artist who personifies the country clichĂ© ‘three chords and the truth’ in her songs, to the extent of including the line in ‘Dreams Don’t Come True’. Angaleena also positions herself at the heart of a virtual movement to realign the gender balance in how mainstream country music operates. So to replace the rap segment of the controversial ‘Country’ with a snippet of ‘9 to 5’ proved ingenious.

Like so many live performances witnessed, the stand out moments come from an alternative source than that previously enjoyed on record. On Angaleena’s debut album, ‘Dry County Blues’ just eclipsed ‘Grocery Store’, but it was role reversal here. This was even though the former was the second song of the show to embed a classic, with on this occasion ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up into Cowboys’ getting the segmented treatment. The two other songs, which had their live status elevated, were the sensational ‘Outlaw’, complete with its infatuating chorus line, and a glorious oldie from the Pistol Annies days ‘Lemon Drop’. Throw in the fabulously cutting ‘Bless Your Heart’ and the crowned element of Angaleena’s set list sparkled in this artificially darkened afternoon setting of Sage 2.

In another example of astute festival matching, one of Britain’s leading song writing talents leaning in an Americana direction – Danni Nicholls, was scheduled to open for Angaleena. Fresh from a similar supreme solo performance earlier in the month at the Maverick Festival, Danni sumptuously delivered a range of her songs from two albums, which are now firmly entrenched as extensively praised efforts. Stage timings obviously curtailed Danni giving the full background to songs such as ‘A Little Redemption’, but an appreciative audience got the abbreviated drift. This commanding performance ensured invited audience contribution to ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’ and ‘Back to Memphis’ was heeded, while ‘Beautifully Broken’ will always be up there among the highlights of any Danni Nicholls set. One footnote was Danni appearing to still find a feel for the new song ‘Ancient Embers’. This tune sounded great when first unveiled in Birmingham, further confirmed at Maverick and now sealed at SummerTyne. If fan reaction has any pull, it should be here to stay.

With Danni’s gorgeous songs still reverberating around the hall during the break, it didn’t take long for Angaleena to pick up the mantle and smash the ceiling with her subsequent display of country music in its purest state. Family; growing up in Beauty Kentucky; more family and adopting a full frontal attack on Nashville were all key features of this assured and perfectly controlled Angaleena Presley performance. A perfect sound pitch added to the enjoyment of a show where the artist latched onto an ideal balance of humour, anger and downright sentiment with the result a far-reaching success.

Marlon Williams - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Late Night Lounge, Gateshead. Friday 21st July 2017

The name Marlon Williams may not be well known in the UK at the moment, but that has huge potential to change after witnessing his awesome set in the designated late night lounge on the opening day of this year’s SummerTyne Americana Festival. It was quite a coup to enlist the services of a New Zealand singer-songwriter en route to continuing his increasing growth in the US. Listening to his material online following the initial booking plus viewing an impressive KEXP radio showcase on You Tube, only probably prepared you for 10% of Marlon’s ultimate appeal.

The vocal prowess of this South Island resident from the Land of the Long White Cloud at times soared in jaw dropping proportions as he used every second of the allotted hour to primarily paint the landscape with a heavy dose of noir. This was an artist adept at coaxing the listener into a semi-conscious state, oblivious to the surroundings while totally immersed in the depth of the music. The songs spawned mainly from Marlon’s guitar, splintered by a couple served from the piano including the introduced new piece ‘Beautiful Dress’. It was also from this position that the line of the night was delivered in ‘like a snowman in the spring’; protruding starkly from the song, ‘Love is a Terrible Thing’.

As Marlon’s set weaved along, the song content wandered through infanticide territory (‘The Ballad of Minnie Dean’), expressing the thoughts of a river in his native New Zealand (‘Arahura’) and the self-explanatory ‘Dark Child’. Even his covers came from contrasting and interesting pools with a version of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ getting a glowing introduction and Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have to Go’ just being being tagged with the comment ‘well it is an Americana festival’.

It would surely be a universal call to single out the powerful and upbeat closer ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ as the superb standout moment. This prominently opens Marlon’s latest self-titled album, with its final two songs, ‘When I Was a Young’ and more specifically ‘Everyone’s Got Something to Say’, also reverberating profoundly around a totally absorbed room.

With Americana music being more frequently defined as a ‘state of mind’ rather than the ‘mind of a state’, this highly tuned evocative performer is well equipped with the depth of sound, gut wrenching yet articulate approach to song writing and a persona to invoke the spirit of a pre-determined mood. Marlon Williams may be more Southern Hemisphere than Southern USA, but the dark gothic tinge that flavours so much of the exploratory roots music of the area permeated this highly addictive performance.

Merle Haggard's Strangers (feat. Ben & Noel Haggard) + Ashley Campbell - SummerTyne Americana Festival, Sage 2, Gateshead. Friday 21st July 2017

The surnames Haggard and Campbell are long locked into the annals of country music. However, it might just be a couple of different forenames, which tell the story in years to come. It was a scenario of the next generation as SummerTyne festival launched its ticketed presentation on the Friday evening of this year’s event. As an alternative to The Shires playing to the gallery of the masses in the main hall of Gateshead’s Sage venue, Ben Haggard, alongside his brother Noel, and Ashley Campbell set about carrying on their family legacy in slightly contrasting formats within the confines of the venue’s neatly compact second auditorium.

Ben Haggard
It has been just over a year since Merle sadly left us, but the spirit of The Hag was reigning supreme in the guise of two of his sons, plus a touring quartet keeping the Strangers name alive. Indeed an essential part of this combo dedicated to pay the ultimate tribute to an indisputable country legend is long time pedal steel player Norm Hamlet, an associate of Merle for close on half a century. As you would expect, some divine steel playing flowed from Norm’s instrument of excelled choice to coat a host of songs, including a wealth of country classics.

The evening’s ultimate contrast was in the styles of Ben and Noel, who worked in tandem to share a taster of their father’s work. It didn’t take too much deduction to see where the clear talent gene had taken root and much to Noel’s credit he paid sincere acknowledgement to his younger sibling, whilst intimating that he himself has gone from working for his dad to now for his kid brother. If Ben held the show together with his all round musicianship, Noel certainly embraced the notion of the outlaw, even to the extent of his uncanny physical resemblance to Merle. 

Noel Haggard
This was the final date of a European excursion under the iconic moniker of Merle Haggard’s Strangers featuring Ben and Noel. Occasionally the set appeared a little chaotic with the wit often being the glue that held together the fragmented parts. There was also a mid to end segment where the crowd were perhaps yearning for more of the familiar material. This yearning was abruptly halted with a version of ‘Mama Tried’, swiftly followed by ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home’. Earlier in the set, which extended to just over an hour, the highlights were ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, as we were quickly immersed in the picking skills of Ben and Norm. This was clearly a show to embrace what was on offer, which was an as authentic take on the work of Merle as you are likely to see, rather than lament those classic and personal favourites left on the shelf. A pondering observation of this performance was: where next for Ben Haggard? The attributes are aplenty to forge a highly individual career in country music and become a significant name in his own right. Soon the crossroads of the current tribute show will be reached and the future will reveal itself.

In contrast to where Ben Haggard is heading, Ashley Campbell has a firm eye on establishing herself as a distinctive country artist, away from the bright lights that will always shine on her relationship with father, Glen. In fact, most of the set that Ashley and her three supporting band members, including brother Shannon, played revolved around her upcoming debut album. While the key song from that is destined to be the wonderfully touching ‘Remembering’, written in response to her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, other striking material setting out her stance included ‘Better Boyfriend’ and ‘Looks Like Time’.

Ashley combined her banjo and guitar playing with the clever writing of specific generational songs that have a useful knack of fusing the past with the present. While her songs were typically hot off the press for most of the audience, she didn’t shy away from the odd standard in ‘Jolene’ and the John Hartford song made famous by her father ‘Gentle on My Mind’.

You get the impression that Ashley realises the day is approaching when her music will need to stand alone, and all the signs are there that she can blossom on this front. Maybe this shared billing based on the family name did have particular designs, but Ashley left many favourable impressions of solo success being attainable.

Overall, this opening night presentation by the SummerTyne team proved the first of several smart scheduling moves across the weekend. It was great to celebrate the iconic names of Haggard and Campbell, but more importantly be exposed to the wealth of genetic talent in both families. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jade Jackson - Gilded : Anti-Records

This debut album by Jade Jackson nearly passed me by, but thankfully, fate delivered an absolute beauty. GILDED in its title suggests either something golden or something hidden. One certainty though is that a little mining will reveal vast treasures. The sound hits you with a blast of indie tilted in an Americana direction while splashed with country sentiment. Ultimately, it’s raw, riveting and rather good.

The eleven tracks, all in a self-penned status, unwrap with a sweet and sour effect. The lyrics have a youthful zest to them, in contrast to some some worn vocals belying such a young performer. It transpires that intense listening to the Lucinda Williams classic album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was part of the preparation journey from prolific introspective writer to a recording artist offering songs to the world. This has clearly rubbed off and while it would be remiss to compare, the detected influence gives the record a degree of maturity.

A useful element to any successful album is to have a crackerjack of a lead off track. ‘Aden’ does that precisely for the California-based Jade, with its cracking chorus segment and series of lovely melody shifts. A stellar opening line, “I grew up my father's daughter/ He said, "Don't take no shit from no one”, also sets the tone before a neat mix of rousing guitar and fiddle make this song a major pull. If this track gives the album an indie feel, it is also joined by the rocking closer ‘Better Off’, an interesting narrative piece titled ‘Good Time Gone’ and a key stand out candidate in ‘Troubled End’. The latter evokes a spirit of Johnny Cash meeting The Smiths with heaps of deep majestic guitar breaking out into scintillating solos.

Fleeting fiddle and briefly utilised steel provide the country tone with the heavily promoted track ‘Finish Line’ being the highest profile nod in this direction. ‘No Guarantees’ features later in the album in the break up slot, but comes across more as a rock ballad. This is similar to ‘Bridges’, which sees Jade’s vocals slip into tenderer folk mode.

A couple of pedestrian tracks do struggle to make a strong impact especially the slightly languid ‘Salt to Sugar’ and the title song ‘Gilded’ where the writing gets a little abstract. Okay, the latter’s indication of unlatching the cage of life does have some relevance to a debut album, but the writing has a greater effect elsewhere. ‘Motorcycle’ leads the pack on this score with its explicit message “my motorcycle only seats one” and a glorious piece of baseball analogy in the final verse. This is the second impressive referral to America’s pastime this year following Caroline Spence’s ‘Softball’.

However, the line of the record belongs to the second track ‘Back When’ with Jade proclaiming “I want to be the bird on the wire/ So many things I forgot to admire”. This excellent song has a fine acoustic intro before the electric kicks in and who can resist a song, which factors in listening to Hank Williams.

GILDED is a classy, cultured and cool album, which has clearly weaved in the influences of Jade Jackson really well. While perhaps this album is not designed for the purists, if cross genre pollenating is an inevitable road of evolution this is the ideal formula to adopt. The fact this album refused to budge from the review pile is a testimony to its slow burning appeal. This is a touch ironic in light of the super strong opening track, yet eventually getting to the grips with the entity of the album has been a worthwhile venture. 

www.jadejackson.com

Ed Dupas - Tennesse Night : Road Trip Songs

Take your coffee black; drink your whiskey straight; enjoy your food without ketchup and savour your music free of saccharine. There is also no flavouring or artificial tinkering required with the music of Ed Dupas as it stands alone on a towering plateau of genuineness. TENNESSEE NIGHT is the second album from this Michigan based singer-songwriter and surfaces to a willing world in a swirling mix of the rousing and the heartfelt. The album weaves ruggedly through a myriad of tempos without straying too far from a focussed core. This is of an artist hell bent on dissecting a mass of emotion, feelings and thoughts within the powerful medium of the articulate song. Throw in a soundtrack splattered with the soil of when country music meets it alternative cousin on the backroads of the Americana landscape, and a winning formula blows across the airwaves.

Eleven self-penned tracks form this album, which begins in a fully fired up mode before reverting to the mean of the temperate performer relying on the subtleness of the song over raw power. That is not to say that the first two tracks don’t get the album off to a cracking start. The impassioned ‘Too Big To Fail’ with a catchy chorus hook and the straightforward alt-country rocker  ‘Two Wrongs’ instantly grab your attention before the pace gently retracts to enable several insertions of pedal steel to flourish. The overarching guitars do crank back into action later in the record supplemented by a sizzling solo in the song ‘Anthem’.

For me the soul of the album resides elsewhere, most prominently in the rich optimism of ‘Promised Land’ and flagged up in the opening lines of ‘I thought somebody was at the wheel // I thought somebody was up there keeping score // But it’s just you and me.' Not just the soul of the record, this track probably captures the essence of an independent artist fighting their corner in a challenging world. Pushing this track hard in the ‘appeal stakes’ are ‘Up Ahead’, a great road song representing the heartbeat of the album, and the reunion-tinged powerful title track ‘Tennessee Night’.

Following the initial dominating blast of the electric contribution, the acoustic guitar does come more to the fore especially on the tempo changing fourth track ‘Do It For Me’ and the pondering closer ‘Hold Me Tight’, which does leave the listener at a junction of whether to depart on an upbeat or downbeat emotion. Regardless of the concluding mood, you are a leaving a record that has proved a damn good listening experience for the past thirty-eight minutes.

Earlier in the album, the feel had moved in a more country direction with the steel kicking in on third track ‘Heading Home Again’. This succeeds in maintaining the momentum of the album without continuing the rocking out phase that greeted the listener. ‘Some Things’ is another track in a similar vein, although containing a rather resigned feeling in the midst of some great hooks. ‘Everything is in Bloom’ is a perplexing mid-tempo track, not exactly obvious in its sentiment, but keeps the record gently rolling along as it heads towards the finale.

Ed Dupas is one of those artists who personify the strength of the Americana undercard. On TENNESSEE NIGHT, he treads a weary road of gutsy music, while humming, strumming and fleetingly bashing out an alt-country soundtrack. Its live-recorded status creates a mind wave of music crafted for the road coupled with a spot on vocal performance to suit. The perfect antidote to the disposable culture. 




Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee : Single Locke Records

While the background and journey adds substance to the story, you barely need a fraction of the opening song from Nicole Atkins’ new album to know that you are in the midst of a winner. GOODNIGHT RHONDA LEE is the triumphant result of a calling ‘South’ and proof that the horizon knows no limits when all the stars are aligned. Natural talent is bestowed upon an individual with no invitation, but how it is utilised is key to transmitting such a gift from the creative individual to the person experiencing it. From its scintillating opening through the other ten tracks, this achingly beautiful album fans the vocal flames with extraordinary pedigree.

A record that smoothly switches from making you smile, cry, think and dance, this a classic cut of country soul, which spans the generations. Throughout the album, Nicole wanders into soul territory armed with rock credentials, never really staying, yet intent on soaking up all the vibes that have formed the ‘Great American Soul Book’. Although the album was initially recorded in Fort Worth Texas by the same Niles City Sound team responsible for the recently acclaimed Leon Bridges recording, the release has been orchestrated by Single Locke Records: a burgeoning indie label operating right in the heart of the Shoals region in Florence Alabama. There is so much local flavour in the sound and a strikingly directional move for Nicole who had grown into the label ‘Queen of Asbury’ in her native New Jersey. Further delving into the background events that led to the making of this album help build the picture, but the overriding conclusion is that the decision to settle in Nashville has worked wonders on the recording front.

There is going to be a tendency for a logical link to some of the soul giants, but I’m going to name three different associations that spill out of many plays of this gem. Stunning opener ‘A Little Crazy’ will accrue many plaudits with its power; even to the extent of sliding up the vocal range in a very Roy Orbison-style. However, there so much synergy to when Brandi Carlile cracks open her vocal chords and this will do quite nicely. Essentially Nicole pours every sinew of energy into this piece before digging deep into her versatility to ensure the remainder of the album retains its freshness.

The second association that jumped out was in the acutely retro sounding title track. It doesn’t take too much online searching to find out that ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ is a message to her fading alter ego demon. Nicole addresses this in a classic pop style and traces of the vocal performance are reminiscent of the fabulous Lindi Ortega injecting intense emotion into a song. You need to cross the Atlantic for the final link and how there is a hint of Amy Winehouse’s version of ‘Valerie’ in the soulful ‘Sleepwalking’. This is one of several tracks where Nicole and her bunch of players get the listener’s feet moving in a semi-rhythmic way including the horns-influenced soul stomping ‘Brokedown Luck’ and the sweet hook-adorned ‘Listen Up’.

Of course, Nicole will herself no doubt pay tribute to the players assembled for the making of this record, of which the finishing touch was added by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes. Their influence constructed a sound track to supplement the vocal element, whilst ensuring the the overall feel sways between soul, rock and country. The latter is represented by slithers of faint steel especially in the aforementioned opener, the superbly poignant ‘A Dream Without Pain’ and the concluding number ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’, which rolls out as a tender laid back lounger mixing the minimal twang with some hazy sax.

Elsewhere on the record, the theme hits a very personal note especially on ‘I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t’), a thoughtful piece on her departure from Asbury Park. Further insight into the mind-set that fuelled this album comes from ‘Darkness Falls So Quiet’ complete with its rising tempo and theme of loneliness. Nicole really excels in piano ballad mode for the moving repenting piece ‘Colors’. A lovely restful mid-album song, which reinvigorates the listener to savour the second half. Perhaps the one song that lags a little behind the bulk of the collection is ‘If I Could’, but probably suffers as a result of its high standard contemporaries rather than any deficiencies.

No doubt this album with be claimed by the Americana community especially with Nicole’s now Nashville residency and the doors that open in that city, which are far more wide reaching than the confines of Music Row. Ultimately, GOODNIGHT RHONDA LEE is an album that you will fall in love with. It can be interpreted as a career re-boot, while certainly possessing the class to ensure the music of Nicole Atkins is opened up to a whole new audience.





Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters - Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters : Organic Records

The reasoning behind self-titled albums can be somewhat vague, but this is certainly not the case with the new record by Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters. It is born from a decision for Amanda to step out of the shadows and be more of a focus for the music of a band that has been gathering momentum over the last couple of years. It is also a case of a fertile period for the band with records seeing the light of day in 2015, 2016 and now 2017. This follows a steady start to a recording career that stretches back nearly a decade. Whether the re-branding is deemed successful can wait for a later day, but on the evidence of the new album’s thirteen tracks, the sound is right on the mark. 

The Honeycutters accrued praise for their smart ability to execute a deep-rooted country sound in songs framed for their simplicity. This, of course aligned with their indie status, meant an audience tended to be sourced from the Americana and contemporary folk communities. However, decent press coverage followed and much of the same is expected for the new album. One of the most highly valued traits of the record is Amanda’s sincere and poignant approach to song writing. Free of waxed lyrical pretentions, this collection of transparent songs perfectly captures multiple facets of everyday life, albeit from a deeply thought perspective. These range from a curious look at life through the work-in-progress aging process to more reflective moments as time draws to a close. ‘Birthday Song’ resides in the former’s camp and and its autobiographical content reaches an uplifting conclusion especially in the line ‘I must have done something right ‘cos I’m still so damn glad to be here’. This track opens the album and is one of half a dozen songs that make early pitches for the standout moment. ‘Learning How to Love Him’ is another candidate and is an end of life theme, gladly not autobiographical though but a real life scenario that had a song itching to be written.

As you would expect from a traditionally biased country record, pedal steel is widely prevalent and no better utilised than on another positive song ‘What We’ve Got’. In fact, Amanda’s writing frequently flies in the face of sad song convention, often focussing on the precious things rather than those moments of heartbreak. ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ is the prime example of this by championing the inner desires of everyday folk. A neat piece of keyboard work here provides a decent complement to the extensive general use of steel. Further resolute positivity reigns in the mini epic ‘Eden’:  a classic example of country music storytelling, recounting life at its most sparse and basic, whilst lauding the beloved heartland.

The album was recorded in Amanda’s home state of North Carolina, surrounded by a tight team of four players plus co-producer Tim Surrett adding harmony vocals to a couple of tracks. For the third straight release, Organic Records is the home for a Honeycutters record and in accordance with Amanda putting her name very much at the forefront of this project, all the songs are solo written. So often a resourceful route of great song writing in my opinion.

Several early listens of this fifty-four minute album for review purposes are probably insufficient to fully grasp every crevice of each song. One safe prediction though is that this won’t be filed away so easily and its accessibility will fill those quieter moments if the inflow of new music ever slows. A further trio of tracks which help give a flavour of this record begins with the appropriately titled ‘Brand New Start’ and is instantly followed in the running order with a fine piece of seasonal analogy in ‘Late Summer’s Child’. Perhaps strengthening the album in its latter stages is another song proclaiming the overarching theme of simplicity in ‘The Things We Call Home’.

As eponymous records go, the “debut” by Amanda Anne Platt  & the Honeycutters is a strong effort and set to maintain the momentum that has been building for the band’s music. While the digital world tends to ensure cross Atlantic releases are synchronised, there is a formal lag here with the UK getting an official August launch following its general June availability via the wires. This is probably to coincide with a planned tour that will give folks the opportunity to hear the new tunes live alongside many favourites from the Honeycutters growing back catalogue. Whether you are already on their bandwagon or a willing new recruit, the wares of the new record are eagerly awaiting many joyous listens, while offering further proof that grassroots country music is in rude health.