Saturday, 25 February 2017

Benjamin Folke Thomas - Copenhagen: Louvaio

What you see and what you hear is what you get when Benjamin Folke Thomas bounds into your musical horizon. The striking Swede with vocals as deep as his excavated song writing is back with a brand new album full of smart, astute content packed with an interesting punch. COPENHAGEN is the title and unravels as an assorted selection of songs stretching the entire spectrum from complex to catchy. One certainty is that this release courts memorable appeal and reaches out to those looking for a slightly offbeat style to their roots music.

This is the third album for a singer-songwriter who has shared his habitat between London and his Scandinavian homeland. Residency in the former has allowed Ben to get a foothold on the industry ladder and accrue a decent amount of praise for his recorded music and entertaining live shows. Take your pick for a label to describe his musical style – folk in intrinsic lyrical substance, alt-country in a rousing full band show and distinctly Americana in outlook. All aspects get a look in on the new album as ten self-penned tracks launch a campaign to secure your attention.

Individual taste plays an important role in suggesting a starting point for exploring this record. ‘Rhythm and Blues’ rolls into your ear drums with infectious appeal, while ‘Finn’ sets the pulse racing for lyrical wordsmith junkies. On the topic of vocabulary content, the introduction of lines containing words such as narcissism and contamination in album opener ‘Good Enough Me’ indicate that boundaries will be pushed. If you’re looking for a few more options to groove along to then ‘Hold On’ and ‘Bad News’ fit the bill.

It’s always a solid offering to have significant parts at each end of the album. Alongside the enhanced lyrical content of the opener exists some rousing guitar pieces, while the record concludes with a resounding closer in ‘Gimme a Small’, revealed in all its acoustic glory. Wherever you look, this release hosts intriguing findings with Nazi resistance and the outcome of thin walls being points to grab your attention.

COPENHAGEN is a useful addition to the song armoury of Benjamin Folke Thomas and will continue to bring vibrancy to his hugely engaging live shows. The fruitful hooks and an insatiable desire to scale the lyrical summit primarily add up to this being a profoundly satisfying release. In these challenging times of continental collaboration, the music of Benjamin Folke Thomas acts as a diverse and unique addition to the UK’s independent roots scene. More albums like this will continue to add value.

Ashley Riley - Can't Let You Go :Self-released

The transcendent nature of music is at full force when a listener in suburban UK hooks up with a sound spawning out of Decatur Illinois. International horizons vanish in this digital age as good music meanders to respectful homes while disregarding boundaries. For the third time in three years a record release by Ashley Riley has floated into a virtual world of a UK blogger and morphed into a satisfying sense of reality. This time the music is in the form of a self-released seven track EP titled CAN’T LET YOU GO with its dusky undertones blending into a blissful state of buoyant twang and melancholic soul.

From start to finish, Ashley and her band have created a body of music deep in character and rich in freedom as the sound veers in an Americana/alt-country direction. Weeping guitars and vocals to suit give the record a multi-sensory effect revealed in the achingly good opener ‘Lonely’ and the follow on title track ‘Can’t Let You Go’. The adjective ethereal can be over used in music reviews, but make room for one more placement when describing ‘Tell Me Why’.

A redeeming feature of this record is the way it thrives on a multitude of smooth gear changes. Mid track ‘Country Song’ unravels as a springy effort while the pace picks up significantly as we move into ‘Wait a Minute’. Throughout, the nifty guitar work meets approval adding a vibrant aspect to the proceedings in places.

If you’re looking for the record’s crowning moment then the final pair of tracks creates a sunset feel to a long hot sultry day. A hazy jazz mood infiltrates ‘Lovers’ before we exit the door in the company of the tearful ‘Leaving Nashville’ complete with faint steel and a subtle aural aroma.

The origin of this release was a desire to commit to record a mixture of songs left off the last studio album THROUGH THE THIN and others lingering around homeless for a number of years. Far from being the scraps, they evolve into a precious entity challenging the listener to a multiple of repeat plays.

Whatever the desires, intentions or ambitions for her music, Ashley Riley continues to make a connection with limitless appeal and CAN’T LET YOU GO is another fine example of securing this bond. The market may be crowded and choice endless in this digital age, but making room for her music might just be a sensible decision wherever you reside in the world.

Caroline Spence - Spades & Roses : Self-Released

The ultimate beauty of a record is not when it leaves the performer but the moment it lands on the listener. Music is best gift wrapped for sharing and it is an absolute treat to be cast under the spell of the new album from East Nashville based artist Caroline Spence. SPADES & ROSES is the follow up to the 2015 release SOMEHOW and transmits to the listener as a luscious layered body of drooling singer-songwriter heaven. The seeping aurora that oozes out of tracks one to eleven makes this one of the most satisfying albums to hit the wires in 2017 stamped with a guarantee that it will last the distance.

Under the guidance of Neilson Hubbard, the producing architect of three high quality album releases just this year to date, the music and vocals give each other the space to flourish allowing the sheer magnitude of Caroline’s immense talent to sparkle. This talent ranges from a hazy sensual vocal style to the strength of committing some pretty substantial lyrical content to the powerful medium of song. You can take your pick of genre labels from country, folk and Americana, but this album rises above such tagging to flagship what is good about the overall essence of penning the ideal songs to induce goose bumps and the proverbial shivers.

Like all great singer-songwriter albums, SPADES & ROSES is best savoured with the lyric sheet at hand, yet just immersing yourself into its pulsating tones isn’t a bad substitute. Caroline has some pretty special associates in her midst with Miranda Lambert being attracted to her songs and touring with John Moreland. To throw another name into the mix, there is a hint of Gretchen Peters threading throughout the release. This most prominently surfaces in a sound perspective in ‘To Go Down’, which ironically is the one track that Caroline didn’t write. Pete Lindberg, who is known in the UK through his touring work with Cale Tyson, is responsible for this song.

Deep into the well of this album, Caroline really gets to the grips with issues ripe for the scrutiny of song. ‘Hotel Armadillo’ is a wonderful take of the life of a travelling musician, while ‘Softball’ explores gender inequality in full metaphorical mode. In ‘Southern Accident’, Caroline opens her heart to epic proportions and fully displays the tough inner/tender outer side to her art in ‘You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine)’.

The songs are a general mixture of solo and co-written efforts with a familiar name from a few years ago in Stephanie Lambring cropping up on the credits. She collaborated on one of the album’s promotion tracks ‘Slow Dancer’, an example of tantalisingly revealing the contents of the record via reputable online music outlets. When folks finally get a copy of this album, the guarantee is that you’ll get won over right from the first track. Caroline aches ‘I wanna lose myself in the heart of somebody’ and you’ll definitely start losing your heart in this record as soon as you hear ‘Heart of Somebody’.

Another Stephanie Lambring co-write blossoms in the early stages of the record in ‘All The Beds I’ve Made’ and the highest compliment to pay this album is to proclaim that it is totally devoid of any filler content. Therefore anointing a standout track is replaced by the need to create time for the whole listening entity. Even as the final three tracks emerge your patience won’t be tested. ‘Wishing Well’ provides a timely change in tempo and ‘I Can’t Complain’ could even be lifted as the strapline to this album review. The piano-led closer ‘Goodbye Bygones’ is in classic territory, contains the album title in the lyrics and seals the deal of this being a totally absorbing release.

Spending time listening to SPADES & ROSES is an exercise in mind massaging. Therefore kick back and soak up its tempting twang and amalgam of soft toned elegance. Southern to its core while exposing an element of evocative fragility start the journey of projecting this album’s worth. However the next stage is that of listener connection so do what you need to do. 

If Courtney Marie Andrews laid down a hand of three kings when releasing her album in the UK at the start of this year, Caroline Spence, by unwrapping the gem that is SPADES & ROSES, has responded with a trio of aces.

Jim Lauderdale - London Southern : Proper Records

It has been a double dose of transatlantic involvement for Jim Lauderdale lately. Not only did he play a major part in the success of the recent touring Sessions show which thrilled concert hall fans the length of the country, but a new album appears with a major imprint this side of the pond. LONDON SOUTHERN gives a big clue in the title of how this album came to life. Apart from recording it in the capital, a lifelong ambition of Jim, he hooked up with members of Nick Lowe’s team to produce a high calibre record streaked with a thick vein of substantive quality.

For many years Jim Lauderdale has been the crossover king of American music, albeit constantly switching between bluegrass, classic and contemporary country as well as pioneering Americana as a haven for homeless roots music. True to his eclectic nature, LONDON SOUTHERN rolls out as a mixture of sounds and even in the first three tracks we meander through the misty waters of classic country, lounge jazz blues and a soulful tinge. Maybe the album does steer down a middle line but it’s done in such as sophisticated way that it will warrant periodic plays and has potential to evolve into a slow burning standard.

Two elements that contrast this release from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING which appeared last year are this one has twelve new tracks split evenly between solo and co-write status, also its release on Proper Records will enable wider availability in the UK. A cacophony of studio sounds gives this record a hot coal appeal with plenty of horns, strings, piano and organ joining the ubiquitous guitar.

An excellent track ideal for radio play opens the record with ‘Sweet Time’ being the standard bearer for classic country among the dozen. Elsewhere ‘We’ve Only Got So Much Time Here’ and ‘You Came To Get Me’ raise the soul stakes, while ‘I Love You More’ sees Jim in tear jerker mode. Rock ‘n’ roll gets a look in when the needle reaches ‘No Right Way To Be Wrong’ and ‘If I Can’t Resist’ is a pure smooth operator. A band of assumed considerable standing underpins the record creating an overall sound that invites you to sit back, relax and chill out to fine selection of songs.

Possibly the missing elements to Jim’s involvement with the UK at the moment are the headline dates which would considerably build on the four or five songs he got to share in the Transatlantic Sessions shows. Showcasing LONDON SOUTHERN would best be served with some assembly of players which may be the stumbling block to arranging a tour, or at least a couple of high profile dates. However the alternative is to embrace the cheerful sounds on the various available formats that mark this new album as one to add to your valuable collection.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Worry Dolls - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 22nd February 2017.

The pace is certainly picking up for London based duo Worry Dolls as they motor on through the midway point on their current 25-date run of UK shows. Such an extensive headline tour, and armed with a brand new album available in multiple formats, was only a pipe dream as they sought musical direction in their post-university years. In fact the last time they played the Kings Heath area of Birmingham, it was in support of Keston Cobblers Club. Subsequent belief in their ability to make music that resonates with an increasing audience has paid off and the opportunity was grabbed to see the fruits of their development during this Kitchen Garden Café show.

Worry Dolls is the performing moniker of Rosie Jones and Zoe Nicol; two artists sharing common values and discovering that timeless knack of harmony presentation. Musically the pair keeps it straightforward with predominately Zoe’s banjo and Rosie’s guitar providing a steady backdrop to a sweet sounding vocal output. The latter element probably courts the most appeal alongside a priceless ability to write a bunch of songs, rich in integrity while possessing a popular streak. Folk, country and Americana are labels that may help them seek structural audiences, but neither really defines Worry Dolls in the strictest sense. A broad individual stamp and the smart utilisation of innate talent enable the music to blossom creating an enormous potential to reach out far from traditional bases.

Across their two sets in this midweek Birmingham show, all featured songs were of original origin which is quite unusual from a wide sample of gigs seen. However when your song is such a valuable asset, why not use every inch of available canvas. A couple of earlier Worry Dolls EPs and the brand new album, only released last month and titled GO GET GONE, offered sufficient choice to fill the evening. Only on the penultimate track, the feisty ‘All I Got’, did a song not readily available appear. Indeed it is useful to finish a gig on a high and this number plus the encore selection ‘Train’s Leaving’ proved to be serious contenders for the show’s highlights.

When reviewing the album, the retro country pop sounding ‘Miss You Already’ was identified as one of the standout songs. This evening it acted as the set opener, which is not always the best position as often it takes a few numbers for the artists to get into their stride. Rosie and Zoe were definitely into theirs by the time they played ‘Bless Your Heart’, an excellent ear pleasing track already siphoned off as a single. At this point we began to learn about the Worry Dolls outside the songs, with the title of this piece being adopted from a put down greeting they learned in Nashville. In fact their time in Music City was the location where they recorded the album under the esteemed stewardship of Neilson Hubbard.

Apart from Worry Dolls overseas excursions, another preferred element of inter-song chat was a short introduction to most of the songs including inspirations and topics. These included ‘Passport’, ‘Things Always Work Out’ and ‘Drive’. The audience were also briefed on a couple of artists who they have worked with. One co-incidentally being Ben Glover, who had only just played this venue the previous night and had co-written ‘Light Oh Light’ for the new record.

Another song that came across well was ‘She Don’t Live Here’, despite Rosie not having access to a piano which graces the recorded version. The review indicated the essence of this song to being a similar sound to Canadian folk stars Madison Violet; a viewpoint that remains after listening to the live version.

No doubt there will be plenty of other opportunities to catch Worry Dolls on the circuit as the year rolls out. Some of these may have the good fortune of a full band in tow complete with pedal steel. In the meantime Rosie and Zoe have the raw tools to take their songs far and wide. The unassuming style, precisely pitched vocals and accessible song melodies will not be short of admirers. The Kitchen Garden Café is used to distinguished artists passing through and Worry Dolls didn’t disappoint. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 21st February 2017

The English Midlands is far from unknown territory for Ben Glover. Support slots for Brandy Clark and Mary Gauthier have raised his profile in Birmingham, while a similar role for Gretchen Peters had a repeat effect after shows in Bromsgrove and Leamington Spa. Maybe a little further afield, but a decent gathering in Shrewsbury when co-headlining with Angel Snow showed potential away from being the opening act. Well now the time has come to step out of the shadows as a performing artist in the UK as Ben began his first headline tour at Birmingham’s premier listening venue – the Kitchen Garden Café.

A coup for Nashville based Ben on these run of dates across mainland Britain and his native Ireland is acquiring the services of ace guitarist Colm McClean for sparring duties. Together their guitars blended into a melange of acoustic bliss providing a special setting for Ben’s highly acclaimed songs to burst into life. Colm was a key figure in Gretchen Peters’ touring band when she played our isles last year and drew praise for helping lift these shows onto a plateau of unmatched rivalry. This evening the same skill was applied to Ben’s songs which while springing up from a number of sources, bases and projects each contain a high degree of accomplishment.

This inaugural UK tour has been named after Ben’s latest album THE EMIGRANT. Five songs from this record were sprinkled across the brace of sets which formed the show. ‘A Song of Home’ – one of the key promotional tracks – drew a gasp of audience approval upon completion, while ‘Heart in My Hand’ re-affirmed its prime status as one of the stand-out numbers from the release. Ben’s buoyancy and informative chat grew as the gig progressed leading to some background to the song ‘Moonshiner’ and why the whole theme of the record, especially the title track, has personal resonance to him. It was fitting to end the second set with a version of a traditional closer, ‘The Parting Glass’. Each time this song is heard thoughts go back to the Wailin’ Jennys singing it in Worcester around a decade ago, albeit in a contrasting style to Ben’s rugged tones.

One of Ben’s most intriguing projects in recent years was his collaboration with Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard in The Orphan Brigade. The evening began with the track ‘Sweetheart’ from that album, but it wasn’t until the second half before the audience were fully briefed on the supernatural goings on in Octagon Hall – a place which needs to extend its opening hours to a Monday! Not surprisingly the tale of a flirtatious ghost ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet)’ was the other chosen song to share from that record, with full approval here.

While fans of Ben would have been well versed with much of the show’s content, the most revealing parts were the next Orphan Brigade project which has just been recorded in Italy. The same team this time headed to Southern Europe to explore the mystique, aura and fascination of a subterranean setting; full of tales, emotion and exploring the unknown. Three immensely engaging songs were previewed from this upcoming release, each providing an absorbing inspiration. ‘Pain is Gone’ and ‘Pile of Bones’ will both have their day as the album evolves, but ‘Flying Joe’ is straight off the blocks as a potential live favourite. Look out for this highly anticipated record which is set to see the light of day later this year.

You didn’t have to search too far to come across audience members attracted to this show from the Gretchen Peters angle. Therefore Ben had no hesitancy in delivering three of his songs co-written with Gretchen including two off her latest album – ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘Pretty Things’. While the first of these also appeared on Ben’s previous album ATLANTIC, there was some contemplative thought of committing the other to record in the future. Perhaps a lesser known song in ‘The Mississippi Turns Blue’ completed the trio, but still another fine effort and one of the focal points of the ATLANTIC album alongside ‘Too Long Gone’ which was featured early in the set.

There is no apology in making the review song laden as this is Ben’s golden currency and what is set to serve him well long into the future. While on the topic of remuneration, the story behind the song ‘Whatever Happens Will’ is a staple of his live show and a message that sometimes you take what you get. Just one song left to comment on and an old standard that needs little introduction other than this Kitchen Garden audience matched the Glee Club in September for ploughing their vocal might into ‘Ring of Fire’.

Ben Glover writes songs that demand intense listening and contain an earthy substance that is perfectly suited to a coarse vocal style etching each emotion conveyed in the lyrics. The merging of an Emerald Isle roaming soul with the deep psyche of the Nashville song writing community is creating an artist and performer of moving capability. The gamble of heading back to the homeland devoid of the comfort blanket has paid off. This show at the Kitchen Garden Café is the start of a very promising chapter in the musical adventure of Ben Glover.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express - The Rescue Rooms, Nottingham. Sunday 19th February 2017

When Chuck Prophet is on a mission, what you see is one of the most enigmatic purveyors of alt-country rock ‘n’ roll music on the circuit today. Of course Chuck has been producing the goods for over thirty years through his Green on Red connection and solo work. On the evidence of these latest set of UK dates, the Californian is still firing on all cylinders and an enthralled Nottingham crowd soaked up a whole two hours of vintage Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express.

Although vintage in style, the material leaned heavily upon the absolute contemporary with the brand new album featuring prominently. BOBBY FULLER DIED FOR YOUR SINS is barely a week old and yet its status as a cultural high spot for poetic rock ‘n’ roll is securing tightly with each play. Chuck and his band launched their set with the title track of this album just after eight thirty and the marker was set for a riveting couple of hours of prime sophisticated velocity. The Bobby Fuller connection didn’t just lie with the opening track as the encore began with a cover of ‘Let Her Dance’, a popular hit for Bobby before his sad early demise in the mid-sixties. By that time, the entrance fee had been repaid several times over with Chuck in absorbing form and in total control of an engrossed audience.

Each song, whether crowd pleasing old favourites like ‘Temple Beautiful’, ‘You Did’ and ‘Willie Mays Is Up At Bat’ or new material such as ‘Bad Year for Rock ‘n’ Roll’, was perfectly accompanied by the four band members. It was the usual set up with the lead guitar of James DePrato and keyboard of Stephanie Finch stepping more to the fore leaving Vincente Rodriguez (drums) and Kevin White (bass) to shore up the backfield. The former pair also added vital harmony contributions ensuring that there will always be a West Coast feel to the music of Chuck Prophet.

Several spins of the new record reveal another song writing lyrical masterclass from Chuck. Two particular stand-outs from this album were ‘Jesus Was a Social Drinker’ and ‘We Got Up and Played’. Both saw Chuck switch into acoustic mode with the utilisation of his Martin D-38 prompting an ironic cry of Judas from the audience much to his amusement.

It is 2017, so the inevitable and essential political comment from the progressive American artistic community ensued, with ‘Barely Exist’ being dedicated to those seeking a better life. Also much of that community is still coming to terms with the losses of 2016 and Chuck delivered a duet version of ‘Iodine’ with Stephanie as a tribute to Leonard Cohen. This was a gig awash with an abundance of seriously good moments, so you could take your pick from the pin drop sublime to the fully fledged onslaught of electric amplification. Even the latter contains marvellous content as exemplified by ‘Alex Nieto’ off the new record.

The Rescue Rooms proved the ideal hosting pad for Chuck. A sizeable gathering was comfortably housed and the enjoyment of the music was enhanced by finding the venue’s sound sweet spot. Likewise Chuck found his all night. By the time the band signed off with the popular ‘You and Me Baby (Holding On)’, a perfect resting place in the personal gig memory vault had been created making this one of the standard markers for at least the rest of the year – probably longer.

The bill was enhanced through a short opening set from an American folk singer by the name of Max Gomez who is travelling with Chuck. An engaging song about an antiques store and insurance fraud proved the highlight of his set and Max made a re-appearance for Chuck’s encore. The whole set up on stage proved a resounding success for Nottingham based promoters Cosmic American who have a long association with Chuck. Maybe their forays into Birmingham for his gigs didn’t reach the same level but a short drive up the M42 for West Midlands based folks was a small price to pay for a night like this.

Long may Chuck Prophet’s lengthy association with touring the UK remain and even if there is not a universal appreciation of America’s favourite past time, a few of us understand the psyche of ‘three on, two out and the Giants greatest ever centre fielder'.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Lewis & Leigh - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 13th February 2017

Literally a few days after one transatlantic music event in Birmingham finished, another took place on a much smaller scale with this evening’s gig at the Kitchen Garden Café. Only last Thursday the city’s Symphony Hall duly hosted a fine bunch of musicians spanning the breadth of the British Isles and the United States. This evening it was the turn of Mississippi native Alva Leigh and Welshman Al Lewis to cement the special relationship with a musical presentation in the guise of their award winning duo act, Lewis & Leigh.  

The other link between this evening’s sold out gig and the Symphony Hall was the latter’s role in boosting the duo’s profile in the city when they supported Deacon Blue there a couple of months ago. Without doubt a few folks were inspired to attend on the evidence from that evening, while further impetus was gained when news spread of their double award win at the recent UK Americana celebration. One of these accolades was for their debut full length album and the entirety of GHOST had a full airing during this show which formed part of a current UK tour.

Prior to Lewis & Leigh taking their place in the spotlight, local singer-songwriter Chris Cleverley grasped another opportunity to raise his status as one of the region’s emerging folk artists. He played an engrossing extended opening set sharing an ingrained passion for music of a considerable depth. A range of songs covering the traditional, cover, new arrangement and original angles kept an attentive audience transfixed, aided and abetted by an intrinsic finger picking style. The intensity only occasionally dipped, mainly with an entertaining tale of failed debauchery, but it was amongst these tense moments where the set peaked with the song ‘But Thinking Makes It So’. This was a result of Chris’s involvement with the Company of Players project, established to honour the recent Shakespeare anniversary. The song was inspired by the Bard’s take on mental health and whets the appetite for what other songs came out of this project to view England’s literary heritage through the eyes, ears and minds of a bunch of this country’s brightest young folk music talent.

While it is relatively straightforward to capture the style of Chris, Lewis & Leigh tend to be a little introspective in the way they project their music. The most redeeming feature is the vocal harmony and the way both voices interchange within the song. This initially came to prominence in ‘What is There To Do’, credited now as the first Lewis & Leigh song and to be found on their inaugural EP recording NIGHT DRIVES. We were reminded that the third anniversary of Lewis & Leigh as an official duo had just passed and it has definitely been an upwardly mobile trajectory of accrued praise for the pair.

Musically, via Alva’s keyboards and Al’s guitar, the sound adopts a low key approach with only a fractional deviation into upbeat territory. Even a cover of The Smiths’ classic album track ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ gets the first gear treatment. Ironically the opening phrase of this song title was lifted for the lead off track from the new album, with ‘There is a Light’ and its follow up piece ‘Rubble’ neatly fitting into the early stages of the set. These proved to be highlights of a time on stage that just edged over the hour mark.

Throughout the performance, the Kitchen Garden audience was in their usual impeccable listening mode; an essential state to enjoy the essence of Lewis & Leigh. This environment of placidity was kept intact right up to the point when the evening was signed off with ‘The 4:19’, fast becoming the duo’s signature song, more so in the light of its recently acquired award winning status.

There is an element of simplistic sophistication around the sound of Lewis & Leigh which suggests the duo have a keen ear on making songs with the potential to possess an ever widening appeal. This will continue to serve them well as emerging opportunities to advance their career will inevitably appear. A sold out Birmingham audience fully appreciated the talent on show and the fit between artist and venue would be tough to better with many other combinations. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Turnpike Troubadours + Robert Vincent Band - Thekla, Bristol. Friday 10th February 2017

They came from west of the Mississippi where the music starts to get as rugged as the impending landscape and a little more outlaw in outlook. To be more precise, Oklahoma is the home state of the Turnpike Troubadours, but for one evening only the roaming nature of their surname landed in the hull of a ship in the west of England. This six piece outfit have no doubt played many interesting venues in their decade-long existence. Now they can add the Thekla, surely not just one of Bristol’s quirkiest venues but that of the whole UK, to a comprehensive list of places to reverberate to their raucous sound.

By stretching the increasingly common weekend 10 PM live music curfew to it absolute limit, Evan Felker and his merry band of compulsive rockers ensured the Turnpike Troubadours lived up to every ounce of their projected proclamation as a treasured live act. Whatever follows these music curfews up and down the land, it cannot come close to what early bird revellers experience when bands like this hit town.

An encouragingly impressive turnout greeted the headliners who have the stage drive and passion to convert a rare European excursion into a regular part of their touring empire. Mixing country music in its purest form with the raw energy of punk propels the Turnpike Troubadours into a powerful live outfit, ready to blast any venue with the glorious edge of a rough diamond. For a riveting ninety minutes, the holy rocking sextet of fiddle, steel, bass, lead, acoustic and drums drove song after song to a multitude of differing beats and accelerator settings, all in the true style of American roots.

Prior to the touring boys strutting the stuff, early arrivals were greeted by some home grown talent in the shape of the Robert Vincent Band. Armed with songs from his brand new album, Robert has grasped the opportunity to support Evan and the guys on these UK dates and provides the perfect foil. Operating at a pace a few notches down from the Turnpike Troubadours, little time was wasted in delivering a selection of the new songs. These were from more of a traditional rock angle tinged with a sensibility that takes the sound into introspective territory. There is an obvious transatlantic influence that puts Robert into the mist of Americana, while feel free to challenge the sad song agenda at your peril.

The full band format gives Robert’s songs a more rounded live airing which suits efforts such as ‘So in Love’, ‘November’ and ‘Dancing with Devils’. Those familiar with his music will no doubt be aware of his signature song ‘Demons’, the usual set closer and sounding just as good this evening as the previous time he was caught live in this format, at Maverick Festival last July.

There was an enhanced buzz around the ship when the headliners appeared especially among an enthusiastic gathering at the front of the stage ready to embrace each note and word from their favourites. The range of material was evenly distributed between the latest three studio albums including the self-titled one released to critical acclaim in 2015. One of the prime songs from that record also excelled in the live arena with the line ‘you can have a nickel out of my last dime’ heralding a smile each time you listen to ‘Down Here’.

Going back an album further, ‘Gun, Smoke’ Lies’ was probably the pick from 2012’s GOODBYE NORMAL STREET with other songs like ‘Morgan Street’ and ‘Blue Star’ featuring early in the set as the band were hitting their straps. While the word ‘loud’ was a representative feature, pedal steel and fiddle had sufficient space to prosper. The fixated and absorbing presence of Evan Felker as lead vocalist and band focal point grew as the show progressed. The results were exceptional when he commandeered the solo spotlight on the odd moment, with ‘Diamonds and Gasoline’ proving a show highlight. This was the title track of the band’s 2010 album with ‘1968’ and a version of ‘Long Hot Summer’s Day’ lifted from that record proving vociferous crowd pleasers. On another occasion where the band explored the song writing world of others, bassist R.C. Edwards took over lead vocals to sing a song introduced as ‘one taught in Oklahoma kindergartens without the communist bits’. The relevance of ‘This Land is Your Land’ rises with each passing day of 2017.

Up to now, getting into the Turnpike Troubadours has been largely through their recorded material, but this appreciation has doubled with the live exposure. There may have even been a number of casual converts through this UK tour who took a gamble on the band’s reputation and were handsomely paid back. For these and seasoned fans alike, they all witnessed a full on display of raucous outlaw country music, held together by a strong song writing spine and blossoming in an ideal Friday night setting. Long may the Turnpike Troubadours keep the UK on their tour horizon.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Transatlantic Sessions - Birmingham Symphony Hall. Thursday 9th February 2017

Tift Merritt 
A recurring thought during this show was how incredible and blessed each guest artist must feel with an extensive backing band of this stature playing on their songs. Probably the most redeeming feature of the annual touring Transatlantic Sessions show is the collaborative excellence, and once again this was on full show as the extravaganza returned to Birmingham. From a personal perspective it was the case of a fresh renewal after missing last year’s show following a run of four straight years. No significant changes affected the core of the presentation, other than an opportunity to see three outstanding American guest performers adding their own distinct styles to the show.

The sum of the parts will always prevail in the Transatlantic Sessions and for me the wonderful highlight of the evening was a full accompaniment celebrating the life of the late Guy Clark with a moving rendition of his classic cut ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’. At this moment all five special guests – Tift Merritt, Jim Lauderdale and John Paul White plus this year’s British Isles invitees Eddi Reader and Karan Casey – converged at the focal point of the stage to pay the most fitting tribute to a wonderful songwriter.

Depending on your preferred access point into roots music, the intrinsic highlights may differ, but there was rarely a misplaced moment of musical marvel. Whether it’s the fired up fiddle faction of John McCusker and Aly Bain or the twang-led input courtesy of Jerry Douglas and his band of compatriots, the elaborate Symphony Hall was awash with the sound that has bound the roots fraternity of both lands together over at least a couple of hundred years. For me the Dobro of Douglas is the key pivotal sound, probably adding an adhesive edge to a majority of the songs forming this year’s set.

Jim Lauderdale
Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a brand new album out right in the middle of your Transatlantic Sessions guest appearance. During her four songs in the spotlight, Tift Merritt took the opportunity to share some of her new record STITCH OF THE WORLD. While the new songs will take a time to bed in, there was a stunning reminder of her outstanding back catalogue, with the delivery of the soulful ‘Good Hearted Man’ on piano proving the pick of the quartet. Jim Lauderdale was the other artist with a record hot off the press. LONDON SOUTHERN is a very quick follow up to Jim’s 2016 album and is set to maintain the momentum of this highly esteemed stalwart of the Americana scene. However like Tift, it was one of his older tunes which stole the moment with ‘Headed for the Hills’ probably surfacing as the most crowd pleasing song of the evening.

In contrast, John Paul White’s latest record is around six months old, but BEULAH was the long awaited post-The Civil Wars release from an artist who admitted he had rather enjoyed an extended time away from the spotlight at home in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The good news for his fans is that the hiatus didn’t become permanent and the swampy sound that emanates from this new set of songs was an essential part of the aura that circulated around this pristine environment. ‘I’ve Been Over This Before’ was the pick of John Paul’s twin-song sets complete with a backing vocal trio of the highest order. In line with the tribute angle to this show, John Paul paid his own respects to Ray Price with a delightful version of ‘Crazy Arms and Heartaches’ complete with the atmospheric tones of accompanied pedal steel giving the proceedings a very country flavour.

John Paul White
At this point it’s pertinent to also add that Jim celebrated the work of Ralph Stanley with a gospel number, another legend who has recently departed. On the other hand, Willie Nelson keeps going on and hopefully his current bout of missed shows through illness doesn’t escalate. Therefore Scottish singer Eddie Reader’s version of Willie's ‘Back to Earth’ was a tribute to a living legend and ranked highly alongside another of her offerings, this time a little closer to home with a nod to Rabbie Burns. Eddie has been a regular contributor to the Transatlantic Sessions over the years and her appearances are always greeted with enthusiasm for this much loved performer on the Scottish and wider UK folk music scene. 

Joining Eddie as the home representative (providing you view music as ignoring boundaries and borders) was Karen Casey from Waterford who like Tift utilised the piano well for a couple of her songs. This ensured there is always a Celtic element to the touring show. Although regular contributor John Doyle is always there to help a hand in this quarter and duly stepped forward from his backing role to sing one song.

Not quite, but nearly a regular to the touring show is American banjo/guitar player and vocalist Dirk Powell. He was invited a couple of times to share a song. ‘Waterbound’ was recalled from seeing him on this very stage a couple of years ago and ‘Motherless Children’ ensured that no serious music show is devoid of relevant political content in 2017. Dirks' partner for the evening on the US side lines was the ever present Russ Barenberg on guitar and mandolin.

Any reflection of a Transatlantic Session show would be remiss without acknowledging the contribution from this stellar assembly of gifted musicians. Joining Aly and the two Johns from the home ranks were regulars: Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, Donald Shaw, Danny Thompson and James Mackintosh. A packed Symphony Hall suggested the thirst for this regular early February post- Celtic Connections gathering shows no signs of abating. As long as the commitment of Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas to mastermind and co-ordinate the project remains, the infinite list of willing guests will ensure this event continues to flourish within the established format.  

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Amanda Rheaume - St.George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 3rd February 2017

Canadian artist Amanda Rheaume was in a buoyant mood as she played the penultimate date of her current UK tour at a packed St. George’s Hall in Bewdley. The aptly named Severn Sessions is fast putting this North Worcestershire riverside town on the music map for touring artists of a country and roots persuasion. Amanda was the latest invitee and determined to ensure the locals had a memorable evening, with her vibrant style of music straddling the country-folk-pop point of genre convergence. The turnout is beginning to attract out of towners as well, as word gets around that artists of Amanda’s level of accomplishment continue to raise spirits on this monthly Friday evening gathering.

For this latest leg of Amanda’s European excursions, a trio format is in tow with Anders Drerup (electric guitar/pedal steel guitar) and Anna Ruddick (bass) providing a valuable role in ensuring the recorded material gets the best possible live treatment. Songs stretching back across her three studio albums formed the set list accompanied by a couple of distinguished covers sharing the breadth of Amanda’s undoubted influences.

The success of the evening revolved around the strength of the songs and the precision execution which saw Anders playing-expertise showering a radiant glow on Amanda’s bold mission of sharing her music. Straight from the opening bars of ‘Get to the Part’ from the latest album HOLDING PATTERNS, a soaring standard of engaging professionalism was displayed and refused to yield until the closing cover of Stevie Nicks’ ‘Landslide’ was concluded. Whilst in more recent times Natalie Maines has put her own stamp on this song, Amanda’s version, with the able vocal assistance of Anna, ensured every inch of its elegance was intact.

The current sound of Amanda is more focussed on the country pop tinge with the pedal steel proving an addition to the last time she was witnessed live. This was on the very first UK tour back in 2014 when her previous album KEEP A FIRE was heavily featured in the set. Songs from that release were kept to a minimum this time, but it was an absolute pleasure to hear a personal favourite in ‘Passed Down the Line’ make the cut. Going back even further in time, ‘Better Days Ahead’ from the 2011 album LIGHT OF ANOTHER DAY proved to be one of the show’s  livelier numbers, aided and abetted by audience participation which needed little Friday evening encouragement.

As earlier mentioned, Amanda has a recent album to feed a majority of the set list from and the band did a sterling job in ensuring they had a substantial airing. Amanda was in her usual communicative mood to ensure the audience were well informed with many song inspirations. By the end of the evening songs from the record such as ‘Red Dress’, ‘The Day the Mountain Fell’, and ‘Dead Horse’ left much more of an impression than just a fine tune.

As with an ever increasing bunch of fellow Canadian artists of a similar ilk, Amanda’s prime strength lies within her song writing capabilities and perhaps the subliminal message from covering the John Prine classic ‘Angel From Montgomery’ is that she is prepared to learn from the best. Of course an effervescent stage persona helps communicate the music which is maybe a more vital component when taking original music into community settings. Regardless of Amanda’s considerable strengths, the rapturous reception given at the end sealed the approval and demonstrated a good time was had by all.

Aligned with the community nature of this Severn Sessions series of shows, a youth act in the guise of local school girls, Grace Winterburn and Abby Foxall under the name Melody Blue and rock blues trio, the Mark Leedham Band, provided the support for Amanda. This continues to ensure that enhanced focus remains on the Bewdley music scene and goes a long way to help establish a viable structure for artists such as Amanda Rheaume to successfully play their music thousands of miles from home.

Over the last few years, Amanda has put in a considerable amount of leg work in realising an ambition of making her career a success overseas. Having first come across her music at the outset of this adventure, it is refreshing to see a thriving performer. Canadian artists like Amanda Rheaume have a valuable role in exporting their art to broaden the horizon of music lovers around the world. Few folks in Bewdley would disagree after witnessing this performance.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Darlingside - The Glee Club, Birmingam. Tuesday 31st January 2017

The tastemakers have been in overdrive lately proclaiming the talents of American folk band Darlingside. Over in the UK, a widely praised performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year set the tongues wagging, and bringing things right up to date, involvement with the Celtic Connections event has coincided with a wider tour of venues around the country. What cannot be disputed is the ear of the tastemakers as the exquisite harmonies, impeccable timing and intrinsic musicianship were on full display as this four-piece combo called into Birmingham’s Glee Club.

The venue’s main room hosted Darlingside on their first visit to the city and while far from full to its capacity, an orderly layout housed a decent midweek turnout. Observing the audience’s response revealed an enthusiastic gathering, many of whom were familiar with the music and savouring the opportunity to listen to the music in a semi-intimate setting.

Prior to the main attraction taking to the stage, fellow Boston based artist Dietrich Strause served up an aperitif of compactly delivered middle line American folk music with a keen ear on Greenwich Village revivalist tendencies. This was not Dietrich’s first visit to the city as he supported UK artists’ Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker at the Red Lion Folk Club in the latter part of last year. Like then, he delivered a highly palatable performance. Although he is the proud curator of a new album, the most striking song of his set came from an older release. ‘Jean Louise’ was the title of the track and who can resist a cleverly constructed number on a To Kill A Mockingbird theme.

In the style of many contemporary retro sounding acts, Darlingside choose the single microphone amplification which involves a twisted degree of shuffling especially when the vocals continually switch between the four members. Don Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji, Harris Paseltiner and David Senft are the constitutional parts of the band; the personification of a rolling first among equals. 

Instrumentally, soft electric guitar does play a part but it is the acoustic vibes of mandolin, violin, cello and acoustic guitar that define the sound. However this does play second fiddle to the vocal construction which is the overall explicit feature of being exposed to the music of Darlingside.
Thinking along the lines of Simon and Garfunkel with a touch of Crosby Stills and Nash will lead you into the vocal sonic room of Darlingside. Of course this heavy slant on a lighter vocal sound will need some adjusting to if you like things on a rougher more rounded scale, but there is no escaping that Darlingside exploit their style rather well.

From an outsider’s perspective this show was as much about experiencing the musical ambience of Darlingside rather than the micro detail, hence a patchy recollection of song titles and general themes. They can be explored fuller in their latest album BIRDS SAY of which the instantly memorably titled ‘Harrison Ford’ obviously stood out. A more recent EP, WHIPPOORWIL also lingered in the memory with the song ‘Fourth of July’ held back for the encore and upholding the theory of saving the best ‘til last.

Darlingside have the talent potential to scale almighty heights in the music world and not be shackled by genre convention. Their style has reached this level before and the same could happen again. Maybe an evening in Birmingham on the last day of January will be looked back on as one which housed a band destined for greater things.