Monday, 27 March 2017

Jarrod Dickenson - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 26th March 2017

While it has been interesting watching the rise of Jarrod Dickenson over the last three years, what has been missing is that follow up full length release to really catapult him to his destiny. In fact this hugely anticipated record was due to drop in early March in time for Jarrod’s latest UK tour. We will have to wait and see whether the delay is eventually going to herald further good news, but on the evidence of this Birmingham show everything is ticking along splendidly on the performance front.

This is the fourth occasion of seeing Jarrod live in Birmingham since he first supported Diana Jones at the Hare and Hounds in 2014. All the other subsequent gigs have been at the Glee Club, although probably the major boosts for his increased popularity in the city were due to support slots at the larger venues for The Waterboys and Bonnie Raitt. Perhaps a measure for the progression from a headline perspective was a switch in rooms in the Glee Club since last year’s visit, the utilisation of a full band and a turnout showing a massive exponential increase on previous shows.

Joining Jarrod on stage for the five-strong band gathering included his wife Claire on backing vocals and lead guitarist JP Ruggieri, who doubled up as the opening act. This was a pertinent choice as JP did have copies of his upcoming solo album available for sale and subsequently used the half hour slot to showcase a number of fine songs from it. Claire also joined JP on backing vocals, a role she carries out so well with Jarrod especially when she wanders into duet territory on ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’.

Despite the clear Anglo influence that his life direction has taken, Jarrod still comes across as the quintessential Texan singer-songwriter, cutting a strong figure on stage with precise vocals to match. The sound, especially in full band mode, leans heavily in an Americana/smooth country rock direction with a general polished sheen making it ripe for wide engagement. In fact the overriding effect of watching an effortless performance for just under an hour and a half was an eagerness to get more of his material available in the recorded format.

There were a couple of contrasting covers in the set. First up Jarrod paid tribute to fellow Texan, the late Guy Clark with a version of ‘Dublin Blues’ and a proclamation of what an influence he has been on his career. Indeed this was the second cover of a Guy Clark song over a weekend of seeing two contemporary touring Americana artists play shows; the other being American Aquarium. Towards the end of the set, the band included the widely known and popular number ‘Walk of Life’, suggesting one eye on courting a more mainstream appeal. There is certainly a stylish panache about Jarrod which has the potential to attract music fans from outside the confines of pure Americana.

From detected inter-song chat, references to the new record were seemingly kept to a minimum with only one song specifically mentioned. Like previous shows, old favourites like ‘California (Do You Still)’, ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Way Past Midnight’ and ‘Gold Rush’ headed an impressive line-up of original songs, depicting Jarrod as a seriously impressive songwriter and a performer equally adept at crossing the line from studio to stage.

On an evening when were subtly informed by JP that Jarrod was celebrating his birthday, the lack of shiny new CDs and shapely vinyl to sell didn’t deter a lengthy line of well-wishers at the merchandise table after the gig. Maybe they were offering a personal happy returns or making further enquires as to the record’s release date.

What was indisputable was that a packed Glee Club audience had just witnessed another first rate Jarrod Dickenson show and an artist who continues a steep climb in presence each time he visits the city. Things are looking rosy for Jarrod at the moment and maybe even better times are just around the corner for an artist of immense eminence.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Ruth Theodore - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Saturday 25th March 2017

Perhaps it was appropriate that Ruth Theodore’s return to Birmingham was held in a library and all the connotations of where different art forms can take you. So among the fact, fiction, sonnets and surrealism, a series of thought provoking songs were sewn in an inimitable style and soundly planted. There is a mind stretching escapism to her music. This can have as much effect of freeing your own mind of everyday clutter as to truly getting inside the cognitive element of Ruth.

Hailing from London, and the architect of half a dozen albums, Ruth is currently heading out on tour in support of her latest record CACTACUS. This album saw the light of day in 2016 with the tour being aligned to the release of the single ‘Kissing in Traffic’. Like so much of the material from the new record, this track appeared in Ruth’s second set where she added the keyboard as her alternative instrument of choice to the trusty guitar.

The assertion that the show’s impromptu set list was going to evolve in some sort of chronological sequence was a rare act of structuralism in an artist appearing enamoured by the freedom of randomness. Throughout the show, we were taken on trips to personify the planet of Pluto, a brief glimpse of life’s mainstream normality in Edinburgh and an exploration of gentrification. Maybe Birmingham in general and Smethwick in particular have not been subject to this form of inhabitant displacement to the extent of many parts of London, but we got the drift.

While bending your imagination can pay dividends in getting the most out of Ruth Theodore, the exemplary playing and often melodic sonic backdrop will fill any blurred moments of concentration lapse. This was not your usual fare for a community based arts project, but full credit to the organisers’ creative experimentalist approach to spice up the musical menu. There was sufficient merit on display to hook into the ideals of an artist purveying an impression of alternative individualism and the freedom that it entails.

Ruth was appearing solo for this show in the art deco surroundings of Smethwick’s Thimblemill Library, but she indicated that a full band is often in tow as advertised for a Milton Keynes show in mid-April. While this would alter the wider sphere of the evening soundtrack, the core of Ruth’s unique style would surely be intact.

There is a secure place in music communities up and down the country for artists as good as Ruth Theodore as long as open minded approaches prevail. Long may libraries remain a cultural hub for the explorative and curious mind, while artists like Ruth will do a similar thing for the boundaries of your musical horizon.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

American Aquarium - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 24th March 2017

Pedal steel, melancholic sentiment and the overriding effect of the song feeds the country side; Rock ‘n’ roll and a sharp degree of edginess feeds the alt side. American Aquarium is as complete an alt-country band that you are likely to come across in 2017. The power of live music never ceases to amaze and this five piece combo from Raleigh North Carolina has blitzed their way across Europe for the last month with a memorable set of debut overseas performances. Not that this BJ Barham-led band are novices to the live scene with annual gig returns running well into the hundreds across their eleven year tenure as a functioning band.

The Bullingdon, located on Oxford’s vivacious Cowley Road, proved an ideal venue for American Aquarium as they headed towards the completion of an interesting week-long run of UK dates. For an independent band on a first visit, a turnout approaching three figures was a respectable gathering and this will surely grow if BJ keeps his promise of repeat visits. This is highly likely on the evidence of this evening’s show coupled with the fact that he did pay us a visit as a solo performer last summer, suitably impressed enough to bring the band over less than a year later.

If like me your initial exposure to their music was limited to the latest studio album WOLVES and BJ’s solo record last year ROCKINGHAM, there was nothing to fear from the older material which raced to an outstanding first impression. ‘Casualties’, ‘Jacksonville’ and set closer ‘Abe Lincoln’ all surfaced from 2013’s BURN.FLICKER.DIE album with the title track off that record ending a four song sequence of BJ in solo mode. At this point we learnt of the debt the band pays to Jason Isbell who showed faith in their music at the moment when they were at their lowest ebb, questioning whether playing to diminishing barroom audiences was going to be sustainable. Five years on, American Aquarium is now flourishing and even the ever open BJ proclaimed the length of time he has kept his own demons at bay.

While the band was in sparkling form, led by new lead guitarist George Hage and extremely busy multi-pedal steel/keyboard player Whit Wright, the strength of BJ Barham’s focal presence is the show’s shining light. Honesty, genuineness, compassion and anger are just a few traits that form this songwriter which were particularly projected during the solo phase. It was impossible not to be moved during ‘Unfortunate Kind’ or believe in the sentiment behind ‘American Tobacco Company’. It was also unsurprising to hear BJ share his appreciation for Guy Clark and pay respects through a cover of ‘She Ain’t Going Nowhere’.

Tim Easton
On the topic of covers, there was an impromptu guest in the guise of Nashville based artist Sam Lewis who joined BJ on stage for a version of John Prine’s ‘Spanish Pipe Dream’. Their paths had spontaneously crossed during respective UK tours and re-united a single song tribute duo that had previously formed on the Cayamo cruise. However original material was generally the order of the day with set opener ‘Man I’m Supposed to Be’, ‘Family Problems’, ‘Losing Side of Twenty-Five’ and ‘Wolves’ celebrating the full glory of the latest studio album.

This full band performance, completed by a rhythm section of Kevin McClain on drums and bassist Bill Corbin, used every second of the venue’s ten o’clock curfew, leaving just a short window for the obligatory merchandise sale. Earlier in the evening, a colleague of BJ from his At The Helm records connection in the UK – Tim Easton played an entertaining opening half hour set. Hailing from East Nashville Tennessee and highly motivated by the solitary delivery of songs, he represented the folk side of the singer-songwriter fraternity, requiring only an acoustic guitar, harmonica and fistful of songs to share his wealth. Although for his finale, the excellent ‘On My Way’ from last year’s AMERICAN FORK album, Tim was joined by Whit on pedal steel.

Upon a fond reflection, both during a long winding –multi diverted journey home and the morning after, it was hard pushed to think of a more profound and enjoyable gig in the first three months of 2017. There is going to be plenty of competition from their compatriot big hitters as the year progresses, but American Aquarium is perfectly equipped to fight their corner. A pristine sound system was a credit to the venue and justifies Empty Room Promotion’s decision to continue to utilise the place with such fine acts. Perhaps it was the compelling, intuitive and sincere presence of BJ Barham that elevated this show into the upper stratosphere of a busy gig year, but there was certainly something special in an unfiltered atmosphere to move an audience in a multitude of ways. Welcome to the UK American Aquarium and welcome back BJ Barham. You will be held to your word for a swift return.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Romantica - Shadowlands : At The Helm Records

The release of SHADOWLANDS signals the end of Romantica’s lengthy hiatus and the added good news is that At The Helm Records have stepped in to make this album readily available in the UK. This development is buoyed by the distinguished nature of this hefty release which weighs in at fifty nine minutes and fourteen tracks. Any trepidation of a record of such length struggling to entirely engage is sent packing after a couple of listens. Maybe the content is a mix of growers and those with an instant impact, but Ben Kyle has done a tremendous job in channelling so much determination, skill and guidance into a record packed with endless high points.

In the interim years since Romantica’s last album in 2009, Ben has been active in releasing a duet record with Carrie Rodriguez. In fact a UK tour around the time of that release saw Ben and Luke Jacobs play a set of Romantica songs in support of Carrie. Luke has since cemented his relationship with Carrie on many fronts, leaving Ben to arrange a new gathering of musicians to get SHADOWLANDS out. The result is an irresistible landscape soundtrack, forever etched in the Minnesota environment with the vocals retaining a Celtic trim to reflect Ben’s Irish heritage. For genre junkies the sound is a blend of folk rock and alt-country with a significant singer-songwriter sensibility streak.

Background information suggests that the album’s content has been strengthened by enhanced life experience and the passing of time. Whether viewing life from a macro or micro perspective, the song writing is spot on. The deeply personal and highly nostalgic sits well with the observational astute and if you’re looking for a sound element to die for there is plenty of weeping steel. In essence this album lands on the listener with a buzzing glow and its compulsive hooks serenade a steely core.

For me there is one track that stands head and shoulders above the rest and not just being a lyrical sucker for hearing Nashville and Louisville in the first verse. ‘Lonely Star’ rolls out to proclaim a profound metaphorical message with the analogy that Texas is not just the sole domain of the aforementioned song title. Pushing this song hard is the pumped up passion applied to the beautiful ‘Give Your Heart a Shelter’, a track that explodes like a shooting start in its final throes.

For some third person musings, the tribute to Gram Parsons in ‘Cecil Ingram Conor’ (named in honour of Gram’s pre-recording name) and the poignant piece titled ‘Buffalo Bill’ come up trumps. The latter almost unravels as an open letter and like so many tracks on the album is decorated with some atmospheric steel. A fourth track responsible for leaving those favourable first impressions is the light hearted album closer ‘Shandy Bass’, a fiercely nostalgic composition no doubt drawing inspiration from Ben’s Irish upbringing.

Outside this leading quartet are a series of highly merited tracks beginning with album opener ‘Let The Light Go Through You’ which gets the record off to a simmering start. ‘Get Back in Love’ sees Ben score a maximum in the stakes of penning a heartfelt love song, while ‘St. Paul City Lights’ takes the sound deepest into a country direction. To give the album a wider Americana feel, a wave of West Coast influence occasionally drifts in, most notably on ‘Nobody Knows’. This airy feel helps the album paint a picture and contrasts neatly with the increased tempo of offerings like ‘Blue Heart’.

Perhaps the true depth to this album is excavating some of the tracks which require a little more endeavour such as the imagery surrounding ‘Here It Comes’ and the message buried in ‘Harder to Hear’. ‘We Were Young’ and ‘After the War’ also fall into this category and complete the line-up of an album that begins to form the credentials of a mini epic with a large degree of multi-facetted content.

While there will be likeminded albums released this year from some big hitting artists, SHADOWLANDS gives Romantica the perfect vehicle to compete and ultimately muscle into contention for serious acclaim. Perhaps a defining feature is the way that the vocals are ground into the song emotion making it a release full of gutsy eloquence. A slice of purple and green reflect the sources that ultimately inspire Ben Kyle fuelling a record that heralds a successful recording return for Romantica.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Laura Marling - 02 Institute, Birmingham. Tuesday 14th March 2017

Watching Laura Marling perform is an absorbing experience as she retains a knack of holding you to every note, breath and lyric. Maybe the deadpan static steely delivery plays a vital role alongside a meandering vocal style effortlessly floating around the breadth of the scale. The ability to transfix an engrossed audience, even in a four figure mainly standing rock venue, is a testament to an alluring appeal which continues to garner widespread praise from scribes, many of whom are partial to a little poetic waxing.

It was a Birmingham return to the O2 Institute for Laura, almost two years from the moment when she played the venue in the midst of promoting 2015’s SHORT MOVIE album. If the house was almost full on that occasion, this time the sold out signs were up with a similar situation of a brand new record to present. SEMPER FEMINA had been only released a matter of days before this show, which was slotted in the middle of a run of UK dates.Not a single moment was wasted in turning to the new material with Laura reeling off eight songs from this record in the set’s early parts. Any element of risk evaporated as the new songs bedded in remarkably well. Laura did acknowledge this initial barrage of the unfamiliar, but there was serial faith in her judgement.

Starting with new album’s focal track ‘Soothing’, a mood of artistic tranquillity settled in, aided and abetted by a five piece backing line up ensuring the soundtrack was executed with utmost precision. Not averse to appearing solo, Laura did a mid-set stint unaccompanied, with a sheer equilibrium of balanced majestic effect to when in the company of the backfield of twin guitars, percussion and a pair of backing vocalists.

Apart from the aforementioned opening track, ‘Wild Fire’ and ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ impressed as much in the live format as the early spins of the new record. The inter-song audience enthusiasm grew with the more popular back numbers, which is now growing to the extent that the current release is her sixth album. Remarkable output for a twenty seven year old, but in line with an artist already off into the distance as one of this era’s most prominent singer-songwriters. You can take your pick of highlights from the second part of the set, with no doubt equal praise for songs such as ‘Darkness Descends’, ‘Once’, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ and ‘Sophia’ from the assembled masses.

In truth there was not a single below par moment in the encore-less eighty minutes that Laura spent in the spotlight. Capturing this performance in an isolated mind enabled the true beauty of her music to flourish and prosper. To witness such a mesmerising experience in a pin drop environment was a treasured treat. Whether you view Laura Marling from a folk, indie, alternative or an increasingly Laurel Canyon influenced perspective, the joy of losing yourself in a literary melange of predominately acoustic and occasionally electric is a privilege to find.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 28 February 2017

For those of a local persuasion this gig was a case of a Black Country band crossing over the divide to play a Birmingham venue. For the rest of you this was the first headline gig at the Kitchen Garden Café for Kim Lowings and the Greenwood with the impact being another glowing display by one of the region’s finest folk artists. The Greenwood might have been slightly depleted for the evening, but the structure and delivery of a familiar bunch of songs was as good as ever. Kim’s live performance continues to flourish with each show and 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year in terms of projects and new releases.

While the new record, what will be their third full length release, is still some months and funding away, the focus this evening was very much on the songs that have strengthened Kim’s live presence over the last few years. To this extent there was only a couple of new songs previewed, both of traditional origin, with most of the upcoming material still being tantalisingly kept under wraps. The two sets which formed this headline set at the Kitchen was a rich mix of the traditional and original, all played with an accomplished finesse and sang with a blossoming elegance.

In perfect symmetry, Kim opened both sets free of her trademark mountain dulcimer for a couple of songs thus freeing her vocalist element to rise to the summit. These segments included a beautiful ode to Sandy Denny with a version of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and a gorgeous rendition of the Be Good Tanyas classic ‘Littlest Birds’. The latter of these induced spontaneous audience accompaniment, a feature that was often repeated peaking with closing numbers ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ and ‘The Begging Song’.

The musical accompaniment was in full string mode for this show as Tim Rogers’ Cajon was absent with apologies. Bassist Dave Sutherland and dual guitarist/bouzouki player Andrew Lowings stepped up to compensate, but paying punters will never be short changed when Kim hits the sublime spot with her beautiful vocals. Among the highlights from this infectious show were the songs ‘Off to Sea’, ‘Regrets’ and ‘Lullaby’, the last two being prime examples of Kim’s added precious gift of penning a special song. Her output is destined to be a mix of interpreting the past and ploughing the route of converting inspiration to original song. Whichever the choice, the result is universally appealing.

Opening for Kim this evening was her good friend and Kitchen Garden Café regular Chris Cleverley. Apart from past and present collaboration, both performers have been part of the Company of Players project which offered a fresh take on the Bard’s legacy through the lens of contemporary song. Both will be appearing in Birmingham in April when the project’s roadshow hits these parts and Chris once again treated folks to his fine contribution with the excellent song ‘But Thinking Makes It So’. It had only been a couple of weeks since Chris graced a sold out show at this venue when supporting Lewis and Leigh and like that appearance he impressed once again especially when tackling ‘The Dawn Before the Day’ and ‘Rafters’ from his debut album APPARITIONS. The latter particularly explodes with a riveting acoustic energy and almost pans out in rock opera territory.

Kim’s own recent album HISTORIA also featured frequently in her sets. ‘Maggie’s Song’ always brings a joyous smile without quite reaching the heights of a rare bit of Greenwood electric added to the album version. ‘Monsoon’ was also lifted from this 2015 album and an appropriate choice for a wet Birmingham night, although not quite as dramatic as the song’s inspiration.

For the second time in the month of February, ‘The Parting Glass’ was sung in the Kitchen Garden Café. Kim’s sparkling encore version was in a totally contrasting style to Ben Glover’s rugged rendition a week ago, but both have a place and this proved a fitting climax to another impressive show.

Discovering the music of Kim Lowings in her home town of Stourbridge four years ago has proven to be a wise move. Incidentally, the evening of the discovery was in support of Jess Morgan, another singer-songwriter with a rising star. There is so much bright talent on the UK’s folk and acoustic scene that popping into your local venues can often reap rewards. This Kitchen Garden Café gig could well have been the start of another long lasting appreciation for any music fans seeing Kim Lowings and the Greenwood for first time. They won’t be disappointed with the discovery.