Friday, 26 May 2017

Brent Cobb - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 25th May 2017

The only reason SHINE ON RAINY DAY didn’t feature high amongst my favourite albums of 2016 was that it didn’t shift off the ‘to get list’ until earlier this year. Now the bad deed of delayed listening has been rectified, not a single second is wasted when lapping up the song writing delights of Brent Cobb. The latest high of dissecting his extraordinary ability was viewing the stage show close up and the album was brought to an extra celestial life after this performance at the Hare and Hounds in Birmingham.

From a presumed memory perspective, this was possibly a first foray into the English Midlands for dates. Expectation and anticipation had been growing though, represented by a fairly packed room in the venue and the added attraction of highly rated Canadian country folk singer Colter Wall as the opening act. Brent had already played dates at Brighton’s The Great Escape and London’s famed Borderline to expected praise and Birmingham’s Hare and Hounds can now be added to the glowing review pile.

Brent Cobb is the epitome of the archetypal country singer. Southern and rural to the core, he is also blessed with the poetic tendencies to turn the most insignificant of observations into majestic songs. Right from the off in this show, he launched into a personal favourite from the album in ‘South of Atlanta’, proclaiming that you may hear a few more hometown inspired songs before the set closed. Of course the record presents a multitude of tracks that could emerge as different folks’ favourite and all but one of them was on show this evening. This included the fabulous co-write with Andrew Combs ‘Shine on Rainy Day’; a song luckily to have been heard twice live in this town, now sung by both its architects, in the month of May. The line ‘ain't it funny how a little thunder can make a man start to wonder’ never loses its appeal of where stellar song writing can take you.

What also made this show special was Brent’s guitar playing sidekick: the extremely talented Mike Harris. He used every inch of the electric twang in his possession to shower plenty of adoring added parts to the songs, working in pristine tandem with the acoustic Brent. Solos fizzed, while the slide injected a dose of the blues. Maybe for another day, but you could only drool over where an added rhythm section could have taken proceedings. However for the time, moment and setting, the arrangement on show was spot on.

The material shared from outside of the album wasn’t skimped on either. ‘Old Shit’ was one of the core tracks that made Miranda Lambert’s PLATINUM such a good record and it would have been remiss for its writer (although technically a co-write with the Cadillac Three’s Neil Mason) not to have played it. On the cover front, we were barely four songs into the set before Brent and Mike decided on a bit of hillbilly, and there is no finer choice than piling into the Dwight Yoakam classic ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’. Just prior to this change of direction, Brent had introduced the song he offered his cousin, and esteemed producer, Dave Cobb for the SOUTHERN FAMILY compilation album and ‘Down Home’ was a mighty fine song that he chose to share.

While the venue soundtrack before, between and after the sets was outstanding (Sturgill Simpson, Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Dori Freeman, and Gillian Welch for starters), it was strange hearing a couple of the artist’s songs on the play list. Needless to say, ‘Country Bound’ and ‘Diggin’ Holes’ sounded even better live than through the venue’s sound deck. While these two tracks were true to the recorded version, Brent chose to play the song writing version of ‘Travelling Poor Boy’ which slightly differed from that on the record.

For those who prefer the tunes with a touch more intensity, the closing pair of ‘Black Crow’ and ‘Let the Rain Come Down’ formed a super climax with Mike letting rip more on the live versions. The last song was also literally the evening closer as no encore was offered thus bringing proceedings to an abrupt halt. A rare occurrence that could certainly be lived with, especially when reflecting upon how well the songs on show were delivered.

Colter Wall 
Like all seriously good singer-songwriter shows, at the conclusion we were a lot wiser of their influences, inspirations and general approach. One of the final remaining tracks to be mentioned is ‘Down in the Gully’ with Brent explaining its association with moonshine. An interesting similarity offered during this show was how ‘Solving Problems’ had all the hallmarks of Guy Clark simplicity. No arguments here with that assertion.

Prior to Brent sharing his songs in the main set, Colter Wall did likewise, albeit in a different style. This Canadian artist, incredibly adept at exposing the dark bleakness of the Prairies in his folk driven songs, has been accruing positive press recently including a ‘one to watch’ nod from Rolling Stone Country. His familiarity with some of the audience was apparent especially the concluding track ‘Sleeping on the Blacktop’ which was featured on the soundtrack of the 2016 motion picture Hell or High Water. The bulk of Colter’s set came from his recently released self-titled full length album with ‘Motorcycle’, ‘Thirteen Silver Dollars’ and ‘Codeine Dream’ probably proving the pick. A hint of mind adjustment is needed to tune into Colter’s style, but when the connection is made, a rich texture supports his songs, all delivered in the aura you would expect from a down beat left field folk singer. Absolutely splendid stuff was on offer for folks to digest.

Luring you into a transfixed zone was the redeeming feature of this gig which heralded both Brent Cobb and Colter Wall as flagbearers for their distinctive styles of music. These are artists deserved of a bigger stage, but there are no complaints when you can enjoy their craft in a somewhat chosen few environment.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Whitney Rose Band - The Maze, Nottingham. Tuesday 23rd May 2017

Maybe the hustle, bustle and clanking of glasses was missing, but you could quite easily have been in any roadhouse honky tonk in the Lone Star state such was the aura of Whitney Rose making her UK debut at The Maze in Nottingham. Clad in the multi-purpose hat, it didn’t take too long for Whitney and her cracking band to hit their stride. The result was a heart bending array of real deal country tunes raising the heat in a room that has seen more than its fair share of American music legends over the years. The only double take is to remember that Whitney is as Canadian as you come, albeit the Texas dust has rubbed in far more than skin deep.

In a gig week where the domineering big vocalist ruled the roost in one show, this was very much a team effort from Whitney’s band led by some scintillating lead guitar work from Will Meadows. If Whitney supplied the three chords and the heartache, Will was spot on with the twang, almost rendering the missing pedal steel surplus to requirement. Although slightly adrift from the spotlight, the rhythm team of Kyle Sullivan (drums) and Andrew Pacheco (bass) solidified a set list that criss-crossed spine tingling originals and routine classic covers.

The 2015 full length album HEARTBREAKER OF THE YEAR may have had the rich association, but it has been the current lower key EP SOUTH TEXAS SUITE which helped rise her profile in the UK leading to a handful of inaugural dates tagged onto a rather extensive European tour. Indeed a road hardened interior is masked by a petite exterior when truly assessing Whitney Rose. Over the course of the show, the hat was discarded as the vocal range was stretched; all within the confines of a soundtrack that rarely tipped off a lofty pinnacle.

Midway through the gig, Whitney paid tribute to fellow Austin song writing resident Brennan Leigh for gifting the wonderfully simplistic song ‘Analog’. In turn there is little hesitation in praising Whitney for the brilliantly penned ‘Three Minute Love Affair’, perfectly capturing the romantic notion of the Texas Two Step. Both tracks appear on the EP and were joined on the evening by the geographically inspired nostalgic piece ‘Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach’ and the lively main set closer ‘My Boots’.

In true country tradition, the selected covers are more a celebration of genre roots rather than pure populist sentiment. ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Two More Bottle of Wine’ are hardly a stab at left field country, but their execution was a perfect fit for the art being created. Earlier in the set, a cover of ‘Suspicious Minds’ did raise the eyebrow as Whitney ditched the guitar for the first of a couple of songs. If you’re seeking one non-original tune that crowned the evening, then the band’s instrumental version of the early sixties guitar piece ‘Sleep Walk’ shone a celebratory light on the worth of their total contribution to the event.

With a hint of what’s to come, a new song named ‘Arizona’ was impressively previewed; once more another tune rife with Will’s nifty guitar work. It was indicated that Nashville was the recording location for the next off the peg Whitney Rose release. Maybe this could be an assault on Music City; a place one fine Canadian light since Lindi Ortega’s decision to quit the chase on those streets. Wherever Whitney plies her trade, the musical environment will be enriched such is the wealth of her songs and the stylistic way in which she upholds the tradition of her beloved genre.

Local singer-songwriter Luke Whittemore provided the support for the evening with more than a little Stateside influence in the delivery of a fistful of fine songs. Luke is striving to establish himself on the UK scene and a slot at this year's Maverick Festival will present an opportunity for wider exposure of an artist with plenty to offer. 

Those folks fortunate to catch the Whitney Rose Band on this short UK visit will have been served up a real treat. Spreading the word on her style may be an uphill battle on occasions, but when the music and atmosphere does its job, the best advert in the world is revealed for all to see.

Imelda May - Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Monday 22nd May 2017

Plush, slick and polished were not vocabulary that came to mind when Imelda May played the Robin 2 in Bilston around a decade ago. Of course prior to that there were the pub gigs in the area, although in subsequent years success and recognition headed her way as the mainstream were given a glimpse into the world of rockabilly. However artists evolve for a multitude of reasons, yet there is an inevitability that the stark comparisons are going to be made with Imelda May circa 2017 and her past.

The lavish surroundings of the Birmingham’s Symphony Hall hosted Imelda on this latest excursion to the Second City on a date that will forever be a sad mark on the nation’s live music scene. Backed by a seven piece touring band, Imelda turned the focus on her new album, which along with the visual transformation is core to this transitional re-invention. LIFE LOVE FLESH BLOOD has attracted a diverse bunch of labels from Americana to alternative, but firmly resides in the adult contemporary camp awash with powerhouse vocals and stirring melodies. These absolutely contributed to the tone of the show which featured an entire airing of the new record from the mellow strains of the opening number ‘Call Me’ to the far rockier encore closer ‘Game Changer’.

Essentially like any fresh out the package touring record, the audience mood often lapsed into a passive state, with the anthemic ‘Should’ve Been You’ and the instantly connective ‘Wild Woman’ being the major lifting points as live rousers amongst the new songs. This certainly doesn’t undermine the quality of outstanding tunes such as ‘Human’, ‘Black Tears’ and ‘Leaving Me Lonely’. These and many others were either eased or belted out with the ultimate emotion, making this show perhaps heavily focussed on the focal point of the vocalist rather than the entity of the on-stage ensemble.

There was certainly no lack of panache or seasoned class in the guitar, horn, key and rhythm compartments even though they generally remained in a pre-ordained role of providing the oxygen to Imelda’s vocals. On the solitary occasion where she did strip the sound down, long term band mate Oliver Darling joined her for an acoustic rendition of ‘The Girl I Used To Be’ in the slot that heralded the conclusion of the pre-encore show. This was introduced as a song looking back at her Irish upbringing. It would however be an understandable misinterpretation if thoughts turned to aligning it with the recent transition as well.

On the topic of the older material, there was an enhanced buzz around the venue when ‘Big Bad Handsome May’ punctuated a raft of new songs in the early stages. Likewise as the gig reached a crescendo, ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Johnny Got a Boom Boom’ ensured that remaining seated was not an option.

While the new album is firmly packed with the writing of Imelda May conveying deep and emotional feelings, ranging from the proverbial ‘Sixth Sense’ to the primal ‘Love and Fear’, there was still room for the odd cover. A version of The Animals’ ‘I’m Crying’ was a central part of the pre-encore finale, while it was sixties bubble gum pop all round when the extras began with an uplifting rendition of ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’, initially made famous by The Shangri-Las.

Imelda proved every inch the show performer as she prowled the Symphony Hall stage. The new material forms a gutsy bunch of songs that are showing signs of extra maturing in listening mode away from the live arena. It can sometimes be difficult making the ultimate connection in a largish hall, but Imelda worked her socks off all show to make a difference. Her chat was kept to a general minimum, with a now in hindsight more than poignant re-collection of industry colleagues she lost in the Bataclan tragedy. On a local note, she did acknowledge members of the Birmingham band the Toy Hearts in the audience who incidentally supported Imelda in that Bilston gig all those years ago.

Imelda May is coming across as an artist purposefully driven by instinct and certainly not afraid to branch out. Fans will definitely be picked up in new spheres on the route of her current onward projection, primed by exposure to an artist who is comfortably at ease with the output of a new direction. There will no doubt be barriers and further hurdles to conquer, but few left the Symphony Hall with any reason to not rejoice in just witnessing an artist on top form.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Luke Tuchscherer - Always Be True : Clubhouse Records

There can be two ways to grasp an album. One to take the feeling it evokes at face level or on the other hand get your thinking caps on and explore its deep crevices. If you take the wise option to acquaint yourself with the new Luke Tuchscherer album, both approaches will reap dividends. The surface content of ALWAYS BE TRUE rips through a soundtrack of balanced roots rock taking its influence from country, Americana and the sound of the suburbs for those of a certain age. However this highly palatable presence is only the start of mining the true worth of a singer-songwriter equally adept at firing up the ballads alongside outright rockers.

The background to Luke’s second solo release since his decision to predominately pursue a  route away from his band The Whybirds was a tie up with Clubhouse Records. Having a small prior understanding of both parties leads to a conclusion of this being a strong fit and its wider infrastructure should reap greater rewards. The crowdfunding process was in place to get the record initially financed and the finished product is gift wrapped to all those who have believed in Luke.

Being greeted by the sonic delights of the production melding in a melange of stringed instrumentation gets exploring this album underway in fine style with greater riches lying for those prepared to exert a little more thought. Structurally the album rolls out as the proverbial game of two halves in an intended bout of symmetrical planning. Surely with a nod to the vinyl listener, two distinctive blocks of five tracks unravel with cyclical tendencies. Tracks #1 and #6 act out the role of the upbeat opener, while #5 and #10 certainly have a concluding feel to them.

Luke at the Maverick Festival 
Delve deeper into the lyrical mind of Luke’s songs and further patterns emerge to furnish this album with greater appreciation. The first half takes a very philosophical stance stoked by an essence of realism. There is definite optimism to opener ‘Waiting for My Day to Come’, although slightly mooted with frustration. The virtual side one ends on a melancholic note with ‘When the Dream Dies’. The tempo of both these numbers also resembles the mood. Out of the three other songs sandwiched between the two aforementioned ones ‘Outside, Looking In’ is the pick based on its general feel and the impressive way that bitterness is conveyed via the lyrics. ‘Don’t Put Me Out’ and ‘These Lonesome Blues’ also show that not a single track has been wasted, either musically or lyrically.

The second half of this neatly planned ten track collection seems to focus on the micro especially with two of the numbers being name-explicit. The album title is extracted from a line in ‘Be True’ which in turn also acts as the conduit into this phase of the record. It is also an upbeat number in the same mold as the album opener and strengthens the overall feel of the music as we reach the midway point. ‘Amanda Jane’ is the first of the named tracks and a person clearly close to the writer’s heart – reality or in character. ‘A Song for Jack Brown’ rolls out as a tribute piece to a late friend and its acoustic feel successfully closes the album in a reflective and mournful mode. This is real life music, no holds barred. ‘’Love Don’t Come Easy’ and ‘No One Did it Like Us’ also take the writing down a direct personal route, while ensuring the entire quality sound of this record possesses a seamless appeal.

There is a strong element of balancing the dream with reality in the writing of Luke Tuchscherer or perhaps put it differently, a solid bond between the attainable and utopia. Meaningful songs expressing explicit desires adorn his work akin with a general feel that these tunes are equally at home in a live context where the rockers can rock and ballads can weep. ALWAYS BE TRUE frames an artist in control, earning every inch of their crust and repaying the faith presented to them. Ultimately Luke Tuchscherer makes damn good music and has been a pleasure to discover over the course of his two solo albums.

Justin Townes Earle - Kids in the Street : New West Records

The music of Justin Townes Earle is possibly not wholly designed to spread its wings and find an audience. It’s always been the reversal with keen eared listeners getting drawn to a sound which is almost chameleon-like across the roots spectrum. Pinning down the style often proves a futile exercise, but the results of half a dozen albums over the last ten years has presented a pretty impressive output of how to utilise one’s gifts. KIDS IN THE STREET is the latest effort from an artist where striking out from a pre-determined destiny may have proved a challenge. One certainty however is that Justin Townes Earle has managed to do just that, with the new record moving the marker along nicely.

Listening to this record several times to compose some primary thoughts did generate a comfort zone impression. There is a serene relaxed feel to the dozen or so tracks with plenty of upbeat and positive vibes. To both contradict and back up this assertion, further delving revealed Justin extolling the circumstance of recording this album at a moment of exciting stability in his life while making significant changes in how he makes a record. Either way, what is more important is the fruits of this latest strand of Justin Townes Earle music and there is plenty of appeal to extract.

In line with his previous work, the sound does bounce around the genres with perhaps the two strongest elements being a general soulful direction permeated by insertions of traditional country. You can also throw is some good old folk storytelling in the guise of an updated version of ‘Same Old Stagolee’ and the pensive nostalgic title track ‘Kids in the Street’. The latter is one of several pieces to benefit from the dulcet tones of pedal steel, while an equal dose of organ works wonders in stirring the soulful pot across the record. These two aforementioned songs reveal the worth of the lyrical content with lines such as ‘back when life was simple like 1, 2, 3’ being all that is required to sum up losses accruing from gentrification. The title track stemmed from Earle’s Nashville upbringing and focusses on his view of current changes there. Elements of the city’s darker side inspired the updating of the other track from its folk tradition base.

For the making of this record, Justin and his team headed west out of Nashville intent on mixing up the sound. The soulful results of opener, and one of the promotional tracks, ‘Champagne Corolla’, alongside cultured rocker ‘Maybe a Moment’, organ beneficiary ’15-25’ and ‘Short Hair Woman’ all appear as testimonies to this transition. However two of the prime tracks are when the Nashville core is returned to in the lovely feeling generated by ‘What’s She Crying For’ and the traditional leaning ‘Faded Valentine’. The latter possesses the most glorious, simple and prominent opening part before settling into a gentle ear pleasing roller.

A bonus track on certain versions of this album (a first release on New West Records) features a distinctive take on the Paul Simon classic ‘Graceland’, but while proving a familiar listening point for folks new to his music it doesn’t really truly define where this album takes you. What KIDS IN THE STREET does do is continue to establish Justin Townes Earle as a genuine artist, highly capable of making fine music which will eventually find its way to its intended listening base. A short UK tour this summer will give the album a lift over here including a headline slot at the Maverick Festival. 

My Darling Clementine - Still Testifying : Proper Records

If the term ‘project’ was ever warranted, now is the time to erase it. Three albums; a literary collaboration and countless shows are a testimony to the strength of My Darling Clementine as one of the UK’s leading country music exponents. Whether in full band mode or just a simple Lou and Michael duet, songs have flowed effortlessly. There is no easing off on the quality as STILL TESTIFYING is unleashed on a scene where real country music faces a battle to resist the watering down trend.

While the theme has remained similar across the three albums, the new record sees a switch in sound with a move in a country soul direction. This is predominately a light approach rather than a full on dive into heavy soul, but the result is a winning formula that keeps the album fresh and resilient to a multitude of repeat listens. These plays have long outstripped any review purpose and the polished finesse of this record will ensure plenty more listens are yielded before any embers will die.

On such a topic, ‘The Embers and the Flames’ is the title of the opening track and immediately the updated sound hits the traps aided by a band, with brass et al, in fine form. Once again the trials and tribulations of relationship troubles are core to the lyrical content, give or take an odd stroll into personal and social commentary territory. In fact two of the album’s leading contender tracks are along these lines. ‘Eugene’ was first introduced at a My Darling Clementine gig last year with Lou pouring every sinew of emotion into an account of the experience of a dark moment while on tour in the US. The emotive element has transferred well to the recording and this track has rightly been singled out for pre-release promotion.

However this song is just eclipsed for me as the premier moment by the majestic social weepie ‘Two Lane Texaco’. While obviously taking its inspiration from a stateside development, there is connotation of this happening anywhere in the western world. Ironically in the process of piecing together this review thoughts turned to how the small West Midlands town of Cradley Heath has fared since the imposition of a major supermarket and the construction of a bypass with a myriad of economic effects. Aside from the association, this is a damn good country song setting out its stall and executed with classic My Darling Clementine precision.

Overall the narrative of this album is of a merited quality with a prime example being the clever interpretation to the ending of a country classic in ‘Jolene’s Story’. In the true tradition of film and book reviews, check it out for yourself while taking in the whole album. On a literary theme, ‘Friday Night, Tulip’ Hotel ‘ has found a home on a My Darling Clementine album after being one of the featured songs on The Other Half project which was curated in collaboration with crime fiction writer Mark Billingham. This is another piece of blended art that you must catch up with if it hasn’t crossed your path yet.

Lou and Michael at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2014
Michael and Lou are at their best when playing the gender game. Part parody-part tribute maybe but this is a seriously good display of the duet role. ‘Just a Woman’, awash with a soul lite and soft brass background, emerges as another ‘A’ rated track in this vein. The fusion of vocal parts plays a major role in the appeal of this record and any reference you may read to some of the country music iconic duets is not far off the mark.

Another positive trait of this album is its ability to vary the mood and sound effectively. ‘Shallow’ fits the bill as a fairly low key closer, but perhaps at this stage in a relationship struggle things are calming down. Earlier in the album, hints of weeping pedal steel adorn ‘Since I Fell for You’, although the tempo does pick up with the lengthy titled ‘There’s Nothing You Can Tell Me (That I Don’t Already Know)’. Of the two remaining tracks, ‘Tear Stained Smile’ is another which has transitioned well from stage to studio after instantly enjoying the live version in Birmingham last October. Lastly, ‘Yours is the Cross That I Still Bear’ is more relationship anguish and quite simply what we expect and love from a My Darling Clementine record.

Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish make music that they care about and have created something special that should be preserved. Albeit on an independent scale, their polished music gleams with a shine of sincerity. It’s a little glimpse into a showbiz world with a touch of glamour. Quirky and reflective, My Darling Clementine makes spot on country music. STILL TESTIFYING is a wonderfully classy effort communicating its themes impressively through the timeless medium of song.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Chastity Brown - Silhouette of Sirens : Red House Records

Chastity Brown first came to prominence with the release of her 2013 album BACK-ROAD HIGHWAYS which was met with critical acclaim on the basis of its inherent nature to conquer a multitude of sounds. The good news is that she’s back and in the same dominant form. While there was an impatient wait between the last album release and the inevitable UK dates, this time synchronisation is spot on. As soon as SILHOUETTE OF SIRENS hits the stores, Chastity embarks on a series of dates across the UK and Ireland giving folks an immediate chance to hear a bunch of songs in their purest form.

While all the potential credentials of a successful mainstream artist are in place, perhaps it is Chastity’s distance from interference that ensures a totally personal imprint is stamped on her music. She undertakes all the writing duties on a solo basis and is also highly active in the production process. The result is an album of vast substance, deeply personal and sensitive in its mood-driving tendencies.

From a stylistic perspective, the record is once again the proverbial melting pot of American roots music. A croaking and slightly cracked voice injects passion into each song successful in luring listeners seeking a blues and soul influence. Indeed the opening song ‘Drive Slow’ plays a firm role in defining the mood of this album and the tone is set through Chastity’s vocal presence. You also get the impression that the sound could tilt more in a rock direction and still retain an earthy element. This does happen a touch in the mid album soul stomper ‘Pouring Rain’, a track up there with the best on offer.

Chastity at Maverick Festival 2015
If you’re seeking a comparative sound from a similar level act then look no further than when Birds of Chicago are in full flow with Ali Mitchell in the vocal steering seat. Both artists tour overseas on a par and approach their music from a bi-racial stance. This is a critical element to their multi-facetted appeal which seduces fans open to a blended approach.

A clear stand out track on this album is in fact an older piece and one which was core to Chastity pushing her music when first touring overseas in 2014-15. ‘Colorado’ is the song in question, a highly addictive melody pleasing number that was the chosen tune to showcase when invited to play on Jools Holland’s BBC Later show. Its eventual slot on this album is a welcome inclusion and should be a popular crowd pleaser during the upcoming shows.

So far the opener and two strongest mid album tracks have been mentioned. Like all meaningful albums, the closer also plays a memorable role with Chastity significantly lowering the volume to pour everything into ‘Lost’. Inevitably the lyrical content has much to reveal, although it will take a few spins to get to this aspect as first and foremost the vocals and sound tend to major on the initial impact. However like all records of this ilk, any throwaway tendency is nowhere to be seen and the listening location could quite easily be on a long drive or at home during a relaxing moment.

SILHOUETTE OF SIRENS is a continuation of why Minneapolis based Chastity Brown should be an artist to seek out. It has been helped along via a release on the Red House Records label and bears the hallmark of a record that will resonate with an increasingly wider audience base. 

The Kennedys - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 14th May 2017

There’s a solid reliability that you are in for a fine good time when The Kennedys hit town. Pete and Maura have made the Kitchen Garden a regular stopping point when they hit European shores, being more than capable of luring a loyal following to their shows. To that extent, the duo from New York City decided to make this event an all request evening. However this was not some pre-meditated social media campaign, just Pete passing an A4 notepad round the room prior to the start then mulling over a raft of requested songs that more than filled a near two hour performance.

At the end of the encore, which consisted of their old favourite ‘Stand’ and a usual fab four cover on this occasion ‘A Day in the Life’, hazy memory totted up well over 20 numbers spanning the breadth of The Kennedys’ lengthy career as a performing duo. As usual all the tunes had The Kennedys twin trademark trait of Maura’s supreme folk vocals and Pete’s sublime guitar playing. In fact the ease of which a stroke of the Stratocaster turned it into a mystical musical wand was a joy to witness at barely a couple of feet away.

There was no real hot off the press release to expose on this tour as the pair still have considerable mileage left in their 2015 triple launch of a duo record plus a solo offering from both Pete and Maura. Tracks from all three were played this evening off a set list where folks could literally have no complaints. Although there was one solitary new song delivered with ‘Don’t Talk to Strangers’ coming across as a smashing piece upon first listen.

A great strength of The Kennedys is their ability to pen a stellar melody amidst a soundtrack that spans the American roots music spectrum with more than a heavy slant on heyday rock ‘n’ roll. It has certainly done no harm in having a long association with folk maestro Nanci Griffiths including backing band slots with her. Therefore there was no surprise in one of her songs appearing and ‘Love at the Five and Dime’ did the trick.

Reference to, and the utmost praise, has already been bestowed upon Pete’s playing with two particular standout moments being a light hearted version of the classic tune ‘Apache’ and the rocking pre-encore closer ‘Midnight Ghost’. While on the subject of Pete’s contribution, worthy mention needs to be given to a selection of New York inspired tunes taken from his solo album HEART OF GOTHAM. ‘The Bells Rang’, ‘Williamsburg Bridge’ and ‘The Riot in Bushwick’ were all superbly presented complete with a detailed background introduction.

Mauna’s solo album VILLANELLE also shared the spotlight, with ‘Fireflies’ and ‘She Worked Her Magic on Me’ flourishing in the limelight. We were also reminded that this collection of songs took the words of poet BD Love, added Maura’s impressive melodies and exceptional vocals before the finishing touch of Pete’s guitar rounded things off. Around the same time The Kennedys released their latest fully credited duo album WEST and top tracks such as the rock ‘n’ roll fuelled ‘Travel Day Blues’ and ‘Southern Jumbo’ entertained this well attended Kitchen Garden gig.

As it was gauged that Kennedys’ newbies in the audience were thin on the ground, we were spared the well-told story of their destiny meeting in Lubbock Texas many years ago. However the song spawned from that moment ‘Half a Million Miles’ was sung unannounced, but still shrouded in the love that blossomed in the ensuing years.

One guarantee is that this is not the last we will see of The Kennedys in Birmingham, whether it is another two year wait or a little sooner. When they do return it will be a highly prized evening of outstanding folk ‘n’ roll music. Maybe the set list will be fuelled by another request deluge or more likely, the next chapter of The Kennedys recording career.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Andrew Combs - Glee Club, Birmingham. Thursday 4th May 2017

Andrew Combs’ meticulous approach to song writing is reaping dividends. In fact his songs are akin to a sculptor etching each mark on their masterpiece. Over the course of the three albums to bear his name, a multitude of highly crafted songs have radiated in their full glory. Subsequently the UK and Europe has benefitted from numerous visits to promote these records, no doubt on the back of their release via Loose Music. The latest tour is in conjunction with the most recent of these as CANYONS OF MY MIND hit the discerning ear of a record buying public in April.

Once more East Midlands based promoter Cosmic American re-instated their long association with Andrew and on this occasion arranged two shows in their twin bases of Birmingham and Nottingham. It was around two and a half years ago when the West Midlands last made the tour agenda. The first good news is that this renewal in the studio of The Glee Club doubled the turnout to that of the Hare and Hounds in 2014. To build on this enhancement, a full band was in tow, perhaps just missing some pedal steel or keys element. Anyhow those present were treated to a framed sample of what Andrew does best and a decent spread of songs across the three records adorned a set that lasted around ten minutes over the hour mark.

One assertion of seeing Andrew Combs live again is that he works comfortably within the boundaries of both his environment and song style. The sound was finely tuned for this semi-intimate setting with the band only being remotely let off the leash with the penultimate song of the evening, ‘Bourgeois King’. This was a tilt in the direction of a re-enactment of the album version which was in line with the overall feel of the gig. At times you felt you were in a showcase, an experience that is totally valid if you desire an unfiltered listen to an album. However with a view to the limitless appeal of Andrew’s song writing strength, this is no bad environment to be exposed to.

The set rolled out in a simple formulaic manner with the band leaving Andrew to deliver three songs solo midway through. This segment stripped a singer-songwriter down to its bare bones and the impact of listening to these songs in this format was strong. In fact the pick of the set was ‘Rainy Day Song’ from this trio; the opener from the previous album ALL THESE DREAMS and introduced as a co-write with Brent Cobb, who happens to be visiting Birmingham later this month.

Another deviation in the song delivery was the playing of ‘Emily’ towards the end of the set. This rolls out as one of the upbeat numbers complete with an audience friendly chorus, fondly remembered from when Andrew thrilled an arena gathering during his surprise inclusion on the 2016 Country to Country Festival line up.

From the new record, the Glenn Campbell-esque ‘Rose Colored Blues’ opened the set and appealed high alongside encore choice ‘Hazel’. We were also treated to a couple of tracks from the aforementioned previous album with ‘Suwannee County’ taking the gig crown of a song  elevated to another level by a live rendition. Generally the chat was kept to a minimum in this concise show, but amongst a series of short insights we learned that ‘Better Way’ was dedicated to his wife and ‘Strange Bird’ was a requested song that rarely makes a European set list.

While there was an element of conservatism in the main set, opening act Paul Cauthen continually pushed boundaries during an extended support slot. The use of a powerful voice and a playing style that breathed new life into an acoustic guitar kept the audience alert during the set. The usual term warm up could possibly be shelved to describe this performance as the temperature control button was continually raised. It was certainly a cut above the level of your jobbing opener and repeatedly threw up images of what a modern day Elvis or Johnny Cash would be trying to do if they were treading the indie boards in 2017. Texas based Cauthen was promoting his latest record MY GOSPEL and the extended preview he gave both it and his style would have certainly done no harm to potential album sales.

CANYONS OF MY MIND has already been anointed the top album title of the year. Where the actual record and gig sits when the dust settles remains to be seen but enjoying the present should be preserved. The album has garnered many enjoyable listens since release and this Birmingham show evolved into an intimate insight into why Andrew Combs is a singer-song writer of the highest calibre. Showcase or gig, the evening was a relevant piece of the 2017 musical adventure jigsaw.