Thursday, 29 June 2017

Co-Pilgrim - Moon Lagoon : Farm Music

Co-Pilgrim continue their fertile period of album releases with a brand new record bound and packaged to tempt a curious listener into a compendium of complexities and craft. It’s a record to challenge and delight, swaying the audience in a multiple of mood swings. Melodic and mellow comes up on the rails to ultimately pip fiery and fervid, but there are frequent elements of the record which places Co-Pilgrim at an intriguing point where 60s psychedelia meets late 80s pioneering Brit Pop meets 21st century raw indie-Americana. Whether such associations cross the minds of Mike Gale and Joe Bennett when they hit the studio are mere speculative thoughts, but their music certainly courts independent reaction.

The eight tracks, which symmetrically form MOON LAGOON, are full of cool sounds that soak deep into your pores. The symmetrical element comes from the fact that this appears to fit the double-sided vinyl format and that the first and last pieces linger longest in the positive memory bank after a succession of analytical plays. Of course a particular mind-set determines whether you spin a record for such a purpose or the more common simple pleasure effect, and the good news is this record slides into either approach. The reason album opener ‘Turn it Around’ resonates well lies initially in a 90 second rock intro of crashing hazy guitars leading into the trademark vocals that give Co-Pilgrim a distinctly West Coast feel in part. This was an attraction when the band first caught my ear four years ago with the release of A FAIRER SEA. However there are a number of deviances as the album proceeds, no greater than a sumptuous final track with the trumpet parts to ‘Wouldn’t You Like to Dance’ fuelling an eclectic feel to the record as an entity.

Another feature, which marks out this record, is the vocal interjections on ‘You’ll Look Pretty As a Picture When the Acid Rains Hits Ya’ and ‘Moon Lagoon’. If the title of the former raises an eyebrow, you’ve yet to be introduced to ‘I’m Not a Wallflower, I’m the Wall’ and ‘Digging Holes in the Whites of Your Eyes’. There is a view here that the lyrics often plant ideas in your mind rather than leading, to the extent that they are quite sparse on tracks like ‘Cylindrical Fire Escapes’ and ‘Thank My Stars’. The first of these is unveiled as the record’s seven-minute epic, complete with a moody appeal to those with sufficient stamina. One conundrum at the conclusion of listening to Co-Pilgrim is whether the lo-fi nature or more up-tempo beat tunes prove to be the greater selling points. Possibly the former prevail to a larger extent, but the effect lies solely within the mind of the independent listener.

Whichever way you extract listening pleasure from this album, you should now be getting the picture that options are out there. One undeniable conclusion is that it is inventive and wholly successful in projecting an aura of swirling diverse landscapes from a base of a single writer, joint producers and a small band of dedicated musicians. Although I am far more familiar with Joe Bennett’s Dreaming Spires output, it has been useful to check back into his work with Mike Gale as Co-Pilgrim. MOON LAGOON possesses the guile, sounds and texture to create a space in a market where Americana slides into a softer form of edgy innovative indie rock. Here it will flourish and delight many a listener who tracks it down.

Miranda Lee Richards - Ort Cafe, Birmingham. Wednesday 28th June 2017

Although Miranda Lee Richards has had a lengthy association with the music industry to varying degrees of success, the last eighteen months has seen something of a renewal. This has had a particular focus in the UK including a tie up with label Invisible Hands Music and the follow up of intent to back a pair of album releases with overseas trips from her California base. This return to Birmingham had a somewhat low key feel to it, but evidence was rampant to what great music she is producing at the moment. Many of the alluring facets of her recorded material were successfully reproduced in the live environment especially the ethereal feel, beautifully hazy vocals and a three-pronged West Coast wrapped guitar attack.

Miranda led the way making her acoustic playing punch above its weight alongside the majestic electric contribution of her key stringed accomplices Randy Billings and Joe Woolley. The advertised trio morphed into a quartet with the harmony backing vocals of Samantha Lea Smith as Miranda introduced her hour-long set as essentially a showcase for material from the last two albums. There did appear to be a slight bias towards the recently released EXISTENTIAL BEAST, especially as this was likely to be an introductory listen for most folks attending this Ort Café show.

However little time was wasted in sharing the best of last year’s album ECHOES OF THE DREAMTIME with the excellent ‘Tokyo’s Dancing’ taking the prized opening slot and precisely positioning the mood and tone for the set. Generally Miranda kept the background chat to a minimum with only very brief song introductions such as the country sound to ‘It Was Given’ and the trip-inducing qualities of ‘Colours So Fine’.

It didn’t take long into the set to move into the newer material with ‘On the Outside of Heaven’ featuring early on. ‘Lucid I Would Dream’, ‘Autumn Sun’ and title track ‘Existential Beast’ effortlessly transferred the divinity of the record to a quirky venue in the inner city suburb of Balsall Heath, trailing just two tracks, which proved to be highlight of the set. ‘Oh Raven’ was announced as a medieval folk piece and rose like a beacon on the evening. Album opener ‘Ashes and Seeds’ was nearly missed as cut off time approached but it was just squeezed in to the extent of flourishing brightly whilst projecting Miranda as a serious writer of an enticing folk song.

Sadly time constraints probably lent heavily on not playing the eleven minute epic ‘Another World’ that not only closes the new record, but also prompts a transfixed thought mode. While not being sure to the extent that this track generally features live, it presents a brave challenge that in my opinion will come off. Maybe there is also room in a different setting for further insight into the intriguing themes, inspirations and line of thought that apply to her music. This certainly was a gig where the message was predominately in the music, which fair enough is the fundamental of the art. Miranda finished her set by stating that she will be back later in the summer with a full band in tow. This will inevitably add a further dimension to the sound, but on a pre-gig assumption that this event would be on a more acoustic footing, the bar was raised to a pretty high level for subsequent shows to better.

In line with the promoter’s motivation to provide a platform for local independent artists, two solo performers were granted half hour support slots to support Miranda. Each focussed on a different strand of music, with Stourbridge-based Ryan Sparrow more pro-active in promoting his innovative acoustic style than the fluctuating electric vibes of a guitarist billed under the name My Autumn Empire who followed.

Engaging with the music of Miranda Lee Richards over the last eighteen months has been an adorable delight and this first time seeing her live went a lengthy way to exceeding expectation. If you’re seeking an artist capable of making seductive and encapsulating music wrapped in a warm blanket of indie folk and West Coast jangly rock, then look no further. While we wait for a UK return, there is ample space for EXISTENTIAL BEAST to prosper and ECHOES IN THE DREAMTIME to have reinvigorated second phase.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Annie Keating - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 27th June 2017

As soon as the final reveller leaves the Glastonbury site, a signal is sent out that the festival season is about to begin in earnest and many a touring artist will seek to build such an event, albeit on a more modest scale, into their schedule. Brooklyn based singer-songwriter Annie Keating has sensibly found a match with the Maverick Festival for her dip into the UK multi-artist gathering scene. In the week that she heads down Suffolk way, another good fit for a performer of her style is to call in at Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden to tread the stone floors where so many of her compatriots have shared their craft over the years.

On the subject of sharing, there was a collaborative feel to this evening’s show, running a thread through both sets and an audience keen to engage throughout. This was an audience swelled by the presence of local musician Danielle Cawdell who grabbed every moment of a precious opening slot to show how the medium of thoughtful song adorned with an ideal piano accompaniment can flourish. This was especially apt in an environment often more frequented by the acoustic guitar.

Although the sets were bound by the urge to express oneself through the holy grail of the original song plus an assembled trio format, artistic contrasts were on explicit display starting from the moment the stage area was re-adjusted during the break. Stand-up bass replaced piano on the instrument front as the focal point switched from a performer on the rise to one coveted with a seasoned stature. Maybe the overseas tours haven’t been too frequent, but Annie Keating has been recording albums for well over a decade with the 2008 release BELMONT initially catching my ear. This was the first opportunity to assess her from a live perspective and an hour-long spell in the spotlight revealed an inventive and industrious artist using an energetic persona to open the songbook of her spirit.

For this tour, Annie has teamed up with English bassist Scott Warman (a regular Porchlight Smoker and more recently, a driving influence in The Long Haul) and fellow New Yorker Steve Mayone (seamlessly switching between acoustic, electric and mandolin). Indeed the latter’s presence played a significant upfront role in dictating the pace of the set, whether enhancing the rock ‘n’ roll tempo for songs like ‘On the Loose’ or taking the sound in a more roots direction through the delicate twang from the mandolin. Perhaps if you were seeking an extension to the evening, a song or two from Steve’s new album SIDEWAYS RAIN could have aided its promotion without overshadowing the momentum of Annie.

One of Steve’s older songs did make an entry as the first part of a double encore with ‘Deeper in the Well’ leading the trio back on stage. This was followed by Annie closing a thoroughly entertaining evening by not only celebrating the work of John Prine through his classic cut ‘Angel From Montgomery’, but conducting a communal response to a chorus deeply rooted in the contemporary American songbook. In fact Annie had long tapped into the enthusiasm generated from Danielle’s set, with her own communal crowd pleaser ‘You Bring the Sun’ needing little encouragement for participation.  

Among an ever-increasing posse of American touring artists spanning that vast country, there is always a place for the hardened urban North East singer-songwriter. From the Boston suburbs of her upbringing which provided the backdrop to the inspiration for the title track off her most recent album ‘Trick Star’ to the nostalgic tones of her tribute to Brooklyn’s iconic seaside haven ‘Coney Island’, this was a songwriter heavily influenced by her surroundings and not on this occasion the proverbial open road or the luscious soulful soil of the south. Annie is perfectly in tune with marrying the port of her influence with a distinctive style, while engaging with many creative facets to bring the sum of her gifts to an awaiting audience. From the opening track ‘Lucky’, through other popular numbers such as the pumped up ‘Storm Warning’, the ode to romance ‘Valentine’ and the impressive ‘Sunny Dirt Road’ to the right up to date ‘Trouble’, there was ample evidence to unlock the door and reveal what makes Annie Keating tick as an artist.

On an evening rich in the warmth of mutual appreciation, the triangle of support act, main attraction and audience thrived on the rich pickings of the environment. Danielle Cawdell will no doubt continue her schooling on the live local music scene, further assisted by her mentor and guitar playing accomplice for the evening Birmingham’s own popular singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse. On the other hand, Annie will continue to ply the trail of the touring artist,taking a little bit of Brooklyn to whichever town she stops off at, including probably the centrepiece of this year’s UK visit, a couple of sets at the upcoming Maverick Festival.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Jaime Wyatt - Felony Blues : Forty Below Records

Of course, with the music versus the backstory debate, the music should always come out on top, but things fit into place better when both complement each other to perfection. Therefore, primarily FELONY BLUES by Jaime Wyatt is an exceptionally good mini album. The phrase ‘such swagger’ is borrowed on this occasion, with the biggest fault only being: why stop at seven tracks. There is probably a practical answer to that question, but it is a tribute to the architects that you are left aching for more after an exhilarating half an hour.

The enamoured sound of Jaime is based on the smart ability to unite country music with its near cousins, the alt variety and Americana, and spin it into a bunch of half a dozen highly palatable songs ready made for the sweet ear. The backstory is a little more downbeat as much of the record is based on Jaime’s experience on the wrong side of the prison walls after an addiction-fuelled altercation. Whilst not being the first country artist to channel rehabilitation into first class music, this whole scenario can prove to be additional selling point. Not that this is necessarily needed, as those who solely base their judgement on unfiltered listening will certainly be won over.

Jaime’s Californian heritage, base and influence can be factored into the interpretation of her music. Naturally, it falls on the fault lines of distinctly retro and delicately contemporary. A cool freshness aids a torpedo effect into modern country fans preferring an independent edgy approach, while timeless qualities help span the generations. Also a cover of ‘Misery and Gin’, initially recorded by Merle Haggard, further pushes up the credibility in some quarters, although this track tends to crown the record rather than prop it up.

The swirling guitar, lovely beat breaks and rousing chorus of opening track ‘Wishing Well’ go a long way to defining the record and it is hard to think of a stronger track that opens an album in 2017. Those who base a lot of credence on the first song setting the tone will be delighted with this offering and duly rewarded with pursuing the remainder of the content. The follow on track ‘Your Loving Saves Me’ is not short on sass or exquisite twang and yet another chorus that has little difficulty in finding a hook in your mind.

By the time, we get to the delectable ‘From Outer Space’ when the steel kicks in, the implicit narrative fizzles with heartfelt pleas to a lover. Maybe this is a track that has to fight hard to be heard alongside its compatriot juggernauts, but the strength of an album is often defined by its base and FELONY BLUES has a very strong one.

We get into the serious side of Jaime’s writing by the time the fiddle inspired ‘Wasco’ explodes in the listener’s midst. It is assumed this is the institution that she spent time in and the lyrics fire off in several directions while reflecting a great deal of conflicting emotions. It also puts a completely different slant on the term graduation day. ‘Giving Back the Best of Me’ is a tenderer offering utilising the steel well as Jaime slips into a poignant gear while in ballad mode. Another valid reason to extol the virtues of this being a neatly balanced collection of tunes, appealing to several sides of a listener’s preference. ‘Stone Hotel’ is the penultimate track before the Haggard cover pulls the shutter down and is another successful attempt to dress a serious point in a tune that blossoms so well upon first listen.

FELONY BLUES is an album designed to make an instant impact without a layer of throwaway packaging. It presents Jaime Wyatt as a country artist to place on your 'get to know' list and one you won't regret liaising with. A sentiment launched into cyberspace by Rolling Stone’s anointment of her as a “New Country Artist You Need To Know”. You may ask what do they know, but in this instance, they are spot on.

Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Friday 23rd June 2017

Thimblemill Library is in a current phase of interacting with musical art to the extent of opening its doors to a host of touring artists. Alongside marrying literary focus with that of the lyricist, embracing the world of cultured protest and engaging with left field ideals, you can now add library ambience providing the backdrop to a most beautiful sound. The latest artist to grace this art deco building hails from Nashville Tennessee and commandeers the most respectful of audience attention through a haze of serene country folk songs evoking a state of meditative relaxation. Erin Rae welcomed a raft of new fans to her music after this first visit deep into the heartland of the industrial West Midlands, ones sure to remain with her when she returns.

Flanked by her Meanwhiles, in-demand Nashville players Dominic Billett and Jerry Bernhardt, Erin set about executing her distinct style and breezed through a couple of blissful sets. There is an element of adjusted expectation and sensory alignment required to fully acquaint oneself with the tone of the music. In fact, it took deep into the second set for the sweet spot to be reached, and this was very much in the domain of the listener in light of Erin’s consistent approach. The moment of enlightenment peaked in the final three tracks of the show with ‘Minolta’, ‘Monticello’ and ‘Rose Color’ successfully leaving a mark of an unwanted end.

The unassuming and softly spoken Erin hails from 21st century Nashville, but there is so much late 20th century California in her sound and vision. Close your eyes and drifting Laurel Canyon clouds float around, open them and the surroundings become more tangible. Her partners help out enormously offering the ‘less is more’ ethos to decorating her songs with the perfect soundtrack. The echoes and notes were a little different from when the pair last visited the area as part of the Andrew Combs band in May. Dom had the rhythm in the palm of hands on drums and bass keys, while Jerry optimised the electric guitar output required to supplement Erin’s crystal vocals.

As was expected, the vast bulk of material used came from last year’s full album release SOON ENOUGH, which was brought to life in the UK via a tie up with Clubhouse Records. Current signals in the media of Erin advancing forward with her next record were confirmed through brief between-songs chats and the playing of the new song ‘Wild Blue Wind’. Despite a wide ocean of available classic material from a bygone era, seemingly to be Erin’s influence, the preference leans heavily on the original song. The one instance where the work of others was celebrated sent the mind ticking over in seeking more information on a track from the 1970s by Judee Sill titled ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’. This song was tackled in a seamless way to each other track which included introduced numbers from the album such as ‘Clean Slate’, ‘Pretty Thing’, ‘Futile Attempts’ and ‘Light’.

There was a slight adjustment to the opening act for the evening with the performance of the duo Ashland being slimmed down to a solo slot from Dave Sutherland. His regular partner Kathryn Marsh was afflicted by the dreaded curse of all vocalists on performance day: a lost voice. Nevertheless, the show must go on and Dave dug deep into his experience, song arsenal and professionalism to deliver an excellent half hour, helped only by a borrowed effort from Rodney Crowell plus a trusty guitar.

Erin herself highly values the forty-year-old guitar that gently strums to the beat of her songs and began life in the possession of her father. She cuts the pose of the natural singer-songwriter born to extract every ounce of the gift bestowed on her for a willing audience. There is an element to her music that does command the right environment for it to prosper. Get this wrong and you will struggle; get it right and a blissful world opens up. Thimblemill Library, an artistic gem on the Sandwell-Birmingham border, created such an environment for Erin and the Meanwhiles to put on a very individual performance and spin a web of serene music on an audience fixated for the moment. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Danny and the Champions of the World - Brilliant Light : Loose Music

The best way to enjoy the new Danny and the Champs album is to throw away the notebook, park the analysis and kick back with your hands clasped behind your head. BRILLIANT LIGHT hits the shelves on June 30th and immediately possesses a spring in its step to be the ‘soundtrack of the summer’. In fact, this record has an added effect of taking you back in time to when music had a more innocent appeal and concentrated airplay provided the opening to the masses. Sadly, those times are a distant memory meaning records like this have to scrap hard to be heard. Those who do cross its path though are in for a real treat.

Danny and the Champions of the World has always been a band where you just want to chuck labels, compartments and the proverbial ‘little boxes’ away. The guys just make music that comes from instinct with the only boundaries coming from finite tangible resources. Heart, soul and ideas are infinite, thus joining the Champs bandwagon (or tour van) is a journey full with laughs, energy and a desire to just make music that folks will feel something for. The new album is perfectly in tune with how an outsider perceives the ideals to be: carefree, crafted and packed with positive guile.

Now the first warning is that Danny has binned convention by tossing away the archetypal mean number of tracks and decided to go with a hefty number of 18 songs. However, don’t be put off by the 80-minute running time as this album can be enjoyed in a multiple of ways including just being a background to everyday tasks that can open up their arms to a little musical accompaniment. In fact the tip is not to think too deeply about this record, Danny has done the job for you and from the perception of seeing him live many times over the past few years, more than happy for you to just soak up the vibes.

For a little bit of background information, the album is once again released on the regular home label of Loose Music, frequented by the usual Champs many who have served Danny well since he made the decision to channel his creative talents through this fluid collaboration. The lengthy track list is full of live stompers that will surely become gig staples in years to come and those penned from a more personal angle such as the pre-aired ‘Swift Street’. From a sound perspective, the golden mix of guitars, keys, steel and horns blow away any constraints of genre restrictions, while Danny’s vocals continue to coat each song with a touch of personal soul.

One of the most liberating aspects of listening to BRILLIANT LIGHT is steering clear of track dissection and just taking the music at face value. This approach may not always be the best way of grasping a record or artist, but in the case of Danny and the Champions of the World, it is increasingly becoming the de facto way of maximising the appeal. The term ‘soundtrack of the summer’ has a hazy nostalgic twist to it, stirring up the memory bank. This album has succeeded in locating a key to the past. While other music over the summer will challenge me and invite scrutiny, there is a ‘go to’ record in the corner ready to provide instant relaxation and relief. Danny Wilson is the architect of this record and it is an absolute gem.

Hannah Johnson - Shaken : Self-Released

From Toy Heart to Broken Heart, the music of Hannah Johnson has always been rooted in the past and free of any compromise. However, Hannah frequently rejects the populist retro revivalist path, preferring to come across as an astute historian hell bent on being a contemporary custodian of a timeless style. In a first major solo outing since taking an alternative path to what formed her first decade of making commercial music, Hannah has teamed up with a number of established players to conjure up a highly infectious collection of tunes perfectly encapsulating the soul of traditional country music. SHAKEN can take its name from a multitude of experiences of both sides of the emotional divide, but in this instance it clearly houses eleven cuts that fully succeed in carrying out the mission statement of an artist driven by her own heart and instinct. 

While local gigs are generally billed as Hannah Johnson & the Broken Hearts, a significant switch for the album release is to slim down the artist title. Hannah is though joined on the album by her resident Broken Hearts: father Stewart on his distinctive pedal steel and Chris Shirley on electric guitar and tic tac bass. To boost the authenticity of this album, Hannah headed to Austin Texas from her home in Birmingham UK to record eleven songs at Ameripolitan Studios to tap into the local talent; an apt location in these interesting times for the fight to own the soul of real country music. With the right ingredients, it comes to little surprise that the contents of this record are spot on, making it a valuable release, especially when you’re seeking for such exponents on the UK music scene.

It is of further little surprise when you delve deeper into the record to identify that the tunes consist of three original songs and the remainder interpretations of work from a bygone age. The word ‘cover’ doesn’t seem appropriate in this context as the songs are carefully selected, not driven by courting popular appeal and providing a perfect fit for how Hannah wants to portray this current phase of her career.

While the names Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Roger Miller hardly have a negative impact on a country record, the song selection avoids the usual suspects and if anything, getting to grips with this record can turn into a historical investigative exercise. Another successful aspect of this album is the way the three originals blend into the older material thus giving credence that Hannah can still excel in this field. (‘The Captain’ remains a tremendous piece of song writing from the Toy Hearts days). ‘Nowhere Train’, ‘Morning Cocktail’ and ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ are strategically planted within the first four tracks in the running order, with the first one initially coming across as the strongest of the trio.

Elsewhere on the album, a version of Charley Patton’s ‘Trouble in Mind’ and a delightful rendition of ‘West Texas Lullaby’ make substantial cases for being high spots. Standards rarely dip throughout the near forty-minute spin of this album, which gets its UK bow in early July before Hannah heads to Austin to push it further including a launch night at the famed Continental Club.

Alongside Hannah’s trademark husky vocals and the stellar complete line up of pickers, players and harmonisers, credit must also be guided towards the pedal steel playing of Birmingham’s own legend in this field: Stewart Johnson. His upfront backing role on this instrument has always been a delight to witness, especially when his two daughters took the Toy Hearts general sound away from Bluegrass and into a heavily Bob Wills influenced Western Swing direction. Of course, the music of the Texas music pioneer is celebrated on this record with a version of ‘Sooner or Later’.

SHAKEN is no record of ‘work-in-progress’ status, it is Hannah Johnson doing what she does best and very well. It is ready made to jump onto your turntable, slide into your CD player or find a prominent position on your device (filed under ‘country’ of course).

Katie Spencer - Good Morning Sky : Self-Released

Haunting, escapist and moving: although all you essentially need to know is that GOOD MORNING SKY, the debut mini-album from Yorkshire-based artist Katie Spencer, is very good. Sauntering along at a pedestrian pace allows time for each heartbeat of this record to align with that of the listener. The collection may only last twenty minutes and comprise of five tracks, but the enticing feel from sampling the work of a young singer-songwriter finding her own way in the music world sends out signals of a promising future.

If you’re seeking an initial hook to display the music of Katie, think a slice of indie alternative folk. An eerie almost spiritual sound benefits from an acoustic backdrop interspersed with some cool electric. There are implicit soundtrack elements to the tunes which you could quite easily imagine adorning the moving images on some noir piece of celluloid. Apart from a relaxed languid exterior, the five songs leave an imprint to suggest an artist ahead of her curve, whilst displaying prodigious tendencies in the sphere of her style.

Katie is making inroads in presenting her music as an independent artist effectively and the atmospheric video for the track ‘Children (Don’t You Know)’ is as good starting point as you are likely to get, while capturing the essence of her music. The album’s opening track ‘It’s True’, complete with the gorgeous tones from John Martyn’s acoustic guitar, also acts as an imaginative introduction to her recorded material and perfectly sets the scene for a wave of drooling music to gently roll in. ‘Magazines’ follows in a hazy cloud with the sultry vocals being surrounded by some seriously good instrumental support. ‘Moths to the Light’ succeeds in taking the pace down even a further notch without losing the momentum of effect. The final track ‘Can’t Resist the Road’ houses the album title in one of its opening lines and seals the deal on what the record sets out to offer.

As you would expect from such a release, there are raw elements that can be built upon. While the vocals have a clear role in projecting an evocative atmosphere, natural development will enhance their appeal to really prise open a listener’s ear. Katie and her team of players have absolutely honed in on a specific landscape style. Smart arrangements are prevalent and very successful in creating the dark mood that gives the record a splendid mystique. Perhaps there is room for improvement in seeking a stronger initial lyrical impact suggesting a pull between the deep excavation of the words and a need to make the music accessible. However, the major selling point of this debut record is the wonderful exposition of mood generation and this has effortlessly appeared with great success.

GOOD MORNING SKY is a tempting release waiting patiently in the wings to pounce on an unsuspecting listener when given the chance. Katie Spencer uses the breadth of her inner psyche to write and sing songs that evoke feelings far away from the surface of disposable music. This mood-driven mini-album is an effectual dip into the recording world and a highly promising debut.

Jeni Hankins - The Oxygen Girl : Jewell Ridge Records

Nothing lasts forever is one of life’s more philosophical observations and it doubles up as the title of the most pertinent track on this album. THE OXYGEN GIRL is the debut solo release from Jeni Hankins who is better known in music circles as one half of the former country folk duo Jeni and Billy. When time was called on all facets of their relationship, an abundance of songs was likely to follow. In a display of amicability, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is actually a co-write between Jeni and Billy; a lone symbol on an album which clearly signposts the direction where Jeni is taking her life and career.

This direction is east across the Atlantic from the US to the UK and a strapline to this album could be a love letter to migration. All the folk singer credentials are in place, but the general feel is more European than Appalachian with the specific twang of her home state diluted among an assortment of songs that span the continents in their theme, setting and sentiment. The instrumentation used on the album does keep one foot on the American side with fiddle, banjo and steel still making the dominant sound.

Knowing a little about the background, taking the twelve tracks with a heavy dose of the lyric booklet and trying to understand the inner subtleties of this record will all aid to the enjoyment. While there are probably higher impact tracks from her previous material, the importance to Jeni of this record should not be under estimated and it should be a signal that this is a just an opening point to a new chapter in her career.

The album is a lyric laden body of work, packed with several fascinating tales, stories and heart rendering personal musings. It can be construed that there are a number of push and pull factors infiltrating the songs. Those with an Anglo perspective begin with opening pair of ‘The Shipping News’ and ‘The British Invisible Mending Service’. The first of these comes across as a navigation to love, while the other presents a metaphorical broken heart in need of repairing to an age-old tradition. The capital of Jeni’s new home also gets a mention in ‘Dance on the Stars’.

Two extrovert and explicit story songs make a grab for the listener’s attention. ‘Palomino Girls’ deals with the hopes and thoughts of certain Las Vegas workers, often giving them celestial trappings. ‘The Oxygen Girl’ is an intriguing tale of life, relationships and encounters within a circus community. Follow the lyrics carefully and the jigsaw will be complete.

Another interesting song is the listed album closer where Jeni pens an open ode to her father in ‘Hey Dad’. There are faint strains of slipping back into a stronger accent during this track, intentionally or not. This just falls short of being the album finale as a secret track lasting around twenty seconds emerges to provide closure.

Being a previous advocate of the music of Jeni Hankins has definitely had an impact on assessing the wealth of THE OXYGEN GIRL. Grasping the message has made accessing this record a smoother process. However there is ample content in the three facets of lyrics, soundtrack and vocals to attract new fans. The strength of her music has often been in the soul of the storied song and this aspect continues to flourish as Jeni completes this life changing transformation. ‘Nothing lasts forever except a song’ echoes in the album’s most poignant track and it is the gift of communicating via this medium, which continues to make the Jeni Hankins an artist to believe in.

Slaid Cleaves - Ghost on the Car Radio : Candy House Media

When history settles on the who’s who of early 21st century Texas song writing the name of Slaid Cleaves will hold a prominent position. While technically he will always be an honorary Texan due to his North East formative years, the decades spent penning many songs in Austin, and the ensuing album releases, have seen the stripes earnt. Just when you thought it was getting a little quiet on the Slaid front, a new album titled GHOST ON THE CAR RADIO has appeared revealing our song-writing protagonist in fine form firing on his many lyrical cylinders.

His long time musical sidekick Scrappy Jud Newcomb is once again heavily involved on production matters and it is of little greater surprise to see the name of Slaid’s lifetime buddie Rod Picott appearing in the writing credits. Now we are used to this pair exchanging co-writes on each other’s albums and subsequently this has occurred with ‘Drunken Barber’s Hand’ hitting the recorded status for the second time since appearing on Rod’s 2015 album FORTUNE. With the world getting a crazier place over the last couple of years, the metaphorical sentiment of the chorus line has never been more apt.

No doubt time will judge where this album resides in the rankings of Slaid’s discography, but there are sufficient examples among the track list of songs that have the potential to push some his classic cuts, of which I would include ‘New Year’s Day’, ‘Hard to Believe’ and ‘Broke Down’ to be up there with his all-time best. While perhaps those heights haven’t been scaled during preliminary plays, ‘Little Guys’ and ‘The Old Guard’ immediately jump out as ones to listen out for. The latter is a splendid nostalgic take on a generational battle over the juke box in a quintessential small time bar with, as you would guess, ‘cheating hearts  crazy arms, now it’s crying time’ coming out on top. The other pick sees Slaid once again champion the underdog and provide further proof that this writer can get to grips with putting the brakes on life’s rampant progress.

Reflecting back on Slaid’s work over the years, there has always been a diarist/ chronicler/ commentator side to his writing often defaulting to the literary literal. The work with Rod Picott has often veered down a blue-collar route with two co-writes appearing on this record in ‘Primer Gray’ and ‘Take Home Pay’ reflecting a well-worn style. The last song in particular has a ‘cutting’ line suggesting if funds are low you could always visit the blood bank!

Perhaps the most interesting track on the album is the closer where you are left to ponder who or what is being taken on a one-way trip to the ‘Junkyard’. Once again, this ‘sunset’ track originates from a Cleaves/Picott co-write and is hopefully not to be taken as a career curtain. Slaid may have slowed down on the recording front in recent years and now approaching his mid-fifties, but the time is ripe for him to really focus on the generational struggles that he is so good at documenting within his songs.

While the album has a general feel of classic Slaid Cleaves, complete with the usual soft vocal style, A* master of the narrative status and a solid production backing, there are moments when the material struggles to more than scratch the surface. Evidence is being gathered of Slaid spending some considerable time on the road supporting the album and this may be the catalyst to lifting those tracks yet to fully blossom.

GHOST ON THE CAR RADIO gives long term Slaid Cleaves fans plenty of material to get to grips with and possesses sufficient conduit appeal for new admirers to ease into the sphere of classic material within his back catalogue. The main thing is that a key Americana songwriter is back doing what they do best and adding more credibility to how history will ultimately judge them.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Chastity Brown + Otis Gibbs - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 18th June 2017

There was an air of duality in the Hare and Hounds this evening as circumstances led to the pairing of Chastity Brown and Otis Gibbs for a co-headline gig. A raft of common ground splits the obvious sound and vision differences between each artist, headed by an instinctive trait to be able to spin an artistic web around the audience. This is also joined by the underpinning of a very personal take on folk music, albeit Americana style.

However to take the contrasts at their most literal, this was Chastity’s first visit to a Birmingham venue, while Otis has made the city a regular stopping off point over the last decade of touring this country. Carrying on with the literal theme, Otis is one of the great story telling artists famed for punctuating highly informative songs with regular personal tales, which never lose their shine. On the other hand, Chastity is driven more from the heart and instinct. This leads to incredibly deep songs such as ‘My Stone’. Despite a general observational approach to music, Otis proves to be a no mean architect of the moving piece either with ‘Something More’ never failing to stir an smidgeon of emotion with each rendition.

For the gig annals, Otis adopted the role of show opener and spent an hour on stage sharing an intoxicating batch of original songs for an audience that comprised of both hardened fans and new acquisitions taking a punt on an act that you don’t see every night in the bars of Kings Heath. A busy merch table during the intermission was a testimony to his draw with the new record MOUNT RENRAW being an obvious pull. This album was first made available to Birmingham folks when Otis played the neighbouring Kitchen Garden last October and since that last visit songs like ‘Sputnik Monroe’ and ‘Great American Roadside’ have bedded in alongside old favourites such as ‘Small Town Saturday Night’ and ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’.

The last couple of months are proving to be a significant period in Chastity’s development as an international artist. The brand new album SILHOUETTE OF SIRENS has met with widespread critical acclaim and her current run of UK shows has garnered favourable reviews. This was in fact the second time that she has been caught live on the tour and it was interesting to compare this final show with one in nearby Bewdley which was one of the the opening dates just over a week ago. On the surface, Chastity’s time on stage was a little longer, this occasion running to an hour and twenty minutes with maybe more focus on the inter song chat which is no bad thing when you wish to get further insight into an artist’s make up. There was definitely an increased spring in her step, a burning desire to get across more to the audience and a tendency to generally rock to a greater extent. The sets were fairly similar, although to the Bob Dylan and Nina Simone covers that she did, you can add an upbeat version of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ parading as the perfect encore closer.

Similarly to the Bewdley show, Chastity’s guitar playing accomplice Luke Enyeart was in identical riveting form, showering the right amount of twang, slide and pumped up electric on fine songs such as ‘Wake Up’, ‘Drive Slow’ and ‘Carried Away’. To end the tour on a high note lends leverage to a return in the not too distant future and further reports of super shows up and down the country fuels this further. Her fascinating mix of predominately folk ‘n’ soul, with more than a hint of country blues creates a warm aura of heartfelt music, intentionally or not, deigned to be an outlet for a primal flow of feelings, emotion and a little pent up anger. An ideal cocktail of purposeful intent and style.

There is no need to choose between the gruff working roots style of Otis Gibbs and the soulful tendencies of Chastity Brown. Merit exists on a parallel scale and both artists encompass the wide wonderful world of Americana music. The fact that artists originally from Union City Tennessee and Wanamaker Indiana are prepared to share the gifts of their craft in the equally exotic surroundings of Kings Heath Birmingham is a treasure not to be taken lightly. Enthusiastic support for both these artists in multiple forms is critical in ensuring nights like this can continue on a recurring basis.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Sarah Jane Scouten - When the Bloom Falls From the Rose : Light Organ Records

Perhaps one feature of today’s music model where control is devolved by default to artist level  is the trend for a more experimental approach and a tendency to refrain from being boxed into convention. Frequently artists fuse particular styles leading to an increased use of the word ‘tinged’ when it comes to music description. While the first sentence can be wholly applied to the new album from Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Scouten, the fused approach is generally bypassed in the assembling of twelve highly distinctive tracks which form WHEN THE BLOOM FALLS FROM THE ROSE. The result is a collection of exceptionally infectious and independent tunes spanning the genre sounds of country, folk, rockabilly, pop and even a slice of old time rag.

Indeed Sarah Jane Scouten is a heaven sent dream for a contemporary folk festival where audiences are more than open to a diverse range of styles. This is further made viable by the high calibre of music that she makes, whether through her own writing or an acute perception to select the compositions of others. On this new record, there is a ten-two split between original and cover material with the latter pair falling clearly into folk music territory via their historical storytelling existence.

‘Britannia Mine’ is an impassioned minimalist song written by Paddy Graber, a person directly involved in a bitter industrial dispute in the western Canadian province of British Columbia, which inspired the composition. The other folk song moves slightly east in its origin to Alberta with ‘Where the Ghost River Flows’ being a haunting rural tale penned by Jasper Joe Adams. Sarah Jane’s own dip into this genre style comes in the form of the uplifting folk rock title track ‘When the Bloom Falls From the Rose’, the melting vocals of ‘Rosehips for Scurvy’ and the curiously titled ‘Poland’. The latter focusses on the frequently used theme of love with the title taken from the line ‘if you were the king of Poland I’d be the consort of the damned’.

Having seen Sarah Jane live when she toured the UK in a low-key capacity a couple of years ago, her extraordinary ability to impart a classic country song can be 100% certified. This side of her multi-appeal shines brightly on the record with the opening track ‘Acre of Shells’ being a prime candidate for the album’s golden moment. Pedal steel, a waltz-like feel and imaginative writing create an excellent love song, blossoming with the chorus line ‘how could I ever love somebody else, in an acre of shells you’ll find just one pearl’. The superb ‘Every Song I Sing’ and the alluring narrative piece ‘Paul’ are other key components where Sarah Jane plays the country card with great skill.

The eclectic nature of this album is set to escalate further when we get to the raucous rockabilly number ‘Bang Bang’. This track ratchets up the pace of the proceedings in the number two slot on the running order with an enormous jolt of energy. This has also been selected as one of the promotional songs, which while being a sensible choice, is not necessarily representative of the general tone. Neither is the old time feel to ‘Coup de Ville Rag’, but like the other song in this paragraph, its isolationist nature enhances the broad feel to the album and boosts its overall appeal. Just when you feel this record could not get any further diverse within its pre-defined boundaries, it takes you in a dreamy pop direction with ‘Man in Love’; another fine song that could be shortlisted for the standout moment. The album closer is probably the toughest track to define, but the serene sounding ‘Crack in Your Windshield’ is another example of Sarah Jane’s smart song writing and ensures the record ends on a positive note  in its attempt to seal the deal with the listener.

WHEN THE BLOOM FALLS FROM THE ROSE is an album that will plant a smile on the listener’s face. It successfully calls at many stopping points without watering down its fascination.Sarah Jane Scouten’s take on music presents a mine of informative song writing laced with an eclectic soundtrack covering many folk, country and other bases. The result is an album packed with potential to flourish intently and it will be a fabulous acquisition to those who cross its path.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Miranda Lee Richards - Existential Beast : Invisible Hands Music

The curiosity starts with the album cover, carries on with the title and never really leaves the listener throughout the duration of the journey Miranda Lee Richards takes you on. What EXISTENTIAL BEAST does do is continue a rich vein of form which accelerated with the release of her previous album ECHOES OF THE DREAMTIME around eighteen months ago. An ethereal feel still underpins the sound, but the new record possesses greater nuances and creates a lot more thought provoking moments for the listener to consider.

One advantage this album has is the ability to let its mood swings do the thinking, thus meaning enjoying it in a semi-listening mode capacity can be as fruitful as savouring every intricacy. There are aspects of this record where rules are put to one side and frequently the sound bounces between the acute alternative and the fairly conventional. Miranda slips into electrified indie mode quite early in the album best exemplified by ‘The Wildwood’; a racing track full of swirling guitars and a heavy drum beat. However just when you think that this is likely to be the defining sound, the heart of the record adopts a very folky feel, most prominently felt in the stripped back acoustic piece ‘Autumn Sun’, complete with beautiful vocals and violin.

Probably the bravest move on the record is the decision to close it with an eleven minute song, best described as the moment where Miranda decided to pull all the previous musings together and summarise her feelings. ‘Another World’ takes the writing in a more literal direction away from the extremely organic themes in the earlier tracks – exposed in titles such as ‘Ashes and Seeds’ and ‘Back to Source’. The closing track is very lyric laden, quite mono in reception, but has a captivating and intense appeal that keeps you hooked in, especially required when you reach the 7th, 8th and 9th minute of this epic acoustic piece.

The title track ‘Existential Beast’ takes a pivotal position on the record, edging more into folk territory and successful in creating pondering thoughts through lines such as ‘why must light follow dark’- oh the escapist elements of music. If you’re looking for a strapline for this album: exploring the primal instinct to survive makes a strong case.

The album is awash with West Coast subtleties which reflect Miranda’s San Francisco home and upbringing. Occasionally the sound drifts a little into psychedelic waters and gets to its most experimental point in the climax of ‘Golden Gate’ where ramped up guitars and muffled vocals close out the song. In another style swing, Miranda follows the folk core to her record with a return to an indie rock feel especially prevalent in the opening bars of penultimate song ‘On the Outside of Heaven’.

EXISTENTIAL BEAST is an album full of simplistic complexities and consistently retains a hint of curiosity that ensures you don’t want to let it go. Give the music of Miranda Lee Richards a chance and the guarantee is that you will at least find parts that will appeal. All the better if the whole album intoxicates you and after grasping this release, odds are shortening that many will fall into this category.

Hope in High Water - Never Settle : Self-Released

A little room needs to be made on the escalating ladder of UK Americana as Hope in HIgh Water formally announce their arrival on the burgeoning scene. Eliminate the country and rock elements of the genre, for this is a classy display of folk and roots rinsed in real life soil. NEVER SETTLE is the debut full length release by a duo consisting of Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade, who under their evocative moniker have been steadily establishing themselves primarily on the live circuit over the last couple of years.

Now, apart from an earlier EP, newly acquired fans can take home a more substantial souvenir and while the gigs are likely to remain the staple in the near future, promotion to fresh audiences is far more viable with a tangible offering. The album is not out of place when likened to similar sounding records on either side of the Atlantic, although it would be remiss to infer that there is anything pseudo about Josh and Carly’s approach to making music. Any connection with our colonial cousins stems from the stripped back instrument input dominated by fiddle and banjo alongside a desire to dig deep into the bosom of human emotion. On a literal platform, this music originates from the modernist surroundings of Milton Keynes, yet a little delving into the background would suggest that a static life has been far from reality.

One assertion that the press release is spot on with is the likeness to Shovels and Rope. It took barely a minute into the opening track ‘Time Shall Pass’ for this to leap out and one that paved the way for the remainder of the record to flicker high on the enjoyment scale. Vocal utilisation plays another vital role in framing the success of this record, probably from a solo angle rather than harmony. The contrasting styles work well to keep the listener alert. There is a gruffness to Josh’s in line with some of the road weary protagonists who make their music from the ground up. Maybe not to the ultimate extent on the harsh scale, but there are still remnants of Otis Gibbs especially in the track ‘Angels in Heaven’.

On the other hand there is a slender fragility to Carly’s vocals which once again have the connotation of belying a steely heroine. She sparkles on the promoted track ‘Four Strange Walls’, but in my view she exceeds this in the mystique jazz number ‘She Cries’. The album almost becomes an alternate affair in the vocal stakes as the final two tracks – ‘Heartaches on Hold’ and ‘When Sorrow Calls’- exchange lead player.

You should now be getting the drift of the slightly solemn themes from extracts of each song title. What else would you expect from this genre? You can also choose to delve more into each of their backgrounds and this will probably shore up the musical direction. On the other hand just taking in the pleasing tones from a straight forward listen to their recorded material will inform you of their impressive ability to make good music.

The sparse feel to the production is in line with the intention to make real earthy music. A mid tempo approach to the pace allows each song to develop with perhaps the two more prominent deviants being the faster ‘Forgive Me’ and the toned down ‘Late Nights’. Fine melodies and purposeful song structures are definitely in place. Perhaps the wider availability of a lyric sheet would enhance the enjoyment of those who like to peruse that aspect of the music. 

NEVER SETTLE is a commendable record to take the career of Hope in High Water forward suggesting that there is much more in the can. It comes across as a real interesting mix of idealism and reality; not a bad formula to inject into your music.

Jonathan Byrd - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 13th June 2017

A good test of a touring artist’s growing popularity could be when the audience spontaneously joins in with the singing barely two songs into the set. This scenario greeted Jonathan Byrd upon his return to the Kitchen Garden and an enthralled Birmingham crowd latched onto to every facet of the stage show starting from the aforementioned song ‘Chicken Wire’. The multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken once again joined Jonathan for a UK tour and the pair continually sparked off each other all night as they gave an individual interpretation of a genuine brand of country and folk music emanating from North Carolina.

A key feature of the Jonathan Byrd style of music is his literate and articulate approach. He has been a recording artist for a number of years during which an increasing amount of albums have been stock piled. However, there does appear to be a core of special songs which have featured in his UK shows on what is now becoming a near annual visit. His association with British audiences seemed to take off after a slot at the the 2012 Shrewsbury Folk Festival and a number of songs remembered from that appearance are still staples of his set almost five years on.

So songs such as ‘I Was an Oak Tree’, ‘Wild Ponies’ and ‘Father’s Day’ still retain a memorable streak each time you hear them especially when accompanied by the usual stories. The latter of this trio took on an enhanced poignancy with the British version literally only a few days away from this gig and Jonathan’s description of his colourful late father never fails to raise a smile.

While it has been indicated that Jonathan has toured with Johnny before, the last time I saw the Kitchen Garden show was two years ago when he played his set solo, although he was touring at the time with fellow American singer-songwriter Natalie Gelman. This time the presence of Johnny, whether on mandolin, electric guitar or with great improvisation – a bog standard saw, greatly upgraded the level of rounded entertainment. Alongside his frequent comedic input, there were two prime moments when Johnny’s musical prowess stole the show, namely the extended outro instrumental parts on ‘Starlight’ and ‘Working Offshore’. Mandolin and electric guitar were the respective choices for these two outstanding segments which co-incidentally proved to be the climax points of both sets.

Of course, this well attended gig packed with many established Jonathan Byrd fans was not going to let the stars of the show ride off into the sunset without a couple of extra songs and their enthusiasm for more was instantly repaid. ‘Love is the Law’ closed the evening with Jonathan in a conciliatory frame of mind, just after Johnny bade farewell after joining him for the lively and instantly gratifying ‘A Big Truck Brought It’.

Although we were treated to a couple of sets from the billed attraction, the evening was further enhanced by an impressive opening slot from a ‘new on the horizon’ folk ‘n’ roots trio named A Different Thread. The core of the group, namely guitar playing singer-songwriter Robert Jackson and cellist Isaac Collier, hail from nearby Lichfield and they have recently been joined by Alicia Best on fiddle/vocals who co-incidentally also comes from Jonathan’s home state of North Carolina. Together they played a tight set of original compositions (‘Big Crane’) and traditional arrangements (‘Long Black Veil’/’Prickly Bush’) to such a high level that it would be of little surprise to see them booked again especially to open for touring American acts of a similar style.

Jonathan Byrd has an innate style for painting vivid pictures and sharing engaging insight with his words and music. This lure continues to serve him well as a touring artist, and whether you take the view of him being a country or folk music performer, the twin appeal adds an element of real life romanticism to what he stands for. This is pure and authentic music from Chapel Hill North Carolina delivered by a strikingly convincing and highly accomplished artist who is set to remain a firm favourite on these shores for many years to come. 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Hannah Aldridge - Gold Rush : Rootsy Music

When 2014’s RAZOR WIRE trickled into bespoke listening environments in the UK and Europe, little did we realise that this was the start of an intense love affair between Hannah Aldridge and a growing legion of admirers this side of the Atlantic. Subsequent tours encapsulating many shows and festival slots have fuelled this growth  which is set to burn a lot fiercer with the release of the follow up album. As indicated by Hannah at her shows last year, the new record would see a shift to a rockier sound and GOLD RUSH absolutely does that, failing to disguise any subtle change of direction.

Regardless of any intention to rely solely on a heavily plugged-in amplification, the term rock is moderated by Hannah’s southern sensibility which will always inadvertedly draw influences from a wide pool of styles. This is what makes her music special and accessible, whether you approach it from an alternative, folk rock or alt-country starting point.

The ten tracks which form GOLD RUSH are a neatly packaged spread of songs that will feel equally at home given the full band big stage treatment, or more likely on European shores, a stripped back yet no less intense airing. Indeed a fair number of the tracks have already been heard in a live setting as circumstances dictated that the route to market for this record was never going to be an easy short term ride. Perhaps the desire to get this material out is reflected in the gritty determined feel that accompanies track after track.

Amidst the crashing guitars, lie a fascinating set of songs uniting the deeply personal with the interestingly narrative, creating a rich texture which resonates well with folks who take great delight with soaking up the vibes from a strong album. Without any hesitation, the recommendation is take this record with a major dose of the live show to enable you to understand further the psyche of Hannah Aldridge – the impassioned artist.

Every dominant record needs to be able to call on premium moments to carry it through a minefield of competition and critique. ‘Burning Down Birmingham’ plays that role here right from the cutting lyrical admission of ‘I’ll take my heartache with a little bit of ice’ to its overall desire for first degree revenge. Of course it possesses an essential strong chorus, an exciting feature which threads across many of the tracks.

Two initial numbers which back up this view include album opener ‘Aftermath’ and ‘The Irony of Love’. The former gets the record off to a cracking start with Hannah setting out her stall in the line ‘I was born in a crossfire, I was born with my pants around my neck’. The rest of the track will get your foot stomping , head rocking and heart pumping. However by the time we reach the other track at #4 the mood and tone is tempered with a more measured approach.

Those with a little background knowledge of Hannah will be aware that she has written material pitched to the horror genre and this style briefly interjects the record in the scary undertones to ‘Dark Hearted Woman’ and the haunting – almost broody – mood attached to ‘Lace’. This is an enticing aspect to Hannah’s work which can in some respects liken her to Lera Lynn but in a more fiery capacity.

You always get the impression that any record credited to Hannah Aldridge will be a no filtered or watered down version of her feelings. However she doesn’t shy away from enlisting help, to the extent of crediting the work of Jordan Dean in the opening track title and to Ryan Beaver later in the record for featuring on ‘Living on Lonely’. Further investigation into the making of this record revealed that Hannah enlisted the help of her father, Walt Aldridge (the famed Muscle Shoals and Nashville songwriter) to seal the production.

A wish one day would be for Hannah to present her music live with full band accompaniment on foreign shores. In readiness for this evolution, the indie-rock tinged ‘Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad’ complete with seriously sound guitar segments, and the driving beat laden heartland rock number ‘No Heart Left Behind’ are ripe for elevation. As not to leave the inevitable ballad out, ‘Gold Rush’ plays that card here in the role of both album title track and closer. It is perhaps the closest Hannah gets to letting her country DNA seep into the record. She will make an absolutely storming record in this genre one day, but not in 2017.

I Know Too Much’ is the final song  to warrant a mention, possibly because it is a blended track which exudes the overall feel of the album rather than dictating it. There is often a scenario where a track can raise its awareness ten fold when exposed in a live setting. This may or may not be the case with this song, but multiple listens still keep it on the periphery rather than at the core.

Good things come to those who wait may be sauntering into clichĂ© territory, but GOLD RUSH repays the patience of existing fans in plentiful portions. Its strength is a testimony to the way that Hannah Aldridge goes about making music. No half measures, plenty of passion and a cutting edge that frames the message so vividly. This record extends her talent, seals the initial promise of 2014 and points the way forward for an artist who is a key architect of Americana music across the boundaries of its horizon.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Chastity Brown - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 9th June 2017

It should never be taken for granted, but it is refreshing for these monthly Bewdley shows to be so well-attended. However the main success is people listening to live music which isn’t soaked in populist expression, yet delivered with such strength and skill to reward an open minded approach. It also helps that the organisers are tuned into an artist network that delivers an endless supply of performers so adept at making top quality organic music. The latest artist to be humbled by the surroundings of St. George’s Hall is American roots singer-songwriter Chastity Brown, who is basing her latest UK visit around the release of the new album SILHOUETTE OF SIRENS.

A blended approach to making roots music has been a well used description for Chastity, especially when introducing her to UK audiences over the last couple of years. Essentially, she starts from a folk base and then branches out to wherever her feelings lead, frequently in a soul and blues direction. An earthy vocal characteristic coupled with harmonica and a mix of guitar styles paint the sonic picture, while from a theme perspective the heart lends heavily to the writing whether in introspective feeling mode or reaction to outside events. Alongside multi-guitar playing accomplice Luke Enyeart, Chastity cast a mesmeric spell across an attentive audience taking them to far away places, and not just from a literal geogrpahic angle.

During the seventy minutes that she spent on stage, Chastity split the time between shedding some light on what has guided her music and sharing a large chunk of the new album. It was unsurprising for her to attach the southern upbringing of residing in Tennessee as an enormous influence, which was increasingly realised when she uprooted and started a new life in Minnesota. The new album was instantly delved into from the outset with ‘Drive Slow’ adopting the dual role of both opening the record and this show.

For the odd few in attendance who may have been acquainted with the record, further insight was gained by learning that ‘Lies ‘was a political response to the unforgiving effects of system failure. Also that ‘How Could I Forget’ and ‘Lost’ were not unexpectedly linked to inner feelings with the former conveying the wise notion of living more in the present. The album’s standout track ‘Colorado’ shone like a beacon during the show and although it was one of the few songs not to have a comment attached, it is an exhilarating piece of music that blossoms without the need for any extras.

From a personal view, it is always interesting to detect the direction when a songwriter decides to add a cover to the show. The Minnesota connection aside, a Bob Dylan song was an appropriate choice; one made more interesting with a version of ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’. To end the show, Chastity journeyed in another covers direction when sharing her take on the Nina Simone song ‘Baltimore’. Both these songs enhanced the evening and neatly complemented the bulk of original material that tends to drive Chastity as a recording artist.

One more, this Music in the Hall presentation was complete with a youth and local act to support the touring artist. Two’s Company are a young duo starting off on a long road of playing live music. They showed a keen ear to popular classics which while lending them material these days may eventually lead to inspiring them creatively in the future. Another more experienced local duo under the name of Tale Lights followed the youngsters and mixed some interesting choice of covers with original songs. These were generated from an acoustic pop platform and possessed sufficient merit to gain airplay from the arm of BBC Music charged with promoting unsigned artists through an ‘introducing’ concept.

Apart from reporting the good health of these ongoing monthly promotions at the year’s midway point, it warms the heart that people in this vicinity are prepared to give relatively unknown acts a try, and back a judgement that an artist is not going to travel 5000 miles without something to offer. Chastity Brown does not disappoint on this score and will enhance your musical appreciation whether you choose to listen to her records or better still, make your way to one of her shows.

Review of Silhouette of Sirens

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Kyshona and Robert Lane - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th June 2017

Many artists pass through the brick walled surroundings of the Kitchen Garden, but surely few could have put in such a rip-roaring vocal performance like Kyshona did on this, the second night of her current ‘United’ UK tour. Indeed this pulsating singer-songwriter (South Carolina raised now Nashville based)  was making a return to Birmingham, and this venue in particular, after a debut slot last September, but the reins were definitely loosened for this revised format.

Kyshona Armstrong, to give her the rarely used full formal name, was a member of the Nashville in the Round song writing trio which toured venues up and down the country in the autumn of 2016. The opening act for those set of dates was the prime reason for Kyshona treading many of the same venues on this new tour with the performer in question, Birmingham based songwriter Robert Lane, now being the gig partner rather than support. To be fair he was never going to compete in the vocal stakes but settled into a role of casting some homespun tunes to an audience who seemed to grow into the gig as the brace of sets rolled out.

From the depth of her musical soul, there was no denying that Kyshona’s roots burrow deep into the world of gospel, soul and blues. She may have headed to the corporate infrastructural outlet of Nashville Tennessee to attempt to turn the riches of her heart into something more tangible to deal with the cost of living, but the feeling she radiates is rooted firm in the wider South. In this less restricted format of just rotating with one fellow performer instead of two, we were exposed to a far deeper revelation of her repertoire, both in song share and candid insights.

Although the tour had been months in the planning, it has been barely a week since this unlikely duo were re-united and just the second show of implementing a variety of vocal and guitar arrangements into each other songs. Robert was far more active in collaboration, mainly on the guitar front as he switched from acoustic to electric towards the end of the show. Kyshona tended to remain on guest vocal harmony duty for her co-performer’s songs, careful not to dominate them.

The contrasts were aplenty in style with Robert’s mix of very English-like folk-pop-rock tunes creating an air of duality against Kyshona’s  more gutsy heart spun efforts. Both artists shared a decent amount of material from a couple of recent releases, keeping the obligatory cover for the encore when the audience needed little inducing to help along with the chorus of ‘Too Love Somebody’.

Earlier in the show, further audience participation was attempted at various levels with both performers determined to make the event a shared experience. To a large degree this was confirmed by the general reaction and you felt the endeavours to make this unison a success were paid off. Robert’s natural persona to engage with the listener both within and between his songs is key to his development on the local and wider singer-songwriter circuit. Kyshona’s humility, gratitude and sheer passion to overcome some of life’s injustices shine as brightly as when her powerful vocals explode in a cocktail of gospel, soul and blues.

Just taking a sample of songs on offer from this show: ‘Can You Feel it’, ‘The Best of You’, ‘Same Blood’ and ‘Heaven is a Beautiful Place ‘made compelling cases for forwarding the material of Kyshona. In fact the latter was a song grabbed from her Grandpa in his dying ember days, highlighting how family and the church have been a guiding influence for her music. Robert’s picks could quite easily be his song writing retreat effort ‘It Feels Like 5000 Miles’, the rockier ‘You Want it Both Ways’ and the lyrically incisive ‘Teardrop Tattoo’. More material from both artists is available from the usual sources as well as within their own online grottos and the ubiquitous merch table. There is an inference though that both artists are generally born to prosper in the live environment.

Over the next couple of weeks the ‘United’ tour will wheel its way around the UK coming to halt with the proverbial question: what next? It is safe to assume that Robert Lane will pop up on the home scene where he continues to strive to make a name. Kyshona will no doubt head back to the States to continue that concerted effort to push songs in what can be a crowded market. Hopefully these two trips to the UK will be a catalyst for further liaisons with our country. She is far too good to end it here as there is a burgeoning market this side of the pond for the slice of the South that she imparts through her gifted craft.