Thursday, 31 August 2017

Sam Outlaw - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 30th August 2017

Sam Outlaw definitely feels at home touring the UK. It has been a little over eighteen months since he was introduced to British audiences as the opening act for Aaron Watson and things have gone from strength to strength since. This latest of several trips is on the back of a slot at the prestigious TØnder Festival in Denmark and a first return to Birmingham since a date at The Glee Club on that inaugural tour. The growth of Sam Outlaw is symbolised by the expansion from a duo format with Danny Garcia back in January last year to now a seven-piece full band line-up complete with assorted guitars, pedal steel and drums. This mode clearly suited the barrage of songs delivered from his two albums and a Hare and Hounds audience was treated to a comprehensive display of real country music.

2017 has been the year that Sam Outlaw has introduced Nashville-based singer-songwriter Michaela Anne to UK audiences, through a spot in the band on keys and a solo opening slot to showcase her own songs. Anticipation for seeing Michaela live grew after checking a couple of her albums out online and she proceeded not to disappoint during the thirty minutes afforded to her in this Birmingham gig. Her style is based on the classic traditional country music performer and if you’re seeking a contemporary comparison, Margo Price can be suggested. The strongest songs to come across from this opening slot were saved for the latter stages of the set with ‘Luisa’ and ‘Bright Lights & the Fame’. The latter probably took the overall crown and doubles up as the title track of her most recent album. While being grateful of the opportunity to share her music, Michaela did depart the stage with a hope to return one day with her own band in tow; there are a growing band of admirers to support her in this desire.

This was the second time seeing the Sam Outlaw Band in its full complement this summer. Previously, a festival show at SummerTyne had been shared with Jim Lauderdale, but the major upgrade from that evening was based on totally owning the performance. It also helped that the stage time was increased from sixty to ninety minutes, creating time for more audience interaction and the inclusion of select cover songs that have become a feature of the UK performances.

Such interaction is not short of irony, occasionally edgy and very wry. Underpinning the humour is a sincere respect of being appreciated as a song writing, recording and performing artist in a land far away from his LA home. Indeed, it is probably the song writing qualities that shine as his major asset and there was ample evidence on show this evening of stellar compositions from the two albums. It has been documented here before that ANGELENO carried more weight than the recently released TENDERHEART, although the longevity of the former may be the overriding factor.

From the new album, ‘All My Life’ still retains the number one tag and the superb live rendition in Birmingham further cemented this view. No introduction was needed this time (unlike SummerTyne!) and it formed a central part of the evening’s finale when the band really hit their stride. Leading this more intense part of the show was the song ‘Sacramento’, a revised version of Michaela Anne’s ‘Luisa’ and delivered in a souped-up honky tonk rock ‘n’ roll style.

One other upgrade on the SummerTyne show was that the sound in the Hare and Hounds was spot on, with pedal steel and lead guitar being peerlessly clear to an audience in close up vicinity. The vocals also did justice to the quality of the songs with Molly Jenson joining Sam on several occasions, more prominently on the acoustic trio including ‘Country Love Song’, and most definitely on her lead rendition of the Dwight Yoakam classic ‘Honky Tonk Man’. This was the opening song of a three-track encore, which also included a version of George Strait’s ‘One Night at a Time’, and gig closer ‘Hole Down in My Heart’, introduced as the ‘hit’ that radio didn’t play.

Popular songs flowed all evening including the requested ‘Trouble’, with the additional time allowing certain song introductions such as the marital booster ‘Keep it Interesting’ and the lessons of a doomed love ‘She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid of)’. Probably proving one of the evening’s highlights, ‘Angeleno’ was delivered with an appreciative nod to Ry Cooder.

As the dust settled on this latest successful Sam Outlaw gig, news has surfaced of another return to these shores in the autumn. There is definitely a growing appetite for his style of country music in the UK and who can argue with the high quality that was on display during this Birmingham show. 

Lynn Jackson - Follow That Fire : Busted Flat Records

FOLLOW THAT FIRE is proof that artists can still reach out to a new audience even with nineteen years-experience and nine albums in the bank. The latest record from Canadian singer-songwriter Lynn Jackson is a lovely textured alluring release successful in creating a sense of well-being. It has been released on the Busted Flat record label, which has been responsible for some fine Canadian exported music in recent years. It may grow the international awareness of an artist adept at taking a primarily folk song base before dressing them up in a cultured pop and sensual soulful coating. All ten tracks are original offerings from the mainly solo pen of Lynn and are brimming with messages ranging from the inspiration of the road to taking a pensive view on the plight of an artistic journey.

While the record generally meanders through the tranquil waters of lucid folk, there is one tremendous jolt in the first half with a song reverberating in its grim effect. ‘Alice’ evolves as a spicy narrative tale, in true folk tradition heading for a gruesome and total left field conclusion. It’s compulsive listening, not representative of the album in general theme, but a track to forge a bind with the listener.

A further successful formula for making this album work is the harnessing of a sophisticated soundtrack to provide the ideal canvas for Lynn’s gorgeous vocals to flourish. Soft piano joins the usual stringed array in the early stages of the album especially ‘Random Breakdowns, False Starts & New Beginnings’. However, by the latter stages the keys have taken the sound in a far more soulful direction as exampled in ‘Meet Me in the City’ and ‘Night Come Down’. This comes to a pinnacle in another of the album’s stand out tracks ‘Tossing and Turning’. The vocal style is somewhat similar to Frazey Ford at this stage, with hopefully some resemblance of the Be Good Tanyas being distinguished praise. This standout piece unravels as a restless song in a restful setting.

Messages come across at their strongest in the opening and closing tracks. Title number ‘Follow that Fire’ gets proceedings under way in a suggestive and prompting way. Forty odd minutes later ‘No Regrets’ brings everything to a thoughtful close with self-explanatory sentiment and a catchy melody adorning a dreamy number. Intermediary, you get further evidence of a perceived theme with ‘Side of the Road’, while ‘Ghost’ and ‘Mystery Novels’ succeed in keeping the listener actively engaged even away from the album’s true golden moments.

The gradually ascending feel to this album makes playing it in its entirety a purposeful exercise and not one designed for the pick ‘n’ mix digital world. It eventually rolls out as a record purely heart accessible and head compatible. Lynn Jackson has clearly drawn on many aspects of her vast experience to sculpture the delights of FOLLOW THAT FIRE and any ensuing success is absolutely warranted.

Heather Lynne Horton - Don't Mess With Mrs. Murphy : At The Helm Records

Sandwiched between her previous album in 2010 and this latest release, Heather Lynne Horton was musically busy creating a wave as one-half of The Westies with husband Michael McDermott. Hot on the heels of Michael branching out with a solo record, Heather has also chosen this route with the highly emotive DON’T MESS WITH MRS. MURPHY. On the back of its US bow earlier in the summer, the record will get a resurgent boost in the UK via the good folks at At The Helm Records. The bottom line is that the album is an absolute absorbing listen, presenting an aural delight from its atmospheric opening to a moving finale.

Like so many successful records, the sound blends numerous sources to a superlative extent. Americana fans with an alternative edge are amongst the audience likely to tap into the vast reservoir of an album packed with top notch writing to provide the literary element. However, no serious music fan is precluded, whether they are prone to tearing away the layers of a record or are able to free themselves to let the music lead the way.

Themes and motives are aplenty with this album. Taking a few moments to read Heather’s thoughts on the record or burying yourself in the lyrics, will fast track the complete experience, but not critical to appreciate the sum of the overall effect. This surmounts to an evocative piece of art, often mystique, frequently dark and forever enchanting.

When you factor in a surprise cover as the eleventh track, the album weighs in at just short of the hour, but this extended feature never strays into filler territory. In fact, many listens to this album have lent towards tracks 3, 5, 8 and 10 being personal favourites, all aided by letting the record flow as opposed to cherry picking. The latter of these choices ‘I Wanna Die in My Sleep’ cracks the heart with each play. It rolls out as a majestic 7-minute narrative piece perfectly melding the spoken and sung word, all in a beautiful nostalgic haze. Think Shangri Las meets the ‘Trio’ as your starting point. 

Earlier in the record, the album really cranks up the gears with the third track ‘Did You Feel That’, a classy piece of ethereal choral delight ripe for radio play. This follows a couple of tracks that begin to form the record’s presence right from the off. Enchanting mesmeric opener ‘Murphy’s Law’ puts a capital ‘A’ in alternative, while ‘Wheelchair Man’ is a tenderer offering presenting an inspirational view from a different perspective.

The two other standout candidates previously indicated include ‘Boomerang’- a mid-album track that goes a long way to capturing the wealth of Heather’s distinct vocal style – and ‘Coffee Cup’, which evolves into one of the record's most serene melodic moments. The latter is another in the 6-minute plus category, thus cementing a thought of this being an unhurried release.

It’s a testimony to the strength of the album’s upper echelons that tracks like ‘Pauper Sky’ and ‘Flesh and Blood’ still linger in the shadows as time approached to gather some thoughts to share. The somewhat potentially controversial ‘FU’ does make a lyrical case to push the stronger tracks, while the warm velvet protective sentiments of ‘Save the Rain’ provides a reassuring moment as the album wheels into full flow.

The bonus track sees Heather team up with Michael for a cover of ‘You’re the One That I Want’. The perfect example of how to enhance a song by pouring everything into the verses, while tempering the chorus. A fitting way to end a superb album.

Essentially DON’T MESS WITH MRS MURPHY is album to be savoured alone. Its primed for a period of solitary solace and ensures the listener succumbs to a fascinating world. Heather Lynne Horton is the architect of an album that raises the standard of this year’s releases. 

Steve Grozier - A Place We Called Home : Self-released

No labels or tags are required for the music of Steve Grozier as it speaks for itself. Literal geographic associations may despatch it westward across the ocean, but then again music with a ‘state of mind rhetoric’ respects no boundaries. A PLACE WE CALLED HOME may only be a sample of what this Glasgow singer-songwriter is capable of, yet it significantly captures an intended sound and sends a signal out that more will come providing the prevailing winds are kind.

The four tracks that form this EP are cut from the classic territory of Steve’s American influences. In essence, they are songs driven by the heart before enabling a skilful soundtrack to allow their artistic flourishing. Underpinned by driving guitar to inject the rock influence, the sound elevates its ambience through the delightful twang of the pedal steel thus ensuring that anybody with an acute country ear will take note. Although, critically there are no pseudo vocal aspirations.

Lead single ‘Where the Roses Grow’ doubles up as the record opener and unravels as a certified rocker, albeit draped in a sensitive sentiment. The swirling guitars adopt a chilling presence as the piece rolls towards its conclusion making it an appealing introduction. ‘The Hardest Thing’ sees Steve in a mellower phase letting the twang set the scene and ensuring the tough lyrical input rises to the surface. ‘Nothing Feels’ continues in a sensitive mode with more steel coming to the fore and generally evoking back to a time when troubadours first took a grip on the contemporary music scene. ‘A Place We Called Home’ is probably the most ear catching track on this short collection, ably assisted by an infectious opening line melody which ends up framing the song.

Whatever the pros/cons, opportunities/constraints of an EP release, this sophomore record from Steve Grozier demonstrates that all the tools are in place to make the next step. This hopefully will include shows around the UK and the sharing of a sound that has the potential to prosper in a live environment. In the meantime, allocating a small amount of your valuable listening time to A PLACE CALLED HOME hooks you up with a focussed artist, appearing in firm control to where both they and the listener desire to be.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Wild & Wicked Youth : Self-released

“Stourbridge’s finest music export since the Mitre-fuelled heady days of late 80s indie-rock.” This is likely to be the first and last reference to the Neds, Stuffies or Poppies in any Kim Lowings and the Greenwood review. Seriously, any praise accrued for WILD & WICKED YOUTH is entirely warranted as this album lays out proof of an artist continuing to make significant development in the folk music world. The true worth of its value exists in the finely balanced track selection alongside the most beautiful of executions, both on a vocal and instrumental front. Clear messages are sent out that this is an album to be reckoned with as it begins life as a living and breathing entity documenting the talents of its architect.

As much as folk and roots music is about preserving the past, its renewal features are just as critical especially in the shape of original composition. Perhaps the most pertinent parts of this album are the five new songs that feature thus signalling that renewal is in rude health. However, following Kim’s career over the last four years has exposed her as a dedicated folk archivist and interpreting the traditional song is set to be at the core of her creative powers long into the future. If the upward trajectory of both sides of the selection process continues in the same vein as the new album then exciting times are ensured.

The album, Kim’s third full-length release, opens and closes with a new song alongside the clustering of three more originals at the core of the record. Each of these can make a valid case for standout number with maybe only a dice or daily whim making your choice. However, you can group them by style with ‘Firestone’ and ‘Fly Away’ proving exceptional piano-led pieces and immediate candidates mainly based on being the perfect vessels for Kim’s gorgeous vocals. This key attribute successfully straddles the beam between the classically cultured and the earthy warm. The resistant soul searching theme to the first of these adds to its strength, while the second acts as a resounding finale especially the iconic sampling of the old gospel favourite of the same name at the end.

Lyrically, Kim appears to be at her strongest on the narration piece ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ as cautious sentiment takes hold especially in the line ‘bide my time, see you at the finish line’. This track includes the melodeon playing of Lewis Jones, which is one of two freshly used instruments utilised well on the album and an expansion from the usual live arrangement. The other is the fiddle, liberally provided across the record by two players, Shannon Johnson and Ami Oprenova, the latter an occasional addition to the Greenwood line-up. While still on the topic of the original offerings, the spritely ‘In Spirit’ gets the album off to a stellar start. The accessible and popular beat to the song makes it the ideal conduit into the album as well as proving a well-received live number. The final self-penned track is the combined effort of an instrumental merging into a song about a positive character ‘Wyle Cop and The Wonderful Mr Clark’. The latter being an old favourite from Kim’s live show finally making its way to recorded status.

While we are talking about Kim’s live shows, the Georje Holper written song ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ has become a firm fan favourite, probably eclipsing ‘The Begging Song’ as the number one singalong. Adding a version to the new album was a no brainer and the song, with its cover status, acts as a neat link into the traditional pieces that have made their way onto the record.

Like the original songs, personal favourites from the traditional pool can vary from listen to listen. If you’re looking for an up-tempo song packed with loads of fiddle, the relentless beat to ‘The Cuckoo’ will hold sway. On the other hand, you can’t beat a good old sea shanty and a version of the popular folk song ‘Bold Riley’ makes an appearance. Both these tunes have been aired live in Kim’s shows and this should continue as the release tour gathers pace in the autumn. ‘The Newry Highwayman’ is an old song that was earmarked early on as a track to support the album and thus was launched in a lyric video. This acts as the record's penultimate track with the line ‘wild and wicked youth’ impressing enough to gravitate to album title. Earlier in the running order, we are treated to a joyful version of ‘Oyster Girl’, complete with twist. This is followed by a German translated piece titled ‘Farewell My Love So Dear’, which induces an alternative mood heavily influenced by a lengthy instrumental introduction tinged with backing vocal sounds. ‘Oh the Wind and the Rain’ completes the twelve track serving and it would be remiss for a folk album not to contain a murder ballad.

At this stage, an appreciative mention is reserved for the Greenwood stalwart playing their usual superb supportive roles in the guise of Andrew Lowings (guitar, bouzouki, bodhran,backing vocals), Dave Sutherland (double bass, guitar, backing vocals) and Tim Rogers (cajon, percussion, drums). Also alongside her stellar vocals and all round creativity, there is Kim’s trademark dulcimer playing. In fact, a striking feature of this record is its high quality production value and how well the core and guest sounds have been blended.

WILD & WICKED YOUTH is probably the best Kim Lowings album to date equipped to maximise inroads into a crowded market. It surely has plenty to offer folk music aficionados, but of equal importance, it reaches out beyond the core hinterlands. The inclusion of fiddle and piano make it a more rounded recording. Ultimately, it is an album to grow into as well as sitting back, singing along or just marvelling at the therapeutic nature of good music. Finally, there is one difference between Kim Lowings and the Greenwood and the heady days of the Stourbridge scene: the latter faded quite quickly!

Tom Russell - Folk Hotel : Proper Records

Tom Russell always keeps his listeners alert. Whether through conquering the art of storytelling via music; filling an empty canvas with a literal style of writing or penning a memorable song, his lengthy career has left a catalogue of folk records covering a broad range of subjects. This has led to him being actively thought of as a scribe of Americana, the wider definition of the underbelly of a continent rather than a pre-described music style. While FOLK HOTEL is quintessential Tom Russell, the subjects frequently span the landmasses of America and Europe with the usual combination of viewing the macro of the landscape mixed with the micro of the individual. Weighing in at fourteen tracks (seventy-one minutes) for the essential deluxe physical version, the new record joins the club of Russell’s more time friendly releases as opposed to the epic that unravelled in his last major project THE ROSE OF ROSCRAE.

Since this double album crashed onto the scene like an Alpine avalanche, Tom Russell did partake in another project celebrating the songs of Ian and Sylvia Tyson. Indeed Ian Tyson, an elder statesman of Canadian folk, country and western music, is the subject of ‘I’ll Never Lose These Horses’ on FOLK HOTEL and joins Dylan Thomas, JFK, Hank and Lightin’ Hopkins as significant historical figures to pose as writing topics for Russell.

While the laid back and accessible performing style of Russell smooths the path of his music to the listener’s ear, grasping the true depth of the record requires a great deal of dedication; one that will excite his aficionados and present a challenge to newbies. However, this is a challenge rewarding perseverance with a treasure chest of contemporary folk music designed to fascinate generations for years to come.

Like his previous work, an accompanying book is being made available to give further insight into the extensive material that forms FOLK HOTEL. This does extend the choice to how deep you want to immerse into the music of Tom Russell and the wide detail of his influences. While this was not available during the formal review process, it would have only led to a proliferation of the writing task and the ultimate straying into essay territory. With or without the book, a finger on the search field of a device is not unknown when listening intensely to the lyrics of Tom Russell. This is when the inevitable desire to expand the education process prevails.

On the surface, FOLK HOTEL takes you on a geographical voyage almost splitting its time between Europe and America. The former, a valuable supporter of Tom Russell’s music over the years, takes shape in ‘The Sparrow of Swansea’ (a co-write with Katy Moffatt celebrating the enigma that is DylanThomas). This is closely followed by ‘All on a Belfast Morning’ and later on the record with ‘The Rooftops of Copenhagen’. Both these tracks possess the trademark Tom Russell spoken parts with prose from Irish writer James Cousins credited in the first one.

The album begins with three tracks firmly planted in Russell’s homeland. The song dedicated to Ian Tyson has been previously mentioned and this is preceded by one of the record’s standout tracks ‘Leaving El Paso’. His previous work tackling the landscape and people of the West has been amongst Russell’s best (most notably ‘Guadalupe’) and now you can add this accordion drenched piece skirting the Mexican border. ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ opens the record in the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City and in four precious minutes lets you know that you are firmly hooked into another Tom Russell album.

Sparring with the border song for the standout moment are two tracks at the core of the record. ‘Rise Again, Handsome Johnny’ weaves the known and the unknown into the true story of a meeting with John F. Kennedy, while wrapped into an easy listening beat. ‘The Last Time I Saw Hank’ probably takes the writing into a more metaphorical direction with a message of pondering some of life’s poignant moments delivered in a very Johnny Cash style.

Before documenting the remaining tracks on the main body of the album, let’s turn to the two songs that provide the value of the deluxe version. These add a total of fifteen extra minutes for your outlay and start with Tom Russell in cover mode. He has never hidden his admiration for Bob Dylan (ok not an earth shattering revelation) and teams up with Joe Ely for a version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. A nine-minute epic ‘Scars on his Ankles’ closes the record detailing the life of legendary blues performer Lightnin’ Hopkins. This references many aspects of the subject’s life including the penal remnants and also includes more of the part spoken/part sung style.

This style is also prevalent in track eleven, which rolls out as a three-in-one presentation titled ‘They Day They Dredged the Liffey / The Banks of the Montauk / The Road to Santa Fe-O’. In effect, presented as three separate one-minute sample pieces. The remaining songs, ‘The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence’ and ‘The Dram House in Gutter Lane’, are more conventional offerings with the former taking stock of life on the road and the latter immersing itself into 16th Century slang. ‘Harlan Clancy’ brings a close to this exceedingly brief dive into the deep well of FOLK HOTEL with American musician Augie Meyers delivering the opening before Tom Russel takes over the reins with the remainder of yet another story.

Any perceived exhausting elements to grasping the underpinning value of a Tom Russell album are blown away by the riches that this influential Americana scribe lays out. FOLK HOTEL will keep a listener on their toes and retains a tendency to reveal a little bit more in each play. This is the fruit of a legendary singer-songwriter at work and every small share keeps the spirit alive. In a JFK twist – ask not what Tom Russell can do for you, but what you can do for Tom Russell.

There is a promotional video widely available on the Internet supporting this album detailing Tom's take on its making and influences. Feel free to check that out, but to accompany this Tom Russell piece, I couldn't resist sharing the prophetic classic from 2007.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Preview: Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham. Friday 1st September to Sunday 3rd September 2017

Although the season stretches into mid-September, there has always been something of an end of the summer festival feel when Moseley Folk arrives on the city’s doorsteps. Beyond the Tracks may be extending Birmingham’s outdoor music attractions this year and End of the Road may be the higher profile indication of a seasonal closer, but there is a definite uniqueness about the eclectic gathering in Moseley Park across the opening weekend of September.

The luscious sloping surroundings of a private park on the hinterland of Birmingham’s city centre coupled with a stage arrangement of non-stop music from the comfort of a single location are key aesthetic features of Moseley Folk. When you blend in a line up ranging from the traditional to the experimental, the sounds that fill the park emanate from a highly crafted pack of artists, musicians and performers. 2017 is the twelfth renewal of Moseley Folk Festival and without making too much comparison with previous gatherings, this year’s acts are a pulsating stand-alone selection designed to stretch the discerning cultural ear.

The challenge of any preview is to balance out the personal and the general. However, the former immediately jumped out the page when the line-up was announced a few months ago. From an Americana perspective, there a few cooler song writing performers around than the American trio of Courtney Marie Andrews, John Moreland and Shovels & Rope. Memory cannot recall any of these playing the city before, so fans of this particular strand of folk music will be in for a treat.
Before leaving the very personal behind, two other names to look out for hail from contrasting lands and places on the musical horizon. New Zealand artist Nadia Reid is an intriguing booking and ear marked as one to catch, while Norwich based singer-songwriter Jess Morgan is firmly establishing a respected foothold on the UK acoustic scene and makes this the second of three planned Birmingham visits this year.

It is not unusual for the festival to dip a small toe into the mainstream music world and perhaps the artist who reflects this policy most in 2017 is Friday headliner Amy MacDonald. On an ever-increasing influential footing, but with a slightly left field style is Laura Marling who brings the festival to a close on Sunday. This slot follows in the footsteps of acts like The Proclaimers, The Monkees and The Dubliners from previous years, so a definite diversion to create an alternative vibe.

Of course, core folk festival credentials are not too tough to find with Seth Lakeman, Kate Rusby and The Furrow Collective leading the contemporary charge from a traditional angle. If you want to swap the word contemporary for legendary, then look no further than the Saturday evening performance of Fairport Convention, right in the midst of their fiftieth anniversary celebrations. For contrasting styles of the folk spectrum, you could try the celtic tones of Lankum (formerly Lynched) alongside the melancholic tranquillity of Josienne Clark and Ben Walker.

To widen the the appeal by tapping into the circles of experienced artists, the festival has acquired the services of The Magic Numbers and Roddy Woomble. Dedicated fans of both these acts are likely to attend. This will no doubt also apply to Mike Heron who brings an Incredible String Band influence to the stage on Sunday with another city appearance in tandem with Trembling Bells. On the other hand, the name Kaia Kater may not be well known before the weekend, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if her Moseley Festival appearance altered that. Jose Gonzalez returns to the festival after a few years absence and his Saturday evening slot has a good chance of acquiring new fans in a similar vein to what was reported from a previous appearance.

Mingling the prior familiar with those that will be at the end of the festival demonstrates the astute skill in programming a line-up that entices on paper and is well set to deliver in presence. Don’t forget the twin stage set up enables a constant stream of fine music from Friday lunchtime to Sunday evening, all for a modest outlay. Also returning this year is the Kitchen Garden curated stage featuring independent artists such as up and coming folk starlet Emily Mae Winters and locally based duo Ashland.

All artists featured are scheduled to attend the festival at time of publication and a full list of performers can be found at the event site. 

Julie Byrne - Summerhall, Edinburgh. Wednesday 23rd August 2017

There has been a tendency on several previous visits to the Edinburgh Fringe to avoid the straightforward gig and enjoy music performed in a more theatrical manner. However, temptation prevailed when a scheduling slot appeared on the Wednesday of this year’s visit with an opportunity opening up to catch Julie Byrne in concert. Although this was a billed Fringe show, the format rolled out to be a conventional gig with the usual support act and accompanying break. One predicted assurance was that the headliner would confirm the growing credentials of a respected international American touring artist and re-affirm the buzz that has accompanied them all year.

Summerhall is one of the Fringe’s many bustling venues; housing a diverse range of artistic offerings. This gig was held in the Dissection Room and thus provided the subject content for an instant settling comment from Julie as she took to the stage around a quarter past nine. Over the next hour, a totally absorbed seated crowd, edging towards three figures in numbers, were treated to a delightful performance of lo-fi folk. The requisite for silence is an integral part of such a show being pulled off and this Edinburgh gathering was happy to oblige. Julie opened and closed her set in solo mode, just exquisite slender guitar playing and the smoothest of voices. For the main body of the performance, Julie was joined by her touring companion Taryn Miller on some kind of lap keys, resulting in a melding sound to adorn the near seamless set of tranquil songs.

This was not really an evening learning about Julie Byrne - the person. Chat was kept to a minimum, creating a space for the audience to surrender their minds to the beauty of her soft vocals and gentle acoustic playing. The songs do tend to merge into one another in a live setting with little introduction, although the standout piece came mid-set in the guise of ‘Natural Blue’. This hails from Julie’s latest acclaimed album NOT EVEN HAPPINESS, a record that also housed the set opener ‘Sleepwalker’

What we did deduce from the occasional dropped line was a preference to this intimate show in contrast to playing to a much larger audience at the recent Green Man Festival. At this moment, wry smiles were no doubt prevalent in light of choosing to attend. By the time the gig reached its conclusion with ‘Marmalade’, lifted off her previous album ROOMS WITH WALLS AND WINDOWS, the die of a Julie Byrne show had been cast; a mellowed audience bestowed with a gentle ear massage.

Earlier in the evening, an evocative tone had been set with Duncan Marquiss adopting an introverted stance with his experimental guitar approach and assorted pedal loops. This music demands absolute attention to grasp its intended mood and can often lead an unaccustomed audience to a mixed state of reception. From a personal perspective, it probably only started working towards the end of an approximately thirty-minutes set, but this type of music is so heavily personalised and essentially the antithesis of the shared experience.

There can be a slight one-dimensional aspect to the music of Julie Byrne, but when you tune into its mesmeric groove, the rays of satisfaction take limitless hold. Reviews of the latest album associate its sparseness with a bleak landscape, but there was alternate instant warmth from intense listening in a live unfiltered environment. While live music will never be core to my annual Fringe trip, this gig proved a welcome exception and offered full confirmation that the associated buzz around Julie Byrne is fully justified. 

Susan Cattaneo - The Hammer & The Heart : Jersey Girl Music

Double albums can present a risk especially in these challenging times for enhanced content. However, if they are put together as thoughtful as this new release from Susan Cattaneo then any foray into the unknown is underpinned by assured protection. THE HAMMER & THE HEART is a neatly packaged compendium of concepts, collaborations and contrasts. At the core, is an artist striving for an independent stance and backing an ability to make an impressionable record. These has been achieved through a strident act of duality, with sufficient appeal to make those of a country, folk or Americana persuasion sit up and take note.

Weighing in with near symmetrical proportion, each disc mirrors the nine track – thirty plus minute format. As intimated in the title, THE HAMMER generally contains the upbeat punchy numbers, while its counterpart THE HEART takes a deeper and mellower look at the song writing content. Both discs start with the same song, albeit in different styles. ‘Work Hard Love Harder’ is the track, carrying the album’s motto and largely being the true soul of the record. The up tempo version sees a link up with St. Louis based rock ‘n’ roll band The Bottle Rockets. The stellar opening line ‘the heart beats louder than the dollar’ has a more profound effect on the alternative version, but either take is a suitable introduction to each disc.

The other sixteen tracks are a general mix of originals (both of a solo and co-write status) and carefully crafted covers. The four falling into the latter category come from a variety of diverse backgrounds. ‘Back Door Slam’ and ‘Everybody Cryin’ Mercy’ call at the blues; a grungy version of Buddy and June Miller’s ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’ tips the hat towards Americana, while a three-part harmony version of ‘Space Oddity’ requires little explanation.

While the debate on the value of a cover will probably never be resolved, the desirable worth of Susan’s writing is indisputable. Two great collaborations with Bill Kirchen illuminate THE HAMMER disc, headed by some lightning telecaster work on ‘In the Grooves’, an ode to the traditional way of listening to music. The other takes the form of a standard duet, with ‘Loves Goes Right’ being the perfect antidote to the break up country song. A refreshing sentiment that can often be underplayed in the genre.

Further more intense personal thoughts, as you would generally expect from title’s inference, take hold on THE HEART in the form of ‘Ordinary Magic’, ‘Bitter Moon’ and ‘Smoke’. Accompanying a copy of this album is a detailed personal insight into each song that aids the understanding. The merit of this approach puts Susan Cattaneo firmly in the camp of wanting to get her message over, rather than giving listeners a licence to roam. The bottom line is that the music wholeheartedly retains the tone to speak for itself and can also stand alone without the conceptual background.

Other picks from enjoying many entertaining listens to the album include the Mark Erelli co-write ‘The River Always Wins’, and another tune with an environmental spin, ‘Field of Stone’. ‘Ten Kinds of Trouble’, complete with the memorable line ‘Elvis in your soul’, is another track to head in a bluesy Southern direction, clearly showing the New England born, raised and based Cattaneo in a comfortable adopted role.

Having previously given two of her releases – HAUNTED HEART and LITTLE BIG SKY – a seal of approval here, there was a period of letting the extensiveness of this meatier product bed in. Make no mistake, THE HAMMER & THE HEART is a brave ambitious project, but its adeptness, classy construction and tapping into the wealth of sincere sentiment have yielded Susan Cattaneo a high degree of success. Ultimately, it has evolved into a formidable album to engage with a growing band of listeners. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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