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 CafĂ© 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. ‘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 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.