Friday, 22 September 2017

Jeremy Pinnell - Ties of Blood and Affection : SofaBurn

One verse into the opening track of the new Jeremy Pinnell album is enough to announce that this record is going to resonate. True to form, TIES OF BLOOD AND AFFECTION sticks to the rulebook, carrying on in a similar vein right up until the final track where the peak is scaled. This rulebook is straight down the middle-no frills country music undeterred from dipping into life’s darker side, often born out of the bars, dancehalls and honky tonks stretching across the land. This brand new nine-track album is the second release from a no doubt proud Northern Kentuckian, a location that is not shied away from being referred. This is a continuation of the previous record, which contained the simple State abbreviated title OH / KY. Maybe the geographical references do have some impact on a writer acknowledging the influence of their roots, but the stellar selling value of the record is Pinnell’s acute ability to capture the spiritual embodiment of country music.

Strong melodies primarily adorned with pedal steel and twangy guitar tumble out of a series of songs, sung with the earthy grit of a seasoned artist who has long moved on from first base. This is suitcase music channelling a performer forever on the move, if not literally, certainly from a mind-wandering perspective. The rhythmic undertones ensure it keeps its head above the mayhem of a crowded room, heaven forbid even possibly garnering some airplay. One certainty is that country music in its purest form will never die as long as artists like Jeremy Pinnell are plying their trade.

“Laid up in the house full of hookers and wine” is the corker of a line that opens the album in the track ‘Ballad of 1892’, one that is only eclipsed just over half an hour later when perhaps the standout track acts as the untimely closer. ‘The Way We See Heaven’ is the song to claim this mantle and is a glorious/inglorious take on religion dependent on your persuasion. The line combo “in nineteen hundred and seventy seven my mama thought I came from heaven…later in life she knew I came from hell” has not been touched all year in its instant impact. To complete the lyrical nous, things get a little risky in ‘Feel This Right’, with “son, we broke the bed when we made you” being proclaimed in the chorus of yet another song that truly is embedded in your mind – for the right reasons.

Elsewhere on the album, standards refuse to drop. When the rockers kick in such as ‘Ain’t Nothing Wrong’ and ‘I Don’t Believe’, they contain the ability to transport the listener from wherever they reside in the world to the mythical existence of living and breathing a country song. On the more temperate tracks such as the poignant ‘Different Kind of Love’, as well as the honest and frank standard ‘Best I Could Do’, Pinnell takes the listener in his confidence and rewards their attention with music to pin your hopes on.

Take the Wheel’ leads the final two tracks and holds most merit in the sumptuous musical interludes that piece together its verses and chorus. Likewise, some great music backs the seventies-style light rocker ‘I’m Alright With This’. Critically, all nine tracks play a part in making this record a riveting listen from start to finish.

For its UK launch, TIES OF BLOOD AND AFFECTION is getting a helping hand from At The Helm Records, though the release remains on SofaBurn. A few UK dates have been lined up alongside Ags Connolly, on the surface one of the more astute UK-US collaborations you are likely to see this year. Folks discovering Jeremy Pinnell, either through one of those shows or engaging with the new record, are in for a treat. Ultimately, this is country music that you can dance, drink and cry to. What more is required?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Dylan LeBlanc + Aubrie Sellers - The Lantern, Bristol. Friday 15th September 2017

The first ‘cautionary tale’ was not to expect the similar chilled out mellow vibes from the latest Dylan LeBlanc album of the same name. The second was to inject a degree of ear-adjusted patience before waiting for this gig to ignite. Once these parameters were applied, the true worth of this enigmatic artist surfaced. On a night where both the headliner and invited support act Aubrie Sellers had to compete with the sonic deviances of a vacuous venue, you had to dig a little deeper to discover the true worth of two artists blessed with innate musical qualities.

If a little push was needed to venture down the M5 to Bristol on a Friday evening to see Dylan Le Blanc, the late addition of Aubrie Sellers to open his UK shows sealed the decision. Apologies for any misguided sentiment in suggesting via the title of this review that the show was a co-bill. The excitement of catching Aubrie on one of her first appearances this side of the pond had been buoyed by last year’s release of NEW CITY BLUES securing a place in that ‘sacred’ December album list. Maybe this introduction was a touch low key, comprising of seven tracks in a set falling short of the half hour mark, but there was sufficient evidence to suggest the talent genes were in good working order.

Appearing in a trio format led by Nashville guitarist Ethan Ballinger, Aubrie wasted little time in reeling off half a dozen tracks from her debut album. In addition there was a cover of Gram Parsons’ ‘Luxury Liner’ all in a distinct style labelled with a degree of credibility as ‘Garage Country’. Now from a personal perspective, if you’re going to crossover, three chord thrash is a better territory than high production pop; it has far more synergy with the roots of traditional country music. The trio nailed this totally in their limited time in the spotlight, even when it became evident from the opening bars that the sound level from the guitar and drums was going to drown out the vocals. To Aubrie’s credit she eventually won the battle and was probably hitting her peak when the final track ‘Just to be With You’ was dealt. Throughout the set, a classy vocal style was evident thus confirming there were more than the striking features of her mother Lee Ann Womack being passed down.

On the surface, Aubrie Sellers is making an independent stance with her music. The album bubbled under the radar until getting a label release and her style in its present form wanders away from the mainstream. There was no disputing the raw energy that radiated from her stage presence and this coupled with the quality of the recorded material suggests a talent that will continue to prosper. 

Sadly, The Lantern in its seated format, was not the ideal venue for a turnout around the fifty mark. There was also a combination of factors that led to the first half hour of Dylan LeBlanc’s set missing the mark. First up, this was loud. Probably not by some standards, but definitely by the benchmark of similar Americana touring acts. Secondly, Dylan’s vocal style is a somewhat acquired taste that worked especially well on the latest album, but can strain opinion when in harness with a six-piece full-on rock band. From a personal perspective, it floated out the microphone and ended up half way down the Bristol Channel at times rather than on the intended listener.

Yet midway through the set, something clicked into place. It was during an extended instrumental piece, quoted as very much in the vein of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, that everything in the band came together. Incidentally, they are actually Nashville/Muscle Shoals based four-piece outfit The Pollies, joined for this tour by Courtney Blackwell on cello. Perhaps it helped that the two standout songs came in this section – ‘Easy Way Out’ and ‘Cautionary Tale’ – plus a new song introduced as a take on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which sounded pretty good. Also in this section, the sound seemed to find its optimum channel, although this could have been down to some individual ear adjustment within the listener. However, there was always the tendency for the keys to be drowned out, which is a pity as they are often an integral part of a Muscle Shoals band. On the positive side, the dulcet sombre tones of the cello worked well, probably operating as a tempering influence.

By the time Dylan closed the show with a couple of tracks featuring just acoustic guitar and cello, the appreciative humility shone through and the evening as a whole resided comfortably in the credit column. Without a shadow of doubt, Dylan LeBlanc is a highly talented musician, an effective bandleader and successful in channelling a few idiosyncratic tendencies into a rich sound. There is a versatility in marrying the vibes of the studio album with those displayed in Bristol this evening. Essentially, he is the ‘carved in stone’ Americana artist, for those who view the genre as a refuge for homeless rock acts. All the components evident on stage tonight support this train of thought.

Peter Bruntnell - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 14th September 2017

Peter Bruntnell is one of those artists where you don’t have to search too hard to find someone who has a good word to say about him. Whatever you want to call the scene that he has been part of for over twenty years – alt country, roots rock, Americana - , the song writing prowess and the knack of delivering knockout full band performances has led to many plaudits. From a hazy memory, the West Midlands hasn’t seen too many live performances from him in recent times, so it was good to anticipate a few tunes being caught when a show at the Kitchen Garden was announced.

Peter admitted that his solo acoustic shows are bit sparse these days, so he was prepared to go with the flow leading to an element of spontaneity sparked by a series of invited audience requests. The pattern of these songs was characterised by their popular appeal especially ‘Sea of Japan’ and ‘Caroline’. One request that did present a challenge was ‘Jurassic Parking Lot’, but not to be outdone this was duly delivered after a few pauses for thought.

Leading the way from his own choice of songs was the excellent ‘Here Comes the Swells’. The breadth of his career was covered straight from the off with the title track from the 1995 album CANNIBAL right up to the current day with ‘Long Way From Home’ lifted off the latest record NOS DA COMRADE. This acted as the first encore song before the evening closed with a version of the classic Smiths track ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, the lyrics being whispered under the breath of more than a few audience members.

Part of the appeal of this show was Peter’s generally laid back approach, which steered clear of any pretence and created a cordial relaxed atmosphere in the venue. His gratitude towards a fine opening set from Birmingham’s own singer-songwriter Dannielle Cawdell was in accordance with the overall mood established as soon as the curtain partitioning the performing area was closed just after eight. Indeed, Dannielle’s own set showed a marked increase in confidence since seeing her perform at the venue earlier in the summer. An assurance that she will continue to get an increasing number of local gig offers to fit into her busy schedule.

Although the overall  feel of the show was decidedly low key, this didn’t detract from its enjoyable aspect especially when folks are enlightened by the true story surrounding the song ‘By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix’. On a more serious note, Peter didn’t shy away from darker offerings such as ‘One Drink Away’ and songs with a personal connection like ‘Have You Seen That Girl Again’. One new composition was shared in ‘National Library’ with its dedication to the Conservative party.

While the audience was frequented by many long term Peter Bruntnell admirers, others did learn a little about what makes him tick and his style of song delivery. In fact, this format is more akin to a level of discovery rather than the standard band performance, which is characterised by its energy and excitement. Ultimately, this is the type of show that the Kitchen Garden excels at and those attending would undoubtedly have joined the lengthy list of Peter Bruntnell plaudits.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Album Launch Show, Artrix Arts, Bromsgrove. Friday 8th September 2017

Two years ago, Stourbridge-based folk musician Kim Lowings stubbornly battled the ailments to get through the launch show of a new album. This time there was no uninvited obstacles as she both, hosted a memorable evening and glided through her own set. Thus presenting the whole of WILD & WICKED YOUTH in its crafted splendour. For the evening to celebrate the official release of this acclaimed album, the studio venue at Bromsgrove’s Artrix Arts centre proved the ideal setting. Friends, family, fans and fellow musicians flocked to the location from places near and far, all amply rewarded with a full evening of folk music in contrasting forms.

In order to give the faithful a music packed evening, two opening acts were invited to perform providing a near three hour feast, give or take the minimum changeover/refreshment breaks. Susie Dobson alongside guitarist Ant Miles played a low-key short set to get the evening underway. Her music was a gentle mix of traditional and cover songs with the latter featuring a version of Anais Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall’. Following Susie, the tempo was raised with the appearance of London Folk band Apples… I’m Home. Surely, the most curious band name to cross your path for a long time. Their extended set was characterised by a folk rock style, albeit wholly in the acoustic realm. They made a significant presence with a five-piece line-up and took the warm-up role to its limit by using the dynamics of their repertoire.

By now, the audience were ready for Kim to relinquish the MC role and take them on a journey to share the fruits of a third foray into recording a full-length album. Starting on the trademark dulcimer, Kim kicked off the set with ‘The Newry Highwayman’, a traditional tale housing the album’s title in one of its lines and acting as the initial promotional track. The audience was frequented by a few who had supported the album through the Pledge process alongside some others privileged to get a sneak preview. However, the bulk of the gathering got an exciting initial insight into the delights of this twelve-track record, even to the extent of learning about some of the more curious reviews.

The beauty of a launch gig is the opportunity for the artist to provide some background to the songs, whether the source of the selection or inspiration for the composition. This evening was no different, with particular tracks being heard in a fresh context from during the review process including ‘Oh the Wind and Rain’ and ‘In Spirit’. What was concretely confirmed was the utter beauty emanating from the two stunning ballads on the record, both getting the full piano treatment from Kim, precisely replicating the album version. The only differentiation between ‘Firestones’ and ‘Fly Away’ is the former just marginally pulling ahead in the preference stakes.

There was enough time to treat folks with three older songs: a neat combination of the original, cover and traditional song. All three are integral parts of the audience singalong opportunities leading off with the infectious ‘Maggie’s Song’, a firm favourite from the previous album HISTORIA. Kim has been covering the Be Good Tanyas’ song ‘Littlest Birds’ for a long time and this evening’s performance in the usual instrument-free vocalist role was just as good as hearing it when first discovering her four years ago. ‘The Begging Song’ has also been a staple fixture of a Kim Lowings and the Greenwood show and its encore role brought the evening to a rousing conclusion. ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ off the new album has been making valiant attempts to replace this traditional piece as the prime interactive moment, but upon reflection it still has ground to make up.

As usual, the Greenwood backing trio gave Kim stellar support, although for this launch show the trio became a quartet with the addition of Ben Moss on melodeon and fiddle. The use of the latter is one of the album’s redeeming instrumental features and while it only gets an occasional Greenwood outing, it played a grand part in the success of the show. The other Greenwood contribution was highlighted by the bouzouki playing of Andrew Lowings and Dave Sutherland’s double bass riffs on ‘Farewell My Love So Dear’, all soundly kept in rhythm by Tim Rogers’ cajon and assorted percussion playing.

By the end of the evening, there were few excuses for folks not to grab their copy of WILD & WICKED YOUTH and many others will get a previewed opportunity as Kim Lowings and the Greenwood undertake a series of tour dates around the country during the remainder of the year. For everyone else, the record is now available on a wide selection of platforms and wherever your preference lies, the merits of this distinguished album are boldly on display. By their nature, launch gigs are often portrayed as an unqualified success and this one proved no exception. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Moseley Folk Festival - Moseley Park, Moseley, Birmingham. Friday 1st September to Sunday 3rd September 2017

Moseley Folk: the only festival where you can watch a mid-Atlantic-styled alt-country act amidst a band of scurrying youngsters having a hay fight. Moseley Folk: the only festival which epitomised the sentiment of ‘Sunday morning coming down’ on a Friday teatime by the sequential scheduling of Seth Lakeman’s fiery fiddle playing and Nadia Reid’s absorbing Kiwi noir. Moseley Folk: the only festival where the blissful tones of Laura Marling persuaded the rain clouds to halt their activity. Regardless of where the 2017 renewal of the Moseley Folk Festival stands in comparison to its eleven previous stagings, this year’s had an alluring pulse that ignited a weekend of eclectic music. Whatever the persuasion, style or origin of influence, it’s all folk music dressed in many coats.

John Moreland
Is Moseley Folk Festival about the headliners across the weekend; the equally important artists plotting their road to stardom via the Kitchen Garden stage or the attendees content to just sit back and soak up the vibes of an event hailing the change of the seasons? The last point was especially pertinent when comparing the bright sunshine greeting John Moreland’s slant on bringing some Oklahoma dust to the English Midlands to the eventual rain showers aptly accompanying Kate Rusby’s warm Yorkshire view of the world on a cool Sunday evening.

Although the scheduling does allow the utmost dedicated festival music fan to absorb themselves into close on forty acts across the twin main and Lunar stages, reality requires brief periods of easing off. Of course when to vacate that close up stage proximity can add to the conjecture and lead to just offering casual observations on artists like Jose Gonzalez wooing an enthusiastic main stage gathering on Saturday. Similarly, positive reports of Roddy Woomble doing likewise the following day surfaced, but there are times for a cup of tea and the lure of the mightily impressive Emily Mae Winters playing a super set on the aforementioned Kitchen Garden stage tucked away in a corner of Moseley Park.

Courtney Marie Andrews
On the other hand, close up and personal was the only place to witness the Americana quartet, which raised the bar of the transatlantic serving dished up by the organisers this year. Courtney Marie Andrews has burst onto the UK scene this year with the release of her latest album HONEST LIFE and this second visit to our shores has ratcheted up the momentum. Looking every inch the consummate performer, Courtney and her band transfixed main stage watchers late on Friday afternoon with a gorgeous bunch of highly crafted songs delivered with such class and a mesmerising gaze to suit. Fast forward twenty-four hours and the same location hosted a frenetic hour of Shovels & Rope. The energy, buzz and interaction between Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were intoxicating. In a sign of humility towards their hosts, Cary apologised for the pronunciation of ‘Birmingham’ ahead of launching into one of their top songs, while stating the need for its rhyming role. Courtney was just happy to be in "Brum" Rehearsing the local lingo paid off. 

Nadia Reid
As indicated earlier, John Moreland brought his own distinctive style of roots music in a format best described as focussed, solitary and an absolute belief in the power of the song. The Americana quartet was completed with a full band Saturday lunchtime set from Scott Hirsch on the main stage. In these times where the term ‘Americana’ twists across the musical plateau like a manoeuvring rattle snake, the guitar-drums-keys of this outfit was as core to the term as you are likely to find. Throw in a Californian vibe combined with the welcome sunshine, and the sound made Moseley Park feel like a small part of the Golden State for forty-five minutes.

Before we head back to the core of Moseley Folk and the songs of our home isles, a quick mention for Kaia Kater and a brief glimpse into the roots world of this Canadian banjo player. Noon hadn’t yet struck when she took to the stage, but soon had the early gatherers hooked with her style of folk music, even to the extent of inducing a little dancing. For those interested Kaia returns to Birmingham later in the year to open for Rhiannon Giddens in the Town Hall show; this is an event not to be missed.

Scott Hirsch
Undoubtedly, for many the highlight of the festival would have been securing the services of Fairport Convention to effectively headline on Saturday evening. This legendary outfit, quite rightly labelled as the pioneers of folk rock, are in the throes of celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with founder member Simon Nicol still at the core alongside Dave Pegg who joined soon after their beginning. A comprehensive set covering a raft of traditional, trademark and cover songs was delivered as the curfew was taken to its limit. The genuineness, affable demeanour and accessibility of the performance reached out beyond the Fairport base, with all present being reassured that time has yet to be called on the longevity of their performing status.

Amy Macdonald and Laura Marling were the respective Friday and Sunday night headliners. Comparisons are aplenty on a literal level including a rapid rise to the top barely before reaching the ripe old age of twenty. Both brought plenty of fans to the festival, no doubt hooked into their contrasting performing styles. Amy decided to break away from her full band sound that has formed her pop-rock tonality for this event, bravely stripping all the electrification out and letting her popular songs feed an expected audience. Laura maintained the convention that surrounded her touring year in support of the excellent album SEMPER FEMINA, even to the extent of keeping the set list in tact including a spinetingling rendition of the Townes Van Zandt composition ‘For the Sake of the Song’. This format is a fuller sound than some of her previous acoustic outings and generally in line with the tones of her latest two records.

Shovels & Rope
In a brief foray into the world of objectivity, Laura won this ‘contest’ hands down with a super cool aura protruding a series of incredibly deep songs to an audience blissfully silent (in front of the stage anyhow). This was announced as her final gig of the year and it didn’t disappoint, almost to the degree of eclipsing her Institute show in the city back in March. Maybe there was a slight downer on cutting the set short, fifteen minutes ahead of curfew, but the coronation had taken place at the end of the final song ‘Rambling Man’.

We now are entering the territory where folks may be screaming ‘what about this highlight or that band’. So to tackle just a few, let’s start with The Magic Numbers rolling back the years with a main stage set on Friday evening. This double brother-sister combo cranked up the volume considerably, probably rocking out most over the weekend, capably led by Romeo Stodart on lead guitar and impressively supported by Michele on bass. The set was a mixture of singalong crowd favourites at the beginning and end, sandwiching a batch of new songs signalling an attempt to re-capture the heady days. To an outsider, they brought vitality to the festival and variation to add to the eclectic nature.

Emily Mae Winters
The pick of the English folk acts for me was the outstanding performance of Josienne Clark and Ben Walker on the main stage late on Saturday afternoon. Ben’s caressing of the guitar is a joy to savour, while the way Josienne wraps herself wholly around each song is utterly fascinating. The humour and irony is projected out there for folks to judge, but essentially the most beautiful of music speaks for itself. Other traditional acts enjoyed included The Furrow Collective with their stellar line-up of Emily Portman. Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrrell and the ever-busy Alasdair Roberts, plus the fervent Irish folk of Lankum, fully in the throes of casting off the Lynched label. Michael Chapman brought his wealth of experience to the main stage on Saturday afternoon proving that age is no barrier for one man and his guitar to hold a festival audience in the palm of their hands for forty-five minutes.

The festival’s Lunar stage is often the source of the eclectic offering and this was exemplified by the toe tapping rhythmic tones of Nifeco Costa & Babcock Jazz, just as the threatening rain kept its distance on Sunday afternoon. Later in the evening, Birmingham’s own crazy band The Destroyers thrilled newbies and regular festival goers alike with a raucous set splitting the more cultured acts of Kate Rusby and Laura Marling. The Trembling Bells proved regular visitors to this stage, playing to their loyal Birmingham followers twice, including a set with Mike Heron of Incredible String Band fame.

Laura Marling
While a host of different performers drifted across this stage during the weekend, three solo artists with very early slots did their reputation a power of good with impressive sets. Jess Morgan is an increasingly well-known acoustic singer-songwriter and she did her growing profile no harm with an assured bunch of Sunday morning songs. Izzie Derry is a lot less experienced than the well-travelled Jess, but raised her profile significantly during the Saturday morning billing. Fenne Lily was the odd one out of this trio by virtue of her chosen tool being wholly plugged in and fully electric, though extracting a softly lo-fi sound. A few teething problems at the end failed to take the shine off a performance that succeeded in creating some lovely ambience.

Just a final few quick words for Standing Waves who were that band enjoyed amongst the hay throwing and all the artists playing the Kitchen Garden stage. Sadly, only Ashland on Friday and Emily Mae Winters likewise on Sunday drew me away from the main two stages, but this is no slight on the artists who make this an essential festival feature, alongside the bar!

So apologies for not mentioning your favourite act of the weekend, or not eulogising enough about them. There is also no guilt in stating that the three pre-festival transatlantic favourites lived up to expectation with Scott Hirsch joining them. On Friday night, Courtney Marie Andrews was the star. By Saturday, Shovels & Rope had pushed her to the limit. However, the final word lies closer to home. Laura Marling, you were magnificent and the perfect send off until Moseley Folk Festival resumes its position as the city’s leading outdoor music attraction twelve months from now.