Friday, 29 September 2017

Sophia Marshall - Bye Bye : Self-released

BYE BYE is the debut full length solo release from English singer-songwriter Sophia Marshall and unwraps as a highly desirable record. Its stylish façade and steely interior presents an artist with an acute ear to formulating a sound successful in alerting many a discerning listener. The album refuses to adopt a static stance, with its half hour duration keeping folks on alert to which way the music is going to turn. Sophia does a good job in keeping the sound and vocals internationally neutral thus you never really grasp whether it’s majoring on her English roots or the obvious Americana pretensions. This trait helps create a door-opening niche.

Sophia first crossed my path when she played an invited set at this year’s Maverick festival as part of the AMA UK Friday evening showcase. On that occasion, it was her previous material as a member of the Have Nots that made the most initial impact. This is probably due to any new songs not featuring a killer instant hook, which is confirmed by listening intensely to the nine tracks forming this album. However, this should not detract listeners from grasping the overriding vibes of the music and mining deep into Sophia’s classy style.

All nine tracks possess original status with all but one being solo written. Lead single ‘Losing You’ is the exception with Sophia teaming up with band partner Liam Dullaghan. Checking out this track via its posted video is a good taster to the album, although it resides more on the conventional side rather than those where Sophia edges into experimental territory. ‘Catch Me’ is the song that arouses the listener’s curiosity with a crackly and scratchy vocal presence projected by some enhanced amplification for the final part. Largely, the beautiful vocal range of Sophia is one of the album’s redeeming features, hitting the high notes with effect. This gives the album a folk-tinge akin to some of the iconic female voices who have soared to the heights of the genre on both sides of the Atlantic.

Remaining with the folk tendencies for a moment, an original acapella sea shanty brings the album to an unexpected close. ‘Drunken Sailor’ possesses all the aura of a gospel-blues piece and seals the diversity to a tee. This is in stark contrast to the jaunty opener ‘Bye Bye’ with its pop-infused beat and jangly guitars. There is an uncanny resemblance to Frazey Ford in the vocals and this falls into place when reading more about Sophia’s background including a support slot for the Be Good Tanyas. This track could quite easily have been the chosen song to promote the album.

Following the album’s fairly upbeat start, we soon head into passive haunting territory with ‘Sarah’s Room’ and the sensitive ‘Flares’. By the time we get to ‘Beauty Sleep’, the tender style has been cracked and any thoughts about the opening two lively numbers defining the album have been trashed. Perhaps this is why the album hangs around long enough to garner sufficient listens to grasp its worth. ‘Hey Al, Woah!’ is another interesting track in the penultimate running order position and its alternative edge adds value. ‘Missing Piece’ is a slightly more upbeat offering and its central positioning gives the album a degree of balance. This is assuming a listener doesn’t cherry pick from a digital standpoint. Personally, it is felt that the album doesn’t court this approach and thirty minutes is hardly an exhaustive listening time.

BYE BYE is an assured body of work and acts as a card marker for folks aiming high with their music selection. Sophia Marshall, as a solo performer, is a welcome addition to the UK music scene and reaches out to many quarters from the cultured outer edge of pop to the hardened core of electric roots.

Whitney Rose - Rule 62 : Six Shooter Records

2017 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for Whitney Rose. A tantalisingly short but rather good EP release at the start of the year was followed by an extensive tour that saw a fair few dates in Europe and the UK. It was in fact the Nottingham gig back in May, which showed Whitney and her band in a wider focus. Now the calendar year is about to be crowned with the unveiling of a brand new full-length album titled RULE 62. Whether this is the true follow up to the EP or 2015’s HEARTBREAKER OF THE YEAR is immaterial, but a renewed acquaintance with Raul Malo, who was a key component on the latter, has paid dividends on the new album.

First and foremost, this is a record of the highest quality. It mixes incisive song writing with a throwback sound that retains a vibrancy and freshness. Pooling a classic soulful pop feel with traditional country is an immediate winning formula, especially buoyed when you have some top notch players in harness within a Nashville studio. Of course, the core talent is Whitney’s intuitive knack of creating a great song and this album houses plenty.

The title aroused an interest and is based on a notion of not taking yourself too seriously. However, alternative connotations sprang up from the distinctive album cover with the number framed within a road sign. A little investigation reveals that H-Way 62 links Whitney’s home nation of Canada with the Texas base where she has made her name. There is also a sporadic road theme throughout the eleven tracks alongside the continual laments about lost, failed and doomed love. Anyhow, let’s put loose associations on one side for a moment and concentration on the treasures, which make this album stand out.

Where better to start than the opening line of the first track with Whitney explicitly calling out the sentiment of the title ‘I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out)’.Straight to the point song writing is an inherent appeal of country music. Throw in some fiddle and steel interludes into this opening piece and you have the genre at its most primal. Three quarters of an hour later the listener can finally take a breather with the revenge pop country piece ‘Time to Cry’ acting as a charismatic closer, complete with scintillating guitar parts and a infectious chorus to glue the components of a top song. By the way, any references to pop need not excite fans of the Nashville mainstream variety. This is pure hazy fuelled nostalgia filled stuff best exemplified by the frustrations purveyed in ‘You’re a Mess’.

Two contrasting tracks have seeped out in the run up to the album release. ‘Can’t Stop Shakin’’ (complete with the unmistakeable country apostrophe) is the major soulful inclusion on the record with horns and keys illuminating it as a hip-moving dance track. ‘Arizona’ is less soulful but still a lively spritely stomper and induces immediate lyrical inferences when you partake in the essential act of digesting Whitney’s writing. Is the title to be taken literally or a metaphor for a better place to be? Great songs can provoke thought as much as act as a message piece.

While the last track resides within the upper echelons of the record, the true heights surface in a trio of compositions running consecutively in the second half. The filling of this gourmet sandwich is the imperious ‘Trucker’s Funeral’; an exemplary display of fine story song writing elevating a quirky notion, while presenting some of the romantic escapist aspects of Americana music to those viewing from afar. The trio starts with the accordion inspired ‘Tied to the Wheel’ and a philosophical perception of an activity that steers our lives. Superbly summed up in the line "Am I drivin' it or is it drivin' me?".‘Wake Up in Wyoming’ is another piece of heartfelt Americana taking in the travails of touring, alongside shoring up the road content.

Two of the remaining three tracks show the Raul Malo influence. The duet vocals add strength to ‘You Don’t Scare Me’ and back up the sentiment of the song. ‘Better to My Baby’ possesses a Tex-Mex pop feel and could quite conceivably be a track lifted from a Mavericks or Raul Malo album. It is tough on ‘You Never Cross My Mind’ to be the last track referred to especially as if you drill down deep into the lyrics, a clever dose of irony pours out. It goes a long way to sealing what a well-written album this is from beginning to end.

To the extent that the excellent SOUTH TEXAS SUITE EP was frustratingly short, RULE 62 is majestically complete. While Whitney Rose is not a powerhouse vocalist, the way it is utilised across the record is effective. There is a little synergy with Margo Price in this respect. The influences of her collaborators have also been absorbed wonderfully. RULE 62 is an album that matters and will reign supreme in many record collections for a long time.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Orphan Brigade - Heart of the Cave : At The Helm Records

Capturing the essence of an experience, The Orphan Brigade has re-assembled to once again bring the spiritual to life. This time they have left the New World of Octagon Hall Kentucky and taken their tunes of discovery to the Old World, or to be more precise: the caves beneath the town of Osimo on Italy’s Adriatic coast. What has been repeated though is the knack of absorbing a moving experience and re-creating its effects in song and music. The true test of this type of project is, does it cross the line to convey the emotion to the listener? This can only be truly answered on an individual basis, but there is sufficient craft, guile and panache in The Orphan Brigade project to present a compelling case.

Essentially, now that the Nashville based trio and band core of Ben Glover, Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard have re-convened for a second recording, the term ‘project’ can possibly be dropped. However, such is the concept nature of HEART OF THE CAVE, you can only appreciate the depth each artist went, to put their experience to art. This is a fairly intense album, unlocking the trapped potential of a mystical and spiritual world. The fact that the musicianship and song writing is first class has helped considerably to tell the subterranean stories that were inventively mined through personal experience and accessing astute local authority. The trio made a return visit to write and record the songs in Osimo, thus ensuring every ounce of atmosphere went unfiltered into the album. Of course, studio producing in Nashville tailored it for a contained audience experience and a willing label in At The Helm records has been suitably impressed to release the album in the UK.

A major pause for thought when assessing the album is to what extent the accompanying background story and information becomes essential to grasping the record. Maybe, it is a precursor to maximising its value and likewise to the previous record – SOUNDTRACK TO A GHOST STORY – extensive details were at hand during the review process. Accessing this information is still highly recommended, although casual observers aren’t precluded, purely on the grounds of how the record has been produced for the listener.

It helps that three of the most accessible tracks appear early on the album, thus enticing the listener to hang in even when a touch of stamina is required in the latter stages. Of the three tracks, the roots chanting stomper ‘Pile of Bones’ inverts the opening role by taking the listener to the ultimate end of life (unless anyone knows different!). This is closely followed by a more conventional scene setter in ‘Town of a Hundred Churches’, with its popular structure. ‘Flying Joe’ has emerged as a catchy singalong story of a 17th century Friar with a capacity to levitate. A tune that immediately stuck when Ben Glover previewed a few of the songs while visiting the UK earlier this year.

HEART OF THE CAVE is definitely a shared project with all three main protagonists getting the writing credit across the board. Local historian Simona Palombarani helped on ‘Pain is Gone’ alongside furnishing the project with numerous invaluable stories associated with the caves. There are also various other celebrated contributors in the extended Orphan Brigade family such as Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh and Will Kimbrough. As the album progresses, it does spread its emotional wings from the magical chants surrounding ‘Alchemy’, through the upbeat ‘The Bells are Ringing’ to the powerful ‘The Birds are Silent’ and the haunting ‘Meet Me in the Shadows’. There is so much more to discover in these songs and as previously stated, check out the comprehensive blurb either online or likely within the packaged liner.

The ultimate value in HEART OF THE CAVE is its ability to both educate and entertain in similar proportion. Folk music has been an important tool in disseminating learning over the centuries and you can view this record as an important archive for the 21st century putting down its marker in the long lineage of history through song. From a sound perspective, The Orphan Brigade has added an Americana coating to a slice of European history. When it is done this well, the winner is the listener.

Michael McDermott + Heather Lynne Horton - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 24th September 2017

While the Kitchen Garden is renowned for its warm and intimate atmosphere, occasionally its hardened stone floor and bricked walls can be the perfect setting for the steely songwriter. Michael McDermott is one such artist who fits this bill and certainly packs a powerful punch when fully immersed into his songs. Along with his wife and fellow performer Heather Lynne Horton, Michael made his Birmingham debut in this Kings Heath oasis and left an imprint as profound as the way he approaches the subject of his songs. There was probably a varying degree of artist awareness at the start of this show within a healthy gathering that frequented the venue on a Sunday night. However, at the end each left a lot wiser in understanding a songwriter personifying the well-worn statement of ‘heart on your sleeve’.

Think the poetry of Dylan, the ground game of Springsteen and the inspiration of Van Zandt, to begin to unravel this Chicago-based artist. The tough façade did at times mask a tender interior, but it’s these traits and the sharpest of minds that make Michael McDermott a compelling artist to discover. A particular thought cropping up during and after this gig was, ‘did music save Michael McDermott or is he saving music’. No doubt there is a touch of both, especially the latter in the evolution of the literary songwriter.

On an evening that sprang a number of surprises, the first act on was a Northern poet by the name of Paul Cookson who capably crossed the line from writer to performer to share the wealth of his creativity in an interactive manner. While adrift from your usual opener, there was an engaging appeal to his twenty-plus minutes in the spotlight and in the context of an evening when words mattered, his billing proved a shrewd move.

It transpired that first and foremost, Heather Lynne Horton was accompanying Michael on the tour to re-enact the duo role with her violin playing and sumptuous vocals. Although their solo work stretches back a few years, indeed Michael as far back as the nineties, they have become better known recently, especially in the UK, as recording act The Westies. This project in name seems to be put on hold with Michael now back into the swing of releasing solo albums and indeed Heather herself returning to the studio to release a record this summer. In a fairly short second support slot, Heather shared four of her new songs with the audience to give them a sample of what to expect should they make the sensible choice to delve deeper into DON’T MESS WITH MRS MURPHY. This was clearly Heather’s tentative first steps in taking her new music out of the studio following a lengthy family-raising hiatus. The chosen songs, especially those she stripped down organically ‘Did You Feel That’ and ‘Fu’, sounded great and the challenge now is for her to re-connect with the appetite to share more of her fine music in this capacity.

For those in the audience who had only previously engaged with the recorded music of Michael McDermott, the next hour and half proved to be an eye opening and moving experience. Although primarily accompanied by the acoustic guitar, the two gut wrenching moments when the delivery mode was switched to piano were absolutely stunning. ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Shadow in the Window’ were both on Michael’s latest solo album WILLOW SPRINGS and proved the most revealing of heartfelt ballads. The general backdrop to these songs has been widely shared online in articles and interviews, also Michael is quite candid onstage about some of his past troubles, but the strength of the live delivery was simply straight to your heart.

For a little respite across the board, Michael and Heather followed these two songs with their alternative take on the pop classic ‘You’re the One That I Want’; the hidden track on her new album. Elsewhere, Michael kept up a brisk pace of carefully selected songs mixed with revealing, informative and entertaining chat. The encore pairing of ‘I Know a Place’ and ‘Still Ain’t Over You Yet’ were stellar choices, with the latter acting as a fitting finale in the way that Michael dives deep into the passion of a song. Right from the off, Michael and Heather found their groove with ‘These Last Few Days’ and ‘Getaway Car’ also proudly representing his latest album. Perhaps the strongest pride was reserved for the song about their daughter ‘Willie Rain’, with Michael poignantly remarking what he would have thought about recording such a song in his darker days around a decade ago.

Other highlights from the set included ‘The Great American Novel’ featuring Michael in full literary flow linking the names of Salinger and Hemmingway with Wilco and Ryan Adams. There was also a new song presented which sounded great and further post-gig investigation revealed the funding process is underway for a brand new Michael McDermott album.

While acclaim is widespread in his native US, many more shows like this Birmingham one will raise the awareness of Michael McDermott tenfold in the UK. He is an outstanding songwriter with an unbelievable strength of living and breathing every lyric of his work and exposing them for an audience to share the effect. Michael and Heather are a dynamic force at the moment and their artistic trajectory is taking the singer–songwriter genre to another level.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Danny & the Champions of the World + William the Conqueror - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 22nd September 2017

It was a case of slender evolution as Danny & the Champions of the World set about crowning their activities of 2017. A year when a new album rose from the embers of creative freedom and a tour rolled around the country with a near total domination of fresh material. It has also been a year where a familiar face convened behind the keyboards and faces that are even more familiar set about re-creating an excitement never short of uplifting inspiration. Danny Wilson will forever be the humble front person of a band that has cracked the code of giving an exhilarating live experience. An Oxford gig courtesy of Empty Rooms Promotions on a non-school night is as good a guarantee as you’re likely to get for a top show and a packed Bullingdon rocked passionately until time came to pass the baton onto the disco kids.

Friday curfew gigs can work in different ways. An early finish can benefit the long distance travellers and a band can be more focussed on delivering the goods, but you have to be on your toes to catch the support act. This is especially true when new kids on the block trio William the Conqueror are on the bill. Maybe this description is more suitable for the recording entity rather than its creator Ruarri Joseph, with his varied recent history of searching for a secure footing in the music world. Accolades are raining in for this band, especially on the back of their debut summer release PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE, and a brief thirty minutes catching them live backed up this promise wholeheartedly.

Starting off with ‘Pedestals’ from the new record, Ruarri displayed a classy assured on-stage persona ensuring his guitar-fuelled semi rock vibes flickered brightly within a tuned-in venue sound system. Alongside bassist Naomi Holmes and drummer Harry Harding, he focussed heavily on the record, as you would expect, generally using the slot as a showcase for material such as the excellent 'In My Dreams' and 'Cold Ontario' rather than revealing more about him as an artist. This will come later, but a run of support slots for their Loose Music label mates will do no harm in raising the profile of a band quickly living up to a pre-ordained tag of releasing one of the year’s 'most relevant’ albums.  

On the stroke of 8:15, with no messing around, a six-piece Champs line up ignited into action. The mystery around the tour’s stage formation became known earlier in the evening when understanding that Free Jazz Geoff had only been available for certain southern shows. However, this evening was probably a first for the band with its horn section arriving mid-gig before seamlessly joining in on the old favourite ‘Every Beat of My Heart’.

On the topic of old favourites, the most pertinent moment of this show was the elimination of ‘Henry the Van’ and ‘Colonel and the King’ from the set list. However, the sun still rose on the following morning and in a sign of true evolution, a new monarch was crowned. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ has been an instant favourite since appearing first on the 2013 STAY TRUE album. Frequently it has opened sets when the band are still hitting their stride. For this Oxford gig, it was the perfect show closer and fully embraced by a vocally strong dedicated audience.

The BRILLIANT LIGHT record illuminated a release Friday in June this year and was acclaimed as the ‘soundtrack of the summer’ until the rain set in. Any illusion of this album getting the light touch live treatment was  dismissed from the outset with the band dealing ‘Let the Water Wash Over You (Don't You Know)’, ‘Consider Me’ and ‘Never in the Moment’ before Danny had the first opportunity to greet the audience with the usual “alright” and “any questions?”

Subsequently, the new album commandeered around two-thirds of the set list and a stage time that edged into the period where the venue staff were on guard to clear the place for the arrival of the drum ‘n’ bass brigade. In line with many gigs over the years, there is often an album track that soars to new heights in the live arena and this evening that honour went to ‘Coley Point’. ‘Waiting for the Right Time’ and ‘You’ll Remember Me’ were two of the other new tracks to prosper in a first show seen dedicated to the new record.

The latter acted as the backdrop to the band introductions, not that the ‘dapper’ Chris Clarke, the master of the ‘ironing board of love’ Henry Senior Jr, and the ‘font of all knowledge’ Steve Brookes, needed much announcing. Apart from hailing from Armidale New South Wales, I can’t recall what Danny’s quip about Paul Lush was, but let’s just settle on ‘one of the finest lead guitarists in the land’. Free Jazz Geoff had previously had his own personal intro of ‘What took ya’, which just leaves Thomas Collison as the new keyboard player. Initially inaugurated by Danny as ‘TC’, he is far from a new guy on the circuit as fans of The Dreaming Spires, Don Gallardo and Hannah Rose Platt will concur. This incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist slotted into a Champs role with immaculate ease, often bringing cheerleading exuberance to his stellar playing.

While you expect a new album to feature prominently, it was surprising to see the previous record WHAT KIND OF LOVE only supply two tracks. However, one of the these was a clear candidate for the show’s stand out moment, with Danny commenting on the curfew reasons before launching into the now secure Champs dance classic ‘Clear Water’. On an evening where the music reigned supreme, there was one poignant moment when Danny returned to the stage solo to deliver the strong sentimental piece ‘Swift Street’. A song worthy of a decent introduction in less hurried circumstances.

So once again, Danny & the Champions of the World lived up to their brash name. Evolution or not, this was another classic performance from a band in perfect tune with their surroundings, audience, intent and motives. It was a case of the best of British, in a musical community where we are quite content to let our American cousins lead the way. On nights like this though, we fight back.

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.