Monday, 27 November 2017

Emily Barker - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Sunday 26th November 2017

Back in January, the gig year began with a show featuring Emily Barker, and it was a pleasure to welcome her back to the Midlands area as part of a tour that has formally put a seal on her latest album. Although songs from SWEET KIND OF BLUE were previewed on that last visit to the nearby Worcestershire town of Bewdley, which was in a duo format with Lukas Drinkwater, the assembled band format for this Glee Club date gave the tracks the deeper sound that they warranted. Emily Barker is more than the sum of any record she has released and remains one of the most fascinating artists on any circuit that embraces her style. This may be a style forever tinkered with, but a gold leaf streak has been consistently threaded within her releases.

Emily is no stranger to The Glee Club and wasted little time in reminding folks how she has become a valued artist who constantly seeks to explore the wider canvas of contemporary roots music. ‘Dear River’ opened her ninety-minute set and still sits on the pedestal of her recorded tracks. No doubt, fans will proclaim the widely acclaimed ‘Nostalgia’, but from my perspective that comes a close second to the sound that gave her most credence to being classed as an Americana artist. There is an argument for the best not being served up first in a live outing, but the harmonium to electric guitar intro perfectly set up the breaks and melodies that make this track such a pleasure to hear time and again.

The architect of this harmonium to guitar part was Pete Roe, who proved the busiest person on stage during the evening. As well as this segment, he excelled on the keys, which is such an integral element of the soulful direction that Emily explored on the new record. This was also in addition to the thirty-minute opening set he played to warm up a Sunday evening crowd almost caught out by the 7:15 start. After this brief stint in the limelight, Pete settled back into the supporting role alongside regular bassist (both stand-up and electric) Lukas Drinkwater and Rob Pemberton on drums. Together they proved the perfect foil for Emily’s songs to flourish, in tune with her own guitar and harmonica playing.

In addition to the two older songs previously mentioned (with ‘Nostalgia’ getting its accustomed Wallander connected story), a memorable version of ‘Ghost Narrative’ from the 2013 DEAR RIVER album was among the pick of a set list, which eventually ran to seventeen pristinely delivered songs. Inevitably, it was the tracks from SWEET KIND OF BLUE that proved the spine of this gig, with the title number being given renewed vigour in light of its live version.

This album was Emily’s metaphorical and literal trip down Memphis way and a lauded attempt to capture a sound swinging from the dark bluesy tones of  ‘Sister Goodbye’  to the right up-to-date groovin’ vibes of ‘If We Forget to Dance’. While the album itself has taken a while to settle within my listening repertoire, the songs possessed a strong feel in the live arena with these two tracks  being the pick of the new material alongside the rather gorgeous ‘No. 5 Hurricane’. Maybe the upbeat material would have felt more at home on a late night Friday or Saturday than early Sunday evening, but the notion of ‘inside I’m dancing’ could not have been truer.

There was still time for Emily to excel in the encore when she strolled back on stage to deliver a perfectly executed unaccompanied version of ‘Precious Memories’. This ensured the evening had one more hairs-standing moment before everyone dispersed into Birmingham city centre for an early finish. Of course, we know that she will be back, but what may not be so certain is what style is next on her agenda of discovery. Soul, folk, Americana, lo-fi indie and cinematic ballads have previously caught her ear, and maybe there is further mileage in the traditional country sound that inspired the Applewood Road project. Whatever course she undertakes, the quality stamp mark via her talent and astuteness will be proudly displayed.

Debate may exist when considering the overall impact of the Emily Barker shows in Bewdley and Birmingham this year. In my opinion, the fullness of the latter won hands down, and another example surfaced of a live show illuminating an album that perhaps needed a little nudge. 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Lucy Rose - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Tuesday 21st November 2017

Regardless of what has happened in the past or may do in the future, 2017 will go down as the year Lucy Rose released the most adorable album and took all its divine beauty on the road with her. SOMETHING’S CHANGING also possessed an intriguing backdrop fuelled by an artist asking some of the most fundamental questions as to their creative existence. Therefore, it was no surprise to see Lucy in a candid frame of mind as she set about sharing some of her craft with a packed Glee Club audience. Amidst the lucid concerns and musings, the subliminal art of serving a record in a format that defined its personal intensity was plain to see.

It helped that the couple of hundred souls cramming into the venue’s main room created the pin drop atmosphere required to savour the album’s subtle brilliance. However, this presented the evening’s first conundrum as Lucy came across between songs as being slightly unnerved by the surroundings. This did not affect any of the songs’ pristine delivery, but further suggested an artist seeking an identity. This assertion is made without any prior experience of a Lucy Rose concert; yet sampling the production found on her previous two albums would suggest a more upbeat environment. One hope from a personal angle is that Lucy enhances the tentative steps that she has taken in the new direction and grows fully into the role. The vocal style, song writing sentiment and subtle production are all in place to make evenings like this a regular occurrence.

Lucy was joined for this tour by four other flexible musicians, with segments of violin being most pertinent to the feel of the new record. Lucy herself shifted between guitars and piano, the latter the accompaniment to the set’s standout moment in ‘Second Chance’ and an old song. ‘Our Eyes’, which was introduced as a stripped down version of a previously highly produced track. This was also the band responsible for the new album, so they were finely tuned in their roles to ensure the presentation was precisely shaped. Therein laid a similar thought to another accomplished artist heard live recently, in finding a differentiation between a studio and stage version. To some, a seamless ear is an expectation, while others prefer to find some distance between the different formats.

Apart from, by memory, the entirety of the new album being played, the set occasionally delved back into the past catalogue to serve up numbers like ‘Middle of the Bed’ and ‘Like an Arrow’. These by encouragement were given the pin drop exclusion and gained enthusiastic responses. By admission, I attended solely because of the new record, but it was difficult to gauge the extent of this across the room. Obviously, the response was rapturous at the end, although the general feel was a little different to when other artists, especially from overseas, play this type of music. Like all the questions being pondered, time will be adjudicator, especially in where Lucy finds the next inspiration for future projects.

It is always good though to focus your mind on the present and listening to songs like ‘Floral Dresses’. ‘Moirai’ and ‘Find Myself’ in this situation was an absolute pleasure. Aside from a slight sense of identity issue, Lucy was frank with the inspiration for her current direction and this was best summed up with the album’s closing track ‘I Can’t Change It All’. Maybe in the future similar inspirational ideas will crop up just like a South America trip did for 2017.

To add to the evening’s presentation, a singer-songwriter from Leighton Buzzard by the name of Charlie Cunningham entertained the gathering with a batch of self-penned material. A prominent vocal style matched with some intuitive guitar playing, crowned with a mini Flamenco piece, eventually placed his performance in the credit column. He was certainly an artist who thrived in the pin drop atmosphere and possessed the talent to carve out a niche on any circuit he frequents.

While it will be fascinating to observe how Lucy Rose creatively evolves in the future, the existing memories of this year’s precious album will always remain, alongside the evening in Birmingham when its heart and soul were beautifully shared. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens - Town Hall, Birmingham. Sunday 19th November 2017

Rhiannon Giddens has to be one of the most vibrant and dedicated advocates of American roots music currently active in the public eye. Throw in an extraordinary talent that spans the artistic spectrum and you have a sure fire way of ensuring your message gets across to expanding audiences. Spare seats were at a minimum in the Town Hall this evening as Rhiannon and her band set about ensuring this return to a Birmingham venue ended up a resounding success. In contrast to a recently seen gig at this venue, this show went beyond the ninety minutes set mark, thus maximising the diversity that bubbled in the musical presentation. Whether celebrating original British Isles emigration to the Carolinas or a revival of Cajun/Creole culture in the sixties, the quality and absorbing nature of the music beamed in harmony with the venue’s ever manoeuvring lights.

The crowning moment of Rhiannon’s post-Carolina Chocolate Drops work has been her latest album FREEDOM HIGHWAY, and the fruits of this ambitious project have really come to life on this current UK tour. There has been moments since the record’s release in February when it struggled to make a similar impact to her solo debut TOMORROW IS MY TURN. This was purely from a personal perspective and one significantly altered since returning to the record in the run up to the tour followed by witnessing the album act as the cornerstone of the live show.

For this tour, Rhiannon has surrounded herself with all the key architects of the album. Its co-producer, and frequent Transatlantic Sessions participant, Dirk Powell flanked Rhiannon to her left on everything from fiddle, guitar to piano and accordion. To her right was long-term band mate Hubby Jenkins, adding to the sound some sterling electric guitar work and occasionally the inventive bones percussion. Behind the front three were two other players on the studio album in the guise of Jason Sypher on bass and Jamie Dick on percussion. Whether in perfect unison or individual flair, the effect from this fine band of musicians provided the perfect framework for a bunch of traditional and original songs to flourish.

Peaks to the show were plentiful to consider, but the mid-set duo of ‘Water Boy’ and ‘We Could Fly’ lay the marker down for any other segment of the evening to follow. The strains of Rhiannon’s vocals on the former, a tribute to Odetta, left the audience gasping. This took her talents to a new height alongside the banjo, fiddle and creative nous to dig deep into the past to illuminate the world of folk music.

While on the subject of vocal prowess, Rhiannon was frequently joined by her sister, Lalenja Harrington, which included a slice of sibling gospel harmony on one song. Just to ensure the authenticity of the new album was relayed on stage, Rhiannon’s nephew Justin Harrington appeared, to re-enact his spoken word part on ‘Better Get It Right The First Time’ and give the proceedings an ultra-contemporary edge.

If you wanted a pointer to the significance of Rhiannon’s archivist work, the introduction to ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ was the starkest evidence. Frequently, we were reminded that the battles of one hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago are not quite over, validated further by references to her homeland since January 20 2017. Ultimately, the evening wished to balance the inevitable melancholy of digging deep into a history of struggle with a perpetual hope. This was best initiated in a cover of Pop Staples’ ‘Freedom Highway’ as the pre-encore stomping closer, and a dual cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Lonesome Road’ and ‘Up Above My Head’ to bring the overall evening to a sumptuous close.

This was an evening that began two and a half hours earlier with an opening set by Canadian roots artist Kaia Kater, complete with banjo and a bundle of growing charisma. This was actually the second of three Birmingham visits for Kaia in a six –month period. Back in the dying embers of the summer, she impressed with a set at Moseley Folk Festival, and is due to return for a headline show at the Kitchen Garden in February. You have a feeling this artist is going to develop neatly in the slipstream of Rhiannon Giddens on the evidence of the work she has produced and is likely to in the future.

The future is also looking rosy for Rhiannon, especially with the role she has been offered of guest curator for next year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. Part of this will lead to her unveiling some new talent on a UK audience and signals a desire to re-acquaint oneself with this mid-summer extravaganza of roots music. However, this Birmingham Town Hall show was all about the present and the eventual showcasing of Rhiannon Giddens as a world-class artist on a stage that she totally owned. American roots music could not be in better hands than this interpreter, revivalist and all round exceptionally talented artist. 


Friday, 17 November 2017

Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black : Anti Records

When Mavis Staples was musically active at the heart of the Civil Rights era, she probably didn't envisage having to make this album in 2017. Regardless of the cause or mission, this icon of the gospel-soul world would have always found a suitable outlet for her talent. Ultimately, songs can only play a small part in repairing society’s ills, but when you have Mavis Staples in unison with Jeff Tweedy, the healing process is made a touch easier. IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK joins a lengthening list of albums dedicated to voicing a strong opinion against the wrongs afflicting the world and ensures the power of song carves its niche in the discourse of the day.

This album is the third collaboration between Staples and Tweedy, with the Wilco frontman being the architect of all ten songs to adorn the record. The Grammys have acknowledged their previous efforts to varying degrees and it would be no surprise if accredited acclaim came knocking again. The sound comes across as a slick and moving body of work with the guitar work forming the spine for the vocals to prosper. This latter element shows no sign of deterioration for a vocalist closing in on an octogenarian existence. Rock ‘n’ soul as a combined entity may have had its heyday in Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios in the late sixties, but the flames of Stax and Fame shine brightly throughout this record.

The focal point of this album is likely to be the title track, which rolls out as a classic seventies dance number, complete with backing singers and packed to the hilt with the message of a call for love. ‘If All I Was Was Black’ sits at position two in the running order, following the scene setting opener ‘Little Bit’, which sets down a marker by referencing a shot kid. As the album races to its concise thirty-five minute finishing line, the theme zooms out from the specific and takes a more philosophical view on issues of race and hate. Eventually, this record settles on a call for unity by healing the divisions; a notion best portrayed in ‘Build a Bridge’. A track itself built on the theme of ‘all lives matter’.

Throughout the duration, pivotal moments frequently pop up including the smooth duet between the pair on ‘Ain’t No Doubt About It’ and the defiant sentiment expressed in ‘No Time For Crying’. ‘We Go High’ heeds a call to ensure the forces of good maintain the moral ground, while ‘Try Harder’ carries the message of perseverance. Perhaps the most poignant song acts as the retrospective generating closer in ‘All Over Again’, a low key acoustic piece to add to the sound’s diverse appeal.

One assertion from many listens to this record is that it lands a soft punch in the protest stakes. This could be by pacifist design to enlist a degree of moderation to the brigade. There is no denying its accessible nature can spread the force of good and from a pure artistic viewpoint, it lands on the listener as a trademark blueprint of collaborative American roots music.

There is the danger of IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK falling only into the domain of the converted and maybe if there was a more forceful track then barriers could be broken. Primarily Mavis Staples, in conjunction with Jeff Tweedy, has recorded an album to put a late seal on a legacy that was probably already locked in. It does move the cause forward and that alone makes this a record to engage with.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Stray Birds - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 15th November 2017

It has been just over two years since The Stray Birds first caught my ear, and the subsequent evolution of their sound is now gathering pace. Essentially, a strong core of the band’s ethos will always be rooted in the old time roots camp. However, the transition to blend in a finely tuned country rock sound is taking hold to the extent of now being on the cusp of dominating their live show. Whatever style they adopt, a stark talent shines through, and a continual approach to have the UK on their touring horizon is reaping rewards in growing a fan base. This latest excursion from their US homeland has included a first Birmingham date, and a Hare and Hounds audience revelled in a performance still rising to a peak when time was called on a fabulous gig.

For those who have had the privilege of attending a previous Stray Birds show, the wandering thought from the early stages of the set was when the vintage single mic would be utilised. This format had become a trademark feature of Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench sharing their delightful musical talents with a live audience. Eventually it did take centre stage, albeit only for a pair of songs including a version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel #7’, a familiar inclusion into their live shows.

However, by this stage the mould had been cast in Oliver’s guitar playing, particular the electric model, stealing the show. This aspect of the performance had stiff competition from the exquisite fiddle playing from both Oliver and Maya, often part of the continual instrument switch between the pair that has been another popular trait to illuminate a Stray Birds show. During this array of superlative musicianship, Charlie continues to hold the bassline with the stand-up version and the ever-increasing presence of a drummer in the line-up keeps up the rock beat, with for this tour Sean Trischka parading the sticks and brushes.

Another key factor guiding the band towards acclaimed status is the strength of their original songs. The soul-pumping ‘Best Medicine’ and infectious ‘Sabrina’ keenly retain prime position in any Stray Birds repertoire and the versions heard first in Birmingham this evening further cemented this view. Two other songs to leap up the appreciation ladder from this show were Maya’s beautifully delivered personal piece ‘Birds of the Borderland’ and ‘Third Day in a Row’. The former stretches all the way back half a dozen years ago to when the trio set out on the recording road, while the latter proved an exceptional piece of divine riff-laden cultured rock to close the overall show on a significant high.

Casting the mind back to previous Stray Birds shows, the overriding resemblance of Maya’s vocal style to that of Gillian Welch never wanes from the mind when listening to the emotive way she portrays the depth of the songs. This always comes to a pinnacle when the band cover the roots standard ‘Make Me Down a Pallet on the Floor’; an old song probably best defined by Gillian’s version in recent times.

While the overall feel of this show lent heavily in a new direction, it was first hearing the MAGIC FIRE album last year, which raised the ear lobes to a jolt away from the sole domain of being an old time string band. Cracking tunes from that release, including ‘Shining in the Distance’, ‘Radio’ and ‘When I Die’, still play a huge part in promoting the record and were welcome additions to the evening’s set list.

This was an evening that began in fine style with a splendid opening performance from UK roots band SJ & the Flying Pigs. This Cambridge-based quartet proved the ideal opening foil for The Stray Birds with an array of catchy tunes predominately fuelled by the fiddle playing of Nicky Terry and voraciously led by bandleader SJ Mortimer. Their enthusiasm for the music of The Stray Birds also signalled a sound port of influence to call upon.

Alongside Stafford in 2015 and Oxford 2016, you can now add Birmingham 2017 as a key entry in the mental diary of The Stray Birds flexing their musical muscles to deliver a first rate show. Where they eventually find a niche is likely to be an enriched zone, and maybe the fusion of roots ‘n’ rock becomes the ultimate pedestal to place this band upon. An increasingly established position on the UK touring circuit for them raises the bar for top US bands of a similar ilk to follow. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Blue Rose Code - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 12th November 2017

There are only certain artists that can get away with an opening live song as a tribute to a recently departed friend. This was certainly no warm up number for Blue Rose Code as Ross explained the circumstances to a packed Kitchen Garden audience, ensuring the faithful were with him right from the off. Further relevance for ‘Over the Fields (For John)’ opening the set was unravelled with a dedicated intent to play the new album in its recorded sequence. A brave attempt to re-enact an album that froths will all the trademark creative energy, which has defined the evolution of Blue Rose Code as a fluid outfit.

This was Ross Wilson’s second visit to the Kitchen Garden in just over twelve months. Last October he played a solo gig and gave a special performance extracting all the traits that make him such an innovative singer-songwriter. This time, in true Blue Rose Code pot pourri, the format was extended to a trio, though still a far distance from the double figure ensembles that present the operation in full flow. Fair enough, venue constraints play a big part, alongside other factors, but whatever the configuration there is no mistaking the outstanding attributes of an artist, now re-established as a Scot in exile.

In harness with guitar player Lyle Watt and Andy Lucas on piano, Ross set about delivering the bulk of THE WATER OF LEITH in the first part of the gig before reverting to some old favourites in the latter stages of the show. The highlight of this portion of the evening was the exceptional album closer ‘Child’, originally designed as a message to a younger Ross, but taking on a new focus in light of his impending fatherhood. This state perhaps had him more on edge than usual, but in a positive way. Without the lavish stringed arrangements, extended brass, ten-minute jazz instrumentals and the multi-lingual vocals of Kathleen MacInnes and Julie Fowlis, it was always a tough task to capture the true essence of a record. Yet the stripped down arrangements and accomplished musicianship of his trio partners gave an intriguing slanted view that spun the record on a different axis without losing any of its craft.

Highlights in the second segment of the show were the up tempo numbers ‘One Day at a Time’ and ‘Chasing Sunlight’, which brought a degree of animation to a crowd, who were probably quite content to just sit back and soak up the music on offer. Alongside the two earlier mentioned songs which bookend the new album, the other pick of the evening was another splendid airing of ‘Edina’. The local references to his Edinburgh upbringing have since taken on a new twist with Ross curtailing his long awaited return to settling in his homeland and reverting back to being ‘a Scot’ south of the border. For an artist who repeatedly is likened to John Martyn, we were left the closing gift of Ross covering the great man’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Know About Evil’. A suitable end to an evening bristling with homegrown artistry.

Reverting to a post gig play of THE WATER OF LEITH does draw a thick line between the recorded status and how it was presented this evening, but merits co-exist. This concisely defines Blue Rose Code, a loose amalgamation of sounds, formats and creative whims. Where Ross Wilson meanders to in the future is anybody’s guess. One final certainty is that it will be filled with boundless quality and continue to cement his role as one of the country’s leading all-round singer-songwriter, and wider musical talents. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Kirsty Merryn - She & I : Self-Released

The new album from Kirsty Merryn may only be eight tracks and twenty-eight minutes long, but it is a gorgeous blueprint on how to deliver a record succinctly packed to the rafters with treasurable discoveries. This may well be classed by the authoritative sources as one of the leading UK folk albums of the year when the dust settles, and few disputes are offered here. Apart from Kirsty’s pristine vocal prowess, the amazing notion from listening to the album cold is that this is not a dip into the world of the traditional song. Such is the magnitude of Kirsty’s compositions, folklorists in centuries to come may well class these songs as important as those passed on by word of mouth.

The big clue is in the title, and gender focus is at the core of SHE & I. The eight tracks are dominated by a female character at the centre of the story. These possess a fluctuating level of historical importance, ranging from the well-told story of Grace Darling in ‘Forfarshire’ to the unknown woman featured in ‘The Birds are Drunk’. Kirsty’s horizons also wander from the deeply personal in ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’, with a focus closer to home, to a leap across the ocean to tell the story of Annie Edison Tyler in ‘Queen of the Mist’. Familiar name? if not, buying this album and adopting some investigative skills will broaden your horizon.

Kirsty is joined by two vocal collaborators in Steve Knightley and Luke Jackson on a couple of the tracks. However, the biggest compliment to pay is her voice blossoms best when in solo mode where its unblemished attributes can totally own a song. Knightley's impact does not end with his vocal part as he has been Kirsty’s biggest advocate, including inviting her to open for Show of Hands on a run of UK cathedral dates. Ultimately, Kirsty’s music, whether in her instrumental, vocal or writing skills, will stand alone on their merits and every indication is that this will be at a high elevation.

Picking out a standout track is a tricky choice, but the piano led piece ‘An Evening At Home in Spiritual Séance’, not surprisingly featuring Kirsty in solo mode, would comfortably fit on any shortlist. If pushed to pick one though, ‘The Pit and the Pugilist’ is a strong album defining number and highly influential in the opening track position.

Regardless of how the narrative plays out, Kirsty Merryn has staked a claim to be a rich exhibitor in contemporary folk music. Elegance and a natural beauty to her music frame an album weighing strong in traditional charm. SHE & I is an impressive catalyst for projecting the talents of an artist destined to court and attract widespread appeal. 

The Lost Notes - Run free Right Now : Self-Released

While roaming the world digitally for romanticised music has long been an influential source, occasionally it is worth pulling your horns in a touch to check out what is happening under your nose. Birmingham based band, The Lost Notes have been knocking on doors around the local scene for a while, often getting opening slots for overseas touring acts. With most of these artists being of a folk/Americana/acoustic tilt, this local combo have proved an ideal fit with their authentic approach to stripping innovative lyrical-laden music down to an agreeable form. Now it’s the turn of The Lost Notes to take on the role of a recorded outfit with the release of a debut album titled RUN FREE RIGHT NOW.

Essentially, the album rolls out with eleven self-penned tracks plus a bonus of two offered in an alternative format of a live version and vocal remix. ‘Bobby’ is one of these tracks, with a live recording captured at the Tower of Song, and probably sits at the summit of the album’s appeal when conclusions are drawn on a track-by-track analysis. The band revolves around a core of Ben and Lucy Mills sharing vocal duties alongside Oli Jobes seemingly being the prime instrumental architect. Lucy takes vocal lead on ‘Bobby’ before the trademark harmonies kick in, and is the band’s singular stab at writing a traditional country ballad. As intimated, this album does not settle on a signature sound, but the impressive attributes of this number provide food for pondering.

Essentially, The Lost Notes comes across as a jaunty upbeat outfit, expressing itchy feet across the acoustic spectrum. A light hearted approach  underpins the initial appeal of the music, although issues do emerge in songs like ‘Banker’s Blues’ and ‘Leader of Men’, whether tongue -in- cheek mode or not. Spritely opener ‘Green Grass’ does possess some philosophical undertones if you choose to delve deeper, but the overall vibes is that of it being unconditional music leaving the listener at their entire leisure to how they take the offering.

Other tracks that score highly include the initially impressive ‘Take My Hand’, the harp blowing bluesy effort ‘Stone in My Shoe’ and ‘I’ll Wait Until the Sunrise’; the latter came more to the fore after seeing The Lost Notes support the Wild Ponies at a recent gig. Frequently, they perform in a streamline trio, but studio-wise the sum is expanded into a full band operation including bass and drums. This format occasionally gets a live outing and this will certainly be the case when the album gets its full launch at a headline show in early December.

Living the dream is a commendable place to be, whether recording an album or composing written reviews. Letting the breadth of your talents roam free, seeing where they lead and enjoying the journey is the perfect idealistic stance. RUN FREE RIGHT NOW is the sum of a journey that comes across as one being enjoyed. The Lost Notes have also crossed the boundary to where a record can do the heavy lifting in lieu of continual gigging and it possesses an entertaining streak to ensure the journey keeps right on. 

Steph Cameron - Daybreak Over Jackson Street : At The Helm Records

The magnitude of the sophomore album from Canadian folk artist Steph Cameron is that each play opens another window on the world of a lyricist on top of their game. DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET had its Canadian birth in the spring and, with a helping hand from UK label At The Helm Records, it now takes flight across the Atlantic to mesmerise European audiences. This record may take a while to grasp, but the journey is a mighty satisfying one.

While there is a degree of complex sophistication in Steph’s approach to song writing, an air of simplicity underpins the sound. This is a raw as acoustic sound as you could possibly get from a studio album. Without access to any credits, all you basically hear is Steph; her guitar and occasional harmonica, but that is sufficient to portray the worth of a high tensile record. With the UK release heralding a significant change in the seasons, you do feel the starkness of a Canadian winter running through the sound. Albeit, the homely vocals and perception of the guitar being a comfort blanket does ensure a warm glow permeates the cold.

There is a strong folk revivalist feel to this record, thus cementing a sound akin with the street songs that represent the northern part of the American continent. With a fair proportion of UK folk vocalists heading into neo-classical territory, there is an opening for the more grounded singer-songwriter and the music of Steph Cameron fits the bill.

The eleven tracks that form this album cover a diverse band of themes, moods and subjects. Any song analysis has to begin with the two-minute masterpiece of social commentary, which opens the album. ‘Daybreak Over Jackson Street’ doubles up as the  title track and the coat hanger upon which to file this album in your mind. Whatever you take from the record as a whole, the melody adorning the lines ‘I tried to leave, I tried to run – They  got me on the stunt I done’ is worth the admission price alone.

Elsewhere, the tracks settle in little pockets. A dose of melancholy resides in the hard hitting and punchy ‘On My Mind’ and the narrative character-heavy ‘Richard’. Of course, sad songs = happy listener. Disagree – and you’re probably in the wrong place. However, Steph does make room for a little light and ‘Little Blue Bird’ opens the door to some feel-good relief. Later in the track running order, ‘Sing For Me’ relights the flame of positivity from an idealistic standpoint.

The song that probably travels the furthest to epitomise the record is ‘Winterwood’. Apart from the obvious seasonal connotation and maybe autobiographical slant with Steph’s home town of Saskatoon being referenced, its perceived radiance of peace in solitude may resonate with singer-songwriters ploughing a lonely furrow in pursuit of their art.

Of course, every album needs a decent selling hook and ‘Young and Living Free’ does the job here with a high degree of class. A pertinent, pondering closer suits this type of ‘thinking’ record and ‘Peace is Hard to Find’ slots in neatly with its traditional feel and more than a nod in the melody direction to ‘Shady Grove’. All that is required now is a nostalgic epic, and at five minutes long, the lyric laden ‘California’ conforms to type. ‘You Oughta Know By Now’ and ‘That is What Love Is’ complete the line-up and synchronise perfectly into the album’s ambience without veering too much into comment territory.

On the day that this album is released in the UK, news surfaced of dates over here in the New Year. This will be the perfect opportunity for the artist to furnish the listener with further thoughts on influence and interpretation. In the meantime, the pedigree status of DAYBREAK OVER JACKSON STREET will ensure the music of Steph Cameron gets a warm reception overseas. An album to savour for all those smart enough to check in.

Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 9th November 2017

The Kitchen Garden is a well-renowned venue for its conducive acoustics, and it accrues praise almost each time an artist sets foot in its interior. Over the last decade, many fine nights have been enjoyed in this suburban Birmingham venue, but from a sound perspective, few come close to eclipsing what was heard when Angel Snow and Ida WenØe came to town for a very special gig. 

While artists and sound team are not doubt quick to salute each other, the stars were certainly aligned this evening, whether your ears were tuned into the vocals, electric or acoustic guitar. The sum of these parts led to a gig that rampantly surpassed expectation and projected both artists to a new level.

Angel Snow has had a presence in the UK for a few years and has been previously seen in a joint touring role with both, Ben Glover and Matthew Perryman Jones. Maybe it was seeing her for the first time in this venue (although it was not her first show here) that proved the catalyst, but she used her time in the spotlight majestically to cast a spell over the audience with a bunch of beautifully crafted songs. Perhaps, it may have been the solo limelight in the billing coupled with the placidity of the setting, which illuminated the treasures of a precious gift, but there was a special ambience that could never be captured by digital means.

The nature of the set up for this Angel Snow tour meant that the indie-electronica fuelled vibes of her latest album MAGNETIC had been left at home in Nashville. This was no challenge for an accomplished artist to strip down a group of songs that are strong in organic appeal before any trappings are added. In the past, Angel has had the fortune to work alongside some seriously impressive Nashville luminaries and listening to another live version of ‘Lie Awake’ re-affirms the wise decision Alison Krauss made to cut it for her PAPER AIRPLANE album.

Most of Angel’s set revolved around the new songs though, with ‘Vienna’, ‘Disguises’ and ‘I Need You’ rising to the top of the appreciation list. The latter proved the sole outing for the electric guitar, which was a pity as Angel’s delicate strumming extracted the most exalted of simple low spun sounds. The compensation was the near perfection of the acoustic alternative, combined with a vocal skill that allowed each song to blossom. As Angel guided the audience blissfully through around a dozen ear-pleasing songs, a state of mesmeric fixation was not difficult to slip into. This shed the music of Angel Snow in a new light and created anticipation for more.

Joining Angel for this tour is the highly impressive Ida WenØe, and as far as openers are concerned, this supporting performance was easily the highlight of any gig year. Ida was afforded a generous extension to the normal half hour opening slot and gloriously filled it with a fascinating display of addictive alt-folk music from a pan European perspective. Being of Danish origin and currently a resident of Berlin (at the moment anyway) only provides a brief narrative introduction for an artist who possesses the most alluring of performing styles. Right from the opening lines of her first song ‘Changing of the Seasons’, from the current album TIME OF GHOSTS, the audience was captivated by a performer blessed with expert playing skills, an affable demeanour, a fine voice and a raft of delectable songs. Her self-penned tribute to Leonard Cohen was a treat and a majority of the audience unaware previously, had now warmed to a new artist.

From a small acorn on the gig horizon, a splendid evening of artistic superiority flowered, bloomed and blossomed. The Kitchen Garden was at its best, and so was the music of Angel Snow and Ida WenØe. If music is the voice of the soul, the live version spoke loud this evening.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Tuesday 31st October 2017

Jason Isbell is currently on the sort of hot streak that would be the envy of a sports team anywhere in the world, akin to the domineering days of his beloved Braves. His song writing, album making and performing skills are firmly planted on a plateau, peering down into the distance of the chasing pack. All these attributes are in stark evidence when he takes to the stage, and shows like what we witnessed in Birmingham this evening veer very much towards defining where this artist stands in 2017. This was a gilt-edged artisan on top of his game and a supporting cast in the 400 Unit matching him each note, chord and interlude.

Of course, it has not been all plain sailing for Jason, but adversity and genius often go hand in hand. In addition, contrasting views are held on the differences between polished perfection and good old dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Although it has been a while since Jason dabbled in the latter, you feel that it will be always be part of his DNA, and the sidestep from the plush surroundings of the Symphony Hall to your grittier institutions is a mere small movement of intent. However, with a new record regally titled THE NASHVILLE SOUND and on the back of six sold out shows at the Ryman Auditorium, he is perfectly at home in the sort of environment that greeted him this evening.

The new album took centre stage in a set list that has revolved around an extensive core during this latest run of UK dates. This stretched back to Jason’s formative years as a member of the Southern alt-rock band Drive By Truckers. Many long term fans could make a compelling case for ‘Decoration Day’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ being the outstanding moments; the former displaying its imperious anthem qualities, while the latter forming the ideal scintillating closer complete with ultra-rock style guitar duals. Whenever the services of the 400 Unit are called upon to either record or perform with Jason Isbell, they know instinctively what to do to project each song at its best. Having returned to the title credits for the latest album, the quartet of Sadler Vader (lead guitar), Jimbo Hart (bass guitar), Chad Gamble (drums) and Derry deBorja (keyboards) brought specific life to the new songs especially the rockers like ‘Hope the High Road’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’.

Just as positioned on the album, the last song mentioned was followed in the running order by ‘Tupelo’ Lyrically they perfectly complement each other in the perception, sentiment and feeling; sonically they display the versatility of Jason treading the fine line between the hard and soft rocker. The song from the new album that soared immensely tonight was ‘Last of My Kind’. It slowed things down at an opportune moment, allowed Jason to inject greater personal feelings into his vocals and showcase how his writing gravitates to another level when the inspiration cuts deep.

This last point seamlessly moves onto the incredibly moving versions of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Cover Me Up’ that had the impact to tear away at the heart of a pin drop audience sitting comfortably in their upholstered seats. The masses who framed these moments as their highlight would struggle to attract too many adversaries. They resonate as prime examples of why a sizable chunk of the Jason Isbell fan base consider 2013’s SOUTH EASTERN to be his finest work, coupled with the context.

In the year that Jason Isbell acquired a CMA nomination (probably more a case of the latter reaching out than the artist churning out a country record), we were served a helping of ‘If It Takes a Lifetime’ from his 2015 album SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE. While that remains his most recent boldest step in the direction of a straight up country song, it retains a certain charm and reasonably represented the wares of this album alongside the title track and the additionally excellent ’24 Frames’.

For those fans who like to hark back to the post-Truckers/pre-SOUTH EASTERN days, ‘Codeine’ and ‘Alabama Pines’ would have neatly fitted the bill. With this show being at least Jason’s first visit to the ‘proper’ Birmingham since he broke into the world of the solo artist, there is still a remaining hope that he will one day play ‘Cigarettes and Wine’ in a live setting once again.

A sly prior look at the tour’s set lists suggested that a Tom Petty song was likely to feature in the finale and Birmingham had the treat of ‘Refugee’ as the night’s final encore song. This was probably the hardest the band rocked all night and ensured an audience did not sink back into their seats after greeting the main set closer with the inevitable standing ovation. The added good news was that the set time well-exceeded my ninety-minute benchmark that had risen as an issue a few days earlier with another gig. This was probably never going to refer to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. 

There is a tendency for high quality American touring artists to select their opening acts from a similar gene pool. Tift Merritt was a good choice for these UK shows as she shares the rare talent of exceptional song writing skills with the headliner. Her own solo recording career stretches back a little further than Jason’s, and each time she arrives over here for some kind of show, the breadth of her talent is instantly recognisable. In this evening’s packed thirty-minute support slot, she flittered between acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano. She sung the title track off two albums from her expanding back catalogue – STITCH OF THE WORLD and TRAVELING ALONE , and two excellent songs from other releases including‘Feel the World’ (a personalised sentimental version this evening) and her signature song ‘Good Hearted Man’. This was Tift’s second appearance on the Symphony Hall stage this year after her inclusion on the Transatlantic Sessions cast.  Moreover, this was the fourth time seeing Tift in Birmingham over the last decade, but all have been frustratingly short sets. The opportunity to finally catch this captivating artist in a full show will surely come to the fore one day.

Anticipation had been high for finally seeing a Jason Isbell show in Birmingham since the tickets went on sales months ago. From the moment he strolled onto the stage to greet the audience with the superb ‘Anxiety’ there was to be no looking back. If this artist accrues a lot more column inches than his peers do, it is probably due to the sheer amount of thought provoking issues that emanate from his music. Even regarding this show, there is the inconclusive debate about whether the Symphony Hall was the most appropriate venue to get the best out of Jason Isbell, especially if you want to taste and feel the music in addition to just watching and listening. Sonically, the Symphony Hall was pitch-perfect, and at times the band’s attention to detail replicated a home listening environment, complete with all the comforts. Purists will drool, while others may wish to get their hands a little dirtier. This show was geared towards the purist and there is probably no tighter band around today than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.