Friday, 19 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Neilson Hubbard - Cumberland Island : Proper Records (Out on 19th October 2018)

The name Neilson Hubbard has cropped up numerous times in the producing role of many excellent albums over the past few years that perhaps the moment was right to enter the spotlight. Steps were taken in this direction with the Orphan Brigade project where Nielson collaborated with fellow musicians Ben Glover and Joshua  Britt. Now a major leap has occurred with the release of a brand new solo album titled CUMBERLAND ISLAND. Here Neilson has curated eleven tracks drawn from different periods of his lengthy career to form a theme based around the location in the title. The result is an expansive earthy record scratching deep into the gruff emotions of thoughtful expression. Predominantly, he sinks into submerged insular mode, making the listening experience extremely intimate.

Both Ben and Joshua are involved in this album, either in a co-producing, writing or playing role, with another very familiar name in ace guitarist Will Kimbrough being one to jump out on the pre-release blurb. We also learn that Cumberland Island is located off the coast of Georgia (USA not the Caucuses) and a place dear to the heart of Nielson. The album gets a major lift in Europe via a release on Proper Records and there is likely to be considerable interest this side of pond on the back of the artists associated with Neilson. The Americana community is a ready-made potential audience for this record, especially those who find solace in the rugged deep tones of a singer-songwriter wearing canyons of feeling in their vocal style.

One thing that Neilson never loses sight of is the listener’s quest to hook up onto some chorus appeal. As much as some of us enjoy burying deep into subliminal messages and intrinsic song writing, there can be as much pleasure derived from just sitting back and letting dulcet sound waves drift around. In these moments, the presence of an appealing chorus cannot be under estimated.

Two tracks that fall into this category during the early plays are ‘If The Sun Comes Up Tomorrow’ and ‘That Was Then’. As far as the general vibes are concerned, it will not take long to make the decision to invest a greater amount of listening, but a word of warning is that dissecting this record to the degree that it deserves is no quick fix. So hang in there, and ripe hanging fruit will lower itself into your grasp.

A further delve into the collaborative song writing credits reveals a deeper involvement for Ben and Joshua alongside contributions from familiar names such as Matthew Perryman Jones and Hannah Miller. The latter contributed to the rather impressive ‘Oh Black River’ and a very good recording artist in her own right as exemplified in the excellent endorsement given here for a 2015 self-titled album.

There is an obvious Ben Glover stamp all over this album, or could it be a reciprocation of a Neilson Hubbard stamp on Ben’s records. Likely, it is an immense deep mutual association, which permeates right through their creative souls.

Each of the eleven tracks has a life of their own and the most generous praise afforded is that any review is purely a gateway to experiencing the subtleties of celebrated singer-songwriter roots music. Any lingering doubts around somebody better known behind the scenes crossing the divide  profusely extinguish within the vaults of this album. Cinematic and pensive reflection are two starting points in drafting the listening appeal to Neilson Hubbard’s CUMBERLAND ISLAND, the rest is for you to explore.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: My Darling Clementine - The Rep, Birmingham. Wednesday 17th October 2018

Maybe there has always been a theatrical touch about My Darling Clementine. Spoof and irony nestle securely alongside exclusive musicianship with the occasional big toe dip into the literary world. Therefore, Birmingham’s Repertory theatre may not be such a left field choice to host a homecoming gig of a sort, despite its limited involvement in the local live music scene. In fact, the venue has graced My Darling Clementine on two previous occasions when crime author Mark Billingham presented The Other Half project in conjunction with Michael and Lou contributing the music input.

In the eight years since Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish launched their My Darling Clementine operation, there have been numerous highs for this husband and wife duo seriously intent on highlighting a side of country music increasing marginalised. Three superb albums in addition to a surplus of stellar gigs, including a never to be forgotten night in 2013, has kept the pair busy along with the other travails of being ordinary citizens. Making Birmingham their home in the past has always put a different slant on city gigs and there was a healthy studio turnout for this show that in effect acted as the first Birmingham appearance, at least in full band format, since the release of STILL TESTIFYING in 2017.

This latest Birmingham show is part of an extended run of dates around the country, and fortunately one incorporating a full band rather than the stripped down duo format. Joining Lou and Michael were a backroom team of Al Gare (double bass), Dean Beresford (drums) and Preben Raunsbjerg (electric guitar), the first two, well- known figures on the local music scene and the third, a distinguished Dane instantly becoming an impressive new addition to the band. Together as a team, they drove a near immaculate bunch of songs: sweet, slick and country to the core, though frequently dashed with a slice of sixties soul.

You know that old music is going to play a major part in the My Darling Clementine style, but to the band’s creative credit, covers keep to a minimum. Three key ones threaded through the evening with the band taking a break to allow Lou and Michael to duet on the George Jones and Gene Pitney number ‘That’s All It Took’ and a version of Hank’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’. Listening to the latter act as the first part of a two-song encore prodded the summation that Hank Williams’ covers are just borrowed for their three-minute duration before safely returning to their owner’s legacy.

The other significant cover saw Lou take to the keyboard and churn out her usual rendition of the country standard ‘A Good Year for the Roses’. Apart from collaborating with Michael in the vocal duet stakes throughout, there were two precious moments when Lou takes her impassioned voice to searing levels. Just prior to the break, the Tammy Wynette response song ‘No Matter What Tammy Said’ had the most magnificent of airings, full of vigour, fire and stubborn zest. Later in the set, emotions ran high during ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’, as the My Darling Clementine façade took a slip.

From a set list pushing twenty songs across the evening, stand out moments kept jostling for recognition, but ultimately the twinning of ‘Departure Lounge’ and ‘Nothing Left to Say’ from the 2011 debut album HOW DO YOU PLEAD possessed a certain panache which goes a long way to defining My Darling Clementine.

This was an evening without the need for any support. While this band line up was different to previous impressive set ups, the assembled trio ensured each cultured song had the optimum backdrop. Maybe additional pedal steel could have enhanced the sound, but let us not be greedy and the country credentials were still strong, as exemplified by acres of electric twang and a bunch of sincere melodies ratcheting up the heartache and misery. Another upgrade could have been adding ‘Two Lane Texaco’ to the set list, but it joined a lengthening list of personal album high spots not making the live cut in 2018.

The Rep may be better known for its thespian escapades, but after a slight pause for sound adjustment during the first song, the listening experience in the bleachers was top notch. It helps when you are exposing your ears to fine musicians and songs packed with loads of appeal. The evening continued to soar towards its inevitable conclusion of ‘100,000 Words’, with increasing thoughts of how enjoyable My Darling Clementine shows have been over the last half a dozen years. It helps that ears are tuned into what Lou and Michael set out to do, although execution has to match intent, which is achieved with consummate ease.

Midway through the gig, the song ‘Our Race is Run’ prompted thoughts that this notion need not apply to My Darling Clementine anytime soon. Where Lou and Michael eventually take this project, who knows? What is important is that someone carries on the mantle of projecting an iconic style and who better than My Darling Clementine to keep turning on the creative tap. Nights like these make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Hilary Scott - Don't Call Me Angel : Belltown Records (Out on 12th October 2018)

Since being fortunate to obtain an advance digital copy of this album a couple of months ago, the art of falling in love with a record has surfaced. While the sumptuous tones of Hilary Scott’s DON’T CALL ME ANGEL have garnered countless pleasurable plays, the conundrum of how to convert the appreciation into meaningful words refused to reveal a solvable hand. As the eventual release date passed, the time was ripe to at least share a few thoughts and ultimately let folks decide whether they are touched in similar ways.

The issue came prominently from where to locate a coat hanger to house such a record in the mind. Genres such as country, Americana and folk bounced around without offering a best fit. Pop reared its head, but that also seemed inappropriate, although the ease of listening meant very little exertion had a requirement. The vague realm of singer-songwriter had to be the final resting place if such a location needed finding. Labels aside, maybe just words like classy, distinguished, passionate and cultured would suffice to get things underway.

For the record, Hilary has found it convenient to apply the strapline ‘one l’ to announce that she is not the Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum fame. In fact she is much better. Hilary is an American singer-songwriter, the architect of twelve recording projects over a twenty-year period and someone who constantly looks overseas for opportunities to promote her music. If like me, you are joining her bandwagon in 2018, the notion of better to arrive late than not arrive at all is the ideal conclusion.

This latest record is a ten-track effort, comprising of nine self-penned compositions and a cover version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. The latter emerges as a soft bluesy effort that slightly sits adrift from the crux of Hilary’s prime skill of writing fine songs.

Of the nine other tracks, where the killer ballad reigns supreme, there is no finer starting point than the title track ‘Don’t Call Me Angel’. Although, this opening track sets a standard that many others effortlessly match. Throughout, the vocals sink deep into the depths of each song and absolute ownership powers from a passionate and soulful singing style. Soulful with a lower case‘s’ mind you as this is far more heartland fare than R n B focused. The soundtrack accompanying each song acutely executes whether soft rock guitar or shimmering keys take the lead.

Even after many listens, anointing a favourite track is still a bridge too far, so many are damn good. When pushed into a corner, ‘Not Used To Being Used To, ‘You Will Be Mine’, ‘Unlove Story’ and ‘Moon and Back’ would make a short list, but ask me tomorrow and any of the nine originals could be included.

Anyhow, the true merit of this record is the entity of letting its entirety wash over you in a single listening experience. Long live the album as this review finally sees the light of day on the explicitly inaugurated ‘National Album Day’.

Now that release day as arrived, will DON’T CALL ME ANGEL by Hilary Scott make room for the next up on the review process line. No chance, this album has earned the right to be accessible for a while to come. There you are, some words to support a record that appeals. Remember – ‘one l’.

ALBUM REVIEW: Annie Oakley - Words We Mean : Horton Records (Out on 12th October 2018)

To pun or not to pun, that was the question before scribing any thoughts on the debut Annie Oakley album. Eventually, temptation caved in and reluctance not say that it hit the mark subsides. Adopting the name of an historic sharpshooting hero is a curious and smart move for this Oklahoma-based trio. Maybe there is some intentional gender association on the back of the Babb sisters (Sophia and Grace) teaming up with third member Nia Personette to offer a delectable take on harmonious indie-folk. WORDS WE MEAN had its world bow on October 12 with a release on Horton Records and hence a focus on the UK market via the good guys at At the Helm. The social media age abbreviation RIYL denoting association can often raise eyebrows on press releases and assorted blurb, but stating artists such as The Wailin Jennys, The Staves, First Aid Kit and in more left field, The Milk Carton Kids is generally travelling down the right highway.

Admittedly, this album has had a stop start existence in these quarters. Initial promise from the early single ‘Did You Dream’, did not transmit to the first couple of album spins. Even as the luscious sound and wispy tendencies took hold to move the release out of the potential into the review pile, the omission of a killer track keeps the album in check. Ultimately, keeping the reins on any hype surrounding Annie Oakley.

However, the potential for the trio to develop is limitless and the sublime hand at their disposal is likely to evolve in a fulfilling direction. The sweet and silky harmonies act as the redeeming feature alongside a lo-fi sound that drips into your subconscious in mesmeric portions.  The acoustic vibes come courtesy of some delicate banjo and fiddle, while the injection of the electric guitar provides the indie tinge, most prominent in the midway track ‘Into the Light’.

Apart from the aforementioned single, the most appealing song on the record exists in the opening position with ‘Pomp and Swell’ soaring above its counterparts in the melody stakes. As the album gently floats through its forty-five minute duration, further high spots emerge in tracks such as ‘Brother’, ‘If I Were a Ghost’ and ‘Nothing to Say’. ‘Sweet Time’ also does a neat job in signing off the record and sealing the potential of where next.

There are probably some clichéd inner thoughts about Oklahoma music in my mind. This stems from exposure to grittier earthy artists such as Carter Sampson, John Moreland, John Fullbright and Parker Millsap. The sound of Annie Oakley could not be further from this style, even to the extent that you could envisage listening to a folk trio from the urban northeast (NYC rather than Tyne and Wear!).

So with any association with dusty twang dismissed, it is over to the precious tender moments and subtle gear shifts that mark out WORDS WE MEAN as an album to mark the card of an up and coming act. Once studies are out the way, Annie Oakley intend to step up their music activity on a grander scale. Adding some muscle and a couple of killer tracks will boost their presence and we might just be well seeing the beginning of something special.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Emily Mae Winters + Annie Dressner - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 10th October 2018

Three vocalists that appeal to me all find perfection within imperfection. The voices of Lucinda Williams, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Maines each possess a fault line offering a peep into the chasm of their soul. Now without resorting to a case of over hyperbole, there is a distant resemblance in the vocals of Emily Mae Winters thus lifting her head and shoulders above most singers that cross my ear. This is one immense talent that needs to be nurtured, with a limitless potential dripping out of the songs, music, voice, and an approach to projecting a distinct style.

Any resemblance to conventional folk music is ebbing away as Emily sharpens up her tools to launch into album number 2. The probability of Emily Mae Winters soaring up the scale of UK performers recognised in the blurry horizon of Americana is increasing to the extent that 2019 could be one big year.

Anyhow, back to the present and the HIGH ROMANCE pre-release tour stopping off at Birmingham. This show was a lower key affair to last year’s visit. Maybe the reason was the ‘between albums’ syndrome and spreading an existing fan base thinly between Birmingham, Coventry & Leicester.

Any return is sure to be an upgrade in turnout especially with the new record in tow and the buzz of a special artist getting the word around. Hooking up on the live front with ace guitarist Ben Walker is a smart move. Without wanting to dismiss his work in the Josienne & Ben duo, the scope in the direction Emily’s music is taking will present ideal opportunities to branch out in a live capacity.

Before exploring the main set in detail, a special word for Annie Dressner, who switched a rescheduled performance at the Kitchen Garden to open the evening. Annie, an exiled New Yorker now a 7 year plus resident of Cambridge, is making tentative steps back into active performing after a lengthy break. It was back in 2013 when I last saw Annie play live and the simultaneous release of her most recent recording. Five years on and the Anglo-American vocals remain, pouring originality into a series of songs cut from a decent cloth. Annie mixed her set between a few tracks off an upcoming album and some older stuff.

The songs ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Fly‘ rather splendidly represent the transitional period in her life of moving to the UK. To bring things up to date, ‘Kentucky’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ reveal a more stable existence albeit both themes hark back to the past with stateside origins. The new Annie Dressner album, BROKEN INTO PIECES, is formally released towards the end of October and expect to hear a lot more from this talented singer-songwriter in forthcoming months.

As soon as Emily Mae Winters hit her stride with ‘Blackberry Lane’, memories instantly came flooding back of the first time I heard her. This was a short set at last year’s Moseley Folk Festival. Around the same time, the SIREN SERENADE album was released and while times may be changing, we still had timely reminders of what a fine album this is.

Anchor’, ‘Miles to Go’ and the title track joined the opening number from the album. In fact, ‘Siren Serenade’ was one of a couple of tracks delivered solo, with even her guitar getting the elbow in this one alongside band mates Ben and John Parker on upright bass.

On the guitar front, Emily proudly displayed (and played) her brand new Gretsch alongside a more worn traditional acoustic model. The electric came into its own as the new songs began to ease out of a rockier wrapping. Of course, the challenge to adjust the vocals to combat the greater amplification is presented, one that Emily accomplished relatively comfortably.

Her voice will definitely grow into the new songs alongside an opportunity for Ben to ratchet up the solo segments. Such talent should be encouraged to shine and any enhanced presence would be a great addition to Emily’s music.

One certainty is the strength of the new material. More will seep out in due course. From a theme perspective, ‘This Land’ and ‘How Do You Fix a Broken Sun’ prove intriguing listens. While ‘Come Live in My Heart & Pay No Rent' succeeds big style in the title credentials and shows that the folk tendency to trawl the archives for inspiration will never wane.

While John Parker does a sterling job in the rhythm role, there is mileage in adding drums to the new material, although their road use is always subject to viability. An interesting thought is how these new songs will be recorded when Emily hits the studio in December. Inklings are that a desire to upgrade the creativity stakes will prevail and not churn out standard versions, which have been done a million times previously. The tools are at Emily’s disposal and it will be interesting to listen to her eventual route.

On the covers front, this evening’s set contained a pair of classics, of which the highest praise is that Emily owned both renditions. To put a stamp on the Krauss/Plant revised version of ‘Killing the Blues’ is no mean feat. In addition, you can carry me away from this world with ‘Will You Still Love Tomorrow’ playing, and even if you substituted The Shirrelles with Emily Mae Winters there would be few complaints. Both these covers were repeats from her last visit to the Kitchen Garden in October 2017, although sadly we did not get ‘Red Dirt Girl’ on this occasion.

One room for improvement is for the set time to be lengthened to boost the live reputation. Weighing in at just under the hour was a little short. Eventually two full albums plus a few choice covers will provide ample material to increase the stage time. The final song to send the Emily Mae Winters faithful contingent merrily on their way home was another nod in a country/Americana direction with a good ole drinking song titled ‘Gin Tingles Whisky Shivers’.

If a seal of approval need further adhesion then this night delivered in voluptuous portions. Very few vocalists have created the same level of effect than Emily Mae Winters and the sheer quality portrayed this evening suggests few will struggle to match her, especially away from the classically trained folk hierarchy. Indeed 2019 has the potential to be very special when HIGH ROMANCE emerges and the next stage of the Emily Mae Winters bandwagon kicks fully into gear.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

COMBI REVIEW: Stephen Simmons - Gall : Self-released / House Concert - Staffordshire. Saturday 6th October 2018

October chat between Stephen Simmons and his co-performer Dave Coleman this evening brought up the topic of some of the Halloween traditions back home, with Stephen particularly commenting on how he is often touring Europe during this time of year. In a slight twist of irony, it was October 31st 2014 when I first saw Stephen Simmons play live and thus extending the musical appreciation that initially surfaced when reviewing the HEARSAY album released around then. 

At the time, he was establishing a fan base in the Staffordshire area and always pays the county a visit when trips are made from his Tennessee home to continue a mission of sharing music with European audiences. Since that Halloween evening four years ago, Stephen has played an annual show in Elford, either in a house concert or marquee garden format, cementing relationships formed and frequently bringing new music.

The 2018 renewal saw a couple of innovations. Stephen usually tours the UK alone, although Molly Jewell, a fellow Nashville musician, joined him a couple of years back. The time the co-operation expanded into a fuller presentation, with long-term musical companion Dave Coleman playing electric guitar throughout as well as chipping in with a few solo songs prior to each of Stephen’s sets commencing.

On the new music front, Stephen released an album this summer titled GALL. Unfortunately, for lovers of physical copies mainly, the album is only available digitally, but quite often artists hamstrung by financial constraints have to make rational decisions. There is already a considerable Stephen Simmons back catalogue in place, including many long-term favourite songs frequently making his sets, and the good news is that further new music is in motion that hopefully will get an expanded release. You can never restrain a prolific singer-songwriter bursting with new ideas.

Anyhow, for those of you open to feasting on digital music the new album is a wise and valuable investment. A link to the Band Camp site is placed below but it is also available on the mainstream sites for streaming or downloading on both sides of the pond. GALL is probably Stephen’s most stripped back and personal set of songs for a while. The process is purely a one-person operation and the recording took place in his vacant grandparents’ house away from the big city in small town Tennessee.

With this album not really being subject to the big sell, only a couple of songs had an outing during this evening’s house concert. ‘Burnt Orange & Bruised Purple’ and ‘Death to the Dreamers’ are among the leading songs on the eleven-track record and sounded good in a live unfiltered setting, akin to what you get on the album in reality. The location and the family orientated content interweave coherently with perhaps the strongest song to feature being the title number ‘Gall’.  You never know, in the future some of these songs may re-surface on another album.  Alternatively, this project may always remain self-contained. Either way, GALL is worth checking out especially if you have come across Stephen’s work before and are partial to high quality singer-songwriting with a southern flavour.

Back to this evening’s show and the impact made by the presence of Dave Coleman. Getting the electric guitar sound spot on in an informal dining room setting is tricky, but this was accomplished by a player with vast experience as a producer and founder of the Nashville-based rock ‘n’ roll roots band The Coal Men. Dave introduced a couple of his songs including the track ‘Singer (In Louisville)’ featured here. With murder ballads being a theme of the evening, Dave could not resist sharing a version of ‘Long Black Veil’. When supporting Stephen, he skillful added the appropriate riffs and required twang, probably letting loose the most when they covered Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than the Rest’. The Coal Men’s records are readily available digitally and can possibly be tracked down on a CD. Dave had copies of 2016’s PUSHED TO THE SIDE and the 2013 release ESCALATOR for sale and if you like your roots music with a little tempo and rhythm alongside some nifty guitar work they will be right up your street.

The presence of the electric guitar did ensure Stephen had to make some vocal adjustment to his sound. This smoothly occurred for a bunch of songs stretching back well over ten years or more to sound as sweet as ever. You never know quite what you are going to get from a Stephen Simmons set list, but with a fresh range of stories, the content is normally top notch.

This evening it was older tracks like ‘Asheville Girl’ (probably the standout moment from the show), ‘Lay on the Tracks’ and ‘Parchcorn Falls’ that crept up the appreciation scale. It is also good to hear ‘Horse Cave Kentucky’ especially after visiting this self-generating tourist attraction on a Southern states road trip in 2016.

Stephen was his normal unassuming self, grateful that folks turn up to listen to his songs, and fully embracing the culture of being a word junkie. He is humble enough to continue to want to write better songs and will probably never cease to until the guitar, pen and notepad are packed away. A slice of southern culture is exported around the world when he leaves his Nashville home and whether he is viewed as country, folk, singer-songwriter or Americana, he simply, as his compatriots often say, is ‘just a dude who likes to write, play and sing songs’.

The house concert environment is the perfect setting for Stephen Simmons to hone his craft. Maintaining this level of intimacy alongside striving to pursue other live music opportunities is a fulfilling place to be. The blessing is a combined moment of pleasure. The privilege to listen and to play is simultaneous. The part Stephen Simmons plays in small corners of the UK live music scene is not insignificant and likely to be successfully around for a few years yet.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: J.P. Harris - Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing : Free Dirt Records (Out on 5th October 2018)

Free Dirt Records have been responsible for some exceedingly good album releases in recent times and this continues with the brand new record from JP Harris. When you are in the company of artists such as Western Centuries, Dori Freeman, Rachel Baiman and Vivian Leva, the bar is elevated high; a challenge richly accomplished throughout the short shrift tones of SOMETIMES DOGS BARK AT NOTHING.

Regardless of the back-story, which may or may not be relevant to the listener, you gain the impression from the off that JP Harris is a straight-up no bullshitting honky tonker. The songs are brash, cutting and splashed with an element of rawness. Just glancing at the titles before spinning a single track, the vocabulary is awash with negative connotations such as nothing, quit, blues, dead and alone. However, this is country music and wallowing in some sort of depressive misery is a badge of honour, and we purists would not have it any other way. Of course the motto ‘sad songs = happy person’ increasingly gains traction to put things into some perspective.

The opening bars of this ten track-thirty one minute offering immediately throw up one association – Sturgill Simpson in his pre-Meta Modern days. Throw in a couple of detectable Cash and Kristofferson moments and the shaping of a modern day country music outlaw takes shape. There is a touch of self-homage in the opening track titled ‘JP’s Florida Blues’, an instant fast paced driving rocking number that knocks the album into shape with no delay. It takes a few more tracks before this frenetic activity surfaces again. The track to do this is ‘Hard Road’, and the initial associated thoughts confirm. In addition, to leave you on familiar ground, JP frantically strums through the blistering ‘Jimmy’s Dead and Gone’, hailing the never to be forgotten train rhythm that has railroaded through country music since the days of Jimmie Rodgers and probably before that.

 For those of you who prefer your honky tonk of a slower persuasion, dripping with one voice drowning their acoustic guitar or piano with heaps of self-penned melancholy, then JP Harris is right on the mark. The ubiquitous curse of the alcohol habit gets the full treatment in this style courtesy of ‘When I Quit Drinking’ and ‘I Only Drink Alone’. Cliché or not, you get what you are dealt in these waters.

The title track anchors the album at no. 5 in the running order and ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing’ sees our protagonist get metaphorical in his song writing. An approach that is compelling for any song-writing junkies out there. Earlier in the album ‘Lady in the Spotlight’ opens with a tidy guitar riff before emerging into a song that draws the Kris Kristofferson comparison. At this stage, any attempts to anoint a crowning track vanish as this album deserves its entity platform and you cannot moan that half an hour of excellence is taking up too much of your time.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Runaway’ see JP joined by Kristina Murray on harmony vocals, an artist who has been attracting serious praise for her recently released record. ‘Long Ways Back’ has a late night blues feel to it and neatly fits into the moment when the record slides into some heartfelt melody. ‘Miss Jeanne-Marie’ gets the full character treatment and JP uses piano to ramp up the story- telling mode. Expect to hook in securely here, but as it is the penultimate track, you will already be on-board.

JP Harris makes country music as was meant to be. Oh and there is plenty of essential pedal steel. SOMETIMES DOGS BARK AT NOTHING knows what it is about and powerfully presents a slice of music that retains a gilded status.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers - Pay Pack and Carry: Harbour Song Records (Out on 5th October 2018)

It is nearly four years ago since Bob Collum brushed away any New Year blues with the release of a record that eventually travelled a long way down the 2015 musical highway.  Now as the nights draw in and 2018 hurtles towards its conclusion, the follow up to the excellent LITTLE ROCK is unveiled for all to hear, complete with a spring in its step to placate any detrimental season change. PAY PACK AND CARRY still carries the moniker of the Welfare Mothers as the backing band and resumes Bob Collum’s stature as the architect of some exceedingly infectious music.

Terms such as pub rock, power pop, alt country and exiled Americana can be tossed around and still carry a resemblance of accuracy whichever angle you choose to approach this album from. Ultimately, Bob Collum, and whoever nestles comfortably within the Welfare Mother family, makes music that sinks deep into your psyche and retains an instinct to refuse to budge from your immediate horizon. In other words, the challenge is to let a satisfactory smile leave your face when this album gets its umpteenth play. A tough one given the ingrained appeal.

Plenty of fiddle and steel ensures that an element of countrification remains in focus, albeit definitely from an alternative perspective. Many of the tracks do not refrain from a good rinsing of pop sentiment, albeit from a bygone age where trends were not subject to the chase and quite simply - good songs became popular.

Just pitching gems like sumptuous album opener ‘Across a Crowded Room’, serious standout candidate ‘Catherine Row’ and infectious title track ‘Pay Pack and Carry’ against classic covers of Michael Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ and the Incredible String Band’s ‘Log Cabin Home in the Sky’ ratchet up the song writing acumen of Collum. Whatever your view on covers, you cannot deny the value they add here and a humble touch from the press blurb suggests they keep an artist in check from running rampant with self-absorption.

Also by reigning in the content, the album exudes a compact feel with each of the ten tracks playing an important part in maintaining momentum. You gain the impression that the music flows devoid of complication and this aids the ease of listening. Indeed the whole clarity façade embeds into the listening experience that mixes the explicitly detected American twang of Tulsa born Collum with a good ole British pub rock sound.

Back in 2015, it was the classic duet ‘Good Thing We’re in Love’ that hooked me into the work of Bob Collum. This time the highs were more evenly spread, to the extent that it did take a few spins to get the fires stoked. Once up and running, the bandwagon of PAY PACK AND CARRY rose through the gear changes ensuring tracks such as ‘Mr McGhee’, ‘Tin Can Telephone’ and ‘Blue Sky Rain’ assumed a similar mantle to those tracks eulogised about earlier.

At this stage, it would be remiss to omit ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Hey Blue’ as they are integral parts in keeping the toe-tapping feel to this record rolling along. Indeed, there need not be an anointed highlight as the true reward has been to keep this record on heavy rotation without any remnants of weariness surfacing.

Between albums, it is a relatively low-key existence for Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers in my world, briefly punctuated by a Maverick Festival appearance in 2015. However, this compensates greatly when the album release cycle delivers. Who knows what 2019 will bring, but one certainty is that PAY PACK AND CARRY will not be filed away too deeply and is a good 'go to' when you want a slice of uncomplicated sophistication in your listening repertoire.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Blair Dunlop - Robin 2, Bilston. Tuesday 2nd October 2018

The shortening of the days and dipping of the temperature may see the prevalence of the dreaded lurgy, but Blair Dunlop was not going to let any affliction knock him off course. There is a new album on the table up for promotion and we all know that music is the best medicine. To be fair, the momentum of this gig at the Robin 2 in Bilston played its part and from an early vocal stuttering, it soon turned into business as usual. This is Blair Dunlop reminding folks what an accomplished artist he is, fully adept on the writing, musicianship and performing front.

For the early throes of the tour supporting the recently released NOTES FROM AN ISLAND, Blair has assembled a trio format in harnessing the talents of long time drummer Fred Claridge and newly enlisted acquaintance Jack Carty on bass. The latter, an experienced singer-songwriter in his own right, opened the evening with a support set packed full of self-penned songs spanning the European and Oceanic continents, thus representing the British home and the Down Under upbringing of this exiled Aussie.

Peaking with songs such as ‘Hospital Hill’ and ‘Stargazer’, Jack paved the way for Blair to take centre-stage complete with a homely lampshade making the vacuous Robin feel a little more intimate. Before too long, the impish character came to the fore making Blair a highly personable performer and one to warm the hearts of those in his midst.

His style blends the storytelling of folk with a pop tinge, while never straying too far from the late sixties-early seventies rock templates of either side of the pond. He tended to major on electric guitar for most of the evening, swaying between a few extrovert rock riffs and more subtle twangy strumming. Impeccable percussion from Fred Claridge kept appropriate time ranging from the Americana leaning upbeat ‘45s (C.'14)’ (which acted as the foot tapping pre-encore closer) and the impressive ‘Nothing Good’ lifted off the new record. Blissful three part harmonies adorned the latter and eyes closed could easily have imagined a Californian super group on stage.

On a stateside theme, there was an air of familiarity about the cover of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, which Blair did try to put on a different spin. This was one of a handful of tracks delivered solo on acoustic guitar, including the evening finale of ‘No Go Zones’, an interesting and relevant song to sing when returning to the West Midlands. The subject of the track is the infamous and ill-advised Fox News story slamming our beloved second city as being a rather dangerous place to live!

To stir up a slice of audience interaction of the singing kind, Blair had the ideal song in ‘Green Liquor’, one dark in sentiment contrasting with a highly catchy harmonious humming end finale, leaving no excuse not to join in. A track not even needing an invitation to participate in is the brand new single ‘Sweet on You’. This could quite conceivably be Blair’s best song to date, an enhanced accomplishment with now four full- length albums in the bank. Other songs to make their mark on the night were a cover Gabrielle Aspin’s ‘Please Don’t Say You Love Me’, and a song representing Blair at his folk best in ‘Up on the Cragside’.

An hour and half after hitting the stage, Blair Dunlop had accomplished the feat of putting on yet another entertaining and highly enjoyable show. The Robin 2 is not an easy place for a singer-songwriter heavy on original material to ply their trade on a midweek night. Yet those who, either took a punt or are seasoned fans had their investment amply rewarded. Artists like Blair Dunlop keep the live music scene fresh, vibrant and brimming with meaningful music. Another first class show added to the record.

Friday, 28 September 2018

GIG REVIEW: Chastity Brown - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 27th September 2018

Sometimes an artist visibly grows into a gig and this certainly applied to Chastity Brown upon her return to the Kings Heath area of Birmingham. There had been a lengthy wait for a decent run of dates since the music of Chastity Brown took an upwards turn overseas on the back of her 2013 album release BACK-ROADS HIGHWAYS. Now we have had back-back tours in consecutive years and double visits to the West Midlands area on each occasion. Last year the tour was in a duo format with the Birmingham date hosted by the Hare and Hounds in a double bill presentation alongside Otis Gibbs. This year it was a case of popping across York Road and a more intimate evening without the duo partner or a co-headliner to share proceedings.

In light of this format and the absence of an opening artist, Chastity pitched up for a pair of sets armed only with a trusty acoustic guitar, a bucketful of songs and a voice anchored in the cradle of Midwest Americana. This is where the melting pot of country, blues, folk and soul bubbles away, quite frankly unaware of any genre classifications from outsiders .

Perhaps, it is the vocals of Chastity Brown that cast her adrift from the ruck of artists pitched to UK audiences as the next piece of Americana pie. This a voice protracting a cause and finding solace in the peace that music can provide. The gravelly inner feelings of her vocal chords transmit to a live audience with sumptuous ease and this experience enhances ten-fold when the atmosphere slips gently in a statuesque state of intimacy free of many filters.

Issues of ethnicity and sexuality hit the room early on, although put into perspective when compared to immediate threat of displacement and afflicted by declining health. Signature tracks ‘Colorado’ and ‘Drive Slow’ opened the set leaving minor wriggle room later for the likes of ‘Wake Up’ and a lauded attempt to extract ‘When We Get There’ from the barrels of her mind to fulfil a request.

On the new song front, a track believed to be titled ‘Wonderment’ had an introduction, this on a day where the new single ‘Mad Love’ was unveiled to folks, which may or may not have featured on the evening as frequently Chastity slipped into the zone of just falling into the next song after irreverent chat.

The second half took a more relaxed turn as Chastity felt the available chair was appropriate to raise the stakes of placidity. Momentarily, the notion of what happens on stage stays on stage prevailed as the cool Kitchen Garden vibes submerged a performer becoming increasingly at ease in an environment that was not quite expected at the outset.

The finale saw any remnants of electrification ditched, a phase that could have happened earlier. By now, the zone was perfectly transfixed and if on the off chance there were any Chastity Brown doubters present, their number would evaporate. This was an openhearted performance of the highest degree, rampant with an equal measure of confession and gratitude.

Whether you call it folk, soul, blues, singer-songwriter or whatever, this was just one woman from the Midwest, thousands of miles from home emptying her soul to a room full of strangers. No one will likely have an idea where Chastity Brown places her visit to the Kitchen Garden in the annals of a career, but this evening created an impressionable mark on those present.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

ALBUM RELEASE: Adam's House Cat - Town Burned Down : ATO Records (Out 21st September 2018)

Adam's House Cat may not be a name known to many, but Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers fame are likely to resonate further, especially with those at the cutting edge of alt-country before it morphed into Americana. In the late 80's/early 90's prior to Cooley and Hood forming the band that would lead them into some resemblance of the promised land, they hung around Muscle Shoals Alabama playing a raw form of distinctive rock 'n' roll under the moniker of the aforementioned name. Now twenty seven years after the tracks for TOWN BURNED DOWN had a premature birth, they have finally been re-discovered, brushed up a touch and turned into a somewhat commercial format to formalise what Adam's House Cat were about during their brief existence.

The result is twelve rip roaring tracks heavy on the rock 'n' roll duo of driving guitar and upbeat percussion. 'Runaway Train' is the standout track by a fair distance, although not to the extent of neglecting slipping on the record for an entire play. It captures the spirit of a time when doors were being knocked and aspirations to be the best you can were relayed in the mood of the music.

In reality the release of this album has likely brought closure to an unfinished project. The increased likelihood is that its shelf life will be contained within the existing empire of the Drive-By Truckers, but that at least is not a place to be sniffed at.

TOWN BURNED DOWN was released for all to hear via ATO Records on September 21st and if you have the desire to track it down, the forty-five minutes of nostalgia to what fledgling bands were up to back in the day will not be a excursion laid to waste. Adam's House Cat MK II in 2018 is likely to be fleeting, but not a project without plenty of merit.

ALBUM REVIEW: Kitty Macfarlane - Namer of Clouds : Navigator Records (Out 21st September)

The wait is over. To her growing pedigree of aspiring folk singer-songwriter, architect of many sublime live performances and a curator of an inaugural EP, Kitty Macfarlane is now the proud possessor of a stunning debut album. NAMER OF CLOUDS hit the shelves on September 21st and these will soon empty when word gets around of what a compulsive record she has made. The eleven tracks are a subtle mix of solo compositions, co-writes and old song arrangements, blending many facets of what keeps the folk tradition fresh and vibrant without choking off the heritage.

Since first seeing Kitty play live a couple of years ago when opening for Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, a keen ear has lent towards her career. This further compounded when she played a headline gig at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham earlier this year, a show where many of the songs from the new album had their introduction.

Joining Kitty on the album in one of the co-producing roles is Sam Kelly, a musician from the same generation who is increasingly popping up in collaboration on a scene gathering momentum in acoustic circles across the land. No doubt leading much of the stringed accompaniment that engineers the soundtrack has been the forte of Kelly and co-producer Jacob Stoney, but make no mistake the stamp of Kitty’s gorgeous vocal acumen and imaginative approach to song curation reigns supreme.

The natural world and the immediate surroundings of rural Somerset play a strong role in forming the subject content of the album. While not being unique to the West Country, the title track is quite literal in its meaning as it provides focus on Luke Howard, a man responsible for coming up with familiar name structure that is commonly attached to clouds and their formation. Where else but folk music would such a subject be addressed in song. ‘Namer of Clouds’ is one of the album’s co-writes, a formula that also proves a winner when it comes to possibly the standout track.

‘Sea Silk’ is the mesmeric story that unfolds after Kitty and Sam embarked on a trail of an ancient craft still practised in Sardinia. Meeting up with the last person on earth to carry out a slice of textile weaving with a mythical past proved fruitful. It even heralded the perfect field recording to introduce a song that sparkles in the shade of the golden subject. The strong melody found in the chorus provides the hook that carries the track further than just immersing oneself into the curious story.

Man, Friendship’ sees Kitty draw inspiration closer to home as the flooding of the Somerset levels in 2014 presented an opportunity to take an abstract view on it from the comfort blanket of a reassuring song. Like much of the record, there are many crevices to explore and you never feel that an extra spin is wasted.

Two tracks distinctly remembered from her Birmingham gig earlier this year were ‘Starling Song’ and ‘Glass Eel’. The former opens the album in a whirl of two-minute splendour, while the latter is forever memorable as it pairs migration in the natural world with the human kind that has always been pertinent in a fluid civilisation. These are two examples of Kitty in solo writing mode, a skill in which obviously she excels. In fact, whatever the source of, or inspiration for the songs, the execution creates a mystique and a desire to delve deeper.

NAMER OF CLOUDS will grab the attention of media influential in moving the career of Kitty Macfarlane forward, but more importantly from a grounded perspective, it will resonate strongly in the ears, heads and hearts of those active in pumping the heartbeat of the live music scene. These folks put their money down and respect music in its most connective form. The music of Kitty Macfarlane both soothes the mind and sparks an element of curiosity. The album will confirm what folks in the know already believe, and more widely, engage splendidly with any new converts taking a peep.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

GIG REVIEW: Frontier Ruckus - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Saturday 15th September 2018

The name may have been familiar for a number of years, but the paths of Frontier Ruckus and me were yet to cross at any level prior to this gig at Thimblemill Library. A couple of pre-show snippets online whetted the appetite and the stage was set for another act from the Loose Music stable to glide into my sphere. This show was the latest offering from the team behind bringing some high quality roots music to a venue ably adaptable in switching the arts from the written to the performing word. Frontier Ruckus’s brand of lo-fi sensitive alt-folk fitted in well in this quintessential listening environment, to the extent of front man Matthew Milia implying it was a little unnerving. The bonus to that lay in the fact that every nuance of this trio’s intrinsic music was delicately heard, savoured and akin to another favourite band added to a growing list passing through the art deco surroundings of this fledgling venue.

To states such as Oregon, Virginia and Tennessee, you can now add Michigan, a location that very much influences and informs the music of Frontier Ruckus, being represented at Thimblemill events. This was perhaps the most we learned about the trio as they lent heavily towards allowing their soundtrack to sell the message. Milia’s vocals and guitar playing acted as the focal point, although at times it was seriously challenged by the instrumental diversity of Zachary Nichols, fluidly moving between melodica, trumpet, organ and your common hardware DIY saw. This was not the first time seeing the latter appear on stage this year with Jonathan Byrd’s sidekick Johnny extracting some twang from the handy tool. Nicholls probably used his more frequently and a very haunting sound added to the atmosphere, drawing comparisons to what you hear in Hawaiian pedal steel.

Completing the Frontier Ruckus trio format is banjo player David Jones, consistently giving the core urban feeling to their songs a deft rural coating with a range of subtle strumming and pickin’. Jones frequently joined Milia on two-part harmony and sonic similarities to the Milk Carton Kids occasionally flickered across the mind.

Across the hour and ten minutes that Frontier Ruckus appeared on stage, it would be difficult not to honour the last three or four songs as the evening’s highlight. Sensing the perfect opportunity to improvise, the band unplugged (not that the saw was electrified in the first place) and set up shop inches from the front row to play the most barest of purist music you could expect to hear in a formal gig setting.

This was not an evening to draw too much on the songs of Frontier Ruckus in their informative existence, as introductory titles were sparse. One exception was ’27 Dollars’, a track proving to be the centerpiece to the band promoting their most recent album. There was a hint of looking forward to returning home as this West Midlands visit acted as the penultimate date on a European tour that included a set at the inaugural Long Road Festival last weekend. However, this did not impact upon a performance rich in texture and compelling in its poignant delivery.

The saw having a rest
Contributing to the fullness of the evening’s presentation was an opening forty-minute set from Irish singer-songwriter- guitarist John Blek. Hailing from Cork, which proved relevant to his standout song about a Dutch seaman, Blek’s presence grew significantly during his performance. The inter song introductions added to the spice of the set and it was not too difficult to see how he had made the touring troubadour life his living over a number of years now. The booking of John Blek seemingly went down positive and plans are in motion to him returning soon.

Hopefully, the same can be said about Frontier Ruckus. Hazy memories surround any previous gigs in the area, but future dates will be more pertinently absorbed. There were initial perceptions of the band being a little quirky, but I found their song style quite conventional, with the left field influence coming from the instrumental assortment, which tended to garnish the tracks rather than lead on them. The success of this gig stemmed from the aura created from a band individual in style and one steeped in the diversity that flows from the all-encompassing Americana state of mind.

Friday, 14 September 2018

TOUR PREVIEW: Rachel Harrington

Fresh from reacquainting herself with UK audiences last year, Washington state-based singer-songwriter Rachel Harrington returns for an extended run of dates this autumn. This includes a repeat visit to the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham, a part of the country that has supported Rachel on numerous trips across the seas for many years.


Thu 4         Penzance                                 Acorn Theatre       
Sat 6         Poole                                        Lighthouse
Sun 7        Maidenhead                              Norden Farm Centre for the Arts      
Tue 9         CockermouthCumbria             Wild Zucchinis   
Wed 10      Dunfermline                             Dunfermline Folk Club, The Glen Tavern
Thu 11       Dunoon                                     Dunoon Burgh Hall       
Thu 18       Montrose                                  Montrose Folk Club, The Links Hotel
Wed 24      London                                     Green Note
Thu 25       Newbury                                   Arlington Arts Centre      
Fri 26        Bishop WiltonEast Yorkshire     Bishop Wilton Hall  
Sat 27       Leeds                                        Seven Arts
Sun 28      Nottingham                               The Running Horse       
Mon 29      Birmingham                              Kitchen Garden Café       
Tue 30       Sheffield                                   Greystones

Fri 2          Durham                                    Old Cinema Launderette       
Sat 3         Scarborough                             Woodend Gallery
Sun 4        CottinghamEast Yorkshire         The Back Room

TOUR PREVIEW: Ben Folk Thomas

Ben Folke Thomas always puts on an entertaining show and folks should try and catch him during his extensive run of dates this autumn. Birmingham has seen Ben both in solo and full band mode previously, with this year's schedule stop at the Kitchen Garden ideal for the solo show.


September 11th Leicester (supporting John Murry)
September 12th Hyde Park book Club – Leeds (supporting John Murry)
September 13th Borderline – London (supporting Hawksley Workman)
September 14th – Naked lunch – Liverpool (supporting John Murry)
September 15th – Ty Pawb – Wrexham (supporting John Murry)
September 16th – Broadcast – Glasgow (supporting John Murry)
September 17th – Edinburgh – Sneaky Petes (supporting John Murry)
September 18th – Telfords Warehouse – Chester (supporting John Murry)
Wednesday 21st November – The Castle Hotel, Manchester
Thursday 22nd November – The White Hart, Corby
Friday 23rd November – The Prince Albert, Stroud
Saturday 24th November – Railway Inn Winchester
Sunday 25th November – Lexington London
Monday 26th November - Kitchen Garden Café Birmingham (solo show) // @benfolkethomas