Thursday, 20 December 2018

Nine Songs That Shaped 2018

Top 20 Favourite Albums of 2018

Favourite or best? You should know now what the preferred term is here. Only a small fraction of wonderful albums released each year get to tempt your ear, so rather than fret over the ones that haven't landed yet or didn't quite hit the mark first time, why not celebrate those that played an important part in framing the personal soundtrack of 2018. These twenty records, not forgetting the equal number that could easily have added on any given day, made a profound impact that lasted long after first listen and bubbled with a festive fizz as each was revisited in December. The reasoning behind each inclusion is often impossible to pinpoint. Time, place, mood, feeling, association and circumstance play as key part as any technical verdict. Ultimately, they stirred an emotion that is unique in music and will remain a part as long as sound is enjoyed in this sonic form. If you're still with me, and not not averse to the odd list, welcome to my world of indulgence and the unveiling of those records that stayed the distance this year.

1 Brandi Carlile- By The Way, I Forgive You

"Carlile and the Hanseroth twins were in imperious form on this latest release blending passion, verve and songwriting brilliance into a set of songs that moved, shook and reflected the true spirit of roots music in a classic contemporary frame."
2 Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain

"Delicately sung and immaculately presented, Courtney Marie Andrews is the architect of a record that should act as a country/folk blueprint in 2018. A journey, a journal, a lesson, this album is a classic."

3 First Aid Kit - Ruins

"The Soderberg sisters ramped up the stage, sound and platform for their most lavish assault on the music world to date and absolutely pulled it off without compromise. Whatever the coating, heartfelt folk music flourishes underneath."
4 Ashley McBryde - Girl Going Nowhere

"A record which funnels the listener straight into its strengths, and there are plenty. Ashley McBryde has created a mightily impressive album that endorses the apparent momentum being built. Where it leads her who knows, but being on board is a ticket not to be missed."
5 Skerryvore - Skerryvore

"Music plays an important part in marking out the past. While Skerryvore scratches out the numbers 2-0-1-8 in the sand, it evokes memories of earlier years when sound became the catalyst for recalling an era"
 6 Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel

"Lambert, Presley and Monroe ride the crest of the wave of their solo success with a collaboration for this and any other age. Tackling subjects the mainstream shies away from saw this album score highly on many fronts including the main one of providing a damn good entertaining listen."
 7 Letitia VanSant - Gut it to the Studs

"2016 delivered Carter Sampson and 2017 did likewise for Caroline Spence. Odds are quickly shortening that 2018 is the year that Letitia VanSant blossoms out of leftfield indie Americana to become a firm favourite on the back of a superlative album release."
 8 Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

"The year's slow burner for some, but this and the direction Musgraves gently swayed towards in her recording career made a comforting place for those willing to wait before jumping in. Genre will long be debated, although this album temporary shelved such discussion with its neutral yet magical feel."
9 Bennett Wilson Poole - Bennett Wilson Poole

"Rampant guitars, wispy harmonies and luxurious tunes combine to place the record in the set position pending the proverbial smash. Wholesomely British and vividly retrospective, the forty-eight minutes parade in a flash with little effect of strain, but plenty of endless uncomplicated ease."
 10 American Aquarium - Things Change

"Members may come and go, but the spirit of American Aquarium will always embody the soul of BJ Barham. Matching both the deep sentiment of folk 'n' country and the rawness of roots rock 'n' roll fed into the tracks of Things Change that left the most embedded of marks".
 11 Caleb Caudle - Crushed Coins

"Caleb Caudle may have been dealt a handful of aces, but he has chosen an opportune moment to play them in the shape of a fabulous new album. CRUSHED COINS scores high on a number of fronts, even to the extent of the ironed out imperfections suggesting not all great albums need an edge of vulnerability."
 12 Jamie Lin Wilson - Jumping Over Rocks

"The authenticity and real deal nature of JUMPING OVER ROCKS makes it an album to celebrate as much as one to deliver endless listens."

"the time is ripe to share the love for a record spiralling deep into the ethos of this blog’s title."
 13 Mary Gauthier - Rifles & Rosary Beads

"Gauthier digs deep into her whole expression and presentation repertoire to produce a career body of work; successful at leaving the listener suitably informed and visibly moved."
 14 Gretchen Peters - Dancing with the Beast

"The most important thing about a new release is that it is just the start of a cycle. In essence, DANCING WITH THE BEAST will be effectively born on May 18th, with several years of burgeoning appreciation set to follow."

 15 Carter Sampson - Lucky

"LUCKY will be around for a long time and is well on the way towards matching the heights of WILDER SIDE. This is captivating music capable of shifting through a pile of mixed emotions to find the primal point. "

16 Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers - Pay Pack and Carry

"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."

 17 Laura Benitez & the Heartache - With All Its Thorns

"WITH ALL ITS THORNS has put down a marker for an early instrumental delight of the year with lashings of luscious pedal steel sparring with border-inspired accordion, piercing your ear amongst a host of memorable tunes. Easy listening, maybe; absolutely adorable listening, certainly."
 18 JP Harris - Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing

"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."
 19 Emma Jane - Treasures

"Deeply personal and sourced from a ripped open heart makes the sort of music that resonates well here. Emma Jane has succeeded on multiple levels in making a record diverse in sound yet consistent in quality."
20 Lori McKenna - The Tree

"A highly crafted songwriter who has her finger on the pulse of the simple homespun ideas and attitudes. Saving some of her best songs for carefully curated solo albums continues to cement McKenna as a premium performer forging a path to hall of fame status in circles of esteemed peers and fans with an acute ear."

Seasons greetings and raise a glass to new music that will touch us in the future.

Top 20 Favourite Gigs of 2018

Here goes, for the seventh successive year this blog indulges in celebrating the live music shows which have resonated the most over the last twelve months. In time honoured tradition, kudos is given to those stalwarts of the gig scene whose intrepid numbers tower above mine and continue to be the life blood for any artist who crosses the line into a professional performance. The debate whether art should be quantified into lists continues to rage, but as somebody who resides firmly in the objective camp there is no holding back on the seasonal task of reflecting fondly. So with a short drum roll, here are the gigs that possessed a touch of magical appeal to live long in the memory:

 1 American Aquarium - Night and Day Cafe, Manchester

"Probably best summing up American Aquarium is that they start out full of country sentiment before finding the fault lines of rock ‘n’ roll, not a bad place to be though. A wonderful fulfilling gig from an awesome band sums the night up perfectly. "
 2 Courtney Marie Andrews - St.Barnabas Church, Oxford (December)

"Courtney had little trouble finding the notes that give her vocals an air of supremacy. Aided by a crisp clear sound system and the obligatory pin-drop audience environment, everything that makes Courtney Marie Andrews an exceptional performing singer-songwriter was in place."
 3 Kacey Musgraves - O2 Academy, Birmingham

"This performance upon a return to the only Birmingham that really counts was absolutely adorable and a major advert for the magnetic attraction of top quality live music from an artist who clearly matters."
 4 Carter Sampson - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham

"The most engaging of voices adorns an impressively curated arsenal of song selection. The rich texture of a vocal honed in the land where the South spills into the West possesses the capability to melt the heart of a listener, made even more effective in the confines of the acoustically perfected Kitchen Garden."

5 Steve Earle and the Dukes - O2 Institute, Birmingham

"This evening specifically, and in general the recent shows by Steve Earle and the Dukes are vivid reminders to what a great folk ‘n’ country, rock ‘n’ roll band they are and what a fantastic song writer Steve Earle is. Grab these moments while you can. The legends tag is still intact and yes… there is still unfinished business."

6 First Aid Kit - O2 Academy, Birmingham

"Just to name three from this set to absolutely pierce your heart were the stunning ‘Stay Gold’, ‘Emmylou’ and ‘Fireworks’. You will have to step up the gig count to hear such an esteemed trio dealt so crisply and evocatively to an audience hanging onto every line, note and vocal breath."
 7 Kelly Willis - Maze, Nottingham

"Strolling onto the stage at 9 o’clock, it did not take Kelly long to hit her stride and slip into an effortless zone of a cultured artist perfectly equipped to deal the cut glass country song."

"A worthy candidate for gig of the year, even as we just pass the half way point."
8 My Darling Clementine - The Rep, Birmingham

"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."
 9 The Lone Bellow - Band on the Wall, Manchester

"The Lone Bellow did not disappoint and like so many nights when top quality Americana rock bands grace us with their presence, dissatisfied customers were as scarce as the proverbial… You get the drift; it was a damn good night of live music."
10 Mary Gauthier - The Glee Club, Nottingham

"This powerful piece of singer-songwriter theatre proved all-consuming and unleashed the infinite potential of where song can take you. The fervent anti-war protestor, and thorn in the side of the perpetrators, still exists alongside a purveyor of focussing on the humanist angle of a tragic state of affairs."
11 Eilen Jewell - Biddulph Town Hall, Staffs

"...fully blessed that the chance to finally see Eilen Jewell play live had been grasped, and this gig-going adventure become a little richer.If Emmylou coined the phrase ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, then why not evoke the alliteration ‘Boise to Biddulph’. Deepest Idaho and the Potteries interwove this evening."
12 Jamie Wyatt + Beth Bombara - Tingewick Village Hall, Bucks

"Whether we call it country, Americana, folk rock or singer-songwriter, artists such as Jaime Wyatt and Beth Bombara are probably more important to its vibrant future than browsing your High Street music store for Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. Let them into your musical sphere either through their records or through seeing the live show and substantial rewards will freely flow. "

 13 Hayes Carll - Maze, Nottingham

"It is now a decade since Hayes strolled onto the Glee Club stage in Birmingham to the glorious tone of ‘Beaumont’ for the perfect introduction." 

"The replication of this Nottingham renewal is certainly a desired legacy. In this multi accessible digital age, nothing could surpass the frozen moment of being there. It was an honour and a privilege to be present."
 14 Bennett Wilson Poole - St. George's Hall, Bewdley

"Although it may be considered a side project in some respects, this set up is likely to take up much of the year and keep all concerned busy. The blistering performance delivered tonight proved ample evidence that no effort is wasted in making it a wholesale success. "
15 Gretchen Peters - Town Hall, Birmingham

"The immaculate surroundings of Birmingham Town Hall and the music of Gretchen Peters are the perfect fit. A hushed environment absorbed every word from the most meaningful array of songs you are likely to hear in a single set. This was Gretchen Peters in absolute control, cashing in on a lifetime of experience, association and striving to pen the momentous song."

16 Pokey LaFarge - O2 Institute, Birmingham

"Winners were all round though: a band having a ball of a time; an audience grasping a rare opportunity to see a true American roots band in full glory and maybe just a city showing that it can come to the fore with supporting this type of music."
17 Caroline Spence - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick

"Caroline Spence may have been 4,000 miles from her Nashville home, and on an inaugural overseas tour, but she settled into the surroundings without hesitation and went on to deliver a sublime performance of songs soaked to the core with southern sentiment. Any doubts that the promise of SPADES & ROSES would not live up to its billing drifted away into a cold Midlands night, suitably insulated by the warmth of the performance."
18 Don Gallardo + Hannah Aldridge - John Moore Foundation, Appleby Magna

"Thinking outside the box may be driven by survival but it leads to the most wonderful of musical experiences for fans offering a lifeline to live music. Hannah Aldridge and Don Gallardo feed off this. Those heading to Appleby Magna on a wet and blustery Good Friday evening had the perfect holiday feast."

19 Kim Richey and Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham

"Moments were also precious when each artist gave the other total space to deliver the immaculate individualistic song. ‘Kindness’ saw Ben conjure up some idealistic romanticism and perhaps set an agenda for many to follow. ‘A Place Called Home’ projected Kim Richey at her finest and possibly own the show’s Champagne three minutes."
20 Lucy Ward - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham

"The work of Lucy Ward continues to make her one of the most engaging and rewarding performers on the UK folk circuit. Tuning in is required, but art is far more satisfying and long lasting when the listener has to invest a little. Long may the fire burn in her songs..."

See you on the gig circuit in 2019 

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

GIG REVIEW: O'Hooley and Tidow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 18th December 2018

One thing that the 2018 gig year possessed was symmetry. The same venue hosted the first and last show with the artists themselves supplying a family flavour. From Robin, Joe and Katy Bennett (occasionally known as the Bennett Family Singers) to O’Hooley and Tidow, the Kitchen Garden presented many fine musical performances over the last twelve months. So as the curtain finally came down on an eventful year, it was a show of warmth, humour and familiarity that provided the finale, and a splendid evening of quintessential English folk music in its most engaging form.

Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are a successful and popular duo on the folk circuit, accruing multi-layers of acclaim, whilst rarely failing to entertain an audience. The vocal blend, honing in on individual skills and possessing a keen ear to the borrowed and self-composed song has fermented their stage presence to the extent of adapting to a variety of live formats. This evening’s setting in the intimate surroundings of Kings Heath’s premier listening venue fell into the duo’s lap, though they did provide their own sound set up that gave the sonic environment a richer texture.

This latest run of O’Hooley and Tidow dates is billed as their Winterfolk Tour, aligned to the album of the same name released last year. Thus a seasonal theme threaded through the brace of sets that the pair played to a near full house.

Despite festive tracks like the familiar ‘River’ and ‘Fairytale of New York’ to close the evening (both standards given a personal twist) and picks off their WINTERFOLK , VOL 1 record such as ‘One More Xmas’ (possibly the song of the night) and ‘The Last Polar Bear’, the soundtrack forayed into many other subjects that have inspired the duo’s song choice.

Therefore jolly singalongs in ‘Gentleman Jack’ (based on the infamous 19th century diarist Anne Lister) and ‘Summat’s Brewin’ (celebrating the triumph of the small in a real ale context) kept the tempo up as the pair switched between piano, accordion, guitar and both, on and off mic. Throw in an instrumental piano solo from Belinda and a poetry reading from Heidi, and you can increasingly visualise the artistic diversity that flowed.

When seeking the most moving moment of the show, you needed to look no further than ‘Whitethorn’, with its homage to Ireland’s lost rural children, blending into Heidi’s German version of ‘Stille Nacht’, followed by an opportunity for us all to join in on the English translation. Wonderful music theatre.

Outside of these main points, many concurred with Heidi’s political outpouring on food banks, austerity and LGBT rights We were all a little more informed of the duo’s proud Huddersfield heritage (or at least present home). Other songs to grace this stirring evening were versions of Richard Thompson’s ‘We Sing Hallelujah’ and Louden Wainwright III’s ‘White Winos’ , along with other O’Hooley and Tidow recorded songs like ‘Fire and Wine’, ‘Wexford Lullaby’ and ‘Little Boy Blue’.

At the end of a year where so much music has been explored from countries like Canada, America, Sweden and Australia to name a few, it is sometimes warm and reassuring to savour some home comforts as we head into a few weeks break from the live music circuit. Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow gracefully saw the year out and will be more than welcome again to share their engaging and rather splendid take on the wide and eclectic world of folk music. 


Sunday, 16 December 2018

GIG REVIEW: Courtney Marie Andrews - St.Barnabas Church, Oxford. Saturday 15th December 2018

Four UK visits, three gigs attended and a classic album played a ludicrous amount of times. There is no dissent here in anointing Courtney Marie Andrews as ‘Artist of 2018’. It remains revealing whether she grabs the album and the gig accolades, but there is serious candidacy in her efforts on both fronts. This second visit to St. Barnabas Church in Oxford took a twisted path, which ultimately presented an enticing opportunity. Just over a week ago, Courtney valiantly fought off afflictions to meet her Union Chapel engagement, but in the midst of an illness: Birmingham, Oxford and Bristol moved into cancelled or postponed status. Sadly, the former could not find an alternative date, but the latter two had re-scheduled events with Oxford conveniently staged on a Saturday, thus making it more accessible for those making the journey down the M40 from the West Midlands.

There is consensus from loyalists that solo and full band Courtney Marie Andrews’ shows are of equal merit. Having seen both this year, one conclusion drawn is you do not miss the band when she operates in solo mode. Rising to the occasion of the grand setting, Courtney eagerly wanted to make amends for her fans’ patience and duly delivered a single length set falling just ten minutes short of two hours. Apart from the substantive content of over twenty immaculately dealt songs, the quality was of an astonishing level melding perfectly into the compatibility of the surroundings.

While the pairing of something old and something new fell into the set list, it was the standard Courtney Marie stance of nothing borrowed and only occasional dips into something blue. There is a streak of uplifting positivity running through her song writing, weaving in personal experience, perception and viewing the complexities of life through the lens of others. The platform afforded to her this evening encouraged a high degree of revelation leading to thoughts shared on solo v co- writing, an artistic upbringing in Arizona and a personal voyage in securing ‘making music’ as a way of life.

Just like her previous visit to this venue in February, Courtney made use of the available piano and went on to deliver ‘This House’, ‘Paintings from Michael’, a new song titled ‘Ships in the Night’ and the requested ‘Only in My Mind’ on the ivories. The rest came from the acoustic guitar with a slight twist for the evening finale.

Personal highlights from the show form from the alignment of those little moments that allow you to enter a fixated zone. ‘Rough Around the Edges’, ‘Putting the Fire Out’, ‘Honest Life’ and ‘How Quickly Your Heart Mends’ all vied for top spot but ultimately had to concede to the most precious five minutes spent at a gig this year.

When first hearing the songs off the latest album MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN earlier this year, an instant love affair with ‘Took You Up’ was born. From the disappointment of it left on the sidelines at the Nottingham gig in August, its re-establishment via a request this evening heralded a sublime five minutes. From the opening unison of linking ‘journey –destination – love – addiction’ to combining ‘cheap motels, diners and dives’ with ‘calling numbers on the billboard signs’, each line was savoured as a divine moment; a suitable comment in light of the heavenly settings.

Courtney had little trouble finding the notes that give her vocals an air of supremacy. Aided by a crisp clear sound system and the obligatory pin-drop audience environment, everything that makes Courtney Marie Andrews an exceptional performing singer-songwriter was in place. Maybe one moment on the evening that did not hit the expected heights was the unplugged finale of ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ delivered in the middle of a two hundred strong gathering. This common concluding moment of certain gigs generally works better in greater intimate venues, and while the vocals were clearly heard, it lacked the impact of the previous hour and fifty minutes.

There was no need for an encore as Courtney Marie Andrews had supplied the crowning moment, just an extensive meet and greet until the dipping temperature of a chilly setting took hold. Despite a dismal December day in the city of Oxford besotted with Christmas shopping, this sensational warming performance from an artist brimming with creative talent illuminated a setting getting ready for its admittedly bigger date in the coming week. However, for one solitary evening, the angels could at least look down with wry satisfaction on their invited guest.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

GIG REVIEW: Midland - O2 Academy 2, Birmingham. Tuesday 4th December 2018

Midland posed as many questions as providing answers when they became Music Row’s extended hand to those decrying the direction of mainstream country music. Debate ran amok in quarters suspicious to what presented, even amongst a consensus on the relative strength of the debut album. Away from the debate, impressive numbers racked up, to propel the view that all that matters is whether punters buy into an artist’s music. Therefore an outfit preaching from the pulpit of Willie, Waylon and the boys rubbed shoulders with factions that pump the notion that a genre can be stretched in any way how.

2018 has seen the Midland brand exported across the pond, with this Austin Texas-based combo featuring on the main bill of the Country-2-Country Festival and returning several months later to a headline tour, parading sold out signs around provincial venues. Oh, the power of marketing. This included a full house in the 600-capacity second room of the O2 Academy in Birmingham.

It would take a hardened country music fan’s soul to perpetuate denial that ON THE ROCKS did not contain redeeming credentials, which at least flavoured a record with a lacing of honky tonk flair. Whether a studio on a mission led the drive or a band following their dream will likely reveal in good time, but more immediate analysis lies in Midland’s capability to deliver a live show to match the lofty status of their early commercial success.  

Any chance that the widely used pedal steel in the album recording would make the trip sunk at the outset, and this evening’s show cemented the view that you might as well just tour the UK with a four-prong guitar attack joining the beating drum. On more than one occasion rock ‘n’ roll took root and as the balance of originals cascaded into a multitude of covers, the Stones, Springsteen, The Band, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top and a parting shot of Chris Isaak reverberated around a venue struggling to match the best in the sound department. From a lengthy menu of covers, a version of Jerry Reed’s ‘East Bound and Down’ was the best delivered.

Inevitably, it was the songs from ON THE ROCKS that both drew the crowd and the most positive response from the floor. Understandably, ‘Drinkin’ Problem’, in its anticipated encore slot, created the biggest wave on the evening, both metaphorically and literally. Elsewhere from the record, ‘Make a Little’, ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Altitude Adjustment’ made the strongest impression. This was in contrast to the opening trio of ‘Check Cashin’ Country’, ‘Burn Out’ and ‘Electric Rodeo’, which accumulated into a rather limp start to the set.

Comments from the opening shows on the tour ranged from implying ‘a quality band’ to an ‘awful vocal experience sidelining any remnants of a tune’. Trying to tread the middle ground can require expectation adjustment. Evidence forging either opinion can be sourced from a perspective alongside an observation that the majority present were content to buy into a concept of a band pitching their stock on audience interactivity.  

Regardless of where you move next with Midland, the legacy of ON THE ROCKS is intact. Whatever the future brings will no doubt fuel further debate. Regardless of the outcome, their progression will be subject to whether this band can create a niche and maintain an audience, one though possibly driven by trend. From a personal perspective, the Midland journey ended on December 4 2018, but it was one of few regrets, just confirmation that there is better out there.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ben Folke Thomas - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 26th November 2018

Just over two years ago, Ben Folke Thomas played the Kitchen Garden in the dark shadow of the referendum result. A little concern was apparent from an artist brimming with principles of unity, comradeship and compassion, all framed by a progressive outlook. Fully understandable as this Swede has made England his second home for a number of years as he strived to forge a successful career.

Now with a pivotal moment of the fiasco approaching, Ben once again trod the floors of the very same venue and could not resist a little jibe of the ‘B’ word at the end as funds might be required shortly to purchase a visa. Whatever the outcome and destiny of this Shakespearean tragedy, it is a travesty if freedom to live and work across virtual borders curtails and the music scene loses larger than life characters like Ben Folke Thomas.

On a brighter note, we can gladly report that Ben was on prime form for this show, maybe still on a high twenty-four hours on from his album release, but forever dedicated to deliver a performance bursting with credibility. From a booming voice and skilfully curated guitar picking, the lyrical outpourings from Ben Folke Thomas flicker like confetti, while landing on the listener in a haze of poetic charm. Amidst the alliterations, vocabulary extensions and acute observations lie serious messages, and poignant reflections on how song writing can morph into a living.

Ben Folke Thomas is breathing proof of how the live performance can shed a new light on a record. Just playing his new album in the aftermath of listening to many of the songs live provided the golden key to realising what an ace songwriter he is. ‘One Day’, ‘Some People’, ‘One More Chance’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Stuff of Dreams’ were just five fine examples of songs soaring in the unfiltered atmosphere of the live gig. The latter kept a Kitchen Garden audience alert at the end of a long Monday with a required singalong, so good that voices were once again lubricated in the dying embers of the show with the invited chorus of the classic Ben Folke Thomas send-off signature tune ‘Sex Addict’.

If just one person checks out the hot off the shelves-brand new album MODERN MAN from reading this piece, then at least the baton has passed.

To highlight the contrasts that do emanate from Ben’s stage persona, we had the most impassioned introduction to his trademark anti-fascist song ‘Finn’ with a story of an asylum seeker befriended in Sweden. This resides succinctly alongside the wry humour that placed Birmingham in his Top Ten UK cities and introducing ‘Rhythm and Blues’ as his most famous two-minute hit.

One of many standout moments from the hour and half long set was a new song titled ‘All in My Hands’, where Ben managed to quote the word ‘Peterborough’. Well if ‘Blackburn’ can serve Lennon and McCartney well, why not a soulless East of England town for our Swedish friend.

Clad in a Montreal Canadians hoodie, a shout of ‘Go Habs’ fell on the death ears of a Birmingham audience, not even buoyed by the nearby hotbed of ice hockey: Coventry. Maybe irrelevant to the music, but an example of who Ben Folke Thomas is; an artist you warm to very quickly on stage.

Good people like Ben Folke Thomas will come out on top and we need their powerful and insightful songs more than ever. Describing him as the Swedish Tom Russell is an apt place to finish.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Juanita Stein - Cuban Embassy, Moseley. Birmingham. Saturday 24th November 2018

Juanita @ the Cuban Embassy sounds quite exotic, well at least Hispanic or Latino. When you translate it to an exiled Aussie indie-rocker in the upstairs room of a suburban Birmingham pub, you get more than a hint of reality. From either perspective, Juanita Stein is well on the way to establishing herself as a respected solo artist and seizes a vast array of opportunities to shore up her fan base. The Bulls Head (the Cuban Embassy in a former life) in Moseley is a long way from some of the platforms she has paraded on during a twenty-year career, but connecting with fifty-plus fans in an intimate setting can still present rewards in a different way.

There are three likely entry points into the work of Juanita Stein. Many are likely to have lived and breathed her exploits as the front person of indie rock band Howling Bells, which brushed with the big time before settling at a level just below the household names with whom they were associated. In recent times, Stein has returned to the spotlight via a support slot with The Killers, and maybe acquired admirers from those at arena shows who pay any attention to the opening acts. Thirdly, there are some of us total newbies who have been pitched, or stumbled upon the pair of recently released solo albums that have tended to look beyond a scripted audience for some appreciation.

The label Americana was banded around for the solo records, well the first had the title AMERICA and her lead guitarist plays some twangy stuff in western shirted attire. I think it is best to settle on the watered down phrase ‘Americana-tinged indie rock’ to describe the music. It does fall in line with the cotton thread fragility to defining Americana. Labels aside, both the aforementioned debut album, released in 2017, and the very sharp follow up this year present themselves as positive listening experiences, packed with decent songs that travel well from studio to stage.

For the curfew-restricted fifty-five minutes that the four-piece band spent on stage, there was a prime focus on the solo material especially the new release UNTIL THE LIGHTS FADE, which is the purpose for the current run of UK dates. The sole detour was an encore version of the sixties hit ‘Bang Bang’, made famous by Nancy Sinatra, and originally from the pen of Sonny Bono. The version tonight saw Stein ditch the guitar to accompany her lead guitarist for three minutes that felt different from the rest of the set, at least in the vocal delivery.

Elsewhere the highlights were ‘Cool, ‘Get Back to the City’ and ‘America’, with between-song chat and intros kept to a minimum in a tight schedule. From a close up view in a cramped room, Stein cut a cool figure, with the band providing first-rate support to a fistful of melodic atmospheric songs alongside adding some effective harmonies. It was a brief but sweet set, maybe a little blurry in places, but a succinct showcase of what Juanita Stein has to offer as a solo artist.

The evening began with a thirty-minute opening slot from John J Presley, who operated as a duo with his drummer and delivered a raft of hardened guitar tunes in an insular manner. A classic case of each to their own taste and this artist will have his own audience.

Juanita Stein is cultivating a new audience away from her core and the thoughts upon leaving the gig focussed on where this may lead. There were similarities to Sharon Van Etten and Phoebe Bridgers, who possess shades of Americana, or at least signs of progressive folk, among the indie rock. Artists like these broaden the base and certainly add value upon discovery. The deal discovering Juanita Stein was sealed after this Cuban Embassy gig.

Monday, 12 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Lynne Hanson & the Good Intentions - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Sunday 11th November 2018

Lynne Hanson is the type of artist bestowed with gratitude and one never to lose sight of purpose and direction. Connecting with her audience appears to be a source of inspiration and it is easily transparent to see how bonds are forged. Drawing influence from country, folk, rock and blues has provided a solid base for this Canadian to dig deep into her song writing well and fulfil a desire to make music a viable source of living. Mutual benefits are aplenty when the fruits of Lynne Hanson’s ambitions pour out on stage and she aligns herself with a cast perfectly adept at playing the crucial support role. Therefore, for the second successive year it was a European excursion for Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions, and a first visit to Thimblemill Library in the heart of the West Midlands.

Before we dive into the detail of this successful gig, it is worth paying Lynne credit for the superb work she has recently done with fellow Canadian Lynn Miles. Indeed it was only around eight months ago since The Lynnes tour called into the nearby Kitchen Garden in Birmingham to play a show in support of the excellent collaborative record HEARTBREAK SONG FOR THE RADIO.

This evening’s show was different in tempo and sound to what surfaced back in February, although underpinned by a similar knack of delivering the sensitive song. Tonight was very much about Lynne harnessing the stellar support of go-to Canadian bassist MJ Dandeneau, drummer Cody Iwasiuk, and a guest lead guitarist by the name of Joe Coombs, borrowed from the good city of Bristol UK. For around the usual ninety-minute headline slot, we had songs of heartache, loss and thoughtful contemplation mixed with doses of vibrant rock and sentimental acoustic roots.

It proved to be a productive and busy weekend in the wider Midlands area for Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions. Ettingshall on Saturday night followed a Friday date in Bewdley, which had glowing reports. Sunday evening in a library would inevitably be a different beast, but credit to the band and those venturing out during a time of year when perhaps a little more motivation is required to leave the warm home. Lynne’s gratitude reverberated around this art décor building and the perfect response came with an alternative version of ‘Gotta Have Rain’ delivered in the most connective of ways in the first encore slot.

The set list for this Smethwick show drew songs from a decade span of Lynne Hanson’s recording career, calling right up to date with a new song feeling its way into a live format. One of the older songs, ‘Cold Touch’, proved a capable candidate for the standout mantle alongside fellow rocker ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and the blues infused ‘Devil Said Do’. Each of these afforded Joe Coombs space to unleash his guitar skills, in a similar vein to what he did when seeing him play with Jamie Wyatt earlier in the year.

MJ Dandeneau is another musician frequently seen playing with touring artists, most notably Amanda Rheaume and the Good Lovelies. Her singled out moment was the eerie intro to ‘Cecil Hotel’. Although the general remit of the rhythm section is to keep impeccable time, a feat impressively achieved alongside the third Canadian on stage, drummer Cody Iwasiuk.

It would not be of surprise if some labelled ‘Trading in My Lonesome’ as the top moment. This is perhaps the most ear-friendly song and one capable of attracting audience participation with a gentle prod. Ultimately, the neck is going to protrude out and anoint the pair ‘Foolish Things’ and ‘Just For Now’ as the crowning moment. Perhaps their acoustic nature tipped the balance on a Sunday evening, but the latter in particular made a noted appearance with its notion of self-doubt. A trait we all have from time to time.

Apart from the aforementioned new song believably titled ‘Hearts Fade’ and ‘Long Way Home’, a unrecorded piece with at least an online video version, the remainder of the songs came from Lynne’s back catalogue, which was most recently updated with the 2017 release UNEVEN GROUND. Like all songwriters, it will not likely be long until another surfeit of songs surface to demand a recording round, subject as usual to finance availability.

Opening this Thimblemill Events promotion was Moseley-based band The Lost Notes, a familiar act on the local acoustic circuit. Their trio format makes a regular appearance opening for touring artists and lead protagonist Ben Mills throws his heart and soul into warming an audience up. Superb harmonies and cleverly constructed songs have served The Lost Notes well in chasing an audience and have enabled them to leave a favourable impression from many shows where they have graced their presence. With a debut album in the bank, expect more recordings to appear in the future, as new songs are being road tested in the best possible environment.

Since first engaging with the work of Lynne Hanson when she supported Gretchen Peters on the 2012 Hello Cruel World tour, she constantly strives to back up her numerous releases with perineal touring. She comes across as a grafter who never takes any ounce of support for granted. This transpires into seriously impressive roots music that achieves the ultimate goal of translating into something meaningful to an appreciative audience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: First Aid Kit - O2 Academy, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th November 2018

Hare and Hounds to Symphony Hall to Academy is an upwards journey in terms of capacity, and one taken by First Aid Kit on their visits to Birmingham over the last eight years. Whether you consider the last two a progression is down to preference, but the numbers do not lie. The Söderberg sisters are certainly operating on a higher plane than when they brought the Stay Gold tour to the city in 2015. Sold out signs have flashed above First Aid Kit shows right across this UK segment of the Ruins World Tour and it would have been rude for Birmingham not to oblige. Inviting The Staves along to open the shows was also a smart move. This must have been a record for sisterly siblings on one night, further compounded when all five assembled around the single mic for a song during the main set. Harmonies ruled the roost for most of the evening and shining evidence radiated from the stage as to why First Aid Kit are currently riding on one enormous crest of a wave.

Moving into the realms of serious headline contenders, both on the festival circuit and venues just shy of arena status, has seen the band ramp up the live show, significantly raise the decibels and interject the usual trimmings of lights and backdrop. Some adjustment was required when catching the band earlier in the summer at the Cambridge Folk Festival, which in turn probably helped tune in better to what the sisters and their three-piece backing band presented on their own headline shows. For around an hour and half, they toyed with folk, rock, country and the occasional good old European drinking song, just a reminder that you can drench the person with American culture but you can never drain away the origin.

While wooing fans from the mainstream to join genre junkies who hooked up with them a while ago, the strength of Johanna and Klara Söderberg lies in an extraordinary ability to write and deliver the most compelling of songs. Just to name three from this set to absolutely pierce your heart were the stunning ‘Stay Gold’, ‘Emmylou’ and ‘Fireworks’. You will have to step up the gig count to hear such an esteemed trio dealt so crisply and evocatively to an audience hanging onto every line, note and vocal breath.

On the more upbeat numbers such as ‘Master Pretender’, ‘My Silver Lining’ and ‘You are the Problem Here’ the complete band sound takes full control with electric guitar adding fuel to heavy percussion and sparkling keys. My awareness of Melvyn Duffy on pedal steel pre-dates his involvement with First Aid Kit when he was a key member of Tex Mex band Los Pacaminos. He seems to have really found his feet now, adding occasional mandolin and electric guitar to his beloved steel, a sound he effortlessly drives to add a country touch alongside a general landscape feel.

A quick break to offer some thoughts on The Staves, a band that have flickered on my distant horizon for several years, reveals a trio rich in sound and the owners of some of the most delectable harmonies you could wish to hear. What has always held them back from penetrating my inner listening core is a series of songs that land a powerful punch. Whether that changes with the new album promised mid-way through their forty-minute opening set remains to be seen. Conditions are ripe for a breakthrough and any new material will get a fair hearing.

Powerful songs are not in short supply in the First Aid Kit locker. From the opening track, ‘Distant Star’, delivered by Johanna and Klara theatrically standing on a raised platform at the rear of the stage as the curtain raised, through to older numbers like ‘The Lion’s Roar’ and ‘King of The World’, it was one substantive song after another. The new album was moderately represented, although the adorable ‘Postcard’ has been disappointingly sidelined from the set list, possibly a little too country for a mainstream crowd. Never mind, it is a fabulous song already getting many personal plays, a trend likely to continue for a while yet.

From a spoken perspective, the girls were most vocal when passionately advocating their wholehearted support for culture change in how gender crimes are perceived. Cue Klara showing a steely pose while delivering the aforementioned ‘You are the Problem Here’ and the sisters fighting back in the song ‘Ugly’, recently released on a spill over EP of some folk orientated tracks omitted from the more commercially focused RUINS.

This whole performance from First Aid Kit was one of zest, panache and a classic exhibition of a band on top of their game. They successfully reach out from a core that will always retain a slice of folk ‘n’ country, while steering clear of any chunks of compromise. If anything, they are a breath of fresh air among artists pitched alongside in the channels of corporate marketing. A sold out 02 Academy in Birmingham would testify strongly. An arena next time, who knows? Success would not be begrudged and there is total faith that Johanna and Klara Söderberg will still effortlessly deliver their adorable songs in any setting.