Wednesday, 20 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kim Richey - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 19th June 2018

Early into her first set, Kim Richey commented that the configuration of the Kitchen Garden partially reflected the world famous Bluebird Café in Nashville. This was apt to the extent that seeing her play that iconic venue back in 2016 re-ignited an immense appreciation for such a measured and accomplished talent. In contrast to an evening where the limelight was shared with fellow songwriters Matraca Berg, Don Henry and Bill Lloyd, Kim reverted to her de facto solo touring mode and injected a stark reminder of the many fine songs to have surfaced from her deep creative well over the years.

2018 is shaping up to be a significant year for this artist originally hailing from Ohio, but more than making a mark a couple of states further south where the good and great in music gather. EDGELAND, her first studio album in five years, has accrued heaps of attentive praise since emerging in the spring on the Yep Roc label and a raft of dates supporting Gretchen Peters in the UK has seen a re-raising of her profile across the pond. A few extra well-attended solo dates have been tagged onto this trip and we learned on the evening that a return in the autumn is planned as well.

For this Birmingham show, a city that has hosted Kim on numerous occasions in the past including the recent Town Hall Gretchen gig, the standard twin forty-five minute set rolled out. While this was probably the minimum requirement in length, the substantial standard of the songs and performance on display far outweighed the modest outlay.

Similarly to many artists witnessed, Kim grew gradually into her role, while perfecting the vocal tones to match the casually strummed guitar. The background chat and informative stories were restrained into optimum territory leaving sufficient breathing space for the song structures to be savoured. It was easy to compare the new material against its more established siblings, and you can comfortably imagine ‘Pin a Rose’ and ‘Chase Wild Horses’ being as loved as ‘Those Words We Said’ and ‘I’m Alright’ in years to come.

While these songs currently represent the cream at the bookends of the Kim Richey career timeline, the set list this evening also picked out a handful of gems from the interim years. ‘Chinese Boxes’, ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ and ‘Thorn in My Heart’ are far much more than album title tracks and sounded as good as ever on the night. The latter assumed the role of show opener ensuring the audience quickly found that captivating zone.

It may sound slightly ingenuous to proclaim a cover as the highlight to a singer-songwriter’s show, but this exception is tough to dispute. Before closing the show, Kim spoke about her Opry debut many years ago, and how she tentatively selected a cover as her third song choice. While hearing Kris Kristofferson sing ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ live a few years ago was a moving moment, there has admittedly been far superior vocally delivered versions of this timeless classic. Add Kim Richey to this lengthy list now after experiencing the intensity and focus she gave it for three minutes of bliss to close the evening on a high.

Scanning back over the thirty years of Kim Richey’s career reveals an artist held in the upmost esteem by both industry insiders and fans with an acute ear to the quality song. Whether serving up songs for the big hitters in her formative Nashville years or carving out a performing niche spanning far from the confines of Music City, a rewarding career has ensued; one with plenty more fuel in the tank on the evidence of the current record. Periodically, UK fans have been blessed with these songs in their unfiltered transparent state and this evening’s show at the Kitchen Garden staged the latest renewal in a fitting way.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Danni Nicholls - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 10th June 2018

There is precedence to a Danni Nicholls album having multiple lives and the scene is set for a repeat process now that the songs are in the can for the next album. The cycle may still be in the embryonic untitled stage regards the upcoming album, but tracks are beginning to emerge in a live setting. Fresh out of a latest stateside stint to bring the songs to near fruition, she has undertaken a few dates around the country to break them in gently. Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden has hosted Danni on a couple of previous occasions and it was a posse of familiar faces greeting her for this latest visit. Grander stages will feature ahead as the record nears release, but it is good for the new songs to be road tested and it can be unequivocally stated that treats are on the way to fans new and old.

A distinct theme characterised the two sets Danni played this evening. The bulk of the new material featured after the break, following a widely spanned selection in the first set from a recording and performing career fast approaching a decade in the spotlight. Old tunes like ‘Time’ rubbed shoulders with some of her finest to date such as ‘Beautifully Broken’, while joined by the recurring Randy Newman cover ‘Guilty’ and a live favourite in ‘Where the Blue Train Goes’. Not forgetting the gorgeous 'Between Forever and Goodbye' and the scene setting opener 'Long Road Home'.

As popular and much loved as these songs are, the long awaited new material created a sense of anticipation. Permeating the offering in the opening set was the first positive sign that the future is bright with a Birmingham premiere for ‘Hopeless Romantic’. It does not take many listens to a Danni Nicholls track to admire its appeal and there was no evidence in this trait being lost.

After the break, and an opportunity for folks to fill in their gaps of any missed album purchases, Danni was more forthright and informative about the next album, even if it means we still have a little time to wait before it reaches the market in the recorded format. Five further tracks were given an early airing, although one was vaguely familiar as ‘Ancient Embers’ did feature in the show here twelve months ago. Fingers were crossed at the time that it may make the cut for a future record and the faith appears to be repaid. A little was learned about the writing process and it was no surprise to hear that Danni has teamed up with Ben Glover for a couple of co-writes. ‘Texas’ and ‘Wild is the Water’ had the Ben Glover mark all over them especially the second one; although Danni’s effortless presentation style will soon assume ownership. They certainly came across as songs from a wider canvas on first listen and maybe a drift away from the fairly tight periphery that has reflected her writing in the past.

The other two new songs heard in the second set were ‘Power to Leave’ and ‘Losing It’. The first was revealed as another co-write, this time with Austin-based artist Jaimee Harris, while the other had not developed any introductory patter yet. True to form, the introduction of the new songs served tonight went a long way to suggest that another acclaimed album is going to emerge.

There was still time for plenty of old favourites as Danni never fails to play a comprehensive show when afforded the opportunity. ‘Beautiful Game’, ‘Back to Memphis’ and ‘Hey There, Sunshine’ will never outstay their welcome, and while the lengthy introduction to ‘A Little Redemption’ was shelved, the sentiment of this upbeat jaunty number is never lost.

Cover-wise, this was an evening free of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, but what better way to end the gig than Danni playing her version of Will Kimbrough’s ‘Goodnight Moon’. A heady mix of sharing humility while crafting a beautiful rendition.

In contrast to Danni’s previous shows at the Kitchen, an opening act was added to the bill and it was good to catch the music of Kathryn Marsh and Dave Sutherland again in the guise of their duo format: Ashland. During the half hour slot a varied source of appealing songs were shared with the audience, ranging from ones Kathryn has given a new lease of life to the odd cover and original from Dave. It proved a gentle start to an evening wholesomely defined by its intimacy and respect for the serenely delivered song.

Danni herself has been busy on the support front in recent times including playing fruitful opening slots for Shakin’ Stevens, Angaleena Presley, and most recently, The Secret Sisters. At the end of this current run of shows, the focus will switch to the next batch of dates later in the year, which she will surely headline with a big fanfare, and give fans an opportunity to take the new material home in some kind of recorded format. Since first coming across the music of Danni Nicholls back in 2010, it has been repeatedly stated that few if any match the strength of her style, at least this side of the pond. It is in the realm of ‘Americana’ that offers the best fit for her music and conditions are now set for a continuation of the growth and affection previously enjoyed. This show at the Kitchen Garden was merely the aperitif for a lavish banquet about to be served. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Friday 8th June 2018

The duo format has been a winning formula for as long as country and roots music has sought popular appeal. This has even proved the case when only a single name is used to front the act. What worked well for Gillian Welch alongside Dave Rawlings is perfectly set for Vivian Leva and her musical partner Riley Calcagno. The inaugural tour of the UK is billed as a duo event, although the route of their famed associates is repeated in a solo titled album acting as the focal point to direct folks to some recorded output. Vivian Leva’s TIME IS EVERYTHING was released to critical acclaim earlier this year and it did not too long to deduce the positive critique when finally tracking it down. Riley is intrinsically involved on the record and the way the pair sparred and blended on stage did more than suggest that the chemistry is working.

A progressive move in recent times to establish Thimblemill Library in Smethwick as a hotbed for American roots music has proved a hit. A periodic yet successful, formula recently reaped dividends for a Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle show, and it was in the vicinity of those heights that greeted their compatriots this evening. The relationship extends further than a shared love of old time roots music with Rachel and Vivian both signed to Free Dirt Records; a label deeply woven into the fabric of ensuring country tradition retains its relevance. The youth of Vivian and Riley is a prime factor in viewing them as a significant hope, but enormous adeptness and skill removes any age relevance as good music knows no restraints.

The contrast in styles on stage was stark to even the casual observer. Riley is the clear instrumental maestro excelling all evening on a constant switch between guitar, banjo and fiddle. The latter often saw the brightest spark from this Seattle raised musician, while extoling the fiddle heritage of Washington State alongside the more widely known Appalachian influence. Indeed, it is Virginia in the south east of the United States that serves as the home for Vivian, born into a family rich in musical influence to provide a guiding light. It is her steely statuesque poise twinned with a voice etched in the fabric of the old time country song that left an emerging impression. A simple yet subtle guitar playing style joins her song-writing prowess in harnessing the talent.

Solo composed songs from the album like ‘Bottom of the Glass’, ‘Wishes and Dreams’ and ‘Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darlin’’ helped shape this show. Although it was the title track off the album, which was co-written with Riley that probably shone brightest. Another memorable choice from the record was the arrangement of the traditional song ‘Cold Mountains’, heavily re-interpreted by Vivian’s chorus addition and Riley’s musical input. Additionally, a song written by Paul Burch titled ‘Last of My Kind’ had a decent feel to it and thus land a place in the memory bank in the aftermath.

Outside the new record, which proved a popular purchase on the night, a cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Anyhow I Love You’ and an encore version of ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ by Lafayette based outfit The Red Stick Ramblers showed an acute ear for further influence than just studying the traditional past. A new song without the title being mentioned sounded excellent, a common theme from a tour beginning to pick up pace, and a fair few new fans on the way. Riley took the limelight a couple of times with a spritely fiddle tune, one memorably titled ‘Obama’s March to the White House’. His vocal contribution was mainly confined to harmonies, but he did take lead on a rather good song from his own catalogue ‘Whiskey and Wine’.

Delving deeper into the background reveals that Riley has been playing music since the age of seven and a band named The Onlies, of which now Vivian is a part, has been active on the local scene for a number of years. Recently the collaboration has branched out into a new project under the name The Ruglifters, a remarkably extensive bout of experience for a pair so formative in their years.

Across the two sets played, the impact of the musical presence visibly grew in line with the confidence of the two performers. You felt you were in the company of a couple of artists steeped in talent and destined to take their music a long way on a scene that nurtures and champions its best. This was country music in its purest form.

Enlisted to open the show was local based singer-songwriter-guitarist Amit Dattani. A regular on the Birmingham scene, he aptly opened with ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ before settling to share some tunes and songs from his new album SANTIAGO. His booking proved a good fit for the evening, especially with the finger picking guitar style that set the scene perfectly for Vivian and Riley to perform.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno join an impressive alumni set at Thimblemill Library alongside fellow American artists such as Erin Rae, Caroline Spence, The Wild Ponies and John Craigie, as well as the previously mentioned Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle. They certainly held their own and contributed to a fabulous evening visibly enjoyed by all. With a great deal determination and effort, the team behind these presentations are fully utilising a poignantly positioned art deco building, filled with acres of knowledgeable font and one increasingly fondly remembered by those passing through. Long may whispers and recommendations prevail and nights like this get repeated in the future.

Thanks to Andy D for the images

Friday, 8 June 2018

FESTIVAL PREVIEW: Maverick - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th July 2018

You watch them come and go on the festival scene, but Maverick remains steadfast as the destination of choice for the first full weekend of July each summer. Now in its second decade of existence, this compact festival in the quaint surrounding of rural Suffolk motors on, powered by a formula that rarely changes from staging to staging. Expect a serious dissection of a scene influenced by American roots music through a host of worldwide sourced acts making themselves available for this celebratory gathering. 2018 may see the term ‘Americana’ proceed along a more focussed path in the UK, but its roots and lineage certainly go back through the inaugural Maverick Festival unveiled in 2008.

Easton Farm Park has been the host of Maverick since its birth and it is difficult to imagine it being staged elsewhere such are the unique and quirky facets of the environment that are entwined within the festival experience. Adapted performing locations like The Barn, Peacock Café and Moonshine Bar come to life over the weekend as artists varying in style and format unite in a common ethos. These artists range from the familiar to ‘the soon to become’ familiar, all scheduled within a framework that obviously has been successful in ensuring the festival returns on an annual basis.  

If your horizons are motivated by household big budget names then Maverick is not really aimed to you. Alternatively, a desire to discover new acts, with an assured quality stamp mark, will be comprehensively met across the weekend. The organisation, vibes and atmosphere attached to the festival are welcoming both to fans ingrained into the music or others content to casually soak up what there is to offer.

To get a full flavour for the 2018 line up, which once again includes artists invited from Australia and Canada to join the lengthy ranks of home grown and American talent, take time out to peruse the listings. Regulars to Maverick will see plenty of returnees alongside names that may well become new favourites by the time the dust settles on the Sunday afternoon. Checking out unknown artists hardly has the inconvenience of past years in this modern digitally connected world, so a few clicks and searches will start to reveal some of the fine artists that are likely to enrich your music world.

Precedence of attending this event for the last eight years goes as close to guaranteeing decent weather as you are likely to get on these shores at the height of an English summer. Although not relatively tested at festival time, the layout of Easton Farm Park and abundance of covered location would play a part in alleviating an inclement weather onslaught.

An early glance at the line up presents interesting US acts in Bonnie Bishop, Cordovas and Jonathan Byrd as initial ones to watch, although the latter has been a touring regular over here for a number of years. From a home perspective, Curse of Lono have strived to become a seriously impressive live act over the last year, while who can argue with another festival appearance for Danny and the Champions of the World. Nottinghamshire based band Most Ugly Child were the architects of a very good album last year and should go down well. Fresh from being the find of last year’s event, Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes once again make the long journey from Australia, this time joined by their compatriots Imogen Clark and The Weeping Willows. Concluding this brief introduction of ones to follow are Anna Tivel, Jeffrey Martin and Southern Avenue, but this is really just the start.

Some music fans will advance to Suffolk with a heavily researched intent, while others will just go with an open mind. One guarantee is that all will return home fulfilled and in affirmation that Maverick has lived up to its reputation. From experience, it has regularly delivered in the past and all indicators point to a continuation. 

Maverick Festival 2018

Following a milestone 10th anniversary last year, the UK’s first and finest Americana festival is thrilled to announce the 2018 line-up.
This year Maverick Festival will take place from Friday 6th – Sunday 8th July, showcasing the most authentic and talented musicians from both sides of the         Atlantic.  Over the past decade Maverick Festival organisers have stuck to what they believe in, presenting exciting and inspiring line-ups year after year. 

Billy Bragg audience 3.jpg
The Maverick Festival is set amongst the restored Victorian barns and out-buildings of Easton Farm Park, nestled deep in the Suffolk countryside yet only two hours from London, with films, workshops and performances from over fifty different artists across six stages, indoors and out.
“One of the friendliest, most sincere festivals in England … fine music, great fun, delightful people and an idyllic rural setting” - The Telegraph
There’s a carefully selected range of food on offer at the festival (with many veggie options) including pizza, paella and pasta, Thai, tacos, Texan bar b q and chili, duck pancakes and crepes, followed by award winning local ice cream, brownies and waffles, all washed down with freshly squeezed lemonade, tea and freshly ground coffee, Suffolk cyder and a selection of local ales, wine and lager. 
2018 Line Up Includes ...
See for full line up info.

**Plus latest additions**

AMA-UK Songwriters In The Round
+ Johnny Cash Tribute

Maverick Festival is delighted to announce a special feature in this years programme, songwriters in the round sessions presented by the AMA UK. Each session will be led by a US artist; including BONNIE BISHOP with AGS CONNOLLY and ROBBIE CAVANAGH, ANNA TIVEL with KATE ELLIS and JAMES RILEY and JEFFREY MARTIN with ROSANNE REID and STEVE GROZIER.
Another exciting addition to the festival programme is a tribute to legendary American singer JOHNNY CASH, celebrating 50 years since Folsom Prison Blues album and led by fellow Arkansas musician ARKANSAS DAVE; with contributions from AMY MCCARLEY, PEPE BELMONTE, DAN WEBSTER, AMELIA WHITE and many more.

Past Maverick Festival Reviews:

2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Skerryvore - Evo : Tyree Records

Sometimes out of the murky mist comes a beating drum refusing to yield as it tramples over all comers on the most personal of journeys. Banging that drum alongside etching a plethora of tunes out of the fiddle and pipes arrives Skerrymore. This fully stocked Scottish folk rock band have racked up the musical miles over an active decade and probably will long into the future, but for one summer they have captured a timeless escape into where music can lead the wandering mind. Five tunes and six songs only begin the infatuation that sprang from left field. Instantly, the past, present and future intensely stirred. EVO is a heady mix of tub thumping instrumentals clearing the path for a choice selection of invigorating anthems. Choose your label with wild abandon. You can find pop, rock, folk and tradition, and even if you close your eyes and stretch the mind, a saunter down Americana way. The flag will come down on June 11th and then the procession will intensify.

While the original songs eventually hold sway on where this album ends up, the structural support provided by the high-octane instrumentals will certainly liven up any arena, field or hall. The album kicks off with a combo piece titled ‘The Exorcists’ splitting midway yet always awash with fiddle and pipes. A brace of tunes also see the album out with the traditionally named ‘Soraidh Slan’ leading into the rousing finale ‘The Rise’. The other two vocal-less pieces strategically intersperse their vocal-led cousins at the heart of the album with the vivacious ‘Trip to Modera’ joining the frenetic ‘Mile High’.

As valuable as these tunes are to EVO, and intrinsic to Skerryvore’s traditional heritage, it is the songs that push the album into a higher stratosphere, while exposing a sensitive touch of reflective nostalgia. All six tracks will have their day as a ‘long hot hazy summer’ unfolds across the British Isles, but three in particular may have just put their noses out front first. ‘Live Forever’ has had a previous existence and is justifiably given an extended lease of life as an influx of crashing guitars permeate the infectious chorus immaculately sung with luminous clarity. ‘Take My Hand’ is a track to get some early exposure via its nostalgia fuelled video and played an important part in the early stages of adoring this record. Coming up on the rails to just pip it on release day is the distinctly powerful identity piece ‘At the End of the Line’, gloriously summarised in the lyric ‘paradise is wherever your people are’. Ultimately, paradise is a state of mind and if hairs do not stand to attention when hearing this, therapy is suggested.

The trademark Skerrymore sound of blending traditional instrumentation with contemporary rock tools is prevalent across each track. ‘Hold on’, at the very core of the record, benefits from this at the start before another memorable chorus takes root and chisels an extra notch in what should be a infatuating live experience. ‘Borderline’ is a straight up rocker, borderless in its origin and equally at home in a collection of US heartland rock tunes as one representing the outpost of western Scotland. ‘Waiting for the Sun’ completes the song offering and could just emerge to be the dark horse of the record. Like its lyrically infused companions, the hook is immense and another sure fire success whether belted out live or reverberating around your living room.

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. EVO will be heard loud and rousing across Britain, the US and Europe this summer. If it pierces as deep elsewhere as here then it will be job done. An indisputable conclusion.

ALBUM REVIEW: Romantica - Outlaws : Self-released

There are two approaches to listening to this album. First is adopting the role of casual listener and taking ten well-crafted songs on board at face value, although at least two will be somewhat familiar. The alternative is to be versed in the back-story, as no doubt many fans of Ben Kyle and Romantica will be. The fact that OUTLAWS is even getting a release is a testimony to the recovery Ben is making after being struck down with Lyme disease shortly after completing the previous album. By the time SHADOWLANDS was greeted with overwhelming praise, the illness was taking hold and a significant threat to more than just making future music. Therefore, the new record may well just be Ben Kyle’s most important release, even if it has meant resurrecting a number of Romantica recordings from the cutting room floor.

The fact that many of these songs have not previously surfaced is a credit to the quality of material that did make the cut. This is particularly pertinent to three tracks pulled from the Shadowlands sessions and ones that would have been a good fit for this particular album. ‘Lost in the Cosmos’, ‘Do Go Gently’ and ‘Listen to Your Soul’ are the aforementioned with the harmonica-led latter proving the most endearing after the early plays. All three are cool temperate efforts oozing with a sophisticated class.

Apparently, four of the tracks were all recorded for a lost album titled FOR GOD AND LOVE AND WAR. These probably unravel as the most significant tunes on OUTLAWS as exemplified by the two lead off numbers ‘Love in the Winter’ and ‘Dear Caroline’. Joining them are ‘Hold it Together’ and ‘Baby Killed Bobby’, anchoring the final stages of the record and rich in the cultured Americana sound that has been prevalent in the music of Romantica since forming in 2002.

Completing the ten-track collection are covers of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, enhanced by added steel and the George Harrison-penned Beatles favourite ‘Something’. A further familiar voice appears in the final track, which is a live recording of ‘The Dark’ where Ben is joined by Ryan Adams.

Once aware of the back-story it is well worth checking out Ben’s heartfelt postings surrounding the release of OUTLAWS. As the Romantica line-up has changed over the years, he has been the constant and there is serious hope that they can eventually resume a prosperous return to making fresh original music. This collection fills an interim gap impressively and keeps the fire stoked while we await the next move.

ALBUM REVIEW: Carter Sampson - Lucky : Continental Recording Services

Carter Sampson already has the prestigious accolade of ‘Albumof the Year 2016’ in her bank for the immaculately connective WILDER SIDE and now sights are set as where her new record LUCKY ascends to on its meandering and exploratory journey. For this is how her music gets around, no big bang just a slow burning saunter around the musical collections of the discerning listener. Luckily, for Carter, the twin bait of the sumptuous song wrapped in an enticing voice is attracting more and more folks. The new album finally gets its formal UK release via Continental Recording Services on June 8th, although many are already captivated by its availability at her live shows and a brief exposure on the streaming wires. Release day may be an extra focal point, but just a mere spot on the eventual journey of an album destined to favourably project the music of this Oklahoma based artist.

There is a therapeutic appeal to listening to Carter Sampson. The voice encapsulates the spirit of her delicately spun songs, although on this album she diligently dips into the works of others on three separate occasions. Yet there is still a purposeful side to her song writing bringing out the best in the archetypal Oklahoma songwriter stretching back from the archives of Guthrie to the contemporary musings of Fullbright and Moreland. Catching the ear on the writing front in a recorded format for the first time is the engaging tale of ‘Rattlesnake Kate’. A long term favourite of her live set and one that chronicles the endearing story of a feisty character in full quirky mode. Americana storytelling at its best.

An emerging thought whilst listening to Carter Sampson intently is a vocal resemblance to Miranda Lambert, or vice-versa if you choose sides. Maybe it is an Oklahoma/Texas axis or just a thought that Miranda wants to be more like Carter. No doubt, an exchange is on the table for a price.

Just like her previous album, and a little further back to MOCKINGBIRD SONG, it is the overall vibes of a record rather than a monster track that lifts it above the pack. Yet many golden nuggets wait to be mined as each track is explored. At the outset, ‘Lucky’ sets the theme of being grateful to possess the opportunity to make a living from writing and performing songs. However, the real good fortune lies in those feasting on the gorgeous music made.

Strict detail to the accompanying soundtrack for this selection of songs as led Carter in the direction of several acclaimed Oklahoma musicians including Jared Tyler, who was last seen in the UK playing impressive sidekick to Malcolm Holcomb. Americana will be the overriding label attached to the music especially from an overseas perspective, but Carter can mix it with the perceived country hierarchy in the heartfelt way she immerses herself into each song. At the concluding point of the album, she ditches the song writer tag and takes on the role of the quintessential country singer ripping the sentiment out of the much covered Shel Silverstein song ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’.

While on the subject of exploring the work of other writers, the decision to be the first to record the blissful song ‘Hello Darlin’’ is a shrewd decision. This outstanding track was penned by Zac Copeland, who was also responsible for the Kalyn Fay state inspired song ‘Tulsa’. This track takes the theme of the rivalry between the twin urban centres of Oklahoma City and Tulsa before slinking into murkier waters of identity and deceit.

Of the remaining Carter Sampson-penned originals, ‘All I Got’ spins out its mesmeric tones, adorned with the memorable line ‘walked a mile in another man’s shoes, while ‘Ten Penny Nail’ takes its inspiration from a turbulent episode in the Guy and Susanna Clark story. So why not use a song-writing great to write a great new song.

The term ‘wild’ reappears in this record courtesy of ‘Wild Ride’ revealing the album in a satiable comforting mood as the vibes take root. These really begin to sink deep in the early stages where ‘Anything Else To Do’ and ‘Peaches’ herald a delectable sound, fully confirming that the echoes of WILDER SIDE are fully transmitted to LUCKY.

Carter Sampson is right at the heart of a bunch of American singer-songwriters currently creating waves in Europe, fully adept at exporting their own unique style of Americana. 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.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Bennett Wilson Poole - St.Georges Hall, Bewdley. Friday 1st June 2018

Liberté, egalité, fraternité is an old French revolutionary saying that applies to Bennett Wilson Poole in terms of their free spirit, egalitarian approach to music and comradeship. Maybe their unison has not quite stirred a musical revolution in 2018, but it is definitively re-energising an iconic sound. Billed as an Americana supergroup revs up the hyperbole, although echoes of 60s LA fire out of a multi guitar attack stoked by the jangle tones of the twelve stringed Rickenbacker. 

Gigs are beginning to stack up for this seasoned trio, formed to quantify a mutual love shared by Robin Bennett, Danny Wilson and Tony Poole. It was no surprise to see one of their early shows scheduled for St. George’s Hall in the north Worcestershire town of Bewdley, a venue frequented twice by Robin in the guise of his band The Dreaming Spires and sibling collaboration The Bennett Family Singers. Therefore, it was all systems go when the full band hit the stage at 9:30 complete with a further Dreaming Spires complement of Joe Bennett on bass and backing vocals and Fin Kenny on drums.

When you want to expose the fruits of a brand new album then why not play it in its entirety, even in track order. Self-titling their album further etched the name Bennett Wilson Poole on the roots music scene and its contents quickly accrued widespread praise when it hit the shelves earlier this year. The birth of eleven new original songs only begin to tell the story of how well this trio have gelled as both a recording and live performing unit. Across the hour and forty minutes onstage, the vocal harmony and exchange excelled alongside a tight knit sound that ebbed and flowed within the mood of each song.

A carefree and good time atmosphere exuded from the stage as frivolous humour sandwiched some heavy content in the songs. Danny adopted the central position and lost none of the impish wit that defines a ‘Champions of the World’ show, but it is clear that no leader emerges in Bennett Wilson Poole. Robin plays the measured role, often keeping Danny in check and effortlessly switching between electric and acoustic guitar as required. Elder statesman of the trio Tony Poole, hailed as the UK’s greatest exponent of the twelve stringed guitar, was up for milking the opportunity to share the limelight in an acclaimed set up, probably re-living his performing heyday as lead member of 70s rock band Starry Eyed and Laughing.

There was a great deal of insight to the songs in the press around release time and this reaffirmed during the evening. Interesting nuggets included Robin writing ‘Wilson General Store’ as a tribute to Danny’s grandparents in Australia, and Tony providing the stimulus for the two politically charged songs – ‘Hate Won’t Win’ in response to the death of MP Jo Cox and ‘Lifeboat (Take a Picture of Yourself)’ paradoxically linking the refugee crisis to the phenomena of the selfie. The eight-minute duration of the latter proved the fitting climax to the main set with Danny strapping on the electric guitar to ensure the powerful instrumental segment got the full amped up treatment.

Without exhausting the content of the album, it all came across brilliantly in the live format and at least you should be checking it out on a format of your choice.

Of course you need some extra material to pad out a full headline set, but that presented little trouble for the band. The Dreaming Spires’ ‘Searching for the Supertruth’ and ‘One Foot in the Boat’ by Starry Eyed and Laughing were easy fits, while paying homage to the Traveling Wilburys with a cover of ‘Handle With Care’ saw the band pin an allegiance. The temptation to utilise the venue’s piano was too good to miss and Robin showed his pianist skills to play Graham Nash’s ‘Simple Man’, vocally accompanied by Danny and Tony. This show saw no Grand Drive or Champs tribute, with Danny choosing to celebrate the work of Michael Nesmith in covering ‘Different Drum’. The final cover appeared earlier in the set when Crosby Stills and Nash’s ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ bridged the serving of sides 1 and 2 from the album.

In line with previous Severn Sessions presentations at this venue, the evening opened with a double set from a youth and bona fide support act. Local duo Ivywoods were the youngsters on show and used their slot to deliver a bunch of mainly familiar covers, while the not much older but distinctly more experienced Chloe Mogg followed with a set of original material delivered in a quirky and offbeat style that displayed a growing confidence.

In contrast to the openers, it would be difficult to count the number of years and shows members of Bennett Wilson Poole have accumulated over the years. Yet you are often judged on your most recent output and against this measure they are in safe territory. 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. 

Bennett Wilson Poole Facebook Page

Friday, 1 June 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Karen Jonas - Butter : Self Released

BUTTER is the third album from singer-songwriter Karen Jonas and one where she branches out to capture a multitude of stylish sounds. Ten self-penned efforts unravel to give the record a rounded feel while not straying too far from a southern template. You do get the impression that feet are still being found, but the experimental stage bodes well to when the defining moments are discovered.

A strong country core anchors the album as befits an artist from Fredericksburg Virginia. Whether you choose to lean towards the traditional firebrand number ‘Mamas First Rodeo’, judgementally delivered with total sass profoundly exemplified in the line ‘don’t try to bullshit me darling’ or the vivacious ballsy jazz title piece ‘Butter’, definitive nuggets remain visible on the surface.

Joining the latter in old time show time mode are ‘Mr Wonka’ and ‘Oh Icarus’ complete with horns and assorted brass arrangements. There are probably the biggest contributors to the eclectic charge and indicate a slight deviation from somebody who has notched up an Ameripolitan Award nomination in the honky tonk category.

From the brisk opener ‘Yellow Brick Road’ to the more tempered closer ‘The Circus’ Jonas plays a vocal blinder, burying deep emotion into each song providing the album belief, integrity and a sizable dose of panache. In fact, one of the key lyrical moments on the record etches into the opener with the line ‘dreams are paved with fool’s gold’. The closer confirms a nagging likeness to the vocal style of Amanda Shires that occasionally seeps out.

Perhaps the song that moves most as multiple plays rack up is second track ‘My Sweet Arsonist’, a piano and steel combined country inspired effort elevated to leader board status on the back of an impressionable chorus. ‘Gospel of the Road’ also has potential to progress with its contemporary feel and slide into a rockier territory. Tracks like ‘Kamikaze Love’ and ‘Dance With Me’ are still to find their feet as time came to commit some thoughts to print. Providing a reminder that development to nail a full house is still to be accomplished.

This is the second of the three albums released by Karen Jonas to get an international focus and is equipped to build upon the positive reception afforded to 2016’s COUNTRY SONG. A strong vocal presence unites the explicit eclectic nature of BUTTER and its overall production merit makes this an album to earn its stripes.

GIG REVIEW: Jill Jackson - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 31st May 2018

Confession #1 this gig was actually an alternative option for the evening triggered into action after the Jon Dee Graham tour was cancelled at the last minute. Confession #2 the music of Jill Jackson has been on my periphery for a couple of years without afforded the opportunity to get any closer. Lesson #1 when an artist impresses during a festival set ensure you actively follow them up. Lesson #2 high quality singer-songwriter music will eventually find its way to the discerning ear and patience will pay off. At eight o’clock anticipation of what to expect started to grow, by ten thirty the horizon had leapt a great deal closer. Instigating a candid approach to her music and its impulsive influences, reaped dividends for an artist venturing south from her Scottish base. A packed Kitchen Garden, boosted by a healthy portion of Jill Jackson devotees, hooked into a compelling performance delivered by a performer bestowed with an affable persona.

Sat aloft a stool and accompanied by longstanding musical sidekick Johnny MacKinnon on keys, Jill launched straight into a bunch of songs that have emerged as the entity of a brand new album, which eventually became the spine of a show spanning two sets. Eventually the songs, adding up to a total of seventeen when time was called, shared the billing on the evening with plenty of enlightening chat shedding large beams of light on Jill Jackson – the artist and to some extent, the person. The welcoming environment lulled her into a revelatory zone, from which she thrived and reciprocated the overwhelming affection.

Although a lucrative spell as founder of the pop rock band Speedway gave her a footing into the music industry, it is a love for country music, especially its song writing intricacies, that has fuelled the solo output over the last decade. Jill Jackson is not an artist to wear the badge, but a melding into the core of this genre is visibly apparent in the approach and execution of her art. Joining a near domination of original material in the set list was an impeccable cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’. A song treated with unwarranted caution in light of a particular influence from a version by Suzy Boggus and, her own country music hero, Chet Atkins.

As previously mentioned, the new album dominated proceedings and ARE WE THERE YET? ushered in as her most reflective body of work to date. In true singer-songwriter style, the background to highly personal songs such as ‘1954’, ‘Sweet Lullaby’ and ‘Goodbye’ raised the mantra before delivery. The craft and guile of these songs was briefly sampled prior to the show, but nothing prepares you for their bare stripping and heartfelt unfiltered playing. The stories were far too numerous to summarise or document, anyway there is a code tucked away in preserving what has happened onstage into the minds of those present. With maybe the review acting as a tempting mechanism for more folks to tap into the live environment.

Away from the ten-song strong new album, Jill dipped into other numbers that have been part of a blossoming post-Speedway career, both in solo albums and part of The Chaplins brief output. ‘Over and Done’, ‘Long Way Round’ and most strikingly ‘The Rambler’ were the pick of this sector of a career now stretching back approaching twenty years.

Jill was most complimentary towards the Kitchen Garden as a venue, commenting that it was one of her most looking forward to venues when hitting the road to tour the new album. She was last in Birmingham, and this very venue, when joining Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams on their State of the Union tour. Promises to return soon will be held to account by a near sell-out turnout.

Having first taken note of Jill Jackson’s music during her set at Southern Fried Festival in Perth a few years ago, the circle of appreciation was finally completed during this wonderful exposure. An assured experience, acute judge of influence and innate ability to dig deep for the meaningful song is burning bright in the musical career of Jill Jackson. Nights like this re-affirm the magic of live connective music and the framing of an artist who exhibits the notion of ‘show not tell’.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Gretchen Peters + Kim Richey - Birmingham Town Hall. Friday 25th May 2018

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. The success of the latter set the tone at the outset of a lengthy career, yet growth has been organic and a testimony to an artist pursuing a multitude of avenues in maximising the depth of their talent. The West Midlands, and its outer area, have been kind to Gretchen Peters over the years, whether playing host in Birmingham, Bilston, Bromsgrove or Leamington Spa. This evening saw a return to the grandeur of the city centre Town Hall and the faithful were repaid with another priceless performance.

2018 is the year of DANCING WITH THE BEAST, an album recently unleashed on another fruitful and exciting journey. It is also the year Gretchen has re-enlisted the services of two Northern Irish guitarists in Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean to join her and husband Barry Walsh in re-enacting a winning stage formula of the past. With all the pieces in place, it was just left for a special ninety minutes to evolve inducing shivers, tears, goose bumps and a realisation that happiness can accrue from gorging on sad songs. It was literally a case of ‘you know the drill’ as seventeen imposing songs elaborately enriched the minds of a few hundred willing accomplices.

There were a couple of slight adjustments to this evening’s presentation in comparison to past formulas. Chat appeared to be streamed down alongside sporadic track introduction. The focus was more profoundly on the songs with each composition thriving on the space afforded to let the listener absorb their value. Of course, older songs like ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Guadalupe’ need no introduction, with the latter still inducing recollection of it being heralded as her and co-writer Tom Russell’s ‘Townes’ moment.

Being a paid up member of the school of thought that Gretchen Peters’ songs mature like a vintage tipple is a sound investment. Title track ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ from her last album BLACKBIRDS are well on their way to such status as is ‘Idlewild’ from the now six years old record HELLO CRUEL WORLD. However, the emerging jewel in the crown from that period ascended to the pinnacle of a special evening in the form of the spellbinding reflective piece ‘Five Minutes’. This exhibition of succinct and majestically crafted song writing continues to raise the emotive tempo with each listen, rapidly accelerated in pin drop environments like experienced this evening.

The cellophane is barely off the new record, but incisions are starting to be made with a raft of songs implicated tonight as being heavily gender focussed in character assimilation. Unexpectedly and with a barrage of records to be sold, a vast complement of the album made the set list. In line with the album running order, ‘Arguing with Ghosts’ opened the set and ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’ acted as the parting gift. Referring back to the intimated change in formula, the finale saw Gretchen ditch all elements of plugged-in assistance as she used every sonic capability of an acoustic-friendly hall to leave the audience comforted with a slice of rare positivity.

Treat yourself to the album and the early-perceived riches of ‘Wichita’, ‘Truckstop Angel’ and ‘Disappearing Act’ will reveal themselves. ‘Lowlands’ was one of the few songs afforded an impassioned intro as the result of the 2016 US election took hold in her song writing mantra. An inspired quip from the audience at this point suggested the grass is not that much greener over here. ‘The Boy From Rye’ will continue to raise eyebrows when its subject content is increasingly grasped, but the surprise feature on the evening was the impressive performance of ‘Say Grace’.

For this song, opening artist Kim Richey re-entered the stage to join Gretchen on vocals with a substantive effect. Earlier Kim had confirmed her status as a smart choice to play on this tour and re-affirm a long relationship that she has had with UK audiences over a number of years. Similarly to Gretchen, a brand new album was in tow, with tunes like ‘Pin a Rose’, ‘Chase Wild Horses’ and ‘Your Dear John’ providing a solid showcase to what can be expected from the record, titled EDGELAND. Older favourites such as ‘Chinese Boxes’ and ‘Straight as the Crow Flies’ gave folks a timely reminder of why Kim Richey is one of the most respected singer-songwriters operating on the Nashville and wider American folk and country scene. Birmingham fans will not have to wait long until she builds upon this half hour slot in the city, with a planned return for a headline gig at the nearby Kitchen Garden Café in June.

There was added surprise to the cover Gretchen and Barry selected for the encore. Joining classics from Gram Parsons, John Prine and Rodney Crowell on recent tours, the band turned to the work of Mickey Newbury with a rocking version of ‘Why You Been Gone for So Long’. While this was not quite the evening finale, it did bid farewell to the stellar work of Barry on piano and accordion; Conor on upright and electric bass, and Colm on lead guitar. Gretchen remained steadfastly secure to her acoustic guitar all evening, resisting the temptation to re-unite with the keys. Maybe future shows can see this return alongside some version of the song that first led many folks to her door in the form of the seminal ‘Independence Day’.

The precedence of a new Gretchen Peters album is that the tours quickly follow each other. One summation is to revisit the more ‘audience with’ shows where the songwriter can spend greater time on slicing each song with informative chat. Appreciatively, tonight’s show was designed on maximum song exposure and rightly so to seize the moment. Gretchen’s versatility has been one of her greatest strengths in the two decades that she has crossed the ocean to share her songs in person. Therefore, the end of each show does allow a speculative thought of what next.

The bond between Gretchen Peters and this section of her widening UK fan base strengthened a great deal more on the back of this successful show. Being on board with her work is one of the wisest decisions advocates of significant song writing can make. Whether you joined in 1998, 2008, 2018 or contemplating joining now, a lifetime’s body of incredible material is at your disposal to enjoy. The live format is pretty good as well. 

Review of Dancing with the Beast

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Simone Felice - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 22nd May 2018

A combination of a room swimming with positive vibes and the last night of a successful tour reaped hefty rewards as Simone Felice sent out a timely reminder of his sterling credentials. Freshly equipped with the riches of a new album refusing to cool down, this powerful singer-songwriter from the wilds of New York State made sure that a vibrant atmosphere of mutual love celebrated the mystique of the cultured song.

From a degree of recollection, this was the fourth time in the last few years that Nottingham based promotion Cosmic American had scheduled a Simone Felice show a short hop down the M42 in Birmingham. This return to the Hare and Hounds offered a different perspective to the first of this quartet in 2014 when a band format operated in the venue’s main room. The solo format seems the de facto touring mode recently and a slight downgrade to a re-configured smaller room worked wonders for a packed audience pushing three figures.

Essentially, the love of many of those present stretches way back past these last four years as demonstrated by the rapturous reception reserved for older songs that Simone made famous when in tandem with his brothers over a decade ago. Both ‘Radio Song’ and ‘Don’t Wake the Scarecrow’ featured on The Felice Brothers’ 2008 self-titled album and show no sign of losing their sheen in a live setting. The request shouted out for the latter was hardly required, while the story shared of the former from a recent Dublin gig showed little remorse to those lacking a little decorum at a Simone Felice show.

A recurring theme of the evening linked the notion of covering Dylan with the phrase ‘I’ve got my own songs’. These he certainly has and no time was wasted in sharing the treasures of the new record. Opening with the title track from ‘The Projector’, set the scene perfectly for an evening of distinctive song. In fact, you have to do a lot of searching to find a more defining song to start an album in a long time. Elsewhere this record was represented by impressive numbers such as ‘The Fawn’, ‘Hustler’ and a moment of diversity where the guitar was temporarily put down and Simone Felice – the poetry orator, took over. ‘They Hang Upon Upon My Every Word’ was beautifully read out with a strategic prompt being the inner gatefold sleeve of the vinyl version displaying the words. The poet in Simone Felice is not difficult to detect even when not as explicitly presented as this moment.

Older favourites like ‘New York Times’, ‘Union Street’, ‘If You Ever Get Famous’ and ‘Summer Morning Rain’ turned themselves into four-minute gift wrapped packages. Most had a story linked as the inter song chat flitted between the enlightening and the irreverent. Aside from the song delivery and chat, the idiosyncratic mannerisms still define the stage persona of Simone Felice. These range from a steely stare to the humble bow.

The pinnacle of the evening was a communal rendition of the now-secure Simone Felice hometown classic ‘Bye Bye Palenville’. First New York City, then a wider world may have eventually become his canvas, but a little hamlet in the Catskill Mountains has been forever immortalised to symbolise where a heart lies. This surprisingly was the only track lifted from the superb STRANGERS album, but if you are limiting the choice to just one, the best may as well prevail.

A couple of tours ago Simone invited Irish singer-songwriter Anna Mitchell to open for him on a run of British dates. This time it was a Nottingham based artist going by the name Keto who had the opportunity to play a few tunes in support. Her style cornered the moody indie angle with the electric guitar getting a few notches turned up to match a voice built to rise above the parapet.

A sharp sound produced from the Gretsch guitar gave the main set an added boost and an air of contentment resounded when the time came for fans to reflect and merchandise to be sold. This being the last show of the tour, stocks were dwindling, but if precedence is anything to go he will be back. Simone Felice climbs the influential ladder each time seen, although serious devotees will scream that he scaled the heights ages ago. Without splitting hairs, what you get is a dominant performance from a singer-songwriter in tune with conjuring up some magical lyrical expressions, observations and poetic verse. Birmingham was under his spell this evening.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Micah Schnabel - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Friday 18th May 2018

When an American beat poet from Columbus Ohio passes through your hometown, it is rude and remiss not to lend them an ear. Even when scheduled to play past eleven o’clock in the cellar bar of the town’s quirky left field pub, an itch that something compulsive would surface gnawed away. In an ideal world, forty minutes of Micah Schnabel just gets you into the mood and lays the foundation for a greater serving of sparky folk punk poetry delivered from the sharpest of minds and a beat up guitar clad with the slogan ‘art or die’. This performance binned every media fuelled notion of Americana and took the term back to its rawest form.

Micah Schnabel is best known as the front person for indie band Two Cow Garage, but his solo work is bubbling under the surface waiting for that breakout moment when the masses hang onto every word spun out. This current short run of UK dates, the first as a solo artist, has spawned from an invite to play a Frank Turner bash in London, and includes a display of artwork from his travelling companion Vanessa Jean Speckman. The main creative artefacts drawn from are the latest album YOUR NORMAN ROCKWELL and the sentiment from a brand new published novel titled ‘Hello, My Name is Henry’. New songs such as the explicit ‘I Don’t Want to Die in a Nuclear War’ and the more subtle ‘The Teenage Years of the 21st Century’ also joined the fray as not a single second of the forty minutes stage time was wasted.

Buy the Book
In a passionate haze of Kerouac meets Strummer, Schnabel smashes the concrete floor to find material that others dare to touch and thus reveal an underside of reality that is stark, frank and poetically expressed. Hanging onto every word sung/spoken was far from an ordeal as a mesmeric hook coated each composition shared. One memorable line after another tossed into the air as a grim view of society was explored in ‘Cash 4 Gold’, the character from the novel introduced in ‘Hello, My Name is Henry’ and the joy of re-connecting with music resonated in ‘Jazz & Cinnamon Toast Crunch’. If you ever have songwriter’s block try asking yourself questions as Schnabel did in ‘The Interview’ and don’t even try to visualise juggling a chainsaw in ‘Oh What a Bummer’.

Away from the solo material, a song farmed from the Two Cow Garage catalogue in ‘Shakespeare and Walt Disney’ performed a fully-fledged assault on the concept of conforming love. ‘More Drugs’ left little to the imagination and the title track to the latest album ‘Your Norman Rockwell’ whets the appetite to delve deeper into a record achieving more than just pricking your ears.

Yes this was a quirky evening, but one locked into the memory chamber and creating a desire for more. The book bought, and a quick chat with an artist just as keen to learn about your environment, outlook and influences as talk about theirs. There is a market for Micah Schnabel in the UK with a little push and a touch of fortune. Letting him unravel his intuitive mind in a blast of poetic rock ‘n’ roll is not a bad place to be, even when the hour gets late.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Gretchen Peters - Dancing With the Beast : Proper Records

The legacy may lie in the songs hooked up by country music in the 1990s or in a trio of dominant albums blossoming in the 2010s. Maybe though, the legacy is still to come such is the trajectory in the quality of output from Gretchen Peters. 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.

While the discography stretches back twenty plus years, the cycle of slow growth began with 2012’s HELLO CRUEL WORLD, which reached full bloom here a couple of years later. That is symptomatic of a Gretchen Peters record, it is not designed for the ‘here today; gone tomorrow’ society. There is stamina, staying power and subtle variances that await discovery. The case for reviewing her albums twelve or twenty four months down the line is compelling. At these points, different perspectives are certain to exist rather than cobbling together something definitive on release day. However, getting your ears wrapped around this record as soon as the traps lift is still the only place to be. In effect, start your voyage of discovery from day one.

Fans of Gretchen Peters will know what they are getting from the new record. This is confirmed. First impressions (ok plays running into double figures) see the stars of song writing, production and thematic perception perfectly aligned as the eleven songs blend into the spirit of an explorative entity. Whether in character narration mode or digging deep into personal feelings, the impact slices with a cutting edge. One hopes that the lines between the two states are less than blurred such is the dark overtures that drape over a number of the tracks. The strength of any album lies within the pull of wanting to unravel the layers and ultimately search for your own meanings and interpretations. DANCING WITH THE BEAST exchanges the baton of ownership once landing on the ears of the listener.

Questions spill out of track after track, with the only desire of conjuring up the answers yourself. Is the central character of ‘Wichita’ irrational or in control? Was there an audience member in ‘The Show’ waiting for that performance of a lifetime? Can the final ‘Disappearing Act’ be averted?

In these times where many outlets give the artist an extended voice, it can be devilish to summon up your own interpretations. The Gulf of Mexico in ‘Lay Low’ can re-invent into any place of personal sanctuary, while the simplicity of ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’ is a message to us all to steer clear of complications, an exception though when it comes to splitting hairs in the process of feasting on quality lyrics.

Of course, once all the tracks are let out of the bag some gallop ahead. ‘Truckstop Angel’ sees Gretchen at her narrative starkest as no stone is left unturned in the search of those often denied a voice. This theme erupts in ‘The Boy From Rye’, definitely a song from 2018 not 1998. Where ‘Say Grace’ and ‘Arguing with Ghosts’ eventually end up is anybody’s guess, but being there when the key is found is worth the wait. ‘Lowlands’ is a place that we all probably know and the one instance on the record where you could have predicted the route, assuming the subject of the ‘bumper sticker’is…

The key to DANCING WITH THE BEAST is now in your possession. It would be unwise to let this record pass as the year rolls along. Happy listening if it you have got the right state of mind. There is lightness in the dark and a touch of shade when it gets too bright. Gretchen Peters is on top form and a truly great songwriter. Finally, who or what is the beast? Answers only required within your mind.

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael McDermott - Out From Under : Pauper Sky Music

Wherever your personal preferences lie, few records can be as hard-hitting and profoundly impactful as the new album from Michael McDermott. Like an unleashed creative force, this Chicago-based artist rips through the tough singer-songwriter landscape with an abundance of folk rock infused lyrical essays as he ultimately comes to terms to a life in some remnant of control. Burying yourself into the avalanche of OUT FROM UNDER rewards the brave and provides credence to the proverb ‘no pain no gain’. Faint-hearted fantasists may need a warning, but immersion in this record toughens the mind and clears the passage for powerful song writing to etch a distinctive mark. It helps that a voice as rugged as the stories told pours gut drenched emotion into each song. A sense of liberation flows from artisan to partisan as these eleven solo-composed tunes take hold.

Although Michael has been an active performer and writer for many years, it is mainly through his work as half of The Westies duo, and the last solo release WILLOW SPRINGS, when the focus has moved onto an international stage. From a personal perspective, an impassioned live performance rammed home the magnitude of what this artist is capable of and thus created a relished anticipation for the next chapter.

The breathless journey begins on ‘Cal-Sag Road’, a destination stained with a gruesome song drift climax and a stark reminder of demons continually recalled in ‘we’re getting drunk again’. As the tempo picks up, so does the intensity of the songs, from the rootsy and repetitive ‘Gotta Go to Work’ to the deep digging rocker ‘Knocked Down’, which our architect ‘knows a thing or two about’. The opening quartet ends still in rocking mode and a roam around some stark reminders of why ‘Sad Songs’ reign supreme, even if tiredness takes root.

The production fluctuates between heavy and sparse mode allowing a fiery Celtic spirit to force the pace. A full-on demeanour grinds out a deluge of passionate storytelling, and a lyrical content making compulsive reading in tandem with the hooked in listening. Among the gruffness, periodic bouts of soul do seep out to add another dimension to the music of Michael McDermott.

Back to the tracks and ‘This World Will Break Your Heart’ is full of characters burdened with tragic tales. Up to now, an up tempo beat has juxtaposed with the gritty content, and the sound slips further into a lighter direction with the title track ‘Out From Under’ at the heart of the record. All of a sudden, blatant optimism breaks out in the strident positivity of ‘Celtic Sea’ and blessed sentiment resonating in ‘Rubber Band Ring’. The latter is a big-hearted retro soulful pop piece, surprising in inclusion, but belt out with the most sincere of meaning.

Never Going Down Again’ resumes the rocking theme in an absolute bout of feisty defiance before the perplexing lyric-laden ‘Sideways’ takes control in the penultimate slot. Interestingly, the demons re-surface as an untimely reminder, along with a reference to Stephen King, who is an unlikely advocate of Michael’s work as a songwriter. As closing track ‘God Help Us’ ends, the listener is left exhausted though fully rewarded. At this point, a focused state of mind will have played a major part, but you will become a fully paid up member of the Michael McDermott appreciation society, a growing band of enlightened followers.

The backstory to Michael McDermott undeniably plays a part in his music, especially in 2018 where a state of placidity and gratefulness fuels the process. OUT FROM UNDER is an absorbing record which when fully digested in context adds weight to the lofty credentials of a songwriter soaring in a trajectory towards the peak of their powers. A must for any lyrical junkie and fully equipped with an accessible soundtrack to boot.