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.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kim Richey and Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham. Monday 5th November 2018

They may have been treading familiar ground, but any traces of complacency burnt away on a mild Bonfire night. Earlier this year Kim Richey and Ben Glover played their own shows at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. Any lingering doubts about the viability of re-booking so soon withered away as a healthy turnout instantly switched on to the fact that they made a wise Monday evening choice. From the opening bars of each performer’s first song, defining molds were set. ‘Thorn in My Heart’ oozes the absolute class that has kept Kim Richey at the heart of definitive Nashville song writing for well over two decades, while the gritty underbelly of ‘Catbird Seat’ shines a fascinating light on Ben Glover’s increasing eminence of being an acclaimed source of deep rooted songs without compromise.

Comparisons and contrasts ran amok during this near two-hour show, which steered clear of a formulaic slant that can prevail when two independents collude. Harmonies, support vocals, joint playing, solo spots and a plain old duet all featured across of a pair of sets starting in rotation before meandering into slightly random territory. The duet came in the form of ‘Dancing with the Beast’, a Ben co-write with Gretchen Peters, adding a third looming figure on the evening, in spirit maybe. You can even add a fourth in the guise of Mary Gauthier, who worked so diligently with Ben in pumping life into ‘Catbird…’ and the rugged homage to Robert Johnson in ‘Oh Soul’, a standout candidate on the evening. It was fitting that all four artists were over here playing UK shows in May/June and key figures in a vibrant Nashville songwriting scene.

Both Kim and Ben are the architects of exceptional solo albums released this year. EDGELAND has surfaced as Kim Richey’s most acclaimed record in years, as evidenced by boundless critical praise. Songs such as ‘Pin a Rose’, ‘Chase Wild Horses’ and ‘Your Dear John’ reveal a dedicated poise and sophistication. Even ‘Whistle on Occasion’ brimmed with sparkle as Ben stepped into Chuck Prophet’s shoes admirably. One surefire success on the collaboration front was always going to be ‘Ride the River’, one of the earworm standout tracks from Ben’s latest record SHOREBOUND.

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.

As you would expect from two singer-songwriters sparking off each other, stories flowed freely, though never suffocating the song. The TV show Grey's Anatomy may be a little more palatable knowing the beautiful Kim Richey song ‘The Absence of Your Company’ featured, while how can any Ben Glover show not celebrate the innovation of his Orphan Brigade project and the haunting tones of ‘Trouble My Mind (Oh Harriet)’.

A Nashville citizen by residency will always align with Ben Glover - the proud Northern Irishman from Co. Antrim, as long as songs like ‘Heart in Your Hand’ focus on the life changing process of emigration, a songwriting thread for a number of years. In contrast, there is an air of consistency around the work of Kim Richey with ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ sounding as sweet as when the album of the same name came out in 2010.

The final two songs from the sets to spice this review went a long way to framing the show. Song writing will never lose its fascination as long as compositions like ‘Blackbirds’ evolve from the depths of god knows where, through the pen to the vibes of a prominent track. Any Ben Glover/Gretchen Peters co-write is likely to simmer, bubble and permeate the psyche of a songwriting junkie for a long time. The night’s finale of ‘The Parting Glass’ was fairly standard in selection, but forever faultless in an unplugged exhibition of the beauty and the rugged.

The union of Kim Richey and Ben Glover was a rare treat, perfectly highlighting the 365 interaction of the Kitchen Garden and the wonderful songwriters that grace its surroundings.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Karine Polwart - Town Hall, Birmingham. Friday 2nd November 2018

Photo by Robin Gillanders
It was music fit for the lavish setting. By her own admission, Karine Polwart has not made many visits to the West Midlands to play shows in the past, so the opportunity to bring her current tour to Birmingham Town Hall was too good to turn down. It does not matter where your prior appreciation or awareness of her music sits on the barometer; by the end of the show, you attain the status of a fully-fledged knowledgeable fan.

Not only is Karine Polwart the source of many wondrous songs, the background and inspiration to them is enchanting, enlightening and dealt with heaps of guile and craft. Adeptly assisted by a band comprising of her brother Steven on guitars and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson, the trio glided through two precious sets full of new songs, older numbers and the odd surprise. At the heart of the content are myths, observations and personal experiences from their Scottish home, a land that has placed Karine Polwart at the heart of the folk scene for many years.

The centerpiece of the current tour is the release of the latest album LAWS OF MOTION. By the time Karine mentioned the record via the title track towards the end of the first set, several songs from it had already been enjoyed alongside learning about their origin. Politics has often been a fruitful source for Karine and right from the off we were treated to the inventive piece ‘I Burn But I am Not Consumed’ taking its cue as a response to the 45th President of the United States from the land of his ancestry. Politics with a small ‘p’ plays a part in the song ‘Suitcase’, which draws its inspiration from forced emigration from Eastern Europe to Scotland in 1938 and generally reflecting modern day migration. Most songs from the new album had an informative introduction, so we learned that ‘Cornerstone’ draws on the experience of visiting the Isle of May and ‘Young Man on a Mountain’ recalls her grandfather’s joint ventures on active war service in Italy and a more serene life in the forests of Scotland.

Before we leave the new album, a special word for ‘Ophelia’, which was probably the stand out song of the evening and one that launched the second set. Perhaps a song that let its beauty do the talking as no introduction was required.

As indicated, Steven Polwart did most of the string work, although Karine did sidestep from her Shruti Box to acoustic guitar on more than one occasion. By far the most intriguing aspect of the sound is the contribution of Inge Thomson. Surrounded by a concoction of percussive, electronic and organic instruments, she came across as a fair distance from the folk purist world to the extent of experimenting with loops alongside more conventional accordion work. However, the soundtrack worked a treat and played the perfect foil to Karine’s beautiful unblemished vocals.

It was not all the domain of original material. A song by Sidney Carter, ‘Crow on the Cradle’, can be found on the new album and appeared in the first set, alongside a tribute to Scott Hutchison, the late front man of Scottish rock band Frightened Rabbits, with a cover of ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’. You could sense the populist divide between this song and the distinct folk numbers, a trait expanded further later on when the trio launched into a fun, and different version, of the seventies chart topper ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.

Many people leaving a Karine Polwart concert would be entirely justified in celebrating the feathered thread as the stand out moments. In the final throes of the show, Karine recounted the myth of the robin obtaining its red breast before launching into ‘The Robin’, ended the second set with her signature tune ‘King of Birds’ and eventually closed the evening with her own favourite of the species, ‘Follow the Heron’.

The splendour of Birmingham Town Hall is never a presence to be under estimated when enjoying a show in the venue. Maybe thoughts do sometimes drift to the need for Birmingham to utilise a smaller theatre-style setting when getting anywhere close to selling out a 900-capacity venue is beyond the pull of an artist. However, any substitute would fall short in the grandeur stakes.

Thinking back, Karine Polwart was last seen in concert at the Artrix in nearby Bromsgrove six years ago. In hindsight this was far too long, but enjoying a full two-hour exhibition of inspirational Scottish folk music has started the compensation process. Leaving the venue informed, inspired and fully entertained is all you can ask for from putting your money down.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: American Aquarium - Night & Day Cafe, Manchester. Wednesday 31st October 2018

“I traded my youth, for three chords and the truth,” cries BJ Barham midway through his fiery response to a Southern Baptist upbringing. ‘Crooked + Straight’ may have taken a generation to burst out, but it goes a long way to defining the state of defiance and retribution flowing through an American Aquarium live show. 2018 is brewing up to be a landmark year for this band operating out of Raleigh North Carolina. A brand new album titled THINGS CHANGE (and the home of the aforementioned track) has emerged from a revolutionary all-change in personnel and a raft of dates both at home and abroad has followed to re-enforce them as one of the best US touring bands currently stepping foot on British soil.

While the entity of American Aquarium is a wholly owned subsidiary of BJ Barham – the songwriter, musician, performer and inspiration - such an assertion is a little disingenuous to the stellar line up of crack musicians assembled for this latest re-incarnation of the band. Ace pedal steel picker Adam Kurtz and top lead guitarist Shane Boeker joined Barham out front on the cramped stage at Manchester’s Night and Day Café, but these guys would be the first to acknowledge the backroom trio of bassist Ben Hussey, Joey Bybee on drums and a keyboard player ripping up the B3 with a name that will come to me eventually!

Anthony D'Amato
As good as the band is during this all too short run of three England dates on the latest European tour, the focus on any American Aquarium gig is always going to be the all-consuming emotive bout of heart and soul that BJ Barham pours into every song. His unassuming style would no doubt respond that he is just doing his job, but he takes going the extra mile to a new level. Standing five foot from such an inspirational band leader playing the show of his life (likely to be every show, mind you) is the ultimate live music experience and the reason that American Aquarium are a band that you do not mind travelling a distance to see.

This show in Manchester revealed a nineteen-strong song set list spanning an hour and half with a strict curfew meaning music probably curtailed some chat. Briefly, Barham mentioned sobriety and growing up in Reidsville North Carolina, curtly responded to gig talkers and request shouters, while really leaving what he has to say in the multitude of songs now spreading well into a second decade.

Only once did the band leave the stage for Barham to deliver on his own, but the performance of ‘Unfortunate Kind’ off the solo ROCKINGHAM record, conducted in a commendable pin drop environment, was utterly mesmerising. This 2016 album, which got a UK release on At The Helm Records, also supplied the title track and ‘American Tobacco Company’ to the set list, the latter re-enforcing  Barham’s southern soul searching and storytelling alongside determination to rinse out the afflictions that surround his homeland and personal experience. Political writing does play a part in his art and ‘The World is on Fire’ from the new album mixes personal and policy especially in the significant line “if anyone builds a wall in her journey, baby burst right through it”. New family is certainly stoking the fire.

One astute comment was giving Manchester tough praise in commenting that there is a degree of dirt to the city, and is the type of place where the feeling of being stabbed resides next to some establishment offering a £25 haircut. A city he duly liked. As a non-resident of Manchester, I could not possibly comment, but the point is heard.

Superb songs just continually ticked off as the set unraveled. ‘Wolves’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘Betting Man’, ‘Losing Side of Twenty Five’, a cover of John Prine’s ‘Sweet Revenge’, any list of potential highlights is everlasting. A decent sound system in the venue allowed each lyric from Barham’s gravelly delivery to decipher, an outcome that also commends the band’s guile and craft. Pedal steel of the highest quality was prevalent all night, and it was noted that fellow top player Smokin’ Brett Resnick took a night off from playing in Kasey Musgraves’ band to pop along and join the audience.

Joining American Aquarium on this tour is New York based singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato. His thirty-minute opening slot is a cut above what you get on the live touring circuit and represents an artist rapidly justifying the positive words that are seeping out. Assisted by the token acoustic guitar and harmonica, he came across as an accomplished artist, comfortably at ease in both a hipster bar setting in his home borough of Brooklyn and less salubrious establishments when the roads get dustier. Joining songs from his previous release COLD SNAP were a few numbers from an upcoming record including ‘The Oyster and the Pearl’, a track already out there to listen, buy and enjoy.

Twelve months ago, American Aquarium played a sensational show in Oxford that was just edged out by Chuck Prophet as gig of the year. Time will tell whether this night will go one-step further. However, there is nothing more BJ Barham and the boys could do to meet every ideal craved from the live music experience. Whether you want to anoint this band as country, alt-country, Americana or just good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, the fun is in listening, believing and relishing everything they set out to accomplish. In the song ‘Casualties’, BJ Barham proclaims that, “now, I’m just a casualty of rock ‘n’ roll”. 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.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Harrington - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 29th October 2018

Rachel Harrington’s overseas music career has had two phases. Between 2007 and 2012, the singer-songwriter from the Pacific North West recorded three successful solo records and a one off country project as front person of the Knockouts. Additionally, she toured UK and Europe countless times utilising the solo, duo and band formats. This focus away from her American home met with critical praise including a session recorded for the Bob Harris Country Show on BBC radio. An extended hiatus followed that was only broken last year when making a tentative return to play a few UK summer shows. Among the dates on the tour was a first ever visit to the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. Now the music rehabilitation is in full swing another overseas trip followed and with no surprises, a repeat engagement at the Kings Heath venue ensued.

The show put on by Rachel was of a similar vein to last year. She used the first half to share some of her older material including a few requests from fans that have actively followed her for years. Among the set of original tunes played this evening, ‘Karen Kane’, ‘Under the Big Top’ and ‘Carver’ were from memory additions to what made the show last year. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the repeat playing of firm old favourites ‘Sunshine Girl’, ‘Spokane’ and ‘He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today’. Supplementing each song was the ubiquitous backstory, an art that Rachel has perfected over the years.  Some of the stories were new while others retained an air of familiarity, the natural consequence of following an artist for over a decade.

Similar to last year Rachel switched focus after the break to share some of her favourite cover songs, a love that has helped rekindle her desire to play music again. Most of these were familiar tunes with ‘Unknown Legend’, ‘Ode to Billy Jo’ and ‘Dublin Blues’ featuring last year. Although once again from memory, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ and ‘Those Memories of You’, the latter from the original Trio album, were new additions for this year. In true Rachel Harrington tradition, the gospel tune ‘I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to this World’ was her parting gift to an appreciative audience.

A few of these songs are set to feature on an upcoming covers album that Rachel has self-recorded, but alas physical copies were not available for fans to purchase on this tour. Plans are afoot for her to return to the UK to play some shows next summer, so this omission should rectify then.

Although there is strong evidence online of new music coming soon, it was strange that not a mention was voiced during the show. Maybe a little insight or sneak preview would have whetted the appetite for the very aspect that won Rachel Harrington many fans overseas in the first place. Inevitably, this output will be the ultimate judge of how successful the return is rather than the covers. Fingers crossed that 2019 will be the year when Rachel Harrington – the songwriter completes the rehab and new material to match her esteemed past surfaces. 

Monday, 29 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Carson McHone - Carousel : Nine Mile Records (Out on 26th October 2018)

The continual search for keepers of the country flame from the contemporary pool can pause for a moment to digest the brand new album from Carson McHone. CAROUSEL may have a slightly rehashed slant to it, but if you are new to this Austin Texas native then none of it matters. The eleven-track album gets its release on Nine Mile Records, a label responsible for artists such as Carrie Rodriguez in the past. One guarantee is that anybody with a faint interest in traditional country music will at least raise an ear to the music of Carson McHone.

Expect plenty of fiddle, steel and lyrics drowning in vocal emotion. In other words, check off the country template credentials and sit down to enjoy how Carson has successfully made a record to get the nod in influential circles.

In essence, the album is ten-strong in terms of songs, the eleventh being a one-minute instrumental intro that effectively launches the second half or reverse side if playing the vinyl version. Four of these songs get a second life after surfacing on the 2015 self-released GOODLUCK MAN, including the title track from that release. Whether or not you are au fait with the previous record, chances are high that CAROUSEL will reflect positively and slide neatly into any available listening space.

Whatever tempo floats your boat; this album serves you well ranging from sad song waltz syndrome attached to ‘Gentle’ to a more foot-tapping rockabilly sound belting out of the pacey effort ‘Good Time Daddy’. Retro is especially king in the fifties style swing number ‘Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends’, but to balance things and inject a hybrid perspective ‘Drugs’ in the second track position retains a contemporary feel. The latter uses repetition effectively to power home the message and supplies a decent live video to highlight the song.

Background blurb sheds light on ‘Dram Shop Gal’ being autobiographical, and thus maybe a web search for the term as used in Texas if unfamiliar. Note us Anglos may only know the meaning from the Scottish phrase ‘wee dram’. For a slight switch in the sonic landscape, the final track ‘Spider Song’ detours from a country feel to more of a folk sound courtesy of a melodeon/accordion style whirring backdrop.

Elsewhere on a record that eases itself comfortably into repeat play mode, ‘How ‘Bout It’ scores highly in late night piano ballad territory. In contrast, ‘Lucky’ possesses an appealing mid-track tempo switch and if you feel the desire to anoint a stand out song then it acts as a commendable candidate for the crown. Alternatively, you could look no further than the opening number ‘Sad’, one possessing an initial dose of country music staple that goes a long way to defining the album.

CAROUSEL is a useful addition to any serious country music collectors’ catalogue and showing once again, that Texas is often the hotbed for the decent stuff. The name Carson McHone may not be yet well known, but time is still on the side of this twenty something artist and further recordings as good as this one will serve her well.

GIG REVIEW: Kacey Musgraves - O2 Academy, Birmingham. Sunday 28th October 2018

There was enough credit in the Kacey Musgraves bank to forgive a slow start to the GOLDEN HOUR era. While others instantly eulogised over the album, the title of the opening track has never been more pertinent when getting to grips with a new record. It was also apt that ‘Slow Burn’ fires the opening salvo on dates during the Oh, What a World Tour, which is currently rolling around venues in the UK. For the latest visit to Birmingham, the entourage headed across town to the Academy and a renewal with fans in a venue steeped in the city’s musical heritage, long before the corporate world stepped in. An element of curiosity will always surround the music of Kacey Musgraves: a maverick, independent or just another act out to fluidly maximise exposure. One constant is always the inspirational depth to her music and an ability to match interesting facets with excellence. For two hours this evening we witnessed an artist perfecting the art of smooth entertainment, capable of engineering the full range of gear changes, while exuding complete control of the proceedings

As expected, the entire complement of new material fluttered around a packed venue leaving just enough room for some classics to mature nicely like that proverbial fine wine. Rumours of the modern classic ‘Merry Go Round’ jettisoned from the set list were far off the mark and it is impossible to tire listening to its cutting lyrics and smart observation. This evening’s rendition slightly slowed down and had a boost from the haunting tones of pedal steel. The instrument famously described by Danny Wilson as ‘the ironing board of love’ played a significant role across the set and securing the services of ace Nashville based player Smokin’ Brett Resnick for the tour was an astute move.

The band, a six-piece operation and a little more conservatively dressed than on previous tours, played the perfect foil to the glitz and sparkle of Kacey. Easing between the more studio-based sounds of GOLDEN HOUR and the roots focus when the country ‘A’ game ascended, they probably had their finest moment when let off the leash for the final throes of ‘Die Fun’.

The country content (yes, there was still plenty to keep Kacey in credit column) increased when the band re-assembled in acoustic mode at the front of the stage to deliver ‘Oh, What a World’, ‘Family is Family’ and the first half of ‘Love is a Wild Thing’. The first of this trio proved interesting as it is one of the more controversial tracks on the new album from a production standpoint, but tonight it had its roots credentials reclaimed. The final song during this segment is the most acclaimed on GOLDEN HOUR, praised by fellow songwriters as a stellar piece of song writing. Kacey introduced it as the moment when finding love was unexpected and used the second half of the song to usher the band back into standard formation.

Joining a raft of tracks already mentioned as key high spots are five more from a set that just about surpassed the hour forty mark. ‘Follow Your Arrow’ is staple Kacey fare and forever cements in the pre-encore singalong slot. ‘Rainbow’ is one of the most beautiful songs she has recorded and its spot opening the encore was perfectly suited with Kacey just accompanied by a band member on piano.

The track rapidly ascending as a favourite on the new album is ‘Happy & Sad’ and the live version provided further confirmation. Whatever thoughts arose concerning the direction of the new album ultimately override by the sheer quality of the songs and it has been an absorbing experience giving the record room to prosper. On the other hand, it is always enjoyable to listen to what Kacey does best, with ‘High Time’ and ‘It Is What It Is’ proving timely reminders.

While not being the most charismatic and emotive performer on stage, there is an endearing charm to Kacey Musgraves. Vocally she is competent enough to hold sway and probably peaked on that front with the added feeling observed to ‘Space Cowboy’. For a round of fun at the end, she was joined by opening act Sophie from Soccer Mommy to duet on a cover of the NSYNC song ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ (research needed to name this track!), and the disco tune ‘High Horse’ either sent some folks home happy or others heading for a swift exit. Take your pick.

It was interesting that Nashville-based indie rock band Soccer Mommy were invited to open on this tour, almost confirming the distant stance being taken from country music. They played a forty-minute opening stint, and paraded as your usual four-piece combo with a lite twangy electric sound. The highlight was a short segment when Sophie played solo for a few tunes, including a different take on Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’.  At this point, there was a touch of Phoebe Bridgers about her. By the way, check Phoebe out if you have not heard her and like a bit of deep feeling indie Americana.

This was the fourth time seeing Kacey Musgraves live and probably the best yet. The performance housed an artist in control and one who works within the limit of their strengths. These obviously lie in the stunning songs that she brings to the table and the affable way they present, along with the top musicians she works with. Horizons are expansive for this native of Golden Texas and who knows where Kacey Musgraves will drift next. One suspects a tenuous tether to country music will always exist and it will be of no surprise if her career evolves into one of influence. 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.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Jamie Lin Wilson - Jumping Over Rocks. Self-Released (Out on October 26th 2018)

Jamie Lin Wilson was an artist recommended to me a few years ago. The subsequent period has seen her occasionally flicker on my horizon with only a 2015 album release to follow up the original 2010 Dirty Blonde Hair EP. However, 2018 is set to be a major landmark for this Texas singer-songwriter based south of San Antonio. The good fortune of obtaining an advance copy of JUMPING OVER ROCKS set the pulse racing with countless early plays that tagged this album as one of the year’s forerunners in the authentic country stakes. As the album is now out for all to enjoy, the time is ripe to share the love for a record spiralling deep into the ethos of this blog’s title.

JUMPING OVER ROCKS has its name drawn from a lyric in the mid-album story track ‘Death & Life’ and evolves into an eleven-song collection of primarily original numbers. The exception is a nodding tribute to the late great Guy Clark via a version of ‘Instant Coffee Blues’ in tandem with fellow Texan Jack Ingram as her duet partner. It is fitting that Clark has some presence on the album because Wilson is one of many artists stoking the fire of articulate song writing and fully embracing the sweet spot where country meets folk. The last analogy had its origin in the press release, proving that occasionally, publicist hyperbole warrants.

Jack Ingram also features on the first track in the co-writing role. ‘Faithful and True’ is a stunning emotive ballad, which exudes an enormous amount of strength straight from the off. Wilson’s voice really gets into the aching groove from the subsequent track ‘The Being Gone’. Here the Texas reference ventures north to Dallas in the lyrics and cements a ‘Lone Star’ rhetoric that begins with the album recorded in Austin.

Despite the paucity of solo releases, Jamie Lin Wilson is an experienced operator on the Texas music scene. There is no rookie naivety on the album, just the work of a seasoned professional, upholding the constitution rather than acting as a revolutionary. There is nothing wrong with that stance especially when eleven tracks to salivate over emerge.

Making substantial cases for the stand out moments are two tracks with serious connotations. Wilson teams up with Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker for the rousing ‘Oklahoma Stars’ to bring a slice of quality country music c/o west of the Mississippi. At the album’s conclusion, the style drifts heavily into Brandy Clark territory with the character led ‘Alice’ reminiscent of the great storytelling songs that launched her associate into the upper realms of country music. Whether a similar path follows for Jamie Lin Wilson is probably unlikely, but she knows her niche and plenty of adorable praise will still pour in from astute critics.

There is a tidy mix of stompers and smoochers across the album. ‘Run’ is pure country gold and rattles along with a tempo to keep the boots shuffling. At the other end of the scale, ‘Everybody’s Moving Slow' is your archetypal tender slow dancer and hits the heartfelt spot amicably. The ubiquitous steel maintains a steady upbeat feel to ‘Eyes for You’, while ‘If I Told You’ stoically flies the flag for the more emotive temperate numbers. The stark message that eases out of ‘In a Wink’ is that some much of this album has a stand-alone appeal making it very easy to syphon any one of the tracks for radio play.

The authenticity and real deal nature of JUMPING OVER ROCKS makes it an album to celebrate as much as one to deliver endless listens. Good music travels over the wires easily today, so if Jamie Lin Wilson had a desire to make a European trip, then plenty of fans would embrace her. Enjoying this cracking record makes having faith in that early recommendation handsomely pay off, with or without the live dates.

GIG REVIEW: Kirsty Merryn - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham.Tuesday 23rd October 2018

Some albums wither and die probably only destined to have a short shelf life. Alternatively, others possess longevity to benefit from subsequent renewals. Kirsty Merryn’s SHE & I absolutely falls into the latter category. Its conceptual uniqueness added a breath of fresh air to the folk world, everlastingly sustained by a pristine execution. Twelve months on from savouring the delights of the record upon release, there was a timely opportunity to return to the album as Kirsty delivered its entirety on a current run of live dates across the country.

Although she is no stranger to playing shows in the Midlands area, this was Kirsty’s first visit to the Kitchen Garden, an ideal venue to capture the intricacy of the record. This solo presentation was a one off on the tour as partner Todd McDonald was unavailable for the evening. Having only previously seeing Kirsty on her own, it was a case of business as usual. The decision to split the evening between the whole album in set one and a mixed selection after the break worked well to set the framework for a splendid bout of entertainment.

Before Kirsty even steps into the spotlight, a classical training background has supplied the credentials to score highly in the technical stakes. While some singers thrive on an element of imperfection, Kirsty comfortably airs a state of elegant vocal supremacy. Likewise her piano playing offers a cultured backdrop. Maybe a little adrift from folk convention, but perfectly aligned with her attributes.

The songs from SHE & I took the whole notion of gender focussed song writing to a new level. The depth of the project is immense, and fully warrants any extended praise afforded to it. For the uninitiated, the album predominately draws on the inspiration from historical female heroes in a variety of fields with Kirsty cementing their various places in the history books in her own inimitable words.

Away from the album, and effectively the second half of this show, Kirsty extended her repertoire with a selection of traditional songs and additional ones of original origin. Versions of ‘The Outlandish Knight’ and ‘The Banks of Sweet Primroses’ may go a long way to satisfying folk purists, but the self-penned ‘Deep Wild Torrent’ was the pick of the post-break bunch. Older songs such as ‘Constantine’ and ‘Winter in Ontario’ did have a previous existence on an earlier EP, while tunes like the ‘Wedding Song’ and ‘The Wake’ may yet find their way into recorded status.

The future for Kirsty Merryn is likely to be a new release mixing traditional and original tunes with timings heavily dependent on funding. Whether the intensity and uniqueness of SHE & I is matched will be judged in time, but one certainty is that the full bag of performing and writing credentials are set to prosper. Listening to Kirsty sing and play in a pin drop environment was not a bad way to spend a Tuesday evening, perhaps the perfect tonic to a long work day.

Friday, 19 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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