Wednesday, 21 February 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Gem Andrews - North : Market Square

Music sans frontiers. No apology for the cross language fertilisation as this is symbolic to the way borders and barriers erode in the music of Gem Andrews. Perhaps it is indicative to an artist calling Liverpool, Newcastle, Vancouver and Berlin periodically their home that wide influences are soaked up. Throw into the mix echoes of folk and country alongside a tentative alternative streak, and you delve deeper into the eclectic nature of NORTH, which makes you take note of Gem Andrews as a recording artist. Throughout the half hour of its tenure, not an inch of the canvas remains untouched thus creating a record rich in accomplishment.

NORTH is the third album from Berlin-based Gem and the follow up to the well-received VANCOUVER that surfaced to acclaim in 2016. You should start to get the drift that both titles saunter into geographical territory, with some imagination required to linking in her debut album SCATTER. Relevant or not, surroundings have probably played a major part in forming the theme of her music. Words and associations aside, and a re-enforced focus on the new release, each song makes an incisive cut on the record ensuring the listener’s attention is caught, retained and thoroughly nourished. An articulate approach to the song writing will resonate with lyric junkies, while a rounded production makes optimum use of the instruments at the band’s disposal. A mass of catchy chorus features does the album no harm as well as Gem’s alluring folk-infused vocal style.

Further folk features embed in tracks such as ‘Bare’ and ‘Feather and Skin’, where respectively fiddle and piano take hold to give the sound an earthy feel. A heavy dose of twang lifts the album into a country sphere in the upbeat number ‘Medicate’, while a waltz-like tempo to ‘Letter’ and ‘Sing Your Song’ also take the sound in a westward direction. The latter two pieces prime the listener in the opening slots, with the redemptive theme of the first one showing the strength of the song writing.

The writing resonates strongest in the rhetoric displayed in ‘Lungs’, a political piece not shying away from linking events of 1985 with today, sung with the fervour of somebody not afraid of wearing her heart in a digital footprint. Gem’s outlook has likely evolved, and taken further root, as she moved within progressive communities, where art often plays an important role in giving vital causes a voice. One selfish view is that we do not see enough of her on the UK’s singer-songwriter circuit, but good albums offer periodic compensation.

NORTH is not the sole domain of Gem’s song writing as she strays into the work of others on three occasions, although these do not undermine her own compositions. A cover of Kate McGarringle’s ‘Come a Long Way’ probably seals a contemporary folk feel as the defining trait and harks back to the time she spent in Canada. The other two covers feature the work of the late poet Julia Darling among the writing credits, an artist synonymous with the North East. Sonically, ‘Two Lighthouses’ takes the sound in a more roots direction, while ‘Straight Lines’ backs up the country credentials.

If you are seeking a simple acoustic number, then ‘Carole’ will oblige as we revert to songs penned solely by Gem, before the near omnipresent fiddle closes out. ‘Two by Two’ gets the eleventh and final track mention, probably implying that it still has some work to do to create similar waves to the stronger numbers. Wherein, resides the notion that this album is not one that you will totally grasp in the first few listens. Musically, it does the job early on, but there is so much more to discover when time is granted.

NORTH gives Gem Andrews the ideal tool to plant deep roots into the spirited singer-songwriter network and provide a valuable voice to just causes. Where it takes her is likely down to fate, but an increased band of followers are sure to be not far away. 


Sunday, 18 February 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Caleb Caudle - Crushed Coins : Cornelius Chapel Records

Caleb Caudle may have been dealt a handful of aces, but he has chosen an opportune moment to play them in the shape of a fabulous new album. CRUSHED COINS scores high on a number of fronts, even to the extent of the ironed out imperfections suggesting not all great albums need an edge of vulnerability. What this North Carolinian singer-songwriter has done is take the basic sound ingredients of steel, keys and strings before adding in an articulate lyrical element to tear away the layers of primal emotion. A sophisticated mellowness wraps each one of the eleven tracks and delivers them to the listener with an extra coating of enticing melodies. This is song writing of the highest degree, blessed with an acute offering of leading the listener into the thought process without truly planting explicit ideas. This is best exemplified in the title track right at the core of the record with ‘Crushed Coins’ leaving its message open to interpretation, although within the recurring line of ‘there’s no laughter in this house’.

Every great album needs a track to reflect its level of accomplishment and Caudle achieves that early in the proceedings with the sublime ‘NYC in the Rain’. Dressed in the robes of delightful pedal steel, this song explodes with the most gorgeous of chorus melodies as the message of not finding the Big Apple the most agreeable place to live in pours out. In an alternate bygone age where confined media could spawn monster worldwide hits, this would compete hard. However, back to the reality of the present and it will still battle valiantly to find its niche in this fragmented media age. Most importantly, it will be trumpeted here for the near future.

CRUSHED COINS does defy one normal rule of a blueprint great album often applied here in the strategic placing of a dominant opening track. ‘Lost Without You’ acts more as a scene setter in terms of its moderate tempo and introductory tendencies signalling that the content is likely to get deep. What did impress, and will further excite song writing structure junkies, is the way the circle is completed with the title of the opener doubling up as the final line of the closer. ‘Until It’s Over’ heralds a finishing point bordering the fine line between premature and optimum, while in low key acoustic mode to suggest that Caudle is content that the job is done.

In between the moderate book-ended tracks, are a wealth of song writing peaks, all pushing the aforementioned soaring standout song. ‘Six Feet From The Flowers’  leads the way in all its tear jerking glory starting with the poignant opening ‘They said it would get easier/They don’t know a thing.’ Throughout the record, the writing toys with the idea of loss and the importance of holding on, eventually leading to a climax of what life is really like when dusk fades.

If you seek the record at its most positive then ‘Love That’s Wild’ will oblige. Some wonderful pedal steel forms the intro and a late solo, while lyrically the song gets to grips with exclaiming ‘what’s important’ from the rooftops. The message gets a touch unclear in ‘Headlights’, but thought provoking moments can be endearing features of albums that resonate with an intuitive listener. Either way, evocative steel rules the sound spectrum, and like so much of the album, the ease of an outstanding chorus smooths the path.

This album does not really court any genre loyalty. Country traits are prevalent to the extent that ‘The Way You Oughta Be Seen’ can be imagined as a sentimental piece with a 70s throwback sound. Americana will make a claim based on the sophisticated approach and more than the occasional nod to elements of roots tradition, although this is far from the definitive angle. Any country links can be countered by a very metropolitan feel; probably more at home in the coffee shop culture than a dingy bar. Sadly, the word ‘elite’ has been commandeered by the populist antagonists as a derogatory term, but when it returns to its rightful place as a true podium of excellence then applying the tag to this release will not be hesitated.

Back to the tracks, and the somewhat different feel to ‘Empty Arms’ with its scratchy guitar opening and more conventional use of electric in a later solo phase. ‘Madelyn’ appears in the latter stages of the running order and takes the sound in a more roots direction with the injection of fiddle. Like so many of the songs, the lyrics are a major source of enjoyable scouring, thus revealing many clever nuances. The writing arrives at its most figurative in ‘Stack of Tomorrows’ to re-affirm the desired trait of interpretation being invited rather than explicitly planted.

Ultimately, CRUSHED COINS cracks the code of perpetual loss in a mist of words standing out as a beacon, while the music nestles like a comfort blanket on a bed of keys, strings and steel. Caleb Caudle cashes in with a majestic display of the rawest song writing and the smoothest of sounds. Therapeutic, accessible and an air of clarity make it a record that will seize on any opportunity presented to snare the listener. Indeed, all this record requires is a single chance to impress and it will duly deliver.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Katie Spencer + Kirsty Merryn - Big Comfy Bookshop, Coventry. Friday 16th February 2018

The concept of duality switched from the art world to its distant creative cousin of folk and acoustic music as the Big Comfy Bookshop set about curating the latest Friday evening presentation. The city of Coventry provided a centrally located platform for two artists to share their contrasting perspectives, while colluding in the ultimate union of excellence. Heading south from Humberside was evocative singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, symbolising Hull’s second gift to Coventry in the last couple of months in addition to passing the City of Culture baton. Meeting Katie on neutral ground was London-based folk artist Kirsty Merryn expressing a versatile approach to the medium of traditional English music.

Both artists are active movers on the upward trajectory of the career curve and ably represented by well-received CD releases last year, successful in reaching out to new listeners. They mirror the vibrancy of an independent scene that seeks ways to be forever innovative, and possess an acute talent to maintain a steep ascendancy. Their hour-long sets this evening created many post-gig talking points, with perhaps a spread to unite fans drifting into the scene from different angles, influences and preferences.

Kirsty utilises piano as her instrument of choice and fires up a set of pristine vocal chords to spearhead a raft of traditionally leaning songs. There are archetypal facets to her stage presentation and a high degree of self-assurance to project a performer at ease with the direction of her music. This confidence extended to delivering the opening and closing songs of the set in unaccompanied mode. ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and ‘The Birds are Drunk’ are both found on the SHE & I album; a record rich in original song writing as Kirsty set about telling the stories of historical female heroines. Like all good singer-songwriter nights, the informative segments painted an extended picture of the songs.

While Katie also bared her own thoughts, influences and drivers, she plies an alternative route to song delivery, showing deft skills on the acoustic guitar and a vocal style blending into the mood of her songs. Katie revealed more about her roots in songs such as ‘East Coast Railroad’; random observant musings in ‘Too High Alone’ and legendary musicians who have struck a chord in covers of John Martyn’s ‘Hurt in Your Heart’ and Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Blues Run the Game’. The word ‘folk’ is far too constraining to define her music and a broad appeal crossing many virtual boundaries exists, albeit with a slightly left field alternative streak.

Katie only treated folks to a single tune off her GOOD MORNING SKY EP, although it was a good one in ‘Can’t Resist the Road’. The wealth of original unrecorded material played suggests a full length and highly recommended release can't  be too far into the future. In contrast, Kirsty was more forthright in sharing her recorded material with ‘The Fair Tea-Maker of Edgware Row’ (referring to the infamous Lady Emma Hamilton) and ‘Forfarshire’ (commemorating the heroic Grace Darling)’ joining further tracks in ‘Queen of the Mist’ and ‘An Evening at Home in Spiritual Séance’ (featuring the archangel Gabriel) from the album. Older songs from a previous record were played in the guise of ‘Winter in Ontario’ and ‘Constantine’, alongside an unrecorded number titled ‘The Wake’, which can be accessed via an online video.

There was an obvious positioning difference between the two artists in terms of stature. Kirsty’s extended experience led to a fair amount of reflection, especially sharing anecdotes from her recent cathedral tour opening for Show of Hands. With this in mind, the future was barely touched , although a new song was introduced in ‘The Deep Wild Torrent’ and dipping into traditional song via a version of ‘The Outlandish Knight’ may suggest an exploratory move in this direction for upcoming projects. However, the future must surely be on the original front with so much song writing talent at her disposal. For Katie, the set was really all about the future; indeed a very bright one for someone just turned twenty-one. From recollection, songs such as ‘Hello Sun’, 'Drinking the Same Water', ‘You Came Like a Hurricane’ and ‘Spencer the Rover’ resonated from first listen and could be the cornerstones of a forthcoming release.

There may have been those in attendance with different preferences along the lengthy folk and acoustic spectrum, but the option to savour the delights of both Kirsty Merryn and Katie Spencer was likely to be the most popular choice this evening. Nestling among the explicit contrasts was an implicit synergy that ultimately united dedicated followers of independent roots music. Directions may branch out, but memories of the roots entwining during one evening at the Big Comfy Bookshop are planted firmly.

www.katiespencer.net


www.kirstymerryn.com

Friday, 16 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Hope in High Water - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 15th February 2018

Unsure about the origin or even the mythical existence of the coined phrase ‘old punks turn country’, but it’s a good one and starts the engine when referring to duo Hope in High Water. Not too sure whether ‘old’ is the apt word to describe Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade, yet the sound they’ve morphed into ploughs a traditional furrow. One certainty is that the past in some form or another has strongly influenced their music, whether in redemptive song writing or framing a vocal style. Perhaps country is a too narrow window to open onto their music, although a fair proportion of the new material shared this evening had a sad song twang about it. Folk and blues also play a significant part as the wider roots world is captured in a subtle mix of sincere originals and incisive covers.

A return to Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden was one of the last stops on an inaugural headline tour for this Milton Keynes based couple. They had previously supported Worry Dolls and a songwriter’s session at the venue. However, they were the main songwriters on show this evening and revelled in the opportunity to expand their set to over double the usual forty-five minutes. Bridged only by the obligatory mid performance break, the songs fell into three distinct camps: material off the NEVER SETTLE album, new unrecorded pieces and a celebration of some of the finest work that has had a profound impact upon them.

Hope and High Water present themselves as the classic duo. A combination of shared duties in the vocal and song writing stakes, while a clear instrumental demarcation. The guitar playing of Josh and Carly’s banjo (occasionally joined by u-bass) came over as simple but effective, while providing the most satisfying of backdrops to some infectious melodies and thought provoking lyrics. There is a distinct contrast to their vocals, with a slightly bruised harshness to Josh’s, probably subject to the battering taken in the past. This refinement is perfectly tuned for the gruff Americana song and soaks up the intent. Carly has a far more expressive versatile style. These differences lead to a required adjustment when heading into close harmony territory and they increasingly blended really well as the evening proceeded. Frequently, solo vocal pieces took over, with a no finer example in the first half of the gig than Carly’s rendition of ‘She Cries’ from their album.

NEVER SETTLE came out the middle of last year to positive reviews and tonight’s set featured inclusions such as ‘When Sorrow Calls’, ‘Who’s Gonna Hold Your Hold’ and ‘Time Shall Pass’. Like on the record, the latter opened proceedings and re-enforced comparisons drawn to Shovels and Rope. The new material sounded superb, a little more on the shadier country side, and should eventually surface once the usual obstacles of an independent release are overcome.

Covers songs were inevitable to fill this expanded time, but when you turn to the work of Justin Townes Earle, a winner is going to emerge. They supported Justin on a Bristol date last year and their version of ‘Ain’t Waitin’ was probably the pick of the bunch, marginally pipping Carly’s take on the song ‘Just a Closer Walk’ inspired by the Avett Brothers’ version. Josh’s early schooling (pre-punk) in the blues was featured in the Elmore James song ‘Anna Lee’, while most in the room were suitably acquainted with Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’.

A strong feature of Hope in High Water is the substantial depth to their musical approach. Emotive personal experiences play a large part, and a high degree of therapy is reaped. Back-story narrative is candidly displayed, but they are not too aloof to suggest that each and every one of us has an important one as well. They are clearly embedded in the soul of music and whatever inspired this calling is proving a wise path to follow. Most important they make music that greatly resonates with an expanding fan base, many of whom are deeply into the roots that form their sound.

Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade have a valuable entity in Hope in High Water and a well of creative endeavour to fuel a meaningful journey long into the future. The Kitchen Garden headline show of 2018 may well become a major staging post on this journey. 


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Sam Baker - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 12th February 2018

Sam Baker is an extraordinary artist, funnelling his art down down the most acute of channels. In response to a unique style, a degree of adjustment is desirable to tune into its wavelength. While occasional crackles still flicker from time to time, those with the dial in the right place have a pure hypnotic experience delivered. An air of duality creates from the mellow relaxing rhythmic tones of electric guitar coupled with incisive percussion, whilst being aligned to a mental alertness required to fathom the lyrical content. All this cast under the spell of a slightly impish persona using the hidden crevices of dark Americana to spill out a poetic soul. It is not uncommon for a Texan troubadour to sprinkle a golden drop of song writing dust on the intimate confines of the Kitchen Garden and few in this sold out audience would deny Sam Baker being the latest artist to accomplish this feet.

For this latest UK tour, Mike Meadows joined on assorted percussion to make it a duo presentation. The musical upgrade on a previously seen solo show was a stark improvement. The opportunity to spar with somebody other than members of the audience was too good to miss for Sam, who appeared to sink more into a Southern caricature as the show meandered through its 90+ minute single set. Shades of Truman Capote came across as the audience was regular toyed with and this is only just the start of the literature analogies. Mixing articulate content with a poetic beat adorns song after song, heavily featuring numbers that formed the latest album LAND OF DOUBT.

The most poignant moment of any Sam Baker show is always likely to be the moment when he gently strums along to the story of the 1986 Peruvian terror incident. Blessings are counted, perhaps to the extent that reconstruction led to a creative release. One that never ceases to find new outlets such as adding the canvas to the notebook and the re-adjusted guitar playing. By the time this moment arrives, the enthralled audience are besotted by each beat and word leading to a grateful finale sealed with the signature sign off ‘Go in Peace’.

Memorable moments ensued this evening through songs such as ‘Moses in the Reeds’, ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’, ‘Ditch’ and ‘Isn’t That Great’. Maybe the ultimate memorable moment though was the inner smugness of meeting the mesmeric waves head on and understanding every sinew of what is transmitted from this idiosyncratic performer. Even when the virtual set list strayed into the territory of Jon Stewart and Paul Simon, forgiveness that they effectively elbowed out a Sam Baker composition was offered.

Maybe Sam Baker is ripened more for the Americana aficionado bred on Kerouac, Tom Russell and the dark underbelly of a continent than bashing out a few chords on the banjo. A certain mindset, unafraid from working the cogs, is a useful ally to ensure the riches are suitably mined. An air of artistic charisma soaks deep into the music of Sam Baker and the live version so effortlessly presented in Birmingham this evening etched another notch on the legendary post of a Texan troubadour sparked by the wisdom of the deeply excavated song.  


Sunday, 11 February 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: I'm With Her - See You Around. Rounder Records

The term ‘super group’ is often tossed around like discarded confetti, but occasionally a trio of gold leaves settle on the ground. Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz are three of the most faultless artists making music on the folk ‘n’ roots Americana scene. Their impromptu collaboration at the Telluride Festival in 2014 gave birth to a ‘super group’ with intent and time was taken out from busy individual schedules to play a series of shows under the banner I’m With Her. From personal experience, these shows were an extraordinary demonstration of gifted musicianship, both in terms of instrumental competency and vocal bliss. With this sure fire successful aspect in the bag, the next stage was to commit something to record and spread the word further afield. Nearly four years after that initial jam, SEE YOU AROUND has seen the light of day and verdict can be passed on whether the term ‘super group’ is justified.

Of course, such terms are pure hyperbole and the efforts committed to this record do suggest how difficult it is to replicate solo success in a shared environment. Ultimately, many listens to this album has thrown up the conundrum of who owns a record and the very nature of collaboration versus independence. What struck me is how similar their voices are, great for harmonies, but a touch confusing when splitting the hairs should that be a desired activity. If anything, all three artists have retracted to the pure roots of their sound, in contrast to the last album from Sara Watkins where she impressively branched out in experimental mode. As predicted, the twelve songs skate along like intrinsic fine art in its purest form. Each artist appears to major on their selected instruments and the production ensures a spatial pallet for mandolin, fiddle, banjo and piano to spar with the vocals is created.

While the natural synergy is evident, the search for a hook takes a little longer to grasp. Eventually, track #9 in ‘Overland’ comes to the mantle and uses its Americana overtures to attach itself to the coat hangers in your mind. Other notable insertions into the album involve a mid-placed instrumental titled ‘Waitsfield’, given a very live feel to the recording, and the previously unreleased Gillian Welch song ‘Hundred Miles’, given a vocally unaccompanied start before emerging as a credible album closer.

There is a neat piece of acknowledgment in choosing a Gillian Welch song, as she was an important pioneer in making old time music cool at the turn of the millennium. Sara, Sarah and Aoife have definitely feasted on this in their several different formats, of which I’m With Her is likely to be a mere staging post in three very long and prosperous careers.

Opening tracks ‘See You Around’ and ‘Game to Lose’ have been siphoned off as promotional pieces, but I keep being drawn to songs at the back end of the album (apologies for being in CD mode, vinyl lovers) such as those already mentioned and others like ‘Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)’ and ‘Crescent City’.

The appeal to this album is its simplistic nature and the way three seamless talents have been blended. Its accomplished status is secured and it will be lauded by passionate advocates of the roots scene. Whether it breaks through a glass case into the wider world is open to debate, although it is pertinent to state that neither Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan nor Sarah Jarosz have exposed any evidence to date of electing to compromise. Long may this remain, and let the mainstream come to them rather court popularity.

Let us park any ‘super group’ analogy on one side for the summary, but not before a final thought of it possibly emerging as a ‘Trio for the 2010s’. SEE YOU AROUND will make a mark upon its release and if you want to compare the record with the stage show then plenty of opportunities to see them live are emerging. Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz will be around for a very long time making fine music, but 2018 for them will be defined by I’m With Her. 

ALBUM REVIEW: Rod Picott - Out Past The Wires: Welding Rod Records

‘Truth and Scars’ would be the ideal name for a future Rod Picott album. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but the sentiment of these two words threads right through his new record. OUT PAST THE WIRES is the equally astute title for this release, which surfaces in a double unit format to house the twenty-two tracks that made the cut from an enormous choice of songs at his disposal. Prolific is probably an understatement for an artist so immersed in the song writing game. Of course, such an extensive content makes demands on the listener and there are certain tricks to getting the best out of a Rod Picott record.

Essentially, this is to grasp the lyrical offering, which slants towards a perceptive view on life far away from the victors in society. Frequently, this focusses on the post-industrial landscape that doubles up as a take on the human side of urban blight and rural abandonment. Indeed, the album title, which appears early in the opening track of disc 1, suggests a zone where life is a struggle and the perpetual characters that infiltrate the narration are naturally ‘the afflicted’. Thus you can describes Picott’s writing as political with a small ‘p’, although the solutions are often thrown in as crumbs of self-fulfilling comfort and inner hope.

Musically, the album is characterised by an earthy gruffness that has long been a much-loved trait of Rod Picott’s vocals. Under the stewardship of Neilson Hubbard at the production helm and a team of players including Will Kimbrough on guitar, the sound spans the tempo spectrum including a fair few standard roots rockers thrown into the mix alongside the usual downbeat numbers. Both formats add to the appeal of the record.

Unlike some double albums, there does not seem a natural split to the themes of each disc. To get the most out of it, a fair amount of stamina is required, though riches do eventually reward the endeavour. In tune with a touch of precedence, there is the usual song exchange with his long-term song-writing friend Slaid Cleaves. Fans of both artists will be familiar with this process and four of the six co-writes to feature are from this combination. ‘Take Home Pay’ and ‘Primer Gray’ were both included on the last Slaid Cleaves album and it is of little surprise that their inclusion here sees them among the pick of the tracks.

Primarily, Rod Picott ploughs a solitary route, and it has been a long time since any of his tours have been anything but. Shades of dourness are an essential ingredient into his music that at a stretch does contain an optimistic streak within the extensive bouts of pessimism. ‘We All Live On’ and ‘Little Things’ do ensure disc 2 ends on a positive note, especially on the back of probably the album’s most depressing track ‘Bottom of the Well’. Beginning with the line ‘he’s gonna drink himself to death now’, the tone of the latter is suitably set.

Joining the two aforementioned, Slaid Cleaves co-writes, as the high spots of disc 1 are the realistic rocker ‘A Better Man’ and the cynically stricken ‘Coal’, which is a rare dip into blame territory. Picott’s writing is fully in tune with the symbolic pockets of western society that have proved fertile ground for certain political exploitation. There is scope for development from the implied coping strategies into firmer solutions, but who can predict the future direction of a songwriter’s mind.

The pick of disc 2 includes the excellently written ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’ with its count your blessings sentiment and the upbeat, yet still plight ridden with a hint of hope, ‘Store Bought’. ‘Straight Job’ is a decent piece of narrative based story telling of springing into action. While Rod Picott will always remain his own man, the temptation to hail ‘Hard Luck Baby’ as a true heartland rocker in the vein of Springsteen and Mellencamp is too good to miss.

OUT PAST THE WIRES is a compelling album and not really one to dip into on a casual basis. This is symptomatic as to why Rod Picott will always be on the outer periphery of the mainstream. However, artist and fan base are always likely to be content with this scenario, and, on the evidence of material left on the cutting room floor, an eventual album count well into double figures will surely follow. It may take a certain mind-set to believe in the music of Rod Picott and the intent of his post-industrial message. Possessing it is the ultimate key to getting the most out of this extensive release. 


GIG REVIEW: Jaime Wyatt + Beth Bombara - Tingewick Village Hall, Buckinghamshire. Saturday 10th February 2018

There is hardly a truer representation of the coined phrase ‘show ‘em don’t tell ‘em’ than when it comes down to the country credentials of Jaime Wyatt. Those of us won over by the release of her mini album last year have had only a brief wait to catch the live format and she looked every inch the ‘walking/talking’ country song. There are no blurred lines when Jaime clambers to spill out her calling and act out a narrative, which is candidly real. Flanked by a band assembled to step up to the challenge, the mission to turn Tingewick Village Hall into a honky tonk heaven was not going to falter due to a lack of stage fervour. Ceremoniously pitched with fellow American artist Beth Bombara for this inaugural UK tour, the contrasting pair effectively turned the show into a twin bill, and whether folks were taking a punt or in the know, any remnants of disappointment long evaporated into a dreary and cold Buckinghamshire night.

Rationalisation was a viable key to this tour in terms of musicianship as our headline names were joined by four sharing musicians representing cross Atlantic communities. English guitarists, Joe Coombs (lead) and Mark Lewis (bass) were the core of Jaime’s travelling band, while multi-picker Samuel Gregg from Nashville Tennessee travelled with Beth to dish out some bottleneck and slide amongst other distinguished playing. Kit Hamon on percussion, like Beth a fellow Missourian, was the hardest working musician all night, never leaving his valuable place in the driving seat. Towards the end of this splendidly comprehensive show, all six shared the spotlight to frolic in the camaraderie of touring.

There are a number of distinct differences between Jaime and Beth, albeit both on the spectrum of classic American music. While Jaime’s staunch country stance is unmistakable, Beth prefers to slip into a pivotal Americana position of drawing upon influences of rock, folk and country. Her latest album MAP & NO DIRECTION was definitely in the former class, while some of her earlier material (sampled for the first time this evening) had more than one foot in the latter. After a start where all parties are feeling for the right channel, the set sparked into life with the familiar tones of ‘I Tried (Too Late)’ from the recent album. There was a distinct change to the vibes when Kit switched to bass for ‘Thunder and Rain’ making it a three-pronged electric attack with Beth and Samuel. This country leaning song and an informed protest number titled ‘Promised Land’ that closed the set were both from a 2015 album. This demonstrated the depth to a back catalogue. This also showed the value of touring to supplement an individual album release from afar, which sometimes can get lost in the malaise of apparent infinite competition. Additionally, Beth provided some opportune moments to share her own guitar talent to add fuel to the notion that there is a lot more to come from this artist.

As expected, Jaime treated us to the entirety of FELONY BLUES, an album that courted praise from far and wide for its genre exclusivity qualities. Starting off with ‘Wishing Well’, each of the seven tracks came over with a similar panache as the album version, with perhaps an enhanced emotive feel to ‘Misery and Gin’ and added backstory to ‘Wasco’. For those, whose only gripe with the album was its shortness, the good news is that #2 is on the way. ‘By The Way’ and ‘Ain’t Enough Whiskey’ offered some advance insight and substantial reassurance that her position to at least value the past is firmly in place.

Three covers did a lot more than just pad out a set. Merle Haggard’s ‘Branded Man’ is a shining light to Jaime’s approach to music and a daily inspiration of how afflictions can be turned into positive art. While this song sealed the whole California/Bakersfield appreciation, which is ably reflected in Jaime’s music, the opportunity to celebrate Waylon Jennings through the classic ‘Lonesome On'ry and Mean’ was gift wrapped for the band to ramp up the playing. Lead guitarist Joe Coombs was in imperious form all evening, starting from joining Beth for her Dylan cover ‘Blind Willie McTell’ to sharing some sizzling solos in true country style in the main set. A name we could be hearing more of in certain circles in the future.

There was room for just one song in the encore and Jaime reserved this to extol the pride in being asked to join a select band of artists to record a lost Waylon Jennings number. ‘Here’s to the Champion (Muhammed Ali)’ was perhaps not the normal content you would associate with a legendary outlaw, but the more you think about it…

Just seven days from staging a Courtney Marie Andrews show in Oxford, Empty Rooms Promotions showed their absolute value to a live music scene that is beholden to those who relentlessly champion it. Whether we call it country, Americana, folk rock or singer-songwriter, artists such as Jaime Wyatt and Beth Bombara are probably more important to its vibrant future than browsing your High Street music store for Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. Let them into your musical sphere either through their records or through seeing the live show and substantial rewards will freely flow. 





Wednesday, 7 February 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Beth Nielsen Chapman - Hearts of Glass : Proper Records

Underrated is not quite the right word to describe Beth Nielsen Chapman, but sometimes complacency can sneak in to allow her song writing skills to flicker only in the distance. If any remnants of guilt apply to this then the release of her brand new album HEARTS OF GLASS firmly presses the reset button. Song writing music has flown from Beth’s pen for well over thirty years, although often these songs have found extended fame in the catalogues of others. Her previous album UNCOVERED was a timely reminder that some of these compositions needed refreshing to get its writer’s recorded perspective. The new record is largely along similar lines comprising a mixture of new and old songs with a numerical leaning towards the latter.

Although Beth Nielsen Chapman has been tagged within the country community for much of her career, further fuelled by a Nashville base, her style is fully embraced in the smooth mature singer-songwriter category, supported staunchly by the media outlets that embrace such a sound. A sense of familiarity hits you right from the first track. ‘Come to Mine’ is one of the new songs  and, as a general exception, is a co-write featuring Kevin Montgomery and Graham Gouldman alongside Beth. This may or may not have some link to the Back to Beth’s documentary that was heavily championed by Bob Harris, and saw a multitude of fine Nashville song writing types gather in some kind of musical house party. Either way, the new track fits the mould Beth has created and would not be out of place in a distinguished radio format.

In contrast to the opener, ‘Old Church Hymns & Nursery Rhymes’ has an earthier feel and a stark reminder why Waylon Jennings cut it in his latter recording years. Familiarity with this version or not, Beth takes full control back and it bubbles along as one of the album’s leading tracks.To double up on the legendary country music icon, a song cut by Willie Nelson resides comfortably towards the end of the album. ‘If My World Didn’t Have You’ will comprehensively commit any waivers to the cause of celebrating Beth’s ability to write a pure heartfelt song.

Following in the path of the opener are three further new songs in the shape of ‘Epitaph of Love’, ‘Enough for Me’ and ‘You’re Still My Valentine’. The first is a string-heavy dark number housing the album title within its lyrics, while the second is a far jauntier offering suggesting the feel good nature that emanates from her work. The finale of this trio takes the listener into laid-back lounge jazz territory complete with percussion brushes and a scripted ‘end of the night’ feel.

The five remaining tracks have featured on old Beth Nielsen Chapman albums and wisdom decided that a rehashing would freshen them up, maybe for a new audience. Interestingly, these tend to reside in the second half of the running order, but unless you are digging deep for meanings, the general flow of the album coasts along without any momentum meanderings. ‘Life Holds On’ from the self- titled 1990 album is the pick of this bunch, closely followed by album closer ‘Dancer to the Drum’. In fact, all eleven tracks acutely epitomise what Beth Nielsen has been striving to achieve over all these years. What you get is a sample of smoothly constructed songs, regally sang and possessing an agenda-free aura.

2018 is set to be a celebratory year in a more than one way for Beth Nielsen Chapman. The UK - a kind market for her over the years - has been granted a comprehensive spring tour and a summer visit presently focussed on a Cambridge Folk Festival slot. HEARTS OF GLASS will prove a useful ally to remind folks, old and new, what she is capable of producing. A specific style has been honed the length and breadth of a successful career and timely reminders are more than welcome. 

www.bethnielsenchapman.com

Epitaph for Love Lyric Video

ALBUM REVIEW: Dean Owens - Southern Wind : At The Helm Records

If 2017 was the year of countless excellent Nielson Hubbard produced releases, then do not count on them ceasing anytime soon. Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens is the latest artist to have paid a visit to this productive Nashville studio and come away with an album strong in pursuing the ideals of the originator. SOUTHERN WIND succeeds in blending the sensibilities of two nations. Distinctive song writing, often homely and personal, generally reflects the everyday surroundings of Dean, while securely placing his trust in an established posse of Nashville-based musicians is inevitably going to factor in an Americana feel. The conduit for this is the esteemed all-round performing musician Will Kimbrough, who also joins in the song-writing fray to bolster up that component.

Whichever facet you wish to explore, agreement is a certainty. There is a depth and maturity to the song writing that can only really be surmountable through a degree of experience. Songs like ‘Louisville Lip’, ‘Madeira Street’ and ‘Elvis Was My Brother’ are laced with nostalgia, deeply personal in the first two and acutely observational in the third one. The implicit nature of the lyrical content helps sow the ideas conveyed. Perhaps being on the same length as the writer assists greatly, but this does not diminish the ability to pierce the outer layers of your mind, body and soul resistance.

The duality of this album leaps out from the first two tracks. A good ole pub rocker kicks things off in ‘Last Song’; a track that Dean has tested in the pre-album release shows as one to harness the audience into some remnants of interaction. Title track ‘Southern Wind’ immediately follows and firmly ferments in your mind where this album is being recorded and the undoubted influence the surroundings are making. Think a little gothic atmospheric and the horizon will come into view.

A slightly roughened vocal presence adds weight to the sentiment of ‘When the Whisky’s Not Enough’. What more appropriate way to link Caledonia with the home of country music, Apologies for this stereotypical observation. Less re-enforced song writing exists in ‘Anything Helps’ (inspired by homelessness) and ‘Mother’, which apparently took an eternity to complete, but further cements the personal nature that forms the Dean Owens lyrical appeal.

The fact that Danny Wilson (of Champs fame) got a credit on the last song suggests the degree that Dean seems to be integrating into the wider UK contemporary roots scene recently. This may be a personal perception, but performances down south with Danny and Robert Vincent; festival appearances and a tie up with At The Helm Records all point to a greater profile than in the last couple of years at least. Obviously, for those in the know, he has been making records for many years with a strong presence in his native Scotland. Undoubtedly, this vast experience has served him well in shoring up the quality that permeates through SOUTHERN WIND making it a valuable release for fans of serious conjecture song writing.

Whether sinking into heartfelt ballads such as ‘Love Prevails’ and ‘No Way Around It’ or rocking out to higher tempo numbers like the opening segment, this album prospers immensely. A moderate temperate style tends to overall reflect the album, thus allowing the keys, strings and occasional horns to make their presence felt without dominating the literate messages, which ultimately make it a memorable listening experience.

Dean Owens makes music that is impossible not to believe in. When the dust settles SOUTHERN WIND will find its own niche in the micro world of the artist’s catalogue and the macro world of a listener succumbing to great song writing. The birth of an album may not be the right time to suggest an epitaph but ‘got the message over through the esteemed medium of song’ could quite conceivably seal this record. 

www.deanowens.com

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kaia Kater - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 5th February 2018

The first thing that strikes you when seeing a Kaia Kater show is the sheer dedication poured into a chosen art form. This is the culmination of a young Canadian artist heading south to answer a calling from her ancestors and utilising every inch of an innate talent to bridge the generations. The mining of Appalachian song heritage has probably been less contentious than other associations with this term and there is a clear lineage through the music made by Kaia. The sweetest of sounds gently seeps from her delicate banjo playing and a leaning towards original songs marks her out as a serious poet rather than just an old time interpreter. Every facet of a vast artistic locker was on display in Birmingham this evening as a premium roots practitioner lifted the spirits on a chilly Midlands night.

A packed house was shoe horned into the Kitchen Garden, many likely attracted by Kaia’s previous performances in the city during 2017. These involved a low-key slot at Moseley Folk Festival and a higher profile set when supporting Rhiannon Giddens at the Town Hall. There were distinct differences between these two slightly pre-determined roles to this occasion where the platform was focussed and more conducive to an artist opening up big style. Watching Kaia and her stand-up bass playing sidekick Andrew Ryan do this rolled out to be a compelling and absorbing experience. Primarily majoring on a raft of songs from her two albums formed the bedrock of the show, but informative and increasingly affable chat led to a greater understanding of what drives her music.

Across a brace of sets, an array of excellent songs put down a marker on this being an evening not to have its memory extinguished too soon. It was tough to pick a standout moment, but two songs particularly resonated towards the latter stages of each set. ‘Paradise Fell’ featured the innovative Andrew Ryan taking a break from the bass to excel in the art of body percussion, while ‘Rising Down’ projected Kaia’s own position on the Black Lives Matter issue that is prevalent across the land of her Southern neighbour.

There were occasional blurred lines in this gig between Kaia’s proud Canadian upbringing in the metropolitan surroundings of Montreal and the immense musical education that she received in the outreach parts of rural West Virginia. Essentially, both have a staunch influence on the music Kaia makes. This ranges from family orientated original compositions such as ‘Saint Elizabeth’ to celebrating the work of an Appalachian banjo-playing pioneer in Ola Belle Reed.

Kaia’s vocal style at times is so reminiscent to Gillian Welch, another example of outsiders immersing themselves in timeless traditional music and emerging as true keepers of the flame. However, Kaia is quite capable of carving out her own career and positive reports of this UK/European tour suggest ‘full house’ signs are set to be a permanent feature as word of her exceptional talent gets around.

Whether advocating the awareness of her African-American/Canadian heritage or the virtues of her beloved banjo, Kaia Kater is an artist sealing the deal as an influential performer of old time roots music. This is with the added twist of a contemporary lyrical focus and a natural charm to ensure those choosing the Kitchen Garden on the first Monday of February had an evening to cherish. 


Sunday, 4 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Courtney Marie Andrews - St.Barnabas Church, Oxford. Saturday 3rd February 2018

Whoever dreamt up the ingenious idea of hosting Courtney Marie Andrews in the beautiful celestial surroundings of a church is a pure visionary. Of course, the reaching out of our holy buildings for music of a different nature is far from a new concept, but compatibility could not have been securer with tonight’s billing. There is certainly something in the air about the live music we all love at the moment, with this being the third sold out gig attended this year. This Oxford show, joined Hayes Carll in Nottingham and Lone Bellow in Manchester for attracting the ‘House Full’ sign, and like the other two, the performance came out of the top drawer. The rise of Courtney’s star is rapidly in the ascendancy, especially in the UK.Those fortunate enough to attend St. Barnabas Church were treated to an utterly divine exhibition of exemplary singer-songwriter music.

It is a little under twelve months ago since Courtney played a low-key gig in Coventry, and folks who attended both shows had first-hand experience of the exponential rise. The nature of this short interim tour (no doubt based around the AMA UK awards and Celtic Connections) dictated that Courtney appeared solo, a situation likely to be reversed with a full tour later in the spring. Having now seen her in both formats, the ease of adaptability is assured. Undoubtedly, the setting this evening was very conducive to the focus on a sole individual, and Courtney played the role down to a tee. A composed and often gazed statuesque posture is aligned with the intensity of the songs, and the hour and ten minutes spent in the spotlight proved an absorbing experience for an alternative congregational gathering.

It probably does not need stating, but the sound quality in such a venue is pristine. Courtney decided not to test the acoustics unamplified, but any attempt would have been pulled off. Fifteen songs played on a guitar and two on piano gave us a flavour of the past, present and future. The songs from her breakthrough album HONEST LIFE (which probably now represent the near past) possessed all the flagship qualities, but it should never be forgotten that Courtney has paid her dues in several live formats since setting out on the road as a musician at such tender years. The release of her new album in March is the opening of a brand new chapter, another one in conjunction with her UK record label Loose Music. MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN was previewed this evening via six tracks, with the two attracting instant appeal being ‘Took You Up’ and ‘This House’, The latter was one of the two songs irresistibly brought to life on piano, alongside a track off one of her older albums, ‘Paintings From Michael’.

The opportunity of playing alone lent Courtney in the direction of providing some insight into her songs. While this is not necessarily a prime feature of her stage repertoire, the audience was suitably informed to the background of a handful of songs including ‘Border’ from the new album and an emotive number titled ‘Love, The Only Debt’. This song proved a fitting final piece and formed a three-song encore alongside her 2017 single release ‘Near You’ and the requested oldie ‘Woman of Many Colors’.

However, the focus, and of most other Courtney Marie Andrews shows at the moment, is still the absolute fabulous selection of songs from the highly acclaimed album HONEST LIFE. The seven tracks given a holy airing tonight did not court, offer or really need any introduction. ‘Rookie Dreaming’ and ‘Not The End’ opened the set back-to-back, while ‘Irene’ held the slot as the pre-encore number. The best for me on the night was the brilliant ‘Table for One’ (any song referencing Ohio feeds my fascination with the state) and a firm favourite from the record ‘How Quickly Your Heart Mends’. Throw in the title track in addition to ‘Put The Fire Out’, and you get a fair representation of the album.

To bring some reference of the set list to a close, we head into the territory of the new record, which is starting to seep out, and is likely to be one of the year’s most celebrated releases when the dust settles. The title track was joined by ‘Rough Around the Edges’ and ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’. While it is early days for these songs (many heard for the first time), the Courtney Marie Andrews song writing and vocal sheen is already polishing them up. Just like the previous album, prolonged joy is about to be had savouring, dissecting and ultimately loving the new record.

Credit is once again due to the Empty Rooms Promotions team for seizing upon the opportunity to bring Courtney Marie Andrews to Oxford in a narrow window and giving West Midlands fans at least one reasonable chance to catch her live. This is in response to the disappointing geographical focus of the upcoming full tour. Yet let us park the minor blemishes behind and celebrate being in the presence of a true talent. Unfortunately, competing attractions on the day led to a latish arrival in Oxford and thus the opening act was not seen, but reports were positive. Despite these competing attractions, nothing was going to prevent witnessing the main act.

Many satisfying plays of HONEST LIFE; forays into her back catalogue and a superb full band performance at last year’s Mosely Folk Festival brought Courtney Marie Andrews to the forefront. This show at St. Barnabas Church in Oxford took the threshold to another level. The trajectory is only going one way and having the seat belt secured tightly is the place to be on this journey.