Monday, 30 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Baiman + Molly Tuttle - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Sunday 29th April 2018

The hottest ticket in town; a statement that is going to resonate more when word gets around about the Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle duo show. With as much talent on display as a several piece band, this self-curated duo - assembled primarily for a European tour - left an indelible mark on the musical landscape of the West Midlands in the shape of a breathtaking show. This was a superlative exhibition from two performers bursting at the seams with the precious gift of virtuoso musicianship. Whether you honed in on the banjo and fiddle of Rachel or Molly’s extraordinary bluegrass picking on the acoustic guitar, a fabulous array of craftwork was widespread. The way these two very independent artists blended in a near sell-out show at Thimblemill Library raised the bar of quality a little higher as this versatile venue goes from strength to strength.

The format of the evening saw both performers generally take a switched lead across each of the two sets as the other flickered in and out with stellar support. Folks were still entering the venue as the main event commenced, on an evening characterised by an unusually early start even by Sunday standards. Rachel opened up in the spotlight and was fully equipped with a number of songs off her latest album SHAME, including the exceptional title track.

It was easy to see why she is a much sought after musician, which has included being an integral member of roots band 10 String Symphony and support work with artists such as Kacey Musgraves. One of her prime assets is a distinct vocal style that is so reminiscent of Gillian Welch and Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds. A fine pair of vocalists to be associated with in the way they immerse into the soul of the song.

By the close of the first set, Rachel had won over a rapturous crowd and left them in fiery mode with an impassioned version of the Woody Guthrie inspired ‘Never Tire of the Road’, complete with the feisty chorus piece ‘You fascists are bound to lose. Beautifully decorated protest music with a powerful punch.

After the interval, Molly took centre stage and it did not take long to understand why she recently made history as the first female recipient of the International Bluegrass Musicians Association coveted instrumentalist award. This was doubly impressive from someone so young, to the extent we are awaiting impatiently for the first full-length album. As the set progressed, the assurance that it should be out early next year was given and subsequent new material was previewed. This was alongside songs from last year’s seven-track EP including ‘Good Enough’, ‘Save This Heart’ and ‘Friend of a Friend’. The irony of the last song is that Molly co-wrote it with Korby Lenker, who recently toured the UK, although his gig in the area was unfortunately cancelled.

Periodically during this part of the show, Rachel joined Molly on stage for numbers such as an old traditional fiddle tune that raised the tempo markedly. Although Molly was fighting the ubiquitous lurgy that often afflicts touring artists in the early throes of a trip, she still held it up vocally, though primarily letting her playing steal the show. Alongside a sublime of version of the John Hartford classic ‘Gentle on My Mind’, a stunning version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘White Freightliner Blues’ proved the pinnacle of not just this show but among the best individual cover performances heard live for many a long time.

While the first part of the show was a greater collaborative effort led by Rachel, the second did lean more heavily in the Molly solo direction. Whatever format they chose to deliver, the standard was elegantly high and one destined to grow them a large following across this tour.

As part of the usual community and local artist focus that the organisers behind these library presentations adopt, there was an invitation to Midlands-based singer-guitarist Abi Budgen to play a few tunes in support of the main event. The opportunity of playing to a decent sized crowd is a useful experience for artists vying to increase their exposure on the local live circuit.

Over the last couple of years, Thimblemill Library in Smethwick has become an increasing renowned venue for touring American artists. The synergy with songwriters within these literate surroundings has not been lost and referred to on more than one occasion. Putting the lyrical content on one side, this evening was definitely more about the pristinely picked music of Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle. Two exceptionally talented musicians likely to be the hottest ticket in town on a regular basis in the future.

Thanks to Andy Dudley for the image

Saturday, 28 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ninebarrow - Woodman Folk Club, Kingswinford. Friday 27th April 2018

Ninebarrow is a Dorset-based folk duo providing a blast of fresh air across the national scene. From the acclaimed status of BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Horizon nominee, the pairing of Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere is carving a significant mark as a vibrant purveyor of the traditional tale and song. Not content with dwelling on the past, their music fully embraces the surroundings of the present and intuitively takes a bold step into the future. Utilising the triple instrumental approach of harmonium, multiple strings and piano, the soundtrack sways within the mood of the songs, accomplished yet not overpowering the sparkling vocal content. This evening was a case of the folklore of Dorset spreading its wings to the outer limits of the West Midlands to extol the virtues of the seasons, the landscape, the history and fantasy. All served with occasional dashes of staple folk sides.

Across a brace of sets in the homely settings of a hired social club, Jon in particular continually fought the fluctuating temperature settings that played havoc with the strings, including the bouzouki and ukulele. The harmonium (or more descriptively referred as the chord organ) proved less temperamental and was primarily the domain of Jay, although a priceless moment just before the interval saw both musicians attempt, and pull off, a duet, on one.

Where the duet tendencies did regularly flourish was in the song department. The harmonies were bright, vivacious and evocative. Showing a vocal prowess seized upon and acting as the perfect vessel to portray the magnitude of the song. The latter probably defines Ninebarrow as they set out using every depth of their literate craft to polish the art of introducing and executing the intrinsic song.

Apart from a couple of folk club standards, the prime focus of the performance was the material that has formed the recently released album THE WATERS AND THE WILD. This record primarily packs with original content, seasoned with a couple of interpretative efforts. ‘Prickle-Eye Bush’. ‘Gather It In’ and ‘Overthrown’ were among the picks from the new record. This album will gather momentum in the folk world over time. It is not really a recording designed for immediate grasping and it will be markedly helped by Jon and Jay’s extensive touring to strip it down up close and personal before re-building the worthy content.

Two of the evening’s outstanding moments were songs from a previous album, WHEN THE BLACKTHORN BURNS. ‘Siege’ was a heroic tale of English Civil War resistance, while ‘Weeds’ launched into a maybe mythical, or not, future where the land submerges human existence. Other subjects dealt with in the songs ranged from the Jurassic archaeological landscape of Dorset and the county’s nautical heritage to acknowledging the importance of seasonal events and mythical hierarchies in the natural world. Of course, it would not be a folk gig without the obligatory death, gore and murder. Song #4 seemed a long wait but the pair more than made up for it by the end.

Although by folk standards Ninebarrow are in their formative years, they appear to have perfected the ageless streak needed to survive and flourish on an informed scene. This youthful zest acts as a conduit that re-invigorates a traditional stance. Almost theatrical in motion, Jon and Jay are easing into generational standard bearing mode and look every inch the accomplished performers in this responsible guise.

Friday, 27 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Daniel Meade - When Was The Last Time : Button Up Records

How much credence is there applying context to a record? Alternatively, should each body of work be assessed on the merit of the independent entity.  The former cannot be ruled out with the new album from Daniel Meade, as a seismic shift in sound perspective rolls around the edges of the release. While WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME retains a strong core of what makes this artist tick, serious adjustment is required to grasp the true essence of the album.

Daniel has made a name in the roots world as a purveyor of boogie-woogie honky tonk music, fuelled considerably by associations with artists such as Old Crow Medicine, Sturgill Simpson, and on a slightly different level, working with Diana Jones. On the other hand, constriction has never been on the agenda and versatility on a performing scale has escalated into a widespread touring role as keyboard player for Ocean Colour Scene. Maybe this latter influence has rubbed off on the new record as the retro throwback feel is discarded in favour of a far more ramped up rock style, fashioned by a domination, at least on the edges, by stirring electric guitar and fuller bodied production.

The contrast on the outer to his last DIY release SHOOTING STARS AND TINY TEARS is stark, but dig deeper and some similarities emerge. Strong song writing still looms large and a factual nugget accompanying the album is that all nine songs (not numerically compliant for the decimalised obsessive) began life as letters to oneself with a purpose to reassure and soothe in darker times. Song titles such as ‘As Good as it Gets’, ‘Nothing Really Matters’, ‘The Day the Clown Stopped Smiling’ and ‘If the Bombs Don’t Kill Us’, get the suggestive juices flowing before you even spin the disc, or whatever alternative mode of play you choose.

The first of this run of songs acts as the album opener and induces the immediate reaction of ‘wow this is different’. Once acclimatised, it actually evolves into one of the standout tunes and is compulsive in its transition from artist to listener. ‘Nothing Really Matters’ and the recently issued album single ‘My Oh Oh My’ follow in a similar vein, giving the album an indie feel, bringing the rhythm from a toe tapping to more of a head nodding motion. The ‘..Bombs..’ is a curious number at the heart of the album with the explosion of mid-song crashing guitars being synonymous with the lexicon choice of the title.

On a couple of occasions, the album does slide a little away from its general direction. ‘So Much for Sorrow’ ditches the instrumentation for a vocal echo and a chant-like song, propelling the analogy ‘you take tomorrow, I’ll take today’ on more than one instance. Thus creating a thought provoking strapline for the piece, maybe even for the album. At the end of the record, Daniel slips back into acoustic mode for ‘Don’t We All’, probably the strongest link to what we have come to expect from his previous output. Although ‘How High We Fly’ did venture into this realm earlier in the record. More ballad than outright rocker.

Change apart, WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME represents an artist in control of where they are heading and it is the case of all being invited whatever your musical persuasion is. Fans of Daniel Meade will still hitch a ride on his journey and this record provides an opportunity to branch out from a roots community that been the domain of his solo output and work with the Flying Mules. It is commendable that an artist remains true to their conviction. There is without doubt a lot more creativity to come from Daniel Meade. When the dust settles on this impressive release, thoughts will turn to what next from this prolific performer. However, no doubt Daniel will chip in ‘you take tomorrow, I’ll…’

GIG REVIEW: Kyshona + The Remedy Club - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 26th April 2018

When this blog adopted the slogan ‘music is the voice of the soul’, there was no intention to refer to any particular artist, just to capture a state of mind. However along comes Kyshona and a force of good blows the theory apart.  The injustice of any self-respecting music fan saying ‘who’ is tempered by the privilege of witnessing the embodiment of 'country' soul striving for justice amidst a fiery outpouring of protest passion. This is soul free of trappings, but packed with intent, innate talent and the power to convey a feeling.

4000 miles from Kyshona’s Nashville home resides a duo aspiring to forge a Celtic twist on the increasingly indescribable notion of international Americana. Whatever label, tag or genre alignment applies, The Remedy Club display a cool and classy approach, straddling a few lines while being forever mindful of the road they are heading. The duo consisting of Kieran McEvoy and Aileen Mythen has long left the fledgling status behind, fully resourced to branch out from their Co. Wexford home with a sophisticated brand of contemporary roots singer-songwriter music.

Under the guidance of Peter Morgan from Stafford based music operation Fish Records, these two acts have been united for a run of UK dates, and what better place to host one of their shows  than the atmospheric confines of the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. This was Kyshona’s third time at the venue, with each appearance being a little different. On this occasion, she played solo for the entire hour in the spotlight, mixing a bunch of deep meaningful songs with inspirational musings. The audience hooked into every movement from the off, enthusiastically accepting the evangelical participation invitations that lean more towards the humanist than the spiritual side. In contrast, this was The Remedy Club’s Birmingham debut as they set about conquering the UK’s roots music scene in the best possible way by being up close and personal. Their performance was just short of the hour and packed with a double figure song content, vibrant in delivery, while totally at ease in finding the target audience.

Kyshona won the award for the evening’s most enlightening quip when introducing ‘Burdens Down’. “Hold no fear of rock bottom. It has a firm base that is not getting deeper. Just ensure you leave your burdens there on the way up” is more or less the sentiment as conveyed by Kyshona – the music therapist – on many tours of duty assisting the afflicted across America’s South. There was no holding back the passion from ‘Marching On’ as compassion evolves into the protest song. Expect more of this from the upcoming new album. ‘Liberty’ was a curious take on her nation’s iconic emblem and the cracks that seem to widen profusely. ‘Same Blood’ is the ultimate appeal for humankind to unite, and there were no shortage of takers from the assembled gathering.

The longer her set went on the more revealing Kyshona became. From her musical upbringing in South Carolina to a current residency in Nashville where the Country Music Hall of Fame are keen to work with many artists across the roots landscape. After all, it is all about the purposeful song. ‘All Y’all’, a song written with country writer Jason White shared a light-hearted moment and ‘Can You Feel It’ has cemented into the role of inclusive closer.

Among their armoury, The Remedy Club can also turn to country with ‘Listening to Hank’ being the pinnacle of the songs they chose to share with a roomful of first timers. Many of these songs can be found on their recent album enticingly titled LOVERS, LEGENDS & LOST CAUSES. Crossing the Irish Sea more frequently will give this record a real boost as well as allowing folks to tap into their vocal prowess and in particular, Kieran’s impressive guitar skills. The irony of the tribute song ‘Django’ was not lost especially with the ease that he moved across the fretboard. Vocally, solos and duet-inspired harmonies pour out  in assured portions. Like several other duos on the roots scene, the contrasting nature of the singing presence falls into natural categories. There is an enhanced versatility to Aileen’s vocals, which have the potential to switch into popular mode without losing the integrity of the song.

Joining the aforementioned songs in The Remedy Club’s set included the bright opener ‘I Miss You’, the darkening shades of ‘Bottom of the Hill’ and the rousing climactic closer ‘This is Love’. While the pair consciously lean on the original song, there was room for one cover, and a take on the Tony Joe White song ‘As the Crow Flies’. Any misguided assertions of a tilt towards a populist bandwagon eroded away on the evidence displayed this evening. Aileen and Kieran are set to take on the best in their own true way and make The Remedy Club an act to be reckoned. 

Enlisting two performers where a contrasting exterior masks a synergy on the inside provided a night worthy of that which makes live music special. Not every day do the southern parts of the Emerald Isle and the North American continent, blend so well to show roots music at its finest. Long may Kyshona make the long trek to share her extraordinary talent and The Remedy Club do likewise without the similar accumulation of air/sea miles.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Sam Morrow - Concrete and Mud : Forty Below Records

Weary, scattered, worn, dusty and cinematic, just a few assertions made after succumbing oneself to a blast of Sam Morrow. Roadhouse country, brazen with an outlaw texture, edges a little closer to the core of CONCRETE AND MUD, eventually morphing into one of those records that you feel will shape the year. In other words, spawn a life of its own as it drives through the opposition like an orchestrated herd. This is the music of an exiled Texan, hooked up in the parts of the Golden State often left behind by the marketing men. Think Bakersfield, Steinbeck and underground LA, and you will soon get into the swing of this man’s music.

Escaping similarities to a sound pitching somewhere between Waylon Jennings and Sturgill Simpson may appear shallow on the surface, but the challenge to deny is out there. Rucks of twangy guitar spiralling into sizzling solos lead the way, with steel and fiddle having fleeting moments. There is even a slight sound sidestep as this ten-track offering eases into its final throes, including shades of psychedelia in ‘Cigarettes’ and acoustic vibes in the temperate closer ‘Mississippi River’.

However, it is earlier on when the soul of this album is really bared, probably most starkly when Morrow teams up with Jaime Wyatt for the steel infused duet ‘Skinny Elvis’. Both artists can now thank Forty Below Records for putting out their albums in the last year, and it is has been a double whammy in these independent releases being picked up by movers and shakers in the UK. You know there is a winner on the cards right from the start as album opening track and serious candidate for signature song, ‘Heartbreak Man’, provides more a furnace blast than sending smoke signals as to where this album is heading.

Paid by the Mile’ is a wishful thinking sentiment for a travelling musician and there are times when you feel this album has ploughed many of Route 66’s 2448 miles as it approaches the city limits of the City of Angels. Stellar country guitar decorates this track and so much of this thirty-nine minute ode to the antithesis of manufactured music. For some local references, ‘San Fernando Sunshine’ tells you probably more about the LA suburbs than ‘California Dreaming’ or ‘California Girls’, while who better than the Hag to namecheck when mentioning being let down by the bottle in ‘Quick Fix’.

To get you in a foot shuffling mood, ‘Good Ole Days’ rattles along at a pace to ignite some movement, while always remaining true to a ‘good ole’ country rolling sound. It may have taken the steel as few tracks to punch above its weight, but it blows a hole in ‘Coming Home’, a slightly slower number deep in the album’s second half. The Sturgill association ramps up at this stage, with this being the album the Kentuckian might make when he heads back into the hills of HIGH TOP MOUNTAIN. It is though imperative at this stage to park the associations and praise the work of Sam Morrow.

To leave a little room for improvement, ‘The Weight of the Stone’ is a murky mid-album detour with a whirly atmospheric sound replacing the driving beat and multiple twang. This song may well have its day, but at time of writing, it has some ground to make up on the album pacesetters.

One stone cold assertion is that CONCRETE AND MUD enriches the country music scene, with its gilt-edged qualities shining through any perception of a dusty gloom. The rough diamond vocals of Sam Morrow add another edge to this album, establishing it as one to signpost that real country music is blossoming at the city limit marker. Also, continuing the fine heritage of loads of good music in the genre emanating from way out west.

Monday, 23 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Lilly Hiatt - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 22nd April 2018

You can never under estimate the power of live music, and in turn the effect of stamping a mark of ownership on a show. Taking your music far and wide on a personal journey is another major shift towards sealing the listener relationship, especially pertinent when in the field of sharing the gut pouring meaningful song. TRINITY LANE trumped ROYAL BLUE and LET DOWN in the burgeoning Lilly Hiatt back catalogue and now a run of inaugural headline UK dates is taking her music onto another level. It is nearly two years since she graced the surroundings of the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham for a debut appearance alongside Hannah Aldridge, and the developmental advancements as a live performer were a shining example to touring performers.

On her return, there was to be no dual approach, just a fully grasped effort to raise the stakes from a considerable base to begin. Foremost, Lilly Hiatt is an exceptional songwriter, ensuring that no smidgeon of genetic talent is going to waste. Grasping her last two records in particular was an immensely beneficial process, but in essence the mere groundwork for the exposure of twenty songs in a conducive and relaxed Sunday evening environment.

For this headline tour, Lilly has enlisted the services of two trusted musicians, fully acquainted with her body of work. John Condit tuned up the lead guitar to guide from the front, while Robert Hudson flitted between assorted percussion, mandolin and temperate electric guitar to ensure the rhythm held up. From the pivotal focal point, Lilly embraced the challenge of opening up her songbook alongside a couple of nods to famous figures of inspiration.

The audience may not overall have been tuned into the work of Pearl Jam, but Lilly connected with one enthusiastic member via a version of ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’. Maybe they were more John Prine than pioneering grunge, with the eternal ‘Angel From Montgomery’ proving the perfect send off from one fledgling songwriter tipping their hat in tribute to a legend.

Covers may be a talking point, but this show was absolutely defined by the quality of the original composition. Stretching the breadth of three releases, the unsurprising focus was on last year’s critically acclaimed hit TRINITY LANE, with Lilly explaining the Nashville location of the title in all its socio-economic infamy. The title track itself was one of the highlights from a brace of sets that extended the venue’s usual Sunday evening finish time. Other significant airings from an exceptional release were a reference to her father, the legendary John Hiatt, in ‘Imposter’, the evocative and deeply personal ‘The Night David Bowie Died’ and the highly engaging ‘Records’, setting up the equally interactive encore closer, and a tribute to the man of the moment – John Prine.

As a performer, Lilly increasingly grew into her role. The vocals are on the lo-fi side of the spectrum, but perfectly suited to the strummed expanses of her earthy country folk style. There is an alternative garage streak to her onstage persona, which soaks up the gritty sentiment of the songs. There is also an element of classic singer-songwriter era to her demeanour, while grounding out timeless songs from an expansive arsenal. Ultra-personal songs such as ‘Somebody’s Daughter’ and ‘Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick the Restaurant’ flew the flag for the ROYAL BLUE album, in a similar vein to what the title track and ‘3 Days’ did for her 2015 record LET DOWN. While this release has not yet made the collection, the latter track mentioned - itself inspired by the length of a road trip from Tennessee to Texas - was fondly remembered from the 2016 show.

What Lilly Hiatt did to strengthen her position on the appreciation scale, opening act Hope in High Water did likewise, albeit from a differing angle. Swap Nashville for Milton Keynes for starters and this is the latest of a growing number of sets they have played at the Kitchen in recent times. Josh and Carly continue to project a compelling air of duality in how their vocals come across. Josh in particular is polishing the bruised output, drawing comparisons to two rugged singer-songwriters in Ben Glover and Michael McDermott in impressing live from the very spot he stood this evening.

In true cross Atlantic comraderie, both support and headliner appreciatively complimented each other. Any healthy scene requires a multi-facetted approach to the origins of its performers, even if the synergy of the roots influence is securely evidenced.  To quote a rather iconic figure, this compactly packed evening of over 30 original tunes was in the spirit of ‘for the sake of the song’. When artists as good as Lilly Hiatt shows their command, you know the spirit is in safe hands. To ratchet up the impact of a quality album as TRINITY LANE is no mean feat. The pleasure of being in the intimate vicinity of a high calibre artist is never taken for granted, but always entirely embraced. 


Friday, 20 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman + Sunjay - MAC, Birmingham. Thursday 19th April 2018

The quality of their music is a given, but you should never under estimate the warmth that generates from a Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman show. It is very much an open door policy into the world of this renowned duo, one well established as a premium UK folk act.  You do not really need an excuse to catch one of their concerts, and they often tour outside the album release cycle when family commitments allow. On this occasion, the tour aligned to a new record, with PERSONAE getting its due rewards in the press when the delights were recently unveiled. The Midlands Arts Centre (known widely as the MAC) was one of the first dates of the tour’s second phase and proved to be more fruitful territory than a previous visit to Birmingham’s Glee Club. Over the duration of around an hour and half, a sumptuous serving of the traditional, gorgeous, enlightening and good old entertaining spilled out from the stage and set the scene for a successful evening.

For fans that have seen Kathryn and Sean before, it was business as usual. Kathryn owns the vocal content in true inimitable style, contributing to the musical output via fleeting flute and rotating piano. Sean takes the trusty acoustic guitar perpetually around the block, always framing the mood of each song with precise chord structures and playing tempo. Whether nailing their compositions or arranging the traditional picks, the expected high standard never waned.

Around half a dozen tracks from the new album featured during the pair of sets straddling the ubiquitous ‘commercial’ break. By a fair distance, the stand out song saw Kathryn on piano and a highly personal introduction to the beautifully delivered ‘Independence’. One of many revealing moments of the Roberts-Lakeman household and its extended family.  This was closely followed by a song that Kathryn had considered putting into hibernation, but so many folks requested ‘A Song to Live By’ that it survived the cull. No doubt still inspired by gazing at the lyric postcard that has long become a merch best seller.

Returning to the new album for a moment, ‘Tribute of Hands’ opened the show and ‘The Poison Club’ did likewise after the interval. ‘Seasons’ was introduced as an attempt at climatic nostalgia and pertinent on a record breaking temperature April day. Two traditional pieces from the album featured in the guise of the full-bodied ‘The Knight’s Ghost’ and the enlightening ‘Boney’s Defeat’. The latter segues neatly into ‘Old, Old, Old’ on the album with a symbolic reference to the island of St. Helena, but alas this one has not quite been primed for the stage yet.

In contrast, a song perfectly suited for the live arena is the heart breaking ’52 Hertz’, which never fails to move once its background of miscommunication in the depths of the Pacific Ocean whale community, is shared. Joining this song from the duo’s back catalogue included the traditional pair: the foreboding ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and the bawdy ‘Lusty Smith’.

The third strand to the Roberts-Lakeman songbook is the occasional treatment of covers. On the latest album, Kathryn has returned to a lifelong obsession for the music of Sandy Denny and her version of ‘Solo’ sounds exquisite both on record and delivered live with piano accompaniment. In line with Kathryn and Sean’s love for the classic realm of the seventies American singer-songwriter, the closing number was a nod to the work of Little Feat’s Lowell George with a cover of ’20 Million Things’. This joined previous shows where they have celebrated the work of other iconic artists such as Warren Zevon.

For the entirety of this tour, the Black Country’s very own folk ‘n’ blues picker Sunjay has entertained appreciative audiences in the opening slot. For thirty minutes this evening, an array of diverse material flowed from his acoustically stringed wand, ranging from old blues favourites to songs penned by his Stourbridge-based advocate Eddy Morton, plus an impish response to ‘playing some Bob Dylan'. In true mischievous style, Sunjay teased the audience about a Buddy Holly number, instead guiding them towards his latest release SUNJAY SINGS BUDDY. This album was the result of appearing in a touring Buddy Holly theatre show last year. As adept as Sunjay has been in interpreting the work of Lubbock’s finest, this is just the tip of the talent he possesses. If you get the chance to see him live or listen to one of his records, where the song choice is more than interesting, you will not be disappointed.

Kathryn and Sean’s appreciation towards Sunjay is as warm as the aura that they create in their set. You could almost be forgiven for acquainting with a small village on the edge of Dartmoor where they have put down family roots. The environment is obviously conducive to the flowing of creative juices and long may this prove to be fertile ground for quality music to flourish. While this Birmingham show, and all other dates on the tour, are primarily designed to spread the word of PERSONAE, you know that things will not halt once the word is out. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have made superb music for many years and there is no sign of this drying up.

Review of Personae

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashley Monroe - Sparrow : Warner Music Nashville

The initial thought on hearing this album was different but not divisive as long as a little mind adjustment is applied. However, it did not take long to delve into its delicate parts and reveal an artist in a hungry mood to tastefully propel their music forward. If you splice the professional career of Ashley Monroe with the initiation of the Pistol Annies project, SPARROW is the third album in the second phase, of which the first one was defined by the early years of chasing the Nashville dream. In a major shift from the two most recent albums LIKE A ROSE and THE BLADE, this record relies heavily on an abundance of lavish stringed arrangements, casting traditional country or pop pretensions to one side, at least for the moment. The big decision at the outset of this project was to hook up with prolific producer Dave Cobb, certainly providing him different tools to work with than those of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, more recently, Brandi Carlile. The magic has worked as a whole, with at least half of the twelve tracks getting five star appreciation here.

While its mainstream release on a major Nashville label will tag the album country (for a truer exposition of the genre you need to look elsewhere), it is far more aligned to seventies countrypolitan, think metro Dolly rather than mountain Dolly. An interesting connotation seeing both artists hail from Eastern Tennessee. Ashley has hooked up with a host of established writers, albeit having a co-role herself in the penning process for each song. From a personal awareness perspective, three names jumped out of the page immediately, led by Pistol Annie colleague Angaleena Presley, who assisted on the highly personal ‘Daddy I Told You’. This is one of the half a dozen tracks with most appeal, and while the overall album does not have an Angaleena feel to it, this track in honour to the father Ashley lost in her teenage years definitely does.

The second familiar name also had an abstract Pistol Annies connection, with Miranda Lambert’s current partner Anderson East getting in on the writing act. Likewise to the Angaleena statement, you could not envisage Miranda making an album like this, but the track in question, ‘This Heaven’, does have her spiritual stamp all over it. Before we get back to pick of the album, the third track which raised the eyebrow on the writing front was the momentum building ‘Hard on the Heart’, which had Blu Sanders on the credits; an artist who worked on the similarly excellent Gwen Sebastian album last year.

There is no finer place to start when returning to the album’s high spots than the opening track ‘Orphan’. This uplifting powerful yet tender number leans heavily on the cello and adopts a pondering mindset early on with the line ‘how does the sparrow know more than us’. It does not take long to decipher that this album is going to be different, but the ease at which this song grows on you suggests it is not going to be an overtly long process grasping it. ‘Hands on You’ was the first track to surface online and initially presented me the conundrum of not matching up to‘Like a Rose’, her benchmark track in my opinion. Eventually, this mellow sultry and moody song won me over, and while the original assertion is still valid, it improves in the context of the album.

Soaring to greater heights than the humble ‘sparrow’ are two tracks delectably different in their feel. You can focus on ‘Mother’s Daughter’ from either, the perspective of Ashley’s recent motherhood or any other parental aspect, but it evolves into the most wonderful of choruses and is an early candidate for the top spot; should one desire. ‘She Wakes Me Up’ spices up the album in retro soulful stomper mode and filters in an older sound that can give many Americana releases a edge of finesse.

In line with the album opener being exceptional, the closer similarly fits the bill. Maybe gospel or secular in intent, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ keeps you lyrically aware in the album's closing moments. Perhaps acknowledging that the spiritual can act as a conduit for the blessings granted to make beautiful music. 

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Paying Attention’ has been one of those made available early in the album’s pre-release phase. It is probably representative of the album’s overall feel, without creating the initial effect that the indicated ones have. Likewise, the trio of ‘Rita’, ‘Wild Love’ and ‘I’m Trying Too’ see the album sink into a zone that soothes without excting too much. However, they fit neatly into the vibes that emanate distinctly from a record that will have to fight hard to find its market niche.

That last point is a mooted observation of where this album may lead. It should not abandon fans that have grown on Ashley over the course of her last two releases or the Pistol Annies work, but, does it have the bite to make inroads elsewhere? In a perfect world where the craft of a deftly spun body of work effortlessly melds into a gorgeous vocal presence, success should prevail. However, we often know the reality. Regardless the album direction of SPARROW, being on board with Ashley Monroe in that ever-diminishing corner of desirable mainstream Nashville is a comforting place to be. Maybe we are sometimes guilty of wanting to mould an album too much into our own model. This one is an exception.

ALBUM REVIEW: Old Crow Medicine Show - Volunteer : Columbia Records Nashville

There will probably not be a more profound homage to the southern states among this year’s major releases than the new album by old roots favourites Old Crow Medicine Show. Starting with the evocative title and threading through a sound that signals the familiar with the odd twist, VOLUNTEER voluptuously feeds the desire for more of the same that fans have craved over the years. This record sees the band return to the fold of original material following a year of paying tribute to their hero Bob Dylan via the BLONDE ON BLONDE revival project. In essence, this is the follow up to the 2015 Grammy winning effort REMEDY and it will be no surprise if such acclaim comes knocking again.

Before you even slide in the opening track, a glance at the song list reveals words such as ‘Mississippi’, ‘hickory’, ‘mountain’ and ‘Dixie’ suggesting a southern flavour is going to prevail. This is confirmed barely a couple of bars into the riotous fiddle-led hoedown number ‘Flicker & Shine’; a surefire sign that you are in Old Crow territory. This bout of frenetic mayhem is not alone as the two-minute fiddle feast instrumental ‘Elzicks Farewell’ lies in the penultimate slot alongside a ‘call and response’ back to basics piece titled ‘Shout Mountain Music’, anchoring deep in the core of the record. The latter is a celebration of riding into Nashville proclaiming the joy of rural music and succeeds in raising the roof in true Old Crow style.

Yet amidst the familiar, there are subtle diversions. No doubt, these are heavily influenced by hooking up with prolific producer Dave Cobb. Yes, another project from him I hear you say. A little research reveals that this is the first time the band have used electric instrumentation since 2004. Such addition tastefully slips in and it supplements rather than knocking the trademark acoustic sound off its pedestal.

The most recent promoted track epitomises the slight shift away from old time roots into a more progressive sphere.Here ‘Whirlwind’ closes the album with a romantic slice of contemporary country. Earlier, ‘Homecoming Party’ is an ironically titled gentle country roller, providing more than a nod to John Hartford’s ‘Gentle on My Mind’ in its melodic presence. Its sentiment is that coming off the road is often ‘no homecoming party’, as the subject struggles to settle back into mundane civilian life.

Among the plethora of standout songs on the album are two heavily biased southern pieces in the first half of the record. ‘Child of the Mississippi’ is straight out of the Mark Twain school of character content, complete with trademark references to ‘muddy waters’, ‘steamboat’, ‘river man’, all enriched by familiar Old Crow banjo. Following this in the running order is the equally explicitly titled ‘Dixie Avenue’ celebrating the thirty-year music making partnership of the band’s two core players Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. This piece of nostalgia is home to some of the electric guitar, although the fiddle is never far away. ‘Old Hickory’ is another delve into southern lore as banjo returns to strum along to this story piece, successful in re-enacting the chorus friendly traits of the band’s music. Not quite the karaoke status of ‘Wagon Wheel’, but in that direction.

Another catchy chorus exists in ‘A World Way’, a decent if not spectacular song that tones things down after the frantic opener. Anthem qualities reside in ‘Look Away’, another track where electric sits neatly alongside fiddle. This song is probably the nearest to a ballad on the album, in contrast to the boogie woogie vibes of ‘The Good Stuff’, which keeps the momentum going at the heart of the record.

Overall, VOLUNTEER succeeds in a mission to resume the Old Crow Medicine Show legacy drive. It largely sticks to the familiar template, with any diversions skilfully factored in. Its evangelical tip to the South displays proudly, but ultimately it is a foot tapping delightful listen. A fine example of old time stringed music successfully brought to the masses, with the added spice of this one stretching a little further.

ALBUM REVIEW: Charley Crockett - Lonesome as a Shadow : Son of Davy

Voice of the soil; voice of the street; voice of the soul, I’ll settle on the latter as the vocals are the first thing that knock you out when discovering the music of Charley Crockett. Their uniqueness coupled with the perfect fit for the style of songs is quite a find and set to acquire this Texan plenty of new admirers. LONESOME AS A SHADOW is the title of the latest release and tosses a virile mix of honky tonk country, blues and soul into the pan. Do not expect too much of your listening time taken as the album rattles through twelve tracks in thirty minutes, unless you succumb to the inevitable pull of repeat plays to double check what you have just heard is that good.

Charley is the veteran of a few albums now, including a devoted recent honky tonk one, but this latest effort signals a more international approach in promoting the artist. Live shows introduced him to UK audiences as the opening act for the JD McPherson tour at the start of 2018 with headline dates planned over here in the summer. First-hand reports from these, and shows on the Cayomo cruise, back up his credentials, but you get the unfiltered authentic feel from just listening to the records. A useful quality for selling your music in far-away lands.

The backstory narrative does include the quintessential drifting lifestyle, and for someone with this surname, a heritage that traces back to the pioneering days of his namesake Davy. You get the impression that this sound and approach comes direct from the DNA and not some finishing school, although you could say the streets, honky tonks and bars are the best musical educational establishments. Apart from his Texas home, visions of anywhere in the south-west gateway states of Louisiana, Arkansas or Oklahoma conjure up from listening, leading to possible descriptions like red dirt soul rinsed in country blues.

While the aura and voice leave the strongest marks, there are a couple of tracks that warrant a mention. The throwback honky tonk number ‘Goin’ Back to Texas’ is a riveting hip mover in the final throes of the record and doubles up on the country front with the steel-driven traditional piece ‘The Sky’d Become Teardrops’. However, a soulful sound generally takes root as exemplified in the funk ‘n’ groove brass infused ‘Sad and Blue’, a song title that requires no further explanation. A tilted rock ‘n’ pop retro sound makes ‘Lil Girl’s Name’ resonate, in a similar vein to the way the organ floats neatly to the ear in ‘Help Me Georgia’.

All good albums benefit from being suitably bookended. The emotive and subtle opener ‘I Wanna Cry’ does the business out the traps and the acoustic vibes of ‘Change Yo Mind’ does likewise for the finale. Throughout the album, a vibrant zone is easily located making this a record that you will enthusiastically want to share.

Apart from the voice, which can never be oversold, the overriding thought on LONESOME AS A SHADOW is how it improvises to perfect imperfections. This album is as genuine one as you are likely to hear all year. Raw, emotive and richly textured in barrels of roadhouse country blues and soul. Charley Crockett may have already arrived in many places, but one more joins the fray here, with a lengthy list of fans soon to be discovered elsewhere,

Sunday, 8 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ramblin' Roots Revue (Friday Evening Only) - Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe. Friday 6th April 2018

The Magic Numbers
To offer some clarity Ramblin Roots Revue is a three-day festival hosted by the Bucks Student Union in High Wycombe and has amongst its architects, the nearby- based Clubhouse Records. When an opportunity arose to attend the Friday evening, temptation gave way to reality and it was off to see five bands barnstorm through over four hours of seamless music. Off course, this was just the starter for those camped in both spacious locations within the campus building for the whole weekend as the Whisky Saloon segued into the main arena for the continual stream of sets. The vast majority of the acts booked were British, although if you dig deeper into the roots element, then the lineage of influence primarily goes through the Springsteen/Dylan/Young/Petty axis. In essence, the evening rocked with a branded streak of alt-country flowering as brightly as you are likely to see this side of the pond.

Ironically, first up on the the adapted Whisky Saloon stage was the American artist Robert Chaney, although his long term residency in London crosses over as much as the general feel of this event. Robert first crossed my path a couple of years ago with a solo set at Maverick; a likewise support slot in Oxford and an album packed with deftly dark songs. A couple of years on, there was an indication of change, although underpinned by a similar demeanour. This time a full band was in tow including pedal steel to steer the sound away from folk and into the realm of country. His half-hour set was entirely made up of newer songs, which on first listen were definitely a lighter shade of noir in their content and make-up. ‘Hurricane’, ‘What’s His Name’ and ‘Swing Low’ were a selection of the songs shared with the festival’s early arrivals, and they promised to be a flavour of a new album likely to drop in the not too distant future.

Robert Vincent
There was a slight break in the seamless nature with Case Hardin following Robert Chaney onto the Whisky Saloon stage after a short ten-minute changeover period (the solitary one before the two-stage operation began). Although Case Hardin activity tends to be intermittent probably due to other commitments, they never fail to impress either though sparkling live performances or albums they periodically release. This time there was a full band on display with a rhythm section of bass, drums and keys proudly supporting front man Pete Gow and his exceptional lead guitarist Jim Maving. Absence never seems to diminish an appreciation for how good this band are when operating in full flow; it may even re-vitalise it. The thirty-minute set spanned the breadth of the Case Hardin repertoire. Two of my favourites from the most recent COLOURS SIMPLE album in ‘(Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning) Do I Still Have To Feel This Way’ and ‘Roll Damnation Roll’ were probably the pick of the selection offered with ‘A Lullaby (..Of Sorts)’ taken from an older album following closely on their heels.

The Redlands Palomino Company
Any slight disappointment in Case Hardin not playing a longer set appeased quickly with a quick shuffle into the main arena to see Robert Vincent about to commence a performance. The year since the release of his most recent album I’ll MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS continues to treat this Liverpudlian well. Hot off the tracks from a nationwide support slot for Beth Nielsen Chapman and that late night performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test tribute show, the full band once again assembled as the set times started to lengthen a little. The acquisition/hiring of in-demand pedal steel/multi-guitarist CJ Hillman gives the songs a different dimension, more alt-country than straight out rock that can often consume the full band live shows. This alteration compounded further by the utilisation of a fellow band member switching between fiddle, banjo and mandolin. One slight blemish on the venue’s sound was the fiddle not being particularly clear to pick up, but the sentiment was at least there.  The set list was standard for folks getting used to seeing Robert Vincent live with ‘Demons’ the usual closer, but on this occasion the recent album title track and its sibling song from the first album LIFE IN EASY STEPS making the greatest impressions.

Robert Chaney
No sooner had this set finished then it was back to the Whisky Saloon (drink in hand, although more ale based than liquor) for a now becoming annual renewal of The Redlands Palomino Company love affair. If acquaintance with Case Hardin is sporadic, it has been the same with their Clubhouse label stable mates for as long as being a fan (now well over a decade). However, on the back of a slot at Tingestock last summer, this Hannah and Alex Elton-Wall co-led five-piece have considerably narrowed the bridge between gigs seen and from a hazy memory, this was a tighter performance than last year. Between new songs, homages to Teenage Fan Cub and a cover of Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout’) Peace, Love and Understanding’, it is still old style Redlands that fires up the crowd with devotees chanting ’24 hours to kill’ in the refrain to ‘Wasted on You’. Maybe time ran out before ‘Doin’ It For the Country’ had the chance to test the vocal chords of the audience for a second time, but it was just grateful to catch this band live once again.

Case Hardin
Main arena headliners for this opening evening of Ramblin’ Roots Revue saw a slight twist in style with The Magic Numbers enlisted into the fold to play a show in the run up to the release of a new album. Mainstream success, although in the deep distant past, plays a part in the stage persona of this double brother-sister combo, one with a tendency to rock out more than a majority of acts booked to play Ramblin’ Roots. This set obviously attracted plenty of their fans to the event and this led to old favourites like ‘Forever Lost’ and ‘Love Me Like You’ going down a storm. To preview their upcoming album OUTSIDERS, 'Sweet Divide, ‘Sing Me a Rebel Song’ and ‘Wayward’ were a selection of newbies. The latter was a toned down slower piece penned in honour of Romeo’s son and a song, which enabled the added pedal steel to play a more significant part than on the upbeat numbers. Romeo’s sister, Michele Stodart continues to be the enthusiastic pulse beat of the band and there is surely no greater animated bassist around. On an evening where covers were generally at a premium, The Magic Numbers ended with a Neil Young tribute and honoured the audience choice of ‘Harvest Moon’ over the simultaneously offered ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’.

This brought the opening evening to a fitting end and set the scene for a great weekend of which further details will have to be found elsewhere. For fans of western shirts, pedal steel and country music spliced with a hefty portion of roots rock on an alternative platform, Ramblin’ Roots Revue is a gift-wrapped treat. Hopefully, it will achieve its hat trick of staging in 2019 and circumstances that enabled a solitary Friday night appearance this year will expand across the weekend.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Bennett Wilson Poole - Bennett Wilson Poole : Aurora

Bennett Wilson Poole is the collaboration made for destiny and one set to make a significant mark in the recording annals. Jangle rocking revivalists gets the clich├ęs out the way early, but the two thoughts never stray far from your mind as this self-titled album washes over you. Rampant guitars, wispy harmonies and luxurious tunes combine to place the record in the set position pending the proverbial smash. Wholesomely British and vividly retrospective, the forty-eight minutes parade in a flash with little effect of strain, but plenty of endless uncomplicated ease.

The destiny element arrives out of the work Tony Poole, Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett have previously done together, albeit not in this explicit trio format. Tony Poole spans the generations having been the acclaimed leader of seventies English rock band Starry Eyed and Laughing, undeniably influenced by The Byrds. Latterly, he has become producer-extraordinaire; working on albums by Danny’s band, the Champions of World and the Bennett brothers led Dreaming Spires. Being well versed in the Champs and the Spires, and delving back to sample Starry Eyed, it appears that Danny travelled the furthest to settle on the sound of Bennett Wilson Poole, but such is his enthusiasm for development and innovation, this is of little surprise.

The eleven tracks brim with cutting tunes, lyrics and sentiment to match, and an optimum pace to keep the listener on board throughout the duration. Two out of the three promotional tracks open the album and act as the perfect hooks. ‘Soon enough’ was first out the block and unveils as a bright and breezy tune containing some stellar guitar breaks. Indeed, our stringed companion is in fine form with the Rickenbacker forever reminding us of this album’s strong influences. ‘Ask Me Anything’ has been the final song to surface in the run-up to the release and contains a great chorus amidst a rising tempo. The thesaurus has been in overdrive to get incredulous and unscrupulous in the chorus, but you cannot beat some lexicon stretching. There are great guitar solos in this track as well.

The third track to get a digital pre-release airing via a video sits proudly in the album’s mid-rift and is the curiously titled ‘Wilson General Store’. A blast of harmonica opens this mystery piece before Robin launches the vocals. The whole feel of this track evokes memories of The Kinks and be best described as kitchen sink psychedelia.

Vocal exchange is a strong feature of the record, whether swapping lead, mixing within songs or delivering the synonymous harmonies. Even when the album heads into placid waters for three tracks in the second half, the vocal difference and perpetual jangle keeps you hooked in. The tracks in question run consecutively: ‘The Other Side of the Sky’, ‘That Thing That You Called Love’ and ‘Not Forgetting’. While all three protagonists are lead vocalists in their own right, Danny’s soulful tone has the more distinct effect.

Just when the album needs a slight alteration, the final two tracks deliver. An acoustic harmony piece complete with a solitary outing for pedal steel titled ‘Find Your Own Truth’ provides a subtle tempo diversion. In true Danny and the Champions of the World style, the album closer is a momentous eight-minute effort full of swirling guitars and lengthy fade out. ‘Lifeboat (Take a Picture of Yourself) is the said track and a juxtaposition piece contrasting the exponential world of the selfie with the equally growing but more disturbing refugee crisis.

Politics also figures earlier in the record with the fiery number ‘Hate Won’t Win’. Taken from the famous quote by murdered MP Jo Cox, this song was penned in the aftermath of her assassination. In an act of defiance, the strong message is adorned by a joyous celebratory backbeat suggesting that we will remain undeterred against hideous crimes committed towards the good in society.

Just two tracks left to decipher with the soulful pop inspiration to ‘Hide Behind a Smile’ making it one of the candidates to be the first among equals. The line ‘not the race we’re running in’ jumps out as poignant ponderings, while there is a very brief note combination at the end which prompts images of The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’. Each to their own, I suppose. ‘Funny Guys’ concludes the content with more jangle and the vocals of Danny Wilson opening up. What more could you want?

Bennett Wilson Poole is an album perfectly suited for a time to reflect and it will take a seriously good British made record to deny it honours when the time comes to dish out the niche awards. Perfectly gift-wrapped for those of a certain mind-set, any elements of indulgence will be heartily gorged by many folks lauding this album. The fun behind this project radiates out and perhaps most importantly, it is going to resonate widely as we sample a slice of 1968 in 2018. 

Bennett Wilson Poole Facebook

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Western Centuries - Songs From the Deluge : Free Dirt Records

There has been a buzz about Western Centuries in roots circles for a while and this is set to escalate in the jet stream of their second album release. SONGS FROM THE DELUGE draws its inspiration from a core country sound etched around the edges with shades of Cajun and soul. The movers and shakers around the collaboration that takes the name ‘western’ quite literally in terms of style include producer Joel Savoy, an artist steeped in Cajun lineage, and three songwriters noted for their work in other musical projects. The best known here of these is Cahelen Morrison, who has toured overseas in a duo format with Eli West. Fellow Seattle resident Ethan Lawton, who was heavily involved with the stellar work of Zoe Muth, joins Cahelen.  The core trio of the band is completed by New York City based Jim Miller. The irony of the trio honing in on a very southern sound from their bases in northern cities, albeit thousands of miles apart, is not lost, although the execution is rip roaring country music at its finest.

This theme explodes in the album’s stand-out track with ‘Own Private Honky Tonk’ suggesting that taking a spin around those wooden boards need not be solely reliant on the close proximity of an old time southern dance hall. Indeed, you can replace the south and west with Seattle and New York, or anywhere in the world in the sentiment of the song. In tune with much of the album, this number rattles along at a chipper pace making use of the some super pedal steel; the driving instrumental force on the record. Pushing this song to the limit among the twelve-track offering is the sublime ‘Earthly Justice’, with the sound drifting into Eagles territory. For a greater heartbreaker angle, ‘Rocks and Flame’ shapes up nicely as the band prove they can lower the tempo effectively when a breather is required.

The album gets its release on Free Dirt Records, who have an impressive past and present roster including Pokey LaFarge and Dori Freeman. Following the success of the former in securing a loyal fan base overseas, it would be interesting to see the extent that Western Centuries are promoted outside the US, and build upon a few dates over here last year. Targeted press is underway, but a tour would be the most exciting prospect because every indication points to a sizzling live show.

The presence of Savoy has not led to his Cajun heritage effect taking over fully, but some exciting fiddle and accordion pieces like in album opener ‘Far From Home’ add more than a little sprinkling of Louisiana. The vocals do frequently lean in a soulful direction and the deepest foray into this style exists most prominently in ‘How Many More Miles to Babylon’. To ensure a fresh appeal lasts to the final throes of the album, a dip into Spanish language vocals in the closing track ‘Warm Guns’ takes the album breathtakingly deep into border land, probably the furthest you can get from the Pacific North West or the Eastern Seaboard.

Running the full course of a 50-minute duration creates a comprehensive package that succeeds in keeping the listener actively involved, although a slightly more compact presentation could have been successful in leaving folks yearning for more. SONGS FROM THE DELUGE is an album that demands many repeat plays and has put down a marker as the year’s leading toe-tapping release at the end of the first quarter. It will certainly take a very good record to knock it off this mantle, but any high quality challengers are more than welcome as this type of country music can never have too many excellent practitioners. Western Centuries fall into this category and tapping into the buzz that warrants entirely has proved a fruitful exploration after absorbing the delights of this album.

Monday, 2 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Don Gallardo - Still Here : Southern Carousel Records

Such is the classy clarity to Don Gallardo’s music; there should be rampant rewards for putting the coolness back into easy listening. Building upon the elevated appreciation of his most recent record HICKORY, the new album lands on the listener with consummate ease.  STILL HERE is getting a staggered release across the artist’s two strongholds with us Brits getting a first bite of the formal cherry ahead of his American compatriots. In the hybrid world of independent music, genre lines are as blurred as digital borders, but whether delving into folk-rock, classic country or sensitive singer-songwriter this album scores highly and ensures not a moment of its twelve-track/forty-three minute existence is wasted.

Once again, Clubhouse Records have played a part in getting this record to market in the UK in association with Don’s US operations. This review may be going out just as a short run of dates over here has concluded, but expect him back soon to renew this bond created. In lieu of the live acquaintance, the craft of the new album supremely compensates.

For this record, Don has kicked the solo writes generally into touch and hooked up with a series of Nashville co-writers. Familiar names to UK audiences jump out immediately in Doug Williams, Robby Hecht and Tim Easton. The first of these teamed up for the most country sounding track on the album, and a traditional one to boot (ah sorry, replace traditional for real). ‘The Losing Kind’, complete with sad song syndrome and dreamy steel, hits the spot where so much of the modern take fails. Of the two Robby Hecht contributions, ‘A Boat Named Harmony’ stands out, largely due to the presence of another UK favourite Erin Rae on harmony vocals. Tim Easton chips in on the album closer ‘Trains Go By’ as we are taken on another Don Gallardo wanderlust spin as intimated in the line ‘taking all that’s with you as the river flows to Baton Rouge’. A mellower offering, acting as the perfect send off.

After a solid start from the philosophically titled ‘Something I Gotta Learn’, the album really kicks into gear with the third and fourth track. ‘Oh Jane’ comes first and appeals due to its country stroller rhythmic pretensions and a distinct direct line of communication in the narrative. ‘Same Ol’ Alley Talkin’ Blues #12’ came to life after a recent live show with the origin being revealed as a character led to Don via his touring partner Travis Stock. Apart from the ear pleasing sound dictated, a touch of social commentary is throw in alongside the whiskey and the useful banjo segment.

Elsewhere on the album, the mid-tempo ‘Kicking Up the Pavement’ slots neatly into the early stages, while ‘The Bitter End’ and ‘Stay Awhile’ segue as the record moves into its second half (or side two if you take the vinyl route). The first of these has been around a while and flows swimmingly with more pedal steel. The other sees an experiment with clarinet to provide a jazzy feel. The double role of architect and producer keeps Don in charge and suggest that despite the enlisting of many fine helpers, it remains exactly how he wants his recorded music to portray.

From start to finish, STILL HERE sparkles with a cultured sheen and reveals an astute artist in prime form, over a decade since they decamped from a West Coast home to thrive in the creative song- writing cauldron of Nashville Tennessee. There is crispness to the way Don Gallardo makes music and in turn, this creates a reassuring and fulfilling experience when dipping into his records. Tapping into this uncomplicated, natural and refreshingly organic album is the smart choice to unlock the skills of an artist who makes the undoubtedly difficult skill of crafting an excellent record look remarkably easy.