Saturday, 26 May 2018

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

The immaculate surroundings of Birmingham Town Hall and the music of Gretchen Peters are the perfect fit. A hushed environment absorbed every word from the most meaningful array of songs you are likely to hear in a single set. This was Gretchen Peters in absolute control, cashing in on a lifetime of experience, association and striving to pen the momentous song. The success of the latter set the tone at the outset of a lengthy career, yet growth has been organic and a testimony to an artist pursuing a multitude of avenues in maximising the depth of their talent. The West Midlands, and its outer area, have been kind to Gretchen Peters over the years, whether playing host in Birmingham, Bilston, Bromsgrove or Leamington Spa. This evening saw a return to the grandeur of the city centre Town Hall and the faithful were repaid with another priceless performance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Dancing with the Beast

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 May 2018

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

The legacy may lie in the songs hooked up by country music in the 1990s or in a trio of dominant albums blossoming in the 2010s. Maybe though, the legacy is still to come such is the trajectory in the quality of output from Gretchen Peters. The most important thing about a new release is that it is just the start of a cycle. In essence, DANCING WITH THE BEAST will be effectively born on May 18th, with several years of burgeoning appreciation set to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Kashena Sampson - Wild Heart : New Moon Records

If this is to be the breakthrough moment for Kashena Sampson then there will be few complaints from many music lovers taking a chance on a new artist. Doors may be opening and helping hands offered, but success ultimately lies in the strength of the product and its ability to make an impact. WILD HEART is perfectly at ease with any slice of actuated hype and is happy to fight its corner in the evolving world of country and Americana music. Fundamentally, this album oozes a classic country sound from each pore and groove. An open door policy to embrace soulful influences boosts the mix, while resistance qualities ensure any impurity attack is repelled from taking hold. The energy, integrity and intensity of the architect rinses through each of the ten tracks, all but one being an original composition.

Not surprisingly, East Nashville is the base where Kashena operates from and the fusion elements of the record spin it on an Americana axis. Fortune sees it get a European focus in the summer of 2018 and it is set to resonate well with a new fan base. The extent to what importance you place on the backstory is down to the individual listener, but a brief insight here squares the circle of an artist pouring every sinew of vocal extraction into a record reverberating with a voice of prime passion. Not quite last chance saloon, but a blessed opportunity seized with great gusto and seismic determination.

Three tracks spearhead this album, though the remainder are far from distant trailers. ‘Greasy Spoon’ is country to the core. It is likely to be autobiographical and explicitly reminiscent of a well-trodden road to stardom, one realistic in its obscurity. Preceding this track in the running order is the fabulously moving ‘It’s a Long Way Back’ where Kashena takes the concept of ‘sing as you mean it’ to its literal conclusion. From the early chimes of ‘this valley I’ve been in’, an air of redemption blasts in and the soulful swirl of country swamps the senses. ‘That Don’t Sit Too Well With Me’ completes the lofty trio with its beat ‘n’ groove tendencies stomping over ground inhabited by a generational lineage from Margo Price to Loretta Lynn.

A previous mention of a solitary non-original reveals as the traditional number ‘Motherless Child’, dating back to slavery times and full of spiritual vigour. Kashena’s version sees her vocal chops emotively exerted and a no mean demonstration of how to deliver a folk song. Bringing the sound back into the realms of modernish times is a dip into the lush countrypolitan vibes of ‘Hold Me Close’. Meanwhile the soul and blues influence never completely falls away as exemplified in ‘Never Give Up’.

At the outset of the record, faint shimmering organ and a decent introductory hook greets the listener in ‘Away From Here’. Title track ‘Wild Heart’ nestles at the core of the album with its waltz-like presence housing the cutting and defining line ‘it’s a fragile state I’m in’. As if to cement an extraordinary vocal domination on the record, ‘She Shines’ experiences a voice explosion mid song after a fairly placid opening. A desire to get the record ultimately sealed falls a little short in closing track ‘Come Back to Me’, despite a willing credit built up in its nine predecessors.

From a backstory laced with sobriety, dreams and a fiercely independent spirit, you know that every inch of space is fought for and this overflows from multiple listens to WILD HEART. Kashena Sampson redefines the term ownership right across this album, even to the extent of releasing it on her own label. This fine exhibition of classic soulful country meets rootsy folk rock carves a significant mark on a landscape still open for artists possessing that much sought after country voice for the modern times.

GIG REVIEW: Mary Gauthier - Glee Club, Nottingham. Wednesday 16th May 2018

In her evolving seasonal classic ‘Christmas in Paradise’, Mary Gauthier drew on the concept of not judging the afflicted, just dealing with the here and now. This philosophy extends to her involvement in the Song Writing with Soldiers project, which is the theme of her new album and centrepiece of a current tour of the UK. This record has been in circulation since the turn of the year, but the presentation of its ethos, emotion and heart-wrenching content in a hushed room dismantles any prefaced assimilation of what it means to all concerned. This Nottingham Glee Club show may have included a mix of old favourites; the introduction of a virtuoso violin/viola accompaniment by Italian musician Michele Gazich and the most inclusive of uplifting finales, but casting a defining shadow across the night were five compulsive stories and the songs born from each painful situation.

Any Mary Gauthier show brims with idiosyncratic and quirky tendencies that lure the audience into a state of total admiration. Hanging onto each number and story takes you into the perceptive world of an artist enriched by the salvation of song. These traits never fail to materialise when she comes to town and fully embedded into versions of ‘Mercy Now’, ‘Last of the Hobo Kings’ and ‘Another Train’. There was a strong case that these much-loved songs were probably eclipsed in the back catalogue segment of the show by the deep-rooted calling song ‘Oh Soul’. This judgement may be clouded by listening to the same song just twenty-four hours earlier when impassionedly sung by Ben Glover, Mary’s co-writer on the song.

Before returning to the crux of the evening, it is imperative to mention the finale choice of ‘This Land is Your Land’. This version slipped it into the sad song territory of its origins and one that required little persuasion for the audience to vociferously tap into its spirit and inclusive meaning.

The domination of song writing with soldiers may have originally cast a dark shadow of war’s untold stories across a locked-in audience, but rays of light periodically burst through as the therapy of song took hold. ‘Rifles and Rosary Beads’, ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’, ‘Still on the Ride’, ‘Stronger Together’ and ‘It’s Her Love’ had their soul ripped apart in the introduction, before each song began the healing process. Tales of trauma, pain, suicide, despair and regret ravaged the room, requiring a steely demeanour not to be moved. War was abhorred, politicians slammed and judgement withheld, alongside an intuitive insight in how song can unpick the past and lay a foundation of hope. Time froze throughout the period Mary shared her experience of participating in this process. The gig may have lasted around an hour and forty minutes, but this segment eroded any concept of time.

There was always the background conundrum of an avid anti-war protestor choosing the plight of the veteran to activate the song writing process when many other facets of untold stories are yearning for a voice. Regardless of circumstance, Mary was visibly touched by immersing herself into this project and a contagious wave of empathy swamped a room of willing accomplices. This powerful piece of singer-songwriter theatre proved all-consuming and unleashed the infinite potential of where song can take you. The fervent anti-war protestor, and thorn in the side of the perpetrators, still exists alongside a purveyor of focussing on the humanist angle of a tragic state of affairs.

Listen to RIFLE AND ROSARY BEADS, read all the background stuff and most of all if Mary Gauthier passes through your town join the congregation. Third party words barely scratch the surface. Replicating the experience of exposure to an articulate advocate and exceptional songwriter really only appeases the author. Memories are made at a Mary Gauthier show; perceptions are formed and definitive evenings of entering the world of the deep connective singer-songwriter leave that most satisfying of mark.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 15th May 2018

The jigsaw puzzle of Ben Glover’s music continues to edge towards completion, although the grand picture is ultimately likely to be a fluid one. So maybe the journey of fitting all the pieces is where the true treasures lie. From an enhanced listener perspective, the journey picked up the pace around half a dozen years ago with an opening slot for Gretchen Peters; an alliance that continues to blossom. Subsequently, several strands of his work have fermented into a bubbling pot of collaboration, inner and outer discovery, soul-searching and forging a bond with a growing audience on a multitude of platforms. The latest piece added is to take the brand new album SHOREBOUND out on the road, particularly back to the old country. The Kitchen Garden in Birmingham has been kind to provide a canvas for the solo live output in the past and there was no surprise in it cropping up again on the itinerary. As previously, Colm McClean joined Ben on electric guitar resulting in the night probably eclipsing last time on a number of fronts.

There was a heightened poise and a tightening of the sound, both easily detected from the floor alongside an optimum balance between song delivery and the all-important songwriter’s musings. The latter reveals Ben as a top-notch operator, mixing the creatively informative with the deeply philosophical, all brought together by a distinct Northern Irish brogue and a canny knack of controlling the intensity switch. Musically, the interaction with Colm clicked as suspected it would, thus whetting the appetite for his appearance with Gretchen Peters on her upcoming UK tour. Vocally, Ben’s delivery had its gruffness slightly smoothed, without any edge or impassioned sentiment lost. Of course, you can say ‘it is the songs that are imperative’, and it shaped up nicely in that sphere as well.

Topical mooting here has been about album cycles and the bedding in process of certain songs. When you excavate such depths in the search for a perfect song, there is an inevitability of some requiring listener adjustment and renewed interaction to grasp. After all, we are not in quick fix territory here. From the evidence of tonight’s show, it was the maturity of some of the older songs leading to a greater impact. Indeed, Ben implied the infancy of SHOREBOUND, and it will be in good company if the songs come to fruition in the live format a little further down the line. Co-incidentally, out of the two-earworm efforts from the album – ‘Ride the River’ was probably the pick of the pack, while ‘Wild Fire’ was left in the studio. The songs from this new release will have their day, and it would not be surprising if ‘Kindness’ becomes an inbuilt staple of future sets.

If pushed into a corner to name a standout number from the show, it would probably fall between ‘The Emigrant’ and ‘Oh Soul’. Both were emotively delivered and are likely to be very dear to Ben’s heart for different reasons. The unfiltered live environment ideally suits them.

While not being a major focus, Ben’s other project The Orphan Brigade figured in a couple of track selections, accompanied by the obligatory enchanting story in the case of ‘Flying Joe’ from the HEART OF THE CAVE album. SOUNDTRACK TO A GHOST STORY was represented by the buoyant ‘Sweetheart’ and by blending ‘Trouble My Heart (Harriett)’ into a closing medley alongside the standard finale ‘The Parting Glass’. It is suspected that there is a lot more mileage left in The Orphan Brigade, as long as some of life’s mysteries remain untold and the protagonists retain a thirst for committing them to song.

On an evening where the subject of ‘home’ cropped up on a couple of occasions, it was apt that Ben turned to his fellow Northern Irishman Van Morrison for an encore version of ‘Into the Mystic’, a welcome change from the Johnny Cash cover. Of course, ‘physical’ home means Nashville, a town in tune with what Ben Glover wants from music, even when subjects are sourced from around the world.

There was a refrain from anointing SHOREBOUND as his finest album to date; time will ultimately judge the body of his work. On the other hand, there is no holding back in stating that Ben Glover’s live performance at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham, date stamped 2018, is his best yet from a sample size beginning to grow.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Carter Sampson - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 14th May 2018

The entity of Carter Sampson: the singer-songwriter, is a compelling proposition and a wonderful find for anyone with a smart mind. A high degree of composure, warmth and assuredness reflects a performer at ease with life’s calling and epitomising the spirit of their surroundings, wherever they may be. This evening the dusty expanses of Oklahoma were traded for the gritty compactness of suburban Kings Heath; an apt location for the self-anointed Queen of Oklahoma to share the wealth of her wares for a night.

The most engaging of voices adorns an impressively curated arsenal of song selection. The rich texture of a vocal honed in the land where the South spills into the West possesses the capability to melt the heart of a listener, made even more effective in the confines of the acoustically perfected Kitchen Garden. For around an hour this evening, being transfixed and in awe was a non-negotiable journey bookended by the ‘Queen’ in semi-autobiographical mode. From opening with her trademark moniker track ‘Queen of Oklahoma’, written from an impish fantastical perspective, to a closing cover of the Shel Silverstein penned ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’, the flow of affable chat, stories brimming with strong engagement and a fine musical arrangement eased every person in the room into a status of sublime comfort.

For this latest European excursion, Carter has teamed up with fellow Okies Jesse Aycock and Lauren Barth. They performed a duo set of deeply exhaled low tone harmonies in the opening slot before joining Carter in a trio format for the main event. Jesse switched from meticulous guitar playing to a similar approach on Dobro for his support role, while Lauren resumed on guitar with both adding their sumptuous harmonies periodically to Carter’s songs. The highlight of the opening set was Lauren delivering ‘I Won’t Let Love Make a Fool Out of Me’ off her latest album FORAGER. This ended up being the final song of the set that had increasingly drew you into a mesmerising snare and could have extended such as its trajectory.

2016 proved to be the introductory year for Carter Sampson on a wider stage. WILDER SIDE scaled to album of the year status in certain circles and a multitude of live shows included an appearance at the Maverick Festival. Fast forward two years and the latest trip across the pond is aligned with the release of the new record LUCKY, which proved to be the prime supplier of tracks in the show, including the title song.

Joining the widely covered Shel Silverstein piece from the new album in the set list were two other songs that Carter has borrowed. Not her usual source for song selection but when the quality is as high as ‘Hello Darlin’’ and ‘Tulsa’ the choice is an acute one. Both originate from an acquaintance of Carter in Zac Copeland and the former is having its first recorded outing on the record. It was certainly one of the highlights of many during the show. The other had the ubiquitous story attached, which put a different spin on the two Oklahoma cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

In fact, the stories flowed for most of the evening. The origin of ‘Rattlesnake Kate’ was recalled from the last tour and now the inquisitive nature to ‘google’ the phrase is enhanced by it finally appearing in a recorded form. ‘Ten Penny Nail’ is an attractive song especially for connoisseurs of seventies singer-songwriter music and the curious triangle between Townes Van Zandt, and Guy and Susanna Clarke.

Perhaps the song from the new record with the greatest potential to prosper is the unintroduced ‘Anything Else to Do’, a gorgeous love song that says all that needs to be said. It could be envisaged Miranda Lambert cutting it, such is the mood and effect. Maybe Miranda has a desire to be more like Carter Sampson these days, although a trade in a few dollars may be required.

While this was an evening for the older songs to be left behind (resurrect ‘Medicine River’ next time please), the title track from WILDER SIDE with all its gypsy soul tendencies made an appearance. Joining from the same album was the inspirational ‘See the Devil Run’. This track was given a renewed lease of life with the introduction of it documenting a visit to Al Green’s church in Memphis and a moment fuelling a lifelong ambition to play music.

It is a blessing that Carter Sampson has heeded this innate emotion to write and play songs. This is enhanced by an outlook to spread her music to faraway lands, and be prepared to take her music in person to these distant fans. Ultimately, she embodies the romanticised spirit that attracts folks to songwriters from her part of the world. Reality or myth, is irrelevant when the impact is so strong. Gigs like this are hard to beat and a very special one will have to surface to top it when the curtain is finally drawn on 2018.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

GIG REVIEW: Hattie Briggs - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 8th May 2018

Hattie Briggs is a young English singer-songwriter gathering increased acclaim on the UK folk and acoustic scene. As part of her 2018 strategy, she has undertaken a run of live dates that was approaching the end when she made a return visit to the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. Another impressive turnout greeted Hattie and her musical companion Matt Park as she set about sharing a bunch of songs reflecting a productive start to a recording career. Whether accompanied by guitar or piano, a renowned song writing capability oozed from a sculptured voice. This latter trait aligns Hattie closer to the folk community than her approach to song writing, musicianship or outlook. Indeed, the pedal steel output proved the most ear catching part of the instrumental soundtrack.

Prior to Hattie and Matt taking to the performing area, an artist active on the local scene by the name of Esther Turner shared a selection of her original songs with the audience. These numbers possessed an indie-pop dimension and were representative of a generation exploring the medium of communicating via song. Esther’s charisma, level of assuredness and capacity to express an impressively constructed song were vividly on display. Maybe more connective environments await her, but the credentials to make an impact are steadfastly secure.

Transcending the generations is written all over the music of Hattie Briggs and right from launching into ‘Never Been in Love Before’ evidence advocating the accrued acclaim surfaced. In true singer-songwriter tradition, Hattie took the time to introduce each of the fourteen songs chosen, some with just the title but others with more furnishing of the background. She generally comes across as an introspective writer, focussing heavily on feelings and emotion, rather than a wider template that would synchronize her more to the core folk community. One aspect of the writing process particularly honed in on is the personal commission. Songs such as ‘Early Girl’, ‘Ma Regina’ and ‘Time’ have been born from this path.

The last two were part of a quintet of songs that stood out as the most appealing on the evening. The latter formed the single song encore with a lovely pedal steel part slipping the tune in a country direction. The other song has yet to surface in any recorded format, but the interchange between the French and English language in the line structure worked really well. Two of the other key moments were the Pete and Peggy Seeger inspired ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and the sole inclusion from the YOUNG RUNAWAY album on the set list, the delightful ‘Lift Me Up’.

The sublime standout moment of the evening was hard to dispute, as Hattie needed nothing more than a single piano accompaniment to pour everything into ‘Just Breathe’, introduced as a song dedicated to her mother. The space afforded Hattie on that song was key. Elsewhere Matt generally provided a subtle sound, continually switching between the triple guitar approach of electric, acoustic and pedal steel. Some kind of backtracking was occasionally used to supplement the rhythm, which while working most of the time did briefly overpower the songs. For a fleeting moment, the sonic surroundings of the Kitchen Garden were not being fully utilised.

Away from Hattie’s own material, a ‘version’ of Eva Cassidy’s ‘version’ of the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ excelled, especially when adorned with more pedal steel. Out of the singles that are being periodically released this year, an upcoming soulful effort titled ‘Up to You’ resounded with greater effect than the current promoted song ‘Say Goodbye’.

An evening heralded a success was frequented by seasoned Hattie Briggs regulars and others experiencing a show for the first time. Across the board, what was witnessed was a clear and concise display of who she is as an artist and where the strengths lie. A beautiful voice to wrap around some serenely crafted songs is not a bad starting point.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Birds of Chicago - Love in Wartime : Signature Sounds Recordings

Birds of Chicago start with a basic blueprint before an eclectic and innovative streak stretches the content to wherever you want it to go. The assets begin with the primal rock ‘n’ soul qualities of JT Nero and Allison Russell. The juxtaposition of the rugged and the beautiful blends and twists in epic proportions to bring a raft of boundless songs. Throughout the meandering journey with an open invitation to enrol, a tight production provides the checks and balances to ensure eleven gift-wrapped original efforts flood out to form a third full-length release from this American duo. LOVE IN WARTIME is an album requiring care and attention, but rewards the diligent listener.

JT and Allison have kept Birds of Chicago productively active since the inception in 2012. Prior to that, JT and the Clouds and Po Girl ensured both were respectively and individually busy in previous bands. Po Girl in particular spawned at least two later successful follow on careers for Awna Teixeira (solo) and Allison with husband JT. For this studio album, the duo have enlisted the services of Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars) as producer and hooked up with respected label Signature Sounds Recordings. This powerful formula has created a spiritually uplifting record ready to continue a fulfilling journey.

You can flip a coin to whether a preference lies within the groovier upbeat numbers or when the tenderer moments take hold. Of course taking each style on their merits is a perfectly acceptable approach. For me, the two anchor track positions of #3 and #7 step out from the crowd as early leading contenders for songs to pick off. ‘Love in Wartime’ , the track, does more than just host the album title, and early in the record it motivates immensely through a tranquil beginning expanding into a grander rock ballad. A compelling string sound accompanies JT’s vocals in the opening before Allison moves the track into duet territory. ‘Roll Away’ is an outright rocker, illuminating from first listen and a track that never wanes from its summit as the lesser songs fight their way onto your horizon.

For those liking things spiced up a little, ‘Never Go Back’ ratchets up the sound in a funky direction by injecting some serious groove straight after a one-minute instrumental opener sets the scene making this eleven track album essentially ten songs.‘Derecho’ is a tough track to grasp in the album closing position and definitely signals that any blueprint has been discarded.

Pushing the two nominated top tracks close is ‘Baton Rouge’, one of a handful of co-writes between the pair on the record (all tracks feature JT as either the sole writer or in tandem) and is blessed with hypnotic qualities. A little delve into the French language in the chorus is not the first time Allison has used her bi-lingual skills on a record and they certainly add to the eclectic nature.

At this point, it is worth noting that Birds of Chicago have fully re-instated the UK on their touring map after obliging us only a fleeting visit to promote the last album. This is further boosted by their selection as one of Rhiannon Giddens curated acts for a slot at this year’s prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival in August.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Try’ is one where JT’s vocals shine at their rugged best, while ‘Travelers’ gets back into a soulful groove after the dexterity of the title track. ‘Lodestar’ and ‘Super Lover’ both had a preview via an uploaded video, so click on the link and check them out for yourself. ’Roisin Starchild’ sees Allison take the vocal lead and probably is as soulful as the album gets.

LOVE IN WARTIME has its major selling point in the sound and vibes emanating from its key architects and associate musicians. Soaking up these is a recommended listening decision as well as tapping into what Birds of Chicago do very well.

GIG REVIEW: Kitty Macfarlane - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 2nd May 2018

For an evening of therapeutic folk music, tapping into the gorgeous tones of Kitty Macfarlane is the place to be. The only trappings required are a beautiful voice, delicate guitar playing and a well-equipped songbook. The inaugural album from this West Country performer may yet still need some extra impetus to see the light of day, but the solo delivered ninety-minute live performance is well on the way to be sealed. This date at the Kitchen Garden was Kitty’s Birmingham debut show, which closely followed one a couple of months ago at the nearby town of Bromsgrove. Indeed, it was a support slot at the Artrix there in 2016 that first alerted me to this talented artist and a keen eye subsequently kept on her career since.

If Devon is the domain of the Lakemans and Dorset of Ninebarrow, then the folk tales of Somerset are going to be safe in the hands of Kitty MacFarlane as she develops her fledgling career. Admittedly, she is now located in Bristol following a university stint in Warwick, but being born and bred in the county has fired her up to continue to explore its heritage through song.

Presently, Kitty’s repertoire represents a tidy balance between the original, borrowed and interpreted song. This is after all folk music, where the baton of tradition passes through a variety of song mediums. Five of the songs featured in this evening’s show originated from a 2016 EP, which provided Kitty a lift up into the recording world.

These included ‘Wrecking Days’ and ‘Bus Stop’, which heralded the closing of the first set and the opening of the second in the running order of the show. Earlier, Kitty had elaborated on the song ‘Lamb’ from this recording with its inclusion of Hinkley Point nuclear power station as forming part of the vista of the North Somerset coastline. To provide a wrap on the EP, the evening ended with the title track ‘Tide & Time’ and a cover version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’. The latter really caught the ear when first seeing Kitty support Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman at that Bromsgrove gig, and it sounded just as sweet in the encore spot this evening.

Possibly the sweetest moment of the show was a stunning a Capella delivery of ‘Starling’ in the latter stages of the second set. This song is based on the amazing visual experience of witnessing the starling murmuration and presented an opportunity to slip into a relaxed listening zone. Sometimes after a long day at work, a soothing song performance can work wonders. Kitty actually began the evening in a similar unaccompanied mode with a version of the traditional song ‘Morgan’s Pantry’. Immediately after finishing the number, she explained its meaning of referring to Bristol Channel’s very own mermaid mythology. A continuation of Somerset folklore rolled over into the myth of ‘Avona’,  a doomed love story given eternal status via some of the area’s most prominent landmarks.

This set the tone of the evening, which saw Kitty perfecting the art of the inter-song chat and informative musings. An eloquent and assured manner helped considerably, alongside affectionate warmth to ease the audience into her fold. Perhaps the chat peaked with the wonderfully portrayed passion for eel conservation. Kitty skilfully weaved the concept of freedom of movement into ‘The Glass Eel’ with more than a concealed nod to a political persuasion.

Alongside the Tim Buckley piece, a couple songs from David Francey and Anne Briggs had an airing. The former’s ‘Saints and Sinners’ soared as the gig’s prime audience participation moment, especially useful having an easily accessible and memorable chorus. ‘Go Your Way’ was the other borrowed song. Other compositions resonating during the gig included the autobiographical ‘17’, an adaption from a William Blake poem ‘Man, Friendship’ and the sentimentally reassuring ‘Dawn and Dark’.

As impressive as Kitty’s development is proving, there is room for a little variation in the guitar-strummed pieces and maybe a killer chorus/melody in an original number will provide a hook to propel her career forward onto a higher plateau. However, time is on her side and a considerable asset base is already gaining the attention of many acute observers on the English folk scene.

Alongside artists such as Kirsty Merryn, Kelly Oliver, Emily Mae Winters and Kim Lowings to name just four, Kitty Macfarlane is at the heart of the wealth of young singer-songwriter/interpreter talent on the English folk scene. Throw in the Scottish talents of Iona Fife and Siobhan Miller and the list starts getting endless. Venues like the Kitchen Garden give them an ideal listening environment and the opportunity to sharpen their craft. Kitty grasped this chance and left those making it their evening of choice fully satisfied and suitably impressed.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ben Glover - Shorebound : Proper Records

If ATLANTIC and THE EMIGRANT represented the journey, the case for SHOREBOUND being the destination is compelling. You can ask no more than an artist to keep moving forward in their creative output, and Ben Glover has achieved this with his new record. The Anglo element to his work has long been a feature and it is once again prevalent as the lengthy list of collaborators is revealed. Whether tapping into the darker sides of Mary Gauthier and Gretchen Peters' writing to reaching out across the pond to new collaborations with Ricky Ross and Robert Vincent, the standard of composition remains substantially high. This cements a growing reputation of being one of the most perceptive songwriters across the borderless roots/Americana scene.

While Ben Glover is an artist that you associate with working with others, there are two moments on the record where he takes the solitary writing route. By far the strongest of these is ‘Kindness’, a song title and sentiment for eternity. Additionally, a theme explored extensively by Courtney Marie Andrews this year. Joining this moving piece in solo mode is the title number; a pensive song appearing to play a secondary role to the album’s punchier moments in the review stages.

One of these moments which generate an instant reaction is the link up with Ricky Ross for the rousing piece ‘Wildfire’. Associations with Ben’s other significant project The Orphan Brigade immediately spring to mind upon first hearing this track, and somewhere down the line it is reminiscent of the sound Birds of Chicago perfect in their uptempo material.  Perhaps there is a vocal synergy between Ben and JT Nero. Ultimately, this track wanders into radio earworm territory, likely heavily influenced by Ricky Ross, who is no stranger to the commercial world via his seminal work with Deacon Blue.

The core of this record sees Ben work closely with two songwriters who have been instrumental in the raising of his profile especially in Britain and his native Northern Ireland. ‘Dancing With The Beast’ is a song with multiple lives this year. Both Ben and Gretchen Peters have cut it on their respective albums, similarly to what they did previously with ‘Blackbirds’. Each artist grasps ownership of their version with a firm grip. The influence of Mary Gauthier on ‘Catbird Seat’ is also prominent as we delve into the darker side of life. Where else do you end up when in harness with her writing?

On a more moderate level, ‘Northern Stars’ sees a hook up with fellow Irish artists Matt McGinn and Malojian for a solid effort that more than pays its way in one of the tracks selected to promote the album in the run up to its release. Probably the vocal performance on the record is where Ben re-unites his duet partnership with Angel Snow for ‘A Wound That Seeks The Arrow’. The pair toured together a few years ago and both have continued to make great strides with their respective solo careers since.

Where you find Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard will not be far behind. Not only does he chip in with the co-production role (and another notch on his impressive producing resume) and play a multitude of instruments, but gets specifically on the credits for ‘Song For The Fighting’. In contrast, a new name to appear on a Ben Glover record is English singer-songwriter Robert Vincent, who ensures that the album finishes on an upbeat and positive note with ‘Keeper of My Heart’.

At the outset of the record, the feeling of being in different surroundings permeates through the jovial sounding opener ‘What You Love Will Break Your Heart’. Fair enough, the title suggests otherwise, but the fuller production gives the track a real boost of energy. This song also heralds the first of the collaborators in Amy Speace, another Nashville artist familiar with UK audiences.

While the strength of this record is in its sturdy base, joining the tracks that slightly edge to the front during the early stages of listening is the delightful ‘Ride the River’, the product of a collaboration with Kim Richey. This is an enjoyable positive number that rolls along at a decent pace, in contrast to the laid-back vibes that accompanies ‘My Shipwrecked Friend’. A delicate song in the final stages of the record and the result of Ben working with Anthony Toner.

Judging SHOREBOUND as Ben Glover’s finest piece of work to date is slightly ingenuous to the last two records, which played an important part in a voyage of discovery. Without doubt, the new record possesses the most commercial appeal of the three, if that measure is applied. Of course, commerciality in these times can have adjusted definitions and horizons. While an artist is likely to be exhausted and relieved when a major release is unveiled to the world, impatient fans will soon be thinking where next is this journey going, Maybe that is for another day as there is plenty to wrap your ears around on a monumental record with much pleasure derived from meticulously exploring it.