Saturday, 21 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Arkansas Dave - Sandwell Arts Cafe, West Bromwich. Friday 20th July 2018

Two weeks into their current UK tour and it was a case a finally catching some Arkansas Dave in a mode that best reflects a road band. A slight jolt from a late entry to the Maverick Festival a fortnight earlier swiftly ironed out and, as they entered the final furlong of this current trip, a drop off in the West Midlands presented an opportunity to see them away from the hustle and bustle of a fully blown festival line-up. This four-piece combo led by Dave Pennington lived up to reports, both from word of mouth and from published reviews, as they adapted well to surroundings not always conducive to live music.

This lunchtime performance in West Bromwich was the first of two shows during a one-day visit to the area. Both initiated by the Birmingham Jazz and Blues Festival; a celebration of genre driven music held for a 10 day period across multiple venues on an annual basis. The evening gig would present the band the opportunity to ramp up the volume, but this 50 minute midday set still possessed enough velocity to blow a hole across a venue that has had a somewhat checkered past.

Sandwell Arts CafĂ© may not be a well-known name across the West Midlands, but folks will remember the furor around the Public in West Bromwich town centre. This ill-fated arts venture with the striking structure may well have split opinion in its early days, but it is now reborn as an extension to the burgeoning Sandwell College, all while the layout to this industrial town has re-shaped. The open nature to the venue’s location within the building looked out onto the lunchtime shoppers, but full focus on the band offset any distraction.

In the past, open atrium-styled, performing spaces can struggle with live rock music. However, a low hanging roof over the stage helped compress the sound and few complaints could emerge that the band did not come across well. In the presence of around thirty or forty attentive folks for this free show, Dave remained on acoustic guitar, letting his lead accomplice Drew de France raise the heat with the rocking work. Bass and drums provided the usual solid framework as the band leapt forward with a raft of tracks from their current album mixed with a fine assortment of apt covers.

Before you ask, they do hail from Arkansas – Camden to be precise, a contrasting quip added to the repertoire after spending time in the somewhat different London version. Their style of blues is straight from the strand of Americana where this named style melds with country, gospel and any other roots-infused influence. Early on, Dave commented on Arkansas and its neighbouring states’ claim as the cradle of Americana, citing both Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash while covering classic songs of theirs.

Champagne & Reefer’ and ‘Get Rhythm’ were clearly identifiable numbers added to the set celebrating the impact of the Southern greats on music active today. From the self-titled debut Arkansas Dave album released earlier this year, ‘Bad Water’, the Tom Waites tune ‘Chocolate Jesus’ and ‘On My Way’ led the way, with the latter closing the set with everybody in humming mode.

A little post-gig research revealed that the band have visited the area before with a Birmingham show in July 2017. There has been slightly more press about them on this trip and hopefully momentum can build to a return in the future where they get a fully-fledged gig that’s promoted in conjunction with their pure Americana attributes, which clearly frame this brand of blues rock.

As the band headed north to perform at the more acclaimed and focused SummerTyne Festival on the final leg of the tour, small but significant memories formed of the time lunchtime gig goers ventured down to West Bromwich town centre to sample a slice of real deal Southern USA.  Live music operates in mysterious ways and the world is healthier for it.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: The Barr Brothers - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 16th July 2018

The Barr Brothers are a band operating out of Montreal Canada that has caught the ear of those integral to scheduling artists for the Moseley Folk Festival and a variety of accompanying gigs. Therefore, with Birmingham on their horizon it was of no surprise to see them return to the city with the Glee Club providing the host venue this time. There has been a buzz about this band for quite a while so when a late window of opportunity presented itself some first-hand thoughts spawned into the mix.

Clearly fronted predominately by Brad on guitars/vocals and Andy bringing percussion more to the fore, the Barr siblings were in a fixated mood to transmit their style of alt-rock-beat infused music, which in turn abrades the outer edges of Americana. Aided by the perpetual tones of haunting pedal steel as far away from country twang as you could imagine, and a bassist adept at switching between the stand-up and electric versions, this was a full-on presentation extolling the virtues of amassing an abundance of nuances into a raft of landscape forming tunes.

For around the habitual hour and half slot, a scene of minimal chat and non-existent song introduction established early on and it was a case of quickly buying into the band’s insularity. Any vague knowledge of The Barr Brothers prior to the gig was likely to remain intact at the end, yet there was something intoxicating about submerging into a swirling atmosphere of technical and experimental virtuosity. The softly delivered vocals of Brad often joined in unison with a variety of harmony formats and this blended well with the regular vibes, while juxtaposing when the tempo shifted. Think the Milk Carton Kids meet Arcade Fire and you will be getting warmer.

An assembly around a separate illuminated single mic for a couple of acoustic tracks instilled an air of placidity and an edge of versatility to quell the fire with a touch of folk. The core quartet systematically tapped into the airs of English harpist Emma Gatrill to add a finesse touch. She, and guitarist Marcus Hamblett, opened the evening in the support slot, and crowned the eclectic nature when joining the band armed with trumpet and clarinet for a number in the closing stages. The floating vocals of Emma hovered in an inviting manner during her spot in the limelight, clearly appetising for those with the inclination to chase.

Post gig summation cornered on a view that an element of maneuvering was required to grasp the mantle of this gig. Thoughts of The Barr Brothers peaking from a personal standpoint in a festival setting dispersed when the first inkling towards when the set would end only emerged when they announced that this would be their final song. The preceding eighty minutes did constantly engage the mind in the conundrum activity of detecting the depth to this indisputable tech feast and the degree it penetrated the soul. There is an obvious attraction to deep-rooted musical aficionados. Also for folks who take a progressive viewpoint on where straight up rock music can deviate. It was a fascinating, insightful and respectful evening engaging with The Barr Brothers. Maybe a vessel to jump off post gig, nevertheless a worthwhile sidestep away from the norm.

Monday, 9 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Maverick Festival in Twenty Songs - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th July 2018

One thing that unites all Maverick artist invitees is an acute capacity to write or interpret a meaningful song. Dependent on preferred style, these strip back to acoustic mode or frequently acquire layers of instrumentation to present lavishly. Dawes famously implied that underneath all the content, mere folk songs reside. So as the Maverick Festival moved into its second decade of existence, why not tell a story of the weekend through a prism of twenty songs that reverberated around the confines of Easton Farm Park.

For once, the Suffolk weather for Maverick weekend was widely shared across the UK as the great heatwave of 2018 rolled on. The contrasting improvised performing locations on the site benefited both sun and shade seekers alike. Maybe our guests from down under and the sultry southern states wore a wry grin while performing, but you cannot deny us our precious time in the sun. Weather aside, and the perception of ‘names’, the music on display cut a fine tune and showed why our often indescribable sounds flourish positively away from the distant hype of the populist masses.

Inevitably, anybody attending the festival is going to form their own memories. Omissions from this list are unscientific, just a case of practical realism. From a primary prospective, the ears pricked with some resemblance of relevance and identification before each song hurriedly slipped into the mental briefcase. The wonderful worldwide web comes to life in the aftermath, but that may sometimes not be enough. So applying the business phrase of ‘errors and omissions excepted’, here in near random order are the songs that defined my Maverick 2018.

Danny and the Champions of the World inspired many in the Barn late on Saturday evening with the delightfully optimistic ‘Never Stop Building (That Old Space Rocket)’. You cannot beat a wave of idealism, especially when delivered by the ‘best live band in Britain’. Giving their ‘greatest ever performance’, just like Swindon the evening before, sometimes you can search for top headliners across the Americana landscape and realise they are just under your nose. Spending most of the time on electric guitar, Danny was clearly up for a good rocking time with the full Champs line up. This headline set saw the latest honorary Champ grab a piece of the action with Hannah Rose Platt joining Danny on stage for an acoustic duet of 'Don't Walk Away'. Good, but still in the slipstream of the 'rocket'.

There is not an endless supply of cover songs emanating from the Maverick stages across the weekend, apart from the occasional tribute collaborations that pop up. One exception on the outdoor Southern Sounds stage on Saturday lunchtime was a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ delivered by Nottingham based outfit The Most Ugly Child. Who can resist a number from an iconic artist who wrote the song junkies anthem ‘For the Sake of the Song’. The band spearheaded by Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison were in rip roaring honky tonk form all set and proved a timely reminder why their latest album COPPER & LACE met with so much press approval when released early last year. A wise and sound choice to allow folks to bask in the sunshine to some good music. 

A promise that this will be the last weather mention, but the pull of including ‘Rain in the Rock’ by The Danberrys was too good to resist for irony alone. On the back of missing their Birmingham gig the night before, every effort was made to catch Dorothy and Ben’s set. You had to be a festival early arrival to see them as they were the second band in the Barn on Friday teatime, but the half hour of smashing roots music the pair delivered made it a worthwhile time investment. The Danberrys have played Maverick before and a growing association with the UK from this Nashville based duo will probably see them return again in the future. The song is taken from their 2013 self-titled album and they are definitely worth seeking out when they tour our shores again. 

The next song comes from the first of two Scottish singer-songwriters who made the long trek south to play the ‘In the Round’ presentation on the Friday evening. This was arranged by the AMA UK and in fact, the second invitation extended to Steve Grozier to play one of their events this year. Steve showed his growing pedigree, with the song ‘Porcelain Hearts’, from a previous record that complemented his most recent EP titled A PLACE WE CALLED HOME being the selection here. He was also one of many artists to play a session song or two in Leader’s Live Lounge, which will air on Meridian FM over the coming weeks. This is fast becoming an extended essential feature to keep the festival flame burning as we head deeper into July. Many Maverick artists value this enhanced exposure. 

Roseanne Reid joined Steve for the Songwriters in the Round slot with Jeffrey Martin and followed a similar route with the ensuing radio session too. Recommendations for Roseanne’s music are starting to come thick and fast. The backstory will quickly unveil, but there is a unique way in which she exhales her songs that makes a distinct impression. Expect things to move rapidly when the Teddy Thompson-produced debut album gets out and maybe the chosen song here, ‘Kingdom Come’, will make an appearance. Maverick may well have been at the early stages of something special. Either way, Roseanne came across as a respectful unassuming character ready to build an organic career and share a passion for her love of writing songs. What the festival is all about. 

We will stay on the Peacock stage, and the site of the songwriter’s event for a song that hails from the traditional pool. Bonnie Bishop was one of the most eagerly anticipated artists when the line-up was revealed and she did not disappoint across her two festival appearances on a fleeting twenty-four hour visit to the UK. Bonnie performed a magnificent version of ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’ in the collaborative slot before going on to impress further with a fuller length set later in the Barn. She promised to return to the UK in the autumn and eyes will be peeled for these dates. There were no surprises from Bonnie Bishop. Just confirmation that she is an immensely talented artist heading on the right path. One adept at spinning the styles of folk, roots, soul and blues in a country song writing direction. 

Back outside and a band that opened up the proceedings on Saturday morning. Luke Tuchscherer brought his band the Penny Dreadfuls to Maverick and ensured there was going to be no gentle easing in to the day’s music. Luke has recently released his latest album PIECES, a self-admitted confession to return in some part to his rockier days with the Whybirds. The song chosen for this review is ‘Sudden Getaway’ from the new record. Although this was a loud-ish start to the day (Terra Lighfoot raised the decibels on this stage later), the new material blended in well with the older songs, with perhaps the sound moderated a little. A successful way to rid any Friday night excesses. This was a working trip back to the UK for Luke from his new home in the US and I am pretty sure he will continue to remain in touch on a professional level. 

As we approach the half way mark of these twenty songs, let us head down under for three artists making it an Aussie Maverick. Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes led the contingent with a return to the festival after proving a huge success in 2017. This time his appearances stretched the breadth of the event, including multiple slots and collaborations with his compatriots. The chosen song had to be ‘I Hope That I’m Wrong’ from the new album SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC, containing the most stunning line to open a track this year, easily surmounting to Isbell proportions. Check it out and the other work of Lachlan Bryan as well. My voice is not alone. Probably the artist that epitomises the spirit of Maverick the most from the 2018 alumni. 

Joining Lachlan on this trip is Imogen Clark who on the surface represents a slightly different strand of roots music. There is an element of leaning towards country pop territory in terms of style and content, but this is done in a controlled way that represents her youthful outlook and breezy persona. The pick from her songs is ‘High Tide’ taken from a solo set on Saturday tea time in the Barn and can also be found on her recent album COLLIDE. Imogen’s extended influence came in the form of a cover of Linda Rondstadt’s ‘You’re No Good’ finding its way into the Aussie farewell extravaganza held on the Moonshine stage on Sunday lunchtime. The talent from Imogen was indisputable and the avenues her vocals went down suggested an artist capable of many things in a bright future. 

Husband and wife duo The Weeping Willows completed the Aussie trio for Maverick 2018. Consisting of Andy Wrigglesworth on multiple guitars and Laura Coates on vocals, they really came to prominence on Sunday morning via mini sets in Leader’s Live Lounge and the pop up Travelling Medicine Show stage alongside appearing with Imogen and Lachlan at the Aussie finale. Their folk and roots style with a solid old time bluegrass feel resonated highly and from a short array of songs repeatedly heard on Sunday, the yet to be recorded ‘House of Sin’ made the cut here. Before we bid farewell to our friends from down under, a quick shout out to bassist Shaun Ryan from the Wildes making it an excellent quintet for this trip.  Fingers crossed that all three acts can return to the UK at some point in the future. 

Ten songs down; ten to go. A time to take a breather and reflect on selected artists not to make this cut. Sets by Dylan Earl, Southern Avenue, the Dan Webster Band and Terra Lightfoot were dipped into, as was the BJ Cole Hawaiian pedal steel exhibition on Saturday afternoon. Artists such as Arkansas Dave and Amelia White will no doubt have their day. All Maverick artists ascend to a special status and make the event a success. Not forgetting the fabulous setting and the amenable inhabitants of Easton Farm Park.

Back to the songs and an artist who has serious praise surrounding me from every angle. Hans Chew had forty minutes in the Barn on Saturday evening, so decided only a couple of his lengthy songs/musical pieces will suffice. It was easy to see where this praise came from as a mesmeric presentation of experimental music came to the fore. Different, but a true maverick. Sources told me the the first song was ‘Open Sea’ from his latest album so that is the selection nailed. Hans decided that major electric guitar and minor keyboard work was going to be the format for the Barn. Literally minutes from completing this set, he hopped over to the conventional piano in the Moonshine and the party continued. Hans Chew had arrived at Maverick and more personally bang into my sphere. 

Country music at Maverick is usually there in spirit only, so it was time this morphed into an earthly form. At last Ags Connolly had an invite and hopefully, the three-song segment as part of the AMA UK Songwriters in the Round is a blueprint for a return, this time on the main bill. ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’ is a trademark Ags song and would make many song cuts, not just this brief sortie around a festival weekend. In the burgeoning UK ‘country’ scene, Ags Connolly is a true maverick, so it is about time that the link is made. The set with Bonnie Bishop and Robbie Cavanagh was the pick of the songwriter part. They interacted well and used the full extent of the forty-five minute slot to share common bonds found in their different styles. 

Circumstances on the day dictated that attention might have been elsewhere when Curse of Lono took to the outside stage at 4 o’clock on Saturday Those electing to choose the music were treated to another impressive performance from a band quickly escalating the ladder of live accomplishment. The highlight of this set came towards the latter stages when equally good news spread around the site. ‘Pick up the Pieces’ is a lively focal track for a band driven through the keys and making a comfy home in the Americana context that zooms in on their form of alternate rock. A good choice to return to the festival after last year’s guest AMA UK slot. 

Joining Curse of Lono on the outdoor stage was another band getting an extended invite to return to the festival after showcasing the year before. The Grande made the trip from Liverpool and gave a solid display of tightknit alt-country rock that feasts profitably in any decent festival setting. The song ‘Open Heart’ came across as a decent number deserving of a warranted mention. Post festival research identified it as an old song from a 2011 album, but there is more recent material to check out this band. They are the type of act that thrives on the Saturday afternoon at Maverick where those hunkering down on the Green tend to get fuller sounding performances than what tends to drift around the festival from the other locations. 

Let us flip back from Saturday lunchtime to Friday teatime and a performance from Jonathan Byrd that set the tone for any weekend interaction. This accomplished country folk artist from Chapel Hill North Carolina is a perennial tourer to the UK and packs venues up and down the land. It may have been his first visit to Maverick, but this firm favourite at folk festivals got the pulse running with an a Capella performance of ‘Poor Johnny’. Aided by his talented sidekick Johnny Waken, who improvises with your bog standard diy saw, in a musical way mind you, their duo act is once seen never forgotten. If you have not seen Jonathan Byrd before, he is well worth checking out. He seems to tour every other year or so and a good time is guaranteed. Folks at Maverick can now concur. 

There will be plenty of new converts to the Jeffrey Martin fan club after his multiple performances across the weekend. This was a singer-songwriter metaphorically and literally sweating out his songs. We get spoilt with artists like these getting persuaded to share their innate talent with British audiences. After seeing Jeffrey play a couple of sets, there was a late change to the song pick with ‘The Middle’ standing out from his final stage spot as the curtain was being drawn on another successful festival. The theme of this song with the ‘middle’ being a good place to be is poignant, especially if you can define your own middle.  Apart from his songwriter's set, all Jeffrey's performances were in conjunction with his touring companion Anna Tivel.

Like her touring partner, Anna also hails from Portland Oregon, an increasingly fertile part of the US for creative artisans. There may well have been contrasting elements to their vocal style and song delivery but both artists are diligently immersed into the sanctity of the song. Anna adds fiddle to her repertoire with it casting a velvet cloak over her softly spun songs. An emotive piece inspired by her father making a recovery from an unusual health affliction moved into the song selection spot with ‘The Lines and the Tide’ available for all to enjoy on her 2016 record HEROES WAKING UP. Maverick folks enjoyed what others had witnessed across Anna’s tour and fingers are crossed that this can be expanded to other parts of the country when she returns in the future. 

Maverick is ideal for discovering new artists or at least checking out briefly known ones in a live setting. Midlands based transatlantic duo A Different Thread made an inaugural trip to this Suffolk gathering and grasped the opportunity to share a bunch of tunes across three different platforms. The Leader’s Live Lounge session and a short performance on the Travelling Medicine Show stage were the added bonus to playing a fuller set in the Barn on Saturday afternoon. A new song written by co-member Alicia Best (fiddle/percussion/vocals) called ‘The Potters Field’ emerged as the pick and represented all that is intriguing and fascinating when Americana saunters into the world of mysterious folk music. Robert Jackson unites with Alicia to rally around the duo format excelling on guitar and harmonica.

The Goat Roper Rodeo Band had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday afternoon, and an energetic set of acoustic driven old time tonk music sent everybody home in a celebratory dancing mood. This Welsh trio also had an equal honour of opening the Barn stage on Friday late afternoon so it was a double celebration for a band returning to Maverick after a few years widening their live presence elsewhere on the UK summer circuit. Interestingly, the song that struck a chord was one of the fewer slow numbers in ‘Don’t Believe in You’, which was ironic listening to just as about to depart a festival that you have believed in since first making the long trek down to Suffolk nine years ago. Amidst the Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans booked to play, there will always remain a core of homegrown talent. 

This song-focussed review began with a personal festival highlight and concludes with a performance that deserved equal billing. Advance warning that the Cordovas were good proved an accurate assessment as they played a scorching headline slot on the outdoors Southern Sounds stage. A blistering set blew away the Easton Farm Park dust leading the pigs behind the stage to rouse from their slumber into some frenetic activity. This was exhibitionist country rock at its finest dealt by a band deciding that forty five minutes requires no talking just a relentless flow of fine music. The song choice finally rests on ‘Southern Rain’, partially distinguished by its recognisable chorus. In fact, any of the tunes could be picked as it was a set to remember and living proof that ‘known names’ are not necessarily the sole route when putting together a successful festival line-up.

Cambridge may have Americana pedigree in 2018, while Black Deer and Long Road start up with a bigger budget, but can they eclipse the subtlety and romance of a festival defying the odds on many fronts. Eleven years is a feat in itself for an operation that evolves slowly and courts a loyal following. A firm fixture that would be missed if it floated away is a sound enough reason to plough on and provide a valuable platform for like-minded fans to mix freely with like-minded artists. Maverick is about the music, the artists, the fans, the ambience and... oh yes the song.