Tuesday, 31 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Laven + Hannah Johnson - Spotted Dog, Birmingham. Monday 30th July 2018

The status of Texas country music is legendary and the fact so much of it crosses the seas in touring mode is an added bonus. Only in the last week, Austin icon Kelly Willis played a Midlands show and Steve Earle has been back in town adding to the proof that you can take the person out of Texas but… Maybe we are sliding down the scale a touch, but Rachel Laven is firmly in the camp such is the class, poise and songwriting acumen that pour from her stage demeanor. For her hour in the spotlight on this Birmingham return, the Lone Star shone brightly down on the Spotted Dog, not your usual state of play in Digbeth. Hooking up with Birmingham’s very own country music aficionado and keeper of the flame Hannah Johnson for this double bill was a sensible choice and those heading into Town for their Monday evening music fix were dealt a treat.

Hannah played the courteous host and opened up with a duo set alongside her Dad, Stewart, on Dobro. This slimmed down format is aiding his recovery from heart surgery earlier this year and there surely can be no better tonic than being able to play forty-five minutes of real deal country music to willing listeners. Apart from a couple of originals off the latest album SHAKEN, Hannah tended to focus her set on select covers, mixing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash standards with lesser known snippets from Iris DeMent and Skeets McDonald. Adding the Gillian Welch song ‘I Want to Sing That Rock ‘n’ Roll’ to the set was a good choice as well. Perhaps the future of Hannah does centre on maintaining a steady flow of original material that has formed at least a healthy part of her sets for a number of years. More waltz songs like ‘Morning Cocktail’ will serve up nicely.

Standing aside for Rachel to claim the limelight was Hannah’s parting shot for the evening (she will be back next week somewhere on the local circuit). As it is not every day that a sparkling singer-songwriter from San Antonio takes to the stage with a fistful of songs reflective of what has made her State’s music so compelling over the years.

Twelve months ago, Rachel played a lower key show in the city’s Blue Piano venue. This time the performance appeared a little more rounded, not just longer, but fuller with further revealing chat, a varied set list and some improvised collaborations. It helped that her latest record LOVE & LUCCHESES has been on heavy streaming rotation for the last few months. Hopes of walking away with a physical copy were dashed following a first touring batch sell out, but orders taken on the evening should yield their reward in a few days.

Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the album content was shared with a fair sprinkling of hardcore Americana music devotees in the audience. Good word gets around. However, this was not before Rachel paid her own tribute to Texas legend Guy Clark early in the set. Album favourites such as ‘Do You Dare’ and ‘The Moon’ sounded super live. The opening line from the latter – ‘even the lone star’s got a friend tonight’ is a corker. Two songs that escalated up the scale this evening were ‘Love & Luccheses’ and ‘Don’t Put Me in a Town’. Each had their origins explained to shed a vivid light on the compositions, which are both high class. The former is accompanied by the sentimental tale of a pair of boots being passed down the family line – quintessentially Texan –, while deriding a town for having more churches than bars provides fuel for a great country song.

Getting recommendations of other artists to check out is a norm from touring singer-songwriters and Rachel planted the name Walt Wilkins this evening. He is a fellow Texan who kindly allowed her to cut ‘Something Like Heaven’ on the album. For a more familiar song, Rachel was joined by Rebecca from the Rosellys and her mother (this year’s travelling companion) on backing vocals to knock out ‘Angel From Montgomery’. Ironic to the extent that the great John Prine plays a rare Birmingham show this coming Friday.

We got a further taste of The Lavens family band when mum Jana stayed on stage to sing lead on another song. It also does not take too many online clicks to find more about this band that is very much the forerunner to Rachel branching out as a solo artist. Rebecca, who has provided the link for Rachel to play UK shows for a couple of years, joined on several occasions to sing backing vocals as well. Alas, there was no extra musical accompaniment to Rachel's fine guitar playing. Fiddle and steel would sound great as evidenced on the record.

So, this evening’s choice of gig (and even though it was late July there were still alternatives on offer) ended up being an extremely enjoyable show. Two artists from two different backgrounds sharing a common bond of music we all love. Hannah Johnson gigs come round quite quickly, but we have to cherish each moment that artists like Rachel Laven leave their Texas home and stroll into a back room pub with an armful of top songs, all played, sung and presented wonderfully.

Rachel playing the opening track of the album with Sweet 'Shine & Honey


Monday, 30 July 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Emma Jane - Treasures: Self-Released

Emma Jane came to my attention in the summer of 2012 when the song ‘Sunday Monday Blues’ ascended to ‘track of the summer’ status. The subsequent years have seen her music flicker in and out, but now that is set to change with the release of a truly outstanding record, simply titled TREASURES. If there is a more distinguishable album released this year from a solo UK based artist then it will have to be very good to topple this gem. For this is a record that takes little time to find its way and successfully steers the listener through a minefield of emotion. Deeply personal and sourced from a ripped open heart makes the sort of music that resonates well here. Emma Jane has succeeded on multiple levels in making a record diverse in sound yet consistent in quality.

A powerful vocal set is used to an optimum level across the eleven tracks as the small team assembled to support Emma Jane set out on a journey to bring her original composed songs to life. Stopover sounds include rock, pop, soul, jazz, country et al, making genre association impossible. Not a bad open place to be, although you can never underestimate the value of promotional tags. UK Americana feels right in spasms, but not to the core, even if the content blows away most of the opposition in that camp. Labels aside, let us explore the peaks and summits that have made TREASURES an album to cherish.

A strong theme and inspiration across the album is the onset of personally family experienced dementia and its associated effects, presence and impact. The writing is in a subtle way as to allow the listener room for self-interpretation. Darkness mixes with light alongside hope in a mist of melancholy. Above all, the tunes are well-crafted efforts engaging the listener from the outset, even to the extent of steering them down an undulating path.

The album is bookended by two similarly slow pensive tracks, opening and closing the door on proceedings. The minimalist gospel-like opener ‘Where I’m Going’ sets the scene resolutely, framed by the explicit lines ‘the mind gives up or the body retires/once full of life but now I’m so tired’. Forty-five minutes later Emma Jane conquers the piano ballad world with the painfully, or maybe not, conclusive, ‘Drink You Away’.

If pressed for the moment when the record rides the crest of a wave, then the country leaning ‘Dreaming About You’ fits the bill. This feel good story song of unrelenting love is awash with classy guitar twang and a chorus that projects it to the peak. This is far from a country album on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and a substance emerges.

Pushing this track hard in the hooks galore gallery is the soulful ‘Breathe Slow’, a tip for us all sometimes. On the topic of tracks reaching out in the promotional sphere, ‘Paper Houses’ with its rock ‘n’ pop sentiment does a grand vibrant job. All while contemplating the metaphor ‘paper’ does not really equate to a great substance.

It is rather a breathless merry go round of sounds in the opening phase. ‘Lover Man’ with its piano opening strays into jazzy territory, while ‘In My Days’ is a straight up acoustically driven rock ‘n’ roller looking back in time and ensuring a dose of repetition in a song works wonders.

Three tracks, namely ‘Close’, ‘Don’t Settle’ and ‘Treasures’ fall into a rockier sounding realm. The former builds up slowly before Emma Jane ramps up the vocals into full-on mode. Always done tastefully, mind you. The latter of this trio acts as the upbeat climax to the record, just before we crash out in an alcohol haze.

‘Beyond the Rainbow’ completes the track listings and its popular appeal grows out of a well-constructed base. The eternally seeking title appears only in a first verse line as the cry of ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ resonates strongly at the end.

Strength is a feeling that emanates throughout from the vocal adaptations to the musical templates that house the songs. The hopscotch sounds are brought together in a common bond sourced from the inspiration. Emma Jane leads, and the listener is compelled to follow. An artist can ask no more than make a record that the listener believes in. TREASURES has done that and the music of Emma Jane is destined to not merely flicker on the horizon anymore.


ALBUM REVIEW: Sons of Bill - Oh God Ma'am: Loose Music

The fact that this album has been out for a month and lurking on my devices for a couple is symbolic of the time required to transcribe the sound and effect into an alternative medium. There are so many positive attributes to Sons of Bill especially for those sauntering into Americana from an indie background. A jangle laden rock feast that instantly finds its groove and proceeds to only marginally detour underpins their hazy wistful sound. Think tones of late 80s Manchester on a West Coast tour and you start to move in the circles of this five-piece combo out of Charlottesville Virginia, containing three Wilson brothers who are literally ‘sons of Bill’. OH GOD MA’AM is their fifth full-length release since 2006, in addition to a handful of EPs. They made inroads in the UK on the back of their 2014 album LOVE & LOGIC and the show in Birmingham the following year made my top 20 list of favourite 2015 gigs. Therefore, any subsequent new material was eagerly awaited.

The new record was released on Loose Music in the UK; a good fit for this type of band. It contains a neat round number of ten tracks deviating slightly in pace without losing any of the core appeal that rinses this type of music. Perhaps the lack of a top -drawer track made the identification process a little longer and thus coat hangers had to be constructed to split the forty-seven minute duration into bite size consumable chunks. Eventually, three tunes emerged to project the record further and away from the masses that occasionally submerge the listening process.

The first of these is the tender atmospheric opener ‘Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away’, which gently floats along inviting you grab it rather than forcefully imposing. Midway through the album, a more than decent melody brings ‘Easier’ to the fore, with Molly Parden (of Sam Outlaw association for folks in the UK) joining on vocals and getting full accreditation in the track listings. Just eclipsing these two for the ultimate golden moment is the memorable ‘Old & Gray’, successful in anchoring the closing stages of the record.

Away from this trio, the other seven songs tend to hit on a familiar path and conglomerate into an entity. ‘Firebird ‘85’ and ‘Good Mourning (They Can’t Break You Now’) represent contrasting speeds, albeit within the similar domain of twangy guitars and hazy vocals.

More up-to-date similarities to Sons of Bill come from the Co-Pilgrim/Dreaming Spires axis in the UK and Belle Adair, who had an album release earlier this year on Locke Records in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The general sound is highly suburban and one that finds its groove early on. You do need to tap into this zone to get the best out of Sons of Bill. Their style can be quite concealing and layers will need to be stripped away to hook up. One saleable trait of the record is that you do not need to be absolutely immersed into it. Casual play in the background or a car journey accompaniment can yield positive results.

Sons of Bill will embark on a series of dates in the UK and Europe in August and on past evidence, these are likely to be memorable occasions. In the event of not being able to attend one of these shows, escaping from the pressures of the modern world with a copy of OH GOD, MA’AM is a desirable pursuit as long as you develop the right mind set. Tune in, and few bands are as good as Sons of Bill in executing a mood-driven sound of escapist melodic rock bridging the past, present and future.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Steve Earle and the Dukes - O2 Institute, Birmingham. Saturday 28th July 2018

The past, present and future were all brought to the forefront as Steve Earle hurtled towards the conclusion of this latest UK tour; another successful one with the ‘mighty’ Dukes in tow. Fiddle, steel, bass, drums and lead guitar is a starter to get the juices going, especially when the practitioners are so good and the guy up front happens to be one of the legends of American music over the last thirty years. A full two-hour performance in addition to The Mastersons opening up and rapturous reports from the other gigs made this most recent Birmingham stop-off an opportunity ultimately unmissable.

The past stretches back in excess of thirty years and ‘Guitar Town’ sounds as fresh and vibrant as when it sprung Steve Earle to the masses in the mid-eighties. That and a raft of other standards from the catapult years inevitably drew the highest level of interaction. Who can resist the call and response to ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and joining in on the chorus line of ‘My Old Friend the Blues’. 2018 is indeed the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic COPPERHEAD ROAD album and the frenzied drum insertion leading to the title track’s instrumental climax still sends down shivers. The back-to-back Celtic drill of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ and ‘The Galway Girl’ competes with anything out of the emerald isle, especially when the fiddle loosens up and the pedal steel guitar trades for accordion. Steadfastly linking the past and the present is long-term Dukes bassist Kelly Looney, consistently caressing the stand-up on the folk and the electric on the rock.

The present comes in two phases: the current Dukes line-up and the latest album. Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson aka duo act The Mastersons may well have been official Dukes for more than half a dozen years, but there is still a frequent appreciative glancing smile from their leader. Probably still grateful that he persuaded such an accomplished pair to rejuvenate a touring/recording band that has temporarily been sidelined over the years for more personally focussed projects. Eleanor’s fiddle provides the folk, Celtic and country edge, while Chris is a sensational lead guitarist rising to the challenge to lift the rock stuff into a different stratosphere. The two newest members of the Dukes are very much installed in the present. Drummer Brad Pemberton joined in 2016 and has a prestigious CV including being part of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals for a while. He immaculately kept beat all evening and of course delivered that spine tingling ‘Copperhead Road’ moment. Ricky Ray Jackson is the type of pedal steel player that falls of the Texas assembly line, thus ensuring that the country sound never strays too far even when the pace picks up.

The present is also about the album SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW that was released last year and is the prime focal point for the 2018 Dukes excursions. The band fired off six straight tracks from the record before anybody took a breath. The only interlude being to salute the Californian firefighters prior to ‘The Firebreak Line’ and add a family element to ‘News from Colorado’. The pick of the new songs from both the opening segment and a few tossed into the rock finale just before the encore was the fiery title track and the melodic ‘Walkin’ in LA’.

Before we contemplate the future, a quick mention of three tracks. The inspirational spoken intro to ‘Jerusalem’ was a prelude to what to expect just before the curfew. Iris DeMent was given a shout out as the original duet partner on ‘I’m Still in Love You’, with Eleanor now ably stepping into her shoes. Ironically, Iris was on the same bill as Steve Earle and the Dukes at last weekend’s SummerTyne Festival in Gateshead. Finally, among a throng of Steve Earle-written tracks pushing nearly thirty in total there was room for one external cover and the choice of ‘Hey Joe’ was a wise one. It crowned a twenty-minute phase of the Dukes truly rocking out, perhaps to the extent of leaving the fiddle and steel trailing, as we headed into the obligatory encore. Glad to report that the old country sound returned as ‘Dixieland’ commenced the three-song extras.

Up to the final song of the evening, the focus had been entirely on the music. Frequently songs remained unintroduced as the band refused to yield a spirited and compelling momentum. Earle was effortlessly in control all evening, whether majoring on electric guitar, acoustic or mandolin. He was also clearly relishing every moment of being on stage. However, it was time to mount the sermon and preach what most Steve Earle fans expect and want to hear. A quick slaughter of the current political environment was followed by an announcement that the next record is going to be country and Political. 2020 is the expected release date and the topic is going to be based on addressing those natural allegiances of the left falling prey to the right. As his sixty-fifth year will be approaching then, there is likely to be no sign of the fire waning and therefore much unfinished business.The future awaits. 

From the thirty-minute opening support slot from The Mastersons, through the old favourites; the sterling musicianship and absorbing finale, every inch of this show at the O2 Institute in Birmingham was one to relish and savoured. You may have moments when Steve Earle is overshadowed in a crowded music industry keen to anoint any newcomer to the crown of a legend. Even some of his records may be inadvertently overlooked. This evening specifically, and in general the recent shows by Steve Earle and the Dukes are vivid reminders to what a great folk ‘n’ country, rock ‘n’ roll band they are and what a fantastic song writer Steve Earle is. Grab these moments while you can. The legends tag is still intact and yes… there is still unfinished business.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Letitia VanSant - Gut it to the Studs : Self-released

2016 delivered Carter Sampson and 2017 did likewise for Caroline Spence. Odds are quickly shortening that 2018 is the year that Letitia VanSant blossoms out of leftfield indie Americana to become a firm favourite on the back of a superlative album release. GUT IT TO THE STUDS has already sealed the triple mantle of memorable album title, cutting lyric and high plateau track, all that is left is enticing more folks to allow this record drape over them. The journey is destined to be a lengthy one. A February release got things underway in the US and a significant re-boot is set to occur when Europe, or more specifically the UK, formally joins the fray in August. Subsequent release dates from the original may be just focal points as the ease of the digital world frequently enables music instantly shared across the globe. If the reception gets close to the two artists mentioned in the opening sentence then Letitia VanSant will be a valuable addition to a scene bursting with sincere song writing music sparked by the immortal embers of folk-Americana.

GUT IT TO THE STUDS is the new album from this Baltimore-based artist, who has spent a considerable amount of time on honourable vocational excursions prior to deciding that the time is ripe to unleash a talent. This innate skill is to write, arrange and present a supreme concise selection of songs. Ones that range from the purposeful literal to spacious entities inviting the listener to deduce the end-point. Eleven tracks comprising of nine solo writes; one co-write and a smart cover keep you enthralled for forty-three minutes (or a timeless drift into an entranced zone if you discard the shackles of time).

One absolute guarantee is that this record will improve with each play. If over familiarity is a reviewer’s crime, then guilty to the first degree.

You can easily access Letitia’s thoughts behind the record online, but it is also has the invigorative presence to enable your own conclusion and meanings. Perhaps it is useful to understand the origin of album closer ‘Sundown Town’, which focusses on the racial divide far away from the suspecting world. The concluding line ‘we’ll watch others fight for freedom from the safety of our cells’ hammers home the feeling.

As drenched the record is with country, folk and Americana sentiment, it retains a message of hope throughout. This is born from imposing some element of control in the themes as demonstrated in the opening two tracks and crowning it with the inspirational ‘Dandelion’ as the end approaches. The latter scorns life in the opening verse with ‘it’s like your only purpose is to buy what they sell/ Toss your every precious penny down a bone dry well’. Only to close with ‘I hope someday we will be free’. All framed with the imagery of a single weed piercing the concrete.

While not taking anything away from the rest of the album, it is tough to dispute the opening two tracks soaring to the summit from the off. ‘Where I’m Bound’ obviously has autobiographical intent, but written in a way that it is free to be claimed. The title track sits in the #2 spot and nails the notion that sometimes we just have strip everything down and build it back up. The analogy of ‘Gut it to the Studs’ is prime time song writing. Both songs are delightfully sung and skilfully constructed with lasting choruses.

These first four tracks mentioned are listed in the solo write column that marks out Letitia as a top class lyricist. This is further enhanced later in the record with ‘The Field’: a track served up as a softly delivered lullaby. In a similar vein is ‘Sweetbay Magnolia’, the album’s sole co-write with David McKindley-Ward, who also acts as the main guitarist on the album.

The smart cover song selected is the Stephen Stills-written protest anthem ‘For What It’s Worth’, recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1966 and mirroring the activist nature that surfaces when Letitia’s background is discovered.

Back to the original content and ‘Come Sit By My Fire’ sells some hope in a midst of helplessness. The control element crops up again in ‘Taking Back the Reigns’ (not quite sure of the spelling intent here!) on a track where electric guitar moves the sound up a notch after fiddle plays a prominent role in the opening numbers.

The remaining two tracks are ‘Bluebird’ where the tone takes a turn down the sadness route, albeit with a title reflecting the gorgeous vocals, which flourish throughout. ‘Wild Heart Roam’ sees a slight diversion, with gothic undertones applying to a track that has to peddle hard to keep up with those leading the charge.

GUT IT TO THE STUDS is an absorbing album that sparkles with moving attributes from start to finish. It relays the best of country, folk and Americana in a delicately produced independent package far away from the soiled meddlers of a murky industry. Letitia VanSant has arrived on the scene in striking style to let her writing, music and vocals do the rest. In 2016 and 2017 Carter Sampson and Caroline Spence bloomed among a bouquet of established acts. In 2018 Brandi Carlile and Courtney Marie Andrews may have to make a little room for a new artist on the block.


GIG REVIEW: Kelly Willis - Maze, Nottingham. Wednesday 25th July 2018

There is a certain current zest about Kelly Willis as she re-launches her solo career. Evidence is also in abundance that fruitful years lie ahead. Musical miles may well be light for an artist catapulted to some element of fame in their early twenties, but the approach to balance life could well pay off as she enters this new phase. The element of surprise was out the question when the comeback album BACK BEING BLUE met with widespread critical praise and subsequent reports from the live shows are equally glowing. Having now seen Kelly and her band in action, fully concurring with the prevalent view is the solitary option and those who made the Maze in Nottingham a slice of Austin Texas for the evening are sure to agree.

This was Kelly’s second working trip to the UK in the last couple of years. The previous visit was a series of duo shows with husband Bruce Robison. Memories of her last tour with a band in solo guise were likely to be hazy for those who attended, but a throwback element to this evening’s show ensured the years rolled back.

The format for this tour is Kelly leading from the front on acoustic guitar and vocals, exquisitely supported by Geoff Queen on electric and pedal steel and the coolest rhythm section you could hope to meet in bassist John Michael Schoepf and Joshua Blue playing the drums. Together they oozed out twenty evocative tracks steeped in a country sound that thrives south-west of the Mississippi river.

Although Kelly steered clear of the material that formed her brace of duet albums with Bruce, which have bridged the solo hiatus, the set list expanded a twenty-five year range. Early fans, especially those hooked in when CMT aired in Europe, had the treat of four tracks from her 1993 eponymous album, while recent converts were dealt the near entirety of BACK BEING BLUE.

Strolling onto the stage at 9 o’clock, it did not take Kelly long to hit her stride and slip into an effortless zone of a cultured artist perfectly equipped to deal the cut glass country song. Shifting times have edged her style away from the limelight, but make no mistake this was country music as it was meant to be. The pedal steel interludes courtesy of Geoff were absolutely divine and his frequent guitar licks were no mean feat either. In fact, he was in constant use during the entire evening as his acoustic guitar skills were borrowed by support artist Kerry Fearon, who made the trip over from Ireland to sing a few familiar cover songs to stoke the western atmosphere in a venue heading in the direction of the Texas climate.

The majority of the twenty songs had a brief introduction even if it was to distinguish the difference between those she wrote and the esteemed songwriters Kelly has either worked with or covered. Obviously, the name Bruce Robison cropped up several times including ‘Not Forgotten You’, ‘Wrapped ‘ and ‘Take It All Out On You’. The latter Kelly wryly introduced as a co-write between Bruce and her ex-husband Mas Palermo. Other familiar names to crop up were Rodney Crowell, the architect of ‘We’ll Do It For Love Next Time’ off the new record, John Leventhal (of Rosanne Cash fame) who co-wrote ‘Get Real’ and Jayhawk, Gary Louris who did likewise on another oldie in ‘What I Deserve’.

Of course, Kelly Willis is a fine songwriter in solo mode. Over half the new album originated from this source with the title track opening her eighty minute set and ‘Freewheeling’ going a long way to representing the current course of her life i.e. composed in a car while ferrying around her four kids. On an evening of constant highs, one instantly hitting the recall button was another solo write and the implicitly country sounding ‘What the Heart Doesn’t Know’, delivered as you would expect with feeling and obligatory pedal steel.

By the time the band returned to the stage to send everybody home happy with the Marshall Crenshaw song ‘Whatever Way the Wind Blows’, recorded by Kelly in her MCA years, a full and intoxicating performance of real deal country music was in the bag. Each of the  twenty songs were recorded by Kelly at some stage of her career and if anybody was a little vague about her prior to the show, then you had a vibrant showcase of why she is such a revered artist in circles starting in Austin Texas before reverberating around the wider country music world.

Back in 2013 I saw Kelly and Bruce play a couple of duo sets at the Calgary Folk Festival in Canada. A quick chat at the time revealed that they would love to return to the UK to play some tunes if it could be made to happen. Five years later this has now happened twice. For specific fans of Kelly Willis and a lengthy career, this band show was the one they wanted. They have duly been rewarded for their patience. Therefore, no more hiatus’s please, the world is richer when she is recording and playing shows, not just for her home fans, but those overseas. The Maze in Nottingham proved the perfect host and Cosmic American showed why they have been at the forefront of bringing high class US artists to the UK for twenty years. A worthy candidate for gig of the year, even as we just pass the half way point.

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.