Saturday, 25 August 2018

GIG REVIEW: Courtney Marie Andrews - Rescue Rooms, Nottingham. Monday 20th August 2018

Good things can wait and the latest Courtney Marie Andrews gig review falls handsomely into this camp. The normal quick turnaround had to take a backseat as less than five hours after returning home from this Nottingham gig it was bag packed and off on the annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe. Among the onslaught of artistic chaos from the world’s greatest creative extravaganza, thoughts on another stunning performance from Courtney did not stray too far. What chronicle of a gig year could omit one of its chief protagonists? Therefore, it was hand to the task at the earliest opportunity when the dust finally settled five days on from the gig.

From memory,  this was the third leg of UK Courtney Marie dates in 2018, and the first one to stop off in the West-East Midlands corridor. The centerpiece of the August trip was a slot at the Green Man Festival, so there was a full band in tow this time. Earlier in the year, she had played some solo dates including a sublime show in an Oxford church, which had set the bar exceedingly high for an evening of such depth and immersive quality.

Inevitably, comparative thoughts turned to that February evening when Courtney first introduced many of the songs from the new album. Now they bristled in full grandeur complete with the entire four-piece backing band including keys, drums and the twin guitar attack of bass and electric lead. The backdrop allowed Courtney to be more expressive in how the songs projected. A supreme moment from this show saw Courtney ditch the guitar to vocally sink deeper into ‘Rough Around the Edges’. The breadth and wider extent to her vocal capability came alive more in this show, adding a very soulful side to the quintessential folk singer hitting an abundance of pristine notes. Where else can you marvel at a significant tribute to Aretha Franklin in the shape of ‘Chain of Fools’ alongside the heartfelt ramblings packed into ‘This House’.

One constant between the Oxford and Nottingham shows was the absorbing mesmerising gaze that protrudes from Courtney’s eyes, representing an artist finding solace in an entranced zone. One that successfully snares a willing audience.

Long Road Back to You’ is the perfect idealistic closer, settled in the final slot on the new album, so what better role reversal than to open your set with it. Courtney Marie Andrews does not always conform to the norm. Additionally, ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ opens the record and this evening crowned the pre-encore set with a spine tingling rendition prior to the quintet taking the short obligatory disappearance before the evening’s final two songs.

For this Nottingham show, we had a solo version of ‘Honest Life’ upon the return before the band also appeared to serenade us all on our way home with ‘Irene’. Wholly from a selfish viewpoint, it was disappointing that ‘Took You Up’ did not make the set list, but at least if you are going to leave one of the year’s standout songs on the sidelines you know that the replacements will be good.

The Rescue Rooms is a curious venue. On one hand, it possesses a cold corporate feel aligned with the soulless O2 shells up and down the land, but it does have a sound sweet spot that has chiselled out some memorable nights over the last couple of years. Chuck Prophet was my gig of the year in 2017 and Katzenjammer hit the spot on a previous visit. There is little doubt that Courtney Marie Andrews will be up there when the annals of 2018 are written with Oxford and Nottingham perhaps sharing a twin billing in their contrasting glory.

The evening was not without a slight hiccup as Courtney halted ‘Table for One’ while a touch of correction to the audience was applied. Sorry Courtney, you were wrong in suggesting that they could stay. Normal service quickly resumed and we were once left in the hands, voice and presence of an artist possessing the most compelling of skillful aura and an architect of some of the most beautiful and cathartic music you can find.

Courtney Marie Andrews is a treasure that gleams a little brighter with each show, record and artistic adaption. A strong contender for all round artist of the year is a given and one review that is worth the wait even in the midst of a busy cultural period.

Friday, 17 August 2018

GIG REVIEW: Siobhan Miller - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 16th August 2018

The festival scene can affect local gigs in various ways. While the mid-summer months often see audiences dwindle in the venues and artists focus on the outdoor season, circumstances can throw up productive opportunities. The decision by Siobhan Miller to postpone her Kitchen Garden debut in the winter and tag it onto the long journey south to play the Purbeck Valley Folk Festival handsomely paid off. Not only did it assumedly enable the four-band member set up to travel down, but it filled a gap in the venue’s schedule before the late summer/autumn extensive programme kicks off in earnest. It also helped that a packed Kitchen witnessed one of Scotland’s brightest young folk singers, an artist adept at using her blessed talent.

Although an inaugural visit to the Kitchen Garden, this was not Siobhan’s first show in Birmingham as she recalled playing the Hare and Hounds in the past with a fond recollection of the Beatles walking through the crowd. In fact, it will be a Brummie triple at the end of the month when she returns to play a set at Moseley Folk Festival. This evening Siobhan and her band, parading the sounds of acoustic and bass guitar, percussion and keys, had the attention all focussed on themselves as they rode through two forty-five minute sets on a night where no support meant a reasonably early finish.

Primarily, Siobhan Miller is a vocalist (no comfort blanket instrument plucking a few chords seen – the band did that job). Her style is a skilful mix of traditional and contemporary, with facets of each beaming out from the stage. The song content ranges from versions of ‘Bonny Light Horseman’ and the Burns’ standard ‘Green Grow the Rashes' to original material such as ‘Secrets and Lies’, written about her experience in New York. However, the bulk of what was heard tonight seemingly came from Siobhan’s acute ear of picking up on a song and successfully putting her own stamp on it. Her cover of Dylan’s ‘One Too Many Mornings’ is such an example and this acted as the first encore number before the band finally departed to allow Siobhan one final moment in the solitary spotlight.

The tunes filling the Kitchen this evening mainly came from her second and most recent album STRATA. Proceedings kicked off with ‘Banks of Newfoundland’ from this record and we went on to enjoy further tracks such as the protest piece ‘Pound a Week Rise’, the optimistic ‘What You Do with What You Got’ and the jovial singalong ‘The Ramblin’ Rover’. Perhaps the highlights of the album content shared were the beautiful ‘The Unquiet Grave’ seeing Siobhan accompanied only by the keys and a song sourced from Canada titled ‘Thanksgiving Eve’.

Throughout the gig, the band, with a lack of traditional instrumentation, gave the sound a contemporary feel. There was one moment during a new song when a canny resemblance to Blue Rose Code surfaced. You could quite envisage a duet between Ross Wilson and Siobhan such is the vocal harmony, a delightful blend of Caledonian soul.

If you had to pick between the two halves of this show, the second resounded greater. Without any expert opinion, the vocals elevated themselves higher than the instruments after the break when the set became more purposeful and forceful. The vocal talent of Siobhan was apparent throughout, but the performance during the second set penetrated a little deeper into an audience member still drying out from four intoxicating days at Cambridge Folk Festival.

Folk singalongs are a given and the Kitchen choir rose admirably to the occasion, peaking in the humorous finale of Siobhan recounting the ditty tale of ‘Cholesterol’ not being a bad thing. All left were a few merchandise sales including the popular vinyl and the band to continue their journey from Glasgow to the Dorset coast.

Not knowing too much about Siobhan Miller beforehand was no obstacle to enjoying this show. It is easy to catch up on her Scottish exploits online, including the impressive array of legendary figures she has worked with and the praise understandably heaped upon on somebody still relatively in their formative performing years. Alongside fellow Scot stalwarts like Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart and prodigious upstarts like Iona Fyfe, Siobhan Miller is leading the way in how the art of the superlative folk song can blaze a trail away from its normal stomping grounds. A successful night as the long hot summer of 2018 began to subside. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Cambridge Folk Festival 50:20 (50 Words in 20 sets). Thursday 2nd August - Sunday 5th August 2018

The promtion behind Cambridge Folk Festival generated the MyFolkFest hashtag to coordinate online interaction in 2018, thus hitting home the assertion that festivals are very personal experiences. Large acts or smaller ones; Cash or First Aid Kit; Moreland or Smith were all questions to arise across the four days of this year’s renewal. First world dilemmas I know, but immersing yourself into a multi artist gathering, on a moderate scale to a degree, does require a thoughtful approach, even to the extent of the casual roam versus the meticulous planning.

For this look back at four sun-drenched days in the packed confines of Cherry Hinton Park, a project titled 50:20 was born. The challenge to write fifty words about twenty sets has been modified slightly as the number witnessed in their entirety on the two main stages came to eighteen. However, and in pursuit of that round number, who can resist a little summary of what stood out in the Den and the Club Tent, alongside the most mesmerising and uplifting way to end a festival.

So ahead of a few final thoughts, here in time honoured alphabetical order is the 50:20: 

Amythyst Kiah moved the furthest up my appreciation scale with a superb revealing set relished from a close up perspective for the first time. There have been previous promising glimpses, but nothing like letting an artist glide through a powerful performance in a way to truly demonstrate what they are. 
Birds of Chicago rolled into Cambridge with a full band in tow and a pedigree to shine in the rock ‘n’ soul vocal style. JT and Alli rarely fail to disappoint and their festival invitation proved an inspired choice. A set to whet the appetite for more shows next year. 
The delayed start to Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band did nothing to diminish an absorbing display of musicianship from a highly accomplished twelve-strong collaboration. If anything, it inspired Eliza to maximise the excellence in a concise manner and provide a snap shot of folk music in its triumphant form. 
First Aid Kit won the battle over Rosanne Cash on the back of their vibrant crest waving charge through the genre barriers. Johanna and Klara may well rock out in their headlining guise, but underneath they sparkle with marvellous songs and majestically join the eternal club of blissful sibling harmonies. 
Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys may be no strangers to many British audiences, but you can never fail to appreciate the energy, prowess and feel good vibes that flow from their performance. The Canadian Maritimes are proudly represented by Gordie and his shows will be forever welcome over here
Grace Petrie has waited a long time to get her fervent message over to a Cambridge audience, though not the toughest sell. The art of the protest singer will never die as long as artists like Grace pick up a guitar and let their heart run riot over the songs. 
Canadian, Irish Mythen, with the heritage in the first name, headed this year’s list of new discoveries with the most impassioned midday main stage set you could imagine. Marrying wit and critical political discourse in a powerful manner proved inspirational. Wrapping your message in an entertaining way wins the day. 
John Moreland or Patti Smith, no debate for many, but few regrets over choosing the man from Oklahoma. Heartbeat qualities evoke and naturally emanate from the artful song. This is real deal Americana in its rawest and most relevant form. A writing genius who finds the discerning listener’s sweet spot.
Thanks to Nick Barber for this picture
No dilemma seeing John Prine as this songwriting legend bridged his lengthy career with a set packed full of witty, insightful and just damn good tunes for the literate ear. The Sunday headliner came and conquered in the only way he knows. The songs of John Prine enrich the world.
The Den and the Club Tent are the life support locations of Cambridge Folk Festival, and its ethos to evolve. Thanks to Katie Spencer (pictured here), Paul McClure, Zoe Wren and Hazey Jane for proving the highlights of my many saunters over to the far-flung venues of the festival site. 
The star of Marlon Williams will soon shine brightly in the UK as it does across the world. Last year’s late night slot at SummerTyne was a mere aperitif for this full band show on the main stage. A voice for the ages, which travels as far as this Kiwi.  
The somewhat overused term folk super group is no hype when John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (pictured here) and Kris Drever hook up. Classy, polished and distinguished are the opening shots of the superlatives as they ensured the festival got an accomplished lift off on the increasingly popular Thursday evening presentation.
Guest curator, enormously dedicated archivist, supremely talented all-round musician and vocalist, it was easy to anoint Rhiannon Giddens as the star of Cambridge 2018. Whether delivering a stunning main stage set, thriving in surprise pop up locations or orchestrating the most absorbing of finales, her overall involvement was a triumph.
The trajectory of Robert Vincent continues to power forever upwards. Band shows now appear the norm and his material sits comfortably in a multitude of settings. There was an apparent toning down on the rock side for this set, demonstrating an artist adept at layering great songs in various ways.
Songhoy Blues is the ultimate festival band. Submerging into the rhythmical world of Mali blues is the best way to savour an act now establishing themselves on main stages across the land. Interaction, collusion and movement are optional, but empowering when applied in a setting of shared love and feeling.
Led by Georgia Shackleton, the simply identifiably titled The Shackleton Trio opened the main stage on Saturday with a fine display of folk music in its purest form. No thrills or deviations just highly crafted musicianship and beautiful vocals. A graceful launch into the frenzies of a busy festival day.
All the way from Austin Texas, Whiskey Shivers had the proud honour of opening Cambridge 2018 and ensured their raucous festival style met with rapturous audience approval. Covering The Cure and the Dixie Chicks showed their diverse influences, but this band was up for injecting plenty of good time vibes. 
With a booming voice, a steely gaze and a menacing prowl around the stage, William Crighton was one Aussie invite to hit you hard. Adjustment to the wavelength made, and he delivered a pulsating set of multi-layered folk music, evoking the spirit of the land, people and issues Down Under. 
Yola Carter is a highly talented British vocalist drawing praise from far and wide. An artist capable of mixing it with the best on the vocal scale, and moving into a position where her potential to evolve a career in this new singer-songwriter direction will get its opportunity to shine.
A spectacular rousing end to the festival with Rhiannon Giddens leading her invited guests of Amythyst Kiah, Yola Carter, Kaia Kater and Birds of Chicago in a glorious celebration of song that nearly brought a packed Club Tent down. A powerful parting shot of hope and staunch expectation of change. 

Personal maybe, enjoyable thoroughly, although regretfully the omnipresent power to see every act is yet to surface. 50:20 accomplished with painstaking accuracy and a shot of social media conciseness.

Cambridge Folk Festival is a legendary event that can call its own shots. In 2018, it well and truly took on the gender disparity that is a highlighted blight on musical landscapes across the world. One footnote was a wholly white audience belting out a black pride song as the festival clock struck 11 on Sunday evening. A blessed Rhiannon Giddens was pleasantly struck with the irony. Is there an elephant in the room, or is that for another day? 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

GIG REVIEW: Eilen Jewell - Biddulph Town Hall, Staffordshire. Wednesday 1st August 2018

Although appreciation for Eilen Jewell traces back to the 2007 album LETTERS TO SINNERS & STRANGERS, opportunities to see her live have conspired to leave this ambition unfulfilled. Finally, circumstances fell into place to make the trip up to the Potteries on the eve of the Cambridge Folk Festival and catch a show at Biddulph Town Hall. Her previous visits to the wider Midlands area have tended to concentrate on the eastern side with last year’s Nottingham date attaining sold out status during the run up. That show was on the back of her 2017 album DOWN HEARTED BLUES, which once again saw Eilen take a break from original music and explore another fascinating aspect of the roots world. The clue to the style is in the title and it was set to feature prominently this evening. The early and middle parts of 2018 has seen Eilen and her long time trio of travelling musical companions cram in as many dates around the globe as possible before once again embarking on a little family downtime prior to the promise of new original material.

Ahead of Eilen and the band taking to the stage, a well-populated hall enjoyed a short set from singer-songwriter, Lissy Taylor. Hailing from Stoke-on-Trent, but audibly schooled in Lexington Kentucky, Lissy eased into the opening role with a bunch of original songs taking their influence from a host of personal situations and surroundings. Her sound was drenched in country folk sentiment, and although Lissy herself used the word 'pop' in her self-introduction, the added feel was one of indie, albeit from a slow moody perspective. You could quite envisage the songs getting the atmospheric electric treatment. She had a similar statuesque poise on stage to Erin Rae, and a tempo that similarly hooked you into the groove. A southern twang had infiltrated the vocals, although there was no mistaking her roots between songs. Overall, an effective opening act with heaps of promise at her feet. A name to look out for in the future.

Flanked by band members, Jerry Miller (electric guitar), Shawn Supra (electric/upright bass) and Jason Beek (drums/percussion), Eilen Jewell set out to show why she has cut a highly respected career as one of the most innovative and exploratory artisans of American roots music over the last decade. A sleek and classy style breezed through an impulsive set stretching the breadth of her career, with more than a slight bias towards the most recent album.

Eilen’s love of the blues may not be in her DNA, but it is certainly in her soul. Starting her set with ‘It’s Your Voodoo Warning’, she frequently dipped into songs covered on the recent record such as the title track, ‘Nothing in Rambling’ and ‘Don’t Leave Poor Me’. Names that have clearly influenced her shared during the evening included Willie Dixon, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.

Such is the diverse aspect to Eilen Jewell’s music, the term ‘Americana’ as referenced by a pot pourri of American roots sounds could almost have been invented for her. Country music features strong and it was of no surprise to hear a Loretta Lynn song covered. In fact, ‘You Wanna Give Me a Lift’ was one of the tunes featured on her 2010 tribute album to the legend. ‘Heartache Boulevard’ and the requested ‘Boundary County’ also reflected this chosen style.

With the band that Eilen has assembled, good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll was always going to play a part. Plenty of upright bass was slapped by Supra alongside multiple scintillating guitar riffs and solos from the outstanding Miller. Beek had his moment in the sun towards the end when advancing from behind the drum kit to lead on the washboard, straight out of Columbus Ohio.

Outside her genre specific material, plenty of other old favourites thrilled the audience including the triple opening to the LETTERS album of ‘Rich Man’s World’, ‘Dusty Boxcar Wall’ and ‘High Shelf Booze’. When in full flow, few songs were better than a riveting foot tapping version of ‘Sea of Tears’. Perhaps when we just needed a helping hand down before heading home, Eilen ripped open her heart, and in solo mode accompanied only by harmonica and acoustic guitar she shone an adoring light on her daughter in the track ‘Songbird’. Quintessentially folk in the delivery style and likewise beautifully sung.

As indicated previously, this gig was on the eve of a return to the Cambridge Folk Festival. Not relevant regarding the Eilen Jewell tour schedule, but symbolic to the strains of musical variety that are likely to dominate this four-day event. The evening concluded on a note of mission accomplished. Nothing gained from harking back over lost opportunities, but fully blessed that the chance to finally see Eilen Jewell play live had been grasped, and this gig-going adventure become a little richer. If Emmylou coined the phrase ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, then why not evoke the alliteration ‘Boise to Biddulph’. Deepest Idaho and the Potteries interwove this evening.