Sunday, 16 September 2018

GIG REVIEW: Frontier Ruckus - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Saturday 15th September 2018

The name may have been familiar for a number of years, but the paths of Frontier Ruckus and me were yet to cross at any level prior to this gig at Thimblemill Library. A couple of pre-show snippets online whetted the appetite and the stage was set for another act from the Loose Music stable to glide into my sphere. This show was the latest offering from the team behind bringing some high quality roots music to a venue ably adaptable in switching the arts from the written to the performing word. Frontier Ruckus’s brand of lo-fi sensitive alt-folk fitted in well in this quintessential listening environment, to the extent of front man Matthew Milia implying it was a little unnerving. The bonus to that lay in the fact that every nuance of this trio’s intrinsic music was delicately heard, savoured and akin to another favourite band added to a growing list passing through the art deco surroundings of this fledgling venue.

To states such as Oregon, Virginia and Tennessee, you can now add Michigan, a location that very much influences and informs the music of Frontier Ruckus, being represented at Thimblemill events. This was perhaps the most we learned about the trio as they lent heavily towards allowing their soundtrack to sell the message. Milia’s vocals and guitar playing acted as the focal point, although at times it was seriously challenged by the instrumental diversity of Zachary Nichols, fluidly moving between melodica, trumpet, organ and your common hardware DIY saw. This was not the first time seeing the latter appear on stage this year with Jonathan Byrd’s sidekick Johnny extracting some twang from the handy tool. Nicholls probably used his more frequently and a very haunting sound added to the atmosphere, drawing comparisons to what you hear in Hawaiian pedal steel.

Completing the Frontier Ruckus trio format is banjo player David Jones, consistently giving the core urban feeling to their songs a deft rural coating with a range of subtle strumming and pickin’. Jones frequently joined Milia on two-part harmony and sonic similarities to the Milk Carton Kids occasionally flickered across the mind.

Across the hour and ten minutes that Frontier Ruckus appeared on stage, it would be difficult not to honour the last three or four songs as the evening’s highlight. Sensing the perfect opportunity to improvise, the band unplugged (not that the saw was electrified in the first place) and set up shop inches from the front row to play the most barest of purist music you could expect to hear in a formal gig setting.

This was not an evening to draw too much on the songs of Frontier Ruckus in their informative existence, as introductory titles were sparse. One exception was ’27 Dollars’, a track proving to be the centerpiece to the band promoting their most recent album. There was a hint of looking forward to returning home as this West Midlands visit acted as the penultimate date on a European tour that included a set at the inaugural Long Road Festival last weekend. However, this did not impact upon a performance rich in texture and compelling in its poignant delivery.

The saw having a rest
Contributing to the fullness of the evening’s presentation was an opening forty-minute set from Irish singer-songwriter- guitarist John Blek. Hailing from Cork, which proved relevant to his standout song about a Dutch seaman, Blek’s presence grew significantly during his performance. The inter song introductions added to the spice of the set and it was not too difficult to see how he had made the touring troubadour life his living over a number of years now. The booking of John Blek seemingly went down positive and plans are in motion to him returning soon.

Hopefully, the same can be said about Frontier Ruckus. Hazy memories surround any previous gigs in the area, but future dates will be more pertinently absorbed. There were initial perceptions of the band being a little quirky, but I found their song style quite conventional, with the left field influence coming from the instrumental assortment, which tended to garnish the tracks rather than lead on them. The success of this gig stemmed from the aura created from a band individual in style and one steeped in the diversity that flows from the all-encompassing Americana state of mind.

Friday, 14 September 2018

TOUR PREVIEW: Rachel Harrington

Fresh from reacquainting herself with UK audiences last year, Washington state-based singer-songwriter Rachel Harrington returns for an extended run of dates this autumn. This includes a repeat visit to the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham, a part of the country that has supported Rachel on numerous trips across the seas for many years.


Thu 4         Penzance                                 Acorn Theatre       
Sat 6         Poole                                        Lighthouse
Sun 7        Maidenhead                              Norden Farm Centre for the Arts      
Tue 9         CockermouthCumbria             Wild Zucchinis   
Wed 10      Dunfermline                             Dunfermline Folk Club, The Glen Tavern
Thu 11       Dunoon                                     Dunoon Burgh Hall       
Thu 18       Montrose                                  Montrose Folk Club, The Links Hotel
Wed 24      London                                     Green Note
Thu 25       Newbury                                   Arlington Arts Centre      
Fri 26        Bishop WiltonEast Yorkshire     Bishop Wilton Hall  
Sat 27       Leeds                                        Seven Arts
Sun 28      Nottingham                               The Running Horse       
Mon 29      Birmingham                              Kitchen Garden Café       
Tue 30       Sheffield                                   Greystones

Fri 2          Durham                                    Old Cinema Launderette       
Sat 3         Scarborough                             Woodend Gallery
Sun 4        CottinghamEast Yorkshire         The Back Room

TOUR PREVIEW: Ben Folk Thomas

Ben Folke Thomas always puts on an entertaining show and folks should try and catch him during his extensive run of dates this autumn. Birmingham has seen Ben both in solo and full band mode previously, with this year's schedule stop at the Kitchen Garden ideal for the solo show.


September 11th Leicester (supporting John Murry)
September 12th Hyde Park book Club – Leeds (supporting John Murry)
September 13th Borderline – London (supporting Hawksley Workman)
September 14th – Naked lunch – Liverpool (supporting John Murry)
September 15th – Ty Pawb – Wrexham (supporting John Murry)
September 16th – Broadcast – Glasgow (supporting John Murry)
September 17th – Edinburgh – Sneaky Petes (supporting John Murry)
September 18th – Telfords Warehouse – Chester (supporting John Murry)
Wednesday 21st November – The Castle Hotel, Manchester
Thursday 22nd November – The White Hart, Corby
Friday 23rd November – The Prince Albert, Stroud
Saturday 24th November – Railway Inn Winchester
Sunday 25th November – Lexington London
Monday 26th November - Kitchen Garden Café Birmingham (solo show) // @benfolkethomas

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ruston Kelly - Dying Star : Rounder Records

The narrative may have given this record a big boost to get the message out, but there is no denying that DYING STAR runs deep with stand-alone qualities. Across the fourteen tracks that form the debut album from Ruston Kelly there is sufficient tuneful content to keep you in the game and demonstrate that you are in the midst of a performer ready to make a splash.

Once the rugged persona takes grip, you embark on a virtual road trip across dusty terrain and a nod to the trusty troubadours who have trodden the wearisome path of song writing soul searching. This is music teetering on the fault line where country meets folk meets tempered rock. Whilst engaging most of the time, the ebb and flow nature does enter a midway lull suggesting the message could have been transmitted in a more compact package than a lengthy fifty-three minutes.

Like all records that tempt you into multiple pleasurable spins, its opening gambit plays a winning hand with the decent combo of ‘Cover My Tracks’, ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Son of a Highway Daughter’ laying the groundwork effectively. The middle track of this trio has set the pace in the album’s promotion race and possesses enough memorable hooks to linger long after first listen. However, these three songs eventually bow down to the track ‘Faceplant’, which glistens at the album summit. A hint of Justin Townes Earle (well one his songs anyhow) seeps out of this one to rack up the bonus points and supplement the great melody that furnishes the composition.

A upside of this review overrunning the release date came in the form of ‘Big Brown Bus’ manoeuvring up the track rankings with a growing case to boost the record’s overall lasting qualities. While the lull does take a slight hold in the latter stages, ‘Jericho’ pops up to revitalise the album and ensure the credit column is heavily populated.

Enough steel and harmonica feature when you want it and a general mid-tempo feel ensures the record can be a welcome side accompaniment when you feel like a piece of contemporary Americana. Ruston Kelly’s song writing skills may have had a fruitful past, but like other writers branching out into the solo performing world, a little extra in the tank has been held back to fuel a push to a bigger platform.

Without the narrative and association, DYING STAR would still have made me sit up and take notice. It can take its place among the valuable additions in the 2018 release gallery and is likely to canter along for a while yet. More of Ruston Kelly will be certainly heard in the near future and he has earned the right to take the plaudits for his debut album.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

FESTIVAL REVIEW: The Long Road - Leicestershire. Friday 7th to Sunday 9th September 2018

Bold, brash and brave; The Long Road has announced itself on the festival scene with an explicit message and an eagerness to succeed. Across its spacious surroundings in south Leicestershire, the coalface of the project was unveiled and folks from far and wide embraced an opportunity to delve into a diverse representation of what comes under the expansive banner of country, roots and Americana music. Bumps in the road appeared (including a certain last minute headache) and like all new events, lessons learned will reap rewards. However, memories flourished and the steep learning curve of embracing an extended family became more attainable for the organisers.

Criticisms of which strand of the genre was missing will never wane and no doubt continue to be a decision factor to whether fans wish to impart with their hard earned cash on a September outdoor event. The alternative positive course of action is to embrace what is on offer, and in that category the festival curators served up a healthy portion of exceptional acts. From a personal perspective (which is the crux of an independent blogging view), the scheduling of over twenty five acts which I would gladly pay for in the stand-alone gig format inspired the proverbial ‘kid in a sweetshop’ analogy. With that starting point intact, the chances of the event not living up to expectation hovered around zero.

The strength in depth often lies in the artists you did not manage to catch over the weekend. Although, in a festival where the the motive was to embrace all, there was still plenty of artists lacking personal appeal, and will likely remain so, such is the seemingly exponential pool of fledgling performers meeting my template criteria.

If you subscribe to the notion that a festival is ultimately judged by the quality of the music, then The Long Road can have a full salute. There is every faith that this will continue as the event heads towards year 2, and hopefully onwards.

Looking back over the weekend, the intention of this article is not to dwell too much on the artists, other than to conclude with a stellar list of twenty sets seen from a line-up rare in its wide reaching quality for a single multi-act event.

Away from the music, the fire of creativity was burning fierce especially in the intrinsically reproduced honky tonk and a front porch stage as iconic in its picturesque status as you could envisage. Plenty of covered viewing space away from the main stage (one key aspect though that followed the standard festival blueprint) had the opposite effect of chasing away any forecasted rain, although the oversubscribing of the Interstate ‘tent’ and rather impressive honky tonk reconstruction was pertinent at times.

Indeed, the size and layout of the Interstate is something to consider. It is tough to be too harsh on decisions made ahead of an inaugural staging, but feedback will no doubt hone in on this part of the site. On the other hand, to issue the festival a few improvement notices, a revised look at ‘access for all’ in the Interstate should be called for. Joining this is the absurd policy of not allowing customers to bring in some remnants of personal food, and not being consigned to the usual array of overpriced festival offering and their limited approach to quality. Also perplexing was not going down the progressive route of reusable glasses. If Maverick, Beardy Folk and Cambridge can do it, why not The Long Road. Hopefully, these considerations can lift the event overall to the high standards set in terms of artist scheduling and the innovative approach to creativity.  

The resounding success in these last two areas has already inked The Long Road into the 2019 diary. Whether the commendable aspiration of uniting the ‘country family’ is achieved or not, this festival has scored highly on multiple accounts and anticipation to how it evolves is eagerly awaited. Only the marketing fraternity can pretend to predict the extent of a still niche corner of the music market, but those of us without any stake can at least sit back and revel in a pulsating weekend of exceptional music that was absolutely to my taste.

Long Road in Twenty Sets (You decide the order, but they all possessed merit)

Lee Ann Womack: Angaleena Presley (Interstate): Joshua Hedley: The Lone Bellow: Elizabeth Cook: Danny and the Champions of the World: Caroline Spence: Folk Soul Revival (Honky Tonk): Parker Millsap: Brent Cobb: The Wood Brothers: Dori Freeman (Front Porch): Dori Freeman (Honky Tonk): Jarrod Dickenson: Kashena Sampson (Showground): Ruby Boots (Interstate): Gary Quinn: Erin Rae: Case Hardin: Aaron Watson (the finale!)