Friday, 28 September 2018

GIG REVIEW: Chastity Brown - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 27th September 2018

Sometimes an artist visibly grows into a gig and this certainly applied to Chastity Brown upon her return to the Kings Heath area of Birmingham. There had been a lengthy wait for a decent run of dates since the music of Chastity Brown took an upwards turn overseas on the back of her 2013 album release BACK-ROADS HIGHWAYS. Now we have had back-back tours in consecutive years and double visits to the West Midlands area on each occasion. Last year the tour was in a duo format with the Birmingham date hosted by the Hare and Hounds in a double bill presentation alongside Otis Gibbs. This year it was a case of popping across York Road and a more intimate evening without the duo partner or a co-headliner to share proceedings.

In light of this format and the absence of an opening artist, Chastity pitched up for a pair of sets armed only with a trusty acoustic guitar, a bucketful of songs and a voice anchored in the cradle of Midwest Americana. This is where the melting pot of country, blues, folk and soul bubbles away, quite frankly unaware of any genre classifications from outsiders .

Perhaps, it is the vocals of Chastity Brown that cast her adrift from the ruck of artists pitched to UK audiences as the next piece of Americana pie. This a voice protracting a cause and finding solace in the peace that music can provide. The gravelly inner feelings of her vocal chords transmit to a live audience with sumptuous ease and this experience enhances ten-fold when the atmosphere slips gently in a statuesque state of intimacy free of many filters.

Issues of ethnicity and sexuality hit the room early on, although put into perspective when compared to immediate threat of displacement and afflicted by declining health. Signature tracks ‘Colorado’ and ‘Drive Slow’ opened the set leaving minor wriggle room later for the likes of ‘Wake Up’ and a lauded attempt to extract ‘When We Get There’ from the barrels of her mind to fulfil a request.

On the new song front, a track believed to be titled ‘Wonderment’ had an introduction, this on a day where the new single ‘Mad Love’ was unveiled to folks, which may or may not have featured on the evening as frequently Chastity slipped into the zone of just falling into the next song after irreverent chat.

The second half took a more relaxed turn as Chastity felt the available chair was appropriate to raise the stakes of placidity. Momentarily, the notion of what happens on stage stays on stage prevailed as the cool Kitchen Garden vibes submerged a performer becoming increasingly at ease in an environment that was not quite expected at the outset.

The finale saw any remnants of electrification ditched, a phase that could have happened earlier. By now, the zone was perfectly transfixed and if on the off chance there were any Chastity Brown doubters present, their number would evaporate. This was an openhearted performance of the highest degree, rampant with an equal measure of confession and gratitude.

Whether you call it folk, soul, blues, singer-songwriter or whatever, this was just one woman from the Midwest, thousands of miles from home emptying her soul to a room full of strangers. No one will likely have an idea where Chastity Brown places her visit to the Kitchen Garden in the annals of a career, but this evening created an impressionable mark on those present.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

ALBUM RELEASE: Adam's House Cat - Town Burned Down : ATO Records (Out 21st September 2018)

Adam's House Cat may not be a name known to many, but Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers fame are likely to resonate further, especially with those at the cutting edge of alt-country before it morphed into Americana. In the late 80's/early 90's prior to Cooley and Hood forming the band that would lead them into some resemblance of the promised land, they hung around Muscle Shoals Alabama playing a raw form of distinctive rock 'n' roll under the moniker of the aforementioned name. Now twenty seven years after the tracks for TOWN BURNED DOWN had a premature birth, they have finally been re-discovered, brushed up a touch and turned into a somewhat commercial format to formalise what Adam's House Cat were about during their brief existence.

The result is twelve rip roaring tracks heavy on the rock 'n' roll duo of driving guitar and upbeat percussion. 'Runaway Train' is the standout track by a fair distance, although not to the extent of neglecting slipping on the record for an entire play. It captures the spirit of a time when doors were being knocked and aspirations to be the best you can were relayed in the mood of the music.

In reality the release of this album has likely brought closure to an unfinished project. The increased likelihood is that its shelf life will be contained within the existing empire of the Drive-By Truckers, but that at least is not a place to be sniffed at.

TOWN BURNED DOWN was released for all to hear via ATO Records on September 21st and if you have the desire to track it down, the forty-five minutes of nostalgia to what fledgling bands were up to back in the day will not be a excursion laid to waste. Adam's House Cat MK II in 2018 is likely to be fleeting, but not a project without plenty of merit.

ALBUM REVIEW: Kitty Macfarlane - Namer of Clouds : Navigator Records (Out 21st September)

The wait is over. To her growing pedigree of aspiring folk singer-songwriter, architect of many sublime live performances and a curator of an inaugural EP, Kitty Macfarlane is now the proud possessor of a stunning debut album. NAMER OF CLOUDS hit the shelves on September 21st and these will soon empty when word gets around of what a compulsive record she has made. The eleven tracks are a subtle mix of solo compositions, co-writes and old song arrangements, blending many facets of what keeps the folk tradition fresh and vibrant without choking off the heritage.

Since first seeing Kitty play live a couple of years ago when opening for Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, a keen ear has lent towards her career. This further compounded when she played a headline gig at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham earlier this year, a show where many of the songs from the new album had their introduction.

Joining Kitty on the album in one of the co-producing roles is Sam Kelly, a musician from the same generation who is increasingly popping up in collaboration on a scene gathering momentum in acoustic circles across the land. No doubt leading much of the stringed accompaniment that engineers the soundtrack has been the forte of Kelly and co-producer Jacob Stoney, but make no mistake the stamp of Kitty’s gorgeous vocal acumen and imaginative approach to song curation reigns supreme.

The natural world and the immediate surroundings of rural Somerset play a strong role in forming the subject content of the album. While not being unique to the West Country, the title track is quite literal in its meaning as it provides focus on Luke Howard, a man responsible for coming up with familiar name structure that is commonly attached to clouds and their formation. Where else but folk music would such a subject be addressed in song. ‘Namer of Clouds’ is one of the album’s co-writes, a formula that also proves a winner when it comes to possibly the standout track.

‘Sea Silk’ is the mesmeric story that unfolds after Kitty and Sam embarked on a trail of an ancient craft still practised in Sardinia. Meeting up with the last person on earth to carry out a slice of textile weaving with a mythical past proved fruitful. It even heralded the perfect field recording to introduce a song that sparkles in the shade of the golden subject. The strong melody found in the chorus provides the hook that carries the track further than just immersing oneself into the curious story.

Man, Friendship’ sees Kitty draw inspiration closer to home as the flooding of the Somerset levels in 2014 presented an opportunity to take an abstract view on it from the comfort blanket of a reassuring song. Like much of the record, there are many crevices to explore and you never feel that an extra spin is wasted.

Two tracks distinctly remembered from her Birmingham gig earlier this year were ‘Starling Song’ and ‘Glass Eel’. The former opens the album in a whirl of two-minute splendour, while the latter is forever memorable as it pairs migration in the natural world with the human kind that has always been pertinent in a fluid civilisation. These are two examples of Kitty in solo writing mode, a skill in which obviously she excels. In fact, whatever the source of, or inspiration for the songs, the execution creates a mystique and a desire to delve deeper.

NAMER OF CLOUDS will grab the attention of media influential in moving the career of Kitty Macfarlane forward, but more importantly from a grounded perspective, it will resonate strongly in the ears, heads and hearts of those active in pumping the heartbeat of the live music scene. These folks put their money down and respect music in its most connective form. The music of Kitty Macfarlane both soothes the mind and sparks an element of curiosity. The album will confirm what folks in the know already believe, and more widely, engage splendidly with any new converts taking a peep.

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.

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!)