Thursday, 11 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Emily Mae Winters + Annie Dressner - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 10th October 2018

Three vocalists that appeal to me all find perfection within imperfection. The voices of Lucinda Williams, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Maines each possess a fault line offering a peep into the chasm of their soul. Now without resorting to a case of over hyperbole, there is a distant resemblance in the vocals of Emily Mae Winters thus lifting her head and shoulders above most singers that cross my ear. This is one immense talent that needs to be nurtured, with a limitless potential dripping out of the songs, music, voice, and an approach to projecting a distinct style.

Any resemblance to conventional folk music is ebbing away as Emily sharpens up her tools to launch into album number 2. The probability of Emily Mae Winters soaring up the scale of UK performers recognised in the blurry horizon of Americana is increasing to the extent that 2019 could be one big year.

Anyhow, back to the present and the HIGH ROMANCE pre-release tour stopping off at Birmingham. This show was a lower key affair to last year’s visit. Maybe the reason was the ‘between albums’ syndrome and spreading an existing fan base thinly between Birmingham, Coventry & Leicester.

Any return is sure to be an upgrade in turnout especially with the new record in tow and the buzz of a special artist getting the word around. Hooking up on the live front with ace guitarist Ben Walker is a smart move. Without wanting to dismiss his work in the Josienne & Ben duo, the scope in the direction Emily’s music is taking will present ideal opportunities to branch out in a live capacity.

Before exploring the main set in detail, a special word for Annie Dressner, who switched a rescheduled performance at the Kitchen Garden to open the evening. Annie, an exiled New Yorker now a 7 year plus resident of Cambridge, is making tentative steps back into active performing after a lengthy break. It was back in 2013 when I last saw Annie play live and the simultaneous release of her most recent recording. Five years on and the Anglo-American vocals remain, pouring originality into a series of songs cut from a decent cloth. Annie mixed her set between a few tracks off an upcoming album and some older stuff.

The songs ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Fly‘ rather splendidly represent the transitional period in her life of moving to the UK. To bring things up to date, ‘Kentucky’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ reveal a more stable existence albeit both themes hark back to the past with stateside origins. The new Annie Dressner album, BROKEN INTO PIECES, is formally released towards the end of October and expect to hear a lot more from this talented singer-songwriter in forthcoming months.

As soon as Emily Mae Winters hit her stride with ‘Blackberry Lane’, memories instantly came flooding back of the first time I heard her. This was a short set at last year’s Moseley Folk Festival. Around the same time, the SIREN SERENADE album was released and while times may be changing, we still had timely reminders of what a fine album this is.

Anchor’, ‘Miles to Go’ and the title track joined the opening number from the album. In fact, ‘Siren Serenade’ was one of a couple of tracks delivered solo, with even her guitar getting the elbow in this one alongside band mates Ben and John Parker on upright bass.

On the guitar front, Emily proudly displayed (and played) her brand new Gretsch alongside a more worn traditional acoustic model. The electric came into its own as the new songs began to ease out of a rockier wrapping. Of course, the challenge to adjust the vocals to combat the greater amplification is presented, one that Emily accomplished relatively comfortably.

Her voice will definitely grow into the new songs alongside an opportunity for Ben to ratchet up the solo segments. Such talent should be encouraged to shine and any enhanced presence would be a great addition to Emily’s music.

One certainty is the strength of the new material. More will seep out in due course. From a theme perspective, ‘This Land’ and ‘How Do You Fix a Broken Sun’ prove intriguing listens. While ‘Come Live in My Heart & Pay No Rent' succeeds big style in the title credentials and shows that the folk tendency to trawl the archives for inspiration will never wane.

While John Parker does a sterling job in the rhythm role, there is mileage in adding drums to the new material, although their road use is always subject to viability. An interesting thought is how these new songs will be recorded when Emily hits the studio in December. Inklings are that a desire to upgrade the creativity stakes will prevail and not churn out standard versions, which have been done a million times previously. The tools are at Emily’s disposal and it will be interesting to listen to her eventual route.

On the covers front, this evening’s set contained a pair of classics, of which the highest praise is that Emily owned both renditions. To put a stamp on the Krauss/Plant revised version of ‘Killing the Blues’ is no mean feat. In addition, you can carry me away from this world with ‘Will You Still Love Tomorrow’ playing, and even if you substituted The Shirrelles with Emily Mae Winters there would be few complaints. Both these covers were repeats from her last visit to the Kitchen Garden in October 2017, although sadly we did not get ‘Red Dirt Girl’ on this occasion.

One room for improvement is for the set time to be lengthened to boost the live reputation. Weighing in at just under the hour was a little short. Eventually two full albums plus a few choice covers will provide ample material to increase the stage time. The final song to send the Emily Mae Winters faithful contingent merrily on their way home was another nod in a country/Americana direction with a good ole drinking song titled ‘Gin Tingles Whisky Shivers’.

If a seal of approval need further adhesion then this night delivered in voluptuous portions. Very few vocalists have created the same level of effect than Emily Mae Winters and the sheer quality portrayed this evening suggests few will struggle to match her, especially away from the classically trained folk hierarchy. Indeed 2019 has the potential to be very special when HIGH ROMANCE emerges and the next stage of the Emily Mae Winters bandwagon kicks fully into gear.

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