Monday, 12 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Lynne Hanson & the Good Intentions - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Sunday 11th November 2018

Lynne Hanson is the type of artist bestowed with gratitude and one never to lose sight of purpose and direction. Connecting with her audience appears to be a source of inspiration and it is easily transparent to see how bonds are forged. Drawing influence from country, folk, rock and blues has provided a solid base for this Canadian to dig deep into her song writing well and fulfil a desire to make music a viable source of living. Mutual benefits are aplenty when the fruits of Lynne Hanson’s ambitions pour out on stage and she aligns herself with a cast perfectly adept at playing the crucial support role. Therefore, for the second successive year it was a European excursion for Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions, and a first visit to Thimblemill Library in the heart of the West Midlands.

Before we dive into the detail of this successful gig, it is worth paying Lynne credit for the superb work she has recently done with fellow Canadian Lynn Miles. Indeed it was only around eight months ago since The Lynnes tour called into the nearby Kitchen Garden in Birmingham to play a show in support of the excellent collaborative record HEARTBREAK SONG FOR THE RADIO.

This evening’s show was different in tempo and sound to what surfaced back in February, although underpinned by a similar knack of delivering the sensitive song. Tonight was very much about Lynne harnessing the stellar support of go-to Canadian bassist MJ Dandeneau, drummer Cody Iwasiuk, and a guest lead guitarist by the name of Joe Coombs, borrowed from the good city of Bristol UK. For around the usual ninety-minute headline slot, we had songs of heartache, loss and thoughtful contemplation mixed with doses of vibrant rock and sentimental acoustic roots.

It proved to be a productive and busy weekend in the wider Midlands area for Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions. Ettingshall on Saturday night followed a Friday date in Bewdley, which had glowing reports. Sunday evening in a library would inevitably be a different beast, but credit to the band and those venturing out during a time of year when perhaps a little more motivation is required to leave the warm home. Lynne’s gratitude reverberated around this art décor building and the perfect response came with an alternative version of ‘Gotta Have Rain’ delivered in the most connective of ways in the first encore slot.

The set list for this Smethwick show drew songs from a decade span of Lynne Hanson’s recording career, calling right up to date with a new song feeling its way into a live format. One of the older songs, ‘Cold Touch’, proved a capable candidate for the standout mantle alongside fellow rocker ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and the blues infused ‘Devil Said Do’. Each of these afforded Joe Coombs space to unleash his guitar skills, in a similar vein to what he did when seeing him play with Jamie Wyatt earlier in the year.

MJ Dandeneau is another musician frequently seen playing with touring artists, most notably Amanda Rheaume and the Good Lovelies. Her singled out moment was the eerie intro to ‘Cecil Hotel’. Although the general remit of the rhythm section is to keep impeccable time, a feat impressively achieved alongside the third Canadian on stage, drummer Cody Iwasiuk.

It would not be of surprise if some labelled ‘Trading in My Lonesome’ as the top moment. This is perhaps the most ear-friendly song and one capable of attracting audience participation with a gentle prod. Ultimately, the neck is going to protrude out and anoint the pair ‘Foolish Things’ and ‘Just For Now’ as the crowning moment. Perhaps their acoustic nature tipped the balance on a Sunday evening, but the latter in particular made a noted appearance with its notion of self-doubt. A trait we all have from time to time.

Apart from the aforementioned new song believably titled ‘Hearts Fade’ and ‘Long Way Home’, a unrecorded piece with at least an online video version, the remainder of the songs came from Lynne’s back catalogue, which was most recently updated with the 2017 release UNEVEN GROUND. Like all songwriters, it will not likely be long until another surfeit of songs surface to demand a recording round, subject as usual to finance availability.

Opening this Thimblemill Events promotion was Moseley-based band The Lost Notes, a familiar act on the local acoustic circuit. Their trio format makes a regular appearance opening for touring artists and lead protagonist Ben Mills throws his heart and soul into warming an audience up. Superb harmonies and cleverly constructed songs have served The Lost Notes well in chasing an audience and have enabled them to leave a favourable impression from many shows where they have graced their presence. With a debut album in the bank, expect more recordings to appear in the future, as new songs are being road tested in the best possible environment.

Since first engaging with the work of Lynne Hanson when she supported Gretchen Peters on the 2012 Hello Cruel World tour, she constantly strives to back up her numerous releases with perineal touring. She comes across as a grafter who never takes any ounce of support for granted. This transpires into seriously impressive roots music that achieves the ultimate goal of translating into something meaningful to an appreciative audience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: First Aid Kit - O2 Academy, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th November 2018

Hare and Hounds to Symphony Hall to Academy is an upwards journey in terms of capacity, and one taken by First Aid Kit on their visits to Birmingham over the last eight years. Whether you consider the last two a progression is down to preference, but the numbers do not lie. The Söderberg sisters are certainly operating on a higher plane than when they brought the Stay Gold tour to the city in 2015. Sold out signs have flashed above First Aid Kit shows right across this UK segment of the Ruins World Tour and it would have been rude for Birmingham not to oblige. Inviting The Staves along to open the shows was also a smart move. This must have been a record for sisterly siblings on one night, further compounded when all five assembled around the single mic for a song during the main set. Harmonies ruled the roost for most of the evening and shining evidence radiated from the stage as to why First Aid Kit are currently riding on one enormous crest of a wave.

Moving into the realms of serious headline contenders, both on the festival circuit and venues just shy of arena status, has seen the band ramp up the live show, significantly raise the decibels and interject the usual trimmings of lights and backdrop. Some adjustment was required when catching the band earlier in the summer at the Cambridge Folk Festival, which in turn probably helped tune in better to what the sisters and their three-piece backing band presented on their own headline shows. For around an hour and half, they toyed with folk, rock, country and the occasional good old European drinking song, just a reminder that you can drench the person with American culture but you can never drain away the origin.

While wooing fans from the mainstream to join genre junkies who hooked up with them a while ago, the strength of Johanna and Klara Söderberg lies in an extraordinary ability to write and deliver the most compelling of songs. Just to name three from this set to absolutely pierce your heart were the stunning ‘Stay Gold’, ‘Emmylou’ and ‘Fireworks’. You will have to step up the gig count to hear such an esteemed trio dealt so crisply and evocatively to an audience hanging onto every line, note and vocal breath.

On the more upbeat numbers such as ‘Master Pretender’, ‘My Silver Lining’ and ‘You are the Problem Here’ the complete band sound takes full control with electric guitar adding fuel to heavy percussion and sparkling keys. My awareness of Melvyn Duffy on pedal steel pre-dates his involvement with First Aid Kit when he was a key member of Tex Mex band Los Pacaminos. He seems to have really found his feet now, adding occasional mandolin and electric guitar to his beloved steel, a sound he effortlessly drives to add a country touch alongside a general landscape feel.

A quick break to offer some thoughts on The Staves, a band that have flickered on my distant horizon for several years, reveals a trio rich in sound and the owners of some of the most delectable harmonies you could wish to hear. What has always held them back from penetrating my inner listening core is a series of songs that land a powerful punch. Whether that changes with the new album promised mid-way through their forty-minute opening set remains to be seen. Conditions are ripe for a breakthrough and any new material will get a fair hearing.

Powerful songs are not in short supply in the First Aid Kit locker. From the opening track, ‘Distant Star’, delivered by Johanna and Klara theatrically standing on a raised platform at the rear of the stage as the curtain raised, through to older numbers like ‘The Lion’s Roar’ and ‘King of The World’, it was one substantive song after another. The new album was moderately represented, although the adorable ‘Postcard’ has been disappointingly sidelined from the set list, possibly a little too country for a mainstream crowd. Never mind, it is a fabulous song already getting many personal plays, a trend likely to continue for a while yet.

From a spoken perspective, the girls were most vocal when passionately advocating their wholehearted support for culture change in how gender crimes are perceived. Cue Klara showing a steely pose while delivering the aforementioned ‘You are the Problem Here’ and the sisters fighting back in the song ‘Ugly’, recently released on a spill over EP of some folk orientated tracks omitted from the more commercially focused RUINS.

This whole performance from First Aid Kit was one of zest, panache and a classic exhibition of a band on top of their game. They successfully reach out from a core that will always retain a slice of folk ‘n’ country, while steering clear of any chunks of compromise. If anything, they are a breath of fresh air among artists pitched alongside in the channels of corporate marketing. A sold out 02 Academy in Birmingham would testify strongly. An arena next time, who knows? Success would not be begrudged and there is total faith that Johanna and Klara Söderberg will still effortlessly deliver their adorable songs in any setting.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kim Richey and Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham. Monday 5th November 2018

They may have been treading familiar ground, but any traces of complacency burnt away on a mild Bonfire night. Earlier this year Kim Richey and Ben Glover played their own shows at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. Any lingering doubts about the viability of re-booking so soon withered away as a healthy turnout instantly switched on to the fact that they made a wise Monday evening choice. From the opening bars of each performer’s first song, defining molds were set. ‘Thorn in My Heart’ oozes the absolute class that has kept Kim Richey at the heart of definitive Nashville song writing for well over two decades, while the gritty underbelly of ‘Catbird Seat’ shines a fascinating light on Ben Glover’s increasing eminence of being an acclaimed source of deep rooted songs without compromise.

Comparisons and contrasts ran amok during this near two-hour show, which steered clear of a formulaic slant that can prevail when two independents collude. Harmonies, support vocals, joint playing, solo spots and a plain old duet all featured across of a pair of sets starting in rotation before meandering into slightly random territory. The duet came in the form of ‘Dancing with the Beast’, a Ben co-write with Gretchen Peters, adding a third looming figure on the evening, in spirit maybe. You can even add a fourth in the guise of Mary Gauthier, who worked so diligently with Ben in pumping life into ‘Catbird…’ and the rugged homage to Robert Johnson in ‘Oh Soul’, a standout candidate on the evening. It was fitting that all four artists were over here playing UK shows in May/June and key figures in a vibrant Nashville songwriting scene.

Both Kim and Ben are the architects of exceptional solo albums released this year. EDGELAND has surfaced as Kim Richey’s most acclaimed record in years, as evidenced by boundless critical praise. Songs such as ‘Pin a Rose’, ‘Chase Wild Horses’ and ‘Your Dear John’ reveal a dedicated poise and sophistication. Even ‘Whistle on Occasion’ brimmed with sparkle as Ben stepped into Chuck Prophet’s shoes admirably. One surefire success on the collaboration front was always going to be ‘Ride the River’, one of the earworm standout tracks from Ben’s latest record SHOREBOUND.

Moments were also precious when each artist gave the other total space to deliver the immaculate individualistic song. ‘Kindness’ saw Ben conjure up some idealistic romanticism and perhaps set an agenda for many to follow. ‘A Place Called Home’ projected Kim Richey at her finest and possibly own the show’s Champagne three minutes.

As you would expect from two singer-songwriters sparking off each other, stories flowed freely, though never suffocating the song. The TV show Grey's Anatomy may be a little more palatable knowing the beautiful Kim Richey song ‘The Absence of Your Company’ featured, while how can any Ben Glover show not celebrate the innovation of his Orphan Brigade project and the haunting tones of ‘Trouble My Mind (Oh Harriet)’.

A Nashville citizen by residency will always align with Ben Glover - the proud Northern Irishman from Co. Antrim, as long as songs like ‘Heart in Your Hand’ focus on the life changing process of emigration, a songwriting thread for a number of years. In contrast, there is an air of consistency around the work of Kim Richey with ‘Wreck Your Wheels’ sounding as sweet as when the album of the same name came out in 2010.

The final two songs from the sets to spice this review went a long way to framing the show. Song writing will never lose its fascination as long as compositions like ‘Blackbirds’ evolve from the depths of god knows where, through the pen to the vibes of a prominent track. Any Ben Glover/Gretchen Peters co-write is likely to simmer, bubble and permeate the psyche of a songwriting junkie for a long time. The night’s finale of ‘The Parting Glass’ was fairly standard in selection, but forever faultless in an unplugged exhibition of the beauty and the rugged.

The union of Kim Richey and Ben Glover was a rare treat, perfectly highlighting the 365 interaction of the Kitchen Garden and the wonderful songwriters that grace its surroundings.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: Karine Polwart - Town Hall, Birmingham. Friday 2nd November 2018

Photo by Robin Gillanders
It was music fit for the lavish setting. By her own admission, Karine Polwart has not made many visits to the West Midlands to play shows in the past, so the opportunity to bring her current tour to Birmingham Town Hall was too good to turn down. It does not matter where your prior appreciation or awareness of her music sits on the barometer; by the end of the show, you attain the status of a fully-fledged knowledgeable fan.

Not only is Karine Polwart the source of many wondrous songs, the background and inspiration to them is enchanting, enlightening and dealt with heaps of guile and craft. Adeptly assisted by a band comprising of her brother Steven on guitars and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson, the trio glided through two precious sets full of new songs, older numbers and the odd surprise. At the heart of the content are myths, observations and personal experiences from their Scottish home, a land that has placed Karine Polwart at the heart of the folk scene for many years.

The centerpiece of the current tour is the release of the latest album LAWS OF MOTION. By the time Karine mentioned the record via the title track towards the end of the first set, several songs from it had already been enjoyed alongside learning about their origin. Politics has often been a fruitful source for Karine and right from the off we were treated to the inventive piece ‘I Burn But I am Not Consumed’ taking its cue as a response to the 45th President of the United States from the land of his ancestry. Politics with a small ‘p’ plays a part in the song ‘Suitcase’, which draws its inspiration from forced emigration from Eastern Europe to Scotland in 1938 and generally reflecting modern day migration. Most songs from the new album had an informative introduction, so we learned that ‘Cornerstone’ draws on the experience of visiting the Isle of May and ‘Young Man on a Mountain’ recalls her grandfather’s joint ventures on active war service in Italy and a more serene life in the forests of Scotland.

Before we leave the new album, a special word for ‘Ophelia’, which was probably the stand out song of the evening and one that launched the second set. Perhaps a song that let its beauty do the talking as no introduction was required.

As indicated, Steven Polwart did most of the string work, although Karine did sidestep from her Shruti Box to acoustic guitar on more than one occasion. By far the most intriguing aspect of the sound is the contribution of Inge Thomson. Surrounded by a concoction of percussive, electronic and organic instruments, she came across as a fair distance from the folk purist world to the extent of experimenting with loops alongside more conventional accordion work. However, the soundtrack worked a treat and played the perfect foil to Karine’s beautiful unblemished vocals.

It was not all the domain of original material. A song by Sidney Carter, ‘Crow on the Cradle’, can be found on the new album and appeared in the first set, alongside a tribute to Scott Hutchison, the late front man of Scottish rock band Frightened Rabbits, with a cover of ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’. You could sense the populist divide between this song and the distinct folk numbers, a trait expanded further later on when the trio launched into a fun, and different version, of the seventies chart topper ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.

Many people leaving a Karine Polwart concert would be entirely justified in celebrating the feathered thread as the stand out moments. In the final throes of the show, Karine recounted the myth of the robin obtaining its red breast before launching into ‘The Robin’, ended the second set with her signature tune ‘King of Birds’ and eventually closed the evening with her own favourite of the species, ‘Follow the Heron’.

The splendour of Birmingham Town Hall is never a presence to be under estimated when enjoying a show in the venue. Maybe thoughts do sometimes drift to the need for Birmingham to utilise a smaller theatre-style setting when getting anywhere close to selling out a 900-capacity venue is beyond the pull of an artist. However, any substitute would fall short in the grandeur stakes.

Thinking back, Karine Polwart was last seen in concert at the Artrix in nearby Bromsgrove six years ago. In hindsight this was far too long, but enjoying a full two-hour exhibition of inspirational Scottish folk music has started the compensation process. Leaving the venue informed, inspired and fully entertained is all you can ask for from putting your money down.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: American Aquarium - Night & Day Cafe, Manchester. Wednesday 31st October 2018

“I traded my youth, for three chords and the truth,” cries BJ Barham midway through his fiery response to a Southern Baptist upbringing. ‘Crooked + Straight’ may have taken a generation to burst out, but it goes a long way to defining the state of defiance and retribution flowing through an American Aquarium live show. 2018 is brewing up to be a landmark year for this band operating out of Raleigh North Carolina. A brand new album titled THINGS CHANGE (and the home of the aforementioned track) has emerged from a revolutionary all-change in personnel and a raft of dates both at home and abroad has followed to re-enforce them as one of the best US touring bands currently stepping foot on British soil.

While the entity of American Aquarium is a wholly owned subsidiary of BJ Barham – the songwriter, musician, performer and inspiration - such an assertion is a little disingenuous to the stellar line up of crack musicians assembled for this latest re-incarnation of the band. Ace pedal steel picker Adam Kurtz and top lead guitarist Shane Boeker joined Barham out front on the cramped stage at Manchester’s Night and Day Café, but these guys would be the first to acknowledge the backroom trio of bassist Ben Hussey, Joey Bybee on drums and a keyboard player ripping up the B3 with a name that will come to me eventually!

Anthony D'Amato
As good as the band is during this all too short run of three England dates on the latest European tour, the focus on any American Aquarium gig is always going to be the all-consuming emotive bout of heart and soul that BJ Barham pours into every song. His unassuming style would no doubt respond that he is just doing his job, but he takes going the extra mile to a new level. Standing five foot from such an inspirational band leader playing the show of his life (likely to be every show, mind you) is the ultimate live music experience and the reason that American Aquarium are a band that you do not mind travelling a distance to see.

This show in Manchester revealed a nineteen-strong song set list spanning an hour and half with a strict curfew meaning music probably curtailed some chat. Briefly, Barham mentioned sobriety and growing up in Reidsville North Carolina, curtly responded to gig talkers and request shouters, while really leaving what he has to say in the multitude of songs now spreading well into a second decade.

Only once did the band leave the stage for Barham to deliver on his own, but the performance of ‘Unfortunate Kind’ off the solo ROCKINGHAM record, conducted in a commendable pin drop environment, was utterly mesmerising. This 2016 album, which got a UK release on At The Helm Records, also supplied the title track and ‘American Tobacco Company’ to the set list, the latter re-enforcing  Barham’s southern soul searching and storytelling alongside determination to rinse out the afflictions that surround his homeland and personal experience. Political writing does play a part in his art and ‘The World is on Fire’ from the new album mixes personal and policy especially in the significant line “if anyone builds a wall in her journey, baby burst right through it”. New family is certainly stoking the fire.

One astute comment was giving Manchester tough praise in commenting that there is a degree of dirt to the city, and is the type of place where the feeling of being stabbed resides next to some establishment offering a £25 haircut. A city he duly liked. As a non-resident of Manchester, I could not possibly comment, but the point is heard.

Superb songs just continually ticked off as the set unraveled. ‘Wolves’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘Betting Man’, ‘Losing Side of Twenty Five’, a cover of John Prine’s ‘Sweet Revenge’, any list of potential highlights is everlasting. A decent sound system in the venue allowed each lyric from Barham’s gravelly delivery to decipher, an outcome that also commends the band’s guile and craft. Pedal steel of the highest quality was prevalent all night, and it was noted that fellow top player Smokin’ Brett Resnick took a night off from playing in Kasey Musgraves’ band to pop along and join the audience.

Joining American Aquarium on this tour is New York based singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato. His thirty-minute opening slot is a cut above what you get on the live touring circuit and represents an artist rapidly justifying the positive words that are seeping out. Assisted by the token acoustic guitar and harmonica, he came across as an accomplished artist, comfortably at ease in both a hipster bar setting in his home borough of Brooklyn and less salubrious establishments when the roads get dustier. Joining songs from his previous release COLD SNAP were a few numbers from an upcoming record including ‘The Oyster and the Pearl’, a track already out there to listen, buy and enjoy.

Twelve months ago, American Aquarium played a sensational show in Oxford that was just edged out by Chuck Prophet as gig of the year. Time will tell whether this night will go one-step further. However, there is nothing more BJ Barham and the boys could do to meet every ideal craved from the live music experience. Whether you want to anoint this band as country, alt-country, Americana or just good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, the fun is in listening, believing and relishing everything they set out to accomplish. In the song ‘Casualties’, BJ Barham proclaims that, “now, I’m just a casualty of rock ‘n’ roll”. Probably best summing up American Aquarium is that they start out full of country sentiment before finding the fault lines of rock ‘n’ roll, not a bad place to be though. A wonderful fulfilling gig from an awesome band sums the night up perfectly.