Friday, 20 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman + Sunjay - MAC, Birmingham. Thursday 19th April 2018

The quality of their music is a given, but you should never under estimate the warmth that generates from a Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman show. It is very much an open door policy into the world of this renowned duo, one well established as a premium UK folk act.  You do not really need an excuse to catch one of their concerts, and they often tour outside the album release cycle when family commitments allow. On this occasion, the tour aligned to a new record, with PERSONAE getting its due rewards in the press when the delights were recently unveiled. The Midlands Arts Centre (known widely as the MAC) was one of the first dates of the tour’s second phase and proved to be more fruitful territory than a previous visit to Birmingham’s Glee Club. Over the duration of around an hour and half, a sumptuous serving of the traditional, gorgeous, enlightening and good old entertaining spilled out from the stage and set the scene for a successful evening.

For fans that have seen Kathryn and Sean before, it was business as usual. Kathryn owns the vocal content in true inimitable style, contributing to the musical output via fleeting flute and rotating piano. Sean takes the trusty acoustic guitar perpetually around the block, always framing the mood of each song with precise chord structures and playing tempo. Whether nailing their compositions or arranging the traditional picks, the expected high standard never waned.

Around half a dozen tracks from the new album featured during the pair of sets straddling the ubiquitous ‘commercial’ break. By a fair distance, the stand out song saw Kathryn on piano and a highly personal introduction to the beautifully delivered ‘Independence’. One of many revealing moments of the Roberts-Lakeman household and its extended family.  This was closely followed by a song that Kathryn had considered putting into hibernation, but so many folks requested ‘A Song to Live By’ that it survived the cull. No doubt still inspired by gazing at the lyric postcard that has long become a merch best seller.

Returning to the new album for a moment, ‘Tribute of Hands’ opened the show and ‘The Poison Club’ did likewise after the interval. ‘Seasons’ was introduced as an attempt at climatic nostalgia and pertinent on a record breaking temperature April day. Two traditional pieces from the album featured in the guise of the full-bodied ‘The Knight’s Ghost’ and the enlightening ‘Boney’s Defeat’. The latter segues neatly into ‘Old, Old, Old’ on the album with a symbolic reference to the island of St. Helena, but alas this one has not quite been primed for the stage yet.

In contrast, a song perfectly suited for the live arena is the heart breaking ’52 Hertz’, which never fails to move once its background of miscommunication in the depths of the Pacific Ocean whale community, is shared. Joining this song from the duo’s back catalogue included the traditional pair: the foreboding ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and the bawdy ‘Lusty Smith’.

The third strand to the Roberts-Lakeman songbook is the occasional treatment of covers. On the latest album, Kathryn has returned to a lifelong obsession for the music of Sandy Denny and her version of ‘Solo’ sounds exquisite both on record and delivered live with piano accompaniment. In line with Kathryn and Sean’s love for the classic realm of the seventies American singer-songwriter, the closing number was a nod to the work of Little Feat’s Lowell George with a cover of ’20 Million Things’. This joined previous shows where they have celebrated the work of other iconic artists such as Warren Zevon.

For the entirety of this tour, the Black Country’s very own folk ‘n’ blues picker Sunjay has entertained appreciative audiences in the opening slot. For thirty minutes this evening, an array of diverse material flowed from his acoustically stringed wand, ranging from old blues favourites to songs penned by his Stourbridge-based advocate Eddy Morton, plus an impish response to ‘playing some Bob Dylan'. In true mischievous style, Sunjay teased the audience about a Buddy Holly number, instead guiding them towards his latest release SUNJAY SINGS BUDDY. This album was the result of appearing in a touring Buddy Holly theatre show last year. As adept as Sunjay has been in interpreting the work of Lubbock’s finest, this is just the tip of the talent he possesses. If you get the chance to see him live or listen to one of his records, where the song choice is more than interesting, you will not be disappointed.

Kathryn and Sean’s appreciation towards Sunjay is as warm as the aura that they create in their set. You could almost be forgiven for acquainting with a small village on the edge of Dartmoor where they have put down family roots. The environment is obviously conducive to the flowing of creative juices and long may this prove to be fertile ground for quality music to flourish. While this Birmingham show, and all other dates on the tour, are primarily designed to spread the word of PERSONAE, you know that things will not halt once the word is out. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have made superb music for many years and there is no sign of this drying up.

Review of Personae

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashley Monroe - Sparrow : Warner Music Nashville

The initial thought on hearing this album was different but not divisive as long as a little mind adjustment is applied. However, it did not take long to delve into its delicate parts and reveal an artist in a hungry mood to tastefully propel their music forward. If you splice the professional career of Ashley Monroe with the initiation of the Pistol Annies project, SPARROW is the third album in the second phase, of which the first one was defined by the early years of chasing the Nashville dream. In a major shift from the two most recent albums LIKE A ROSE and THE BLADE, this record relies heavily on an abundance of lavish stringed arrangements, casting traditional country or pop pretensions to one side, at least for the moment. The big decision at the outset of this project was to hook up with prolific producer Dave Cobb, certainly providing him different tools to work with than those of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, more recently, Brandi Carlile. The magic has worked as a whole, with at least half of the twelve tracks getting five star appreciation here.

While its mainstream release on a major Nashville label will tag the album country (for a truer exposition of the genre you need to look elsewhere), it is far more aligned to seventies countrypolitan, think metro Dolly rather than mountain Dolly. An interesting connotation seeing both artists hail from Eastern Tennessee. Ashley has hooked up with a host of established writers, albeit having a co-role herself in the penning process for each song. From a personal awareness perspective, three names jumped out of the page immediately, led by Pistol Annie colleague Angaleena Presley, who assisted on the highly personal ‘Daddy I Told You’. This is one of the half a dozen tracks with most appeal, and while the overall album does not have an Angaleena feel to it, this track in honour to the father Ashley lost in her teenage years definitely does.

The second familiar name also had an abstract Pistol Annies connection, with Miranda Lambert’s current partner Anderson East getting in on the writing act. Likewise to the Angaleena statement, you could not envisage Miranda making an album like this, but the track in question, ‘This Heaven’, does have her spiritual stamp all over it. Before we get back to pick of the album, the third track which raised the eyebrow on the writing front was the momentum building ‘Hard on the Heart’, which had Blu Sanders on the credits; an artist who worked on the similarly excellent Gwen Sebastian album last year.

There is no finer place to start when returning to the album’s high spots than the opening track ‘Orphan’. This uplifting powerful yet tender number leans heavily on the cello and adopts a pondering mindset early on with the line ‘how does the sparrow know more than us’. It does not take long to decipher that this album is going to be different, but the ease at which this song grows on you suggests it is not going to be an overtly long process grasping it. ‘Hands on You’ was the first track to surface online and initially presented me the conundrum of not matching up to‘Like a Rose’, her benchmark track in my opinion. Eventually, this mellow sultry and moody song won me over, and while the original assertion is still valid, it improves in the context of the album.

Soaring to greater heights than the humble ‘sparrow’ are two tracks delectably different in their feel. You can focus on ‘Mother’s Daughter’ from either, the perspective of Ashley’s recent motherhood or any other parental aspect, but it evolves into the most wonderful of choruses and is an early candidate for the top spot; should one desire. ‘She Wakes Me Up’ spices up the album in retro soulful stomper mode and filters in an older sound that can give many Americana releases a edge of finesse.

In line with the album opener being exceptional, the closer similarly fits the bill. Maybe gospel or secular in intent, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ keeps you lyrically aware in the album's closing moments. Perhaps acknowledging that the spiritual can act as a conduit for the blessings granted to make beautiful music. 

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Paying Attention’ has been one of those made available early in the album’s pre-release phase. It is probably representative of the album’s overall feel, without creating the initial effect that the indicated ones have. Likewise, the trio of ‘Rita’, ‘Wild Love’ and ‘I’m Trying Too’ see the album sink into a zone that soothes without excting too much. However, they fit neatly into the vibes that emanate distinctly from a record that will have to fight hard to find its market niche.

That last point is a mooted observation of where this album may lead. It should not abandon fans that have grown on Ashley over the course of her last two releases or the Pistol Annies work, but, does it have the bite to make inroads elsewhere? In a perfect world where the craft of a deftly spun body of work effortlessly melds into a gorgeous vocal presence, success should prevail. However, we often know the reality. Regardless the album direction of SPARROW, being on board with Ashley Monroe in that ever-diminishing corner of desirable mainstream Nashville is a comforting place to be. Maybe we are sometimes guilty of wanting to mould an album too much into our own model. This one is an exception.

ALBUM REVIEW: Old Crow Medicine Show - Volunteer : Columbia Records Nashville

There will probably not be a more profound homage to the southern states among this year’s major releases than the new album by old roots favourites Old Crow Medicine Show. Starting with the evocative title and threading through a sound that signals the familiar with the odd twist, VOLUNTEER voluptuously feeds the desire for more of the same that fans have craved over the years. This record sees the band return to the fold of original material following a year of paying tribute to their hero Bob Dylan via the BLONDE ON BLONDE revival project. In essence, this is the follow up to the 2015 Grammy winning effort REMEDY and it will be no surprise if such acclaim comes knocking again.

Before you even slide in the opening track, a glance at the song list reveals words such as ‘Mississippi’, ‘hickory’, ‘mountain’ and ‘Dixie’ suggesting a southern flavour is going to prevail. This is confirmed barely a couple of bars into the riotous fiddle-led hoedown number ‘Flicker & Shine’; a surefire sign that you are in Old Crow territory. This bout of frenetic mayhem is not alone as the two-minute fiddle feast instrumental ‘Elzicks Farewell’ lies in the penultimate slot alongside a ‘call and response’ back to basics piece titled ‘Shout Mountain Music’, anchoring deep in the core of the record. The latter is a celebration of riding into Nashville proclaiming the joy of rural music and succeeds in raising the roof in true Old Crow style.

Yet amidst the familiar, there are subtle diversions. No doubt, these are heavily influenced by hooking up with prolific producer Dave Cobb. Yes, another project from him I hear you say. A little research reveals that this is the first time the band have used electric instrumentation since 2004. Such addition tastefully slips in and it supplements rather than knocking the trademark acoustic sound off its pedestal.

The most recent promoted track epitomises the slight shift away from old time roots into a more progressive sphere.Here ‘Whirlwind’ closes the album with a romantic slice of contemporary country. Earlier, ‘Homecoming Party’ is an ironically titled gentle country roller, providing more than a nod to John Hartford’s ‘Gentle on My Mind’ in its melodic presence. Its sentiment is that coming off the road is often ‘no homecoming party’, as the subject struggles to settle back into mundane civilian life.

Among the plethora of standout songs on the album are two heavily biased southern pieces in the first half of the record. ‘Child of the Mississippi’ is straight out of the Mark Twain school of character content, complete with trademark references to ‘muddy waters’, ‘steamboat’, ‘river man’, all enriched by familiar Old Crow banjo. Following this in the running order is the equally explicitly titled ‘Dixie Avenue’ celebrating the thirty-year music making partnership of the band’s two core players Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. This piece of nostalgia is home to some of the electric guitar, although the fiddle is never far away. ‘Old Hickory’ is another delve into southern lore as banjo returns to strum along to this story piece, successful in re-enacting the chorus friendly traits of the band’s music. Not quite the karaoke status of ‘Wagon Wheel’, but in that direction.

Another catchy chorus exists in ‘A World Way’, a decent if not spectacular song that tones things down after the frantic opener. Anthem qualities reside in ‘Look Away’, another track where electric sits neatly alongside fiddle. This song is probably the nearest to a ballad on the album, in contrast to the boogie woogie vibes of ‘The Good Stuff’, which keeps the momentum going at the heart of the record.

Overall, VOLUNTEER succeeds in a mission to resume the Old Crow Medicine Show legacy drive. It largely sticks to the familiar template, with any diversions skilfully factored in. Its evangelical tip to the South displays proudly, but ultimately it is a foot tapping delightful listen. A fine example of old time stringed music successfully brought to the masses, with the added spice of this one stretching a little further.

ALBUM REVIEW: Charley Crockett - Lonesome as a Shadow : Son of Davy

Voice of the soil; voice of the street; voice of the soul, I’ll settle on the latter as the vocals are the first thing that knock you out when discovering the music of Charley Crockett. Their uniqueness coupled with the perfect fit for the style of songs is quite a find and set to acquire this Texan plenty of new admirers. LONESOME AS A SHADOW is the title of the latest release and tosses a virile mix of honky tonk country, blues and soul into the pan. Do not expect too much of your listening time taken as the album rattles through twelve tracks in thirty minutes, unless you succumb to the inevitable pull of repeat plays to double check what you have just heard is that good.

Charley is the veteran of a few albums now, including a devoted recent honky tonk one, but this latest effort signals a more international approach in promoting the artist. Live shows introduced him to UK audiences as the opening act for the JD McPherson tour at the start of 2018 with headline dates planned over here in the summer. First-hand reports from these, and shows on the Cayomo cruise, back up his credentials, but you get the unfiltered authentic feel from just listening to the records. A useful quality for selling your music in far-away lands.

The backstory narrative does include the quintessential drifting lifestyle, and for someone with this surname, a heritage that traces back to the pioneering days of his namesake Davy. You get the impression that this sound and approach comes direct from the DNA and not some finishing school, although you could say the streets, honky tonks and bars are the best musical educational establishments. Apart from his Texas home, visions of anywhere in the south-west gateway states of Louisiana, Arkansas or Oklahoma conjure up from listening, leading to possible descriptions like red dirt soul rinsed in country blues.

While the aura and voice leave the strongest marks, there are a couple of tracks that warrant a mention. The throwback honky tonk number ‘Goin’ Back to Texas’ is a riveting hip mover in the final throes of the record and doubles up on the country front with the steel-driven traditional piece ‘The Sky’d Become Teardrops’. However, a soulful sound generally takes root as exemplified in the funk ‘n’ groove brass infused ‘Sad and Blue’, a song title that requires no further explanation. A tilted rock ‘n’ pop retro sound makes ‘Lil Girl’s Name’ resonate, in a similar vein to the way the organ floats neatly to the ear in ‘Help Me Georgia’.

All good albums benefit from being suitably bookended. The emotive and subtle opener ‘I Wanna Cry’ does the business out the traps and the acoustic vibes of ‘Change Yo Mind’ does likewise for the finale. Throughout the album, a vibrant zone is easily located making this a record that you will enthusiastically want to share.

Apart from the voice, which can never be oversold, the overriding thought on LONESOME AS A SHADOW is how it improvises to perfect imperfections. This album is as genuine one as you are likely to hear all year. Raw, emotive and richly textured in barrels of roadhouse country blues and soul. Charley Crockett may have already arrived in many places, but one more joins the fray here, with a lengthy list of fans soon to be discovered elsewhere,

Sunday, 8 April 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ramblin' Roots Revue (Friday Evening Only) - Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe. Friday 6th April 2018

The Magic Numbers
To offer some clarity Ramblin Roots Revue is a three-day festival hosted by the Bucks Student Union in High Wycombe and has amongst its architects, the nearby- based Clubhouse Records. When an opportunity arose to attend the Friday evening, temptation gave way to reality and it was off to see five bands barnstorm through over four hours of seamless music. Off course, this was just the starter for those camped in both spacious locations within the campus building for the whole weekend as the Whisky Saloon segued into the main arena for the continual stream of sets. The vast majority of the acts booked were British, although if you dig deeper into the roots element, then the lineage of influence primarily goes through the Springsteen/Dylan/Young/Petty axis. In essence, the evening rocked with a branded streak of alt-country flowering as brightly as you are likely to see this side of the pond.

Ironically, first up on the the adapted Whisky Saloon stage was the American artist Robert Chaney, although his long term residency in London crosses over as much as the general feel of this event. Robert first crossed my path a couple of years ago with a solo set at Maverick; a likewise support slot in Oxford and an album packed with deftly dark songs. A couple of years on, there was an indication of change, although underpinned by a similar demeanour. This time a full band was in tow including pedal steel to steer the sound away from folk and into the realm of country. His half-hour set was entirely made up of newer songs, which on first listen were definitely a lighter shade of noir in their content and make-up. ‘Hurricane’, ‘What’s His Name’ and ‘Swing Low’ were a selection of the songs shared with the festival’s early arrivals, and they promised to be a flavour of a new album likely to drop in the not too distant future.

Robert Vincent
There was a slight break in the seamless nature with Case Hardin following Robert Chaney onto the Whisky Saloon stage after a short ten-minute changeover period (the solitary one before the two-stage operation began). Although Case Hardin activity tends to be intermittent probably due to other commitments, they never fail to impress either though sparkling live performances or albums they periodically release. This time there was a full band on display with a rhythm section of bass, drums and keys proudly supporting front man Pete Gow and his exceptional lead guitarist Jim Maving. Absence never seems to diminish an appreciation for how good this band are when operating in full flow; it may even re-vitalise it. The thirty-minute set spanned the breadth of the Case Hardin repertoire. Two of my favourites from the most recent COLOURS SIMPLE album in ‘(Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning) Do I Still Have To Feel This Way’ and ‘Roll Damnation Roll’ were probably the pick of the selection offered with ‘A Lullaby (..Of Sorts)’ taken from an older album following closely on their heels.

The Redlands Palomino Company
Any slight disappointment in Case Hardin not playing a longer set appeased quickly with a quick shuffle into the main arena to see Robert Vincent about to commence a performance. The year since the release of his most recent album I’ll MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS continues to treat this Liverpudlian well. Hot off the tracks from a nationwide support slot for Beth Nielsen Chapman and that late night performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test tribute show, the full band once again assembled as the set times started to lengthen a little. The acquisition/hiring of in-demand pedal steel/multi-guitarist CJ Hillman gives the songs a different dimension, more alt-country than straight out rock that can often consume the full band live shows. This alteration compounded further by the utilisation of a fellow band member switching between fiddle, banjo and mandolin. One slight blemish on the venue’s sound was the fiddle not being particularly clear to pick up, but the sentiment was at least there.  The set list was standard for folks getting used to seeing Robert Vincent live with ‘Demons’ the usual closer, but on this occasion the recent album title track and its sibling song from the first album LIFE IN EASY STEPS making the greatest impressions.

Robert Chaney
No sooner had this set finished then it was back to the Whisky Saloon (drink in hand, although more ale based than liquor) for a now becoming annual renewal of The Redlands Palomino Company love affair. If acquaintance with Case Hardin is sporadic, it has been the same with their Clubhouse label stable mates for as long as being a fan (now well over a decade). However, on the back of a slot at Tingestock last summer, this Hannah and Alex Elton-Wall co-led five-piece have considerably narrowed the bridge between gigs seen and from a hazy memory, this was a tighter performance than last year. Between new songs, homages to Teenage Fan Cub and a cover of Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout’) Peace, Love and Understanding’, it is still old style Redlands that fires up the crowd with devotees chanting ’24 hours to kill’ in the refrain to ‘Wasted on You’. Maybe time ran out before ‘Doin’ It For the Country’ had the chance to test the vocal chords of the audience for a second time, but it was just grateful to catch this band live once again.

Case Hardin
Main arena headliners for this opening evening of Ramblin’ Roots Revue saw a slight twist in style with The Magic Numbers enlisted into the fold to play a show in the run up to the release of a new album. Mainstream success, although in the deep distant past, plays a part in the stage persona of this double brother-sister combo, one with a tendency to rock out more than a majority of acts booked to play Ramblin’ Roots. This set obviously attracted plenty of their fans to the event and this led to old favourites like ‘Forever Lost’ and ‘Love Me Like You’ going down a storm. To preview their upcoming album OUTSIDERS, 'Sweet Divide, ‘Sing Me a Rebel Song’ and ‘Wayward’ were a selection of newbies. The latter was a toned down slower piece penned in honour of Romeo’s son and a song, which enabled the added pedal steel to play a more significant part than on the upbeat numbers. Romeo’s sister, Michele Stodart continues to be the enthusiastic pulse beat of the band and there is surely no greater animated bassist around. On an evening where covers were generally at a premium, The Magic Numbers ended with a Neil Young tribute and honoured the audience choice of ‘Harvest Moon’ over the simultaneously offered ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’.

This brought the opening evening to a fitting end and set the scene for a great weekend of which further details will have to be found elsewhere. For fans of western shirts, pedal steel and country music spliced with a hefty portion of roots rock on an alternative platform, Ramblin’ Roots Revue is a gift-wrapped treat. Hopefully, it will achieve its hat trick of staging in 2019 and circumstances that enabled a solitary Friday night appearance this year will expand across the weekend.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Bennett Wilson Poole - Bennett Wilson Poole : Aurora

Bennett Wilson Poole is the collaboration made for destiny and one set to make a significant mark in the recording annals. Jangle rocking revivalists gets the clichés out the way early, but the two thoughts never stray far from your mind as this self-titled album washes over you. Rampant guitars, wispy harmonies and luxurious tunes combine to place the record in the set position pending the proverbial smash. Wholesomely British and vividly retrospective, the forty-eight minutes parade in a flash with little effect of strain, but plenty of endless uncomplicated ease.

The destiny element arrives out of the work Tony Poole, Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett have previously done together, albeit not in this explicit trio format. Tony Poole spans the generations having been the acclaimed leader of seventies English rock band Starry Eyed and Laughing, undeniably influenced by The Byrds. Latterly, he has become producer-extraordinaire; working on albums by Danny’s band, the Champions of World and the Bennett brothers led Dreaming Spires. Being well versed in the Champs and the Spires, and delving back to sample Starry Eyed, it appears that Danny travelled the furthest to settle on the sound of Bennett Wilson Poole, but such is his enthusiasm for development and innovation, this is of little surprise.

The eleven tracks brim with cutting tunes, lyrics and sentiment to match, and an optimum pace to keep the listener on board throughout the duration. Two out of the three promotional tracks open the album and act as the perfect hooks. ‘Soon enough’ was first out the block and unveils as a bright and breezy tune containing some stellar guitar breaks. Indeed, our stringed companion is in fine form with the Rickenbacker forever reminding us of this album’s strong influences. ‘Ask Me Anything’ has been the final song to surface in the run-up to the release and contains a great chorus amidst a rising tempo. The thesaurus has been in overdrive to get incredulous and unscrupulous in the chorus, but you cannot beat some lexicon stretching. There are great guitar solos in this track as well.

The third track to get a digital pre-release airing via a video sits proudly in the album’s mid-rift and is the curiously titled ‘Wilson General Store’. A blast of harmonica opens this mystery piece before Robin launches the vocals. The whole feel of this track evokes memories of The Kinks and be best described as kitchen sink psychedelia.

Vocal exchange is a strong feature of the record, whether swapping lead, mixing within songs or delivering the synonymous harmonies. Even when the album heads into placid waters for three tracks in the second half, the vocal difference and perpetual jangle keeps you hooked in. The tracks in question run consecutively: ‘The Other Side of the Sky’, ‘That Thing That You Called Love’ and ‘Not Forgetting’. While all three protagonists are lead vocalists in their own right, Danny’s soulful tone has the more distinct effect.

Just when the album needs a slight alteration, the final two tracks deliver. An acoustic harmony piece complete with a solitary outing for pedal steel titled ‘Find Your Own Truth’ provides a subtle tempo diversion. In true Danny and the Champions of the World style, the album closer is a momentous eight-minute effort full of swirling guitars and lengthy fade out. ‘Lifeboat (Take a Picture of Yourself) is the said track and a juxtaposition piece contrasting the exponential world of the selfie with the equally growing but more disturbing refugee crisis.

Politics also figures earlier in the record with the fiery number ‘Hate Won’t Win’. Taken from the famous quote by murdered MP Jo Cox, this song was penned in the aftermath of her assassination. In an act of defiance, the strong message is adorned by a joyous celebratory backbeat suggesting that we will remain undeterred against hideous crimes committed towards the good in society.

Just two tracks left to decipher with the soulful pop inspiration to ‘Hide Behind a Smile’ making it one of the candidates to be the first among equals. The line ‘not the race we’re running in’ jumps out as poignant ponderings, while there is a very brief note combination at the end which prompts images of The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’. Each to their own, I suppose. ‘Funny Guys’ concludes the content with more jangle and the vocals of Danny Wilson opening up. What more could you want?

Bennett Wilson Poole is an album perfectly suited for a time to reflect and it will take a seriously good British made record to deny it honours when the time comes to dish out the niche awards. Perfectly gift-wrapped for those of a certain mind-set, any elements of indulgence will be heartily gorged by many folks lauding this album. The fun behind this project radiates out and perhaps most importantly, it is going to resonate widely as we sample a slice of 1968 in 2018. 

Bennett Wilson Poole Facebook

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Western Centuries - Songs From the Deluge : Free Dirt Records

There has been a buzz about Western Centuries in roots circles for a while and this is set to escalate in the jet stream of their second album release. SONGS FROM THE DELUGE draws its inspiration from a core country sound etched around the edges with shades of Cajun and soul. The movers and shakers around the collaboration that takes the name ‘western’ quite literally in terms of style include producer Joel Savoy, an artist steeped in Cajun lineage, and three songwriters noted for their work in other musical projects. The best known here of these is Cahelen Morrison, who has toured overseas in a duo format with Eli West. Fellow Seattle resident Ethan Lawton, who was heavily involved with the stellar work of Zoe Muth, joins Cahelen.  The core trio of the band is completed by New York City based Jim Miller. The irony of the trio honing in on a very southern sound from their bases in northern cities, albeit thousands of miles apart, is not lost, although the execution is rip roaring country music at its finest.

This theme explodes in the album’s stand-out track with ‘Own Private Honky Tonk’ suggesting that taking a spin around those wooden boards need not be solely reliant on the close proximity of an old time southern dance hall. Indeed, you can replace the south and west with Seattle and New York, or anywhere in the world in the sentiment of the song. In tune with much of the album, this number rattles along at a chipper pace making use of the some super pedal steel; the driving instrumental force on the record. Pushing this song to the limit among the twelve-track offering is the sublime ‘Earthly Justice’, with the sound drifting into Eagles territory. For a greater heartbreaker angle, ‘Rocks and Flame’ shapes up nicely as the band prove they can lower the tempo effectively when a breather is required.

The album gets its release on Free Dirt Records, who have an impressive past and present roster including Pokey LaFarge and Dori Freeman. Following the success of the former in securing a loyal fan base overseas, it would be interesting to see the extent that Western Centuries are promoted outside the US, and build upon a few dates over here last year. Targeted press is underway, but a tour would be the most exciting prospect because every indication points to a sizzling live show.

The presence of Savoy has not led to his Cajun heritage effect taking over fully, but some exciting fiddle and accordion pieces like in album opener ‘Far From Home’ add more than a little sprinkling of Louisiana. The vocals do frequently lean in a soulful direction and the deepest foray into this style exists most prominently in ‘How Many More Miles to Babylon’. To ensure a fresh appeal lasts to the final throes of the album, a dip into Spanish language vocals in the closing track ‘Warm Guns’ takes the album breathtakingly deep into border land, probably the furthest you can get from the Pacific North West or the Eastern Seaboard.

Running the full course of a 50-minute duration creates a comprehensive package that succeeds in keeping the listener actively involved, although a slightly more compact presentation could have been successful in leaving folks yearning for more. SONGS FROM THE DELUGE is an album that demands many repeat plays and has put down a marker as the year’s leading toe-tapping release at the end of the first quarter. It will certainly take a very good record to knock it off this mantle, but any high quality challengers are more than welcome as this type of country music can never have too many excellent practitioners. Western Centuries fall into this category and tapping into the buzz that warrants entirely has proved a fruitful exploration after absorbing the delights of this album.

Monday, 2 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Don Gallardo - Still Here : Southern Carousel Records

Such is the classy clarity to Don Gallardo’s music; there should be rampant rewards for putting the coolness back into easy listening. Building upon the elevated appreciation of his most recent record HICKORY, the new album lands on the listener with consummate ease.  STILL HERE is getting a staggered release across the artist’s two strongholds with us Brits getting a first bite of the formal cherry ahead of his American compatriots. In the hybrid world of independent music, genre lines are as blurred as digital borders, but whether delving into folk-rock, classic country or sensitive singer-songwriter this album scores highly and ensures not a moment of its twelve-track/forty-three minute existence is wasted.

Once again, Clubhouse Records have played a part in getting this record to market in the UK in association with Don’s US operations. This review may be going out just as a short run of dates over here has concluded, but expect him back soon to renew this bond created. In lieu of the live acquaintance, the craft of the new album supremely compensates.

For this record, Don has kicked the solo writes generally into touch and hooked up with a series of Nashville co-writers. Familiar names to UK audiences jump out immediately in Doug Williams, Robby Hecht and Tim Easton. The first of these teamed up for the most country sounding track on the album, and a traditional one to boot (ah sorry, replace traditional for real). ‘The Losing Kind’, complete with sad song syndrome and dreamy steel, hits the spot where so much of the modern take fails. Of the two Robby Hecht contributions, ‘A Boat Named Harmony’ stands out, largely due to the presence of another UK favourite Erin Rae on harmony vocals. Tim Easton chips in on the album closer ‘Trains Go By’ as we are taken on another Don Gallardo wanderlust spin as intimated in the line ‘taking all that’s with you as the river flows to Baton Rouge’. A mellower offering, acting as the perfect send off.

After a solid start from the philosophically titled ‘Something I Gotta Learn’, the album really kicks into gear with the third and fourth track. ‘Oh Jane’ comes first and appeals due to its country stroller rhythmic pretensions and a distinct direct line of communication in the narrative. ‘Same Ol’ Alley Talkin’ Blues #12’ came to life after a recent live show with the origin being revealed as a character led to Don via his touring partner Travis Stock. Apart from the ear pleasing sound dictated, a touch of social commentary is throw in alongside the whiskey and the useful banjo segment.

Elsewhere on the album, the mid-tempo ‘Kicking Up the Pavement’ slots neatly into the early stages, while ‘The Bitter End’ and ‘Stay Awhile’ segue as the record moves into its second half (or side two if you take the vinyl route). The first of these has been around a while and flows swimmingly with more pedal steel. The other sees an experiment with clarinet to provide a jazzy feel. The double role of architect and producer keeps Don in charge and suggest that despite the enlisting of many fine helpers, it remains exactly how he wants his recorded music to portray.

From start to finish, STILL HERE sparkles with a cultured sheen and reveals an astute artist in prime form, over a decade since they decamped from a West Coast home to thrive in the creative song- writing cauldron of Nashville Tennessee. There is crispness to the way Don Gallardo makes music and in turn, this creates a reassuring and fulfilling experience when dipping into his records. Tapping into this uncomplicated, natural and refreshingly organic album is the smart choice to unlock the skills of an artist who makes the undoubtedly difficult skill of crafting an excellent record look remarkably easy.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Hannah Aldridge + Don Gallardo - John Moore Foundation, Appleby Magna. Friday 30th March

If ghostly tales recurring around the immaculately preserved 300 year-old school hall in the John Moore Foundation prove correct, its occupants have now had to deal with the full force of Hannah Aldridge. Maybe our spiritual cousins just took a seat like everybody else and soaked up the evening’s entertainment, which frequently planted its tentacles into the dark side. For one night only, this culturally diverse East Midlands venue turned into an eerie mist of underground Nashville. Not the brash bright lights of the country music capital, but a thriving metropolis of creative musicians flourishing in a collaborative atmosphere of soaking up a multitude of influences. Joining Hannah for this quirky gathering was fellow Music City resident Don Gallardo as the duo passed like touring ships on a mission to spread their wares far.

What the enlightened mass got to witness on this proverbial Good Friday was two of the finest performing singer-songwriters operating on the scene that often takes shelter under the umbrella of Americana. Hannah’s impassioned gut pouring and Don’s crafted guile made for a splendid combination on an evening where curfews seemed as light as the timeless feel to the setting. Even though local opening act Phantom Horse afforded themselves well over the usual support time, we still had nearly two and a half hours of our stateside guests; this clearly evolved into a night shrouded free of convention.

The ease and clarity of the Don Gallardo performance aligned to what we have come to expect from his records and shows. In unison with his regular touring pal, bassist Travis Stock, the pair rattled through a batch of cultured songs that resonate with immediate positive impact. This is not grower music, but stellar tunes, meaningful lyrics and a cutting edge to power through the genre haziness of country, folk and rock.

Who needs a set list? Well maybe copies of your two most recent CDs rear side up are useful prompts. They certainly were not required for an older song in ‘Burgundy Wine’ or a cover of John Prine’s ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, but generally the set was based around HICKORY and STILL HERE. The latter is going through a phase of staggered releases between here and the States. Hearing songs live for the first time like ‘The Golden Rule’, Stay Awhile’, ‘The Losing Kind’, ‘Something I Gotta Learn’ and ‘Same Ol’ Alley Talkin’ Blues #12’ suggest this release possesses plenty of stamina.

The latter was dealt with the trademark introductory blurb, an informative aspect perfected over many years. Fans of Don from previous shows needed little reminding about the background to popular songs such as ‘Midnight Sounds’ and ‘The North Dakota Blues’, but patience is required, especially in new venues, with at least some new admirers present. This last song has evolved into the most prominent piece from his repertoire, packed to the hilt with catchy lines and entertaining hooks as an updated entry to the outlaw genre emerges.

In contrast to this being Don and Travis’ penultimate UK show before heading home, Hannah actually raced to Appleby Magna straight from the airport to renew her love affair with Britain after another raft of dates in continental Europe. Hastily readjusting her stage presence including borrowing Don’s guitar proved no barrier as she quickly adopted her stride and proceeded to ascend to a performing level unrivalled in previous shows seen.

Similar to Don, but from a more restricted offering, Hannah uses material off her two albums to recount a bunch of songs, rich in intensity, passion and now a strong sense of familiarity. ‘Old Ghost’ from RAZOR WIRE and ‘Lace’ off the more recent GOLD RUSH album were astutely chosen for the aforementioned surrounding, setting the tone for a set eventually pushing an hour and half long before reaching an impressive crescendo.

That climax came in the trio of main set closer and two encore numbers. An improvised backing band (you know who you are) was hastily assembled to blast out the biting revenge piece ‘Burning Down Birmingham’. On this occasion, a whole city facing Hannah’s wrath, not just an ill-advised individual. Following the immediate encore invite, ‘Parchman’ had its painfully emotive but utterly brilliant airing, stirring the primal instincts of human reaction. To close, who needs amplification when you can unplug from the mains and plug into the natural vacuous acoustics of a high ceilinged hall. If you were not jaw-dropped by an artist pacing around a room belting out ‘Howlin' Bones’, then therapy is available.

Earlier in the set, the live version of ‘Gold Rush’ probably peaked in the rankings of the original songs. Away from these, a version of Tom Waits’ ‘Take It With Me’ was adorable, likewise a dip into the unrecorded world of her song-writing father Walt and a slightly taboo song back home that he wrote with Dylan Le Blanc’s father titled ‘Yankee Bank’. Of course, Don was not let off the hook from returning, and it was fitting that he joined Hannah on the song they co-wrote ‘Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad’.

Corporate sponsored soulless venues may be the inevitable more lucrative desire for touring musicians, but they can never replace the richly textured raw interaction that the quirky pop-up stages provide. Whatever course their career takes them on, these nights will define the artist. Thinking outside the box may be driven by survival but it leads to the most wonderful of musical experiences for fans offering a lifeline to live music. Hannah Aldridge and Don Gallardo feed off this. Those heading to Appleby Magna on a wet and blustery Good Friday evening had the perfect holiday feast.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashley McBryde - Girl Going Nowhere : Warner Music Nashville

Momentum and opportunity are two drivers key to the process of seeking success in the music industry. The latter opened doors for Ashley McBryde after over a decade of playing out the archetype unsigned Nashville singer-songwriter narrative, while the former is about to ignite in the shape of GIRL GOING NOWHERE. This debut album blows right through the country music mainstream like a breath of fresh air without doing too much radical. Maybe view it as a conciliatory record within the contest to save country music, although an act of appeasement is an incidental observation among a rack of eleven songs strengthened by a high tensile outer and similar core.

What makes this record soar up the scale is that its high spots build up so much credit to iron out casual imperfections that could mould it into something more personal for the listener. The inevitable lack of steel, fiddle or banjo twang from a Warner Nashville release does not bow to a traditionalist desire, yet such is the utmost sincerity that the oversight is pardoned. Likewise, there is no real dash to court a trend outside the country confines and thus alienate a loyal base of devotees. The team behind this record, including producer Jay Joyce, must be commended for getting the tinkering and guidance generally right and allowing the undoubted talent of Ashley McBryde to shine brightly from start to finish.

This album has had a lengthy introduction to the wider world since its cracking heartbeat ‘A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega’ was unveiled in the middle of last year. This track is so much more than the proverbial ‘jewel in the crown’ and is a country song for all ages. In the week ahead of its Good Friday release (the most appropriately titled of days), nearly half of the content is freely available on the streaming sites and a raft of videos exist including national TV and Opry appearances. UK audiences had the presence of Ashley at the recent Country-to-Country Festival and hopefully, this is just the beginning of a lengthy love affair with our Isles.

With so much of the album previously out there, the most anticipated task upon receiving the full complement was to check out the six newer tracks. Heading these was the only solo write present and a superb effort to boot in ‘Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)’. A gorgeous stripped down song that allows Ashley to retain ultimate control. The other eyebrow raiser among this dozen is the straight up rocker ‘El Dorado’, which strays deeply in Springsteen territory in the melody attached to the verses. But like so much of the album, it works, even if the rock element throws in a slither of potential doubt. An infectious newbie brings up the album’s rear with Ashley in heartfelt motivational mode as she pours every sensitive sinew into ‘Home Sweet Highway’.

A vital contemporary feel to the sound brings in fans of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, while its generational spin at least goes back to Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. It is good that Ashley’s song writing is fully embraced with a co-hand in each one outside the aforementioned solo piece. Of course the lead off and title track ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ jumps out from the pack, especially considering the back story of an Arkansas girl following her dreams while leapfrogging an obstacle course of barriers.

While on the topic of what we already know, ‘Radio Land’ is an infectious romp through the obvious, but full credit to getting tractor and Townes Van Zandt in the same line. In a similar vein, getting Kennedy and Monroe namechecked in ‘American Scandal’ draws attention to a semi-epic song that evolves into one of personal interpretation. ‘Tired of Being Happy’ is the final pre-available song and a mischievous slant on the time honoured country music DNA trait of putting ‘good ole cheatin’’ at least on the table. Here, like continually throughout the record, the vocals sparkle with a southern charm, echoing strength, sadness, hope and gratitude. In other words, they make a critical incision.

The three remaining tracks return to the new category and form a thread at the heart of the record. ‘Southern Babylon’ starts the run in a sultry dark mood as we head in another storytelling direction, which glues your ears to the narrative being revealed. This is followed by ‘The Jacket’, dripping in nostalgia and that everlasting country music trait of keeping the song writing clear and meaningfully explicit. Another example of the temperate production doing the job. ‘Livin’ Next to LeRoy’ takes you right into the earthy roots of country music song mining with its character development.

GIRL GOING NOWHERE could be the most important release by a mainstream Nashville label this year, especially if you apply any factors relating to gender politics. A record which funnels the listener straight into its strengths, and there are plenty. Ashley McBryde has created a mightily impressive album that endorses the apparent momentum being built. Where it leads her who knows, but being on board is a ticket not to be missed.

GIG REVIEW: Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 28th March 2018

It has just been over five years since Kim Lowings and the Greenwood first crossed my path with the realisation that sometimes you do not have to venture too far from your home to discover great new acts. The added bonus has been to see them blossom across many shows over the ensuing period and widen their repertoire considerably. From that first night at Katie Fitzgerald’s in Stourbridge, another eight venues across the West Midlands join the list, ranging from the quirky surroundings of Scary Canary to the lavish setting of Moseley Park, home of the annual big name folk festival. Each occasion (and there has been multiple ones at some of the venues) brings out the best in Kim and her band, with the Red Lion Folk Club in Birmingham ensuring this upward trajectory is maintained.

While this was not their first appearance at the venue, it was good to catch them in a different setting, although their music usually commands an attentive listening audience wherever played. Across the two sets, the songs blew a breadth of fresh air as the new album beds in alongside established favourites. Of course, time waits for no decent act and the future is already in motion with new material. From memory, a quartet of songs had their first airing in my presence this evening. A traditional Canadian folk number titled ‘Jones Boys’ was introduced as a step into the future, with Kim continuing to scroll the archives to supplement her own writing.

This quartet began right at the start of the set with an instrument-free version of the Dick Gaughin passionate ballad ‘Workers’ Song’, before Kim eased into her musical role of dulcimer, and this evening a rare foray into some acoustic guitar work. Sadly, there was no piano available to deliver the stunning twin peaks of the WILD AND WICKED YOUTH album, but the well of material is still considerably stocked. Another song not heard before was ‘Beggar Man’, which Kim has included on a new covers release as part of the Pledge process for the album. Stocks are limited, but check out the Bandcamp download link below, and amongst other tracks selected by her valued sponsors is the gorgeously sung ‘The Littlest Birds’. This is a long term live favourite and a rendition that stands proudly alongside the Be Good Tanyas original.

The final song not heard before was a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’. While she has previously covered the great lady at gigs I attended, I am quite sure it was not this classic. Anyhow, somebody requested it this evening; Kim decided to go off piste and did a grand job.

Of course, there was plenty of familiar Greenwood material to savour as well. Originals like ‘Stay’, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Maggie’s Song’ continue to shape up admirably against borrowed pieces like ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ and arrangements of traditional numbers such as ‘Bold Riley’ and ‘Oh the Wind and Rain’. We even had a version of the old standard ‘Shady Grove’ this evening, with Kim admitting it had been a long time since featuring in a set. On similar lines, I cannot recall hearing the stirring Scottish song ‘Annie Laurie’ too frequently recently, but there was no harm in it returning to the fold tonight. This song always brings back memories of the superb video that accompanied it a few years back.

It was interesting to note that the show did not feature the usual closer ‘The Begging Song’. While a folk staple, its connotation has perhaps been slightly impeded by the proliferation of homeless people in towns across the land.

While the sound of Kim and her usual backing trio was adorable all evening, the choice of the organisers to enlist the services of Paul O’Neill to open proceedings gave the event an extra sparkle. A stalwart of the Celtic folk scene as front person for the Roving Crows, the solo work of this exiled Irishman (I know he is not alone) is less familiar. However, more of the fare served up in this near fifty-minute opening slot will knock down a few doors. Songs and stories entwined as the quintessential troubadour set about turning observations into catchy songs, ripe to engage with a receptive audience. There were similarities in a blend between Steve Knightley and Paul Brady, alongside an inching towards the country side of folk. Subjects such as family, God, fun in Barcelona and casual acquaintances all got the song writing spin and if you had not come across the work of Paul O’Neill before, there was ample on show to check him out. Although this will become easier when he keeps the promise of recording some of these songs

The recorded format has been kind to Kim Lowings and the Greenwood. The three studio albums plus an EP and now this covers release will keep grounded fans happy, while there is always a fine show around the corner for those willing to branch out and engage with live music. Hopefully, the tenth different venue to host a gig in terms of this blog's reviews will surface before the year is out. The chances of at least equalling this night are guaranteed, with the added anticipation that things are likely to get better.

Monday, 26 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Merritt Gibson - Eyes on Us : Self-Released

Some records transcend the periphery of their architect and permeate through the generations. While the debut album of Merritt Gibson is liberally laced with a teenage outlook, there is a timeless feel to its content. You could quite easily replace the year 2018 with 1988 and the fit would remain as compact. The fact that EYES ON US is thrown into the mix with a wider selection on the maturity scale is a testimony to its strength in terms of inspirational song writing and acute ability to bury deep into the psyche of an open-minded listener. A youthful zest froths out of a sophisticated substance to mark an album that successfully courts the intended desire of serious subjective approval.

Primarily, the sound settles on an indie pop rock base, with an astute angling to encompass those of a country, Americana or general singer-songwriter persuasion. Indeed, the latter appears to be the likely ultimate destination, although a strong case exists that this University of Virginia student, heading in the direction of majoring in English, is already succeeding in this facet of her music.

It came as little surprise to learn that Nashville, and its sought after infrastructure, was the destination for Merritt to evolve the raw components of her art into a recorded status ripe for commercial consumption. The twelve tracks forming this album are a trusted collection of jaunty rockers and emotive ballads. It is perhaps fitting that the record ends with a trio of the latter as they probably represent the core muscle of where Merritt is likely to succeed in music. Leading this trio is ‘Area Code’, a prime candidate for the standout number from a personal perspective and a song with a heartfelt plea that crosses the land in retro shades, Wholly epitomised in the lines ‘But punch in numbers, 508-609, I need another dime /Area code is across the states /City of Angels to an east coast bay’.

‘Ghost Train’ and ‘Faraway’ complete the trio and demonstrate Merritt’s ability to resonate in an articulate style. This is especially relevant to the piano-accompanied pieces and indicative to a way all twelve tracks are able to tailor for a more frugal solo delivery. This does not detract from the enhanced upbeat album numbers that give the record a jaunty feel in places. ‘When You Were Mine’ leads off in fine style leaving the listener in little doubt that there is a defined campus tinge to the feel. Occasionally, the sound does fall away a little in reaching out behind its hinterland, but infectious melodies never cease, along with the sincere way Merritt goes about making her music.

Planting a great organic tune in your mind does the initial job and subsequently lures you into discovering the nuances of Merritt’s writing. ‘Truth and Myth’ opens up with the fabulous line ‘awake in the storm of sleep’. Even when the subject tracks back to the obvious teenage staples such as in ‘My Best Friends’ and ‘Lovesick’, the writing elevates the record out of a melange of similar releases and into the realm of the conditioned ear.

As intimated throughout, a cross-generational appeal applies and tracks like ‘Eyes On Us’, ‘Burning Red Hot’ and ‘I Heard’ are more than capable of attracting the casual observant. When trying to relate this to contemporary artists, it is hard to escape some Taylor Swift comparisons, especially from her debut album. However, this record has a more cultured edge to it along with stretching the sound across a multitude of platforms.

The whole approach by Merritt Gibson in getting EYES ON US out to the world is blessed with a high degree of professionalism. Its intended audience is likely to be a fluid affair and throw up suprising recipients drawn into a record awash with many affable traits. Blurred boundaries have their benefits and this album will flourish on its own merits.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ags Connolly @ Wolverhampton Country Songwriter's Night. Saturday 24th March 2018

Opportunities to see Ags Connolly in the West Midlands have been thin on the ground in the past. Therefore, a quick last minute notification of an appearance on the Wolverhampton Country Songwriter’s Night needed little invitation once a window appeared. The slot may have been just over half an hour in a four-way presentation, but this brief acquaintance at least reaffirmed the unique style that he successfully cultivates.

In a climate where country music evolution frequently takes a turn for the worse, Ags adopts a naturally organic steadfast stance pertaining to a style endemic to the roots of the genre. Discovering similar performers of his ilk in terms of vocal, sincerity and song writing approach has often proved a futile task. Frequently, Ags has found soulmate collaboration in touring American artists, usually those of an Ameripolitan persuasion. For the uninitiated, this is a phrase coined by Dale Watson in response to traditional country and honky tonk performers facing alienation on the mainstream wing of the genre.

For me the term ‘traditional’ gets increasingly uncomfortable, suggesting an ‘ill-informed’ Luddite existence. This is particularly pertinent to a writer of original material that brims with respect, and succeeds in succumbing to some of life’s most primal feelings in a style immersed into the mood of the song. Ags has successfully achieved this across his two major studio albums to date, with positive indication that it will continue in the future. This last point was re-enforced by a new song shared in tonight’s set titled ‘Lonely Night in Austin’. Many advocates of ‘new country’ argue that UK audiences fail to connect with augmented American references, but that is part of the romanticised appeal of the genre in its purist form for those seeking a virtual escape from the rituals of suburbia.

This brief exposure to an artist with a finger on the pulse of these ideals lived up to expectation. With the modest investment of the evening firmly in the credit column, it was interesting to assess what else was on offer from this well attended monthly event. Opening the evening was a family trio from North Wales parading under the ironic name Blue Genes. Of the remaining acts, they came across as closer to my taste possessing an organic sound awash with pristine harmonies and selective bouts of vocal impressiveness. A foray into the Welsh language also met with approval in an indicative statement of country’s natural alignment with folk.

Midlands based duo, Gasoline & Matches sandwiched Ags and Blue Genes in the running order and are intrinsically entrenched in the modern stream of the genre, currently experiencing an upsurge in interest across the nation. Another local act in the Emma Swindells Band adopts the role of resident artist and is scheduled to close most of these monthly gatherings. Both acts accrued a positive reaction from the audience, but would need major readjustments to resonate further with my musical ideals.

Ags Connolly meets these head on and continues to spearhead a fulfilling lonesome trail, which is at least spiritually rich in kinfolk. Long may this connection remain, with perhaps room still for one or two likeminded artists to give him a competitive run on the UK scene.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rod Picott - The Musician, Leicester. Tuesday 20th March 2018

Rod Picott is the trusty troubadour whose art never subsides from a lofty plateau. Whether immersing in the creative process or presenting his material on the road, consistency has been the badge of honour proudly worn across the continents. Throughout a lengthy and humbled song-writing career, this Maine native has long defied the notion of heart and soul being the sole instigator of the moving song. Framing an image of muscle, toughness and a philosophical perceptive field has proved a fertile strand of influence across a conveyor belt of records and shows over many years. If anything, the output is likely to escalate, with the written word now spreading from literally hundreds of songs to poetry, screenplay and a fledgling novel. Amidst this prolific period, trips to regular haunts this side of the pond are still on the agenda, with the city of Leicester welcoming Rod Picott back after a few blank years.

Although his association with our country stretches back a lot further, the Musician hosted my first Rod Picott gig back in 2012. Collaborations have altered since that show with Amanda Shires, and it is the solo mode, which houses him these days. This latest visit to the UK coincides with the release of his latest double record, OUT PAST THE WIRES and a few tracks from it were shared among a string of old favourites.

Rod was certainly in a chipper mood, buoyed by the hotel upgrade and perhaps at ease in the comforting environment of playing songs to a familiar audience. Throughout the hour and a quarter stage time, relaxed anecdotes weaved in between the impassionedly strummed tunes, all wrapped in an industrial haze. The almost total lopsided tilt away from the happy song resonates well with serious song writing connoisseurs. There is almost a precedent of getting ‘Angels and Acrobats’ swiftly out the way, but it long remains a staple of a Rod Picott set and possesses a strong melody to retain its eminence.

It would be accurate to state that Rod has had some of his finest song writing moments to date in unison with his long-term pal Slaid Cleaves. We had an interesting insight to the brilliant and inspirational ‘Broke Down’ this evening with the revelation of it being in strong consideration for a Dixie Chicks cut in their heyday. Herein lays the consequence that Travelodge and Premier Inn still dominate the touring accommodation chat many years later. 

Much loved oldies like ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’ never lose their sheen and more recent material such as ‘Take Home Pay’, ‘Primer Gray’ and ‘On the Way Down’ are likely to ascend to such status given time. Introductions tended to border on the conversational irreverent rather than informed insights, maybe due to a perception of familiarity on both sides.

You get the impression that new fans find the work of Rod Picott as they enter a phase of maturity, not necessarily in age, but definitely in outlook. A rock solid reliability has been in place for a long time and trends find this artist rather than vice versa.

Other excellent songs to add to the evening’s enjoyment included ‘410’, ‘Until I’m Satisfied’ and the spiritually captive ‘Elbow Grease’. There was even time for a request in the encore slot in ‘Circus Girl’.

While the latter song referenced a slot opening for Alison Krauss, the bill this evening was enriched by the East Midlands tones of Paul McClure. In a familiar and popular style mixing wit and the articulate song, the warm up slot evolved into its own entity, appreciated by Rod as well as those wisely choosing the backstreets of Leicester for their Tuesday evening entertainment. The charity single ‘Baby That’s You’ rounded off an enjoyable set in true singalong fashion endorsing the good banter of rivalry.

You do not have to dig too deep to find the synergy between Paul McClure and Rod Picott; a staunch belief that the magic of song will ultimately win the day. Our stateside guest is forever appreciative of the opportunities that have made one dedicated artist able to make a move from a tough real world job to one which still presents challenges, albeit fruitful ones to scale. In a year where Sam Baker and Hayes Carll have already crossed my path in the first quarter, the reassuring compatibility of Rod Picott strengthens the touring American song writing fraternity considerably.

Monday, 19 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain : Loose Music

Lucinda Williams framed the phrase ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’ in the title of her 2014 album. If you were to discover such a place, Courtney Marie Andrews would be there scribbling in her notebook before wrapping the words around her vocal chords. Those cast under the spell of her previous record will still be locked in a cavern of soulful song-writing bliss as MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN gets the album handover. It is a case of striking while the creative iron is hot as the antithesis to romanticised Americana feasts on the currency of kindness and hope. The intensity and capacity to move runs rapid across the ten tracks, without the slightest trace of being “overwrought”.

The search for the album’s beacon stops abruptly at the jaw-dropping momentous ballad ‘Took You Up’, which has the capability to break each listener with every play. Right from the opening line ‘is it the journey or the destination’, the instant gift of song writing nirvana has been found and we are exposed to the starkest of relationship analysis. From ‘cheap motels, diners and dives’ to ‘wouldn’t trade love for a million bucks’, the analogies relentlessly flow amidst a stirring soundtrack awash with gorgeous melodic breaks. This song is up alongside Brandi Carlile’s ‘Sugartooth’ as the best track heard for ages and is in no danger of removal from a year-shaping list.

Courtney Marie Andrews may have come to prominence with the release of HONEST LIFE, but there is a lengthy trail of exposure to the world of a working musician over the last decade. Without doubt, this experience filters into the song writing process and she certainly has a priceless knack of capturing her feelings in the sung word. Evidence for the case of removing iconic namechecking is almost complete to the extent where artists in her tailwind will soon be citing the name Courtney Marie Andrews.

Four tracks have surfaced online in the run up to the album release headed by the title number ‘May Your Kindness Remain’. An extraordinary perception to draw positives from advancing flaws is a trait in the writing process, and this song leads the way. The most recent album leak was the ironic ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’, which sees the vocals slightly soar and the fortitude of the artist spill over. Doubling up on the kindness theme is another previewed piece ‘Kindness of Strangers’. This is probably one of the fuller sounding tracks on the album, complete with extra additional backing vocals and an instrumental accompaniment marrying keys, strings and percussion. Courtney’s lead vocals push a little harder here without losing any of the sculptured elegance.

My second favourite track on the record is ‘Two Nights in Buffalo’. This was heard first when featuring in the set at Moseley Folk Festival last September and made an instant impression. The availability of repeat plays confirms this initial promise. While every sympathy is offered to the city in question (the second time it appears in my collection after Amanda Shires’ ‘Detroit or Buffalo’), it is refreshing for somewhere else other than Cleveland to attract the song writing blues. Courtney does not refrain from dishing out some near clichés in ‘wrong side of the tracks’, ‘mom and pop, 5 and dimes’, but the vision painted from this punchier song portrays the message.  

Everything about the infrastructure to this album seems to fall into place: ten tracks, forty minutes, inspiring lead off title track and the essential climactic closer. ‘Long Road Back to You’ unveils as a mini epic in this role. Passion, feeling and a killer chorus all add to the mix as we get the perfect send off, or hit the repeat button if you have some sense!

Border’ and ‘This House’ were two songs Courtney presented to a live audience when she played a fabulous solo gig in Oxford recently. The first of these takes a social look at the immigrant attitude that blights parts of the States, in this case close to the Arizona home where she was raised. The second brings the theme back into the realm of the personal vicinity and how sometimes you just have to treasure what you have – warts and all. This is an aspect of Courtney’s writing in which she really excels.

Rough Around the Edges’ gets the widely used piano intro plus its major accompaniment, and rolls out as a trademark Courtney Marie Andrews piece. The piercing vocals convey the passion of the song and demonstrate that soul music can come in many different forms. It is just an innate trait that certain performers effortlessly pour into their musical art. ‘Lift the Lonely From My Heart’ is the final track mentioned, but could quite conceivably be the first in likeminded reviews. Here, organ and Wurlitzer makes a further soulful impression and the emotive spark off the album gets a touch fiercer.

MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN is the perfect embodiment of the heartfelt song. It weaves in a thread of art and reality, tearing up the singer-songwriter genre in a similar vein to her iconic American predecessors. Its ability to convey a multitude of messages awash with life’s imperfections tints it with an anti-corporate stance. Delicately sung and immaculately presented, Courtney Marie Andrews is the architect of a record that should act as a country/folk blueprint in 2018. A journey, a journal, a lesson, this album is a classic.