Saturday, 30 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Blue Rose Code - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 28th March 2019

The last time Ross Wilson brought his Blue Rose Code operation to the Kitchen Garden (November 2017 to be exact) a wandering mind could be excused pending the imminent birth of his first child. Fast-forward nearly eighteen months and the update of mother and child doing fine set the scene for another impassioned performance by one of Scotland’s leading singer-songwriters. The format may have changed from a band set up in 2017 to a duo one this time, but the songs, connecting qualities and sweet sound of Caledonian soul planted a guarantee of a top class evening’s entertainment. Prior to these two visits, a solo Blue Rose Code graced the bricked walls of this venue proving that whatever the format: the control, poise and creative exploits of Ross Wilson evolve into a fascinating show.

The 2017 date was part of a wider tour to promote the most recent full-length Blue Rose Code release THE WATER OF LEITH. That album is now in the archives with many other recordings, so it was of little surprise to hear plans afoot for the next record. Sparking off his excellent guitar-playing accomplice Lyle Watt, Wilson eased through a couple of riveting sets to thrill the pulses of a dedicated gathering of Blue Rose Code fans almost packing the Kitchen to its capacity.

To increase the soulful spin on the evening, the support came from Birmingham based singer-songwriter Philippa Zawe. This talented young performer used a forty-minute opening set to increasingly blossom as her heartfelt folk songs took on an extra dimension when the depth of her vocal acumen extended. This was an opening set a cut above the norm and witnessing this artist for the first time marked her out as one to watch on the local scene.

Material for the main act drew from an abundance of sources as Wilson set about interweaving stories, anecdotes and amenable chat into a batch of songs stretching across two sets. Recently recorded numbers like ‘Red Kites’ and ‘I Will Lay You Down’ mingled with older tunes such as ‘Edina’ and ‘Whitechapel’. Evocatively celebrating the musical diversity of his homeland, a moment of pure audience connection sprang out of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and a reworking of modern day Edinburgh anthem ‘Sunshine on Leith’ breathed new life into a blast of populism. Proudly representing the Blue Rose Code familiar was ‘Pokesdown Waltz’, while leading the less familiar was ‘Wild Atlantic Way’, the latter introduced as a track inspired by the west coast of Ireland and unravelling as a piece of Celtic union.

Through these and several other songs in a fully equipped performance, the engaging lure of Wilson’s expressive character, and a voice adding finesse to an urban grit, gripped an audience formed of Blue Rose Code devotees and some who occasionally dip into his world. Regardless of which camp you reside in, fully immersing into the work of one man, in whichever guise, possesses a unifying agent for all present.

One format that the Kitchen Garden will never see is Blue Rose Code in its most lavish form complete with full orchestra and special guests. We were informed that Blue Rose Code: This is Caledonia Soul is making an appearance south of border later in the year (Union Chapel London in September to firm things up) to export a show that went down a storm at Celtic Connections and Edinburgh Fringe. As appetising as that may be, we in Birmingham are content to some extent to get what is presented on an ever increasing regular basis as stripped down, the music of Ross Wilson is still in an accesible form to savour. A successful Kitchen Garden return re-enforced this view.

GIG REVIEW: Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 27th March 2019

 Without a new album to promote, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman took the decision to downsize capacity wise on their return to Birmingham. Not that one of the UK’s premium folk duos are strangers to the Kitchen Garden, and proving adaptable in how shows are presented keeps performing artists fresh and connected with their fan base. There was no surprise of a near full house turning out for this gig despite the competing attraction of another Lakeman just a couple of miles down the road in the city centre. A full-on folk rock Seth Lakeman show at the Glee Club would surely have gone down well, just as the slightly less intense evening brother Sean delivered in conjunction with wife Kathryn in nearby Kings Heath.

A common thread linking each Roberts-Lakeman show is the unrelenting heady level of professionalism prevalent. Whether mesmerised by Sean’s intrinsic guitar playing or rarely hearing a note dropped by Kathryn’s sculptured vocals, the immaculate delivery of traditional and original songs frames each show. Intuition plays a deep role in how this vastly experienced couple serves their musical offerings. While sound innovation rarely deviates, the continual search for song material stretches far and wide consistently scouring the tapped and untapped traditional songbook and seeking inspiration from observational sources closer to home.

As we have come to expect from their shows, Kathryn eases between piano, solo vocals and occasional flute, while Sean concentrates entirely on acoustic guitar. A large degree of warmth radiates from their friendly banter that shines a faint light on family life and how this transcends to a duo regularly on the road. Family life also permeates some of their song inspiration, beautifully executed in ‘A Song to Live By’.

The vast majority of material selected for the pair of sets that formed this show are found on albums credited to Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman over the years. The elegance of 2018’s PERSONAE was most prominent led off by ‘Tribute of Hands’ and co-peaking with ‘The Knight’s Ghost’ and ‘Independence’. The latter was introduced as a song not frequenting many set lists recently, but still lived up to its billing as one of the album’s finest numbers. The change of pace that ‘The Poison Club’ injects into a set was also a feature of tonight’s show.

Away from the duo’s original material and dip into the traditional world, cover versions of Springsteen’s ‘Matamoros Banks’ and Sandy Denny’s ‘Solo’ stacked up well, although both aren’t new to Roberts-Lakeman shows. Neither is the majestic ’52 Hertz’, the pick of the duo's own songs and a moving composition turning and twisting into many metaphors for missed communication.

You do get the feeling that Kathryn and Sean are in the midst of a rich vein of form. They have hardly been prolific in their career on the album churning out front, but two exceptional releases in the last four years and a continual stream of live shows across the country keep them at the forefront of their genre and contemporary scene. This Birmingham show proved another outstanding renewal and it is not difficult to ascertain as to why they court popularity. Dedicated folk fans have tuned into their work for years, and maybe casual observers who only wish to occasionally dip into this genre would do a lot worse than check out the work of Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. Whenever or wherever you check in, a consistency of high caliber music validates the choice.

Monday, 25 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Good Lovelies - Shapeshifters : Self-released

Good Lovelies are a band that do not rush, and like to evolve at their own pace. Four main studio albums since their formation in 2006 is testament to this Canadian trio having to deal with what life throws at them rather than empty barrels of stimulation. A take it easy strategy has also stretched to rolling out their latest album. SHAPESHIFTERS had its Canadian launch last year, and after a short breathing space, focus switches to Europe and a physical release to coincide with a tour. It is always more productive to promote an album live and personal, and the new record has plenty of nuances that will enhance a Good Lovelies show.

Ultimately, the success of a record depends on a broader appeal and SHAPESHIFTERS continues an exploration away from a traditional roots sound that tended to define the music of Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore when they first came to prominence on the international stage. Perhaps there was always a genre-free streak to the Good Lovelies to the extent that the new record remains homeless when categorising is attempted, unless you subscribe to the simplistic theory that music is either good or bad. It is impossible for the Good Lovelies to fall into the latter category and repeated plays of this relative short (32 minutes) record re-enforces this view. The term ‘pop’ was mulled over when attempting to grasp the destination of this album, but it has little desire to court mass market-appeal on concessional terms.

This album and its box of tricks effect, scores highly on the innovative scale as the band attempts to widen the canvas of which they supplant their considerable musical skills. Delectable harmonies roam free and spread liberally across the ten tracks, while the sonic landscape subtly mixes the old and the new in terms of instrumentation. For those drawn to the Good Lovelies on the back of their first two records, the pleasurable tones of the closing track, ‘This Little Heart’, inject a dose of familiarity as an unaccompanied start eases into a banjo infused gently rolling sound, all bound by those ubiquitous harmonies.

Dedicated and intensive listens to the record eventually anoint three tracks to cement the appeal. Opening number ‘I See Gold’ obviously had designs to be the focal piece and truly delivers on this point with its manoeuvres and switches. It also houses the album title in the line ‘we are the shapeshifters’, with its mythical change definition almost proving metaphorical to this being the next stage of the Good Lovelies evolution. As engaging as the opener is, it is eventually trumped by ‘When We Were Young’, a gem of a track at the heart of the album. A sumptuous effort blending in shades of late 60s psychedelia. Concluding this mini trio is the vocally strong ‘Daylight’, epitomising the exchange of the lead role and why the Good Lovelies have often proved a cohesive trio born to make music together.

Adjusting to the alternative beat of ‘Take Me, Take Me’ in second place in the track listing ensured that grasping the essence of SHAPESHIFTERS did not come instantly. Also after multiple plays, ‘I Had a Dream’ struggles to make an effect. When the record finally sunk in as a valuable addition to the Good Lovelies collection, ‘Move Away Clouds’ probably acted as the pulse of the album. In the latter plays of the review period, ‘Pulse & Fiction’, with a slightly detectable ‘do wop’ start, gained traction, while the penultimate song, ‘Hurry Up’ eventually became the moment when you started to feel the Good Lovelies of yester year. Faint sound of kids on the last track, coupled with a lullaby feel, put the family gloss on something that is very dear to the heart of the band.

Undeniably, the goodwill built up of being a Good Lovelies fan for over a decade played a part in giving SHAPESHIFTERS the space to make its presence. On this occasion, time delivered the rewards and this well-crafted album settled into its intended spot. Oh and those harmonies never cease to amaze.

GIG REVIEW: Jason Ringenberg - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 24th March 2019

Many of the audience were likely to be musically elsewhere in 1982, a time paramount to tonight’s show. However, it was easy to buy into the spirit exuded by Jason Ringenberg when recreating a pivotal moment of the country and punk worlds colliding. The Scorchers brush with the big time may be a distant memory, but the yesteryears roll back when its unassuming leader adopts a revivalist sentiment. Rejuvenated by a solo album, and the renewed faith that there is still life and interest in the old dog, Ringenberg is once again treading the floors of intimate venues injecting a ferocious spurt of passion. The guarantee of an enlightening, informative and entertaining performance is long established and folks heading down the Kitchen Garden way on this Sunday evening experienced a performer enacting a cutting style.

The triumvirate of artist, audience and location aligned perfectly, to the extent of admitting that the wrong venues had been played in Birmingham before. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a headful of songs, Ringenberg snarled, yodelled and bounced through a qualitative set of songs, forever decorated with fascinating stories and recollections. We learned that Steve Earle forgot he co-wrote ‘Bible and a Gun’, the precise chord change altering ‘Lost Highway’ from a country to a rock ‘n’ roll tune and that Perry Baggs is the best harmony singer Nashville did not tap into. This was just the starters.

STAND TALL is Jason Ringenberg’s new album and not surprisingly a key component for shows on this latest UK tour. Opening the first of his two sets with ‘John Muir Stood Here’ from the album set the scene and the flavour of this new record flowed as further tracks were shared. Like so many gigs attended over the years, a song off the album grows significantly when heard live and this was the case with ‘I’m Walking Home’, with all its historical themes and narratives linking effectively.

Two prominent tracks to make the set list were ‘Looking Back Blues’ (a song getting plenty of airplay interest in the States) and ‘God Bless the Ramones’ (a song leaping from the pile on many first listens). The latter won the request contest on the evening as a little audience interaction helped shape the second set.

The whole breadth of Ringenberg’s career featured including a host of Scorchers’ classics such as ‘Shop it Around’, ‘White Lies’ and ‘Broken Whiskey Glass’. All needed little introduction to the faithful present. Likewise a couple of Farmer Jason contributions introduced as Ringenberg’s alter ego went down well with ‘Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug’ and ‘Punk Rock Skunk’ lightening the mood. Especially the latter following a solemn cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’.

There are very few humbler and more sincere performers around than Jason Ringenberg. Siding with his outlook, style and approach is an amenable proposition and hooking into his engaging stories is as absorbing as watching him boot scoot in the tightest of performing areas. Animated maybe, but a compelling listening experience bound by two Dylan covers – ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ kicking things off nearly forty years ago and the slightly obscure ‘Farewell Angelina’ closing the new album.

This fabulous gig required no support, just an iconic artist updating their relevance and reminiscing about a heyday when the genre fault lines of country and punk were straddled. The Kitchen Garden, Jason Ringenberg and an astute audience were the perfect ingredients for a splendid evening representing the intensity of live intimate music at its best. Without doubt a night for the memory vault.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Orphan Colours - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 22nd March 2019

Orphan Colours went down a treat when they played an hour-long set at Beardy Folk Festival on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border last June. Upon their return to the area, and a subsequent gig in nearby Bewdley, it was déjà vu in terms of response and grasping the opportunity to show why they are such a highly rated outfit. This London-based band took the honour of being the latest Americana-style act to headline the monthly Severn Sessions evening at St. George’s Hall and demonstrated that you need not always look overseas for quality acts of this ilk. Once again, a packed hall greeted the guests, who took their place on the evening’s roster among a host of fledgling young local musicians to provide a comprehensive package of entertainment.

It was a modified Orphan Colours line up for this show. Streamlined to a four-piece act minus the sax, the band were also without pivotal members Fred Abbott and Dave Burn, but drafted in a rather useful lead guitarist introduced as Tim. The remaining core trio of lead vocalist Steve Llewellyn (acoustic and electric guitar), bassist Graham Knight and familiar drummer Steve Brookes (to any fans of Danny and the Champions of the World) ensured the show went on and a few more folks drifted away as Orphan Colours fans. A growing number now enhanced by the release and success of a debut award-nominated album ALL ON RED.

Perhaps edged in this direction by the line-up, their 70-minute set split into two halves with Steve and Graham choosing to open up as a duo to share half a dozen songs in acoustic mode. This segment allowed the pair to road test a quartet of new songs lined up for the next album, likely recorded later this year. Obviously, the finished format of these songs may change when filtered through the production process, but the raw prototype showed the ingredients available for another stellar release. The pick of the new ones was ‘Radio Heart’, which has the hallmark of single material, with its instantly memorable chorus hook.

The momentum notably changed when Steve and Tim accepted the invitation to enter the stage and the Orphan Colours that added significant clout to the UK Americana scene began to let rip. Established favourites such as ‘Start of Something’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Goodnight California’ soon ignited the proceedings, with the latter rightfully settled into the climactic pre-encore slot. However, these three giants had to give way to ‘Sun is Rising’ as the evening’s stand-out moment, and a case of an album track taking on a new lease of life in the live arena.

The band’s roots are never far from the surface. Midway through the set, they covered the ahab song ‘Uptight’, relevant in that Steve, Dave and Graham were all members of this acclaimed band that flourished under the alt-country tag before the Americana label exploded. The encore number was the band’s usual homage to Tom Petty, with ‘Won’t Let You Down’ having the double whammy of getting folks to their feet and sending everyone home happy.

In a slight switch to the evening’s usual format, both opening acts came from the local youth pool. The main support Hannah Law has graduated through the ranks and now commands a set as an accomplished singer-songwriter, though still a short while before she exits her teenage years. A younger trio of Rosie, Jack and Josh exchanged roles and songs in the first slot showing a broad base of influences as they set out on the music journey.

The journey of Orphan Colours continues to gather pace. They perfectly execute an uncomplicated style of seminal rock music that leans heavily in a folk and country direction. A thunderous beat, archetype harmonies and an ear to create a memorable tune all play a part as this experienced group of musicians seek to move their project forward. Evenings like this suggest the band is precisely on track.

Monday, 18 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Danny Schmidt - Standard Deviation : Live Once Records (Out in the UK March 29th)

In the mythical existence of the ‘Lyric Laureate’, songwriters would have to clamber over Danny Schmidt to claim the mantle. Few contemporaries are the equal of this Austin Texas native and each album released unveils a deluge of lyrical delight for song junkies to dissect. If no further inspiration was required for a brand new record, the birth of a new child to Schmidt and fellow song writing wife Carrie Elkin suggests to have provided rich accessible pickings for fresh material. You do not have to wait too long for this influence to blossom as ‘Just Wait ‘til They See You’ articulates a sense of renewal in the first track of a new album, poignantly titled STANDARD DEVIATION.

From the moment this opening song flexes its muscles with lines such as ‘I’ve seen the redwoods and northern lights, just wait until they see you’, you are in the grip of hypnotic writing delivered exquisitely by a perceptive tune melody. Schmidt’s previously album OWLS rolled out to a similar impact in 2015, but you get the feeling that STANDARD DEVIATION moves the gauge along a little further. This view is propelled forward with the most powerful of album closers as the topic of ‘miscarriage’ or more precisely the language applied, is tossed into the open forum under the subtle title ‘We Need a Better Word’. Only a Danny Schmidt album could start on the right foot and conclude anchored to the left.

The build up to this emotive finale comes in the guise of a frank view of family life in ‘Bones of Emotion’. A song that concludes a trio of tracks which lift the record into a higher stratosphere in the second half than reached in the first.  Forming this chain of tracks are the catchy earworm number ‘Last Man Standing’ and an equally infectious piece of song writing detailing the Jefferson Highway (a road from Winnipeg to New Orleans) in ‘The Longest Way’. In these two tracks, the sound saunters into the realm of country music, partially inspired by the presence of fiddle in the former and visions of Johnny Cash in the latter. A country sound is also detected in ‘Agents of Change’, in contradiction to the ‘that very’ urban theme of gentrification inspiring the track.

Consensus would label Danny Schmidt a folk singer, and he lives up to this tag midway through the album with ‘Newport ‘65’; a track leaving very little to the imagination with words like ‘prophet’, and ‘shepherd’ joining blasts of harmonica alongside a little folk music commentary. Linking the theme of meaningful writing, the irony of the track ‘Words are Hooks’ is not lost as it takes the nous of a master words craft person to ponder the power of language’s key component.

It would not be a Danny Schmidt album without at least one head-scratching track and the title piece ‘Standard Deviation’ excavates deep into a swirling world of mathematics and possible metaphors for love. As much as songwriters like the listener to get the message, pleasure can too be derived from twisting words into own interpretations.

While not pushing the album’s heavyweight tracks, the gorgeous tones of ‘Blue Eyed Hole in Time’ warrants the final word, not least in the general feel of optimism that surrounds the record, despite some of the darker moments. Maybe a repeated theme of the newborn in the last mentioned track plays a part in this summation.

The poetic virtue of STANDARD DEVIATION makes this album another valuable addition to the ever-widening Danny Schmidt back catalogue. Sometimes we just have to celebrate having him in our sphere of listening and be thankful that songs can accrue so much pleasure in this format.

Friday, 15 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jason Ringenberg - Stand Tall : Courageous Chicken Music (Out in the UK 15th March)

It may be closing in on forty years since Jason Ringenberg broke the seal on a charge to music fame, but fans, folks and insiders still lend an ear to the issuing of new material. That time is now upon us as STAND TALL signals the end of a major hiatus of solo recordings (bar the Farmer Jason output) and a lengthy period since a Scorchers name appeared on an album. Of course, the live presence of Jason and the Scorchers and the solo shows of Jason Ringenberg flicker on and off the horizon, with the latter getting a renewed focus in light of a record that sparkles with the old magic. ‘Godfather of Americana’ and ‘architect of cow punk’ never lose their relevance as the new album reasserts a stance that country music works well when given a makeover fuelled by the energy and passion of an alternative edge.

STAND TALL is a meaningful mix of originals, covers and classic re-works, all bound by a commission to seek inspiration in Sequoia National Park in northern California. From the opening strains of an instrumental under the banner of the album title to an obscure Dylan cover in the guise of ‘Farewell Angelina’, Ringenberg resonates with an attentive listener, blending the curious with the informative, while never losing sight of recording a good solid accessible song.

Early spins of this record led the listener in the direction of ‘God Bless The Ramones’ and subsequent plays refused to relinquish this track as being at least the most ear catching moment. We head back to the early eighties in more ways than one as Ringenberg recalls a moment when his Scorchers went on the road opening for The Ramones, deciding that you might as well make a song in the style of the subject. Splendid listening, more so if you have a soft spot for a bygone age.

Although a significant proportion of the new songs sprung up in the surroundings of the Californian residency, some had a more direct link to the environment such as the explicitly titled, ‘Here in the Sequoias’ and the follow on track ‘John Muir Stood Here’. Sequencing also plays a part in the album’s midriff as the story song ‘I’m Walking Home’ immediately follows a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’, the former written on the way to Bristol VA/TN and the second a product of the legendary recordings in this iconic country music town.

Early in the album (specifically bridging the opener and the Ramones stand out) sit a pair of tracks that demonstrates Ringenberg’s songwriting still at its sharpest. Both ‘Lookin’ Back Blues’ and ‘John the Baptist was a Real Humdinger’ inject a stimulus into the proceedings in a way that Jason Ringenberg has perfected for many a year. No matter how much rock ‘n’ roll figures in the sound, the country element remains steadfast, culminating in a style that flourishes with a hearty vigour.

To conclude a brief skirt around the eleven tracks, Ringenberg salutes the work of others on two more numbers. ‘Almost Enough’ is a jaunty rhythmic dip into the songwriting skills of Hugh Deneal, giving the album another song to both savour and get your teeth into. Wrapping things up is a version of a song Jean Shepherd put her mark on, and Jason Ringenberg also does justice to ‘Many Happy Hangover to You’.

There is barely a moment on STAND TALL where Jason Ringenberg makes a false move. The unique sound and style ensures no straying into the wastelands of irrelevance, and thus any desire to hark back too much to the halcyon days of Jason and the Scorchers. This album is a timely reminder to what a good artist we have in our midst. Expect no half measures when Jason Ringenberg is in recording mode and the fruits of this latest endeavour unveil as a highly enjoyable listen on many fronts.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Larkin Poe - Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 11th March 2019

Larkin Poe are a band seemingly existentially embedded into their blues- rock phase. This signifies a major shift since the Lovell sisters first came to prominence overseas and the subsequent early years of the Larkin Poe incarnation. The last time they toured significantly away from their US base the evolution was underway, with the KIN album turning the dial up in terms of sound. Since then, heady times have swept along Rebecca and Megan leading to the release of two heavily blues biased records and plenty of vivid association with many major names of the electrified guitar world. However, you can primarily appear online to fans overseas for only a limited period and retain interest, therefore the time is right for Larkin Poe to once again reach out and expand the live performances.

The Glee Club in Birmingham played host to the touring four-piece set up on the second date of a UK tour; a trip that will also take in continental Europe alongside plans to visit Australia and the Far East. The stature of Larkin Poe has grown to such an extent that 3-400 capacity venues are close to selling out. In turn, the sibling led outfit ensured that those choosing them for their live music fix had the treat of a scintillating display of blues infused roots rock ‘n’ roll.

Those already au fait with Larkin Poe will identify Rebecca as the guitar playing exuberant mouthpiece and Megan as the unassuming queen of the slide guitar. These roles were at the forefront of this evening’s show as the band stormed through a hundred minute set incorporating strong originals, classic covers and more than the occasional nod to the pioneers of blues. Most notably, those who helped take it into the mainstream.

It was an evening of serial namechecking, and blues aficionados are not going to disagree with referrals to Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Lead Belly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The latter was the subject of the show’s most pleasantly surprising moment when Rebecca introduced a brand new song in honour of the great man titled ‘Laurel Land’, in fact one played first time to a live audience and sounding rather good.

Extraordinary sibling chemistry was awash all evening through vocal harmonies, spine tingling co-ordinated solos and sincere chat. There was even a slight nod to their folk and bluegrass past when Rebecca swapped her guitar for a long-loved banjo to play a couple of tunes against a semi-rock background.

Vocally the band, especially Rebecca, seemed to have ascended to another level. Old classics like ‘Black Betty’, ‘Preachin’ Blues’, ‘John the Revelator’ and ‘Come on in My Kitchen’ were belted out with a resounding vigour. If you wanted any proof that these are proud Georgia girls putting their stamp on contemporary southern rock then look no further than ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, one of the tracks shared from their recent VENOM AND FAITH album.

The show was not all entirely about the current phase of Larkin Poe as the band dealt the popular older track ‘Mad as a Hatter’ in response to the important theme of recognised mental health issues, one close to them as a family. This was probably the one serious moment on the evening as the tone generally circulated in celebratory proportions on the back of finally playing again in front of fans in the UK, a country that has provided long-term support.

Opening the show this evening was a duo from Bristol called Foreign Affairs, who delivered a thirty-minute set that went down well with a sizable portion of the audience. They joined this tour straight from appearing at the Country-to-Country Festival in London. Opportunities will also present to widen their appeal when continuing to open for Larkin Poe on dates both at home and in Europe.

At the triumphant end, it was clear that Larkin Poe had duly enthralled a roomful of fans, likely old and new, ensuring that spending a Monday evening supporting live music is still kind of a rock ‘n’ roll thing to do. Rebecca and Megan Lovell proudly wear the badge of carrying the torch for American roots music and few would disagree that they carry it off in fine style. It was good to have them back touring the UK and while the future of this ever-evolving band is difficult to predict, the present is serving them well.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 6th March 2019

Eighteen months have elapsed since Angel Snow last played the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham and changes were very much at a finely tuned minimum as she returned to play one of the opening dates on her latest UK tour. On the upgrade side, last time’s solo performance grew into a duo as Angel teamed up with English guitarist Joe Wilkins to provide the perfect stringed accompaniment to her supremely crafted songs. Additionally, a set of new tunes began the journey from artist to listener as she introduced her latest record, an EP titled ARROWS. Whether Angel delivered her signature song, ‘Lie Awake’, from nearly a decade ago now, or brand new numbers like ‘Maze’ and ‘Window Seat’, the shear magnetic quality was unyielding and matching the magnitude of a blue chip blueprint.

On her previous visit, which doubled up on the touring front with Danish singer-songwriter Ida Wenoe, Angel split the guitar duties between acoustic and electric, with the latter contributing to the evening’s atmospheric ambience. This time Angel handed all the electric duties to Joe and his subtle excellence ensured each of the songs had a coating of the most mindful of soundtracks. Left to concentrate on acoustic guitar and generous inter-song chats, the vocals never sounded better using the combination of slight amplification and venue acoustics to induce a state of blissful serenity to those in listening distance.

Running through a set of songs dated old and new, highlights joining the aforementioned Angel Snow classic (for those uninitiated ‘Lie Awake’ was cut by Alison Krauss on her PAPER AIRPLANE album, but each rendition by the originator seals the ownership) included ‘I Need You’ and a mesmerising version of ‘Vienna’ just the before the closing moment came. Fact is the high quality plateau never lowered all set.  

One conundrum occurring each time Angel Snow plays a live show is why this Franklin resident (the one just south of Nashville) has not been more prolific on the recording front. In turn, she probably remains an untapped talent to a wider audience, a situation that contradicts the enormous impact she has on those aligned with the hypnotic vibes of her songs in full flow. However, fate follows certain paths and at least being able to savour these songs in intimate settings on what is becoming a regular basis is a blessing.

The notion of leaving the audience wanting more was perhaps taken a little to the extreme during this show with a playing time of sixty minutes (without a support) probably short by a quarter of an hour in the eyes of most people. The impeccable performance left the overall show in the credit column, but maybe some pondering thoughts generate when assessing the balance between content and customer investment, the latter in both cost and time.

These Angel Snow shows do rather tiptoe into the gig landscape, but the impact of the evening resonates in the aftermath. This Kitchen Garden return was a triumph of substance over hyperbole and those attending had the pleasure of a fixated musical experience.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Lucy Kitt - Stand By : Wineberry Records (Out on March 22nd)

Lucy Kitt is an Essex-based singer-songwriter who successfully finds the acoustic groove and sweet spot on this, her debut full-length album. Honing in on a classic country folk sound, brevity and simplicity are key drivers as she guides the listener through half an hour of diligently constructed engaging songs. Comparisons drawn from the golden age of West Coast folk rock music spring out from not just the basic sound but the profile and self-projected image panning out from the album cover. You feel you know what is going to transpire before the first track plays and STAND BY duly lives up to expectation on a number of fronts.

All ten tracks forming this album originate from the pen of Lucy and pose the standard musings that you have come to expect from songwriters digging deep into their inner self to extract the art of song. Like so many of her ilk, these songs are likely to come more to life in a live format where artist interpretation and inspiration forms an integral part of the show. It is likely that Lucy has played many gigs since she first picked up a guitar a few years ago and the boost of now having a significant record available for folks to take home will only reap positive rewards.

The challenge any acoustic record has is muscling in on your personal listening time when the intense competition of a wide world at your fingertips can crowd it out. There is a slow burning element to this album completely taking hold, but ever-escalating maturity embeds the strong appeal that draws from the succinct vibes. Perhaps the inclusion of a song with a killer chorus or melody could have provided greater impetus in enhancing its impact. However, not decrying what an album could have been and complimenting the positives carries this record over the line and one firmly placed in the credit column.

Four tracks worthy of a mention include rhythmic opener, and title piece, ‘Stand By’, which blends into the superb subsequent number ‘Said and Done' and stakes are raised a little later in the forceful song ‘Devil’s Luck’. The pinnacle moment on the record occurs deep in the second half when Lucy twists the notion of ‘Little Country Song’ to fire back a response.

From first chord to last, Lucy Kitt throws her heart and soul into STAND BY and relays proof that a condensed sound can evolve into a strong and commendable product when the right adjustments are applied. Touring the socks off this record, if practical, will provide extra sustainability, allowing it to resonate with country, folk, Americana and general acoustic music fans far from her South East base. This is an album worth taking a punt on if you get your kicks from music of this persuasion. Lucy Kitt has obliged with a fine record to keep the wheels of an iconic style rolling

Monday, 4 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly - Changeable Heart : Pure Records (Out March 15th)

Contemporary folk music is awash with recording duo acts, frequently spanning the gender configurations. Some of these are longstanding, while others pop up in a collaborative project. This crowded arena will have to make room for at least one more in 2019 as familiar names: Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly emerge as next off the rank to steer into this territory. These two talented performers have trodden very different paths in recent times, but the fate that has seen them team up could quite conceivably be one of the instinctive highlights of the calendar year. Their debut release CHANGEABLE HEART hits the market in mid-March ahead of live dates. Of course, the term debut suggests there may be more to come, and on the back of the quality of this album that would be welcome.

However, let us not race too ahead of ourselves, especially as Ruth Notman has been away from the recording scene for an extended period following a decision to pursue a medical career instead of singing professionally. Whatever her motives, the input given this album signals a timely return and plenty will welcome this renaissance. There is a vague recollection of seeing her play at the Big Sessions in Leicester over a decade ago, in the days where she emerged as a prodigious talent. A notion backed up by listening to her golden vocals shine brightly on this record.

In contrast, Sam Kelly has been a permanent feature of the folk scene for a number of years, cropping up in numerous formats, projects and recording outlets. Often his work has veered into the world of traditional song, to the extent that the 2017 album he recorded with his band The Lost Boys entirely lent in this direction. Therefore, it is of little surprise that material from these sources features prominently on the new record, although away from the bigger picture you are able to chunk the content into smaller compact packages.

It would be wrong to start any mini in-depth analysis of this album away from the two original pieces. The title track, ‘Changeable Heart’, co-written by Ruth and Sam, stands out as the record’s beacon, and sparkles as a good a standard duet as you are likely to hear in recent times. Adopting specific roles and perspectives, both voices merge from two into one to make this a worthy standout. The other original is one credited solely to Ruth, and ‘As You Find Your Way Home’ sees her vocals take full control.

At the back end of a record that succinctly does its job across thirty-seven minutes, there are two cover songs getting a modern makeover to reinforce the magnitude of their message. ‘School Days Over’ by folk legend Ewan MacColl is an evocative coming of age piece, with Ruth and Sam doing it justice on this record. Likewise, a version of Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’ freshens up the impact of a song that retains relevance even if locations change.

The remainder of this album rests on the work of that prolific writing credit, ‘traditional’. The two that strike a chord most here are the Ruth-led ‘Caw the Yowes’ and Sam vocally excelling on ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’. Closely following these include album opener ‘Bold Fisherman’ and mid-placed ‘My Lagan Love’, both finding their feet within the mood and tone of the record. While there will no doubt be many folklorists dissecting the versions curated, put in context of the Notman-Kelly arrangements few faults are found here, even if themes and styles of ‘The Cunning Cobbler’ and ‘Young Brian of the Sussex Wold’ do not really court much appeal in my listening sphere.

At the helm of this project is respected musician Damian O’Kane, widely known for his work with wife Kate Rusby. Inviting Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly into the realm of their operation has proved an astute decision, further sealed by the stature of CHANGEABLE HEART. Indisputably, an album that furthers careers regardless of their existing starting points, and one set to create a stir in the folk community as a minimum.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Cheley Tackett - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 1st March 2019

There may have been no clinking glasses, incessant chat and blending machines mixing margaritas, but Cheley Tackett accepted the challenge of the less than daunting and placid St. George’s Hall Bewdley instead of the more raucous venues frequented back home. Some American performers acknowledge a minor unease at the extreme politeness of many joints in the UK hosting touring artists, yet this was one Nashville guest delighted to grab the chance of spreading her music. Granted the opportunity to play shows over here with a helping hand on this occasion from compatriot musician Hannah Aldridge was an opportunity not to waste, and across a seventy-minute playing time those attending this latest Music in the Hall presentation learnt a lot more about Cheley Tackett: the songwriter, the performing artist and the person.

Any critique of her stage performance has to begin with one undeniable and underlying fact: Cheley Tackett is country music to the core. Not folk, nor Americana or non-descript singer-songwriter, but the epitome of somebody born to strap on a guitar and pour her guts into simple songs, taking the literal rather than metaphorical route. No more than twenty years ago or even less this artist would have a mainstream tag, but in these glistening excessive corporate times of molding female country artists into a model of Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, the ilk of Cheley Tackett are marginalised – give or take the odd Ashley McBryde breaking through.

The irony of the last name is that Cheley has worked with her in the recent past and she was namechecked during this show alongside others worked with, most notably Randall Clay. He and Cheley worked together on the unifying song ‘The Healer’, one of a select bunch of numbers shared with this Bewdley crowd, no doubt many listening to her for the first time.

Looking back at Cheley’s recording catalogue, releases span almost twenty years with a handful of songs heard this evening including ‘Sky is Falling’, ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ and ‘Fried Chicken’ dating back to a 2005 album. Bringing things up to date, songs from 2017’s BUCKEYE album (a suitable title for an Ohio native) proved popular choices with the aforementioned Clay co-write joined by tracks like ‘$2 Bill’, and two of the three standout moments from the set in the murder ballad ‘My Best Dress’ and the feel good pre-encore number ‘Magic Still Happens’.

The other highlight is a song that means a lot to LGBT activist Cheley Tackett with the ‘Right Side of History’, apart from being a proudly commissioned piece, still raising money for those young people from her community facing serious issues such as homelessness and discrimination. You get the impression that Cheley has had to fight hard to survive in the cutthroat world of Nashville, with the odds on many fronts stacked against her. However, you sense she is no shirker and a brazen confidence and steely persona give her songs a tough coating to transmit profoundly from feisty performer to receptive listener.

Opening the show this evening was the Ryan Sparrow Band, a local Midlands-based four-piece outfit erring on the side of experimental indie rock flushed with a dark moody persona. Ryan Sparrow was seen live playing solo a couple of years ago, but the addition of bass, drums and a rather impressive innovative lead guitarist took his act up several notches. The sound filling the hall from their set was maybe a little different to what regulars are used to on these evenings, and the polar opposite to the single acoustic guitar of the main act. Yet it went down well and spiced up a rounded evening of fine entertainment.

Finesse was probably one word not associated with Cheley Tackett, but we witnessed a thoroughly passionate heart-on-sleeve artist channeling every sinew of her talent into songs that tell the simple story of real life. This is how country music is best represented and artists like Cheley Tackett are worth more than any array of pseudo acts masquerading under a pretense of ‘three chords and the truth’. Music in the Hall took a chance in this booking; Cheley Tackett took a chance in venturing overseas and many audience members took a chance in offering up their Friday evening. All parties were handsomely rewarded.
"Right Side Of History" By Cheley Tackett