Sunday, 26 May 2019

Weekly Blog Post 26th May 2019: Back on the Horse Again

You can't defeat irony. The first post-review gig just happened to be one of my favourite artists. None other than the great modern-day Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll. Seeing him live pre-dates this blog by four years as it was in the dim distant past of 2008 when he first strolled onto a Birmingham stage strumming the opening chords to 'Beaumont'. There has been as many changes as similarities over the last eleven years, although this Hayes Carll classic remains on the setlist, now elevated from opener to encore slot if you view that graduation in a certain way. He still mainly plays the Glee Club when in the Midlands vicinity, with the Nottingham outlet tending to be the preference over Birmingham by design of East Midlands promoters Cosmic American. Needless to say, Hayes Carll still puts on a fabulous show, never one to disappoint with his material, and these days buoyed by his marriage to Allison Moorer (great artists obviously attract). You have probably missed this short tour by now, but I'm sure he will be back and his new album WHAT IT IS is certainly worth checking out.

On the week the gig horse was mounted again, two other contrasting artists were seen live. The decision to take in the Thea Gilmore show at the Artix in Bromsgrove on Wednesday was a late manoeuvre, motivated by a desire to see some new artists and loving her brand new album SMALL WORLD TURNING. Before the show, admittedly she was not an artist listened to much in the past, despite being quite well known and active for a number of years. Regrets were nowhere to be seen after Thea and her three-piece band delivered a first rate performance that hooked me in throughout. Mixing beauty and grace with a slice of feisty passion ensured that sometimes it doesn't matter when you get into an artist, just get there.

William the Conqueror completed the gig activity for the week with a show at that old familiar stomping ground, the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath. This trio fronted by Ruarri Joseph had impressed mightily in the live arena when opening for Danny and the Champions of the World in Oxford a couple of years ago. Their album at the time PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE got a favourable review on the site and this latest tour was in honour of the follow up album titled BLEEDING ON THE SOUNDTRACK. Although this gig was a little low key and perhaps lacking the memorable robustness of others attended, the band slipped into an inducing rhythmic groove and many of the appealing traits freely flowed. Maybe they will stay on the periphery of my horizon, but that zone is enhanced by their presence.

The Album Release Directory Page had only one entry for this Friday (24th) a decent new release by The Alvarez Theory. Also occupying the listening space this week has been a new record from folk duo Edgelarks, who released their latest album FEATHER on the 17th. 

Another release to cross the path this week has been BRING ON THE RAIN by Chris Rawlins. This is scheduled for a formal UK launch at the end of July, but is already out in America. This band camp link is in dollars, but it's easily accessible on the UK version of streaming sites, with iTunes offering a sterling sale for those who still pay for individual downloads from Apple. First listen reveals a record worth investing a little more time in.

On the local front, Coventry-based singer-songwriter Stylusboy is active on the recording scene again with a four track EP now available ahead of more substantive material later in the year. OUT UPON THE OCEAN is accessible via the usual channels, but head to his main site to funnel your support and you may even get one of his legendary handcrafted CD covers. More info at

One final note, Brandy Clark announced a one-off gig in London to coincide with Country music Week. How times change since this blog became one of the first sources in the UK to spread the word with a stellar review of 12 STORIES back in 2013. An album that subsequently went on to claim the #1 slot on the end of year list. Halcyon times.

That's all for this week. Look out for the next post on Sunday 2nd June with hopefully some more top gigs and albums reported on.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

PREVIEW: Maverick Festival - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 5th to Sunday 7th July 2019

Maverick Festival may well have celebrated its own tenth anniversary back in 2017, but two years later a similar milestone is reached from my perspective for that annual trek from the West Midlands to deepest Suffolk. Back in 2010, thoughts were more concerned with navigating the lanes of a county not often on the travel agenda rather than thinking a love affair was in its embryonic state. However year after year, commitment has grown to attend the festival especially as in the early days attendance was limited to the Saturday. 

The Saturday will always be core to the staging of the event as proceedings don't get underway until 5pm the previous evening and the wrap is always just after lunch on the Sunday. Mind you, there is nothing like being there from first bar to last encore. 

Maverick continually lives up to the billing of its name. You always get a good mix of artists already on the lower rungs of the roots ladder and those queuing to get on. The waiting line of lesser known artists never wanes on the quality front and regularly you depart the festival with a lengthening list of acts to recommend. Occasionally, the festival takes a bold step with a more established name, but this never defines the event. Indeed, the whole ambience of a weekend down Easton Park Farm is unlike your conventional festival experience. Expect the serene surroundings of rural quaintness to be mingling with knowledgable music fans as an air of relaxed informality takes root. 

Although the festival pre-dates the burgeoning motion of Americana being a truly focussed and promoted genre in the UK, the vibes, ideals and essence of this style sink deep into the very core of Maverick. As you would expect, hosting travelling acts from the US is a major part of the line up. These musicians nestle comfortably with homemade artists of a similar ilk alongside fellow tourers from far flung corners of the world - or at least often Canada and increasingly Australia. 

Artists etched into the left field shadows of their genre tend to be the staple of the line up. Expect shades of country, folk, blues, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll and singer-songwriter fare, but the type that lives on the edge, often driven by a fiercely independent streak. Egos are absent by design and headliners have to forge their own path. Each audience member can determine their own festival pinnacle from a choice of mid to late afternoon on the lawn, early to late evening in the Barn or what sparkles in the Peacock as the sun goes down. Some may even advocate the outreach stages, which often host hidden gems.

Precedence, consistency and a winning formula has served Maverick well over the years and 2019 is set to be no different. Check out the list of artists scheduled. Some you will know well; some will have heard of; some will be totally new. All will be bound by an ethic, guaranteed quality and a perfect fit into the Maverick ideal. 

Looking for a testimony, seek no further than these seven links. Expect a tenth in early July.

I'm afraid 2011 and 2010 are locked away in the memory bank with the key thrown away. But you get the drift.

Ranger £110.00
Weekend ticket with admission to all stages and includes up to TWO nights camping FRIDAY and SATURDAY
JUNIPER £50.00
Weekend ticket with or without camping for 16-18 year olds. 
Wrangler £85.00
Weekend ticket with admission to all stages No Camping
Rustler £50.00
Day ticket, Saturday only
Nighthawk £30.00
Friday night only
Holy Roller £25.00
Sunday only
Tenderfoot £25.00
Children 10-15 yrs, under 10's go free

Sunday, 12 May 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Steel Blossoms - Steel Blossoms : Billy Jam Records

The debate about the value and validity of genre is never likely to be concluded especially where progressive and traditional ideals mingle in a musical environment. Of course, co-existence is not too much to ask for, even to the extent of cordial agreement where art has triumphed. Make no mistake the blueprint showed no sign of tinkering when the brakes screeched on this Steel Blossoms album sailing past as release date beckoned. The first track ached with a country sentiment, then the second, third and so on. Soon the realisation dawned that in the midst was a record rigidly stuck in the core of a genre and bursting at the seams with everything positive and alluring about it. Steel Blossoms are a dream come true for purists in 2019 and the net is widened to attract those not bound by rules, just hooked by a sound that exudes quality and absolute sincerity.

A few facts about Steel Blossoms: they are a core duo comprising of Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser; hail from Pennsylvania, but like so many country artists are pursuing their dreams in Nashville. This self-titled record is in effect their third release preceded by an EP and a debut full length album. They are also the first signed artist to the newly formed Billy Jam Records.

Facts provide the skeleton, but the wealth found in ten songs delivers the soul. Everything is perfectly aligned to make this record one of both, instant and lasting appeal: delightful harmonies, fiddle and steel optimally applied, songs of a witty and cutting design, and a breath of fresh air to keep traditional country music relevant and vibrant. 

Topics don’t stray far from the country music story book; the song titles hardly mislead. The clarity is stark, lyrics right to the point and profound messages abound. You will smile at ‘You’re the Reason I Drink’ (a strong opener is essential on a busy new music highway), wryly ponder the familiarity of ‘Trailer Neighbor’ (picking up on a theme previously exploited by Kacey Musgraves) and melt a heart at the plight of the character in ‘Heroine’ (a meaningful play on words). 

A sassy female streak dominates the record in the true sense of the genre. ‘You Ain’t Sleeping Over’ and ‘Killed a Man’ leave little to the imagination. It is also not too difficult to picture the antagonists in ‘Innocent’, even if the starting point to the song pinpoints life in its most simple form free of any of the divisions laying in wake. 

If there is one track straggling behind in the early life of this record, ‘Revenge’ probably fits the bill, but time is on its side to rise up the ladder. ‘County Line’ is a track given a media push, although I would personally put it in the middle of the pack. A pretty high performing pack mind you. ‘Pick Me Up’ is another mid placed track, though delightfully dancing to the tune of the album’s heartbeat. Joining an effective opener on a great record is an equally impressive closer. ‘Kentucky’s Never Been This Far’ does the Job for Steel Blossoms and no country record is a complete without a little name place checking joining the drinking, cheating, killing, loving and navel gazing pontification. 

Karma was in full throttle to not let this record drift past. Being at the front of an album queue is no competition, but the earlier you arrive, the more time spent grappling with an exceptional record blasting a big hole in the year’s releases. Country music may or may not need saving, but as long as music like this Steel Blossoms album is made, the genre is in a safe place. Artistic credibility in tact without too much of a progressive agenda in place. The genre debate can be at least be temporarily shelved. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019

GIG REVIEW: Hannah Aldridge - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 3rd May 2019

Hannah Aldridge made her name in the UK largely as a solo touring artist alongside maximising opportunities and connections. Expanding horizons also extends to mode of operation as exemplified in her latest run of live dates where this Muscle Shoals native - Nashville resident teamed up with North Wales cosmic country outfit The Goat Roper Rodeo Band. This was not the first time Hannah has sought out a temporary backing band to freshen up her delivery as dates back in 2017 had Swedish rock band Jetbone in tow. Electric traded for acoustic in the current guise and positive reports from the early shows were put to the test with a return to Worcestershire’s version of a 'river town' - Bewdley. 

The standard of the monthly Americana shows at St. George’s Hall this year has been exceedingly high and there was no let up with the action packed evening gracing the venue for the early May showcase. From the first strains of the youth support act on the stroke of eight to Hannah and the boys wrapping things up gone eleven, breaks at a minimum and music of a high standard guaranteed value for money. 

We learned that the association between Hannah Aldridge and The Goat Roper Rodeo band goes back around five years, but this is the first time they have formalised an on stage arrangement for an extended run. The North Wales trio do feature on the brand new live album that has been launched in conjunction with the latest tour and it was clear that their frenetic brand of roots activity combined with vivid energy showered a new dimension on a string of familiar songs from the Hannah Aldridge repertoire. 

Before The Goat Ropers played their own forty-five minute set prior to the main presentation, Kidderminster College based four-piece band Humble Helios opened the evening with around half an hour of their own songs delivered in a vocally and lyrically appealing way. This set the tone for a contrasting array of these qualities to follow. The distinctive vocals of The Goat Ropers whether in switched solo or harmony driven proceed to early define the band’s sound. Perhaps later when supporting Hannah the music came more to the fore, although the same harmonies had a strong role to play there as well.

Vocals have played a key part in how Hannah Aldridge portrays her own songwriting acumen, although they were in a state of control this evening to combat the dreaded onset of difficulties in this direction. However, they were skilfully managed during an hour and half dedicated to another majestic display of Hannah’s awe inspiring music. 

Songs forming the main part of the show fell into three categories: old established favourites, others destined to be future recorded favourites and a couple of covers chosen to represent a diversity of influence. For the latter, Rawlings and Welch’s ‘Red Clay Halo’ sizzled in one of the encore slots, while earlier Hannah paid tribute to the rock side of her musical appreciation, in particular Chris Cornell, and a cover of Audio Slave’s ‘Like a Stone’

A co-write with Ben Glover titled ‘The Fall’ represented the wealth of the future. Although not new, ‘Ride the Rails’ and ‘Born to be Broken’ could experience a renaissance with a version cut on a future album. Both do appear on the live record. All three added value to this evening’s show.

Populating the familiar list included detailed introductions to 'Lie Like You Love Me', ‘Black & White’,Lace’ and ‘Old Ghost’. An inner desire to replicate a passion for 70s rock infiltrated ‘No Heart Left Behind’ complete with a thirty-second tambourine moment, echoing an iconic rock pose. As experienced before, a chosen crowd choir lent a hand to ‘Burning Down Birmingham’, a song that always shows the nearby UK version in a better light than its distant Alabama cover. ‘Howlin’ Bones’ and ‘Razor Wire’ completed the setlist alongside the reflected stand out moment on the evening, a stunning version of ‘Lonesome’. This was also a gig where ‘Parchman’ took a night off.

While this show was essentially a Hannah Aldridge - Goat Roper Rodeo Band collaboration, those preferring the solo route were treated to a special four song segment. One providing a determinable reminder why Hannah resonates so high with many UK fans bound by a love of Southern flavoured Americana music where country melts into the fertile world of rock and blues. 

Hannah Aldridge UK visits are thankfully a regular occurrence, just as the likelihood of a return trip just around the corner. As frequent as these are, sometimes it is worth embracing moments as experienced in St. George’s Hall this evening. The format may change, but every show is underpinned by a winning formula that continues to grow in awareness and appreciation. 

More info on Hannah Aldridge

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Spence - Mint Condition : Rounder Records

The succession of a widely acclaimed album is a fascinating view from afar; one mixing listener anticipation with hope that a successful formula remains intact. In the tail stream of her 2017 album SPADES & ROSES, Caroline Spence made inroads overseas, in particular the UK where there is a dedicated passionate audience embracing the style of music in which she excels. The time has now arrived for a baton passing ceremony with MINT CONDITION assuming the mantle of the latest album release and a monumental challenge of building upon the impact of its predecessor. 

The most significant alteration in the professional arrangement between albums is that Caroline signed to Rounder Records, with all the trappings of releasing a record on an established label. Thus the stage managed introduction of the new record has been markedly different to the previous one. The drip effect of five tracks strategically leaking out between early in the new year and release date only served to whet the appetite of the new music’s worth. 

It is debatable whether the absolute quality of MINT CONDITION was really in any doubt and diving deep into its entirety reaffirms the appealing lure that spills out of Caroline Spence’s music. 

Fans who listened intently to the five pre-released tracks will concur that the title song and ‘Long Haul’ possessed a special sheen, confirmed now to the extent that both reside firmly in the top 3, for those interested in such an objective approach to assessing an album. ‘Mint Condition’ may have been lying around a while in an unreleased state, but this moving piece of nostalgia sparkles in the finale spot, given a helping hand by no less an artist than Emmylou Harris to reach recorded status. The hooks of the other early standout song polishes the finished product to make repeated plays essential acts.

However, these two have to move along for the album’s crowning moment that struts into place in the guise of the adorable story song ‘Angels or Los Angeles’. Faint comparisons with Miranda Lambert's ‘House That Built Me’ may appear lazy, but they never fade after many listens and are here to stay.

Admittedly, there was a jolt when first spinning the album in its complete form with the injection of a rockier sound to what was expected in the opening track. ‘What You Don’t Know’ rinses with the effect of a new label, suggesting a new team input to strengthen up a pivotal position for any album. By the time the eleven tracks have rolled out in a forty-three minute running time, all the traits attached to SPADES & ROSES re-assemble, best exemplified in what you could term a Caroline Spence ‘stock song’ in ‘Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes’

Those traits included a soundtrack to savour and velvet vocals that pour oodles of emotion into the song delivery process. When in union with some seriously good song writing, a ray of golden Americana runs through an album that ebbs and flows with all key attributes of an album flourishing at the junction of folk, country and contemporary roots. 

The biggest grower during the review process is the only co-write on the album, ‘Song About a City’ written in collaboration with Ashley Ray. In contrast, a patient piece titled ‘Sometimes a Woman is an Island’ simmers on first play whilst awash with wispy harmonies and a haunting close. A similar drooling feeling adorns ‘Sit Here and Love Me’ and ‘Wait on the Wine’, two mid located tracks relishing the benefit of the album really finding its groove by the time they surface. 

A similar view applies to ‘Who Are You’ and ‘Till You Find One’. They probably sit a level below the heavyweight numbers, but still fulfil a role of carrying the album through a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. 

A legacy of SPADES & ROSES is that it did not lose any appeal many months after first play. Time will tell whether MINT CONDITION follows a similar path, but if you are of a gambling persuasion, the odds are short. UK fans will have to wait until the autumn before Caroline tours the album, so momentum is assured for at least the first few months of release. 

The move to Rounder Records appears to have proved a winner for Caroline Spence. MINT CONDITION is one of those albums that you will treasure. Fate played a part in finding this artist, but it certainly looks after those seeking a sound that matches ideals. 

GIG REVIEW: Kyshona + Michael Logen - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 30th April 2019

The influence of Nashville is not uncommon on the performing floor of the Kitchen Garden and this latest presentation further imported a Music City presence into the Second City. Regardless of the billing giving an edge to Kyshona, this show unwrapped as a bout of equilibrium as the renowned format of ‘in the round’ took hold. Throughout the evening Kyshona and Michael Logen took turns to share fruits from their song repertoire across two roughly equally paced sets. They stayed very much within their own confines thus reflecting a mere snippet of Nashville’s musical diversity. 

For Kyshona, this was the fourth straight year of visiting Birmingham, and this venue in particular. A run begun when teaming up with Jen Bostic and Sarah Darling before branching out in a more solo direction while sharing the bill with Robert Lane and the Remedy Club respectively. Each time, this South Carolinian now Nashville resident mightily impressed with a thunderous soulful approach that drew heavily on gospel influences amidst tackling contemporary social issues in her song writing. The business as usual sign hung proudly around Kyshona’s neck as she powered through a raft of songs in tandem with her partner for the evening.

On a night of contrasts, Michael Logen played catch up with familiarity. Although a known name and an artist with a wealth of experience, this was a debut connection and thus a first chance to check in with a sample of his music. Style here is moulded from your archetypal heartland singer-songwriter finding solace in the blossoming world of Americana in 2019. Where Kyshona strongly leant into deeply felt issues for her material, Michael fished in the richly stocked pool of observation and emotion. 

Both had the seasoned touring knack of illuminating their songs with the bright lights of clear, concise and informative introduction. Newbies to both artists would have departed a lot wiser alongside the satisfaction of experiencing two dedicated purveyors of their craft dealing a strong hand. This amounted to close on twenty songs corralling subjects such as the Susquehanna River and a coyote running loose in New York City in Michael’s case, and Kyshona honing in on the salvation side of the US prison system and sparked by social injustices afflicting her race and gender. 

On the recording front, each artist shared new material, although Kyshona appeared far more advanced on this front with an album in the can impatiently waiting to be unleashed to the world. Putting contrasts in styles to one side for a moment, both came across as your hard working shop floor singer-songwriters forever vigilant for a break to reward their diligence and profound hope. Michael proudly celebrates his cuts by Kelly Clarkson and the cast of the Nashville TV series. Kyshona painstakingly seeking reassurance that the call to trade her living from the deeply embedded but secure world of music therapy to the radically unstable existence of writing songs about it was that justified unequivocal calling. 

Evidence was in abundance that both artists are worthy advocates of a creative art form ripe for listener attention and appreciation. Kyshona and Michael Logen share as many inner similarities as stylistic differences. In the true words of the night’s stand out song ‘we’re all bleeding the same blood’. Check these two out either in collaboration or solo. You won’t be disappointed.