Saturday, 28 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jason James - Seems Like Tears Ago

Country music may stake its existence on the ‘truth,' but reality is far more mythical for a person raised in metropolitan suburbia and schooled in late 70s/early 80s chart music thousands of miles away from the revered ‘south’. Occasionally, you require a stark reminder why your ears leant in an alien direction and started to feel something for the quintessential sounds of rural America. Modern times make seeking out what you want accessible  although this can negate the thrill of the chase. While the name Jason James popped up out of nowhere with absolutely zero prior knowledge, its source was a clever curation. A single sample of one track immediately led to a full play, then another and another… SEEMS LIKE TEARS AGO was the total antidote to a slow burner and that stark reminder to why heads turned a few ‘tears’ ago.

Yes, this album was a promo and can be judged by all on October 4th. It plays to a gallery, but plays an absolute blinder. At the time of publishing these thoughts, I have yet to read the press release or seek anything out about Jason James. I know nothing about the origin of any of the songs. However, the most important thing is listening to the ten tracks that prove a pure aesthetic adorable experience and roll out as a blueprint to a calling.

Do the terms ‘retro,' ‘traditional’ and ‘real’ have negative connotations? Maybe they exist to pitch a cause under threat or to simply add a description for the purpose of promotion. You can quite easily apply them to this Jason James record or just call it ‘country music’. Anybody who opposes such little boxes are free to drift away, genre is going nowhere.

Before you even spin this record signs of a winner are liberally displayed. The cover is pure elegant simplicity reeking with association. Ten tracks and thirty minutes meets the approval of those of us with weird dispositions. Puns, omissive apostrophes and converted verbs provide a cheeky angle for us purists to grin as we take a peep over the educational divide. Country music rebels and conforms in so many ways. Gazing down the track names categorically nails what you are likely to hear. But ultimately, how well does James deliver? 

Of course, you already know that answer. A sleek combination of rich fiddle and steel comforts a proud voice born to sing heartbreak, all amidst non-pretentious songs constructed with transparent clarity. Transporting your mind to faraway places is not a bad way to spend half an hour, or longer depending on how many plays you can restrict yourself to. There is something primal about this album. Pure emotion with music, words and voice all beating to the same pulse. 

I am not going to anoint a golden track, just place the whole album on the lofty pedestal it deserves. If you are clicking on a blog titled ‘Three Chords and the Truth’,there is only one thing to do after reading this review. Search ‘Jason James Seems Like Tears Ago,' listen to the damn thing when you can and fill in the gaps that have been left in this piece. I will do the latter in good time, out of courtesy to an artist who has created such a wonderful record. 

Discovering SEEMS LIKE TEARS AGO reverberates like that proverbial shot in the arm. I appreciate many likeminded artists exist out there, but the practical limits of your periphery lead you only to a sane place in this over sensory world. Thankfully Jason James landed on the near horizon and his music did the rest. 

ALBUM REVIEW: Show of Hands - Battlefield Dance Floor : Proper Records

Rules of engagement are absent in music. Show of Hands have been making music as an entity for thirty years and have never sought a low profile, even to those who dip into the folk world on an ad hoc basis. Yet despite catching them occasionally at festivals as well as a Steve Knightley solo appearance, opportunity to allocate some listening time to their music has never materialised. Over the last half a dozen years, investment of time in folk circles has tended to focus around smaller upcoming acts, with a particular lure of the female voice and the sensibility it often pervades. It has generally been a trait to leave words about the established figures in folk music to others, but like a lot of things in life, maybe it was time for a change. 

Thus a temptation to engage with the latest Show of Hands album was accepted as a challenge. While being under no illusion that more informed inches will dissect and surface elsewhere, maybe fresh ears can bring something to the party. 

Like a lot of folk albums, there is a barrage of background to the songs, often detailed in extensive accompanying notes or inset information. The major news item for BATTLEFIELD DANCE FLOOR is the expansion for Show of Hands from a core three-piece outfit to a quartet with the enlisting of percussionist Cormac Byrne. Co-founder Steve Knightley still provides the majority of the vocals alongside being the key songwriter. Long time band partner Phil Beer is indicated as the arrangement driving force and Miranda Sykes adds a touch of vocal diversity to her bassist duties, as featured many times before. 

To fill in some further details, the album consists of thirteen tracks, mixing mainly originals with a handful of covers. While some folk albums veer very much in a traditional direction, this one has a contemporary sheen without losing sight of the storytelling theme that features strongly in this genre. 

A first serious dip into listening to Show of Hands revealed a hugely enjoyable record putting the audience experience at the heart of the record. An accessible nature has likely played a large part in the band's popularity over the years. There is little hesitancy in recommending the record to listeners not seeing folk as their natural home. This hasn't watered down the approach Knightley, Beer, Sykes and Byrne have adopted to present their album.

Interestingly, the first track that caught my eye when perusing the list was a cover of Kirsty Merryn’s ‘Forfarshire’. Knightley did have previous with this song via duetting with Kirsty on her SHE & I album, a record that got a very favourable review here. In line with the original, Miranda Sykes gives a feminine tint to the vocal duet and it settles in as one of many fine tracks.

My personal favourite is the excellent ‘You’ll Get By’. A new song spearheading the original Knightley solo writes, and creating a real air of positivity.

While the covers as a whole don’t overshadow the new material they do offer certain narrative. A superb version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ is further evidence that the work of the late Canadian songwriting genius is often best presented to us non-artistic mortals  through the arrangement of others. 

Interest in what Show of Hands offer doesn’t wane from the stomping frivolity of the title track in the opening stages to the climactic ‘No Secrets’ wrapping things up as we approach fifty minute territory. Both the latter and ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’ join the aforementioned stand out number as prime examples of Knightley’s incisive songwriting. For an extra slice of diversity, ‘Swift and Bold (Celer et Audax)’ gets a drum rolling military makeover courtesy of the 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment. We also hear more Miranda Sykes on ‘Make the Right Noises’, which is no bad thing. 

There are certainly no rules of engagement to when you connect with artists. Ears may have been elsewhere while Show of Hands were entertaining and stimulating vast swathes of the folk fraternity, but times change. Fate created a zone for them to reach me on a more concentrated level in 2019 and proof of the success is in the writing. BATTLEFIELD DANCE FLOOR was released on September 27th for the wide world to enjoy. It may be your moment in time as well. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: The Orphan Brigade - To the Edge of the World

The story began in Octagon Hall Kentucky (a place so near yet so far on a personal scale) before crossing the ocean to a cave location in Osimo Italy. With two instalments of this musical odyssey complete, attention switches to the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland and the next chapter of The Orphan Brigade making a new kind of field music for the twenty-first century. Who knows whether this project is a calculated journey or a creative whim, but the results of absorbing the lure of a single location in the sponge-like medium of music and song continues to conjure delightful treats to a growing audience. The emphasis of the last phrase falls in line with the band trio of Joshua Britt, Ben Glover and Neilson Hubbard being in a fortunate position to finally tour an Orphan Brigade project. So before we submerge into what TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD delivers, two important dates for the diary are: September 27 - release day and October 2 - UK tour opener. Oh, and a Birmingham gig at the Kitchen Garden on October 7.

The album consists of eleven core tracks supplemented by a brief ‘Pipes Intro’ setting the scene, a midway placed instrumental and the title track ‘To the Edge of the World’ getting a short reprise in the latter stages courtesy of children at a primary school in Glenarm. As an entity, the album glides through thirty-eight minutes of your precious listening time, and similar to the other two releases, best enjoyed with some form of notes addendum to provide insight that adds to the mix. If you bought into the two previous Orphan Brigade albums - Soundtrack to a Ghost Story and Heart of the Cave, the new release will slot into your repertoire with ease. The landscape and theme may be different, but the experimental and innovative approach to making contemporary folk music is intact alongside the fascinating stories. Of course new converts are welcome aboard at any time (with or without attaching the previous work) especially those up for a slice of broadening insight on their musical menu. 

The Orphan Brigade has long called on the services of their fellow musicians, mainly summoned up from a Nashville community that puts a refined edge on music synonymous with the city. Joining the fray this time is legendary  singer-songwriter John Prine, who duets on the pre-release promoted track ‘Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy)’ and leaves a familiar mark. Also there is no harm in tapping into the pool of a legend’s reach. 

Early thoughts on this album mulled over a leaning to a greater instrumental focus than its predecessors. Perhaps the impact clouded this judgement, but one to consider if you have accessed the previous work. Essentially, the soundtrack adds weight to any visualised attempt to fill a blank canvas in your mind with the locations critical to the images and feelings the trio set out to convey. 

The substance of any Orphan Brigade album is in the stories yearning to be told. Historical accuracy lodges alongside mythology  all captured in the winding words of three songwriters already deemed masters of their craft in a bulging back catalogue. 

No album with intent is going anywhere without tune and structure ensuring the listening experience is one of aural pleasure. TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD meets this essential criteria early on with ‘Banshee’ and ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’ making strong cases for stand out moments. The first of these is so reminiscent of ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet)’ from the first album, and not just its ghostly feminine content. A fruitful venture considering its comparative piece is a time tested Orphan Brigade classic. 

A big factor in first being attracted to The Orphan Brigade was the American history angle explored in their debut album. Whilst dislodging this preference from the perch is a tough task, both subsequent records have aroused interest in areas outside the usual periphery. Maybe it’s a credit to Britt, Glover and Hubbard that they immerse into, and project their subject in such a consuming way. 

Vocally the album appears to be dominated by Ben Glover, maybe subject to a little subconscious bias partly due to more familiarity with his solo work and the distinction it leaves when in full flow.  

Accompanying a promo copy of this album is the most informative notes companion detailing song backgrounds and the writing location, a trait deemed critical to the trio’s success to sinking deep into the soul of the land. Hopefully these will extend to any subsequent purchased copy to give all listeners a flavour of where the inspiration drew from. They certainly add significant value.

While this a personal album to the extent to how location influenced a creative inner spark, probably most pertinent to Ben Glover who grew up in the Glenarm vicinity before following his songwriting calling to Nashville Tennessee, it never loses sight that there is an audience at the other end demanding some sort of popular appeal to the tunes. This listener desire is expertly met in the latter stages of the album in the song pairing of ‘St.Patrick on Slemish Mountain’ and ‘Fair Head’s Daughter’, split only by the album’s third short interlude, an instrumental titled ‘Bessie’s Hymn’. The latter of these two highlighted tracks sees the vocals of Glover taking a break for the less familiar others to play a part. 

There is a strong folk and roots acoustic sound found throughout the record with mandolin regular popping up to prick the ear. This gives the album a satisfying feel and you always feel in the prized company of three accomplished musicians weaving in the full complement of exceptional album content. 

TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD sets out to capture a flavour of a location hemmed in by the sea, yet so rich in folklore and intrigue. The lure for The Orphan Brigade to deploy their talents at the heart of such a place reaped luscious rewards. Whether you call the combined work of Joshua Britt, Ben Glover and Neilson Hubbard: a project, a calling or a voyage of discovery, the results continue to furnish an open minded audience base with an album to contently absorb.

Monday, 16 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Amy Speace - Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne : Proper Records

Amy Speace made a fleeting visit to the UK recently playing a handful of shows including an afternoon slot at the Long Road Festival. Her parting shot was leaving us with the most glorious of records and an outstanding reminder to what an all-round talent she is. A spacious delay between full length albums, punctuated by an EP release and an active involvement in the Applewood Road collaboration project, has served to further whet the appetite of those who intently listened to a pair of albums catapulting the name Amy Speace into directed overseas listening circles. As effective as HOW TO SLEEP IN A STORMY BOAT and LAND LIKE A BIRD resonated in the years between 2011 and 2013, the hot-off-the press new album moves the dial along significantly further. ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE emerges categorically as a work of art, theatrically gracing a lavish canvas.

A north easterner by background now submerged in the songs and sounds of the south, this Nashville based artist is at the heart of a community that ploughs down an alternative route, both culturally and politically to much of what defines this southern city. Many absorbed in the music of this community will not be surprised that Neilson Hubbard was handed the production duties and thus joining a growing stable of excellent recent releases to have his name inked onto the credits in a self-assuming yet truly diligent way. The eleven tracks housing the memorable forty-eight minutes playing time stride like a majestic march through the annals of classic singer-songwriting, whilst commanding a showtime feel for eager ears. 

Ten of these unveil as either Amy Speace solo or co-writes with the odd one out being album closer ‘Kindness’. This track written by fellow Nashville resident Ben Glover is a prime case of a tight knit community sharing fine songs and follows in the recording tracks of its writer including it on his 2018 award winning SHOREBOUND album. Contrasting the vocal styles of Amy Speace and Ben Glover could fill a notebook several times over, but let’s say merit is purely comparative with the former’s archetypal pristine ballad vocals taking the song in a different but equally as breathtaking direction. 

A recurring theme of 2019 stellar releases has been a stunning opening track and ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE is right on the ball with a song bearing the name of the album’s title. Speace’s lyrics prick the ear casting a net of wanting to know where they originate and where they are heading. Not only does this record start on the top shelf, but elevates slightly higher in the follow-on track, ‘Grace of God’. A classy standout candidate should one be sought. 

Album narrative peaks deep in the second half with the period piece ‘Back in Abilene’ as events of November 1963 spin off in a surprising direction. Here subtle acoustic guitar elegantly soundtracks Speace’s reflective vocals, in contrast to strident piano featuring prominently in the albums’s early throes. 

Other highlights include the Jonathan Byrd co-write ‘Standing Rock Standing Here’,provoking thought like so much of his work does, and the slightly more produced effort ‘Some Dreams Do’ featuring vocal contributions from Ben Glover and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Not names you see listed together too often. 

ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE is an album not to be rushed and sways in whichever mood you wish to enjoy it in. A release on Proper Records widens its availability in the UK so you can choose your opportune moment to engage. Amy Speace may juggle priorities, but when focussing on channelling her hugely impressive songwriting and vocal skills, she delivers in epic portions.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jeremy Ivey - The Dream and the Dreamer : ANTI - Records

A couple of years ago Jeremy Ivey played a pretty low key opening set at the Bullingdon in Oxford that quickly slipped from the memory bank. This was escalated by a scintillating performance from the headliner of which the opener had more than a little in common with. Whether or not any of the songs from his debut album featured on the night is probably immaterial, but that would certainly change when the time comes for him to return to a UK stage. While that day awaits, the release of THE DREAM AND THE DAYDREAMER will give Jeremy Ivey's solo career a huge shot in the arm and it will comfortably sit in many a listening repertoire.

9 tracks and 33 minutes playing time suggests limitations, but sometimes less is more, an odd conundrum that comes into play here. Not a second of a tight landscape is wasted as Ivey gears his songwriting to a wide range of issues from the deeply personal to others of a more macro persuasion. The whole soundtrack echoes shades of country music caught up in a psychedelic haze, with an occasional rock tinge. It also contains an impressive amount of hooks and levers controlling moves in a shortened timescale.

From opening track 'Diamonds Back to Coal' suggesting some sort of environmental reversal to the record ending with the ultimate thoughtful comparison piece 'The Dream and the Dreamer', the whole listening experience is a smooth event. Peaks across the canvas rise with the dreamy blissful second track 'Falling Man' and the country pairing of 'Worry Doll' and 'Greyhound'. The latter represents the album's summit and the source of the duet unravels the picture further.

Almost twelve months ago Ruston Kelly released a solo album that met with critical acclaim proving that there is a creative force in both halves of the Ruston Kelly-Kacey Musgraves marital partnership. Music from that release reached award nominee status and a progression that could be replicated in THE DREAM AND THE DREAMER. Similarities extend in that Jeremy Ivey is also the spouse of a successful artist, in this instance Margo Price. One difference is that she has taken a far more pro-active role in her husband's record. Not only being the duet partner on the standout track, but also taking the reins on the production duties and helping to shape an album that will resonate strongly with many.

From the small acorn of opening for his wife in Oxford in early 2017 to releasing an album fit to challenge the best in the Americana genre, the journey of Jeremy Ivey is beginning to gather pace. The largest leap is to put out a very good record. The next step is see how far momentum from the team can carry it. I wouldn't bet against a fair distance. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

GIG REVIEW: Oh Susanna - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 10th September 2019

1999 certainly produced some albums that have stood the test of time, especially a couple that have helped mould country, folk and rock sentiments into the burgeoning 21st century genre of Americana. Within weeks of Lucinda Williams hitting our shores to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her seminal album CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD, Oh Susanna has done the same with her classic release of that year JOHNSTOWN. To keep the similarities going, both artists made Birmingham a port of call for the revival tour and followed a similar theme of playing the entire album in its original order plus a few old favourites to wrap the show. Much has been made of Lucinda’s Town Hall gig in August, but the time has arrived to shower rightful praise on Oh Susanna’s somewhat lower key celebration at the Kitchen Garden, albeit no less absorbing and wholly commendable. 
From a literal perspective, those attending both events may choose to contrast the scale differentiation, but a little twist of the mind reveals so much synergy. It became apparent during this show that Oh Susanna holds JOHNSTOWN dear in her heart as the album which unlocked so many doors, none so personal than the route to finally express herself in her beloved art form of song. The twelve songs that formed the body of this album battle with the duality of lightness and darkness, while demonstrating that such inner and slightly introspective thoughts can leap out straight into a listener’s heart. 
As previously indicated, Oh Susanna served up each track in album order starting with the murderous overtones of the title number and finishing just over an hour later with the tender offerings of ‘Tangled and Wild’. ‘Johnstown’, the song, is as strong an album opener that you are likely to come across, sung with a touch of aggression to blend into the theme of the writing. In line with other album presentations, a fair number of the songs had a background introduction. Oh Susanna optimally fine-tuned this portion of the show, leaving the beauty of the lyrics and the vocals as the sole conveyor of the thoughts of certain numbers. The album’s pivotal track, ‘The Bridge’, was one given an introduction and it proved to be the unexpected highlight of the evening’s core segment.
JOHNSTOWN itself has had a makeover to commemorate its anniversary. A digitally remastered version has been released across as multitude of formats, and this Birmingham date is one of several UK shows scheduled to promote the album in a country that has been very kind over the years to this Canadian.
Although Oh Susanna had appeared solo at The Long Road festival the previous weekend, she had re-engaged with Dutch guitarist BJ Baartmans for this Birmingham show, and his incredibly deft guitar skills added enormously to the textural sound of the songs. He has had a long association with Oh Susanna and their chemistry was evident for all to see. 
To complete a trio of artists on the bill, Austin-based singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician opened the evening with 30 minutes of deep thinking self-reflective songs that you have come to expect from artistic residents of that town. He set the scene warmly, lyrically and sensitively for a night where, not only was the song supreme, but the way it projects the inner dynamics of the songwriter. Strong stuff maybe, but explicitly palatable in delivery and reception.
One side benefit to this focus on the work of Oh Susanna is a perfect opportunity to go back and re-live her fabulous 2017 album A GIRL IN TEEN CITY, a most touching and nostalgic record that rose steep when assessing that year’s releases. Only a solitary track made the post-Johnstown section of the 90-minute set, but you might as well make it one of best in ‘My Boyfriend’. Those of us fortunate to catch her set at Long Road were also treated to ‘Tickets on the Weekend’ from that album. 
The evening’s finale also saw three more old favourites with folks choosing between ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, ‘River Blue’ and ‘Right By Your Side’ for their highlight pick, or maybe just enjoying them all equally for their widespread merit. Perhaps the most important song on the evening was a brand new one titled ‘Mount Royal’, inspired by her time at University in Montreal and a virtual meeting with fellow esteemed Canadian songwriter Jim Bryson. As much as the importance of celebrating past work is a rejuvenating venture for artists, there is nothing quite like a peep into the future and some sort of renewal. This side of Oh Susanna’s work sounded superb, showing the tank beginning to fill nicely. 

The success of this evening was as much down to the smart choice of many fans hooking into the work of Oh Susanna, as chances of her not delivering on this impassioned project were always slim. You tend to know when you are backing a winner and we were certainly in the sparkling company of one in Birmingham tonight.

Monday, 9 September 2019

FESTIVAL REVIEW: The Long Road - Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th September 2019

The 2019 festival season concluded with the second staging of The Long Road Festival in the grounds of Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. An event heavily promoted for its inclusive approach to bind ties between a rather extended family that loosely falls into a tag line of ‘country, Americana and roots’. From lavish expectations that raised plenty of eyebrows twelve months ago, the festival showed extensive signs of bedding in. Any parade of artists trying to meet such a bold objective will always be subject to close scrutiny, tinted with personal preference, taste and desire. Therefore any post-event look back can only focus on a) what was scheduled (without decrying what wasn’t), and, b) what you chose to see. Essentially the first factor dictates whether you were going to attend, while the second evolves into how you choose to spend your time on site. 
Ray Benson leading Asleep at the Wheel
My approach has often lent towards re-enacting the gig experience of watching whole sets rather than a roaming one which aims to absorb a general feel. Of course, plenty choose to engage in many of the other attractions on offer, but I’ll leave those to their own devices. From setting foot on site just in time for The Cactus Blossoms to play the Interstate stage on Friday to departing just as Josh Turner wrapped up the headline slot on Sunday night, 21 sets were seen in their entirety – give or take the odd song (sadly Amy Speace singing ‘Kindness’ was sacrificed to see Asleep at the Wheel start their set). Limited roaming was undertaken to catch snippets of William the Conqueror (already seen twice this year), Roseanne Reid (subject to a set clash) and The Steel Woods. The latter would have been longer but for the serious overcrowding in the Honky Tonk on Friday night. 
Rhiannon Giddens
This leads into possible improvements for a future staging. The Honky Tonk is a popular feature of the creative approach adopted by the organisers, but became a victim of its own success on Friday. The festival needs to get up to speed with its multi-use glass policy. There was still pockets of non-music downtime which other festivals avoid. The boldest step it could take in relation to the line up is to enable the Interstate to go head to head with the Rhinestone headliner. Saturday night saw an hour of sole Kip Moore which didn’t meet the inclusivity target.
With a few after thoughts out the way, the festival organisers have to be commended in how they revolutionised the Interstate stage following last year. It was far more spacious, plenty of easy access for all, and who can argue with a bar. (Yes, you can at £6 a pint).They also generally packed it with great music, bar an early finish to avoid the aforementioned headliner clash. The selection of artists away from those designed to meet the wishes of a vast majority of attendees was once again first class, and at a quantity and standard that few events can match in the UK. Ultimately, The Long Road Festival 2019 was a resounding success on a personal basis and it will definitely become a permanent fixture in the diary if it maintains the standards of the first two years.
With the parish notices out the way, over to the artists that defined the Long Road for me in 2019, as that is what we are really here for. After much format consideration, here’s 21 words for each of the 21 sets seen. No ranking just some sort of good ole’ alphabetical order and a dive in the direction of succinctness. 
Charley Crockett
Asleep at the Wheel – Interstate Sunday
Legendary Austin Western Swing outfit led by outstanding leader Ray Benson bringing the band class to Long Road and leaving unrivalled. 
Amy Speace – Front Porch Sunday
Gorgeous songs, immaculately presented and forever informative and engaging. Ably assisted by the ever versatile CJ Hillman on guitars. Singer-songwriter fulfillment.
The Cactus Blossoms – Interstate Friday
Coolest band sound across the weekend, needed very little else other than guitars perfectly interweaving with each other. Top class Americana.
Ian Noe
Carson McHone – Honky Tonk Saturday
No band required, just a consummate performer sharing with ultimate ease and appeal the real strength of classic Texas song writing. 
Charley Crockett – Interstate Saturday
A singer born to sing from the soil and embody the deepest American roots alongside a crack band born to entertain.
Danni Nicholls – Honky Tonk Saturday
Her crest has been rising for many years and shows no sign of reaching anywhere near its limitless potential to entertain.
Amy Speace
Frankie Lee – Honky Tonk Saturday
Full band strongly enhanced some seriously good songs, presented with panache and a touch of edge. ‘High and Dry’ Saturday highlight. 
Ian Noe – Front Porch Sunday
Outstanding performance echoing Dylan and Townes at their best. Hyperbole? Nah, this set exceeded pretty high expectations from first online listen.
Jamie Wyatt – Interstate Saturday
Artist with a story to tell and told so well with passion, artistry and a UK band helping spread the message.
Suzy Bogguss
John Paul White – Interstate Saturday
Nailing the art of the sad country song and throwing in a couple of Civil Wars surprises. Steel and vocal bliss.
Josh Turner – Rhinestone Sunday
Throwback where fiddle, steel and tradition didn’t fight so hard in the mainstream. A set embodying the ethos of Long Road.
Leslie Stevens – Honky Tonk Saturday
Real deal country music in the true model of the great iconic entertainers sharing wit, spirit and plenty of harnessed talent.
Oh Susanna
Oh Susanna – Front Porch Friday 
Uniquely referencing punk with country was one of many twists as a series of inspirational songs flowed from a canny operator. 
Peter Bruntnell – Honky Tonk Saturday
Powerful rock from an experienced trio successfully filtering socially important songs into a hardened sound while honouring the roots of alt-country
Rhiannon Giddens – Interstate Sunday
Undoubted world class performer successfully rising to the challenge of American roots ambassador in her own inimitable and highly talented way. 
The Cactus Blossoms
Rose Cousins – Honky Tonk Sunday
Blending a sharp wit with meaningful songs in an unnatural habitat ensured Canadian folk music was not left on the shelf.
Sam Outlaw – Interstate Sunday
Moved up a gear with a new set up while ensuring his wonderfully crafted songs still retain an honourable country coating.
Sean McConnell – Front Porch Sunday
Showed that the art of fine melody and smart lyrics exist whether you are spilling your heart or chasing a cut.
Suzanne Santo
Susto – Front Porch Sunday
A blast of Sunday morning rock with a touch of roll proving that boundaries can be stretched in the right way.
Suzanne Santo – Interstate Saturday
Flying the flag for Americana folk rock in fine style proving that discovery is still at the heart of Long Road.
Suzy Bogguss – Rhinestone Sunday
Applying a brake on the runaway train of manipulated progress while showing that harking back can still be relevant and refreshing.
Danni Nicholls
Mission accomplished and a dagger in the heart of wordiness. Live reviews, especially festivals are unique beasts, entirely in the head of the beholder. 24 hours after leaving the Leicestershire site, positive reflections on a super weekend still bubble away. Hopefully, some of them have been captured even with a degree of small insularity. 

The Long Road continues to power on as a fledgling festival. Who knows how it will progress? Investment aims are likely to be measured in re-staging and innovation, but supporting an event where you can choose to plough down the road this review went is essential from at least two thirds of the festival tag line. Country, Americana and roots may have their differences but The Long Road offers bridges. It would be remiss to not buy into some aspects of what they offer. A fully bought-in advocate of the event resides here. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

GIG REVIEW: Native Harrow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 2nd September 2019

The mythical world of the unwritten artist-audience code was put to the test as the post-summer gig scene got underway at the Kitchen Garden. A venue that thrives on its warmth, intimacy and elective connectivity. A venue operating at the end of the scale where the spheres of artist and audience exist barely a hair breadth apart. One where building blocks are laid and positivity reverberates around the bricked interior.

This evening it hosted the American duo Native Harrow currently on a whirlwind tour around the UK in support of the recently released album HAPPIER NOW, courted lovingly by the indie record shop circuit. A record with an addictive streak that lures the listener into a transfixed zone through a narrow introductory passage decorated with neither: hooks, bells or whistles. Once there, a cathartic intensity takes hold as you are whisked down roads repeatedly compared to Laurel Canyon and dreamy singer-songwriter heaven.

Just as on record, Devin Tuel and Stephen Harms recreate the vibes in a live setting using a multitude of guitars, percussion accompaniments and fleeting keys. The magic of the album projects through Tuel's steely focussed delivery, best exemplified on this side of the Atlantic by the statuesque posterity of Laura Marling flowering the air with stern vocals, aligned with both beauty and harshness.

Two sets (45 and 38 minute long respectively for a touch of extra curricula accuracy), a raft of songs from across the Native Harrow repertoire and a finely tuned staging of a studio reenactment. A successful gig if you seek the headline terms of the unwritten code.

So where's the caveat implied in the opening sentence. Perhaps in the notion of a how a gig can start in one unassuming place and increasingly slip further away. Set 1: a brief acknowledgement to the dozen (hardcore) paying audience; a shallow but minimal insight into the inner workings of an artist. Reasonable without setting the world on fire and in line with the introvert nature of a performer wholly immersed in the beauty of the song. Set 2: barely a word spoken; playing to a distant place; a curt departure and a rebuked engagement with an encore request. 

Set 2 is not what the Kitchen Garden is about. Literally hundreds of artists pass through buying into the ethos. A vast majority abiding by the unwritten code. Of course shouts are heard "they bloody did their job, what more do you want?" Maybe Native Harrow did. Maybe this humble paying observer is guilty of witnessing what was in front of them. Maybe this is a small dot in a big picture. Good luck to them. They have made an excellent album. Perhaps live music just needs a little more. 

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Moseley Folk and Arts Festival (Sunday only), Birmingham. Sunday 1st September 2019

A fallow year for me at Moseley Folk in 2018 and a few observed changes in place when making the return in 2019. First, a formal amendment in the name to the Moseley Folk and Arts Festival, a slight adjustment long overdue in respect to the event's somewhat eclectic nature, Secondly, the expansion beyond the normal tracks to a sloped area housing the revamped Kitchen Garden stage at the foot and the aptly named Folk on the Slope towards the top. The programme also saw a considerable extension with the wider arts embraced in exhibits like comedy, the spoken word and embodied activism. Yet the core of the festival remains in the twin central stages hosting a host of fine performers ensuring the music flowed on a continuous basis from half eleven to half ten. 

Commitments elsewhere on Friday and Saturday restricted attendance to just the Sunday of this three day event. A day increasingly hailed as ‘folk day’, a little ironic in light that we are at a folk festival. Moseley has long sailed down the route of banishing boundaries and this is likely to intensify as straps are loosened. To tighten things a little, the main stage line up for Sunday left few in doubt to the direction with four of the artists being as closely aligned to the UK folk scene as you could wish. There may be a lot of years between Thom Ashworth and Peggy Seeger, but a commitment to the art of the protest song couldn’t be any closer. Likewise, few of their peers come close to matching the status of Richard Thompson and Daoiri Farrell on the contemporary folk scene, with the latter making many jaunts from his native Ireland to share exciting traditional music from the homeland. 

Where you place Sunday headliner Don McLean on the folk spectrum is open to debate. This is countered by a universal approval of writing some of the most popular songs of all time. One in particular had the unsurprising honour of closing Moseley 2019. You can have a single guess and probably won’t need another.

Those of a certain age associate the name with a popular 70s kids show as well. Not to miss a trick, the other Don Maclean sprang onto stage just before his illustrious (near) namesake. Who said the Brummies don't have a sense of humour when it comes to honouring one of their own.

The sixth and final act to grace the main stage on Sunday saw the sound lean towards a studio based art rock folk direction in the shape of Charles Watson. This was the swan song  of the current band set up and they signed off in fine style with a top class performance. Thus providing a smart contrast to the more conventional style that defined much of Moseley Folk Sunday.

During Charles Watson’s set thoughts turned to Dawes appearing on this very stage a couple of years implying that if you strip away all these layers of instrumentation it’s all folk music. A notion supplemented by banners adorning both sides of the main stage proclaiming, ‘all music is folk music’. 

In contrast to previous visits to this late summer festival, the entire time was split between watching all six main stage artists and those playing the quaint surroundings of the newly located Kitchen Garden stage. Timings enabled this thus striking the second stage acts from the agenda this year. Local singer-songwriter Philippa Zawe got proceedings underway on the stroke of eleven thirty, while many folks were still filing onto the site. She impressed earlier in the year when supporting Blue Rose Code at the Kitchen’s main residence and once again displayed shades of evolving into a real effective performer. 

The next three artists to appear on the Kitchen stage all possessed Transatlantic roots, in line with many American touring acts which pass through Birmingham’s leading acoustic listening venue. First up was Whitherward, a duo hailing from Nashville who now find the road, and especially Europe, an appealing home. JD Wilkes and Charlie Parr appeared in slots that dovetailed events on the main stage, both sharing a love for old time traditional American music with a leaning towards Country Blues. At these points, large crowds had assembled on the ‘slope’ to enjoy the rawer sound from the Kitchen stage along with the lavish surroundings of Moseley Park, an oasis in city centre suburbia. 

Closing the Kitchen Garden was out of town singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, a regular visitor to the Kings Heath venue and an artist with quite a lengthy back catalogue. She promised a huge dose of melancholy and didn’t disappoint. 

All that was left was a certain American songwriting legend and the climax of a brief but highly enjoyable dip into Moseley Folk and Arts Festival 2019. The future appears secure for this festival with a difference, and a pondering thought of who is on the horizon for 2020 starts to manifest. However ‘folk Sunday’ appears a lock in and following the stellar 2019 line up will be one hell of a tough task.