Sunday, 17 November 2019

GIG REVIEW: Bella Hardy - Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. Saturday 16th November 2019

2019 is an active yet reflective year for Bella Hardy. The acclaimed English folk singer-songwriter has been in a non-stop cycle of music making, tours, album releases and innovative projects for close on twenty years. Maybe the time to take stock, and reflect on a back catalogue of an album count nearly in double figures and a recording song catalogue pushing three figures. It is certainly prolific output for a artist only in their mid thirties While not ready to step away from the limelight, she has taken a carefully selected twenty five songs from the catalogue, added a couple of news ones, and delivered POSTCARDS & POCKETBOOKS: THE BEST OF BELLA HARDY. This is a gift to old fans in a neatly presented compendium, and new ones in a shortened showcase format. The only polite thing to do next is take these songs on the road to remind folks why she is such as compelling live performer as well.

Birmingham's MAC has been a regular host for Bella Hardy over the years and it proved the final stopping point for a short week long tour aimed to promote the new record, which was part of a merchandise package that also included a hardback bound collection of all her lyrics. For this tour, a trio format was assembled with Sam Carter on guitar and Tom Gibbs turning his hand to piano most of the time apart from a couple of songs when he played clarinet. Bella opened on harmonium before settling on violin as her instrument of choice, both plucked gently and played conventionally. However, she is just as comfortable when playing the sole vocalist role; an attribute that has brought her most fame.

After Sam Carter opened the show with a couple of his own songs, including a new one titled 'The Anvil', Bella and Tom joined for a full two-set performance where fifteen tracks off the new album were shared alongside countless stories of their origin. An essential ingredient of any folk gig.

If you approached this gig with little knowledge about the music of Bella Hardy, it will be a given that you would have left well-versed two hours after entering the theatre. Not only is she an excellent writer of original songs, she often seeks out traditional ones and twists outcomes and perspectives. This happened on at least three shared this evening: 'Seventh Girl', 'Good Man's Wife' and 'Silvie Sovay'. While on the topic of traditional music, we were treated to a song that has only made the setlist in the last few shows after being a studio track for several years when Bella rose to the challenge of reciting the many, many verses of 'The Drunken Butcher of Tideswell'.

On the original front, 'The Herring Girl', the most familiar Bella Hardy song, made an appearance in the early stages. It is imperative a folk gig enacts its first murder as quickly as possible. Surpisingly, on this occasion the gruesomeness markedly receded.

For an artist steeped in the English folk tradition, Bella Hardy has often drew on her overseas experience which has seen stints spent living in China and America, plus a trip to Japan when opening for Lau. The latter experience led to 'Full Moon Over Amsterdam' being born during a lengthy stopover in Schiphol airport. Surely a place where many a touring singer-songwriter has drawn on the waiting experience.

Her stateside adventures led to 'Queen of Carter's Bar' coming out of a co-writing venture in Nashville, a city that gets referenced in 'Tequilla Moon' that formed the encore segment of tonight's show. The West Coast forms the backdrop to 'Learning to Let Go'', which opened the set, while 'Time Wanders On', a song Bella wrote in Calgary with Canadian artist Cara Luft, was one of the picks from the first half.

Perhaps the two crowning moments of this show came in the second half, a point where the trio's performance and particularly Bella's vocals hit that zone of aligning perfectly with the listening experience. First up, 'Lament for Derwent' came across as sheer bliss as Bella contemplated a moment when this Derbyshire location, in fact her home county, could have been lost to an onset of land re-alignment in the water industry. By the time we were served the beauty of the pre-encore number, 'Walk It With You', any investment in attending this gig had been handsomely repaid many times over.

If the next twenty years are as productive for Bella Hardy as the period leading up to POSTCARDS & POCKETBOOKS, then fans new and old from the folk circuit and beyond will be in for a real treat. Just like those attending the MAC this evening.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

GIG REVIEW: The Remedy Club + Hope in High Water - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 11th November 2019

The Remedy Club
A quick check in the gig archives revealed it was only February and April last year when Hope in High Water and The Remedy Club respectively made their last visits to the Kitchen Garden. Maybe the crazy amount of gigs in the intervening period made these shows feel a lot longer ago. Roughly eighteen months since both duos last dropped into Kings Heath has seen developments move quickly to the point where one has a new album, and the other will not be too far behind on the evidence revealed during this appearance. This gig was part of a run of dates arranged in liaison with the Fish Records operation, key drivers in helping both acts get wider recognition around the UK.

With the pre-gig promotion seemingly evenly balanced, it could have been a toss up to who took centre stage, but it eventually panned out that Hope in High Water opened proceedings with an extended fifty-minute support set. This left The Remedy Club with around half an hour extra following the obligatory short interval to give folks a glimpse of what they are about.

A chunk of this extra time was given over to covers, but the Irish duo of Aileen Mythen and KJ McEvoy have a subtle and smart way interweaving the work of others into their set. Covering Lucinda Williams' 'Can't Let Go' followed a link of both artists working with producer Ray Kennedy, while it was only going to be appropriate to share a Hank song after The Remedy Club's own tribute to the effect of the great man in 'Listening to Hank Williams'. Celebrating the work of Elmore James reflected the duo's own blues-inspired past and who can knock an Irish act paying respect to Rory Gallagher.

Hope in High Water
While comparisons in set up were on the surface, you only had to dig a little deeper to uncover the contrasts. First up, Hope in High Water, the performing name for Josh and Carly, hail from Milton Keynes and are now in the phase of promoting their second full album release. BONFIRE & PINE is literally only days old, but like so many releases, it had been a long time in the run up between owning the songs and ultimately sharing them in a recorded format. Starting their set with the album opener 'Healed', they went on to play the title track, 'It's Over Now', 'Pray Away', 'Grenfell' and a few others during their allotted time slot. The penultimate one of this quartet has emerged as an early front runner in being the album pick, while the latter possesses an emotive strength to push forward the social commentary side of their writing. It is ironic that 'Grenfell' was released in the same week as another song about this tragedy, 'The Fire' written by Jamie Freeman and Ben Glover, gained an AMA UK song of the year nomination. Adversity does inspire important song writing and Hope in High Water's effort possesses equal credibility to the widely acclaimed other composition. 

Maintaining the contrast theme, Josh and Carly give their whole operation a greater roots sheen than their touring colleagues, to the extent where they dig quite deep for song inspiration. They represent a slightly introspective 'from the ground up approach', appropriate to the lifestyle they candidly share with live audiences. Every ounce of recognition received pays dividends for choices made and they are the epitome of a DIY stance to making music, plus a sign of a grass roots scene being in rude health.

The Remedy Club are a far more expansive duo. There is showbiz tinge to how they present their music, fired through Aileen's theatrical background that seeps into the way her vocals are projected. Likewise KJ's extrovert guitar skills pepper a series of songs resonating with serious hooks and more than a nod in the direction of popular appeal. These styles do manifest into creating an imaginative and memorable live show leaving those caught in their midst searching for a little more in the aftermath. This latest sortie across the Irish Sea sees the duo armed with some new songs that will form a new album release in the near future. One of the new songs has just been released as a single with 'True Hand-True Heart' invoking more than touch of invited audience participation. The true gem from the upcoming batch was 'Sweet Symphony', indicating that 2017's LOVERS, LEGENDS AND LOST CAUSES will be joined by a worthy follow up. However, this album may not be ready to give its mantle up yet as exemplified by fine performances of 'When Tom Waites Up' and 'Bottom of the Hill'.

Factors may deem that this evening's gig at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham quickly fades into the memory as both The Remedy Club and Hope in High Water strive for some some level of plateau their music warrants. Yet there was something true, organic and connective about a show that may only live on in the virtual world of this site. Diamonds in the dust come from unlikely places.

Bonfire & Pine available here