Saturday, 21 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Arkansas Dave - Sandwell Arts Cafe, West Bromwich. Friday 20th July 2018

Two weeks into their current UK tour and it was a case a finally catching some Arkansas Dave in a mode that best reflects a road band. A slight jolt from a late entry to the Maverick Festival a fortnight earlier swiftly ironed out and, as they entered the final furlong of this current trip, a drop off in the West Midlands presented an opportunity to see them away from the hustle and bustle of a fully blown festival line-up. This four-piece combo led by Dave Pennington lived up to reports, both from word of mouth and from published reviews, as they adapted well to surroundings not always conducive to live music.

This lunchtime performance in West Bromwich was the first of two shows during a one-day visit to the area. Both initiated by the Birmingham Jazz and Blues Festival; a celebration of genre driven music held for a 10 day period across multiple venues on an annual basis. The evening gig would present the band the opportunity to ramp up the volume, but this 50 minute midday set still possessed enough velocity to blow a hole across a venue that has had a somewhat checkered past.

Sandwell Arts Café may not be a well-known name across the West Midlands, but folks will remember the furor around the Public in West Bromwich town centre. This ill-fated arts venture with the striking structure may well have split opinion in its early days, but it is now reborn as an extension to the burgeoning Sandwell College, all while the layout to this industrial town has re-shaped. The open nature to the venue’s location within the building looked out onto the lunchtime shoppers, but full focus on the band offset any distraction.

In the past, open atrium-styled, performing spaces can struggle with live rock music. However, a low hanging roof over the stage helped compress the sound and few complaints could emerge that the band did not come across well. In the presence of around thirty or forty attentive folks for this free show, Dave remained on acoustic guitar, letting his lead accomplice Drew de France raise the heat with the rocking work. Bass and drums provided the usual solid framework as the band leapt forward with a raft of tracks from their current album mixed with a fine assortment of apt covers.

Before you ask, they do hail from Arkansas – Camden to be precise, a contrasting quip added to the repertoire after spending time in the somewhat different London version. Their style of blues is straight from the strand of Americana where this named style melds with country, gospel and any other roots-infused influence. Early on, Dave commented on Arkansas and its neighbouring states’ claim as the cradle of Americana, citing both Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash while covering classic songs of theirs.

Champagne & Reefer’ and ‘Get Rhythm’ were clearly identifiable numbers added to the set celebrating the impact of the Southern greats on music active today. From the self-titled debut Arkansas Dave album released earlier this year, ‘Bad Water’, the Tom Waites tune ‘Chocolate Jesus’ and ‘On My Way’ led the way, with the latter closing the set with everybody in humming mode.

A little post-gig research revealed that the band have visited the area before with a Birmingham show in July 2017. There has been slightly more press about them on this trip and hopefully momentum can build to a return in the future where they get a fully-fledged gig that’s promoted in conjunction with their pure Americana attributes, which clearly frame this brand of blues rock.

As the band headed north to perform at the more acclaimed and focused SummerTyne Festival on the final leg of the tour, small but significant memories formed of the time lunchtime gig goers ventured down to West Bromwich town centre to sample a slice of real deal Southern USA.  Live music operates in mysterious ways and the world is healthier for it.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: The Barr Brothers - The Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 16th July 2018

The Barr Brothers are a band operating out of Montreal Canada that has caught the ear of those integral to scheduling artists for the Moseley Folk Festival and a variety of accompanying gigs. Therefore, with Birmingham on their horizon it was of no surprise to see them return to the city with the Glee Club providing the host venue this time. There has been a buzz about this band for quite a while so when a late window of opportunity presented itself some first-hand thoughts spawned into the mix.

Clearly fronted predominately by Brad on guitars/vocals and Andy bringing percussion more to the fore, the Barr siblings were in a fixated mood to transmit their style of alt-rock-beat infused music, which in turn abrades the outer edges of Americana. Aided by the perpetual tones of haunting pedal steel as far away from country twang as you could imagine, and a bassist adept at switching between the stand-up and electric versions, this was a full-on presentation extolling the virtues of amassing an abundance of nuances into a raft of landscape forming tunes.

For around the habitual hour and half slot, a scene of minimal chat and non-existent song introduction established early on and it was a case of quickly buying into the band’s insularity. Any vague knowledge of The Barr Brothers prior to the gig was likely to remain intact at the end, yet there was something intoxicating about submerging into a swirling atmosphere of technical and experimental virtuosity. The softly delivered vocals of Brad often joined in unison with a variety of harmony formats and this blended well with the regular vibes, while juxtaposing when the tempo shifted. Think the Milk Carton Kids meet Arcade Fire and you will be getting warmer.

An assembly around a separate illuminated single mic for a couple of acoustic tracks instilled an air of placidity and an edge of versatility to quell the fire with a touch of folk. The core quartet systematically tapped into the airs of English harpist Emma Gatrill to add a finesse touch. She, and guitarist Marcus Hamblett, opened the evening in the support slot, and crowned the eclectic nature when joining the band armed with trumpet and clarinet for a number in the closing stages. The floating vocals of Emma hovered in an inviting manner during her spot in the limelight, clearly appetising for those with the inclination to chase.

Post gig summation cornered on a view that an element of maneuvering was required to grasp the mantle of this gig. Thoughts of The Barr Brothers peaking from a personal standpoint in a festival setting dispersed when the first inkling towards when the set would end only emerged when they announced that this would be their final song. The preceding eighty minutes did constantly engage the mind in the conundrum activity of detecting the depth to this indisputable tech feast and the degree it penetrated the soul. There is an obvious attraction to deep-rooted musical aficionados. Also for folks who take a progressive viewpoint on where straight up rock music can deviate. It was a fascinating, insightful and respectful evening engaging with The Barr Brothers. Maybe a vessel to jump off post gig, nevertheless a worthwhile sidestep away from the norm.

Monday, 9 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Maverick Festival in Twenty Songs - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th July 2018

One thing that unites all Maverick artist invitees is an acute capacity to write or interpret a meaningful song. Dependent on preferred style, these strip back to acoustic mode or frequently acquire layers of instrumentation to present lavishly. Dawes famously implied that underneath all the content, mere folk songs reside. So as the Maverick Festival moved into its second decade of existence, why not tell a story of the weekend through a prism of twenty songs that reverberated around the confines of Easton Farm Park.

For once, the Suffolk weather for Maverick weekend was widely shared across the UK as the great heatwave of 2018 rolled on. The contrasting improvised performing locations on the site benefited both sun and shade seekers alike. Maybe our guests from down under and the sultry southern states wore a wry grin while performing, but you cannot deny us our precious time in the sun. Weather aside, and the perception of ‘names’, the music on display cut a fine tune and showed why our often indescribable sounds flourish positively away from the distant hype of the populist masses.

Inevitably, anybody attending the festival is going to form their own memories. Omissions from this list are unscientific, just a case of practical realism. From a primary prospective, the ears pricked with some resemblance of relevance and identification before each song hurriedly slipped into the mental briefcase. The wonderful worldwide web comes to life in the aftermath, but that may sometimes not be enough. So applying the business phrase of ‘errors and omissions excepted’, here in near random order are the songs that defined my Maverick 2018.

Danny and the Champions of the World inspired many in the Barn late on Saturday evening with the delightfully optimistic ‘Never Stop Building (That Old Space Rocket)’. You cannot beat a wave of idealism, especially when delivered by the ‘best live band in Britain’. Giving their ‘greatest ever performance’, just like Swindon the evening before, sometimes you can search for top headliners across the Americana landscape and realise they are just under your nose. Spending most of the time on electric guitar, Danny was clearly up for a good rocking time with the full Champs line up. This headline set saw the latest honorary Champ grab a piece of the action with Hannah Rose Platt joining Danny on stage for an acoustic duet of 'Don't Walk Away'. Good, but still in the slipstream of the 'rocket'.

There is not an endless supply of cover songs emanating from the Maverick stages across the weekend, apart from the occasional tribute collaborations that pop up. One exception on the outdoor Southern Sounds stage on Saturday lunchtime was a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ delivered by Nottingham based outfit The Most Ugly Child. Who can resist a number from an iconic artist who wrote the song junkies anthem ‘For the Sake of the Song’. The band spearheaded by Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison were in rip roaring honky tonk form all set and proved a timely reminder why their latest album COPPER & LACE met with so much press approval when released early last year. A wise and sound choice to allow folks to bask in the sunshine to some good music. 

A promise that this will be the last weather mention, but the pull of including ‘Rain in the Rock’ by The Danberrys was too good to resist for irony alone. On the back of missing their Birmingham gig the night before, every effort was made to catch Dorothy and Ben’s set. You had to be a festival early arrival to see them as they were the second band in the Barn on Friday teatime, but the half hour of smashing roots music the pair delivered made it a worthwhile time investment. The Danberrys have played Maverick before and a growing association with the UK from this Nashville based duo will probably see them return again in the future. The song is taken from their 2013 self-titled album and they are definitely worth seeking out when they tour our shores again. 

The next song comes from the first of two Scottish singer-songwriters who made the long trek south to play the ‘In the Round’ presentation on the Friday evening. This was arranged by the AMA UK and in fact, the second invitation extended to Steve Grozier to play one of their events this year. Steve showed his growing pedigree, with the song ‘Porcelain Hearts’, from a previous record that complemented his most recent EP titled A PLACE WE CALLED HOME being the selection here. He was also one of many artists to play a session song or two in Leader’s Live Lounge, which will air on Meridian FM over the coming weeks. This is fast becoming an extended essential feature to keep the festival flame burning as we head deeper into July. Many Maverick artists value this enhanced exposure. 

Roseanne Reid joined Steve for the Songwriters in the Round slot with Jeffrey Martin and followed a similar route with the ensuing radio session too. Recommendations for Roseanne’s music are starting to come thick and fast. The backstory will quickly unveil, but there is a unique way in which she exhales her songs that makes a distinct impression. Expect things to move rapidly when the Teddy Thompson-produced debut album gets out and maybe the chosen song here, ‘Kingdom Come’, will make an appearance. Maverick may well have been at the early stages of something special. Either way, Roseanne came across as a respectful unassuming character ready to build an organic career and share a passion for her love of writing songs. What the festival is all about. 

We will stay on the Peacock stage, and the site of the songwriter’s event for a song that hails from the traditional pool. Bonnie Bishop was one of the most eagerly anticipated artists when the line-up was revealed and she did not disappoint across her two festival appearances on a fleeting twenty-four hour visit to the UK. Bonnie performed a magnificent version of ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’ in the collaborative slot before going on to impress further with a fuller length set later in the Barn. She promised to return to the UK in the autumn and eyes will be peeled for these dates. There were no surprises from Bonnie Bishop. Just confirmation that she is an immensely talented artist heading on the right path. One adept at spinning the styles of folk, roots, soul and blues in a country song writing direction. 

Back outside and a band that opened up the proceedings on Saturday morning. Luke Tuchscherer brought his band the Penny Dreadfuls to Maverick and ensured there was going to be no gentle easing in to the day’s music. Luke has recently released his latest album PIECES, a self-admitted confession to return in some part to his rockier days with the Whybirds. The song chosen for this review is ‘Sudden Getaway’ from the new record. Although this was a loud-ish start to the day (Terra Lighfoot raised the decibels on this stage later), the new material blended in well with the older songs, with perhaps the sound moderated a little. A successful way to rid any Friday night excesses. This was a working trip back to the UK for Luke from his new home in the US and I am pretty sure he will continue to remain in touch on a professional level. 

As we approach the half way mark of these twenty songs, let us head down under for three artists making it an Aussie Maverick. Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes led the contingent with a return to the festival after proving a huge success in 2017. This time his appearances stretched the breadth of the event, including multiple slots and collaborations with his compatriots. The chosen song had to be ‘I Hope That I’m Wrong’ from the new album SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC, containing the most stunning line to open a track this year, easily surmounting to Isbell proportions. Check it out and the other work of Lachlan Bryan as well. My voice is not alone. Probably the artist that epitomises the spirit of Maverick the most from the 2018 alumni. 

Joining Lachlan on this trip is Imogen Clark who on the surface represents a slightly different strand of roots music. There is an element of leaning towards country pop territory in terms of style and content, but this is done in a controlled way that represents her youthful outlook and breezy persona. The pick from her songs is ‘High Tide’ taken from a solo set on Saturday tea time in the Barn and can also be found on her recent album COLLIDE. Imogen’s extended influence came in the form of a cover of Linda Rondstadt’s ‘You’re No Good’ finding its way into the Aussie farewell extravaganza held on the Moonshine stage on Sunday lunchtime. The talent from Imogen was indisputable and the avenues her vocals went down suggested an artist capable of many things in a bright future. 

Husband and wife duo The Weeping Willows completed the Aussie trio for Maverick 2018. Consisting of Andy Wrigglesworth on multiple guitars and Laura Coates on vocals, they really came to prominence on Sunday morning via mini sets in Leader’s Live Lounge and the pop up Travelling Medicine Show stage alongside appearing with Imogen and Lachlan at the Aussie finale. Their folk and roots style with a solid old time bluegrass feel resonated highly and from a short array of songs repeatedly heard on Sunday, the yet to be recorded ‘House of Sin’ made the cut here. Before we bid farewell to our friends from down under, a quick shout out to bassist Shaun Ryan from the Wildes making it an excellent quintet for this trip.  Fingers crossed that all three acts can return to the UK at some point in the future. 

Ten songs down; ten to go. A time to take a breather and reflect on selected artists not to make this cut. Sets by Dylan Earl, Southern Avenue, the Dan Webster Band and Terra Lightfoot were dipped into, as was the BJ Cole Hawaiian pedal steel exhibition on Saturday afternoon. Artists such as Arkansas Dave and Amelia White will no doubt have their day. All Maverick artists ascend to a special status and make the event a success. Not forgetting the fabulous setting and the amenable inhabitants of Easton Farm Park.

Back to the songs and an artist who has serious praise surrounding me from every angle. Hans Chew had forty minutes in the Barn on Saturday evening, so decided only a couple of his lengthy songs/musical pieces will suffice. It was easy to see where this praise came from as a mesmeric presentation of experimental music came to the fore. Different, but a true maverick. Sources told me the the first song was ‘Open Sea’ from his latest album so that is the selection nailed. Hans decided that major electric guitar and minor keyboard work was going to be the format for the Barn. Literally minutes from completing this set, he hopped over to the conventional piano in the Moonshine and the party continued. Hans Chew had arrived at Maverick and more personally bang into my sphere. 

Country music at Maverick is usually there in spirit only, so it was time this morphed into an earthly form. At last Ags Connolly had an invite and hopefully, the three-song segment as part of the AMA UK Songwriters in the Round is a blueprint for a return, this time on the main bill. ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’ is a trademark Ags song and would make many song cuts, not just this brief sortie around a festival weekend. In the burgeoning UK ‘country’ scene, Ags Connolly is a true maverick, so it is about time that the link is made. The set with Bonnie Bishop and Robbie Cavanagh was the pick of the songwriter part. They interacted well and used the full extent of the forty-five minute slot to share common bonds found in their different styles. 


Circumstances on the day dictated that attention might have been elsewhere when Curse of Lono took to the outside stage at 4 o’clock on Saturday Those electing to choose the music were treated to another impressive performance from a band quickly escalating the ladder of live accomplishment. The highlight of this set came towards the latter stages when equally good news spread around the site. ‘Pick up the Pieces’ is a lively focal track for a band driven through the keys and making a comfy home in the Americana context that zooms in on their form of alternate rock. A good choice to return to the festival after last year’s guest AMA UK slot. 

Joining Curse of Lono on the outdoor stage was another band getting an extended invite to return to the festival after showcasing the year before. The Grande made the trip from Liverpool and gave a solid display of tightknit alt-country rock that feasts profitably in any decent festival setting. The song ‘Open Heart’ came across as a decent number deserving of a warranted mention. Post festival research identified it as an old song from a 2011 album, but there is more recent material to check out this band. They are the type of act that thrives on the Saturday afternoon at Maverick where those hunkering down on the Green tend to get fuller sounding performances than what tends to drift around the festival from the other locations. 

Let us flip back from Saturday lunchtime to Friday teatime and a performance from Jonathan Byrd that set the tone for any weekend interaction. This accomplished country folk artist from Chapel Hill North Carolina is a perennial tourer to the UK and packs venues up and down the land. It may have been his first visit to Maverick, but this firm favourite at folk festivals got the pulse running with an a Capella performance of ‘Poor Johnny’. Aided by his talented sidekick Johnny Waken, who improvises with your bog standard diy saw, in a musical way mind you, their duo act is once seen never forgotten. If you have not seen Jonathan Byrd before, he is well worth checking out. He seems to tour every other year or so and a good time is guaranteed. Folks at Maverick can now concur. 

There will be plenty of new converts to the Jeffrey Martin fan club after his multiple performances across the weekend. This was a singer-songwriter metaphorically and literally sweating out his songs. We get spoilt with artists like these getting persuaded to share their innate talent with British audiences. After seeing Jeffrey play a couple of sets, there was a late change to the song pick with ‘The Middle’ standing out from his final stage spot as the curtain was being drawn on another successful festival. The theme of this song with the ‘middle’ being a good place to be is poignant, especially if you can define your own middle.  Apart from his songwriter's set, all Jeffrey's performances were in conjunction with his touring companion Anna Tivel.

Like her touring partner, Anna also hails from Portland Oregon, an increasingly fertile part of the US for creative artisans. There may well have been contrasting elements to their vocal style and song delivery but both artists are diligently immersed into the sanctity of the song. Anna adds fiddle to her repertoire with it casting a velvet cloak over her softly spun songs. An emotive piece inspired by her father making a recovery from an unusual health affliction moved into the song selection spot with ‘The Lines and the Tide’ available for all to enjoy on her 2016 record HEROES WAKING UP. Maverick folks enjoyed what others had witnessed across Anna’s tour and fingers are crossed that this can be expanded to other parts of the country when she returns in the future. 

Maverick is ideal for discovering new artists or at least checking out briefly known ones in a live setting. Midlands based transatlantic duo A Different Thread made an inaugural trip to this Suffolk gathering and grasped the opportunity to share a bunch of tunes across three different platforms. The Leader’s Live Lounge session and a short performance on the Travelling Medicine Show stage were the added bonus to playing a fuller set in the Barn on Saturday afternoon. A new song written by co-member Alicia Best (fiddle/percussion/vocals) called ‘The Potters Field’ emerged as the pick and represented all that is intriguing and fascinating when Americana saunters into the world of mysterious folk music. Robert Jackson unites with Alicia to rally around the duo format excelling on guitar and harmonica.

The Goat Roper Rodeo Band had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday afternoon, and an energetic set of acoustic driven old time tonk music sent everybody home in a celebratory dancing mood. This Welsh trio also had an equal honour of opening the Barn stage on Friday late afternoon so it was a double celebration for a band returning to Maverick after a few years widening their live presence elsewhere on the UK summer circuit. Interestingly, the song that struck a chord was one of the fewer slow numbers in ‘Don’t Believe in You’, which was ironic listening to just as about to depart a festival that you have believed in since first making the long trek down to Suffolk nine years ago. Amidst the Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans booked to play, there will always remain a core of homegrown talent. 

This song-focussed review began with a personal festival highlight and concludes with a performance that deserved equal billing. Advance warning that the Cordovas were good proved an accurate assessment as they played a scorching headline slot on the outdoors Southern Sounds stage. A blistering set blew away the Easton Farm Park dust leading the pigs behind the stage to rouse from their slumber into some frenetic activity. This was exhibitionist country rock at its finest dealt by a band deciding that forty five minutes requires no talking just a relentless flow of fine music. The song choice finally rests on ‘Southern Rain’, partially distinguished by its recognisable chorus. In fact, any of the tunes could be picked as it was a set to remember and living proof that ‘known names’ are not necessarily the sole route when putting together a successful festival line-up.

Cambridge may have Americana pedigree in 2018, while Black Deer and Long Road start up with a bigger budget, but can they eclipse the subtlety and romance of a festival defying the odds on many fronts. Eleven years is a feat in itself for an operation that evolves slowly and courts a loyal following. A firm fixture that would be missed if it floated away is a sound enough reason to plough on and provide a valuable platform for like-minded fans to mix freely with like-minded artists. Maverick is about the music, the artists, the fans, the ambience and... oh yes the song. 

Friday, 29 June 2018

ALBUM REVEIW : Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes - Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music. Self-released

If first impressions carry a large weighting then Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes set off on the right footing. Parading their wares on the outside stage at last year’s Maverick Festival proved an instant hit with many folks and the scene was set to make serious inroads into the UK country and Americana community. It can sometimes be perplexing assessing a non-US act taking inspiration from a land many thousands of miles from home, but this does not preclude a successful re-enactment especially with any pseudo content banished. Further proof of Lachlan Bryan’s impressive tilt into the genre lavishly displays right across his new album, strikingly titled SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC.

The relevance of this artist hailing from Australia is one that you can choose to apply or not, although characters and surroundings from his homeland play a significant part in the record. The secret to this release, his fourth since commencing recording under this name in 2009, is the honest and straightforward way he goes about tackling the song subjects. To provide some content to the style adopted, think more along the singer-songwriter route with a slice of fiddle and steel casually added to spice up the array of ballads. The song writing makes you sit up right from the off with the high impact line ‘women, do what you must, cos there ain’t a man in this world you can trust’ that leads you into ’I Hope That I’m Wrong’. From that moment, you are caught in the web of a writer with plenty of sense to contribute to a progressive agenda.

Throughout the twelve song-fifty one minute playing time, there is plenty of engaging content to absorb. Like many of the better records currently around, this album is not designed for the quickly discarded pile. Interesting snippets and facets will continue to emerge after endless plays, though listening will never sink into a chore as an affable façade is painted to the vocals and soundtrack.

To place the album on safe ground, tracks one to seven barely have the width of a song sheet between them when deciphering potential stand out candidates. In line with the thought-provoking title and cover photographs that throw up a million potential story angles, two of the opening half a dozen songs roll out as duets with female singers Shanley Dell and Lindi Ortega. The former leads off on ‘The Basics of Love’ a song with more than a casual reference to the Waylon Jennings classic ‘Luckenbach Texas’. The more familiar Lindi, to fans in the UK anyhow, helps on ‘Don’t You Take it Too Bad’ as we delve deeper into traditional country music territory. This style is replicated in 'It Tears Me Up (Every Time You  Turn Me Down)' with added fiddle making an appearance.

Piano ballads frequently pop up across the record as evidenced by ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ in the early stages and ‘Someone You Know So Well’ at the end. ‘Careless Hearts’ possesses the strongest chorus hook, while if you fancy a little waltz ‘Stolen Again’ will oblige. The key story telling song on the album appears in the #2 slot with the starkly titled ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man’; a song that you will probably go back to a few times to grasp. In the midst of this song, the album title appears as a lyric to shed some light on possible meanings.

Elsewhere ‘In New York’ is a descriptively inspired experience piece complete with the obligatory guitar solo. This heads a trio of tracks in the final throes of the album including the quietly mindful ‘Peace in the Valley’ and a dose of personally injected twang into ‘The Cemetery Near My Home Town’.

There are times when listening to Lachlan Bryan reminds me of Cale Tyson, with the stripped out southern twang of course. Such association scores high in my book and SOME GIRLS (QUITE) LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC is a most welcome entry to the music collection. 2018 sees Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes return to the UK for a run of shows including a re-appearance at the Maverick Festival. No newbie surprises are expected this time, just an accomplished set from a top rate artist bringing an impressive batch of new songs to the party. Good stuff is heard and felt in this album and fundamentally that is all that matters when connecting an artist to a listener. 


Wednesday, 27 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Lucy Ward - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 26th June 2018

It has been a contrasting couple of days at the Kitchen Garden. On the rebound from a two-night sold out ‘residency’ by Beth Nielsen Chapman it was normal service resumed as Lucy Ward bounded back into Birmingham to stoke up some fire and fury in folk fans. It is a credit to the venue that such diverse nights can be successfully staged. Some may say – tongue in cheek – that this night reflected the soul of the venue, but the gig platform is a spacious zone. This zone is vibrantly consumed when Lucy Ward sparks a feisty passion and exudes an offbeat enthusiasm. This is folk music in its purest form, give or take the frequent strum of the guitar and ukulele or the odd squeeze of the concertina. As linear, controlled and structured the two previous evenings were, tonight was a return to the maverick ramblings of a left field performer purveying hypnotic powers to lure her audience into a wonderful world of traditional fantasy and gritty political resistance.

Starting with an ode to social injustice via a version of ‘The Trapper and the Furrier’ to ending with the most moving of war futility songs in ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, it is impossible not to join the fight, in a passive sense mind you.  As good as Eric Bogle’s song is, Lucy herself has matched the sentiment with her own stunning classic ‘Lion’. If she never writes another song again (for illustrative purposes only) this has the power and credence to live as long as the futility of war itself. Despite listening to this song on countless occasions, the opening line of ‘Tear the white linen from his sheet lad/ He won’t be sleeping in this bed tonight’ hit  hardest tonight.

Since last seeing Lucy play live at the Jinney Ring Folk Festival in 2016 a lot has happened in the world. Probably, more so for Lucy with the birth of her first child, and subsequently the inspiration for song writing on a more personal and sensitive level. The most recent development has been the release of her fourth album PRETTY WARNINGS. More temperate songs such as ‘Sunshine Child’ and ‘The Sweetest Flowers’ are now added to her catalogue and were shared with the audience tonight. Other newbies on the agenda included the philosophical ‘Cold Caller’ and a soon to be crowd favourite singalong ‘Lazy Day’. Another new addition to the set list from previous shows is a cover of Bowie’s ‘Drive In Saturday’, introduced from the angle that you cannot completely serenade a toddler with songs about death and murder.

As intimated previously, politics (of the correct persuasion) plays a large part in Lucy’s outlook and she is always open to a frank exchange of ideas. Her song ‘Bigger Than That’, with its dig at the ‘I’m alright Jack’ generation has put her on the map and its raucous delivery this evening re-enforced the message.

On an alternative songwriting front, an unreleased song titled ‘The Quickening Clock’ made an appearance and had its origin of being a commissioned piece for an Open University sustainability project explained. As ever with Lucy’s work, it looks at some of life's critical issues from the most acute of angles.

Just a brief mention of three other familiar tracks added to the main sets. ‘Alice in the Bacon Box’ opened the second half just as everybody returned from a breath of fresh air on a warm and humid evening in the middle of the current, and rare, British heatwave. ‘King Willie’ saw Lucy in vibrant form hammering out the traditional, while ‘Creatures and Demons’ is one of the best tracks from her 2015 album I DREAMT I WAS A BIRD.

Opening up the show on the evening was a splendid half hour slot of a Capella vocal harmony from the local casual quintet Women in Folk, featuring Kitchen Garden regular Katy Bennett. A diverse selection of songs ranging from familiar pieces such as ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ were mixed with an obscure Hawaiian song and one sung in Georgian. This obviously inspired the watching Lucy, who invited two of the group on stage for the encore to join her in a version of ‘John Ball’.

The work of Lucy Ward continues to make her one of the most engaging and rewarding performers on the UK folk circuit. Tuning in is required, but art is far more satisfying and long lasting when the listener has to invest a little. Long may the fire burn in her songs, outlook and quirky stage demeanor. A long road lies ahead and certain music has a strong part to play. 

www.lucywardsings.com

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Beth Nielsen Chapman - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 25th June 2018

The creaking wooden staircase, stone floor and bricked interior of the Kitchen Garden have witnessed a seemingly lifetime of musicians share their craft over the years. Many nationalities have brought a variety of music styles, all tightly bound by a vision to connect with an audience on the most intimate levels of interaction. Throughout this period, a soul has formed and a special bond has adhered between those laying their money down and those accruing the crumbs. The venue has become a triumph of content over message, a refreshing state of play in these superficial times. However, when Beth Nielsen Chapman anoints it as the “Bluebird Café of the UK”, then maybe it is time the message had at least a day in the sun.

To say that this two-night sold out stint by one of Nashville’s most revered songwriters moved the goalpost of the Kitchen Garden is an understatement. A change in dynamics was the order of the evening as a dedicated audience filed in to experience a Beth Nielsen Chapman show in a totally new format. The perfect platform for candidness discarded the shackles of a theatre set up, and an artist with a vivid story to tell sparked to the occasion.

When the term ‘An Evening with..’ is added to the bill, the blueprint need look no further to what rolled out between 8:15 and 11:00 tonight. Take out the ubiquitous twenty-minute break, and being short-changed was nowhere to be seen. Whether you wanted a bucketful of songs stripped back to their unfiltered origin or warm chat that breezed across a sultry evening, the menu was extensive and lavish. Even the most informed Beth Nielsen Chapman fan would have been hard pushed not to discover at least some aspect of a new nugget from this absolute baring of the soul.

To what extent she dips into these extensive autobiographical moments is unclear. Yet she thrived, projected rays of satisfaction and positively feasted from the loving surroundings. The visual enhancement of a projected slideshow added a personal touch. The lengthy chat, which was always going to prevail, was interspersed by songs played from the piano and the guitar. This was not a time for a band or even duo accompaniment; it was about one songwriter expressly displaying why their creative flow has capitalised in the cutthroat world of commercial entertainment.

Only recently, the excellent radio show Leader’s American Pie broadcast an hour-long interview where Beth delved deeply into the song writing process. Facets of this appeared during the evening especially towards the end when a Q & A segment further fueled the adrenalin. The bulk of the night probably lent more towards the sentiment rather than the technical. The backstory of loss, illness, recovery and triumph over adversity holds more sway in the paid environment.

A fascinating insight to the evening was piecing together the traits to why Beth Nielsen Chapman has succeeded in a world where similarly talented artists fall by the wayside. Obviously, an enormous wealth of innate song writing skill is in place, but many know that this is not necessarily the sole guiding light. The high degree of professionalism and a strong ability to communicate shone through. You can assume that there were few open doors left unexplored as exemplified by the diverse amount of projects diligently presented during the show. When the hits dried up, these projects assumed momentum.

The format of this show was chronologically linear, which can sometimes be in contrast to the random nature that often spontaneously radiates from an artist. The presentation was in line with a measured and calculated approach that is suggestively deduced from up front observations. None of these assertions cast any shade on the aura that surrounded Beth Nielsen Chapman and that you were not in the presence of a performer taking the meaning of ‘acclaimed’ and ‘respected’ to its intended level.

This evening was not about any surprises in the musical content. All the usual suspects were there from the country music cuts to the Radio 2 favourites. For somebody of such a high profile, the narrative is largely known as well. What defined this show was the adaptation to the surroundings and the perceived switch in dynamics. All coupled with the stark exposition of what a fine songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman is, with all the components neatly packaged for display.

Inevitably, the Kitchen Garden will re-discover itself and Beth Nielsen Chapman will continue on a journey, now well past hall of fame status. For two nights only, the world order was reversed and it was fascinating to experience it. A little shake up is refreshing and shows like this create an indent in the mind. You can only surmise to how venue and artist will recall this show, but the UK’s answer to the Bluebird Café is not a bad start.


Monday, 25 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Beardy Folk Festival (Saturday Only) - Hopton Wafers, Shropshire. Saturday 23rd June 2018

From small acorns, the saying goes, but playing a small part at the outset of what could prove a fruitful journey is a decent place to be. Hopton Wafers is a sleepy location on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border and now can add the location of the Beardy Folk Festival to its claim to fame. A gently sloping walled garden rectangular amphitheatre provides the natural landscape to house a smart diversity of UK acts representing a broad range of folk music styles. Whether the organisers have opted for a touch of irony, or an attempt at stereotypical reclamation in naming their operation, tapping into a winning formula suggests that more has gone right than wrong in treading the tricky waters of festival promotion.

The caveat to such an analysis stems from only attending the Saturday of this three-day event, but adopting a ‘speak as you find’ approach reaches a favourable conclusion. A slick operation presented nearly twelve hours of continuous music from thirteen scheduled performers. This was utilised from a slightly elevated main stage at the base of the arena and a small acoustic stage sensibly located within the beer tent. A gorgeous June day did not present a test of the British summer frailties, allowing a concentrated full focus on the music – give or take the odd break for refreshments of the body and mind. The artists featuring on the Saturday ranged from the very familiar to the soon to become familiar, albeit from a highly personal perspective. Prospective styles included finely tuned interpretations of both Scottish and English folk rock, a bi-partisan approach to the traditional and contemporary outlook, and a transatlantic nod to the realms of alt-country and bluegrass. All artists were bound by integrity and a desire to perfect their chosen craft.

Jaywalkers
The very familiar came in the guise of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood making a twenty- mile trek from the edge of the West Midlands. Kim has been watched in a host of local venues over the last few years and now a festival main stage can be added to the list. There was an element of equality in the presentation of all main stage acts getting an hour-long set, so none of this thirty to forty minute lunchtime slots to make way for the headliner egos. Kim used her time to highlight a fair spread of recorded material and a selection of songs saved solely for the stage. Song accompaniment included the trademark Appalachian mountain dulcimer, more recent leaning to the acoustic guitar and the ever-impressive vocal solo. Set peak choices came from ‘The Littlest Birds’, ‘Bold Riley’, ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’...- ok no need to name every song! They’re all good. Kim was the only artist to be afforded slots on both stages, and used her half hour set in the beer tent to strip back a different set of songs and test a couple of new ones out on the audience. Interestingly, these were both delivered from the acoustic guitar and saw her writing take a socially conscious path. No doubt, more will surface on the extent of this direction in good time.

From the highly familiar to the totally new (to me anyhow) and a few thoughts on the Joshua Burnell performance as the increasingly powerful sun beat down on the lunchtime drinkers. Assisted by a six-piece full backing band and taking more than a leaf out of the sixties/seventies folk rock pioneers  blueprint, Joshua served up an impressive selection of mainly traditional tunes. A striking look blended in well with the blissful tones of the Hammond organ in full flow, and a set to linger long in the memory unraveled. An enthusiastic and innovative fan base fanned the flames long after the set finished and ensured that this artist made the largest leap on the day from the unknown.

Joshua Burnell Band
Back to the familiar and a first opportunity to catch UK alt-country rockers Orphan Colours live since giving their debut album a glowing review earlier in the year. A six-strong combo led by Steve Llewelyn and Dave Burn, previously from acclaimed band ahab, powered through a riveting set as the sun finally began to sink and injected a major degree of energy into the event at an opportune moment. Sporadic sax akin to the E-Street band in full flow mixed with the widely used three part harmonies as a barrage of impressive songs such as ‘Goodnight California’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Start of Something’ successfully made the journey from the record to stage.

The biggest surprise on the day was north-west based folk and bluegrass band Jaywalkers springing from a known name not heard to the architects of a set that fought ferociously to be considered the best of the day. They contributed to the moment when the entire chill out vibes were in place. The trio of Mike (mandolin), Lucy (upright bass) and Jay (fiddle) played a sublime mix of old time inspired tunes interspersed with notable originals and a few diverse covers including giving ‘Big River’ and ‘Tainted Love’ a bluegrass makeover. No longer do this band remain just a name on a listings page; the perfect example of good music finding the right ear over time.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood
You can now detect the rotating nature to this review as we switch focus to the Saturday headliners Skerryvore with an air of recent familiarity. This Scottish folk rock band with a fervent outlook have been operating for well over a decade outside my periphery, but this changed when challenged to review their latest album EVO. Having bought in to an exceedingly good array of heady folk rock anthems and feisty fiddle, pipe and whistle tunes, an early opportunity to catch their high-octane live show was relished. The only blip to the smooth running of the main stage saw a fifteen minute delay to the band strutting their stuff, but to be fair sound checking an eight-piece band in a limited time is a challenge. Nobody cared that it was 10:45 when they bound onto stage. Thus illuminating an arena that had been generally passive all day soaking up the good music alongside the rays. Afforded not a minute more than Urban Folk Quartet almost eleven hours ago, the guys wasted little time in delivering a pulsating interactive set, spearheaded by the pair of striking anthems leading the way off the new album in ‘Live Forever’ and ‘At The End of the Line’. Skerryvore delivered without dispute what it says on their tin and everything about the way they concluded the day was first class.

Skerryvore
A quick jump back to a name new off the page on the Beardy Folk line up and the performance of Sinnober on the acoustic stage just as another pint of the local Hobsons brew beckoned. However, you did not need a drink to appreciate this duo that travelled up from Frome in Somerset to play a neatly packaged bunch of original songs decked out in a contemporary lilt. What marked out this pairing of Sebastian and Natalie Brice on acoustic and electric bass guitar respectively was the highly crafted nature to their songs, strongly rinsed in an air of instant familiarity. In contrast, they were an absolute new name to me and the epitome to how the off-piste locations at a festival can often lead to a fruitful discovery. A new album is in the works and it is certainly something to check out in the future.

The previously mentioned Urban Folk Quartet kicked off the Saturday programme on the mainstage as the clock struck noon. They were unfamiliar to the extent that I have never seen them live or heard their music before, but one quarter of this musical alliance is the very familiar Dan Walsh, seen, heard and reviewed on numerous occasions. This was no meek introduction to the day, as these four noted musicians know how to work a festival crowd and spill out a spritely set of instrumentally fueled folk and roots music. Banjo, fiddle, mandolin and other assorted stringed instruments dominated here and set the agenda for a continual streak right through the day.

A conundrum exists whether to place Richard Digance in the familiar or unfamiliar category. The latter prevailed based on not previously seeing this veteran entertainer play a festival set. The mid-afternoon slot proved ideal, as a placid audience were content to just sit back and enjoy various shades of humour alongside a selection of instantly appealing songs. Anecdotes, quips and poignant reflection liberally interspersed the music as this specifically generation-focussed set held its own among the more progressive and youthful elements. Yet Richard Digance has a story to tell, takes pride in a lifelong love for folk music and smoothly created yet another distinctive mark on a festival.

Orphan Colours
Inevitably, moments arise during a twelve-hour festival day when normality takes hold and the mind needs re-energising. While a breather was had, the crime of casually watching Jim Moray perform from a distance led to not getting the best out of the performance. Having seen him play on numerous occasions, the music is best enjoyed in an absorbing state, but it was a case of next time, which you know with Jim Moray, would not be too long. Eric Sedge has been touring with Richard Digance, and his acoustic stage set got a hefty recommendation from his colleague. Casually dipping into it revealed a highly capable singer-songwriter. Likewise, duo Fly Yeti Fly held your attention for a brief stint in the shade without any plugging and particularly caught the ear with an engaging story of a mermaid and merman. It would not be a folk festival without at least one! Johnny Walters and the Savoy and Tom Malachowski completed the acoustic stage offering, but a little socialising and some fine food won the moment during their appearances.

Obviously, a perception of success can only be expressed from an outsider’s viewpoint without any insight to the books. Hopefully, Beardy Folk can achieve a renewal in future years and continue to grow an audience to ensure a healthy balance exists between customer experience and event viability. The summer festival scene is a crowded place, but get it right and success will come. Long may this corner of the Midlands countryside be a staging post for that fascinating joy of exploring the familiar and unfamiliar in a serenely located multi-artist gathering.