Wednesday, 4 December 2019

GIG REVIEW: The Small Glories - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 3rd December 2019

Cara Luft has built a loyal UK fan network, following the many tours she had undertaken over the years. On one of her several visits to Birmingham a few years back she introduced a new touring partner in the guise of fellow Canadian JD Edwards, which in effect was the embryonic stages of a brand new duo being born. Since that January evening at the Kitchen Garden in 2014, The Small Glories have gone from strength to strength on the back of a couple of album releases, signing to a US label and continual touring around the world including a successful stint in Australia. Perhaps it is the latter that shines the most favourable light on the duo as there is nothing quite like the interactive and connective nature of the live show to bring the best out of the pairing. It was of no surprise that the Kitchen Garden appeared on the latest touring schedule, and also that the venue was packed to its near capacity to greet the return of Cara and JD.

Once recollections from previous Kitchen Garden visits were out the way, the duo set about showing why they have become such popular performers, mixing wit with engaging stories and songs straight to the heart of the Canadian folk genre. Yes, the land from the Rockies to the Maritimes comes to the fore as the songs and stories evolve. Whether discovering hidden mountain communities, celebrating civic pride in Winnipeg or tracking some old fishing tales from the east coast, the audience were treated to a thoroughly entertaining spin across a land so effective in exporting its musical treasures.

Instrumentally, Cara exchanges between her trademark banjo and conventional folk acoustic guitar, while JD does likewise with his stringed accompaniment and harmonica. Vocal compatibility wrapped within a sheen of diversity helps shape the songs, of which many on the night were lifted off the latest album ASSINBOINE & THE RED, a title drawing influence from the duo's home city of Winnipeg. Indeed the whole album featured across the brace of sets that formed this fun-filled evening with numbers like 'Don't Back Down' and 'Sing' proving popular participation pieces.

The lengthy chat interludes didn't outstay their welcome, although material away from the latest album was a little thin with 'Time Wanders On' (a song written with Britain's Bella Hardy) and the unforgettable 'Bring 'Em All In' standing out. The latter was one of Cara's earlier songs pre-dating her link up with JD and recalled from the days when Cara toured alone as when first catching her play Bishop Auckland Town Hall back in 2012. Sadly a show not reviewed on these pages, but still fondly remembered.

Although it had been a couple of years since seeing them last, you only need to have a brief exposure to Cara and JD's infectious onstage persona to instantly realise why you have been a fan for a number of years. Across a show that ran almost up to two hours in active stage time, there was so much to enjoy in The Small Glories with every indication out there that we are likely to see more of Cara Luft and JD Edwards in 2020.

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.