Friday, 29 March 2013

Rebecca Pronsky + The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Thursday 28 March 2013

With The Toy Hearts about to re-locate to their nirvana of Austin, Texas, there was just time for them to host one more US visitor and showcase their talents to a Birmingham audience. So with immense personal delight the invitation was made for Rebecca Pronsky to join the band for a date on her current UK tour. The New York based singer-songwriter, hailing from the iconic but increasingly gentrified borough of Brooklyn, was brought to my attention when reviewing her latest album ONLY DAUGHTER and the critical praise that followed was based on her ability to melt so many influences into a cool sound. Having used the term ‘urban twang’ to describe Rebecca’s music, the opportunity to hear it live was eagerly awaited and there was to be no disappointment.

Within a couple of songs, Rebecca had quickly got into her stride and the awe-inspiring sound soon filled the smaller of the Hare and Hounds music rooms, which was well attended on the evening despite the next door counter attraction of Ian McNabb. The perfect balance of subtle twang from husband, producer and general musical sidekick Rich Bennett on electric guitar and the acoustic strumming from Rebecca, including a delightful 1936 tenor, complemented her first class vocals moulded from a touch of folk and urban indie. The immaculately presented Rich created a sound which conjured up an image of Twin Peaks. While on the evening his presence was a subtle accompaniment which occasionally flirted with an inspired solo, you sense a full ‘Memphis Sun-style’ unleashing could have been just around the corner.

Not surprisingly Rebecca was keen to share a fair number of tracks from the new album to those present and as per usual, it helped enhance the mid break CD sales. Of these new songs, the self penned ‘Rise Up’, ‘Better that Way’ and ‘Cold Hard Cash’ came over the best although these were closely matched by the only cover on the record, the appropriately named ‘Glenn Tipton’. Rebecca had to explain that the song, originally written by fellow American Mark Kozelek, had little relevance to the Judas Priest band member who hails from just outside the city of Birmingham.
Right from the outset, Rebecca was at perfect ease with the archetypical quiet UK audience offering entertaining banter about her tour experiences to date and explaining the background to the song ‘Aberdeen’, the Scottish version not the birthplace of grunge, from her 2011 album VIEWFINDER. The excellent ‘Hard Times’ from this record was also featured. The growing admiration of Rebecca’s music amongst those present was felt when she successfully encouraged audience participation to ‘Big City Lights’, a song from one of her earlier albums.

For me the absolute highlight of Rebecca’s set was her fantastic rendition of the Lucy Wainwright Roche song ‘Mercury News’, almost twelve months on from listening to the original in this very room. It also indicated how the New York singer-songwriter fraternity interlink and celebrate each other’s work. The Big Apple theme brought the set to its close with the song ‘Best Game in Town’ celebrating the magical mystique of that crumbling yet iconic Brooklyn attraction Coney Island. Rebecca and Rich had lived up to full expectation but their contribution to the evening had one final twist.
Over the years The Toy Hearts have evolved from a bluegrass outfit to one who now bases their sound on western swing. This is exemplified by their recent album WHISKEY which was a magical box of originals and songs spanning the generations of this sub genre of American roots music. The core of the band consists of the Johnson sisters’ Hannah and Sophia, alongside father Stewart and for me the switch has taken them up a notch or two. Unashamedly retro, the sound of Hannah’s mandolin has retreated a little while the driving force is now Stewart’s Triple Neck steel guitar and the more orthodox but equally exquisite finger picking of Sophia. Like so many of their recent shows including numerous at their adopted Hare and Hounds base, the trio are joined by the talented Spike Barker on upright bass and it remains unclear as to how their current sound can be bettered. Although their impending stint in Austin, the cradle of the genre, may provide an answer.

For this evening, the old Toy Hearts tunes have been shelved, as focus is switched almost entirely to the album as well as a handful of old classic country tunes that Hannah has sourced via drink fuelled vinyl listening sessions with her father, referred to affectionately as ‘Daddy Cool’. From the album we heard the band’s own take on swing with the impressive ‘Stutter Blues’, ‘Mary Jane’ and the highly infectious ‘Bring on the Swing’.  They spanned the generations with the covers selected,  from the classic Bob Wills number ‘I Hear You Talking’ to a more modern choice of Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock’s ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs’.
While Hannah’s mandolin may have been toned down a little, her husky vocals still decorate all the songs including the brace of new offerings exclusively served during the set. Ray Price is still a relevant figure in country music today following his exchanges with Blake Shelton, and the band covered his song ‘Sitting Thinking’ as well as Wade Ray’s ‘Too Late To Cry’. A Toy Hearts’ set rarely excludes a Hank Williams’ number and the evening ended with a version of ‘Sweet Love Around’, not one of his more familiar songs but still carries all the trademarks of his sound. By this time, Rebecca and Rich had joined the quartet on stage for an impromptu jam starting with one of her older songs ‘Million Days’.

Rebecca joins The Toy Hearts for a jam.
While they operate at slightly differing ends of the wide Americana genre, there is so much synergy between the music of Rebecca Pronsky and The Toy Hearts. The warmth and affability between the acts contributed to an enjoyable evening. The Toy Hearts have one more Hare and Hounds’ swansong before their Lone Star adventure begins while hopefully the positive reaction heading Rebecca’s way will lead to a return visit in the not so distant future.
                                                      The Toy Hearts - Captain

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Miners - Miner's Rebellion Match Up Zone Music

If you are ever struggling to define the term Americana to an uninitiated observer, there may be a solution at hand. Just quit the talk and get them to listen to this 30 minute EP from Philadelphia based band The Miners, titled MINERS’ REBELLION. At the end, that person will be none the wiser on the jargon we use but their ears will have been exposed to as clear a musical definition as you could find.
The core 4 piece band led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Keith Marlowe along with his percussion colleague Andy Shahan, have managed to create a sound that perfectly fuses country and indie rock in the true style set out by Gram Parsons all those years ago. This is no homage to the stadium rock being courted by the mainstream just the vibrancy of good honest down to earth garage rock n’ roll given the golden coating of sublime pedal steel. This is certainly a fine example of alt-country being played at its best.

David Thornburgh provides the regular pedal steel guitar but he is joined on a couple of tracks by fellow practitioner of this fine instrument in session player Jim Callann. Scott Donnini on bass completes the core line up with guest fiddle coming from Joe Kille.
All six tracks are meaty efforts with the fusion of crashing guitars and pedal steel greeting you within a few bars of the opening tune ‘Miners’ Rebellion’. The band shows that within their great sound they can combine storytelling and meaningful lyrics with this historical account of a West Virginian industrial conflict. There is definitely more of a traditional country feel to the second track ‘I Recall’ where the strains of fiddle are introduced to ramp up the roots sound. This song contains some memorable instrumental interludes in its second half and succeeds in hitting the right spot.

The third track ‘Doggone’ is yet more pedal steel driven bliss amidst a heartfelt account of an absent one. With so many candidates for top track on this debut release, it is tricky to choose but if pushed you wouldn’t go far wrong with the nostalgic ‘Norton’s Pond’. Not surprisingly Marlowe and the boys continue the twang theme, in a slightly anthemic five minute recollection of a lost place, that stills holds fond memories in the mind. It would certainly be an effective set closer for any Miners’ live show.
This short but highly impressive release heads towards its finishing line with a more up tempo number ‘W.T.A.’ where the band tackle domestic difficulties with the inevitable ultimate conclusion, all delivered in a frenetic style. More crashing guitar leads us into the album’s finale ‘Cold Steel’ where an armed robbery is continually referred back to in the repeated line “cold steel against my head, one slip and I’d be dead”.

There may or may not be a vibrant alt-country scene in Philadelphia but this release by The Miners shows that high quality music is bubbling under the surface. If they so desire, there is a market ready to embrace them in the UK and Europe but this may require a visit one day. In the meantime enjoy this fine album and if you ever need to explain the term Americana, you know what to do.

Listen to the track 'Miners' Rebellion'

                             'I Recall' recorded for Couch by Couch West

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Emma Stevens - Heart on Hand Rising Tide Music

HEART ON HAND is the initial instalment of a four part EP release designed to launch the solo career of UK singer-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, Emma Stevens. It was released last year but really gained momentum when Emma supported Jenn Bostic on her recent tour and thus coming across my attention. The  format of this release has the advantage of ensuring each of the four tracks are intensely listened to as the next stage is eagerly awaited and on the evidence of the songs on HEART ON HAND, this is something to look forward to.

The project was launched on the back of a family bereavement and Emma’s late mother created the artwork for each EP which will ultimately form a complete picture. The second EP is due out shortly but the quality and depth of the song writing on HEART ON HAND has set the bar high for Emma. All four songs on this convivial release are well constructed melodies that demonstrate substance and an ability to balance the contrasting emotions of serious and lighter moments.As well as her songwriting expertise, the four tracks highlight Emma's adept musical ability on guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo and ukulele. 

A Place Called You’ is definitely from the feel good school of song writing and this jovial tune has all the hallmarks of a song designed for radio play with added whistles and clapping. It gives the EP a bright and breezy opening, although it doesn’t necessarily set the tone for the entire record.

©Ian Dunn ©Principle Photography

The second track ‘This is For You’ floats around your mind in a more satisfying way than the previous tune with Emma’s vocals and subtle acoustic strumming having an increased lasting impact. The emotional message of the song derives straight from the heart.

By far the best song on this inaugural collection is ‘How to Write a Love Song’ where Emma sets out the essential ingredient required for creating such as song – pain. This tune has all the hallmark of Taylor Swift at her best, which for me was on her first album. The heartfelt emotions are expressed explicitly in a mature manner which leads to a rewarded listen.

There is a little bit of a return to the pop infused style of the opening number in the final track ‘Simple Things’ which, as it says in the title, suggests we shouldn’t get too complicated with life and get back in touch with what matters most. The positive message is straightforward and will find its place in most people’s minds.

Prior to this project, Emma has enjoyed success as a backing and session musician thus possessing the raw tools to make this solo career a success. More importantly she has the knack of creating a good melody and ensuring this is best showcased by minimal production.  Overall a very positive set of tunes to lift your emotions and focus on what is really important. The next serving is highly anticipated. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Annie Dressner - East Twenties Self Released

One of the joys of an active involvement in the country/roots/Americana scene is the abundance of high quality ‘below the radar' artists that you come across. Therefore it was a great pleasure to discover the talents of Annie Dressner towards the back end of last year via her superb debut album STRANGERS WHO KNEW EACH OTHER’S NAMES which with immense delight had a favourable review on here. Now the US born UK based singer-songwriter has followed this up with a short EP named after her home New York neighbourhood EAST TWENTIES.

Like so many up and coming performers, Annie decided to finance the project via the Pledge system and, with weeks remaining ahead of its April release, had the joy of reaching the target amount. This is such a vital platform for unsigned artists to prosper and their buoyancy is essential for the rude health of the music industry.
With this four track EP release, it is very much of the same for Annie although the songs selected are of a more gentle variety than many on the album. The trademark highly original mesmeric vocals are still in place, ensuring the unmistakeable enduring sound of Annie Dressner remains the endearing feature of the songs.  The production is uncomplicated with Annie’s amiable guitar strumming blending with the keys, mandolin and bass input from collaborator and fellow producer Paul Goodwin. The subtle cello of Jo Silverston also adds value to a couple of the tracks.

The best song on the EP is the opening number ‘Heartbreaker’ which grows in admiration with each listen. Written in a narration-like format, this nostalgic masterpiece invokes considerable passion in a sad tale of lost love. The sense of feeling oozes from the lyrics within an air of sensitivity. The second track ‘I Can’t Forget’ takes the sound down a notch with a beautiful heartbreaking string arrangement accompanying a tormented and sad song of remembrance. ‘Flame’ slightly reverses the gentle sound with another metaphorical take on life experience. ‘Lost in a Car’ brings this short collection of acoustic gems to a close with a bout of escapism. As with so many singer-songwriters, the heart and real life experience are the fuel for the creative outpourings. The songs are there to be analysed if you wish or just enjoyed as they rank high on pure listening pleasure.

It goes without saying that this record is insufficient in content on the positive side. There has to be more from Annie Dressner but in the meantime, add this release to last year’s album and you’ll begin to understand what an outstanding talent we have in our midst.

Listen to Heartbreaker

Review of Annie Dressner's debut album

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Carrivick Sisters + Blair Dunlop Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 17th March 2013

The Carrivick Sisters first came to my attention a couple of years ago when they played a short set at the Moseley Folk Festival. The lasting impression of that brief initial encounter was how they had impressively based their sound on old time Appalachia with core instrumentation of banjo, fiddle, dobra and mandolin. This very Americana style was unique amongst the wave of UK folk musicians who appeared on the day. So a mission was undertaken to further seek them out and ultimately catch one of their lives shows where the set would be considerably longer.

Fast forward eighteen months and eventually an opportunity arose to see them at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham. The show was virtually billed as a double header with rising folk star Blair Dunlop and thus the appeal of both acts swelled the quaint venue’s attendance to its modest capacity. The format of the evening was fairly formulaic with Blair opening before being joined by the girls for his final track. The Sisters followed with a slightly longer set before inviting Blair to play on their closing numbers.

With a prestigious BBC Folk Horizon award recently under his belt, Blair is currently riding the crest of acclaim as he attempts to step out of the shadows of his family upbringing (son of the legendary UK folk star Ashley Hutchings). He opened with a song called ‘Christopher Marlowe’, a tale about the Elizabethan playwright and very much in line with Blair’s theatrical flair. His latest album was represented by amongst others ‘Threads’ and the title track ‘Blight and Blossom’. The latter is due to be released as a new single and its live rendition concluded the set with the girls backing the track on dobra and mandolin. Perhaps the stand out performance of his set was the version of traditional song ‘Black is the Colour’ which Blair arranged with Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell as a submission for his subsequent award. Blair Dunlop oozes with flair and confidence, is seemingly in control of his destiny and is set to entertain the folk world for a very long time with his guitar, vocal and storytelling skills.

To generate their transatlantic sound, Charlotte Carrivick has mastered the banjo and mandolin while sister, Laura delivers dobra and fiddle. Both siblings interchange their specialist instruments with acoustic guitar and are equally adept at supplying vocals either independently or in harmony. Their vocal style and song subject is very much rooted in English song tradition but it’s the old time Americana sound that catches the ear.

The set the sisters delivered was not based around any one separate release but was an effective mix of self penned tunes and influential covers. The latter included an opening version of James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby Jane’, a nod to acclaimed bluegrass artist Tony Rice with ‘Church St Blues’ and an encore offering of the Nanci Griffith song ‘Gulf Coast Highway’. These tracks further highlighted the Sisters American roots influences and were expertly executed.

In line with their South Devon upbringing, the girls, in true Seth Lakeman style, recounted a real life coastal tragedy in ‘Lifeboat’. Further song inspirations included an inhabitant of the pub in ‘Man in the Corner’, a trip to Austria with ‘Outside Time’ and the contents of Laura’s specific world map in ‘If You Asked Me’. All songs were enhanced by the brickwork surroundings of the Kitchen Garden Café, an intimate nirvana for many acoustic acts. The set was also interspersed with a number of fine instrumentals including a civil war influenced tune ‘Ashokan Farewell’  which as well as ending the evening saw Blair extend his many talents to dobra.

So the mission to explore the work of The Carrivick Sisters was temporarily complete. The promise they displayed at that distant festival was fulfilled and their talents will surely entertain audiences for many years to come. The future of UK folk with an Americana twist is in safe hands.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Country to Country Festival - Tim McGraw, Vince Gill, Little Big Town, Kristian Bush O2 Arena, London Saturday 16 March 2013

For a number of years now, the bigwigs who control the country music output from Nashville’s Music Row have been chipping away at the UK market. We have had the odd live date, occasional press visits and the increasing availability of releases via the expanding platforms. However Saturday March 16th 2013 may well become a watershed day when a sledgehammer was put through the barrier formed on the perception that the UK doesn’t do country. Of course this is doing a disservice to the mass of home grown and touring talent that has been bubbling under the surface since the heyday of the Wembley festival. Yet the scale of the operation carried out under the Country to Country banner is unprecedented especially in the electronic age of mass instant communication.

On this first instalment of a two-day early spring festival, four A-list artists were unleashed on what is becoming the nation’s highest profile entertainment venue with the mission of bringing modern mainstream country music to the masses. It was definitely a smart choice Saturday as a combination of Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and Vince Gill had enough diversity in their arsenal to broaden appeal and deliver a show that highlighted once again how country music houses a wide range of styles. All three are established performers at the top of their game and they were ably joined by Kristian Bush who is striving to emerge from the shadow of Sugarland and enhance his solo status.

Photo Hels Bels Photography
Tim McGraw was awarded the headline slot and thoroughly respected the adoring crowd with a set list that encompassed his 20 year career as an eminent performer. He may draw criticism in some quarters with his rock star posturing and pushing the genre to the edge but he knows what he does and delivers a first class high energy performance. His latest album TWO LANES OF FREEDOM is gathering critical acclaim and heading to legendary status so it was inevitable that several of its standout tracks were featured in the set. ‘Nashville Without You’ is fast becoming a personal favourite and was outstanding on the evening while the exceptional title track had its rightful place at the heart of the encore. Although it was a little disappointing that ‘Southern Voice’ wasn’t aired, the wonderful ‘Everywhere’ was perfect compensation, while the charismatic main set closer ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ echoed around the cavernous North Greenwich Arena (Sorry O2! but you’re only the sponsor). Big arenas are not the perfect setting for many acts but they definitely suit Tim McGraw.

Photo Hels Bels Photography
If perhaps you belong to the school of thought that Tim McGraw encroaches a little bit too much into the sphere of rock, then the set of Vince Gill would have resonated a lot more. The legendary singer-songwriter – virtuoso guitar player is a giant of American not just country music and for an hour and a quarter his talents lit up the arena with a sound that straddled the factions of the genre. The traditionalists would have loved the trio of pedal steel laden gems that featured early in the set including the sublime ‘Take Your Memories With You When You Go’. Gill often referred to his slower numbers as ‘pretty songs’ but was prepared to sprinkle his set with a mixture to ensure maximum exposure of his breathtaking guitar skills. The title track from his recent album GUITAR SLINGER, ‘Pretty Little Adriana’ and ‘Oklahoma Borderline’ all were fine examples of what he can do when increasing the tempo a little. It was a canny move to enlist the services of Vince Gill as his ambassadorial status will ensure the generations are bridged. This is essential for country to progress as a stand-alone genre and not blur into the world of rock and pop.

Photo Hels Bels Photpgraphy
For over fifty years country music has been under attack from the spreading wings of popular music which has often been successful in snaring artists who stray a little too far away from the core. This is as relevant in 2013 as it was in the Nashville Sound days of the early sixties. Therefore it is good to see bands like Little Big Town keen to stay true to their roots despite residing on the lighter side of the genre. The four piece interchangeable vocal band who are currently riding the crest of the wave of their most successful album to date, TORNADO, were for me the anticipated highlight of day one and they didn’t disappoint. It was immensely satisfying to hear live the two best of tracks from the brace of recent albums in ‘Sober’ and ‘Little White Church’ but as is often the case other songs can have their status elevated when experienced in person. ‘Tornado’ was an example from the latest album while the quartet also amusingly accepted the challenge of delivering a countrified version of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’.  Amongst established favourites such as the country radio smash ‘Pontoon’ and atmospheric a capella intro to ‘Front Porch Thing’, Little Big Town fuelled the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac with a version of ‘The Chain’.  This band had everything and confirmed their growing status in country music.

Photo Hels Bels Photography
Kristian Bush had the difficult task of launching the festival while many punters were enjoying the free music being offered outside the arena by selected UK artists. In contrast to the perceived view that his set may be along similar lines to his CMA singer songwriter dates, he rose to the challenge of rocking the arena and succeeded by the end of his fairly short set in getting people off their feet. With the added bonus of being flanked by the exceptional talent of Larkin Poe, Kristian Bush showed glimpses that there may be a fruitful post- Sugarland career if his destiny is in this direction.

At the conclusion of day one, there was an extremely positive vibe that Country to Country was on its way to achieving the goal of opening the floodgates for a Nashville invasion. The very respectable turnout must have pleased the organisers and the slick operation made the day an enjoyable experience. Subsequent reports of day two confirmed this as Carrie Underwood closed a festival that had exceeded expectations. Preparation for 2014 is underway and one day you may look back to Saturday 16th March 2013 and say ‘I was there’. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Gretchen Peters - The Assembly, Leamington Spa Tuesday 12th March 2013

Almost twelve months to the day that Gretchen Peters brought her Hello Cruel World Tour to the Midlands, the esteemed Nashville-based singer-songwriter returned to the area to resume the next phase of her career. With no Robin 2 Biston gig on the itinerary this time, the slightly longer trip to the elegant Assembly in Leamington Spa was made to witness Gretchen, and her now two regular touring companions Barry Walsh and Christine Bougie, entertain a mixture of old and new fans.

On the previous tour, Gretchen elected to play the most successful album of her career in its entirety and in a very systematic track order. So in a celebration of a return to spontaneity from an audience perspective, this gig review is to adopt a highly structured format and reflect in admiration the unpredictable set list from the evening.
Woman on the Wheel – Not only in my opinion was this the finest track on HELLO CRUEL WORLD but Gretchen decided to name this latest tour in honour of it. I never tire of listening to this song with the immortal line ‘one false move and it’s a real bad day at the amusement park’. The upbeat nature of this song got the evening off to a perfect start.

Sunday Morning (Up and Down My Street) – No messing or intro and it’s straight into one of the standout tracks from the BURNT TOAST AND OFFERINGS album. There is just something special about country music and Sunday morning songs, reference Kris Kristofferson. This pushes that classic close.

The Matador – It’s definitely no HELLO CRUEL World in chronicle order tonight as we have the delightful ballad that delves into the controversial world of that Spanish gladiatorial tradition. A wonderfully well constructed song that continues to grow with each listen.
Dark Angel – In a couple of months time Rodney Crowell will be gracing UK stages when appearing with Emmylou Harris, so in the meantime Barry continues to ‘ably deputise’ in another of my favourite HELLO CRUEL WORLD tracks. This fine album shows no let up yet in its impressive live rendition.

Guadalupe – Gretchen never shies away from her absolute admiration of this song and it has long become a set favourite. Maybe one day we may see Tom Russell join her on a UK stage for a performance of what’s set to become a western classic.

England Blues – Amongst all the ballads, Gretchen still shows she can rock a little bit as, with great personal delight, this ode to the right side of the pond makes a welcome return to the set. You can even sense a touch of toe tapping from the refined Leamington Spa crowd.
Independence Day – The wrong of this all-time classic being omitted from last year’s set is corrected tonight. As intimated on social media sites, Gretchen has freshened its live performance up with a keyboard delivered slowed down version that still contains all the passion of the 1995 CMA Song of the Year. The sky was still lit up on that 4th of July.

Circus Girl – Another long standing song of Gretchen’s which has seen her re-evaluate and re-visit. In my opinion it has always been in the shadow of the avalanche of classic songs that have subsequently flowed from her pen but still an enjoyable song to hear live.
Gretchen’s Theme – The time arrived for Gretchen to leave the stage and let husband Barry take the spotlight. This time he chose an instrumental that had recently been used in the closing scenes of a Dutch film. You could feel the cinematic vibes from the keyboard sound of Barry and the support by Christine on her array of rhythmic instruments.

Hello Cruel World – Gretchen reappears after one song to deliver the title track and opener from what has become her eponymous album. This song will always be associated with being at the forefront of the album listen so its new mid-set location was a little unusual.
Saint Francis – As per usual Gretchen displayed her natural charm with some astute observations from the perspective of a constant travelling musician. She openly admitted to preferring churches with musical connotations i.e. The Cavern, before delivering this track from HELLO CRUEL WORLD.

Return of the Grievous Angel - Americana heaven as Gretchen is joined by support artist Ben Glover to deliver this Gram Parsons classic. There can be no finer way of honouring the approaching fortieth anniversary of his sad demise especially on the eve of South by South West and the increasingly hip Couch by Couch West.
Five Minutes – There was no holding back on Gretchen’s adoration of the English period classic Downton Abbey. Tonight we found out that this outstanding track from HELLO CRUEL WORLD is a firm favourite of actress Elizabeth McGovern (aka Sadie and the Hotheads in music circles). This precisely titled song always leaves its poignant message.

Idlewild – There is no extended prelude to this highly personal track from HELLO CRUEL WORLD tonight, just the pure pleasure of listening to its superb lyrical content in an environment where you could hear a pin drop.
Breakfast in Our House – Gretchen often refers to BURNT TOAST AND OFFERINGS as her ‘divorce’ album and she is keen to feature a number of tracks in this performance. Having witnessed Gretchen appearing solo around this time, the seemingly new settled format including Christine delivering some sublime lap steel has profoundly enhanced her live show.

On a Bus to St. Cloud – Absolutely no introduction needed for what is probably now regarded as her most popular song. While Martina McBride’s version of ‘Independence Day’ and Faith Hill’s ‘Secret of Life’ added value to Gretchen’s songs, Trish Yearwood’s cut never came close to the original.
Wild Horse with Gretchen and Otis at Maverick
To Say Goodbye – The end was nearly upon us as this song, yet another one drawn from BURNT TOAST… , is now becoming a regular way of winding the live performances down. Although occasionally a twist follows..

Wild Horses – This much covered song was delivered by Gretchen in duet with Otis Gibbs in front of the infamous peacock backdrop at last year’s Maverick Festival. Ben Glover made a final return to the stage to assist on this occasion after proving to be a very capable support artist at the outset of the evening.

So this evening really closed the circle of HELLO CRUEL WORLD. More of the back catalogue was re-integrated into the set and now we wait eagerly for the next phase of Gretchen’s career. With no indication of upcoming new material during the evening, there may be a period of re-grouping. The quality bar is constantly being raised but there is little doubt that Gretchen Peters will meet this challenge in the future.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Travellin Rose - Cinderella Dreaming Eversholt Music Limited

‘Recorded proof that retro can be progressive’ was a comment attached to an alt-country album reviewed here last summer. After listening to CINDERELLA DREAMING, the debut full length release by UK duo Travellin Rose, it was time to return to the quote and on this occasion apply it to a pair of artists dedicated to carrying the flame of traditional country music forward. The duo comprising of Kelly Lee and Talia Smith have produced a remarkably fresh and archetypical country album that perfectly captures the very soul of the genre.

The album is the product of much endeavour from both ladies who have balanced raising a family, while making great strides in emulating the feats of their iconic country music influences. No prizes for guessing these but amongst them include Dixie Chicks and Sara Evans, and their influence can be detected right across the album. Repeat visits to Nashville and the services of some fine Music City session musicians have reaped enormous benefits in providing the perfect platform for the duo to apply their well-tuned vocals that melt into one when adorned by the essential fiddle, pedal steel, banjo and a host of other musical sounds synonymous with country music.

All twelve tracks are self-penned by Kelly and Talia, who have attracted certain media attention on the back of their fiercely proud Romany background.  No doubt drawing on plenty of personal inspiration, the record is jam packed with heartfelt themes and real life experiences aligned with the passionate advocating of feminist issues. With hardly a weak song on show, the challenge to pick out the highlights is tough but a pair of amazing country waltz numbers stand out for their outstanding arrangements. The title track ‘Cinderella Dreaming’ succeeds at relating a fantasy theme to everyday life while ‘Givin Up’ is the ultimate sad hard times song that may not be too far adrift from some current circumstances. Running these two classic sounds, that pay enormous respect to the past, close is the album concluding ‘I Am What I Am’. A perfect finale with tear jerking qualities in an auto biographical tale that draws enormous pride from their roots. 

All other nine tracks have merits that warrant a mention. The jaunty opener ‘OMG’ sees the ladies give a nod to the social media generation amidst post relationship satisfaction, with a little bit of English quirky charm added to the chorus. ‘Repentance’ deals with releasing your sins in a style reminiscent of early Dixie Chicks while incorporating effective electric guitar. ‘Overworked and Underpaid’, with double bass and fiddle, will resonate with many people. ‘Count to Ten’ is catchy, uncompromising and explicit.

Girl from the Backwoods’, a song previously released as a single, is a reflection on taking pride in your journey while the pace is picked up with extra banjo and fiddle on another previous release ‘Made Your Mind Up’, about chasing your dreams. That just leaves the final three tracks ‘What’s the World Coming to?’, ‘VIP Room’ and ‘Devils Den’ which are no mere album fillers and could easily stand out more on a lesser album.

Travellin Rose have produced a record that can prove to be a shot in the arm for UK country music and also has the potential to leave a favourable impression with serious American roots music connoisseurs from outside the scene that they have emerged from. CINDERELLA DREAMING cannot be recommended highly enough but it comes with a warning – EXPLICIT COUNTRY CONTENT. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Annie Keating - For Keeps Self Released

Fresh on the heels of the recent Rebecca Pronsky full length release, the New York borough of Brooklyn unleashes another serving of urban twang on the UK’s Americana music market with a new album from singer-songwriter Annie Keating. Of her four previous albums BELMONT was the one that came across my radar but repeated listens of FOR KEEPS has certainly raised the awareness of this fine artist with a desire to explore her music further.  

In essence, the album consists of ten self penned tracks as Annie has chosen to represent ‘Take Only What You Can Carry’ in a pair of contrasting versions,  plus a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ to fade the album out. The variety of sounds range from pedal steel driven country through to a little indulgence in vintage New York disco/rap, although Annie doesn’t deviate too far from conventional singer-songwriter mild-rock. Despite this being a self released album, Annie, with the assistance of producer Jason Mercer, has amassed a wide collection of session musicians to contribute a full range of sounds including the combining of a horn element with pedal steel on ‘All Gone’.

The country feel to the album blossoms in the excellent second song ‘Right By You’, where the pedal steel solo just melts into your mind and is probably the pick of the tracks but you cannot also fail to be impressed by, excuse the pun, the storming opener ‘Storm Warning’. This blues driven number features harmonica and dobra to complement the electric overtures and could be singled out for some crossover play.

The album has a tendency to compartmentalise its sounds and towards the end there is a trio of the more pedestrian self penned songs before we exit under the influence of Neil Young. The laid back version of ‘Take Only What You Can Carry’ is sandwiched by a quieter lullaby number  River Clyde’, with its Scottish references reflecting some of the experiences she has had north of the border, and ‘Thrill of the Chase’.
Probably the most intriguing track on the album is ‘Let it Come’ where Annie radically changes direction with a sound reminiscent from an era where the street beat of New York City spread across the world. While this sound is by no means representative of the album, the process of experimentation reflects positively on Annie searching for different inspirations.

As you would expect from an established singer-songwriter, the lyrics are thoughtful, insightful and intelligent, all delivered via the sultry vocal skills that Annie has bestowed upon the record. Although a slow burner, FOR KEEPS does ultimately evolve into a gem of great substance that will no doubt be critically well received by those who come across it. A UK tour is planned for September, but in the meantime immersing yourself in the work of Annie Keating will enhance your appreciation of Americana music.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Old Man Luedecke - Tender is the Night True North Records

In this his debut release for True North Records, acclaimed Canadian roots artist Old Man Luedecke has re-confirmed his status as an eminent performer on the traditional music scene. Having already been a winner of a prestigious Juno award for his 2008 album PROOF OF LOVE, the Canadian music hierarchy have once again bestowed a nomination on the man from Nova Scotia with the unmistakable name.

For TENDER IS THE NIGHT, overall the fifth release for Chris ‘Old Man’ Luedecke, he has spread his wings from the Celtic/folk laden environment of the far north east to gravitate south across the border all the way down to Music City and a link up with the highly esteemed roots musician Tim O’Brien. As you would expect from such a collaboration, the resultant production is soaked in fiddle, banjo, mandolin and an array of guitars that gracefully support the barrage of articulate lyrics from the bard of Nova Scotia.
All thirteen tracks hurtle through at a constant pace that, although requiring a decent level of concentration, leave you wondering where that forty minute segment of your life went, albeit in a positive sense. The clear vocal style of Old Man Luedecke eases the passage of the heavy lyrical content from artist to listener in a manner that definitely tips its hat to the western outlook which is a prominent feature on the album. In fact the stand out track ‘Song for Ian Tyson’ is a tribute to an old time Canadian country singer who plied his trade in the wide open western spaces. A similar though slightly slower sound is present in the waltz –like feel to ‘Can’t Count Tears’.

Old Man Luedecke is also a master of the language-laden quirky tale, along the similar lines of fellow Canadian Corb Lund and his pal, Texan Hayes Carll. The fantastic jaunty number ‘A & W Song’ could have been lifted straight from the fruits of these two artists as Old Man proceeds to explore the post drinking escapades of the song’s subject and their interaction with a cab driver as well as the frustrations of the ATM and the cravings of fast food.  The depth of the song writing is also evident in the metaphorical struggles detailed in ‘Jonah and the Whale’ and the repeated animal connotations integrated in ‘Tortoise and the Hare’, a song reflecting on the trials of chasing success.
Despite the intense listening required for many of the songs, Luedecke also demonstrates his talent of writing a catchy chorus. This can be found in the enjoyable ‘I’m Fine (I  am, I am)’ which has a  vocal sound similar to that from Paul Simon’s GRACELAND era. ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is another positive example of capturing the listener’s attention with a clever, infectious chorus line.

Other tracks warranting a mention are the title one ‘Tender is the Night’ a comforting number extolling the virtues of the hope of coming home and album opener ‘ Kingdom Come’ with its sense of belonging. No record delving in a western direction would be complete without some extended reference to drink and ‘Little Stream of Whiskey’ ticks this box perfectly.

Although being a touch wordy on the surface, the excellent production of Tim O’Brien holds the songs the together and you explicitly get a sense of where the record wants to take you. Old Man Luedecke is certainly widening his horizons and fresh from an outstanding performance at last year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival, he is due to return to the UK in May to promote this new record. By then, he may well be a double Juno winner but if not, he has a record that he can be proud of and will find its own niche in the perceptive field of fans of roots music with a western tinge.  

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Caroline Herring - The Hive, Shrewsbury Friday 1st March 2013

Beautiful songs, gentle acoustic string sounds, informative storytelling and an attentive audience are the desired attributes for any singer-songwriter gig. If you can add a backdrop of the fertile creative landscape of life in the Deep South, then you are well and truly on the way to musical utopia. These are certainly demanding standards but Mississippi-born artist Caroline Herring went a long way to fulfilling them on her return to a town where she has developed a good recent rapport.

Fresh from a couple of outstanding sets at last year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival, the organisers arranged a follow up visit for Caroline to the town and a near sell out Hive audience were immensely enthralled by the sheer talent on display during the evening. Caroline’s depth of understanding and passion for the issues she tackles is mesmerising and when coupled with her vocals and sound that straddle the boundaries between folk, country and a touch of home state blues, the talent oozes so freely from the stage.
A collaboration that meant so much to Caroline’s heart was her involvement in the Cecil Sharp Project where she had the opportunity to explore and work with some of the UK’s premier folk artists. To highlight her involvement, she has twinned the songs she was involved with and shortly into the evening’s second set those fortunate enough to be present were served with this offering. ‘Meadows of Dan’, a co-write with Kathryn Roberts, was followed by ‘Black Mountain Lullaby’ a tale remembering a victim of an Appalachian mountain top removal tragedy. This latter song was featured on Caroline’s most recent album CAMILLA and unsurprisingly a majority of its tracks were performed during the evening.

The highlights from this album included the title song which opened the evening, an account of attending Obama’s first inauguration ‘Maiden Voyage’, the accapella delivered ‘Travelling Shoes’ and a tribute to the Civil Rights Freedom Riders ‘White Dress’. Such was the detailed introduction to these songs that you could almost write an individual piece on each one. Also delivered from this album was a song inspired by a plane journey ‘Joy Never Ends’ that merges into Caroline’s desire to sample the Scottish standard ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as well as the more rootsy 'Fireflies'.
Over the last decade, Caroline has recorded a wealth of fine material and her set included delving back to a 2001 release Twilight and songs titled ‘Wise Woman’and 'Mississippi Snow'. 2009’s GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN also contributed a handful of selections including the melodic ‘See See Rider’, an ode to American painter Walter Inglis Anderson ‘Tales of the Islander’ and a personal tribute to her grandmother Eleanor ‘Abuelita’.

As well as being an outstanding songwriter, Caroline does not shy away from celebrating the work of others. Two covers, previously recorded on her albums, included in the set were the award winning eighties classic ‘True Colours’ and a cracking Kate Wolf song that closed the evening ‘Here in California’. However the overall highlight of the evening was the pre-encore ‘Song for Fay’, a beautiful track from the LANTANA album inspired by the experiences of Larry Brown.
While Caroline spends so much time extolling the virtues of genuine southern folklore, she is vastly developing into a literary treasure herself. The tales, stage presence and interpretation of the rich history of her roots are totally captivating. In fact you can sum up Caroline Herring in a single short statement – one woman, one guitar and a million words.