Thursday, 27 November 2014

Sharon Van Etten - The Institute, Birmingham Wednesday 26th November 2014

Sharon Van Etten is a respectful and unassuming performer who pours her heart and soul into a music rich in monodic noir yet wrapped in an alt-folk sweet sentiment. Gliding between swirling indie-anthems and pale shades of Americana, Sharon thrilled a millpond Birmingham audience on the Midlands leg of a tour to promote her latest album ARE WE THERE. In a set approaching an hour and a half, including the dual song encore, the five piece band spearheaded by Sharon (vocals/omnichord/guitars) and Heather Woods Broderick (vocals/keys) spun through a group of songs representing the past, present and future.

Sharon’s career has blossomed since she sought a move to New York City around a decade ago, settling in the creative hot spot borough of Brooklyn and soaking up the influence of metropolitan folklore. Critics have likened her to other female icons of the 70s Big Apple cool arts scene but approaching her music from an Americana angle sees comparisons in her sound and style to Lucinda Williams, although with a far greater vocal range. This presents a vocal vault of versatility fluctuating along a scale of slender Americana before nestling alongside brash indie-rock.

Sharon Van Etten first crossed my horizon as a live performer in the summer of 2013 with a daytime slot at the Calgary Folk Festival which struggled to make a significant impression in the surroundings. Fast forward a near eighteen months and a packed Library venue in Birmingham’s Institute (no intended pun on the respectful atmosphere) suited her far more. She superbly responded with an exhilarating performance, deep in emotion and supported by immense band competence. Opening with a trio of tracks from the new album, the soulful keys and mesmeric sound of ‘Tarifa’ just shaded ‘Afraid of Nothing’ and ‘Taking Chances’ with ‘Break Out’ played later highlighting further quality from this widely praised release.

The chat may have been minimal but a devoted audience held on to each word as Sharon mused about her sad song repertoire before playing a rare upbeat number, which not surprisingly missed the album cut. Described as a bit Tom Petty-esque, she did say that ‘I Don’t Want to Let You Down’ would be getting a 7 inch release in 2015 to emphasise how an artist like Sharon Van Etten is embracing the vinyl revival. Another special moment from the show for those tilting towards the folk background was when the band briefly departed leaving Sharon alone, perfectly at ease mulling over invited requests. She also used this solo segment to share a tender song written as a tribute to Karen Dalton and ‘Remembering Mountains’ showed the sheer beauty of her vocals when the sound is stripped away.

Ultimately Sharon Van Etten is adored by the indie community especially when the band gets into full gear and rebukes holding back. The encore numbers, especially ‘Serpents’ proved popular and sent a buzz around a near sold out audience who were having their polite respects rewarded. This respect was by and largely offered to support artist Marisa Anderson who played a curious instrumental opening set blending folk and blues rock. Detailed description preceded each song which partly compensated for the lyrical omission and allowed a degree of listener imagination as the tunes unfolded. If Sharon Van Etten flirts with Americana then Marisa Anderson lives and breathes it with delightful stories of caves in Kentucky, roaming around car parks at bluegrass festivals and worshipping at the feet of Doc Watson.

For a gig that came to late fruition for me as a result of a clash cancellation, the ghost of Calgary was erased and Sharon Van Etten escalated her level of appreciation. Acres of surreal substance constitute her chosen art form which echoes with a delightful darkness but presents an artist bestowed with talent spread across all facets of music making.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Jim Keaveny - Out of Time Self Released

There has long been a mystical image for us folks in Europe of the free roaming life of travelling troubadours, hobos or those seeking new pastures across the states. Whether inspired by Steinbeck, Kerouac or Guthrie, the exotic nature of such an existence (mythical or not) transports many a dreamer out of reality with often the soundtrack playing a leading light. One listen to OUT OF TIME by Jim Keaveny and one read of his bio leads to a 2014 personification of this wanderlust vision. The song is king for an artist who tooled up with a guitar and harmonica hit the roads and rails to find his true music soul.

Call it country, call it folk or call it just plain Americana, OUT OF TIME will satisfy any thirst for the imagery detailed above in a comprehensive collection that exceeds the hour without outstaying its welcome. Now statically swapping the roaming life for a more settled existence in the barren spaces of West Texas, Jim has his fifth release heading to the UK to the great delight of many Americana dreamers. While the strength exists in the lyrics, the sound refuses to be constricted within acoustic confines especially with full on electric and brass thriving on the album’s pivotal positioned title track.

While the album does have its experimental moments, for example in the style hinted in the title of ‘Someone To Talk To Blues’, there are three tracks which have the potential to rise above the pack in terms of popular appeal. If you’re seeking out a track to reflect the travelling life then album opener, ‘Eugene to Yuma’ will meet the requirement with a precision fit. Americana dreamers will feast lavishly on this sumptuous bait and use it as an introduction to explore the inner sanctum of this album. For a light snack a quarter of an hour into the album, ‘Ridin’ Boots’, with its traditional call and response chorus will find many admirers. At 5:40 long ‘The Yippee-i-ay Song’ sees Jim complete the circle and bring music wonderfully down to its rawest form. This exit number leaves you in a similar frame of mind to the opening song and grateful that you stayed with the album during the explorative phase.

OUT OF TIME, not be confused with the record that exploded REM’s career in the early 90s, had a near simultaneous release either side of the Atlantic and will no doubt engage many converts. While not particularly residing in either the country or folk camps, fans of both would do worse than to dip in and sample an artist steeped in the ideals of those genres. Available from the usual sources, it may be wise to utilise the best way to support a self-released record but that’s the prerogative of the buyer. Whatever the mode of purchase, OUT OF TIME by Jim Keaveny will be a valuable addition to any music collection.

Michelle Lewis - The Parts Of Us That Still Remain Self Released

Closing your eyes and letting Michelle Lewis’s soft vocals lead you on a velvet laden journey is not a bad way to spend half an hour of your valuable leisure time. The Boston songstress (that’s MA not Lincs) is having a tilt at the UK market with a December 1 release of her second album and it’s a record smoothed for palatable consumption, yet rich in a lingering sensual delight. THE PARTS OF US THAT STILL REMAIN fits the mould perfectly of a steady stream of folk-Americana music hitting our shores with a Nashville style song writing coating added to a north eastern roots sound.

Michelle fills the lyrical landscape with loss, pain, lust, true love and visual experience using every inch of her schooling at the Berklee College of Music in her home city to influence the songs. Teaming up with Robby Hecht, especially on the gorgeous ‘Runnin’ Back Home’, has reaped dividends on a record addictive in its groove and flush of finely tuned songs. The arrangements only observe the boundaries of true authenticity and beautifully complement the vocals of Michelle who shares production duties with Anthony J. Resta.

Snippets of accordion give a classic European urban feel to several tracks and Michelle poses the question whether a trip to ‘Paris’ will solve the conundrum of a dying love in the track of the same name. With words such as ‘broken, sorry, lost and goodbye’ appearing in four of the song titles then you begin to feel which side of melancholy is influencing the album but then we all know what makes the better song. Yet in contradiction and making a strong case for the album’s outstanding track is the pure melodic romanticism of ‘Just Like a Movie’. Running it very close is the simplistic album closer ‘Lost in LA’, maybe or maybe not the autobiographical experience of making the record in southern California.

What helps to make this album a gratifying way to while away the time is the genuineness and belief in the songs. How anyone could not forgive Michelle for pleading ‘Sorry I Forgot to Write’ in the opening track is implausible or not will her on the fanciful journey explored in ‘Run, Run, Run’.  An orchestral style arrangement adds a touch of elegance to ‘Something That Simple’ while a more pop infused beat graces ‘Goodbye’. An assortment of sounds decorates ‘Broken’ with simple organ and mandolin being vaguely detected and, last but not least, the accordion solo excels on ‘None of That Now’.

With the season of treats and indulgence accompanying the formal UK release of THE PARTS OF US THAT STILL REMAIN, the savouring of this seductive record by Michelle Lewis is surely more rewarding than that extra chocolate or tipple of your choice. However long after the festive season has subsided this record will retain appeal as Michelle Lewis is a talented singer-songwriter poised to spread her sensual sound far and wide.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wookalily - All the Waiting While : One a Chord Records

Reassuringly skeletal and free of impurities, the debut album by Belfast-based band Wookalily packs a tough punch to belie its status as a record stripped back to the bare bones of roots sentimentality. ALL THE WAITING WHILE has been simmering for a couple of years before emerging in a form, dark in places but always enlightened by a warm glow of excellence. The belief in organic growth and recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Association has steadied the rise of this four piece band creating a solid platform for an explosion of praise from across the British Isles and farther afield.

The mystically named Wookalily has been a flowing feast of musical talent and this album represents the past as the band prepare for the future. Adele Ingram (guitar, vocals), Louise Potter (percussion), Sharon Morgan (banjo) and Lyndsay Crothers (lead vocals) are the core of the current line up but four other lead vocalists appear on this twelve strong collection of songs entrenched in old time, bluegrass and roots lore. This does create a flavour of vocal diversity threaded by a quality that never wanes. The album’s finale see all vocalists celebrate in full collaborative manner with the gender induced ‘The Devil is a Woman’.

A clever line from this song, ‘Lucy-fare -well-go to hell’ illustrates the sparkling writing of Adele Ingram which illuminates all but one of the album’s tracks. Adele’s literary compositions court attention and scrutiny to reveal wit, love, recollection and sadness, ranging from sharp, cute to downright sassy. For instrumentation description, take your pick from any type of roots implement and you’ll find banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro and guitar finding their niche. The album is vibrant with appealing melodies adorning both verses and choruses with equal measure.

Standout tracks will fluctuate according to mood with ‘See Me For You’ being a repeat candidate. With a striking resemblance to the spiritual anthem ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’, the strength of the song towers amongst a sea of other giants. The beauty of ‘Diamonds on Gold’ alerted the IBMA of the girls’ talents and an invite to Nashville followed as well as the opportunity to record a respected Dixie Hall song,‘To a Dove’, for a compilation album. Alas this song is not on the debut album although a download code is available on the physical cover.

Other notable songs which do make up this superb collection include the bluesy ‘Black Magic Doll’, the waltz influenced ‘Got Me on My Knee’ and the evocative ‘Memories of New Orleans’, assumingly the latter is based on personal travels. ‘Banjo Blues’ sees Adele’s writing at its cutting best while ‘Johnny Kicked the Bucket’ is a fun packed number graced with a great fiddle finish. The only non-penned Adele song is ‘Fire Below’ which comes across as a racy bluegrass standard, while album opener, ‘Hands Pass in Time’, and one of several sang beautifully by current vocalist Lyndsay Crothers, is rich in string and sets the tone perfectly.

Like all debut releases, ALL THE WAITING WHILE now gives the band a tangible opportunity to get heard across the country, roots and Americana community in the UK, possibly into Europe and in the US as well. Backing this up with a live presence will also serve the band well and the name Wookalily will also play its part in growing awareness. Ultimately the ladies have produced a record true to the core, wide in appeal and aiming straight to recognisable status. A fine achievement for a debut record.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Darius Rucker - Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton Wednesday 19th November 2014

First and foremost Darius Rucker is a top notch front man and an entertainer of the highest degree. Regardless of the ethnic diversity, or lack of it to be more precise, within Nashville’s major country music labels, the executives were getting a sure fire winner when Darius headed to Music City to record the next phase of his music career back in 2008. Digging deep into his South Carolina roots and refreshing his natural charisma led to enormous success in sales of both records and concert tickets. Perhaps it was Darius’s eye for a challenge which sees him at the forefront of Nashville’s latest raid on the UK market. So eighteen months on from a successful slot at the inaugural Country 2 Country Festival, Darius Rucker has kept his promise to return to the UK with the added bonus of a provincial tour.

In the last half a dozen years, this prime venue in Wolverhampton has sporadically dallied with country music by hosting Hal Ketchum and Guy Clark but it was very much the changing of the guard audience-wise with this latest promotion. Darius admitted on more than one occasion that his heart will always be with Hootie and the Blowfish but fair play to the respect he pays to country music with his approach to the stage performance he puts on. Whether covering Hank Jr’s ‘Family Tradition’ or ensuring pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and mandolin play their part, any fears of a watered down version of this great genre were allayed. The Blowfish part circa 2008-2014 is in the format of the South Carolina Grey Boys, a fine bunch of pickers mixing some genuine roots music with soulful keys and refined guitar rock. Together they blistered their way through an hour and three quarter set led by the consummate aura of Darius Rucker, primarily on vocals with the odd acoustic guitar segment.

The breadth of Darius’s lengthy career in this show was celebrated, ranging from Hootie numbers such as ‘Time’ through to his latest single cut ‘Home Grown Honey’. It was no surprise that the popular songs like ‘Alright’ and ‘True Believers’ were greeted with exuberant audience enthusiasm which was only surpassed by the contrasting and curious encore pairing of ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’. With a polite nod to the Old Crow Medicine Show and references to Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, there were moments of embracing ‘cool Americana’ alongside the trademark brashness and posturing. Amongst the usual suspects for that premium concert experience, including his country chart debuting no.1 single ‘Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It’, was the impressive track ‘Southern State of Mind’.

Joining Darius on stage for the Hank Jr cover was opening act Patrick Davis who had earlier done a sterling job warming up the crowd with vibrant rigour and plenty of well received rapport. With a friendship going back to their South Carolina upbringing, Patrick and Darius exuded a kindred spirit which has seen the former share many tunes in the guise of his Nashville song writing day job. In the obvious style of chasing that lucrative cut, there was a strong contemporary feel to Patrick’s songs which in my view peaked with the fabulous ‘Numbers’. A little humour surrounded his cover of ‘I’m on Fire’ but in the name of perfecting that warm up slot, Patrick scored favourably with many in a highly respectable West Midlands turnout.

This assembly of Midlands based music fans mixed hard core Darius Rucker‘ believers’ with others curious to see a rare regional visit of a major country music artist. His musical background and style will naturally court a divided opinion in country music circles but what was in evidence at Wolverhampton’s Wulfrun Hall was a respectful and major league performer at the top of his game.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Wild Ponies - George IV Pub, Lichfield, Staffs Saturday 15th November 2014

The name Wild Ponies conjures up visions of freedom and roaming which pretty well sums up the musical lives of Doug and Telisha Williams. Forever on the road touring and spending time away from their Virginia roots, the East Nashville based duo have certainly chosen a life which perfectly aligns with their talents. If you’re seeking travelling artists with exquisite musicianship, balanced vocals, supremely crafted songs, engaging personalities and insightful background contributions, then the Wild Ponies will meet your approval. Throw in the added spice of a southern drawl and you are well on the way to being entertained by a band subconsciously alluding to the traditional country music blueprint.

The Wild Ponies are making their debut headline tour of the UK after receiving extended plaudits for supporting and backing Rod Picott around a year ago. Hot Burrito Promotions had little hesitation in bringing the duo back to the Staffordshire area to complete their autumn trilogy of promoting Americana themed shows. With a far more countrified sound to the Wild Ponies than the other artists booked, this show, in the back room of a small city centre pub, took us down both familiar and unfamiliar paths but never failing to enthral. Itching to take both his guitars to the limit, Doug exploited every opportunity to showcase his pickin’ skills and repeated a call from a previous show by replacing any missing slide sound with some serious Telecaster twang. Prime vocalist Telisha was far gentler with her precious stand-up bass, using every inch of the booming strings to inject rhythm and beat into a sound crafted in camaraderie and chemistry.

Split across two sets following a short opening segment from Midlands singer-songwriter James Summerfield, the guys explored the depths of their two most recent records with the enticing extra faction of presenting a couple of upcoming new numbers. ‘Love is Not a Sin’ and ‘Never Met’ were a pair of tasty songs laying the ground neatly for their next release. The former just shaded the latter on instant appeal and will be the first to be aired formally in the New Year with an accompanying video. As true song writers, Doug and Telisha limited the covers to just one solitary encore offering and who could blame them for celebrating the work of fellow Virginian Patsy Cline with a wonderful version of ‘I Fall to Pieces’. Telisha displayed a wide vocal range mixing classic heartbreak, southern sass and soft sentimentality. During a solo interlude, she sang a personal tribute to her grandmother with the song ‘Iris’ and waded through many other songs, mainly from the 2013 album THINGS THAT USED TO SHINE.

A fair amount of these songs were introduced to UK audiences last year including the title track. Opening with ‘Trigger’ from this release, we were also treated to the Amy Speace co-write ‘Trouble Looks Good on You’ and a hometown story from their local NASCAR circuit in Virginia ‘Massey’s Run’. In 2009 Doug and Telisha Williams released the album GHOST OF THE KNOXVILLE GIRL under their own names rather than the Wild Ponies and the title track has produced one of their most popular songs spawning much comment about Tennessee riverbank murder ballads. On an evening packed with heaps of fine songs, it was also enhanced by pre-meditated and spontaneous humour. The old saying of ‘what happens on stage; stays on stage’ was never truer.

For this inaugural tour, which has also included dates in Europe, the Wild Ponies have been presented with a decent schedule to build a UK support base. Not that any amount of dates will daunt such hardworking artisans as Doug and Telisha who upon their return home hit the States with another pre-holiday extensive tour. By summoning up the spirit of East Nashville and real country music, the Wild Ponies cemented a positive first impression with a call for a longevity rapport with folks on this side of the pond. Mutual appreciation is a very precious commodity and the foundation of a wonderful music experience.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Other Half - A story by Mark Billingham inspired by the music of My Darling Clementine Birmingham Rep Monday 10th November 2014

Where literature and music collide is a perfect wrap for this latest project by top selling crime fiction writer Mark Billingham and the UK’s premier act for keeping the flame of classic country alive My Darling Clementine. For one night only, the studio venue at Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre was taken to downtown Memphis and awash with a sound spanning the length of Tennessee’s Music Highway. Being a massive country music fan himself, I’m sure Mark Billingham was happy to let the evening evolve into a dynamic display of duet indulgence as his own reading of The Other Half was periodically splintered by the musical interjection of Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish.

With the songs of My Darling Clementine ripe for some form of literary collaboration, there was an inbuilt synergy with an author whose chief character D.I. Tom Thorne is an avid follower of western leaning music full of vivid stories and twang. Taking the location of his story from the song ‘Going Back to Memphis’, Mark tells a simple on the surface tale of three couples frequenting a rundown bar. With the exemplary oratory skills of the author, the story unfolds in the first hour of this double billed show as Michael and Lou choreograph their presentation of subtly inserted songs in sync with the ebb and flow of the tale.

You have to adjust your listening skills between the intensity of the reading and the more relaxing state of savouring the songs of My Darling Clementine. However the merging of the two art forms was pulled off with professional ease. The subjective nature of art saw an individual adaptation by Mark with the songs merely providing a backdrop rather than the narrative. While expecting a more significant music segment after the break, the number of songs interspersing the reading approached near double figures. Unsurprisingly ‘By a Thread’ opened the evening and other songs such as ‘No Heart in this Heartache’ and ‘No Matter Tammy Said’ were skilfully weaved into the first half as Michael and Lou appropriately marginalised their onstage chemistry.

Lou and Michael at Cambridge Folk Festival in August
After the break we were duly entertained with a full hour of My Darling Clementine as normal service was resumed with their cutting satire, dry humour and full blown song presentation. An excellent sound system bestowed a venue not the usual domain of consistent live music and, though there will always be a difference with the full band, the acoustic flow from stage to audience was impeccable and impressive upon reception. Both My Darling Clementine albums were heartily raided with ‘King of the Carnival’ and ‘Departure Lounge’ being particularly enjoyed on a personal basis.

Either side of a two pronged cover song presentation, were perhaps the two outstanding moments of Michael and Lou’s performance. Just prior to paying respects to George Jones with ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ and inviting Mark back to the stage to sing the timeless classic ‘Heartaches by the Number’, we were moved by an extra emotional version of ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’. Another heartstring pulling number sent the audience home content as the duo shared a personal tale of their own in the song ‘Miracle Mabel’.

This may have been a left field collaboration but as a project it worked extremely well and its short run as a live production deserves to be well supported. It would be a pity if no recorded format was made available to capture the evocative mood of the first half and such a product would perhaps help bridge the gap between the present and where My Darling Clementine go next with their music. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Emma Stevens - Waves Emma Stevens Music

Sometimes you come across pop music masquerading under the country banner. On the other hand, occasionally you are exposed to an artist operating in the pop stratosphere who has the potential to make a successful crossover into genre music. UK singer-songwriting, multi-instrumentalist Emma Stevens first came to my attention when supporting Jen Bostic nearly two years ago and the subsequent period has seen her career continue to make great strides. While making no other pretence than to produce a record seeking wide popular appeal, Emma sits firmly on the right side of the fence of instrumental and song integrity refraining from tinkering too much with advanced production in the name of pushing short term units. WAVES is her second full length release, packed with alluring songs designed to entertain via their string arrangements and lyrics flowing from alternating vivid and metaphorical angles.

All twelve tracks originate in some form from the pen of Emma with frequent writing collaborations used to fine tune them for maximum audience appreciation. While the theme of love has been the staple of popular song writing for eternity, Emma’s approaches the topic from several perspectives in a lyrical style adding significant credence to melodious efforts ripe for daytime radio recognition. This airplay has evolved on a repeat basis since her original solo recordings hit the market periodically in a series of short EP releases. The new record has countless options for future Radio 2 listener engagement in addition to the single which has launched this project ‘Make My Day’.

The songs forming this album are a continuation of the desire of Emma’s late mother for her to forge a solo music career after a number of successful years using her trained skills in a session and support capacity. Whilst success in this role was forthcoming, it is clearly no substitute for controlling your own project. Now in tandem with producer Pete Woodroffe, the self-released status ensures Emma’s full utilisation of her considerable string instrumental skills with a comprehensive range of guitars being joined by banjo, ukulele and mandolin.

The writing probably peaks on the third track in with ‘Helium’ acting as a beautiful metaphor for the ease at which love can be lost and ‘Singer of My Song’ honing in on the pull of music with elements of traditional song being weaved into the lyrics and tune. The latter emerges as one of the album’s slower tunes, and a prime candidate for standout track, with ‘Nothing Serious’ being another effective reduced tempo effort. A more Latino beat accompanies the exotic number ‘Gold Rush’ as Emma particularly excels at the sound to encourage some feet movement, although the temptation to eliminate the organic feel with dance remixes is gladly resisted. Album opener ‘So Stop the World’ is the archetypal acoustic driven pop anthem promoting escapism and lodging an immediate application to remain in the long term memory section of your brain.

This type of record would only frequent these pages if the ingredients were in place to make significant insurgences into the deeper genre world of either folk or country. At this moment in her career, Emma Stevens is making highly credible pop records capable of creating the simple title of the album. Time will tell whether there are moves in these new directions but Emma definitely has a lot to offer. In the meantime sit back and enjoy the positive rays shining from WAVES along with spending a short moment understanding and appreciating the talent of Emma Stevens.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Ward Thomas + The Shires + Dexeter - Glee Club, Birmingham Tuesday 4th November 2014

The cork has been popped and the latest attempt to engage the wider UK music public with a form of country music is out to show that it’s more vibrant fizz than flat drizzle. In a shadow of collaborative US tours, the two acts spearheading this industry driven manoeuvre opened an assault on matching their media persona with live audience engagement. The Shires and Ward Thomas have been presented with a golden opportunity to drive a 'country' wedge into the mainstream with the next phase being a co-headline cleverly curated 'Homegrown Tour' which opened in Birmingham tonight.

In a mirror image to the stateside trend, those seeking mainstream approval see the ditching of banjo, fiddle and steel as a prerequisite to success although quite rightly they still retain the power of song. So the Glee Club stage was filled with guitars, keyboard and drums along with a near sell-out crowd the envy of many a UK artist ploughing the country, roots and Americana path. Prior to the two rotating main acts, Dexeter opened the evening although appearing as a duo instead of their trademark ever expanding band. In a developing theme of the evening, an abundance of well-constructed songs flowed from the stage sung with no mean vigour and impressive range. You got the impression that Dexeter may be at their best with their band and rave reviews have backed that concept. One little piece of advice is not to apologise for singing too many sad songs. This is the country music way. 

The Shires momentum is being guided by one of Nashville’s 'biggies' in Decca Records and the clock is ticking towards that all important debut album release in January. Making a first appearance with their band, the songs previously confined to the acoustic domain live took on a new lease of life with a fuller sound. The vocals of Crissie are entirely suited to the power ballad style which follow a Nashville blueprint and make a successful transition from studio to stage. A load more full band gigs will help further cement the onstage chemistry between Chrissie and Ben who are still relatively in their infancy as a performing duo. Both come across as accomplished performers keen to bring their own songs to the table and inject a home grown slant to the themes conducive with modern country outage. ‘On a Friday’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Stateline’ were three songs to benefit from a renewed live rendition.

Ward Thomas have laid their cards on the table with a debut album packed full of toe tapping melodies and a sense of how to bridge the ideals of country music. The songs are rich in influence, sincere in sentiment and provide a cutting personal insight on their surroundings. The twins, Catherine and Lizzy, are more advanced with the use of a band and were graced by a lead guitarist quite easily the outstanding musician on the evening. This was in parallel with the evening’s stand out song and a rather raucous rockin’ version of ‘Town Called Ugely’. Many present obviously were initially exposed to the band via the Radio 2 playlist numbers ‘Push the Stride’, ‘Way Back When’ and the lively opener ‘The Good and the Right’. However from a personal angle they are equally as competent with their folk inspired material including ‘Wasted Words’ and the excellently covered Dougie McLean standard ‘Caledonia’.

It would be difficult to argue against the evening’s prime moment as the twins opened their headline set with a spine-tingling a Capella version of Loretta Lynn’s classic ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough To Be My Man’. However just like in the US, there is going to be vigorous and healthy debate about the direction of country music especially when profiles are raised by media and label presence. On the other hand, a ready-made audience may just want to accept the bands on their own merit and undeniable talent.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Hot Club of Cowtown - Artrix Arts, Bromsgrove Monday 3rd November 2014

Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire the magical artistry of the performers on stage. Whether in unison or exquisitely timed solos, the talents of the three members of Hot Club of Cowtown radiated from the stage at Bromsgrove’s Artrix Arts Theatre thrilling, exhilarating and beguiling an audience in awe of such ability to interpret a timeless sound. With two definitive styles to match their ideals and passion, the trio of Elana James, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin expertly worked the original and interpretative songbook of western swing and European gypsy jazz. While there may be occasional blurs in the styles, Hot Club of Cowtown float effortlessly between the dance halls of Austin and the smoky cafes of Paris.

Without dismissing the concept of the sum of the whole being better than the parts, the lasting impression of a Hot Club gig is the incredible musicianship frequently displayed on a solo platform. Jake Erwin gave the most high-energised performance on upright bass seen for a long time, played with impeccable timing and tuneful rigour. Elana James took the fiddle to places rarely seen in a non-virtuoso setting and peaked with an extraordinary pre-encore instrumental finale raising the stakes of the evening to crescendo proportions. Whether Whit Smith was playing his trademark 1928 Gibson L-5 or not, the sound from his guitar of choice oozed with classic twang and picking that probably tripled the old adage of ‘three chords’, whether in rhythm or solo.

From a pair of sets just falling short of two hours in total, the chat was minimal and the songs flowed freely to form a set list exceeding thirty numbers spanning the continents. The first half probably had a more western theme to it with the three standout tracks being ‘Big Balls in Cowtown’, ‘Oklahoma Hills’ and ‘Deed I Do’, the latter being reminded of a previous Jools Holland performance. ‘Slow Boat to China’ gave the audience a hint of the European jazz sound the band explored on their most recent release RENDEZVOUS IN RHYTHM. After the break ‘Avalon’, ‘I’m in the Mood For Love’ ,‘The Continental’ and a French tune believed to be ‘Tchavolo Swing’ further reflected this slight change in approach. A number to probably stand alone more in the second half was a version of ‘Long Way Home’ by Tom Waits which saw the band at their most laid back, albeit for a brief moment.

The vocals are slightly tilted towards Elana who co-founded the band with Whit in New York City back in the 1990’s. Whit also contributes solo vocal pieces such as on ‘My Window Faces South’ and is obviously an integral part of the three part harmonies when Jake breaks off from his frantic bass slapping to participate. All three brought the evening to an exciting close with a dual encore combination of the fantastic and poignant ‘Reunion’ followed by the ever fetching ‘Get Along Home Cindy’.

There may be solo projects by Elana and Whit in motion but surely on the evidence of this evening’s performance the three piece band can continue to entertain and excite audiences around the world. Whether satisfying their own passion for the European jazz sound or flying the traditional flag for the core country music sub-genre of western swing, Hot Club of Cowtown remain important, influential and highly credible players on today’s music scene. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Mastersons - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 2nd November 2014

Like so many of their UK audience, The Mastersons were initially exposed to me as integral and up to date members of Steve Earle’s backing band, The Dukes. This was back on Steve’s 2011 tour and since then they have gone from strength to strength as a recording duo in their own right. Of course any new Americana band trying to establish their self in Britain requires a certain amount of stamina and the setting of realistic goals. This latest batch of dates sees the duo, comprising of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, booked by the usual array of promoters including for a sole Midlands gig, Cosmic American. Touring in support of the latest album, GOOD LUCK CHARM, The Mastersons made their Birmingham debut and duly showed why they are held in esteem by many industry figures in the US.

The good news is that in the words of Justin Currie, tonight’s turnout exceeded the ‘gig’ threshold as Chris injected a little humour into a set packed with original material and executed with extreme finesse. Harmonies and solos decorated the songs of which all but one can be found on their two studio releases to date. The sound heralded a crossroads style where country, rock and folk meet with it developing into a two pronged feel depending on whether Eleanor treated us to guitar or fiddle. The former had a reassuring solidity to it as opposed to the more explosive nature of the fiddle. Either style reflected well on a set of numbers displaying an ever increasing sophistication in the song writing which has evolved as a partnership in tandem with their own personal status as husband and wife.

A couple of references were made to another US songwriter in Steve Poltz including a co-written number ‘Highway 1’ which came over as one of the strongest songs on the evening. This was the solitary track not to appear on the current album or 2012’s release BIRDS FLY SOUTH. From that previous record, the title track excelled and metaphorically covered their own migration from Brooklyn to Austin which has suited their style. Also as both Chris and Eleanor are Texans, this was essentially a homecoming and both had significant music careers in the state prior to meeting.

The evening began with a thirty minute set by veteran northern songwriter Paul Handyside who duly entertained those present with a stock of standard songs brought to life by the slide guitar of his sidekick Rob Tickell. This paved the way for The Mastersons to fill their own seventy minute slot with the entirety of GOOD LUCK CHARM including an encore finale of ‘Time is Tender’ where orchestrated audience participation accompanied Chris and Eleanor finishing off mic. Other appealing tracks from this new record, which proved a popular purchase at the end of the evening, included ‘Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Good Luck Charm’ with the latter being inspired by a populist rally in their hometown of Austin.

In full flow, The Mastersons are an accomplished duo subjecting their audience to an impressive sound powered by the roots of music and freshened up with a contemporary fragrance. By excelling in the holy trinity of vocals, sound and song, the creative force of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore are much more than a blessing of Steve Earle and gave plenty of evidence this evening to form a long, successful and influential career.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Stephen Simmons - Holy Cross Parish Hall, Lichfield Friday 31st October 2014

Divided by a common language is a phrase often mooted around when indulging in linguistic comparisons between Britain and America. However the wealth of highly literate singer-songwriters who exchange their words and wisdom across the Atlantic divide often act as a unifying force. Stephen Simmons is an artist whose passion for words is an unrelenting lifelong journey and a performer who is most at ease when sharing his songs with an audience ripe for absorption. His latest European tour has a continental bias in date orientation but when word of his ability to entertain and paint a lyrical landscape gets around, his UK presence can be re-booted.

This date saw Stephen return to the Staffordshire area after a successful house concert last year and become the latest artist from the country, roots and Americana community to feature in the Hot Burrito Promotions programme. An East Tennessee upbringing will always give a country edge to Stephen’s work but his interpretation of life and the surroundings is more in tune with those who get banded with the folk troubadour banner. Labels aside, Stephen is an acute observer of time and place with an intuitive knack of being able to share his thoughts via the medium of song. Time constraints limited Stephen to a pair of 60 minute sets on this Halloween evening, although there was never a flagging sign, only a continual conveyor belt of interesting stories and compelling ramblings.

As the Americanisation of UK Halloween continues to rapidly rise, it was of little surprise that Stephen latched onto this topical subject from a home perspective. However it was the more specific song backgrounds and tales from his travels which fuelled the imagination and interest of many present. With his latest complete packaged album being given a recent official UK release, it was ideal to follow up the review with a further insightful exposure to the songs. Therefore the length small towns go to in the name of self-promotion added solid background to ‘Horse Cave, Kentucky’ and the origin of the Midwest meeting the Deep South informed ‘I’ll Be Your Johnny Cash’. These were just two examples of numbers selected from the HEARSAY record and were joined by the less than exotic establishment ‘The Boobie Bungalow Gentleman’s Club’, ‘Emily’s Eyes’ and one of the evening’s stand out live songs ‘Just Like a Sad Song’.

The night progressed from learning about the geological structure of Tennessee, the sickness nature of Nashville, general murder ballads through to more specific historical family secrets. 2011’s THE BIG SHOW also featured prominently with the blinding tracks ‘I’m Not’ and ‘Spinner of Tales’ standing tall amongst the gig’s highlights. On an evening where Stephen would pick a song from his extensive collection to match the mood or just because he had not played it for a while, there was a freewheeling randomness to the night’s proceedings. However other notable song picks were ‘Shirley’s Stables’ and ‘Asheville Girl’, with ‘Mr Saturday Night’ prompting the usual travelling quip of ‘what night is it’.

Stephen’s main tools of the trade are his gutsy guitar skills, headful of fine songs and a voice drenched in southern sentiment with the sparing use of harmonica and a sole cover song in Waylon Jennings’ ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’. Stephen follows a single agenda set by himself and a mission to improve his craft day by day and song by song. With a desire to overcome the usual industry barriers such as means to market, he supremely masks these challenges on stage. Stephen Simmons is a genuine guy blessed with a gift to utilise the transfixing medium of song. Adding him to your live or listening agenda will certainly enhance your appreciation of how a quality troubadour brings life and vitality to the country, roots, folk and Americana world.