Sunday, 29 March 2015

Whitehorse - Leave No Bridge Unburned : Six Shooter Records

Back in 2012 the debut album of Whitehorse was one of this blog’s formative reviews. So it’s fitting to reflect on how both have grown in the last three years. Just as the blog closes in on 400 reviews, the evolution of Whitehorse as a recording entity develops into the making of an album capable of creating shockwaves throughout the Canadian and international community of ultra-creative roots music. LEAVE NO BRIDGE UNBURNED sees husband and wife duo, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, steer their sound in a vamped up direction, underpinning an avalanche of spectacular tunes with a firm rock undercurrent. The sheer immensity of precious tracks make this album an outstanding candidate for national acclaim and it would not be a surprise to see it get a Juno nod.

Like every great album, intrinsic qualities surface with each listen but right from the off a trio of outstanding pieces firmly plant the record at the core of your listening sphere. ‘Tame as the Wild Ones’ is a sumptuous waltz-infused tune designed to set your senses alight with a choral melody straight from a melted heart. As the record hurtles towards its forty minute conclusion, a pair of ‘real deal’ high octane rocking tracks launches the album into a stratospheric alt-country heaven. Take your pick between ‘Oh Delores’ and ‘The Walls Have Drunken Ears’, but both see the guitar fully take control with incredible effect.

Luke and Melissa participated in effective individual careers prior to forming Whitehorse and have only just let the door open to a multitude of session players after initially driving the duo via their own diverse guitar and percussion skills. Enlisting the production services of Gus Van Go has enabled a fuller sound to develop with the outstanding liaison and chemistry of Luke and Melissa still remaining the core ingredient. Additionally a couple of intense ballads just preceding the rocking finale show the duo at their harmonious best in the gorgeous ‘Dear Irony’ and the passionate ‘Fake your Death (and I’ll Fake Mine)’.

Although ingrained members of the Canadian music scene, Luke and Melissa hold a fascination for aspects of the American south and introduce plenty of moody gothic moments especially within the haunting beat of ‘Evangelina’. The album emerges out of a blanket of darkness with the stunning opener ‘Baby What’s Wrong’ showing glimpses that Whitehorse can rise to the level of the great male-female Americana duos, most notably the now no longer active Civil Wars. ‘Sweet Disaster’ sees Melissa lead on an unconventional love song heading straight in Luke’s direction. All songs are original compositions from Luke and Melissa with Gus lending a hand to three of them including the thumping ‘Downtown’ which raises the volume with the injection of some heavy soul and a stint from the farfisa organ.  

Leaving comments on the excellent two remaining tracks, ‘You Get Older’ and ‘The One I Hurt’, to the end is just a reflection of the sheer high quality of the others, although the former does stand out with a landscape inspiring bass line. In fact they play their part in making this one of the most exhilarating releases of the year so far and one that sets such a high standard in mixing infectious musical marvel with songs crafted to meet the approval of the most discerning ear.

Whitehorse’s development as a recording duo in the last few years has been impressive and LEAVE NO BRIDGE UNBURNED is a sonic delight successful in making a lasting impact. This is a record whose enjoyment of will only just commence at the conclusion of this high complimentary rave review.


Hannah Rose Platt - Portraits :Self Released

How refreshing to come across a young artist pursuing country music ideals without veering down the route of ‘quick fix’ pop-rock models. Hannah Rose Platt uses the combined beauty of her lyrical wisdom and wondrous vocals to populate a blank canvas of a debut record in remarkable and mature portions. Adopting a folk-tinged influence and finespun musical arrangements helps steer PORTRAITS, Hannah’s debut full length release, into the territory of lauded association and anointed acclaim. All twelve tracks etch a tantalising appeal across your mind, showcasing Hannah’s potential to develop into an influential songwriter, both in evidence on solo contributions and the nous to learn from the best.

Being hailed by Sid Griffin as a ‘young, north of England Emmylou Harris’ is an eye opening comment to introduce a female artist but such hyperbole is not so out of place. On a record simply but beautifully crafted, Hannah explores some deep seated concepts using guile, awareness and a flair for using the song writing medium to invoke some serious character studies. The bravest of Hannah’s eight solo and two collaborative writing efforts is the marvellous ‘1954’, taking on the subject of dementia with breath taking maturity. Further character based compositions reveal the ultimate daydreaming fantasy of ‘Dancer’ and emotional inter-family communication from behind prison walls in ‘Birthday Card’.

Every aspiring song writer will dig deep into the lavish well of relationships to form their subjects and Hannah delivers this wonderfully in a trio of tracks looking at the topics of regret, aftermath and reconciliation. ‘Half Way Home’ takes on the notion of turning back time to alter the future, while ‘Crumbs’ sieves through the remnants of a failed association. ‘The Doll and the Soldier’ is a metaphorical take on rekindling old times and is a co-write with Sophie Daniels. Likewise the track ‘(We’ll Say Goodbye) Tomorrow’ sees Hannah share penning duties with her co-producer Michael Bonagura to explore the decision to delay the inevitable for just one more night.

Hannah had the good fortune to take herself off to Nashville from her Liverpool base and enjoy its rich recording resources to make PORTRAITS. She also shows an intuitive inkling in what constitutes a good song when selecting the two borrowed tunes for the record. Vocally Hannah totally wipes the floor with Luke Bryan on her version of ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ bringing visions of a young Lee Ann Womack imposing raw emotion and countrified talent to the ubiquitous drinking song. Also honing in on a song co-written by Shane McAnally, one of the industry’s best, will do her song writing development no harm. Michael Bonagura’s ‘Little Screws’ is a delightful song to launch the dulcet tones of Hannah at the commencement of the album revealing a powerfully messaged piece, focussing on mundane reflection before exploding with the mortal trinity of ‘a needle, a gun and a rich man’s war’.

Hannah’s sweet and comforting vocals stretch the length of the record and are allowed to blossom courtesy of the subtle music arrangements infiltrating a multitude of string accompaniments, most notably fiddle and cello. As intimated, this record possesses all the hallmarks of that dream-laden aspiring singer-songwriter migrating to Nashville knowing that her agenda-free offerings will likely to gravitate more to the left field Americana world than the corporate radio obsessed moguls of Music Row. This is a massive complement to Hannah as her passion and drive to make glorious aromatic music, relieved of chasing artificial melodies, lends itself to an album of great substance.

Without any hesitation, endorsement of this near faultless debut work is forthcoming and PORTRAITS is as pure and natural an album you could wish to listen to. Hannah Rose Platt is a welcome addition to the UK music scene and proud accomplice to a record sealed to add value to your precious listening experience.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Kimmie Rhodes + Awna Teixeira - St. George's, Bristol Friday 27th March 2015

Question: What do Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Wyonna Judd, Gillian Welch, Cowboy Jack Clements, Joe Ely and Buddy Holly all have in common? Answer: They were all namechecked by Kimmie Rhodes last night during her Bristol show, reflecting the depth and breadth of her musical associations over the last thirty plus years. Of course Buddy Holly is the odd one out of not working professionally with Kimmie but, being the source of the Waylon story, a fellow original inhabitant of Lubbock Tx and one of her heroes, made his presence relevant. In fact Kimmie chose to end the show with a cover of ‘Raining in My Heart’ to cap a performance running deep in a wealth of classic country and immaculate song writing.

This beautiful hall now converted to a vibrant music venue hosted a one off double bill of two contrasting touring musicians reflecting a diversity of styles becoming encompassed under the Americana banner. While Kimmie is a certified Texas treasure born with the gift of Lone Star song writing sentiment, Awna Teixeira beautifully blends the nuances of Canadian and European folk to present a sound extolling in haunting brilliance. Although technically billed as opening for Kimmie, Awna’s set was just a mere 15 minutes shorter and if maybe the bulk of the audience were initially attracted to the more country sound, leaving enthralled by the essence of the ‘support’ was just shy of mandatory.

Both artists were touring in the duo format with Gabe Rhodes assisting Kimmie and Jay Speed doing likewise to Awna. The mother-son comments frequently flowed in the second half of tonight’s show, although Gabe’s value to Kimmie’s music is immense whether playing effective guitar in a multiple of styles or being more than tempted to make full use of the venue’s grand piano. Gabe was also a key architect on Kimmie’s latest and very impressive album COWGIRL BOUDOIR. Perhaps it was a solitary regret from the show that we only heard two songs off this record. While ‘Yes’ and ‘Worthy Cause’ are fine numbers, there is so much more on offer to enjoy on the disc and it could have easily filled another half an hour.

Awna did focus more on her latest album featuring amongst others, the title track ‘Wild One’, ‘Thunderbird’, ‘Away We Go’ and ‘Blue Heart on Your Sleeve’. Jay started and finished his supporting contribution on lap steel, with faint electric guitar adorning the mid-section. Although Awna’s solo career is gathering momentum, we remember her eclectic musicianship as part of Canadian roots combo Po Girl and tonight during her allotted 45 minutes we were treated to banjo, guitar and accordion. Whether reflecting on her Portuguese heritage, passionately campaigning for increased mental health awareness or celebrating the wonders of her surroundings, the latter captured in ‘Stargazer’, the composed Awna enthrals and entices with equal measure. One note to the venue would be to turn the sound up on the vocals a little, as it was quite tricky to listen to Awna’s inter song chat from an allocated seat towards the rear of this cavernous hall.

This situation was resolved for Kimmie’s set by finding a couple of empty seats nearer the front and there was no issue listening to her informative and entertaining tales punctuating a series of songs stretching across her back catalogue. There was a different take on the Buddy Holly/Waylon Jennings much told plane crash story, as well as Kimmie paying humble homage to her mentor Willie Nelson. This peaked with a gorgeous version of ‘Love Me Like a Song’ which was neatly followed by one of the first songs she recorded when re-locating to Austin at the outset of her career, the very Tex-Mex sounding ‘Contrabandistas’. Other songs sung during this engaging set with illustrious connections were ‘Love and Happiness’ (Emmylou Harris), ‘I Just Drove By’ (Wyonna Judd) and ‘God’s Acre’ (Gillian Welch).

On the plus side it was great witnessing two exceptional artists sharing a single bill but, with the inevitable frustration of seeing their sets cut in mid-flow due to time constraints. It’s a shame that no West Midlands venue was prepared to give either artist a solo gig especially as Awna was an integral member of the popular Po Girl. However fair play to St. George’s in Bristol for hosting a fine evening. No doubt both artists will be keen to continue to develop their presence in the UK in the future as Awna Teixeira will without doubt prosper by dazzling audiences with her exclusive take on roots induced Euro-Canadian Americana and there is little hesitation in hailing Kimmie Rhodes as the personification of ‘three chords and the truth’.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bella Hardy - With the Dawn :Noe Records

Just imagine emerging from a ravaging winter to be greeted by the new dawn of spring. Supplant that greeting with the beautiful cherubic tones of Bella Hardy and you’ll definitely be re-invigorated for the longer days of summer. A little imagination for this may be needed when living in the UK’s mild climate but bathing in the exquisite sounds from Bella’s new album is very real as WITH THE DAWN gets its timely spring release. Teaming up with producer Ben Seal and focussing on original material rather than exploring traditional song, reaps dividend for Bella who delivers a record saturated in soothing and stimulating sounds.

Her reign may or may not be about to end as the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year but in line with a prolific past, Bella once again charms and beguiles the listener with a collection of eleven songs spearheaded by a stunning lead off track. ‘The Only Thing to Do’ had its single release in January along with a striking accompanying video and branches out beyond any perception of an insular folk world to reveal a cheery persona wrapped in a satisfying palatable tune. Peel away the breezy melody of the opening track and the music gets far more explorative with the constant thread being Bella’s heavenly vocals, for me peaking on the exceptional ‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’.

Instrumentally, the banjo plays a significant role mainly in subtle portions, although often punctuated with profound blasts of brass courtesy of French horn, tuba, trumpet and trombone. At times you have to put a little effort in to get the musical nuances but the rewards are plentiful especially when the mind is de-cluttered prior to listening. Only on two tracks does Bella seek writing assistance, with the Ben Seal co-write ‘First Light of the Morning’ benefiting from a lengthy intro as though having a long stretch before an early rise. Bella has also teamed up with her great friend and performing colleague Cara Luft to pen a nature located home calling song titled ‘Time Wanders On’ to great effect.

The only song not to emerge from a period of song writing self-evaluation and reflection is the commissioned World War 1 piece ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’ part of a project focussing on the unsung heroes. This is in the folk standard tradition of recounting century old tales with strong messages and forms part of a group of songs on the album which grow fonder with each listen. Add to this the intimate and cosy ‘Gifts’ plus the haunting ‘You Don’t Have to Change (But You Have to Choose’) to present an album that fascinates throughout its 37 minute duration. As if to insert a little more mystique to the record, Bella chooses to end with the enticing and ironically titled ‘And We Begin’ which gives you one final moment to savour a finely tuned vocalist at the peak of her pristine powers.

WITH THE DAWN should be the centrepiece of Bella’s late spring tour, although she can also draw on material from six previous albums, quite remarkable for someone barely past thirty years of age. The folk world knows and loves Bella Hardy but if you do not frequent these circles then widening your listening repertoire to the new album will be the perfect introduction. The fabulous angelic vocals will transcend any genre dogma and musically this album will please both introspective folk students and casual listeners attracted to a major talent. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Devil Makes Three - The Rainbow, Birmingham Tuesday 24th March 2015

The genre conundrum surfaced last night at Birmingham’s Rainbow venue. Pete Bernhard, the frontman of The Devil Makes Three, vociferously proclaimed that they are not an American country band. This is a concept in line with the promoters who brought them to Birmingham and the earthy indie rock venue hosting them in a location where the city centre spills into the less salubrious inner city suburbs. However you only have to spend a couple of moments observing and listening to this trio to discover that they have a far greater synergy with the ideals of country music than much of the modern output so decried by Bernhard. What The Devil Makes Three do succeed at is delivering a near non-stop procession of high tempo acoustic roots music courtesy of banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass in the true tradition of the pioneers of country music and all the offspring strands.

This band, which is a trio at core but intermittently expanded to a four and five-piece during the show with the active participation of the techies, has been active in the US for well over a decade. Maybe the time was perceived right to expand their horizons and while this was certainly a debut Birmingham date, it is assumed an inaugural visit to the UK as well. Pete and his two colleagues, Cooper McBean (banjo/guitar) and Lucia Turino (bass), didn’t disguise the fun they were having on tour and those present enthusiastically reciprocated their affection.

The most striking way to describe the onstage sound mayhem is to liken the band to a stripped down version of the Old Crow Medicine Show, an act they have opened for in the US. Traditional roots music is a general label to attach to The Devil Makes Three with shades of bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and classic country spilling out of every note and song played. The bunch of songs selected to fill a ninety minute long set spanned the band’s four album recording-career to-date with a slight bias to 2013’s I’M A STRANGER HERE. From this, their most recent release, the standout songs energising the set included ‘Forty Days’, ‘Stranger’, ‘Spinning Like a Top’ and ‘Hallelu’. In fact there was a reassuring consistency about the songs stretching back to their 2002 self-titled debut album which launched the career of a band formed in Santa Cruz, California but originally from the far north eastern state of Vermont. A topic of amusement to the band has been much comment on why a group of musicians from New England play music more akin with the southern states. Bernhard counters this by implying ‘we’re just a collection of hippies and punks playing music we like’.

Cooper McBean brings a lot of traditional country influence to the band with much admiration for Hank Williams and Bob Wills, perhaps punks themselves in their day. He also added a vocal contribution in the form of a Roger Miller song and his constant switching between banjo and guitar kept the sound fresh. Another cover introduced by Bernhard was Elvis Costello’s ‘Lip Service’, a song originating in 1978 when it’s architect was spearheading a post-punk new wave movement and thus giving a good indication of The Devil Makes Three’s approach to music making. There is definitely a raw indie feel to their sound which explains adulation in the world of Americana music as opposed to the more polished mainstream.

The band’s awareness in the UK grew last year via a session on Bob Harris Country and a big push with this tour and further promotion will help them build on this momentum. Maybe a dual attack on markets will help as they combine well the raw vibrant sound of indie rock and a passion for real country. Regardless of labelling, getting acquainted with The Devil Makes Three is highly desirable either on record or more pertinently catching one of their live shows. The aura, energy and technique of this band need to be captured and diverted to influencing other sectors. 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Gretchen Peters - Birmingham Town Hall, Saturday 21st March 2015

While BLACKBIRDS continues to attract widespread critical acclaim, this evening’s show was a timely reminder of how brilliant HELLO CRUEL WORLD was and more importantly still is. This renaissance period of Gretchen Peters’ career in making these two fantastic records is spoiling fans across two continents as she continues to inject inspiring shots of fine musicianship into a rich song writing emporium spanning a lifetime. The power and emotion of the new record will without doubt have its day in the live arena in good time, thus spawning endless spine tingling moments such as savoured this evening when being totally absorbed by ‘Five Minutes’, ‘Idlewild’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Woman on the Wheel’, all from the 2012 outstanding album.

Much comment has been made of Gretchen’s 20 year love affair with UK audiences and the advancements made since. Even in the last decade the numbers attending her Midlands shows have more than doubled as she has progressed from several intimate gigs at The Robin in Bilston to tonight’s prestigious appointment at Birmingham Town Hall. Likewise the stage show has expanded in presence from just Gretchen with her guitar to this tour’s four-piece band. The piano and accordion playing of Barry Walsh has recently become a permanent fixture and it was a pleasure to once again be seduced by the sound of Christine Bougie’s lap steel guitar adorning both old and new songs. The progression on this tour was to enlist the services of Co. Down resident Conor McCreanor to cement the backfield with contributions on stand up and electric bass, also allowing Christine to periodically add percussion via a full drum kit.

The ambitious booking of Birmingham Town Hall paid off with a highly credible turnout and as expected by many locals, the luscious sonic surroundings suited Gretchen’s beautiful songs to a tee. Upon returning from the interval Gretchen temporarily shifted Barry off piano to deliver an awe inspiring, and fast becoming standard, slowed down version of ‘Independence Day’. On an evening focussing intently on Gretchen Peters post-2012, the only other delve into the back catalogue was the expected airing of ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, neatly located as the encore lead off song. To round off a night easily living up to the high pre-show expectations, Gretchen lightened the atmosphere with a full band rocking version of Rodney Crowell’s ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ and a jovial duet with Barry on the John Prine witty classic ‘In Spite of Ourselves’.

Photo by Gina Binkley
Intensity was definitely a theme for the opening set as Gretchen reeled off a near succession of tunes from the new album, unsurprisingly starting off with the title track ’Blackbirds’. Almost apologetically Gretchen commented on things getting better with this dark murder ballad out of the way which was not necessarily needed as the strength of the new record is in its raw and impassioned take on mortality. All but two tracks from BLACKBIRDS made their live Midlands debut and for me the sheer brilliance of ‘The Cure for the Pain’ made it the stand out song from this collection. As per usual Gretchen oozed with inter-song humility, appreciation and informed musings as typified by living up to the stereotype of burning houses in ‘The House on Auburn Street’ and the remembrance of forgotten victims as detailed in ‘Black Ribbons’.

With the sound of Barry’s piano playing becoming a pivotal part of Gretchen’s musical direction, he also took the opportunity to showcase his latest solo record SILENCIO and along with Connor and Christine duly entertained everybody with an instrumental titled ‘October Waltz’. Both Barry and Gretchen have been involved with Tom Russell’s upcoming major musical project and their friend was duly remembered with a version of ‘Guadalupe’, increasingly becoming a regular and popular live number.

While there are a significant number of people who have supported Gretchen’s UK adventures since their inception in the 1990’s, it is still an honour to witness the continual evolution over the last decade which has incredibly accelerated in recent times. The magic is going to be in watching and listening to the songs on BLACKBIRDS develop in their own live way and ultimately lead to Gretchen Peters raising that barrier of accomplishment even higher. It’s a challenge she continues to succeed at and many people are appreciative of her approach and take on music.  

Set List (order from memory) 

Blackbirds: When All You Got is a Hammer: Pretty Things: The House on Auburn Street:Guadalupe: Dark Angel: Black Ribbons: The Cure for the Pain 

Independence Day:Everything Falls Away: Nashville:The Matador: Woman on the Wheel: October Waltz: Five Minutes:Idlewild

On a Bus to St.Cloud:I Ain't Living Long Like This: In Spite of Ourselves

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Dan Walsh - Incidents and Accidents: Rooksmere Records

If you’re a banjo non-believer, stick around for a bit, read this review, check out the music of Dan Walsh and you may see the error of your ways. Far from having its origins in either the New World or the imperial Old, in fact it was brought to the Americas via African slaves; this iconic instrument has long established its position at the core of folk, roots and country music. While some will strum a few notes and chords on it, others take it under their wing and build a whole act on its beautiful twang. Midlands based artist Dan Walsh is definitely in the latter camp and is fast becoming acknowledged as being one of the UK’s finest exponents of banjo playing. His latest album brings more examples of flair as Dan reels off a high octane mix of instrumentals and songs, the latter a combination of both covers and originals documenting his life’s musings.

Drawing on an initial love of Scottish and Irish music, bringing in the Appalachian bluegrass sound  and experimenting with Indian classical music sees INCIDENTS AND ACCICENTS present Dan as  a versatile picker as he looks to build on his busy touring schedule with a record that can stretch his influence far and wide via radio and digital airplay. As a record, this album possesses sufficient twists and turns to keep the sound fresh and a surplus of twang-induced melodies to hook in a listener for repeat listens. While the seven songs are predominantly from the pen of Dan, his decision to cover Darrell Scott’s excellent ‘With a Memory Like Mine’ is a fine choice and highlights his knack of seeking quality influence which also includes Bela Fleck. Likewise the decision to team up once again with Canadian country singer Meaghan Blanchard on ‘Only Way to Go’ pays dividends in a subtle way.

The four instrumentals take a prominent and high profile place on the record with bluegrass being reflected in ‘Lost Rambler’. ‘Whiplash Reel’ sees Dan interpret his passion for Indian music, while ‘The Tune Set’ goes back to his Celtic roots with a trio of numbers bound together in a breathtaking six and a half minutes of banjo heaven. Fiddle and mandolin also feature as you would expect on a roots album with Patsy Reid adding the former on ‘Hermit of Gully Lake’.

When penning his own lyrics, Dan draws his influence heavily on personal feelings especially in the opening track ‘Time to Stay’ where he reflects on returning back to his Stafford home after a number of years away. This is probably the record’s standout number though running close with the Darrell Scott song. Additionally the album closer is about a personal observation on a trip back to his family’s native Ireland and the track ‘Dancing in the Wind’ keeps the door open for future pondering about Dan’s next musical move.

However the present and near future is about Dan Walsh continuing his assault on the folk, roots and Americana market and INCIDENTS AND ACCIDENTS is more than a useful addition to his armoury. To date the paths of Dan and I haven’t crossed despite our near regional proximity but this will be rectified at this year’s Maverick Festival. By then the record will be bedded in and a fair few festival goers will add him to their viewing schedule.

O'Hooley and Tidow - Birchmeadow Centre, Broseley, Shropshire Saturday 14th March 2015

One thing certain when attending an O’Hooley and Tidow show is that you leave informed, entertained and very much aware why they are gathering a deserved reputation as one of the most vibrant duos on the British folk circuit. Whether it’s their skilled approach to mastering the art of storytelling by song, harnessing their vocal talents in harmonious unison or sharing their exuberant personalities in an affable way, this acclaimed Yorkshire couple have hit the jackpot with both their recorded material and live presence.

Okay the jackpot this evening may have been 50 people in a rural community centre but folk music is all about reaching out to the people and there is little doubt that Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow could do this 365 days a year should energies permit such is the demand. BBC Radio 2 folk award nominations have begun to be accumulated and their latest industry nod has been on the back of a fine release last year titled THE HUM. As expected tracks from this album featured prominently in this show which followed a pair of sets straddling a break with the second one being slightly longer in touching the hour.

The clock had barely struck eight before the two ladies strode onto stage, dressed in black and moved straight into this album’s title track following a brief explanation of its origins from a factory in their home village. This followed a constant theme throughout the evening with very few songs not being honoured with a detailed description of its background. Musically the duo relies solely on Belinda’s keyboard playing but the act is probably more defined by the vocal interaction. The set list was just two songs in when Heidi and Belinda stepped off mic to deliver a version of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Banjolo’, a song they also recorded on their 2010 debut album SILENT JUNE.

The style of Belinda and Heidi sways from straight forward ballads such as the impressive ‘Two Mothers’ inspired by the film Oranges and Sunshine chronicling forced child migration in the 60’s, to jolly up tempo standard folk ditties best exemplified by the drinking song ‘Summat’s Brewin’’ and the singalong pre-encore closer ‘Gentleman Jack’. Of course these songs were granted informed intros with the good folk of Broseley learning of nineteenth century diarist Anne Lister’s slightly off beat lifestyle. This last song was probably the ladies most successful attempt at enlisting audience vocal participation.

Politically you don’t need to spend too long to figure where Belinda and Heidi position themselves with acknowledgement of Tony Benn to introduce the anti-war song ‘Like a Horse’, using animal imagery on their take of the banking crisis in ‘The Tallest Tree’ and honouring Ewan McColl by covering his song ‘Just a Note’. This written piece was based on the experience of migrant labour workers building the M1 motorway and contrasted with the repeated theme of animal imagery, also the topic of the Japanese inspired song ‘Kitsune’.

Getting to know the duo was an easy aspect of the audience experience and by the time the evening closed with ‘Too Old To Dream’ we were particularly informed of Belinda’s day job for 19 years prior to giving this music game a crack full time. However recounting all the snippets, sound bites and slices of folk music education is far too numerous for a review painting a pictorial overview and like all live music it’s best experienced in the first person.The Birchmeadow Centre has wisely booked Belinda and Heidi on three separate occasions and it’s pretty sure the other two nights were as good as this.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Suzanne Jarvie - Spiral Road : Continental Song City

It may have taken adversity to unlock the musical talents of Suzanne Jarvie but a certified blessing lies in a therapeutic debut album equipped to create more than a stir in the world of folk, Americana and real country music. From start to finish, SPIRAL ROAD aches in epic portions to paint a literary outpouring of what country music writing was born to capture. Not only has Suzanne told her story with heart rendering emotion, she has surrounded herself with a stellar team of players running rich in a stream of sensual soul and tantalising twang. This is a record for any age but an important 2015 ally in the defence of protecting great genre music from the ravages of those seeking universal change.

The adversity was a combination of family ailments culminating in a near death experience of a son, and an inspirational seam of Suzanne’s writing deals with the anguish and subsequent recovery process. Whether recalling the father serenading a coma-stricken son with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in the marvellous masterpiece ‘Never Gonna Stop’ or the cryptic undertone to the rocking lullaby ‘2458’, Suzanne heads in the direction of utopian song writing and doesn’t fall far short. The latter of this pair of outstanding tracks explicitly wallows in the glory of the Hammond organ with the other showing that a touch of subtle rock can go a long way in forging a sound drenched in pure Americana. However these two songs just get eclipsed in the race for standout track by the classic country tones of ‘Tears of Love’, where every sinew of emotion races from Suzanne’s pen and vocals pulling the listener in to share a blanket of comfort.

As if to use the power of song to close this chapter of her life, Suzanne positions the Freudian track ‘Before and After’ in both opening and closing spots, the latter classed as redux or reprise. Maybe this new phase of her life will see a fruitful second career develop after spending years in the legal profession. Further numbers such as the moving title track ‘Spiral Road’ and the full on Americana sounding ‘Enola Gay’ enhance the case of this being a record to set the standard for a contemporary take on the immaculate fusing of folk, country and rock music.

Toronto based Suzanne was unearthed as a potential recording talent by producer Hugh Christopher Brown and Gregor Beresford who plays percussion on the record with among the invitees to perform on the album being fellow Canadian roots impresarios The Abrams Brothers.  They play their part alongside the other musicians to deliver a swathe of mandolin, banjo, piano, violin, pedal steel and organ across this 52 minute deluge of blissful production. As implied already, Suzanne is the poetic architect of all ten tracks as well as using Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ as an integrated part of ‘Shrieking Shack’. This writing is no more optimistic than in ‘Angel of Light’ as Suzanne seeks the courage to pull through.

True to its core and inspirational in its impact, SPIRAL ROAD will meet with approval in welcoming hip markets across North America and Europe. The pain and hope leaping from each track act as guide to delve into a substantial record which unveils Suzanne Jarvie as a person with a story to tell and the skill to deliver it in iconic style. This album acts as an exemplar of how real country music should be written, played and lived.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Katzenjammer - Rockland :Propeller Records

If you’re searching for that amazing sound which takes all the pieces of pure musical roots and forms them into a perfect pop record then look no further than this new album by Norwegian all-female quartet Katzenjammer. Any doubts that a record with such an appealing instant hit will wither away is totally unfounded as ROCKLAND reveals a depth of eclecticism and comes up trumps in mastering the art of explorative ingenuity. Energy exerted in genre identification may be a sapping experience when coming to grips with this record as the four ladies kick hard in every direction imaginable, while pushing and pulling you on a memorable trip, which in particular will thrill alt-folk communities around the world.

This is Katzenjammer’s third release since their 2008 debut which relatively soon followed the four members meeting up at music school three years earlier. The sum of Katzenjammer is made up of Anne Marit Bergheim, Turid Jorgensen, Solveig Heilo and Marianne Sveen, a combo showing no fear of instrument swapping, vocal exchange and full on musical experimentation. All this is done from an infinite roots base fusing banjo, a vast array of guitars, the band’s unofficial fifth member – a triangular contrabass balalaika, countless other unplugged implements making sounds and a dynamic beat driving the bulk of their up tempo output. Katzenjammer fit neatly between those two other Scandinavian exports ripping up the alt-scene, namely Baskery and First Aid Kit. Frequently they display the energy of the former and occasionally the guile of the latter. What is a mouth-watering prospect is catching their live show and the cream of their UK dates this year is a slot at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Katzenjammer has previously courted acclaim in this country with their earlier releases but ROCKLAND has the potential to raise eyebrows across the spectrum and most notably in the cool sector. The opening bars to the album’s introductory track ‘Old De Spain’ will excite the purists and that authenticity never leaves the ten other tracks even when the melodies saunter into extreme infectious mode. For some reason The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’ comes to mind in snippets of the album’s best track, the magnificent ‘Shine Like Neon Rays’, although playing both tracks side by side reveals the mind playing tricks. The punchy track ‘Oh My God’ is possibly the one to test the listener but ultimately it gets the seal of approval to make it a complete set from one to eleven.

Lady Grey’ is a natural selection to be the album’s lead track promotion-wise as it is perhaps the most conforming number on the record, yet still retaining an appetize-quenching appeal. ‘My Own Tune’ runs it close in the ingrained magnetic effect stakes aided by a first language segment reminding the listener of the band’s Norwegian roots. The way the lyrical structure flows and unfolds possibly exceeds the depth of literary analysis invited with the title track finale ‘Rockland’ being the exception, with the pace easing to unveil a beautiful tender piece exploring individuality and based on a poets experience within a psychiatric hospital.

With a resultant rise in the eclectic stakes, ‘Driving After You’ throws a light touch of the blues into the mix, while a more explicit drive in contemporary folk direction exists in the wonderful and incredibly desirable ditty ‘My Dear’. The press release cites Joy Division and the Velvet Underground as the girls' inspiration for creative emotion and while it stretches your imagination relating this to the elements of pristine pop, the track ‘Flash in Dark’ possesses shades of moody indie. Of the two remaining tracks, the rootsy and raucous ‘Curvaceous Needs’ fits neatly into the album’s pacey opening section, while ‘Bad Girl’ is another example of a driving banjo number definitely in the Baskery mould.

It may sound a touch conflicting to say the rule book has been discarded on a record awash with spectacular catchy melodies resembling material that gets gorged on by the masses but this record is almost like no other and delivers a powerful punch of genuine music in a truly satisfying way. ROCKLAND is an album to excite and Katzenjammer is a band to broaden your horizons with little risk attached.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Ben Glover + Angel Snow - The Buttermarket, Shrewsbury Tuesday 10th March 2015

There could surely not have been a more appropriately located gig than listening to two stripped back roots artists plying their trade in a cavernous yet intimate bricked-interior vault venue. Ben Glover and Angel Snow rotated a bunch of career songs, anecdotes and comments to melt perfectly into the surroundings and reveal the substantial depths of their song writing repertoire. Perhaps the word heights would make a better analogy as both possess an innate talent to make an imprint in more expansive situations. However life is best lived in the present and the good folk of Shrewsbury had an indulgent evening feasting on a show housed within The Buttermarket venue, witnessing two of Nashville’s fast emerging singer- songwriters.

On an evening of contrasts beginning with gender, the most striking difference is the routes that both artists have taken to Music City with Ben crossing the Atlantic from the northern counties of the Emerald Isle and Angel having a shorter hop from Chickamauga, GA. Once marvelling at Angel’s ability to mix the pristine and the cutting, and connecting with Ben’s more earthy raspy style, the differences begin to narrow as we delve into their song writing output. Best described as a pair of performers delivering alternate songs rather than a duo, they do both share esteemed connections which have given them major career lifts. Ben’s association as a co-writer and opening act for Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier brought him to the attention of many new fans followed by the ultimate ‘stepping out the shadows’ record with the release last year of ATLANTIC. There is certainly no lesser song writing acquaintance for Angel which led to the good fortune of having three of her tracks cut on Alison Krauss’s 2011 record PAPER AIRPLANE.

The centrepiece of Angel’s many turns in the spotlight was undoubtedly a magical version of the beautiful ‘Lie Awake’, one of the co-writes with Alison’s brother Viktor. This was closely followed by ‘Vienna’, a song about a dream which meandered its way splendidly through to your heart. Elsewhere she mixed older tunes like ‘Holiday’ with some new ones yet to be recorded such as ‘Magnetic’. While Angel is in the process of following up her successful self-titled 2012 album, she did present a couple of tracks from a newly available EP titled SECRET. The title track saw a rare accompaniment of Ben on guitar, while the other number played was ‘I Need You’. Both songs sounded great in this setting and format, although Angel did intimate during the break that the recorded version had a different rock feel to them. Several post-gig plays certainly confirm her view as the style is a deviation from the classic female folk Americana vibe to more indie rock and akin with some of her earlier influences such as Thom Yorke and Robert Smith. However Angel is an eclectic performer prepared to experiment and should be commended for following her heart.

Ben shows no intention of hiding his love of Americana music and how the ultimate pull of its southern roots meant the Mississippi was a greater inspiration than the Lagan. The old river lent its name to one of the best songs on ATLANTIC in ‘The Mississippi Turns Blue’ and also amongst the highlights this evening. The other Gretchen Peters co-write served up was ‘Blackbirds’ and on the week before she tours the UK with the album of the same name,  it is a good reminder to appreciate Ben’s contribution to a magnificent song which, while dark in content, is luminous in appeal. A personal favourite from the album to feature in this evening’s pair of roughly 45 minute sets is Ben’s finest hour, or two, with Mary Gauthier and the resultant emotion sapping spiritual number ‘Oh Soul’. Of course the stories and quips began to flow as we learned the connection between South America, coke and ‘Whatever Happens Will’, although the uplifting ‘Sing a Song Boy’ needed little introduction. 

As this evening of symmetrical talent and appreciation drew to a close, the differences re-emerged in the form of a pair of covers to end proceedings with a duet version of Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ and Angel leading on U2’s ‘All I Want is You’. For two esteemed song writers the covers presented a moment of lighter fun as by then the brickwork would have absorbed any sceptics. It was definitely a good move for the New Twang promotion to re-locate this gig to a setting absolutely perfect for Ben Glover and Angel Snow to share the fruits of their gift to entertain.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Hannah Aldridge - Hop Pole Inn, Bromsgrove, Friday 6th March 2015

With a striking pose and a persona soaked rich in southern lore, Hannah Aldridge engulfs the senses of many an Americana romanticist through her wealth of music, influences and tales. Possessing a voice which perfectly moulds around her songs of sentiment and darkness in equal portions, plus the aura to rise above the bustle of a Friday night venue, works wonders for Hannah’s spotlight presence. The finished article is an enthralling artist finding her true mission to shoot from the soul and keep the fire of pedigree roots music burning.

Hannah’s album RAZOR WIRE is just approaching its first anniversary and still sounds as fresh as it did on the first listen. The added good news is that the process for the follow up is well under way with songs beginning to be trialled in live dates and hopefully an early 2016 release in the offing. She is also carrying on a mission to initiate greater recognition in Europe and this Bromsgrove gig forms part of a double pronged cross Atlantic assault this year including a return to the Maverick Festival in July.

Following the usual formula of a pair of 45 minute sets, Hannah tamed the locals in a Friday night drinking hole even tempting an unusual slow dance to ‘Parchman’, although it was unlikely the participants listened to the words of this tale of death row angst. However Hannah has probably cut her cloth in less salubrious settings working through the music scene in her home state of Alabama. Yet she is now poised for a breakthrough and it would advantageous if she continues to court the same acclaim that was forthcoming during previous visits.

Although Hannah raised a lot of eyebrows with her stunning set at Maverick last year, it was much more rewarding to observe this extended show allowing her to develop the song introductions, experiment with new material and pay tribute to her influences with some well-chosen covers. The latter saw Hannah celebrate the music of fellow Alabama resident Jason Isbell with a superb version of ‘Cover Me Up’ and give respect to a hero by playing Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’, an artist she named her son after.

Moving onto family matters and Hannah doesn’t hide the fact that her father is a highly esteemed songwriter who ventured out of their hometown Muscle Shoals to pen a string of country music hits. She acknowledged the work of Walt Aldridge by delivering a version of ‘Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde’, a big hit for Travis Tritt. This song was actually a co-write with James LeBlanc and Hannah keeps the family tradition going by working with his son Dylan. Another song from this writing team that she delivered beautifully during the show was a Civil War tale called ‘Yankee Bank’, certainly written from a southern perspective.

More importantly, Hannah displays an immense flair for writing herself whether commissioned or with the intent of recording. A special highlight this evening was getting a preview of three songs potentially earmarked for the next album. The most striking was ‘Birmingham’ which was introduced with an acknowledgement that it was being aired barely 10 miles from the UK version. While still very much work in progress, it possesses a strong structure and melody to make a substantial impact. The other new songs Hannah introduced were ‘Lace’, written on the horror subject of possession and a favourite genre of her commissioned writing, and ‘Gold Rush’, reflective thoughts on the race for recognition in the early stages of a music career.

The material from RAZOR WIRE was obviously familiar to those attending specifically to see Hannah rather than have a drink and a chat, with from a personal point of view ‘Black and White’ being the highlight. Each song played from this record had a suitable explanatory introduction with ‘Old Ghost’, ‘You Ain’t Worth The Fight’ and ‘Howling Bones’ still retaining that special appeal garnered from multiple listens making the album one of the most respected releases of 2014 in these quarters.

From a genre perspective overseas, Hannah Aldridge is a quintessential Americana performer heavily influenced by country, rock and soul – who wouldn’t be coming from Muscle Shoals. She is proud of her roots and is fighting a fair game to make a name in both the crowded market back home and the fluctuating ones in the UK and on the continent. Hannah Aldridge deserves to succeed and the pleasure is totally in the experiences of those joining her on this journey of discovery, optimism and hopefully fulfilment.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Dreaming Spires - Searching for the Supertruth: Clubhouse Records

This album had its dawning with me back in October 2013 when The Dreaming Spires introduced the track ‘Dusty in Memphis’ during their support slot for Danny and the Champions of the World in Birmingham. Pouring out from the stage with spine tingling emotion, this mini epic possessing the most memorable of chorus tags permanently etched on the memory from first listen and has now surfaced in full grandeur as the centre-piece on the band’s second album SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH. However far from dominating the record, it emerges as a gateway to what The Dreaming Spires do best and guides you on a wanderlust tour fuelled by the finest of homespun indie, soulful Americana and shamelessly upfront alt-country rock.

The Dreaming Spires are organically the Bennett brothers, Robin and Joe, alongside regular drummer Jamie Dawson and an assortment of guest players. Amongst these include ‘Free Jazz’ Geoff Widdowson on sax, like the brothers an honorary ‘Champion of the World’, and Jackie Oates adding violin. Once again the album is released on Clubhouse Records, a label punching way above its weight. They certainly know their music and teaming up with The Dreaming Spires encompasses their ethos of bridging the gap between classic British new wave and country tinged Americana. This 10 track-47 minute long release effortlessly moves through the gears embracing racing guitars, brass, keyboards and steel, all in a haze of lyrical brilliance and melting melodies.

The pen of Robin has been the source of all ten songs, either from a solo or collaborative perspective, and they mix well with a sound often wandering into psychedelic territory while spilling out of the Oxfordshire countryside and heading west. Accusations of The Dreaming Spires spiralling into a late 60s and 70s retro mode are proudly upheld and they expertly capture the mood of an iconic past with well-balanced vocals enticing you to drift with them on their journey, far from aimlessly, veering towards the west coast.

Tracks such as the hypnotic ‘Strange Glue’, the wallowing ‘We Used to Have Parties’ and the nostalgic ‘Easy Rider’ play their part perfectly accompanying you on this voyage of musical discovery. Both Joe and Robin work wonders on creating such an atmospheric soundtrack with softly induced sublime lap steel adding a seam of elegance to a number of tracks. Rousing and tender are contrasting emotions emanating from this record with the storming opener ‘Still Believe in You’ rampantly falling into the former category adorned with a cracking chorus. Album closer, a 7 minute long protracted finale titled ‘So Pretty’ combines soft vibes with a trance-like state to underpin the record with a firm substance.

Title track ‘Searching for the Supertruth’ epitomises the mystical qualities of the record and whether they find it or not can be discovered in multiples of listens that rarely strain the ear. Likewise the delightful harmonies that decorate ‘If I Didn’t Know You’ resonate with pure aural pleasure leaving the final slots for the short soulful strands found in ‘When the Magic Comes’ and the stripped back acoustic intro to ‘All Kinds of People’.

From start to finish this record nourishes any appetite for Anglo-Americana and sets out a clear case for being one of the prime candidates for UK alt-country album of the year, even as we barely hit March. The final word on this rock n’ soul extravaganza under the guise of SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH lies with the belief that finding ‘Dusty in Memphis’ is probably the answer and only then ‘you know we’ve got soul’.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Mavericks - Birmingham Symphony Hall. Sunday 1st March 2015

Striding onto the stage to the strains of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ by The Specials proved a Freudian entrance for The Mavericks in Birmingham this evening. Nearly two and a half hours later, the Symphony Hall had just witnessed a special performance and it would be nigh on impossible to find anyone who didn’t enjoy themselves. The band’s soiree at the top table of country music may have been twenty years ago but, led by the ever impressive Raul Malo, there are still plenty of tricks up the sleeve to teach the modern era about the class and style to inject into the genre.

The Mavericks circa 2015 adopt a seamless twin headed approach to their live shows with a front three of Eddie Perez (lead guitar), Jerry Dale McFadden (keyboards) and Malo himself excelling on guitar alongside his stunning tenor vocals. In the absence of the now departed original bassist Robert Reynolds, the backbone of the band is a five piece featuring the horn pairing of trumpet and saxophone, accordion and a rhythm section of drums and double bass. In unison they put together a blistering set of scintillating music drawing on a heady mix of country, Latino, rock n’ roll, retro pop and even a hint of Ska. It was a night of few words from Malo as the band soared through a near thirty-song set highlighting their exceptional recording skills either side of a lengthy hiatus.

Choosing to open the proceedings with their most well-known song ‘Dance the Night Away’, a UK No.4 chart hit in its day, may have proved intriguing to some observers but this song is far from their best and maybe it was a way of saying ‘here’s the hit, now wait for the real stuff’. One of the most impressive features of The Mavericks decision to reform  in 2012 after an eight year break is that the two new recordings since have raised the bar of their back catalogue excellence. This latest tour is named after the most recent record MONO and this album was almost played in its entirety including reeling off half a dozen tracks in succession after the opening number. Among the highlights of this record, which should grow in momentum during the year, were ‘All Night Long’, ‘Out the Door’ and ‘Pardon Me’. The latter was a symbolic moment highlighting the band’s diversity as it was played when the horn section had a breather and Malo immediately switched into country mode.

The highest compliment to pay to this record is that it even provided the evening finale with an entire Symphony Hall on their feet dancing to one of its leading tracks, ‘(Waiting For) The World to End’. The album IN TIME saw The Mavericks bounce back onto the music scene three years ago and a fair few numbers from it enhanced the set list led by ‘Back in Your Arms Again’, ‘All Over Again’ and ‘Dance in the Moonlight’. Of course it was not just all about the contemporary Mavericks as old favourites like ‘Because of You’, ‘There Goes My Heart’ and the foot stomping pre-encore finale of ‘All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down’ all helped create a feel good wave of nostalgia and magnificence around a venue, as usually tuned to its sonic best.

A three hour extravaganza of music had begun on the stroke of 7:30 with a support slot from London based band Hidden Charm. With a refrain from subtlety, the four piece combo comprising of three guitars, occasional keyboards and percussion unashamedly dealt a slice of 60’s inspired Brit Pop/Rock which was rapturously received by the early arrivals. As an opening act they certainly hit the right mark with a rising of the intensity straight from the first note.

During the Mavericks hiatus, Raul Malo had developed his own solo career with numerous Birmingham appearances but he limited himself to just a singular moment in the spotlight this evening with a crooning version of ‘Mona Lisa’. As much of a star as Raul is, this show was all about the unity of one great band and how they demonstrated the ultimate value in the combined efforts of a well-oiled slick high class machine. On the first day of March, the renewal of The Mavericks as a significant force in the world of American roots music set down a marker for all 2015 gigs to follow.