Monday, 30 January 2017

The Most Ugly Child - Copper and Lace :Self-Released

There’s no holding back East Midlands country roots band The Most Ugly Child as they power their way through a debut album of promising stature. COPPER AND LACE unravels itself as twelve enterprising tracks frequently varying in tempo but rarely deviating from full-on mode. The brainchild of Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison, this six-piece combo have accumulated the sum of their parts to show that home grown honky tonk can flourish with the right intent. 

Despite the obvious temptation to call on some great traditional country tunes, the band have bravely opted to almost entirely go down the original's route with the only popular cover being a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’. To the credit of Daniel and Stevie’s individual writing, it is their compositions which give the album a mighty push in the direction of demanding serious attention.

Ironically it is a song written by a fellow purveyor of contemporary British honky tonk music in Daniel Meade which kicks the album off in a rousing style. ‘What Might Have Been’ lingers around as one of the leading tracks and the duet vocal style of Daniel and Stevie are reminiscent of the songs emanating from the My Darling Clementine project.  As you would expect from this type of music, fiddle, pedal steel and the general acoustic sound rules the roost and the whole team in The Most Ugly Child set up have played a part in making this an appealing album to sit back and enjoy.

After a couple of up tempo numbers to get you into a foot tapping mood, the beat slides down the scale as the ballads take over. The first of these, ‘Roses’ possesses a Celtic feel to the impression it leaves, linking the musical amalgamation of the old and new world. As the album gathers momentum we hit the ubiquitous drinking, marital breakdown and general songs on the side of melancholy. ‘Long Gone Woman Blues’, ‘The Bottle & the Fall’ and ‘Just Another Lesson in Pain’ leave little to the imagination.

While the pace of appreciation is maintained throughout the record’s duration, a couple of gems are kept under wraps until the final two slots, as the overall high value of the release is affirmed. ‘Queen of the Honky Tonk’ takes you on a thoughtful journey reflecting well Daniel’s writing style leaving a cracking song in its midst. By ending on a note of originality in the wonderfully sentimental ‘My Pony’, the band has crowned the proceedings with a slice of commendable song writing.

Whether tackling the duets, solo vocal pieces, upbeat and slower songs, an explicit sound fires up the record and the general straightforward approach adopted is free of nuance and subtlety. COPPER AND LACE is entirely accessible and adds a vital component to the band promoting their unassuming style which without doubt would be highly energetic in a live environment. The Most Ugly Child will probably find a welcoming home in the hearts of folks susceptible to an intoxicating dose of traditional country music, with the UK’s Americana circuit being a likely destination. One certainty is those that seek out this record will be richly rewarded.

Curtis Grimes - Undeniably Country : LonelyRiver/Independent

Having had its US release at the back end of 2016, UNDENIABLY COUNTRY by Curtis Grimes is getting aimed at the UK market in the midst of interesting times. This eight track mini album needs no clues in its direction and sets out a stall of dogged determination. In 2017 the UK market is increasingly split between new country pop and progressive Americana, quite often leaving the straight down the middle explicitness of 90s mainstream country struggling to find a voice.

You don’t have to look too far from the title to infer that Grimes is pushing to be a mouth piece for such a voice and there is no holding back on the values he holds dear. These lean heavily on the traditional side of the genre, but rather than telling stories, the lyrics set out to re-affirm a culture, stance and way of life. Familiarities with the staple content of country songs when Jackson and Strait ruled the roost are aplenty on this record, as is a desirable soundtrack awash with lashings of fiddle and steel. On several occasions the modern mainstream is earmarked as enemy number one especially on the cleverly composed ‘Ten Year Town’.

Grimes leaves you in no doubt where he stands on the subject of religion, a massive appreciation of Hank Williams and a traditional well documented song writing view of living in the South. Maybe such an approach leaves the content open to criticism outside its core, but all the songs are heartfelt, incredibly well-composed and capture a magical sound that makes country music an idealist appeal around the world.

Curtis Grimes has been described as a Lone Star troubadour to reflect his Texas base and calling. You can also imagine these songs flourishing in live environments around the small town settlements across his homeland. The aura of this analogy transfers to the recorded format leaving a potential interaction with an overseas country music fan base that perhaps yearns for a simpler sound reflecting past associations. 

UNDENIABLY COUNTRY opens the door to a pondering moment for distant nostalgia and totally frames a soundtrack heavily responsible for seducing fans far and wide.

Stephen Simmons - A World Without : Blue Rose Records

‘A world without art has no hope’ ponders Stephen Simmons on the last track of his latest album, but fortunately its detachment from reality is confirmed in the subsequent CD liner notes. In fact Stephen is forever grateful that he has been able to practise his own art form comprehensively over a considerable number of years including the last decade both in a recording capacity and overseas touring act. A WORLD WITHOUT had its US release last year, with a switch in focus now to European audiences ahead of yet another visit planned for this spring. For those familiar with Stephen’s work, the content continues in a similar vein, with a range of tunes springing out from a singer-songwriter base often in a rock ‘n’ roll direction. Overseas, Stephen will always be aligned to his country music roots especially with a home base of Nashville and an upbringing in small town Tennessee.

Eleven self-penned tracks form the primary content of this record following an opening piano prelude composed and played by his band partner Molly Jewell. She in fact joined Stephen for some house concert dates a couple of years ago. However his general touring mode especially in the UK is as a solo artist, although frequently he is joined by the full band, mainly for dates on continental Europe. Part of the themes that echo on the new record do call in on the subject of solitude, alongside the perpetual tribulations of confused love, the wonder of travel and perusing the grey area between fact and fiction.

Without the necessary insight of song background information or their associated live stories, the listener can only deduce the relevant meanings and inspirations. ‘Baby Brother’s Got A Baby Now’ possesses a strong sense of reality, while ‘West’ assumes a degree of migration-induced fiction. Elsewhere one can only surmise the love related origins of ‘Fairy Tales (The Flower’s Burden)’ and ‘The Music Highway’. However the expansive musings on ‘Puritan Cowboy’ could only possibly be of an autobiographical nature. Regardless of the underlying meanings, each song reaches the listener in fully primed condition enabling the pleasure of enjoying the content to be a smooth process.

The latter mentioned track, along with an earlier one referencing part of I-40 linking Nashville with Memphis, are among the album highlights. Add to this the lovely chorus adorning ‘Silver Moon Saloon’ and the contemplative nature of the closing track ‘On Top Of a World’ gives you a solid quartet from which to get to grips with the rest of the album.

Musically the journey mixes the tempo of the tender ballad with the upbeat rocker and from a performer groomed on the country music icon there is significant pedal steel, although not over done to make this a shoe-in genre release. To the contrary it is difficult to pigeon hole this album which is probably a credit to Stephen’s independent streak.

Stephen Simmons is an artist to whole heartedly believe in. There are no short cuts or gimmicks and you are led to assume that the long road will always be taken if it’s the right road. Intelligent, intuitive, inquisitive and contemplative possibly go a long way to defining his song writing and it has been a pleasure acquainting oneself with his body of work over the last few years, both on record and in several live shows attended. A WORLD WITHOUT is an extension of a principled troubadour re-enacting their artistic calling and should be marked as a record to check out.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Wild Ponies - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick, West Midlands. Saturday 28th January 2017

Flourishing in front of a maths, science and fiction backdrop, Nashville-based duo Wild Ponies brought an alternative slice of independent Americana to Thimblemill Library on another successful venture of taking meaningful music into the heart of our urban communities. Doug and Telisha Williams have become widely praised perennial UK visitors since their first trip with Rod Picott a couple of years ago and this inaugural visit deep into the core of the industrial West Midlands saw their flame burn brighter with a new band of admirers secured. For the handful of existing Wild Ponies fans attending, it was business as usual in terms of music, songs and engaging anecdotes, but the true worth of the evening was the rapturous reception given by their new fans among a gathering that edged into three figures.

Clad in his grandfather’s stylish hat and armed with dual guitar weaponry, including the trusty Telecaster, Doug thrived in this opportunity to share his skills, values and passion for a commendable outlook on how music can reflect the subtleties of life. Telisha displayed the precious virtues of grace and a southern charm alongside her familiar upright bass and irresistible vocals which wrap each song in a sassy cover. As per recent tours, they have acquired the services of Tobias Humble on drums to provide that essential third rhythmic dimension especially when the throttle is turned up. For two hours, intersected by a short break, we were treated to songs from three sources: both recent albums credited to the Wild Ponies and a surprising insight to a new exciting project.

This last point is founded on the theory that the ink is barely dry on their latest album RADIANT which has only surfaced on both sides of the pond since midway through last year. However creative drive knows no constraints and we were introduced to three new songs that herald the next phase of the Wild Ponies. More on this will follow as the year pans out, but for a little taster think purity, isolation, connection and that frozen in time pin drop moment. Throw in accomplices such as Will Kimbrough and Amelia Curran to add to the anticipation.

Since the Wild Ponies last visited the general Midlands area (they are regular visitors to the Staffordshire village of Elford), the RADIANT album has become widely available and this evening’s show opened with four tracks from that record. When ‘Love is Not a Sin’ was first heard it was surrounded by the joy of a Supreme Court ruling in the US; tonight its airing was in a far more resolute tone in light of fearful new developments. Overall this album continues to flourish whether in the optimism of the title track and its co-write origins; the classic slow dance vibes to the ‘Night We Never Met’ and the raucous set closing rampant ode to re-connecting with things that matter in ‘Unplug the Machine’. Ok you’re plugged in now, but for three important minutes at every Wild Ponies show nobody is, including a hundred people in Smethwick on this Saturday evening.

Who can resist a murder ballad? Wild Ponies can’t with ‘Trigger’ and ‘Lullaby’ both bringing some gore to the proceedings. For a take on nostalgia, ‘Things That Used to Shine’ fits the bill, while in the name of NASCAR history, ‘Massey’s Run’ adds some vibrancy to the pace. ‘Broken’ was another of the upbeat songs to make the set list and a super trait surrounding the Wild Ponies is their versatile adeptness at contrasting song tempos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the show was Telisha opening up about personal issues leading into a resounding version of ‘Make You Mine’.

To enhance this incredibly high value-for-money show, the organisers booked the services of local band The Lost Notes as support and allotted forty minutes for them to share a bunch of self-penned songs defined by multi-part harmonies and a successful desire to entertain. Though appearing in a slimmed down three person format from their usual five, the performance was well-received and acted as the perfect opening tonic to set the scene for the Wild Ponies.

In these times when promoting ‘below the radar’ music can be a tough process, not from the quality of the artist but a general apathy to crawl from under the corporate blanket, this show was a refreshing achievement. There is a growing band of devoted folks across the UK ready to believe in the Wild Ponies and the reception when presented in front of new audiences is guaranteed to be positive. For one night, this buoyant and thriving essential local community venue threw open its doors to welcome a small part of independent East Tennessee. There is hope after all.

Thanks to Andy D. for the images

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Daniel Meade - Shooting Stars and Tiny Tears : From The Top Records

The songs are really flowing from Daniel Meade’s creative reservoir at the moment as an impromptu collection of solo material hits the market. Despite the ten tracks that form SHOOTING STARS AND TINY TEARS having their origin in a fun-based hastily composed personal project, the decision to make them available in the recorded format is set to prove a smart move as Daniel continues to establish himself on the roots and wider music scene. This suggestion of spreading his talents further comes from a recent stint playing substantial venues as part of Ocean Colour Scene’s touring band. All good experience, and no doubt a useful source for putting coffers into the bank to fund the solo stuff.

SHOOTING STARS AND TINY TEARS sees Daniel operating apart from his Flying Mules colleagues, although we have been assured that more music in the band format is likely to surface during the year, another indicator to Daniel’s current rich vein of productivity. This release is on the back of last year’s acclaimed album LET ME OFF AT THE BOTTOM which continued to raise Daniel’s profile, one most given a lift by his touring work with Sturgill Simpson. This album was put out in association with At The Helm Records, but that proved a one-off venture as self-release now seems the preferred route to market as indicated by the new one credited to Daniel’s own label From The Top Records.

Daniel at Southern Fried in 2015
By undertaking the writing, playing and singing on all tracks, the album resonates with an organic feel and a retro wrapping that will possibly be with Daniel during his entire career. For those previously acquainted with his music, the sound floats around the old time spectrum calling at the popular points of traditional country, honky tonk and straight up rock ‘n’ roll pop. The music is sufficiently simple in its constitution, but not to the detriment of the effectivity which has long marked Daniel’s music as easy listening two to three minute hooks.

Making an album stick around is always the challenge for an artist especially when it’s not designed to be a tastemaker. However the title track ‘Shooting Stars and Tiny Tears’ has such a great feel to it, one suspects it has the capability to thrive on playlists as the annual deluge of good music gathers pace. Although technically in the partial shadow of this fabulous opening track, the other nine songs are not too far behind with ‘Your Voice at Night’. ‘I Got Something’ and ‘Throwing Pebbles (Round My Head)’ leading the way. Holistically there is not a track empty of feel good merit and the effortless vibes you succumb to are a credit to Daniel Meade the songwriter.

The signs are that 2017 will be yet another busy year for Daniel Meade and hopefully he can keep venturing down the M74 from his Scottish base to entertain us folks south of the border. SHOOTING STARS AND TINY TEARS will add a few more good tunes to his song arsenal and as an interim album this record stands up to serious scrutiny before emerging as an highly enjoyable release.

Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough - Mockingbird Soul :BDM Music

Sometimes there is a duet etched in destiny, and such a union has come to fruition in the album release of MOCKINGBIRD SOUL by Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough. Their working relationship has stretched back a few years and now the association is sealed with the shared billing on an album capturing intently the intricacies of their compatible styles. The overarching effect of listening to this record is being drawn into a house concert setting and letting two contrasting performers take control of your sub-conscious. This is pure unfiltered roots music dashed with a slice of soul and various other signature sounds from the synonymous American music hierarchy.

For Brigitte, this is just over two years on from her last album, the well-received SAVANNAH ROAD which particularly raised her profile overseas with its swampy vocals and southern sensibilities. Delving deeper into the backgrounds of the two artists, it transpires that Will had the archetypal upbringing in the South as opposed to Brigitte’s West Coast one. Nevertheless the results of this collaboration are rich in the texture of southern soil and successfully present a vocal blending supplemented by acoustic artistry.

Will Kimbrough is a name that has cropped up on the album credits of so many outstanding releases over the years. It is encouraging that he has come more to the forefront on this record and not only is the trademark guitar playing omnipresent, his vocals perform a strong role, whether in duet harmony or stand -alone segments.

The album consists of twelve tracks with a cover of the Incredible String Band’s ‘October Song’ being the odd one out in writing circles. Subsequent listens to the album never get close to outstaying the forty-plus minute time required to savour its entirety and it will have its relevance in the UK elevated when the pair undertake a tour in March. There is always something special about getting the extra dimension of the live listening opportunity when taking in a new release. While this element shouldn’t influence the judgement of a recording, albums like this are geared up to replicate the moments when music reaches out such as those in a live setting.

Mockingbird Soul’ doubles up its role as title track alongside being one of the standout songs complete with the connotations of the title living and breathing within the four minutes of the duration. ‘Broken Fences’ indicates early in the record that Will is going to play a valuable vocal role and make it a balanced appeal on this aspect. Towards the latter stages, ‘Honey Bee’ sees Brigitte deliver the ultimate sultry moment and sign off the jazzy blues input. 

Like so many albums that make the review cut here, MOCKINGBIRD SOUL is entirely free of dud efforts and further proof that the entity of the LP is entrenched for the long term. American roots music is packed to the hilt with accomplished duet performances; Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough have ensured there is space for at least one more in 2017.

UK Tour Dates March 2017
  • Thu 23  The Kenlis Arms Garstang Unplugged, Barnacre nr Garstang, Lancs
  • Fri 24    The Argyll Hotel, Glasgow
  • Sat 25    Haile Village Hall   Haile, Cumbria
  • Mon 27  Green Note, London
  • Tue 28   Kingsmead House Concerts, High Wycombe
  • Wed 29  St. John’s Church, Farncombe Music Club, Farncombe, Surrey
  • Fri 31    St. George's Hall Bewdley, Worcs.

Ags Connolly - Nothin' Unexpected : At The Helm Records

For a self-confessed late convert to the undisputed ethos of country music, Ags Connolly has totally nailed the authentic sound while investing heavily in his long time song writing qualities. A performer described as the ‘hard man of English country music’ he will take no prisoners when defending the preservation nature of his craft. Following the career of Ags since the release of his debut album back in 2014 reveals a path littered with many obstacles, but with the new album adding more weaponry to the fight, the future may just be a touch clearer. Make no mistake NOTHIN’ UNEXPECTED is no halfway meeting point and challenges prejudice head on with the heady status of its contents. What you get is ten classically sounding cuts – nine originals and a nod to one of his non-country song writing heroes Louden Wainwright III with a version of ‘I Suppose’.

It’s a case of the old and the new for Ags with this record. He once again worked closely with his long standing colleague Dean Owens in the production role and teamed up with the players who helped him on the previous record HOW ABOUT NOW. The first new element is the route to market with a link up with At The Helm Records – a growing South Coast music operation intent on making the good stuff more accessible in the UK in the face of dumbed down populism. Secondly on a couple tracks Ags takes his Texas influence to another level with the added accordion of The Mavericks’ Michael Guerra taking the sound very close to the state’s southern border. ‘Do You Realise That Now’, ‘Nothin’ Unexpected’ and ‘Haunts Like This’ represent this portion of the album.

What makes this album work is the depth of sincerity and vocal feeling that Ags injects into his songs. This is clearly a man on a mission and the path to engagement is so much easier when you can hook into the ideals of the artist. The themes generally follow the country text book and what is objectionable about a timeless formula whose mantle would be taken up by someone else should Ags not have his stab at carrying the torch. ‘When the Loner Gets Lonely’ emerges as one of the album’s smartest songs and pushes for the top spot in light of stern competition from opening track and anointed promotional  number ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’. If the first song sets the standard, then the downbeat closer ‘I Should’ve Closed the Book’ brings proceedings to a wonderful melancholic ending. This shows that Ags and just an acoustic guitar plus a fine song can match the primary effect that the full band brings to the other parts of the album.

Proudly independent and staunchly authentic, Ags Connolly will continue to be a pro-active artist on the UK music scene and is integral to the fight to make this brand of country music a welcome invitee in venues, events and movements across the whole land. Maybe NOTHIN’ UNEXPECTED can become a flag bearer for UK Ameripolitan. Well we do have UK Americana! Either way the new album is worth an investment as it plays an important role in preserving a style heavily influential to more modern brands. Oh and it’s rather good as well!

Robert Vincent - I'll Make The Most Of My Sins : At The Helm Records

The second long awaited release by Robert Vincent is now cut in all its splendour and well set to repay the faith that has been shown in him from various quarters in the music industry. I’LL MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS unveils itself as a distinguished album formed by a tough exterior masking a sensitive core. Two homes have emerged in recent times to house the music of Robert Vincent with the integral one being the increased emergence of Americana as an established genre in the UK. The fit is ideal from the perspective of the primed fusion between rock, alt-country and folk, all in a sphere where the craft of song writing rules the waves. This enamoured collection of tunes soaks up the substance of the recent past to signpost where music of this ilk can progress to in the future.

Robert at Maverick 2016
The second home is South Coast based label At The Helm Records which has extended their faith in Robert’s music and dual promoted this album release with their US partners Last Chance Records. This predominately ten track album (a short forty second instrumental opens the record effectively making it eleven) occasionally sways between introspective acoustic mode and full on amplification with the former probably closest to defining the sound. However making an immediate stab at the most memorable song is the irrepressible ‘So in Love’, fully stocked with rock chills, arena ambience and an ear candy like slide solo. If you’re intent on seeking out a contemporary influence, think Jason Isbell. Going into the further throes of the musical sound vault there are shades of the seventies singer-songwriter rock acts especially in an imposing vocal style and a frequent drift into ballad territory.

Other key components of this finely tuned release include the tasty ‘Dancing with Devils’ – a song that has previously emerged as one of the promotional numbers in the lengthy run up to the album launch – and the comprehensive title track revealing ‘I’ll Make The Most of My Sins’ as a sensitive anthem packed with piano, harmony spiced chorus, further organ and the inevitable staple guitar solo. Elsewhere traces of harmonica add to the folk rock edge and a touch of twang is never too far away.

This blended approach has helped the record succeed in its various phase moods and while it emerges as a centre ground release, its basis is of substantive elements. Inevitably there is a core target audience who will lap up the merits of this album which is also tinged with breakout credentials should it venture further afield. Robert Vincent is a gifted song writer making music that will resonate well with the cultured ear. I’LL MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS is a record with plenty of legs to last the tough race of gathering deserved accolades and ultimately possessing the potential to head towards viable status. 

Worry Dolls - Go Get Gone : Bread & Butter Music

British country folk duo Rosie Jones and Zoe Nicol lived the dream for a short while as they recorded their debut album in Nashville. Now that dream turns into a tangible reality as the record gears up for its release. Under their performing name of Worry Dolls, Rosie and Zoe are the proud architects of GO GET GONE, a delightful compendium of ten roots orientated tracks packed full of tender country sensibilities. Under the esteemed stewardship of producer Nielson Hubbard, this is no blueprint product, just a beautiful evolution expertly guided to extract the depth of the talent.

Without going too deep into national boundaries, there is a remarkable similarity in the tones of this record to that which emanates from the current crop of contemporary Canadian folk artists. The name Madison Violet continually comes to the fore while listening to this album and by comparison standards that should be taken as a hefty compliment. The major track which drives this assertion is the piano led ‘She Don’t Live Here’, one of five songs which have brighter illumination at the stage where these thoughts are shared with the outside world.

Whilst Worry Dolls is very much a writing team, help has regularly been at hand to curate these songs although Zoe is credited alone for ‘Passport’. Familiar assistance is noted via the names Ben Glover and the Wild Ponies team, Doug and Telisha Williams. The latter two have featured prominently on the album’s promotional track, ‘Bless Your Heart’, adding their playing prowess to the writing involvement. Both songs mentioned here are amongst the key five indicated and chief reasons to why this album will meet the approval of many folks who enter its luscious sphere of entrapment.

My personal favourite has settled on the country waltz number ‘Miss You Already’, a prized memory of their Nashville stint and hopefully set to blossom in the listening venues around the land as the record undertakes its touring ritual. The gut of this album hosts the craft of song creation awash with pristine vocal harmonies and a predominant roots sound relying on banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar. Layers of pedal and lap steel provide the hazy faint feel and you are never too far away from a sound evidencing the majesty of folk induced country music, often generically housed under the Americana banner.

The harmonica opening, and later welcome intrusion, breathes vital life into ‘Things Always Work Out’, the fifth out of five tracks jumping ahead in the appreciation stakes. This is not intended to undermine the other half of the record which has seriously good moments, blending delectable hooks and more challenging pieces luring curious listens.

The ultimate strength of the album is the identity that Zoe and Rosie have stamped on it, keeping it free of pseudo interpretation while embedding a precious slice of Americana. Enticing repeat listens enhances its credibility and it is loaded with immense potential to launch Worry Dolls as a pre-eminent UK purveyor of seriously impressive country, folk and Americana music. In tough times the mere strength of an album may not develop into a desired level of commercial payback, but impressions of Worry Dolls growing profile shows promise that this is achievable. If making a damn good record is just the start, then Zoe Nicol and Rosie Jones have accomplished the first feat giving GO GET GONE a great chance of reaching and satisfying many ears.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Margo Price - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 20th January 2017

“She said she beat her boyfriend up while high on crack cocaine.’ Ok Margo we get the message that life was tough on a brief visit inside the penal system. However keep writing songs as well as ‘Weekender’, deliver them as impassioned as you did in Oxford last night and the book of legacy will write itself. By now you may have guessed that the aforementioned track from Margo Price’s blockbuster debut album MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTER was the standout piece from this Bullingdon show, but there so much more as the evening hurtled along with a carriage full of sincere originals and scintillating covers.

This latest UK tour may be the watershed for Margo if the exponential growth of her live fan base continues to grow, with venues that hosted her in August and now January rendered obsolete. If so, it was a massive privilege to catch the full band in The Exchange Bristol and The Bullingdon Oxford. Each gig had a different complexion, but the sum was explicit in its similarity.

One acute observation from comparing gigs is the extent that Margo raises the intensity of her song delivery when she ditches the guitar. In Bristol a hand injury forced her to work the microphone for the entire gig which was one of the redeeming features. In Oxford the mode was near 50-50 but it was noticeable how she moved onto another level with just the mic. This was exemplified in the plethora of memorable classic cuts the band covered and most poignantly in the pre-encore killer version of ‘Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)’. This may be the last time she jumps into the audience without a security person in sight. Oh the joys of a small venue.

Upon reflection, the band performance was seemingly up from the Bristol show. This may be just the cloudiness of time or the jaw dropping skills just recently seen, primarily from Jamie Davies on lead guitar. This evening the guys started as a four piece in the usual array of lead, bass, drums and pedal steel before frequently morphing into a five piece when Margo’s husband Jeremy Ivey joined the fray with harmonica input and taking over acoustic when Margo sang unaided. In fact Jeremy doubled up as the early opener for this curfew gig and performed a series of the clear cut – straight down the middle country songs that we enjoy. These were often from the time worn angles of travel and self-perception with Margo joining him to vocally duet on one and play on an instrumental duet.

On the topic of country music, which need not be referenced really, the covers called in at the greats ranging from the obvious – ‘Jolene’, the not so - Merle Haggard’s ‘Red Bandana’, a set regular Rodney Crowell’s ‘Aint Living Long Like This’ and an alternative take on Johnny Cash in ‘Big River’. The latter a refreshing change to the over covered ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. Away from country, and in celebration of her birthday the day before, Margo brought the house down with a stunning version of Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’. For many this could understandably have been the covers highlight, but for me the encore version of ‘Me and Bobby McGee, stood out. The pride in Margo’s vocals grew immensely, starting from the introduction of recollecting the duet of this she sang with Kris Kristofferson at the Newport Folk Festival.

Maybe over time, the covers in Margo’s set will diminish especially as the original material grows, which hopefully shouldn’t be too long. For this show we had a single new song previewed under the title ‘Told Me With Your Eyes’. This was a good news case of more of the same. The only other original not on the album was ‘Paper Cowboy’, a song later remembered from the Bristol gig. This song was enthusiastically introduced and forms into a storming country honky tonk stomper.

As you would expect, the album was strongly represented with maybe the saddest omission being ‘Since You Put Me Down’. On the upside ‘Hands of Time’ continues to flourish as one of the songs that shaped 2016 and ‘Tennessee Song’ proved to be a crowd favourite. ‘Desperate and Depressed’ was introduced as an ode to a bad tour experience while it doesn’t take too many listens to the lyrics of ‘This Town Gets Around’ to get the drift. ‘Four Years of Chances’ was nestled in the encore without any possible link to Inauguration Day. The remaining song opened the set and ‘About to Find Out’ once again sees Margo at her cutting and explicit lyrical best in the line ‘but you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass.'

The last statement may be a touch harsh if you apply it to folks that don’t get Margo Price, but she is an absolute class country music act with the effortless panache to pile so much into her songs and ultimate performance. What makes Margo Price special is not what she possesses but the way she utilises every inch of her gift. I’m pretty sure a sell-out Bullingdon crowd will concur with this and give thanks to the Empty Rooms Promotion team for snapping up Margo before the bigger stage looms. Live music is far more connective and meaningful in the right environment. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Carly Dow + MC Hansen - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 16th January 2017

Two Canadians, two Danes and two hours of engaging international folk music; what more do you need to get you out of your living room on a wet January Monday night. For those of us who did, it is to the credit of MC Hansen and Carly Dow for sharing the produce of their fertile craft in such a supreme manner. The live music at Birmingham’s premier listening venue wasted little time in getting under way in 2017 with a New Year’s Day show and just two weeks into the year we have had a glimpse at the impressive quality of touring acts likely to pass through the doors over the next twelve months. This presentation was part of a number of dates that Carly is sharing with MC Hansen on her inaugural European tour and the format of the evening rolled out as a split bill co-headline show.

Carly, who was accompanied by her touring partner Logan McKillop, first crossed my path twelve months ago when her debut album release had the fortunate boost of being successfully promoted in Europe. Her style resembled the current crop of contemporary Canadian folk artists, mining the vast expanses of her home environment armed with an acoustic toolkit and a headful of tuneful ideas. Like the majority of touring acts in a similar style, the opportunity to furnish their songs with the charm of the alluring background song story was relished by Carly and it was a blessing to have your imagination fuelled by enhanced content.

So over the course of the near hour Carly spent in the spotlight, our minds were taken from rural Manitoba further north up to the Yukon territory, while taking in local rivers, scenery, unimaginable low temperatures and the exploits of the local wildlife. All this primarily revolved around tracks from the album in question INGRAINED, plus a new song and an established cover thrown in for good measure. To soundtrack these beautiful songs, Carly alternated between guitar and banjo, with several interjected interludes by sidekick guitarist Logan adding both a perfect finesse and foil to the instrumental proceedings.

From the album, ‘Too Much To Go Back’ bristled with the splendour of its recorded existence, while ‘Not a Songbird’ rose to prominence on the back of a heart-warming story and a beautiful rendition. The cover of Gillian Welch’s standard murder ballad ‘Caleb Meyer’ crowned a superb set with the deal that began with the discovery Carly’s music a year ago now sealed and delivered.

While Carly’s mainland Europe and Scottish dates are solely with Logan, the England shows have seen a tie up with Danish folk singer MC Hansen who tours with his harmonium playing musical partner Jacob Chano. The playing of this unusual instrument, although frequently seen on the folk circuit, adds a regal organ-like deep sound to the atmosphere of the songs. MC possesses an extremely affable vocal style which occasionally slows to a talking pace at opportune moments. Harmony vocals are another feature of MC and Jacob’s stage persona, alongside a major gift to the audience in the warm affinity appeal of the stories forming the entertaining songs that surface.

An unlikely link between the influences of Carly and MC emerged when the latter introduced his latest record, heavily inspired by extensive travel which reached the remote Canadian wastelands of the Yukon territory. These travels further ventured around North America with the state of Ohio proving a popular location for stories. Inevitably the tales reached the homeland of MC and this was reflected in the album’s title FROM WHITEHORSE TO THE CROW’S NEST, the latter being a place not too far from his Copenhagen home. As the songs and stories flowed, the empathy between audience and artist grew which culminated in an emotive finale when MC invited back Carly and Logan to the ‘stage’ to deliver an off-mic gospel piece. Venues like the Kitchen Garden CafĂ© are heaven sent for this type of delivery especially when the curation is impromptu and proves a fitting climax.

All four artists played a significant role in making this show a worthwhile investment, not only in modest financial terms but a desire not to let slumber win and bravely support live music at its grass roots. It was a pleasure to catch up with Carly Dow after enjoying her music from a distance and hopefully the development as an overseas touring artist will blossom alongside her mantle on the Canadian circuit. For MC Hansen the association is a little closer to home and a timely reminder to how the power of music can unite a continent in uncertain times.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Emily Barker - St.George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday January 13th 2017

In a positive way it can be exhausting keeping up with the work of Emily Barker. Just in the last couple of years she has been caught live in the Applewood Road, Vena Portae and Red Clay Halo formats, each of these collusions proving an ideal mode for her expansive talent credentials. This evening the live format has been widened further to a duo performance with Lukas Drinkwater and this winning combination successfully opened the year for the music operation dedicated to bringing high quality artists to Bewdley.

It was business as usual for these shows at St. George’s Hall – youth and local opening acts, a packed venue and a headliner representing the cream of music proudly flying the flag for the country, folk and Americana banner. Emily has been on the organisers’ horizon for a while and her time in the spotlight didn’t budge one iota from the lofty expectation. The vocals were as sublime as ever and a song selection framed the majesty of how her influences form a very individual take on music. The guitar and harmonica were the main instruments of choice, but the availability of a decent sized piano adjacent to the stage proved irresistible.

This little sortie to utilise the keys was an opportune moment to introduce a song from her next project which is a solo album, already recorded last year in Memphis, but now going through a final fund raising push to get it out to everybody in May. The song was inspired by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and written from the perspective of her accomplice Maria Knight. ‘Goodbye Sister’ was mightily impressive and we were treated to another fascinating new song when she returned to the stage to sing ‘Over My Shoulder’, a piece co-written with Boo Hewerdine.

Before we leave the piano behind, Emily wasn’t the first performer on the evening to use it. Fourteen year old local school girl Rachel Howell played an opening set displaying a poise, maturity and level of performance way beyond her years. Piano was one of her three chosen instruments and not a single person present would have failed to be moved by the way she delivered an array of songs featuring such diverse sources as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Peggy Lee, alongside a couple of originals. Sandwiched between Rachel and Emily was another local band in the guise of The Dharma Bums, bringing a selection of roots orientated cover and original tunes to the evening. Both artists essential to the promoters' ideals of mixing and matching the presention.

No sooner had the band ended their set with a fine version of Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, Emily and Lukas were on after a quick turnaround and there was no better place to start than the acoustic rendition of ‘Dear River’. This is one of Emily’s best songs and although the electric version slightly edges it in my book, it still got the set off to a tremendous start. The audience didn’t have to wait too long before we were serenaded by her most widely known piece and the essential story of how ‘Nostalgia’ became the soundtrack to the TV series Wallender. We weren’t finished there with screen adaption music and the sheer beauty of ‘Anywhere Away’ was heralded in full glory as we learned of its origin for use in the indie film Hector.

Elsewhere in the set, the style of music fluctuated without any reduction in awe inspiring quality. Frank Turner’s ‘Field of June’ took the theme in the folk rock murder ballad direction, Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ was a nostalgic nod to her Aussie upbringing and the stunning gospel inspired main set closer ‘Precious Mama’ sent chills around the room. Just when we were getting to grips to what Emily is presently doing, she proudly introduced another new tune (name escapes me) which had just been recorded in Stroud with Lukas and a couple of other artist friends.

This was a truly special show to launch not only the Music in Hall 2017 programme but the annual gig journey of many folks in attendance. Lukas played a sterling stoic role on cello displaying evidence why he is a sought after musician on the folk music circuit. The framework he provided for Emily’s songs was a key component for the success of the evening which inevitably was another confirmation of Emily Barker’s position as a treasured artist on the UK’s folk, Americana and singer-songwriter circuit. Like many a previous year, 2017 is shaping up to be another sensational twelve months for Emily and maybe her appreciation gathering gained a few more converts after this debut Bewdley show.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Natalie Hemby - Puxico : GetWrucke Productions

‘I can stand there watching, but then I’d never know how it feels’ ponders Natalie Hemby in the song ‘Ferris Wheel’ and there lies a poignant metaphor at the heart of her debut album PUXICO. The overall theme of the album may be deeply personal and brimming with nostalgia for a place close to her heart, but it is the leap into the unknown of being a recording artist which directs the record’s compass. The reality is in the secure reputation of Natalie being one of Nashville’s most acclaimed and successful songwriters and now the pot is bubbling that an equally merited transition into the other half of actually performing the songs can be accomplished. The resounding verdict is in the affirmative as the album resonates with multiple qualities making it an insatiable experience to totally immerse your listening activity.

This is the second album in a matter of weeks to cross my path and possess the succinct notion that less is more. Its compact thirty-three minute duration wastes not a single note or line as the nine tracks weave around the time honoured theme of celebrating a special place, on this occasion the hometown of Natalie’s grandfather and the memories she treasures from her many visits over the years. The songs, all the origin of the Music City tendency to co-write, are the culmination of a project that began with a documentary on the town of Puxico, and their intriguing depth makes this an album rich in the stamina of no doubt flourishing from many subsequent spins.

Musically, this collection avoids complexity with acoustic guitar and the pedal steel of esteemed Nashville musician Greg Leisz predominately driving it. Natalie’s vocals provide the finesse, but like so many recent similar cuts from songwriters branching out, the glory of this album lies with the magical substance of the cultured song. An over-arching prediction for this album is that it will fall straight into the arms of the discerning listener and generally bypass the throwaway consumer. It will also reach out from beyond the confines of Music Row and subsequently draw in acute admirers of the well-crafted song far and wide.

From a track perspective, three immediately hit the radar from heavily rotated initial listens, yet the feeling persists that each one of the nine will have their day over the life of this album. ‘Time Honored Tradition’ is the perfect classy opener, frothing with a country rhythm and ensuring the sharpest of hooks is present. ‘Grand Restoration’ and the aforementioned ‘Ferris Wheel’ complete this early trio of favourites. There are several online pieces tossing around the meanings and inspirations behind each of these songs, but arming yourself with the lyric sheet and letting the sound drift you west of Tennessee will suffice to opening the door of where Natalie is intending to take you.

There is no hiding the fact on PUXICO that Natalie’s style is similar to that of Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, with the track ‘Worn’ giving more than a nod to the Grammy nominated ‘Automatic’ that she had a significant writing hand in. There are other names that will inevitably surface as the record rolls out, with there being no surprise if the success of Natalie’s contemporaries, Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna, is replicated here in 2017.

There are lo-fi elements to the release of PUXICO such as the omission of big label support, but this is a record that will find its right audience regardless of brash promotion. If there was any trepidation of Natalie Hemby crossing the line from the inside to the front cover, this record eliminates all trace. Seek this album out, lap up its treasures and remember why some of the greatest song writing of all time has originated from the country music genre. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Whitney Rose - South Texas Suite : Six Shooter Records/Thirty Tigers

Bluebonnets, honky tonks and Luckenbach, what more Texas content do you need especially when your record is titled SOUTH TEXAS SUITE. This may be a romanticised view of the Lone Star state and one immortalised in song, but when mixed with the heady sounds of regional country music, the effect ripples far and wide. On the topic of distant association, the architect on this wonderful six track compilation hails from Canada, but to be fair to Whitney Rose she has immersed herself into Texas culture with extended stays.

On this follow up outing to 2015’s acclaimed album HEARTBREAKER OF THE YEAR, Whitney has taken the solo route and slimmed down the format. This is the solitary drawback as frustration boils at the shortness of the record, which to be fair, and for whatever the reason, has only surfaced in the EP format. However let’s look at the positives and reflect on the cracking offering during this twenty minute listen.

Straight from the tapes, Whitney takes you into the wonderful world of the honky tonks and the clever observation of how a quick two step spin around the floor can evolve into a ‘Three Minute Love Affair’. A fair dose of accordion giving it a ‘south of the border’ feel  flavours this delightful opening track and the metaphorical temptation to take to the floor donned in appropriate attire is tough to resist. Whitney herself has secured a residency at Austin’s revered Continental and from a personal perspective all roads after listening to this first song drift back to spending a night in the Broken Spoke in 2007.

Next up on the rank is the sassy throwback number ‘Analog’ packed full of irony mixed with a little desire. At this point Whitney’s vocals adopt a hazy drooling effect and it is not too difficult to detect a similarity with another Canadian who headed south to find the country music truth, namely Lindi Ortega. Boots is another mutual theme between Lindi and Whitney and track number three on this record is an unequivocal country drenched effort aptly titled ‘My Boots’ which explodes in the final stages when the presence of fiddle and steel is ramped up. Namedropping is going to be on the agenda when this record hits the market and similarities to Margo Price should be viewed as a high compliment.

Now Whitney is no stranger to throwing in some classic retro pop into her country mixer and delightfully sang a duet of the iconic ‘Be My Baby’ with Raul Malo on her previous album. On the new record this style is magnificently re-hashed in the airy and ethereal dripping ‘Bluebonnets for My Baby’. This evolves into an exhibition of how to mix the genres and produce a golden gem of a track, laced with compelling simplicity and oodles of nostalgic sentiment. Staying on the theme of nostalgia, ‘Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach’ delivers a powerful punch and guarantees a singalong through its infectious chorus. As you would expect, pedal steel is prominent including a sizable solo segment along with the ubiquitous fiddle.

At this point there is a further confession that track number six is a short instrumental titled ‘How ‘Bout out a Hand for the Band’, but it works well as a closing piece and no way diminishes the five preceding songs which are all corkers. Alongside the high class value of what is on offer, there is a hope that this is just an interim release and a full length follow up to HEARTBREAKER OF THE YEAR, with matching quality, is just around the corner.

The final good news is that Whitney Rose has a few England dates scheduled for May and while being far from comprehensive at least the choice of Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham and London covers the spine of the country. The fruits of SOUTH TEXAS SUITE and other offerings from the first album are sure to be on the table at these dates and acquainting yourself with the music of Whitney Rose, if you haven’t already, is highly recommended. 

England Tour Dates

Tue 23rd May The Maze, Nottingham
Wed 24th May The Greystones, Sheffield
Fri 26th May Cluny 2, Newcastle
Sat 27th May Green Note, London

The Grahams - The Grahams and Friends (Live in the Studio) :Three Sirens Music Group

The Grahams recording journey across the Americana landscape began in 2013 thematically on the rivers before taking a significant leap forward a couple of years later when they hopped onto the trains. Now as we approach the two year anniversary of the initial release of GLORY BOUND, we find the project still has plenty of mileage left in it.The latest piece, and probably the final one, of the train jigsaw is the release of THE GRAHAMS AND FRIENDS (LIVE IN STUDIO) and an alternative take on the songs that have served this duo well as their career expanded. Essentially this thirteen song collection (fourteen tracks if you count the extra contrasting version of ‘Tender Annabelle’) is a return to the core songs of a project which also included a documentary titled RATTLE THE HOCKS and its subsequent soundtrack. The major difference, as indicated in the title, is the many collaborators that chipped in with the versions that make this later issue.

Obviously if you have already bought into the ideals of The Grahams then judgement on the overall worth of re-hashing the bulk of the material in a commercial format is entirely left to the individual and the degree of value that has been added. Alternatively if this is a premiere to their music then the release proceeds to be an excellent snapshot to how the modern day folk-Americana genre can take a dip into the past, polish it up and present a highly distinguished body of work. Essentially it doesn’t matter when you hitch a ride on the back of The Grahams' journey, the main thing is that you don’t let it race away into the distance without some acquaintance.

For the notebook The Grahams are husband and wife team Alyssa and Doug. Meeting and inspired from a young age, they have sought out the roots of American music taking in many things from Dylan to Guthrie along with much in between. Alyssa is the vocal powerhouse of the duo and breathes incredible life into the story songs which often trace this calling to ensure the psyche of the past lives on. The instrumental sound is what you would expect, heavy in an acoustic direction and not afraid to throw many curve balls into the mix from this perspective. What is evident in this collection of mainly original compositions is the ease that they escort the listener on board and ensure a memorable listening experience.

In order to market these cut versions, it has been necessary to highlight the collaborators in a direct manner from the cover, title and blurb. The one that jumped out straight away was the John Fullbright input on ‘Tender Annabelle’, and that of one of American music’s most distinctive singer-songwriter voices over the last few years. This is closely followed by the contributions of Sean and Sara Watkins on the album’s signature track ‘Glory Bound’, very much the pivotal point of the whole project.

While Kenneth Pattengale from The Milk Carton Kids on ‘The Lonely Ones’ as well as David Garza and Susan Choffell on the spiritual beast ‘Mama’ make further significant contributions on this release, the overall vocal vibes are almost entirely owned by Alyssa. Outside the duo’s writing circle they featured Alejandro Escovedo’s ‘Broken Bottle’ and what American rail road inspired project could leave out a version of ‘City of New Orleans’. This choice being a boisterous one packed with rolling percussion and added horns. One of the tracks that garners particular appeal is the excellent ‘Lay Me Down’ complete with a hook part on the chorus that massages the ear upon each listen.

The Grahams have created a space in the market for this record and a forthcoming UK tour includes an airing of the documentary alongside a Q and A session in support of the main gig. Projects like this are integral to roots music and when done to such a high level make for an engaging listen.

The Grahams · February-March 2017 UK Tour
with screening of their award-winning documentary short Rattle The Hocks and Q&A

Wed 22      Sheffield              The Greystones
Thu 23       Shrewsbury         Henry Tudor House
Fri 24        Bury                     The Met, Studio Theatre
Sat 25       Liverpool              Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Music Room
Sun 26      Gateshead            Sage Gateshead, Northern Rock Foundation Hall
Tue 28       Settle                   Victoria Hall

Wed 1       Newbury                                    Arlington Arts Centre
Thu 2        Fareham                                    Ashcroft Arts Centre
Fri 3          Salisbury                                   Salisbury Arts Centre
Sat 4         Leeds                                         Seven Arts Centre
Sun 5        Bristol                                        The Lantern
Tue 7        Shoreham                                   Ropetackle Arts Centre
Wed 8       South Woodchesternr. Stroud      The Convent
Thu 9        London                                        Kings Place, Hall Two

Sarah Darling - Dream Country :Be Darling Records

Back in September three American artists took the ‘Nashville in the Round’ format around various listening venues up and down the UK. While all three performers brought distinct qualities to the show, it was the songs of Sarah Darling that stood up to the most favourable scrutiny in this category during the evening.The good news is that much of what Sarah previewed then has surfaced on her new album which gets a formal UK release in early February. The even better news is the whole record, presented under the apt title DREAM COUNTRY, is a most accomplished effort, setting its stall out and fulfilling a pre-ordained objective of making a deeply personal connective album.

From the coupling title, the term ‘dream’ is probably the most appropriate as an ethereal floating effect transcends through a majority of the ten tracks. While there are traces of a contemporary country sound, the lines of genres blend into a melting pot leaving a record best enjoyed without any pre-determined labels or formulas. Its success stems from an agenda free approach and Sarah creating a beautiful canvas of songs reaching out to those seeking engagement with a record.

Nine original compositions grace the ten track selection with the odd one out being a cover of The Smiths classic ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’. Sarah’s version is a sublime offering and it fits in well with the general mood of the album. In fact there are one or two other songs which blend in less than her take on the works of Morrissey and Johnny Marr. The most profound of these is the ballsy ‘Tell That Devil’ which while working well, falls out of line with the real treasures buried into the content of DREAM COUNTRY.

This album release sees Sarah free of any label constraint and the enthusiasm for the project is far from hidden in the explicitly explained well packaged CD version. Any fear that the package may exceed the substance is quickly allayed with the outer presentation proving a useful aid in its artistic grandeur. An astrological approach to wrapping up all your dreams, hopes and philosophy has proved a successful path for Sarah and barriers to engagement with her dreams are nowhere to be seen.

Nashville in the Round in Birmingham
If you’re seeking a common thread then look no further than ‘Wandering Star’, ‘Starry Eyes’, ‘Halley’s Comet’ and ‘Stargazer’ and you should get the drift. The last of these is billed as the bonus track and it lives up to that name with its blissful quality. Earlier in the record we are introduced to a more terra firma theme as Sarah embraces the beauty of Wyoming with her homage piece ‘Where Cowboys Ride’. Another geographical take on what forms Sarah’s idyllic experiences exists in the track ‘Montmartre’ housing the love she has for France’s capital and its eternal romantic appeal. The soft feel to this and many of the other outstanding tracks give the album a luxurious lining, all adding up to a record rich in the delights of life’s tender moments.

Although Sarah has had a degree of success in her US home within the confines of the mainstream country music industry, this album is a serious tilt at the UK and included in the track listing is the song ‘Anchor’, complete with a Cornish influence and a writing contribution from Sam Palladio. A key promotional track completes this brief song analysis with a nod to the endless appeal of Sarah gliding the sound in a lounge jazz direction with the sultry and temptress-like number ‘You Take Me All the Way’.

The genuineness, honesty and classy way in which Sarah Darling has approached this record make it stand out from a crowd. DREAM COUNTRY has only the agenda of one artist using the tools at her disposal to explore the most personal of feelings. The extent to which you buy into her ideal will determine where it resides in your listening hierarchy. There are few obstacles to prevent this from being high.