Sunday, 30 April 2017

Stephen Simmons - Elford Walled Garden, Staffordshire. Saturday 29th April 2017

Over the duration of a busy gig year you occasionally stumble upon that moment when all the stars align and the avenues of your mind lead off into the sunset. This can conceivably occur across the full range of situations from arena to house concert. The latest occurrence was perhaps one step up from the latter as this year’s Stephen Simmons Elford gig was held in a marquee in the village’s walled garden. The ‘stop you in your tracks’ moment arrived at the end of the second set when the title number from Stephen’s latest album A WORLD WITHOUT breezed into an encore version of the Townes Van Zandt classic ‘If I Needed You’. How apt that a song signalling the call that ‘a world without art has no hope’ should be followed by one that epitomises the spirit of the beautiful poetic song.

This year’s semi outdoors live music season began early on a cool late April evening deep in the heart of the Staffordshire countryside. Elford Walled Garden is a luscious secluded rural setting converted into a gig venue for the evening c/o of a much needed spacious marquee, and the endeavour of the Hot Burrito Promotions team to maintain their established ethos of bringing top class American roots music to the local community.

Stephen Simmons has been departing his Tennessee home for European shores for a decade now and around half of that time has seen a Staffordshire drop off. Previous visits have included house concerts, garden shows in the warmer months and a conventional venue gig in nearby Lichfield. Each time, a solitary guitar and a ruck of fine songs are sufficient to bring a slice of the South to foreign lands, alongside a voice etched in the country tradition and tales that illuminate the body of his work. This latest show retained the same winning formula, purveying an independent spirit that only answers to a personal calling and maybe to put some food on the table a couple of times.

The latest album reached the UK earlier this year and Stephen wasted little time in picking some of the standout tracks to share with audiences over here for the first time. ‘Puritan Cowboys’, ‘West’. ‘Fairy Tales (The Flowers Burden)’ and ‘Silver Moon Saloon’ all sounded super in their no doubt intended live format, exploring genetic lines, quirky gig venues and other metaphorical observations. The last comment suggests there is some lyrical license to detour in his writing, although Stephen is equally adept at towing the literal line with your straightforward ‘three chords and the truth’. Perhaps Stephen’s style, accent and Nashville links will always paint a country music image when he goes overseas especially when he repeatedly (with no complaints here) shares the Hank Williams cover ‘Wedding Bells’. However there is a wider influence to his repertoire and ‘singer-songwriter with a distinct southern flavour’ is a more accurate moniker.

With one eye on avoiding repetition, Stephen tended to steer clear of some of the popular songs from previous visits, although ‘Shirley’s Stables’ did make an appearance alongside a reference to a grandfather’s alleged misdemeanour. Chat did frequently skirt the current political environment as well as the perils of transporting his trusted guitar around. What you also get from an evening in the company of Stephen Simmons and his music is the exposure to a humble self-effacing artist who you 100% believe in. His network in the UK would benefit from growing, but you feel it would have to be without significant compromise. Total integrity is one of Stephen’s charms.

With a view to making this latest Stephen Simmons Elford show a more community focussed event in line with the setting, a local duo operating under the name of Brindley Hunt played a forty-five minute opening set. This was a neat mix of popular covers and impressive originals from a recently released album that possessed the legs to take their act forward. Finding the right environment is always tricky for an acoustic duo, but the assembled gathering in the Elford Walled Garden marquee proved ideal.

The temperature may have just been dipping when the show ended, but the decision to host Stephen Simmons in this format proved a resounding success in terms of fund raising and the quality of artists providing the entertainment. We have got to know the work of Stephen over the last few years enough to expect that much more is still to come. Attending one of his existing shows; considering hosting him on a future visit or just listening to his music would be a wise choice. Many folks will concur and then there’s always a chance of a golden moment, such as that at the end of this gig, will spring up.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 28th April 2017

It can be a turbulent life being a travelling musician; one unimaginable for us folks who lay our pound down and sit back with expectation. The highs and lows of pursuing a creative calling were the themes core to this Lynne Hanson show and in particular it was the former that reigned supreme on this Bewdley return. The determination to share those lofty high emotions was etched in Lynne’s performance as this Canadian artist, and her travelling compatriots The Good Intentions, poured every joule of energy in presenting a very personal view of life though the medium of song and sound.

The success of these Music in the Hall evenings at Bewdley’s St George’s Hall is becoming a given from a customer perspective, although the promotion know there’s no let up on the preparation. It was last July when Lynne created such a special impression at this venue and the honour of the being the first overseas’ returnee was not lost on the guest. This time she was in possession of a brand new album which unsurprisingly featured high in a set list that was superbly executed with an undulating spread of pace, style and mood. UNEVEN GROUND has in fact only been released a couple of weeks and it didn’t take too long upon reflection to grab the sentiment of these new songs straight after first listen.

There was a contrast in how these new songs unravelled, beginning with the opening two tracks – ‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘Counting Heartbeats’ – which acted as simple scene setters, more aperitif than the main serving. This is quite common in gigs as a band adjusts to the surroundings of a place they have only just been exposed to. However by the encore, the band and audience were buzzing. ‘Gotta Have Rain’ saw the four protagonists roam unplugged around the hall in the ultimate audience connective state, while back on stage they all let rip for the evening finale of ‘Swallow Me Up’.

It was late in the show when Lynne formally introduced MJ Dandeneau (bass), Brodie Mohninger (lead guitar) and Shawn Killaly (drums), but by then we were fully acquainted with their playing, impression and vital importance to the show. MJ is a recognisable musician with from memory touring slots with Amanda Rheaume and the Good Lovelies being recalled. Lynne controlled proceedings with a mix of the deeply personal and humorous, never hiding her proud Canadian status and utter appreciation that her music is being enjoyed by folks many miles from her home. Songs like ‘Just for Now’, ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Broken with You’ reveal Lynne at her heartfelt best, adept at producing a sensitive ballad on her own as to purely rocking out with her band.

One of the prime moments when they did rock out was the blues induced ‘Devil Said Do’ from the new record. Instinct and mood are more drivers for Lynne’s music rather than genre conventions, but if you’re looking for markers you’ll find segments of country, folk, rock and blues in her music. All fine ingredients if your music interest lies in all things Americana, still a weird word use for somebody north of the 49th parallel.

From Lynne’s previous releases, the title track off RIVER OF SAND proved one of the show’s outstanding moments. You can’t relate to this type of music without a dip into your dark side and from the murder ballad album 7 DEADLY SPINS, ‘Gravedigger’ and ‘Cecil Hotel’ met with a sinister approval. On a lighter side, the whole audience heeded the invite to join in with the chorus of ‘Trading in My Lonesome’, perhaps signifying the end of a dark tunnel.

As is usual with these Bewdley promotions, a local band and a youth act give the evening a lengthy opening before the main artist takes to the stage. A duo named Marlar filled the band slot with a thirty minute performance of selective cover songs plus a couple of originals. A three piece youth band going by the name of Mayfli opened up the evening and displayed a very impressive style of harmony singing as they once again paraded a set of mainly covers and the odd original. This formula is a vital cog in the evening’s success and creates an atmosphere that can sometimes be missing for touring artists at this level.

Lynne Hanson and The Good Intentions certainly revelled in this atmosphere as they headed towards the completion of the UK leg of their current European tour. It now seems a long time ago since Lynne was first caught live when opening for Gretchen Peters. While the following years may have seen many highs and lows, there must be enormous pride in a growing back catalogue and the rewards of shows like this, after pouring so much effort into promoting her work overseas. Us as an audience will rarely be exposed to artists’ lows, but we were certainly present when the high was reached during this show.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Company of Players - Cresecent Theatre, Birmingham. Monday 24th April 2017

The Bard was present in many forms as The Company of Players took their project into the live arena to road test the sum of many inspired collaborative efforts. Soliloquys mingled with traditional arrangements alongside lyrical compilations, both from an interpretive and original perspective. The usual suspects featured frequently, though innovatively punctuated by abstract takes on Shakespeare’s approach to mental health and refugees. Most significantly though was the ten-strong ensemble of musicians heeding the call to sprinkle their folk music magic on a project commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare departing this world, thus leaving a legacy which any mortal creator of art can only dream of.

Kelly Oliver
It is just over a year since this group of young emerging folk artists put their busy individual schedules to one side and set about turning a ‘crazy’ idea from Said the Maiden’s Jess Distill into a fabulous fruition of folk fusion. Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre was one of the lucky first chosen venues to host the live version, obviously falling in line behind a showing at Stratford’s RSC. Over the course of an hour and half, twelve new songs were entertainingly introduced, presented and beautifully gift wrapped, leaving a popular traditional in ‘Froggy Went a Courtin’ to be the evening’s parting shot along with its Romeo and Juliet connotation.

The good news is that the recorded version is nearing its release moment with a yet to be finalised late summer/early autumn date. Furthermore its content is a treasure trove of artistic creativity showcasing sizzling harmonies, exalted solos, thought provoking lyrics and crafted musicianship of the highest calibre. A treat awaits those who have pledged, pre-ordered and many newcomers certain to be engulfed in its tempting samples.

The architects of this project were all present for this Birmingham premiere packed with names which are becoming increasingly familiar on the independent folk and acoustic circuit. Already mentioned have been the Hertfordshire based trio Said the Maiden, bringing a sumptuous style of harmony singing coupled with the violin input from band member Hannah Elizabeth and the multi-instrumental talents of Kathy Pilkington. The four other female performers included three solo singer-songwriters in Minnie Birch, Daria Kulesh and Kelly Oliver plus Kim Lowings, who fronts her Stourbridge based band The Greenwood.

Kim Lowings
The guys may have been outnumbered, but the numerical deficit was a mere irrelevance led by Chris Cleverley in buoyant hometown form on song, guitar, banjo and gag duty. One of his offerings, the mental health inspired ‘Thinking Makes It So’ ,was the song to have been previously heard at his solo shows and his banjo contribution was a key moment in the first half ending with Hamlet in hoedown mode. Sam Kelly spent the majority of the show on mandolin before rising to the song challenge deep  in the second set with the selectively sourced ‘Jessica’.  All musical collaborations need a resolute backbone and it was of little surprise to see in-demand multi bassist Lukas Drinkwater in his regular engine room role.

All song writing participants had their vocal moment in the sun, with Kelly’s refugee angled contribution ‘Strangers’ featuring in the second half and Minnie’s sole effort ‘Up and Down’ doing likewise before the interval. Daria opened the show with the evocative ‘Lady Macbeth’ before settling mainly in a musical role. Kim generally traded in her usual dulcimer for the available piano and the keys accompaniment to one of her contributions ‘The Song of the Philomel’ made a strong case for the evening’s highlight. However at the conclusion this had to be a shared accolade such as the ideals of an egalitarian project.

Whether you approach this project from the comedy angle of Mid Summer Night’s Dream/Twelfth Night; are a tragedy junkie for epics like Hamlet/Macbeth or just a lover of folk music, riches are aplenty. These ten musicians have made a statement that enamoured collaborative projects need not be the domain of those etched into the grain of the genre. The strength of any movement is in its roots and The Company of Players have just solidified this base with an absolute gem.

Jess Morgan - Dark Horse, Moseley, Birmingham. Sunday 23rd April 2017

Circumstance and opportunity have recently conspired against seeing Jess Morgan play live, but this seems to have been rectified as the summer months of 2017 open upon us. Ahead of a scheduled appearance at the city’s Moseley Folk Festival on the first weekend of September, Jess made a welcome return to Birmingham as the latest guest of the Nights at the Circus folk operation. The result was a super set providing satisfying re-assurance that Jess is continuing to evolve as a highly effective performing singer-songwriter.

The centrepiece of a set, which pushed the hour and a quarter mark, was a batch of songs from the latest album EDISON GLORIETTE. This record saw the light of day at the back end of last year and has transpired to be her most accomplished effort to date. It was a thrill to hear these songs live for the first time and revitalised an album which heralded many listens plus a glowing review around release time.

The added bonus of seeing a singer-songwriter play live is the opportunity to gain further insight to the songs especially where the lyrical content is highly valued. Throughout the evening, Jess duly provided to mix useful chat with the playing thus shedding more light on songs such as ‘In Brooklyn’ (yes based on the New York borough), ‘Red Rubies’ (rather gruesome eating habits) and the somewhat self-explanatory ‘Don’t Meet Your Heroes’.

The older material was kept to a minimum with ‘Missionary’ going back to the first time Jess was seen live when she played a gig in nearby Stourbridge in 2013. Like then we learned a little of her African adventures at a time before a busy music life took hold. Perhaps now acquiring the role of oldie status is a firm Jess Morgan favourite ‘Freckles in the Sun’ and it was of little surprise for it to appear as the encore number. The audience had been given the choice of an original or another cover at this stage with the former getting the shout out.

Earlier in the set Jess had made one delve into the work of others with a cover of the Steve Earle song ‘Goodbye’. It was apt that a transatlantic deviance occurred at this point as there is no disguising the Americana influence that is seeping into her music, albeit framed in a firm folk direction. This has led to interest from the AMA UK, and a style possibly garnered from excursions across the Atlantic such as an appearance at Folk Alliance.

On this successful evening held in the upstairs music room at the Dark Horse, Midlands based singer-songwriter Dan Hartland opened for Jess. A regular on the local music scene, Dan was joined for his set by a colleague on double bass and the songs, both old and new, flowed in an affable style.

As intimated at the outset of this review, this was a timely return to the city of Birmingham for Jess Morgan, although her many gigs often skirt the area in the wider Midlands. We know that she won’t leave it so long in the future and it is a given that she will go down well on the Sunday of Moseley Folk, a day where this increasingly eclectic urban festival makes a concerted effort to go back to roots. Until that day at the end of the summer, good memories of this immensely satisfying show will suffice.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker - Glee Club, Birmingham, Thursday 20th April 2017

The irony of Josienne Clarke appearing at the Glee Club was lanced on the evening even before a chord was struck, but the temptation to temporarily revive it is too good to miss. Needless to say Josienne proceeded to be in her fine usual form showcasing why Ben Walker and her are one of the preeminent acts on the UK folk circuit. In fact it is tough to identify a better duo where each half executes their specific part to an outcome of blissful excellence so well.

You can take your pick on the many facets of the Clarke-Walker partnership, and the full pack was on show during this return to Birmingham barely six months after their previous visit. Ultimately the sheer beauty of the music is purveyed through the triumvirate of original, cover and traditional songs. The stunning Josienne Clarke solo write ‘The Waning Crescent’ emerged on the evening as the standout original with its alternate theme and supreme soundtrack impressing. The cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Dark Turn of Mind’ goes a long way to defining the duo’s tone and sets the scene of the Clarke-Walker aura early in the set. From a traditional perspective, ‘The Banks of the Sweet Primroses’ has served them well in the past and continues to do so as this gig evolved into a special exposure of tantalising live music.

Apart from a brace of Josienne’s forays into the world of saxophone parts, the effortless charms of Ben Walker’s sublime guitar playing adds instrumental colour to the Clarke-Walker canvas. His unassuming presence and elegance belies the summit of impact as you are left to marvel at the ease of his approach. Forever inventive and innovative in style and instrument choice, Ben mesmerised both aficionados and those intent on mere indulgence to equal measure as the acoustic, electric and bass format was excelled to a lofty degree.

If you were compiling an A-list of contemporary folk vocalists Josienne Clarke would feature high. The emotion, versatility and ability to convey the magic of song all radiate from her vocal presence, displaying a classical style that permeates through to the layperson. Each song chosen to form this twin-set gig possessed such an impact that it was a pleasure to experience this aural delight from close quarters. The Sandy Denny connotation is not going away especially when ‘Fotheringay’ makes the set list and an intriguing version of the Dolly Parton hybrid ‘Little Sparrow’ provided an enhanced touch.

This was the third occasion of seeing the Clark-Walker duo live and it helps significantly if you buy into the Josienne Clarke stage persona. Maybe sarcasm is a touch harsh; irony is probably a kinder compliment. The humour blends well with the unabated melancholy and perhaps adds a progressive maverick element to a product which can sometimes echo a conservative feel. Either way the whole Clarke-Walker package has attracted the signing arm of retro punk label Rough Trade, which put out their superb latest concept record OVERNIGHT in the latter part of 2016. Who needs rules anyway?

Maybe it wasn’t so ironic in booking Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker in a Glee Club after all. Synergy can exist in abstract situations and it would be dull if the world was viewed in a uniform way. Long may their talents be paraded at any venue where appreciative music fans get their pound rewarded tenfold. There may even be hope in Chicago one day!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Artist Feature: Jess Morgan

Jess Morgan to release limited run of handmade 7” records for Record Store Day

DIY singer/songwriter Jess Morgan takes the do-it-yourself concept to new levels creating handmade vinyl records in her Norwich home. Jess has made a limited run of 7” vinyl of the song ‘Still In Fashion’ (from her album ‘Edison Gloriette’) for release exclusively at Relevant Records in Cambridge for Record Store Day on April 22nd 2017. Jess will also perform an acoustic set at 12pm at Relevant Records.

This limited run of ‘Still In Fashion’ follows 2016’s run of ‘In Brooklyn’, released as part of the PledgeMusic campaign for ‘Edison Gloriette’ as featured on The 405 who called her “a true DIY artist in her element. Seriously, she does it all”. Jess talks about the process on her BLOG in which she says:  

“It took a while to hit upon the right recipe - ratio of catalyst and silicone mix to pick up the grooves of a record while still holding its shape and not shrinking back. I also used paper / car / demo tape / duct tape and foil to build up texture in relief which would become the mould and transfer a raised design onto the resin. Eventually I used a thick kind of foil tape - which I think is used for insulation in plumbing - as I wanted to see if I could recreate the fine lines of a sketch in relief. Since working out how to successfully 'clone' a record, I spent almost a year - on days in-between touring and recording - experimenting with different ways to make the records special. In the early stages, I found colour mixing - within the resin really quite difficult. I experimented with dye, ink and paint to add a colour injection.”

The artwork for ‘Still In Fashion’ is designed by Jess, with a disc cut from the sleeve and trapped in the centre of each record.

‘Still In Fashion’ also appears on Jess’ album ‘Edison Gloriette’ which will receive a full commercial release on April 22nd 2017.

"musicianship dovetails well with her clever and understated songwriting" - The Telegraph
"Gorgeous country folk" - The Guardian
“Some of the most sublime tunes you are likely to hear in a long time. ****” – R2
“A real treat… an enormously gifted songwriter” – Songwriting Magazine

Tour Dates
Thursday 23rd March – The Burston Crown
Friday 25th March – Portico, Lincoln
Thursday 30th March – Relevant Records, Cambridge
Friday 31st March – The Courthouse, Thirsk
Thursday 13th April – Loughton Folk Club
Saturday 22nd April – Record Store Day session – Relevant Records, Cambridge @ 12 noon
Saturday 22nd April – Elmslie House, Malvern
Sunday 23rd April – Nights at the Circus, Birmingham
Sunday 30th April – Big Session Festival, Buxton
Thursday 4th May – Cuffern Manor, Pembrokeshire
Saturday 13th May – Hebden Bridge Roots Festival
26th May & 27th May – Ireby Festival, Cumbria

Jess Morgan – background

Jess Morgan is a songwriter’s songwriter. A cerebral storyteller. On her new album she pens personal, creative folk & roots tunes that paint a vivid picture for the listener.

When it came for the Norwich-based singer-songwriter to start recording tracks on ‘Edison Gloriette’ Norway was calling. Jess returned to Bergen team-up with collaborators from her 2010 debut, producer HP Gunderson and producer and studio engineer Daniel Birkeland. She wanted to record slowly and meaningfully following a mad 5 years of touring and rapid releases. 2 weeks in a quiet cabin, alongside a fjord on the outskirts of Bergen was just the right change of pace. ‘We recorded against the most incredible backdrop taking breaks for walks, drinking beer at the water’s edge’ explains Jess.

Back in the UK Jess brought on friends Stephen MacLachlan - to work on percussion - and Ben Savage and Hannah Sanders to record backing vocals. Noel Dashwood also joined the ‘Edison Gloriette’ dream-team to add some soulful dobro solos to ‘Red Rubies’, the true story of an unusual bird eating man, and ‘Still In Fashion’ which Jess describes as being about, ‘the fear of tomorrow that casts a long shadow over today’.

Jess’ songs are acutely observed tales of life, love, people and places. Album opener ‘Longest Arm’ is a snapshot of an encounter between a man and a waitress and the feelings stirred in their shared moment. Rousing track ‘Hymn In The Morning’ is about priorities changing as you get older, ‘I started writing this song in the wake of one of those mornings where you haul yourself out of bed and feel like you just can’t do nights out like you used to!’ says Jess, ‘I imagined the story set in the small hours, spending the morning in bed, shaking off the night with someone you love’. Rootsy-ballad ‘In Your Life’ is both challenging and optimistic.

The past 5 years have seen Jess cement her place in the burgeoning folk, roots and Americana scene throughout the UK and Europe. Her music has attracted the ears of BBC Radio 2, BBC 6 Music, Uncut, The Telegraph, The Guardian, R2 and Folk Radio UK, to name a few. New album ‘Edison Gloriette’ follows on from Jess’ 2010 debut ‘All Swell’, 2012’s ‘Aye Me’ and her highly acclaimed 2014 release ‘Langa Langa’. In summer 2015 Jess released ‘The Bournemouth EP’ which sold-out its limited edition run in less than 24 hours.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Oh Susanna - A Girl in Teen City : Continental Song City

The first thing that needs to be stated is A GIRL IN TEEN CITY is a totally adorable album. Susie Ungerleider aka Oh Susanna has come up trumps with a superb piece of work that transcends both the gender in its title and location in its theme. Substitute Vancouver BC in your imagination for any urban or suburban area of the western world will enhance your engagement with what Susie has set out to do. What is essential though is to tap into her mind set and fire up all the trials and tribulations of your heartfelt nostalgia. Perhaps it may help being on a similar generational plateau to Susie, but there are plenty of you out there with your name on this album.

Another prelude to getting the best out of this album is not to take the content at literal face value. Hence gender is not a pre-requisite to mining its resources as this merely acts as a conduit to explore your own experience. What you will do is share in the feelings conveyed and marvel in the style that Susie has adopted to tell her stories. This is done with a sharp, often explicit in sentiment, lyrical content hosted by a profound vocal presence all underpinned by a supportive soundtrack. This leads to a sound supremely blending the best of contemporary folk indie Americana with the heated passion of pubescent new wave.

The order of this twelve track album has relevance with the first couple of songs successful at setting the scene before the final two seal the project by putting the recollections in some sort of context. Album opener ‘Flashlights’ will really grab you as Susie reveals a major change in her life when ‘she fell in love with the night’. Nearly fifty minutes later ‘My Old Vancouver’ closes the book with ‘to watch my sun finally set’ being the most fitting line to end this episode of warts and all nostalgia. Prior to this, penultimate track ‘Pugent Sound’ provides one of many shiver down the spine moments that fill this album as Susie waves ‘bye bye to our Canadian life’.

Earlier in the album, ‘Wolf Boy’ can be construed as a song about belonging, one of the strongest themes on the record, and growing up in general. Other tracks are probably less subtle such as ‘The Darkroom at the School’ and ‘Tickets on the Weekend’. From a pure standout sound perspective, ‘My Boyfriend’ puts its head above the parapet, and makes a case for being the focal point of the record. Susie obviously agreed as she has just posted a video of this song.

Lyrically the album is full of gems with nothing really topping ‘whatcha gonna do when your boyfriend’s prettier than you? from ‘Getting Ready’. The vocal step up on ‘Lucky Star’ was really noticeable and at this point the album is in full flow with the gist of it neatly planted in the listener. As you would expect from an album with such focus, themes like relationships, image and musical discoveries are aplenty. References to bands like The Dead Kennedys and songs like ‘Clash City Rockers’ give a feel for the time and many Vancouver landmarks are namechecked, relevant to both, residents and those who may have visited. The change going on in the city in the early 80s is also firm in Susie’s mind as she made this album. Yet you can add in your own bands, locations, characters and settings such is the spark that this album provides.

A GIRL IN TEEN CITY is an album which will resonate with many and will give the career of Oh Susanna an added impetus as she pursues interest both in her Canadian homeland and in Europe. Take a chance on adding this to your collection; where it leads is only down to you, but it may provide a spark to a serious bout of positive nostalgia.

Oh Susanna Spring 2017  UK  Tour April 19- 27 

Wed 19 London  Cecil Sharp House
Thu 20  Sheffield The Greystones  co-bill with Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage
Fri 21    Saltaire, West Yorks.  The Live Room, Caroline Social Club
Sat 22   Glasgow The Admiral
Sun 23  Bury The Met   co-bill with Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage
Tue 25  Hereford House Concert  co-bill with Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage
Wed 26  High Wycombe Kingsmead House Concert
Thu 27  Basingstoke The Forge   co-bill with Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors - Souvenir : Magnolia Music

Immerse yourself into any record of Drew Holcomb and you re-surface refreshed, re-vitalised and truly inspired that the spirit of song can make a difference. This East Nashville based artist scored high when his last two records were released in the UK and the new one SOUVENIR is set to do likewise when widely available. What you get when you listen to this accomplished singer-songwriter is a cultivated sound, awash with swathes of sophisticated simplicity. The songs are strong on melody and the lyrics are incisive in their ability to tell a story, express an emotion or paint a picture.

On the writing front for this record, once again released on Holcomb’s own imprint Magnolia Music, Drew has teamed up with buddies Rich Brinsfield and Nathan Dugger to offer an eleven-song collection rich in material straddling the blurred boundaries of country, folk and rock. In essence Americana is the purpose built vehicle to transport these songs to a waiting public. Contrived album fillers are nowhere to be seen.

Five songs immediately jump out to be contenders for that very English phrase – first among equals. In album order, ’California’ is found early on and pans out to be a metaphorical love song to the Golden State, sealed by the stellar line ‘I always wondered where the sunset ends’. ‘Sometimes’ is nestled in the centre of the running order and its piano accompaniment throws up images of John Lennon in classic singer-songwriter mode. This is followed by the jovial ditty ‘Mama’s Sunshine, Daddy’s Rain’ with its contagious chorus. To break a usual rule, “front porch folk” lifted from the press release sums this song up perfectly. In the album’s final stages, ‘Postcard Memories’ brims with superlative quality, while penultimate track ‘Yellow Rose of Santa Fe’ is a delightful country fuelled song revealing what the souvenir implied in the title is.

Consistency is also the key to the strength of this album. While there may not be an absolute heavyweight track to carry it to a pinnacle, the undercard is incredibly strong. ‘Fight for Love’ is an out and out rocker written as a response to last year’s US election, while on a topical theme, album closer ‘Wild World’ is a simple cry for more equality in life. To bring the track listing to a conclusion, ‘Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing’ and ‘New Year’ are two of the more sensitive offerings, ‘Black and Blue’ starts that way until evolving into a rockier piece and ‘The Morning Song’ gets the album off to a steady start.

The general diversity of the songs, along with an accessible structure, makes SOUVENIR a relatively straightforward record to enjoy. The album is once again credited to the band Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors (we won’t split hairs on the spelling). Exploring the top notch writing and smoothened sound make this record an easy one to recommend and hopefully there will be the opportunity for a tour to make the same impact over here that GOOD LIGHT and MEDICINE made. The new record is a seriously good extension of these releases and builds upon the impressive past work.

The Long Haul - Beautiful Lies : Self-Released

The band name implies the metaphorical distance between Brighton and Austin, but the miles are eaten away when you press play on BEAUTIFUL LIES, the new album from south coast based combo The Long Haul. There is always a danger that such a delving into the world of traditional Texas honky tonk music may end up with just a barrage of standard covers, but to the credit of this band, the new album consists of ten original compositions. The added bonus is that they all fare well when put under scrutiny and the level of authenticity gives this record acres of credibility.

It has helped that the band enlisted the services of established American producer Eamon Mcloughlin to steer the project. In addition to the normal five piece band which forms the line up on home soil, the record contains esteemed playing from musicians such as Lloyd Maines and Chris Scruggs, both highly experienced practitioners of real country music. So with the help of production contributions in Nashville, Austin and Brighton, the finished product will give the band a strong selling point as they ply the live music circuit.

There is a stellar retro dance hall feel to this record, whether in the foot stomping rapid numbers or those slower moments inducing more intimate movement. The sound races along to a western swing meets traditional country soundtrack, with all the usual trappings of fiddle, pedal steel, guitars and the essential rhythm combo of drums and double bass. What also helps this record succeed is a fabulous opening song. ‘Continental’ celebrates the Austin institution of the same name in a joyous manner, full of foot tapping nostalgia and an immensely catchy tune.

Tunes of a similar vein are spread across this ten-track record, specifically in the songs ‘Rhythm Trail’ and ‘Existential Boogie’. Both superbly fire up a notion to visualise a scenario that for most probably only lives in the imagination. But dreaming is free and for a modest outlay this album will do its bit in fuelling them.

Second track ‘Psychic Baby’ is another pick from this collection and rattles along in timely rhythm possessing fine lexicon content, especially in slotting in the splendid word ‘serendipity’. On the moments when the listeners/dancers can draw a breath, the songs ‘Blind’ and ‘Leading Light’ step in to impressive effect. ‘You're Still Here’ is another example of the record’s more poignant pieces and acts as a decent end song to close the door on an album that has successfully held  your attention for just over half an hour.

One observation from the title track ‘Beautiful Lies’, at the core of the record, is the Celtic feel to the strings and chorus melody, but then American roots music has it influence from right across the old world. ‘Waiting & Wishing’, heralded by some ear pleasing pedal steel, and ‘Crawl complete the album set, each playing a part in giving this record a hefty dose of merit.

This latest display of Southern England meets Southern USA has captured a sweet sounding appeal and is a totally unashamed serving of replicate retro done well. There is always room for this type of music and in gift wrapping BEAUTIFUL LIES to a willing audience, The Long Haul have delivered a slice of added value to the UK’s country music community.

The Whiskey Charmers - The Valley : Sweet Apple Pie Records

For a touch of expansive escapism there is no finer place to transport your mind than in the world of The Whiskey Charmers. In a dreamy haze of romanticised roaming THE VALLEY leads you on a mystical journey that frees suburbanites from any remnants of mundane reality. This is the duo’s brand new album and is a highly anticipated follow up to their self-titled debut release in 2015. The Whiskey Charmers have a core line up of Carrie Shepard and Lawrence Daversa, hail from Detroit Michigan and are the key architects of a record successful in luring any mind wandering admirer of Americana music.

The highly addictive world of instant connective music means you can enjoy the delight s of The Whiskey Charmers many blocks from their Mid-West base, with the Atlantic Ocean proving no barrier. What you get if you make the wise decision to engage with this album is eleven tracks of mood stimulating Americana, covered in the dust of the open road and aching with the cry of freedom.

This is another album of great character from vocalist Carrie, guitarist Lawrence and their band of accompanying musicians. The blend of seductive vocals and atmospheric twang gives the sound a shadowy glow, perhaps even a gothic tinge. The subtle mix of acoustic and electric balances finely with the latter providing some blinding solo pieces such as in the title track and the drifting out part of ‘Coal’. This is one of three co-writes between Carrie and Lawrence alongside ‘Meet Me There’ and ‘Desert’.

The Valley’ doubles up as title track and a key standout number plus being one of several songs to come direct from the lone pen of Carrie. ‘Melody’ and ‘Dirty Little Blues’ are other prime examples of Carrie’s solo writing. The first has a therapeutic appeal among the joy of acoustic heaven and impressive pedal steel. The latter is a slice of captivating noir ensuring the album has a firm state of mind presence. ‘Songbird’ sits comfortably in the middle of the record showcasing Carrie’s vocals in the spirit of the title.

If you like succumbing yourself to some of the album’s darker content, the heavier sounding ‘Full Moon’ obliges while packing itself with further connotations such as silver bullets. On the topic of lyrics, the album is liberally sprinkled with memorable lines both housed in the chorus and verse. “I lost my heart in the desert” cries Carrier in album opener ‘Desert’ before waves of delightful twang pierce the relative quiet. Later in the album, the lovely line “looking all the time across the borderline” rings out from ‘Red Wine’, a song which also references “New Mexico” to re-inforce the escapist theme.

‘Warnings’ and ‘Fireproof’ are the two remaining tracks with the first closing the album in yet another phase of the omnipresent twang, while the other possesses a sombre feel. This last point may sound obvious in a generally dark album, but there are consistent rays of optimism amongst a steady rhythm that succeeds in securing the listener’s interest throughout.

As indicated in the second paragraph, the modern world breaks down all logistical barriers to enlisting on The Whiskey Charmers journey of mystical discovery. The guys would certainly love you to buy a CD from one of their Michigan shows, but equally, the accessible world of downloading means that eager folks in the UK can have their own experience of THE VALLEY. It’s definitely an experience not to be missed.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Amelia Curran - Watershed : Six Shooter Records

WATERSHED, the new album by Amelia Curran is an absolute game changer. It took a single play to announce a serious sound diversion, with a new rockier version matching up well to what this critically acclaimed Canadian artist has produced before in a fruitful career. Perhaps a new sound has given impetus to the message that Amelia wanted to get across and raise the important issue of mental health stigmatisation in the arts.

This new heavily plugged in sound has seen Amelia lose none of her acute song writing acumen, as epitomised in the Juno award that she received for the HUNTER HUNTER album. There is so much compassionate strength in this album which has been released on the Six Shooter Records label and succeeds in keeping you hooked for the duration of its eleven tracks.

While it is the album’s intention for the listener to buy into the message, this is easily a record that you can kick back and simply just enjoy for all of its musical nuances. For instance ‘Gravity’ is a short-barely two and a half minute song which sizzles with a rising tone, in tune with the title alongside an initial bass line hook plus added brass towards the end. In essence this is a record which sets its stall out in the first four tracks to go a long way towards defining the record. Opening number ‘Move a Mile’ sends shivers down the listening wires, while title piece ‘Watershed’ shimmers with jangly parts and melody changes. ‘Sunday Bride’ completes the opening quartet containing a sensational solo part which raises the stakes.

Later in the record, an acoustic sound more familiar with Amelia’s past blossoms on an ‘Act of Human Kindness’. You can even detect a touch of gospel in ‘No More Quiet’ especially with the vocal content at the end coupled with the added brass. At this point the album’s message is getting drummed in. This reaches a crescendo with the penultimate track as Amelia uses the powerful ‘Every Woman Every Man’ to reach out to all in an inclusive manner. If the start was sparked into life by a level of unprecedented intensity, the end is a little more tempered with ‘You Have Got Each Other’ seeing Amelia in lo-fi reflective mode. However at this point, it is job done.

This has been a brave and impassioned project by Amelia Curran who has used an accentuated vocal style with an electrified backdrop to pack a punch. A full on sound is inspiringly soulful in places and this is definitely a plugged-in record which hits you hard.  

WATERSHED acts out as its name in so many ways and a substantive fabric gives it a chance of achieving every aim, including making the end of year award givers sit up and notice. The most acclaimed personal accolade is that this album is unlikely to be removed from the 2017 playlist, buoyed by a mid-summer visit to the UK to promote the record.

More info on Amelia’s campaign can be found at her website.

UK and Ireland Tour Dates

June 21 The Musician Leicester
June 22 The Poppy and the Pint Nottingham
June 23 The DC Music Club Dublin
June 24 Monroe's Live Galway
June 26 Green Note London
June 27 The Back Room Cottingham East Yorkshire
June 28 The Greystones Sheffield
July 1 Maverick Festival Easton Suffolk
July 3 The Sound Lounge Tooting London

Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart : Six Shooter Records

Sam Outlaw’s debut full length album ANGELENO was a high impact release doubled up with the stamina to last an awful load of plays, culminating with plenty of accolades in the superficial end of year lists. Barely eighteen months from this record getting released across the continents, the follow up has appeared in the shape of TENDERHEART. In contrast to his previous offering, the new album is firmly planted in the grower category, but with the reassuring conclusion that eventually its true value will surface.

Six Shooter Records is once again the launching pad for this self-produced album which was an alternative route of music making after working with Ry Cooder on ANGELENO. The sound is once again angled in a Californian country direction, and like its predecessor, TENDERHEART is set to get most of its love from the Americana community. This thirteen track collection of original material undulates in mood and tempo, anchored by a song that does have instant impact credentials, even if the whole album requires a few plays.

An initial digital listening to this record shuffled the tracks in alphabetical order and the jaw dropped when ‘All My Life’ landed on this listener’s ears first up. This up tempo classic country number possesses all the aura of an influential Gram Parsons recording and immediately staked a claim for one of the songs that will shape 2017. When eventually the album was re-arranged in its intended order, this standout landmark track sits at number ten, with the new opening few songs getting things off to a more passive beginning.  

As you would expect from the singer-songwriter tradition, this is a record demanding intense lyrical listening and Sam Outlaw is not going to let folks down looking for this aspect of his music. An interesting lexicon choice exists in the early part of the record as ‘Bottomless Mimosas’ and ‘Bougainvillea, I Think’ are amongst a trio of tracks that set out introducing the album rather than pushing its summit. Four tracks in and the title song raises the impact with ‘Tenderheart’ getting full marks for emotive appeal. Humour and irony were always going to play a part in a Sam Outlaw album and ‘She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of)’ ticks this box as the album reaches its mid-point.

Apart from the aforementioned standout track, the second part of the album flickers on the appreciation horizon without fully leaving an awe impression. ‘Dry in the Sun’ scores high on melody, while album closer ‘Look At You Now’ is perhaps as low key as the opener ‘Everyone's Looking For Home’.

A full list of musicians appears on a record that is far from sparse on the production front. Taylor Goldsmith of  Dawes plays guitar alongside Danny Garcia who toured with Sam when he made his UK debut last January in support of Aaron Watson. Frequently, input from the pedal steel and organ spice up the sound adding to the record’s sonic appeal.

Time will tell the eventual heights that TENDERHEART will scale with its undoubted potential to ascend over the duration of a year. Maybe another UK visit to aid the promotion will expose more light on this set of songs; the live arena has a tried and tested experience of breathing fresh life into an album. Sam Outlaw now has an outstanding and a solid release in his locker since hitting the recording world with renewed vigour. One thing for certain, there is much more to come from an artist who has a keen ear on making a style of music that will always get well received here.

Rodney Crowell - Close Ties : New West Records

Retrospective reflective records are a likely domain for many seasoned artists, and Rodney Crowell has done just that with the release of his brand new album CLOSE TIES. As you would expect from an artist of this stature, the record is a classy effort perfectly capturing where he is as retiring years for normal folk beckons. Of course Crowell has graduated from pin up country star to one of the elder statesman of Americana music over the duration of a forty five year career mixing it with the genres’ elite. New West Records is once again the home of a Rodney Crowell release and this deeply personal accomplished collection reveals an artist in tip top shape.

Three interesting thinking points cropped up during giving this record serious undivided attention: Does it work without understanding the context of a career? Can it reach out from Crowell’s admittedly large support base? Is there any potential to create a late career cult revival ala Johnny Cash?

Taking the first question, this album is heavy in the contextual lyric department starting in chronological order with the distant nostalgic ‘East Houston Blues’ charting the turbulent nature of a childhood which was destined for life at the core of music. Industry name checking continues unabated especially in ‘Life Without Susanna’ (based on his love for the late Susanna Clark) and album finale ‘Nashville 1972’ (take your pick from the numerous country legends who greeted Crowell on his arrival to Music City many years ago). It is certainly recommended that you digest the lyrical content as it will immensely enhance the enjoyment of where this album comes from.

However the strength of the production, sophisticated sound and elements of diversity will give the record credence to those who prefer to just take in the vibes. Promotional track ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ and joint-favourite song with the closer ‘I’m Tied To Ya’ both contain heavyweight duets to spruce up the listening fare. Crowell’ ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins in on the first one alongside John Paul White, while Sheryl Crow adds an extremely evocative vocal piece to the latter. Overall the sound is generally a little gentler than some of his previous solo material, in particular THE OUTSIDER album from 2005, although ‘Storm Warning’ does lift the pace a touch.

Without doubt fans of Rodney Crowell and his luminaries such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash will lap up the contents of this record. Partly this is because his solo releases have been relatively light in number over the last decade, although his pair of duet records with Emmylou was met with widespread lauded acclaim. There is still a significant market, particularly overseas in the UK, who may be graduating to Americana music later in their listening music life and discovering an artist like Rodney Crowell will be an added boost. So with every one of his releases there is always potential to reach out to a new fan base.

On the final point of a cult revival, this is probably a long shot on the back of anything truly radical or left field being missing. You never know, there might be a contemporary collaboration one day that might do the same that the American Recordings did for Johnny Cash at a similar age. This is far too conservative for that impact; a notion that wasn’t on the table when this album was being conceived.

Anyway free from hypothetical pondering, CLOSE TIES is an album worth checking out regardless of the degree of your awareness and appreciation of Rodney Crowell. The rich song writing and music making go a long way to helping you understand why he has remained in the upper echelons of his profession for a number of years.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Preview: Maverick Festival - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 30th June to Sunday 2nd July *Updated with Stage Times*

As its annual mid-summer gathering hits double figures, the Maverick Festival senses little need in tinkering with a formula that has served folks well for the last nine years. The milestone for a festival proud to boast in its title of being a little different has been reached on the back of carefully selected headliners and an undercard as strong as you will see from like-minded festivals. This year’s renewal once again returns to its steadfast home at Easton Farm Park in Suffolk and takes place across the weekend of Friday 30th June to Sunday 2nd July.

Following the press launch and subsequent roll out of around forty scheduled artists, the two names which particularly caught the eye were US performers Justin Townes Earle and Sierra Hull. The latter is appearing on the back of sparkling credentials in terms of a Grammy nomination for her latest album WEIGHTED MIND. Although Sierra has been a seriously acclaimed bluegrass artist since her prodigious childhood days, she is still a sense of discovery here and the headline performance slot at Maverick will go a long way to revealing what makes her special. In contrast Justin Townes Earle has been well within the peripheral of the horizon since first seeing him play live to the mass sum of eight people in Worcester in 2008. Obviously his standing here has vastly increased over the subsequent years with several tours and album releases. You never know what style to expect from Justin and he is, in the truest sense of the word, a maverick.

Don Gallardo Maverick 2015
While we are in the geographical region of the dozen or so American acts booked for this year, it is worth pinpointing two who jumped out from a personal perspective. Don Gallardo is no stranger to the stages of Easton Farm Park and really made a strong effect two years ago when he toured his fabulous album HICKORY. New York based Annie Keating may possess a different sound to Don’s southern flavour, but the UK has long been on the horizon for this multi-recording artist. This year’s tour including the Maverick Festival presents Annie with an extended opportunity for folks to find out why her music has been received so well in reviewing circles on both sides of the pond.

Frequently Maverick falls either on the national days of America or Canada. This year’s Saturday is July 1st and three artists from north of the 49th parallel can celebrate their homeland’s special day in the rural surroundings of deepest Suffolk. Two make their Maverick return in the guise of Maritime natives Dennis Ellsworth and Amelia Curran. If you were fortunate to be at Maverick in 2013, a key highlight was the Peacock Café performance by Dennis with the hastily assembled house band. The success of this was celebrated in an end of year reflection which placed the event in the Top 10 Festival Sets of 2013. Amelia will be accompanied by her stunning new album WATERSHED which has taken her music to another level in terms of sound and an ability to expose the stigma of mental health via such highly crafted songs. Terra Lightfoot is the third Canadian on this year’s bill and her rockier sound will ensure that tranquility is not the sole domain of these quaint surroundings.

Apart from a couple of Aussies and an Irishman, the bulk of the remaining artists are home based and once again represent a combination of festival regulars and much welcomed newbies. The two most anticipated in the latter category are Dean Owens and Hannah Rose Platt. Hannah is finally beginning to get the live bookings that her excellent 2015 album PORTRAITS warranted especially from events, organisations and venues that specialise away from any mainstream pretensions. Likewise Dean Owens is in the midst of getting more exposure, and this has been particularly buoyed by frequent jaunts south of the border with his superb latest album INTO THE SEA in tow.

The Black Feathers Maverick 2015
Another act making their Maverick debut is the Worry Dolls and this appearance is part of a busy year of shows laid out to promote their debut album GO GET GONE. At the other end of the age scale resides HankWangford; another artist who ensures the festival remains maverick both by name and nature. Joining Hank in the seniority stakes will be legendary guitarist Albert Lee, proving that virtuoso musicianship is never far away when a host of fine artists head down Suffolk way in early July.

Maverick Festival regulars will need no introduction to the return of Police Dog Hogan after missing a couple of years. Whether they are outside stage, Peacock Café or Barn scheduled, likely to be the latter on past evidence, a good time is sure to be had by the assembled gathering. The BlackFeathers and Case Hardin are also fine examples of top British acts to sufficiently impress to be asked back, Both has been around for a few years, have high quality albums in their catalogue and are sure to put on a good show. A final UK artist worth mentioning is Luke Whittemore who ventures down from his East Midlands stronghold and possesses a style of music that will go down well with a wider audience in a festival setting.

Inevitably any slightly summarised festival preview will probably omit performers who may proceed to be the stars of the weekend. This is the beauty and mouth-watering anticipation of any multi-artist gathering, so remember to check back for the post festival review to see if any names missed here sprang to prominence over the weekend. While there is little doubt that the tenth anniversary of the Maverick Festival will be another success, this landmark gathering does permit a small amount of self-congratulating and reflection on all the fine artists who have graced the event since 2008. It has been an honour to attend seven of the previous nine festivals and whether you are a Maverick veteran or a potential debutant, the existence of these many return trips gives a major pinpoint of why the event is fast becoming a stalwart of the UK roots and independent music scene.

Don't forget to check out the artists' gig and album reviews linked.

Artist line up accurate at time of publication.

FOOTNOTE: Unfortunately Amelia Curran has had to cancel her UK tour and thus an appearance at the Maverick Festival.

Check out some past Maverick Festival reviews: 


Ranger £95.00
Weekend ticket with admission to all stages and includes up to TWO nights camping FRIDAY and SATURDAY

Wrangler £75.00
Weekend ticket with admission to all stages No Camping

Rustler £45.00
Day ticket, Saturday only

Nighthawk £25.00
Friday night only

Holy Roller £20.00
Sunday only

Tenderfoot £20.00
Children 10-15 yrs, under 10's go free

T: @mavfest // F: @MaverickFestivalSuffolk

Visit for the latest line-up and ticket offers.
Easton Farm Park, Easton, Woodbridge, IP13 0EQ