Sunday, 19 May 2019

Three Chords and the Truth 2.0

This site has operated since January 2012 on the trusted and successful formula of the review. The stand alone gig review quickly evolved in tandem with the album variety as opportunities sprang up. While the wheel of art forever keeps turning, individual races reach a conclusion and the time has come for some sort of re-set.

With the realisation that this particular race is run and an appetite for renewal burning fiercely, change is in the air and there is no phrase more direct than 'immediate effect' to usher in a new beginning.

Therefore, the existing formula of stand alone album and gig reviews will cease to exist thus allowing room for a new approach to be ushered in. Structure is still set to play a major part in the future of Three Chords and the Truth, yet in a such a way that creativity and inspiration can be harnessed.

Starting from Sunday May 26th the core content will be a weekly blog post incorporating what has been relevant over the last seven days. This will include details of gigs attended (yes, they're not going away) alongside anything music related that has crossed my path. This could be in any form: new stuff, old stuff, forthcoming stuff, random stuff. There may also be also be stand alone posts on literally anything that takes a fancy.

One existing feature to remain on the blog is festival coverage. These are one offs and tend to get the creative juices flowing with a sense overload of multiple acts. So look out for previews and review pieces for select events over the summer months. Likewise, there may be the odd event or album that allows the old days to be re-lived.

Another static feature of this blog is original writing. So even if some music is shared from an advocate, its introduction will be free of regurgitated content. You can easily find that on the web. In these days of instant accessibility, we are all capable of being our own critic, so perhaps signposting is the future.

Social media will still play a part on the usual platforms to varying degrees of whims and interest. Additionally, blog posts will mix some writing with links, videos, pictures and embedded content.

I have no idea how this move will pan out, but the time is right to instigate change and push the refresh button. A final certainty is that great music is going nowhere. Maybe this also applies to Three Chords and the Truth. (can't get rid of the UK from the address as the domain without it was taken in Blogger, but you know the homeland has never been the boundary)

Happy blogging.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Steel Blossoms - Steel Blossoms : Billy Jam Records

The debate about the value and validity of genre is never likely to be concluded especially where progressive and traditional ideals mingle in a musical environment. Of course, co-existence is not too much to ask for, even to the extent of cordial agreement where art has triumphed. Make no mistake the blueprint showed no sign of tinkering when the brakes screeched on this Steel Blossoms album sailing past as release date beckoned. The first track ached with a country sentiment, then the second, third and so on. Soon the realisation dawned that in the midst was a record rigidly stuck in the core of a genre and bursting at the seams with everything positive and alluring about it. Steel Blossoms are a dream come true for purists in 2019 and the net is widened to attract those not bound by rules, just hooked by a sound that exudes quality and absolute sincerity.

A few facts about Steel Blossoms: they are a core duo comprising of Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser; hail from Pennsylvania, but like so many country artists are pursuing their dreams in Nashville. This self-titled record is in effect their third release preceded by an EP and a debut full length album. They are also the first signed artist to the newly formed Billy Jam Records.

Facts provide the skeleton, but the wealth found in ten songs delivers the soul. Everything is perfectly aligned to make this record one of both, instant and lasting appeal: delightful harmonies, fiddle and steel optimally applied, songs of a witty and cutting design, and a breath of fresh air to keep traditional country music relevant and vibrant. 

Topics don’t stray far from the country music story book; the song titles hardly mislead. The clarity is stark, lyrics right to the point and profound messages abound. You will smile at ‘You’re the Reason I Drink’ (a strong opener is essential on a busy new music highway), wryly ponder the familiarity of ‘Trailer Neighbor’ (picking up on a theme previously exploited by Kacey Musgraves) and melt a heart at the plight of the character in ‘Heroine’ (a meaningful play on words). 

A sassy female streak dominates the record in the true sense of the genre. ‘You Ain’t Sleeping Over’ and ‘Killed a Man’ leave little to the imagination. It is also not too difficult to picture the antagonists in ‘Innocent’, even if the starting point to the song pinpoints life in its most simple form free of any of the divisions laying in wake. 

If there is one track straggling behind in the early life of this record, ‘Revenge’ probably fits the bill, but time is on its side to rise up the ladder. ‘County Line’ is a track given a media push, although I would personally put it in the middle of the pack. A pretty high performing pack mind you. ‘Pick Me Up’ is another mid placed track, though delightfully dancing to the tune of the album’s heartbeat. Joining an effective opener on a great record is an equally impressive closer. ‘Kentucky’s Never Been This Far’ does the Job for Steel Blossoms and no country record is a complete without a little name place checking joining the drinking, cheating, killing, loving and navel gazing pontification. 

Karma was in full throttle to not let this record drift past. Being at the front of an album queue is no competition, but the earlier you arrive, the more time spent grappling with an exceptional record blasting a big hole in the year’s releases. Country music may or may not need saving, but as long as music like this Steel Blossoms album is made, the genre is in a safe place. Artistic credibility in tact without too much of a progressive agenda in place. The genre debate can be at least be temporarily shelved. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019

GIG REVIEW: Hannah Aldridge - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 3rd May 2019

Hannah Aldridge made her name in the UK largely as a solo touring artist alongside maximising opportunities and connections. Expanding horizons also extends to mode of operation as exemplified in her latest run of live dates where this Muscle Shoals native - Nashville resident teamed up with North Wales cosmic country outfit The Goat Roper Rodeo Band. This was not the first time Hannah has sought out a temporary backing band to freshen up her delivery as dates back in 2017 had Swedish rock band Jetbone in tow. Electric traded for acoustic in the current guise and positive reports from the early shows were put to the test with a return to Worcestershire’s version of a 'river town' - Bewdley. 

The standard of the monthly Americana shows at St. George’s Hall this year has been exceedingly high and there was no let up with the action packed evening gracing the venue for the early May showcase. From the first strains of the youth support act on the stroke of eight to Hannah and the boys wrapping things up gone eleven, breaks at a minimum and music of a high standard guaranteed value for money. 

We learned that the association between Hannah Aldridge and The Goat Roper Rodeo band goes back around five years, but this is the first time they have formalised an on stage arrangement for an extended run. The North Wales trio do feature on the brand new live album that has been launched in conjunction with the latest tour and it was clear that their frenetic brand of roots activity combined with vivid energy showered a new dimension on a string of familiar songs from the Hannah Aldridge repertoire. 

Before The Goat Ropers played their own forty-five minute set prior to the main presentation, Kidderminster College based four-piece band Humble Helios opened the evening with around half an hour of their own songs delivered in a vocally and lyrically appealing way. This set the tone for a contrasting array of these qualities to follow. The distinctive vocals of The Goat Ropers whether in switched solo or harmony driven proceed to early define the band’s sound. Perhaps later when supporting Hannah the music came more to the fore, although the same harmonies had a strong role to play there as well.

Vocals have played a key part in how Hannah Aldridge portrays her own songwriting acumen, although they were in a state of control this evening to combat the dreaded onset of difficulties in this direction. However, they were skilfully managed during an hour and half dedicated to another majestic display of Hannah’s awe inspiring music. 

Songs forming the main part of the show fell into three categories: old established favourites, others destined to be future recorded favourites and a couple of covers chosen to represent a diversity of influence. For the latter, Rawlings and Welch’s ‘Red Clay Halo’ sizzled in one of the encore slots, while earlier Hannah paid tribute to the rock side of her musical appreciation, in particular Chris Cornell, and a cover of Audio Slave’s ‘Like a Stone’

A co-write with Ben Glover titled ‘The Fall’ represented the wealth of the future. Although not new, ‘Ride the Rails’ and ‘Born to be Broken’ could experience a renaissance with a version cut on a future album. Both do appear on the live record. All three added value to this evening’s show.

Populating the familiar list included detailed introductions to 'Lie Like You Love Me', ‘Black & White’,Lace’ and ‘Old Ghost’. An inner desire to replicate a passion for 70s rock infiltrated ‘No Heart Left Behind’ complete with a thirty-second tambourine moment, echoing an iconic rock pose. As experienced before, a chosen crowd choir lent a hand to ‘Burning Down Birmingham’, a song that always shows the nearby UK version in a better light than its distant Alabama cover. ‘Howlin’ Bones’ and ‘Razor Wire’ completed the setlist alongside the reflected stand out moment on the evening, a stunning version of ‘Lonesome’. This was also a gig where ‘Parchman’ took a night off.

While this show was essentially a Hannah Aldridge - Goat Roper Rodeo Band collaboration, those preferring the solo route were treated to a special four song segment. One providing a determinable reminder why Hannah resonates so high with many UK fans bound by a love of Southern flavoured Americana music where country melts into the fertile world of rock and blues. 

Hannah Aldridge UK visits are thankfully a regular occurrence, just as the likelihood of a return trip just around the corner. As frequent as these are, sometimes it is worth embracing moments as experienced in St. George’s Hall this evening. The format may change, but every show is underpinned by a winning formula that continues to grow in awareness and appreciation. 

More info on Hannah Aldridge

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Spence - Mint Condition : Rounder Records

The succession of a widely acclaimed album is a fascinating view from afar; one mixing listener anticipation with hope that a successful formula remains intact. In the tail stream of her 2017 album SPADES & ROSES, Caroline Spence made inroads overseas, in particular the UK where there is a dedicated passionate audience embracing the style of music in which she excels. The time has now arrived for a baton passing ceremony with MINT CONDITION assuming the mantle of the latest album release and a monumental challenge of building upon the impact of its predecessor. 

The most significant alteration in the professional arrangement between albums is that Caroline signed to Rounder Records, with all the trappings of releasing a record on an established label. Thus the stage managed introduction of the new record has been markedly different to the previous one. The drip effect of five tracks strategically leaking out between early in the new year and release date only served to whet the appetite of the new music’s worth. 

It is debatable whether the absolute quality of MINT CONDITION was really in any doubt and diving deep into its entirety reaffirms the appealing lure that spills out of Caroline Spence’s music. 

Fans who listened intently to the five pre-released tracks will concur that the title song and ‘Long Haul’ possessed a special sheen, confirmed now to the extent that both reside firmly in the top 3, for those interested in such an objective approach to assessing an album. ‘Mint Condition’ may have been lying around a while in an unreleased state, but this moving piece of nostalgia sparkles in the finale spot, given a helping hand by no less an artist than Emmylou Harris to reach recorded status. The hooks of the other early standout song polishes the finished product to make repeated plays essential acts.

However, these two have to move along for the album’s crowning moment that struts into place in the guise of the adorable story song ‘Angels or Los Angeles’. Faint comparisons with Miranda Lambert's ‘House That Built Me’ may appear lazy, but they never fade after many listens and are here to stay.

Admittedly, there was a jolt when first spinning the album in its complete form with the injection of a rockier sound to what was expected in the opening track. ‘What You Don’t Know’ rinses with the effect of a new label, suggesting a new team input to strengthen up a pivotal position for any album. By the time the eleven tracks have rolled out in a forty-three minute running time, all the traits attached to SPADES & ROSES re-assemble, best exemplified in what you could term a Caroline Spence ‘stock song’ in ‘Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes’

Those traits included a soundtrack to savour and velvet vocals that pour oodles of emotion into the song delivery process. When in union with some seriously good song writing, a ray of golden Americana runs through an album that ebbs and flows with all key attributes of an album flourishing at the junction of folk, country and contemporary roots. 

The biggest grower during the review process is the only co-write on the album, ‘Song About a City’ written in collaboration with Ashley Ray. In contrast, a patient piece titled ‘Sometimes a Woman is an Island’ simmers on first play whilst awash with wispy harmonies and a haunting close. A similar drooling feeling adorns ‘Sit Here and Love Me’ and ‘Wait on the Wine’, two mid located tracks relishing the benefit of the album really finding its groove by the time they surface. 

A similar view applies to ‘Who Are You’ and ‘Till You Find One’. They probably sit a level below the heavyweight numbers, but still fulfil a role of carrying the album through a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. 

A legacy of SPADES & ROSES is that it did not lose any appeal many months after first play. Time will tell whether MINT CONDITION follows a similar path, but if you are of a gambling persuasion, the odds are short. UK fans will have to wait until the autumn before Caroline tours the album, so momentum is assured for at least the first few months of release. 

The move to Rounder Records appears to have proved a winner for Caroline Spence. MINT CONDITION is one of those albums that you will treasure. Fate played a part in finding this artist, but it certainly looks after those seeking a sound that matches ideals. 

GIG REVIEW: Kyshona + Michael Logen - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 30th April 2019

The influence of Nashville is not uncommon on the performing floor of the Kitchen Garden and this latest presentation further imported a Music City presence into the Second City. Regardless of the billing giving an edge to Kyshona, this show unwrapped as a bout of equilibrium as the renowned format of ‘in the round’ took hold. Throughout the evening Kyshona and Michael Logen took turns to share fruits from their song repertoire across two roughly equally paced sets. They stayed very much within their own confines thus reflecting a mere snippet of Nashville’s musical diversity. 

For Kyshona, this was the fourth straight year of visiting Birmingham, and this venue in particular. A run begun when teaming up with Jen Bostic and Sarah Darling before branching out in a more solo direction while sharing the bill with Robert Lane and the Remedy Club respectively. Each time, this South Carolinian now Nashville resident mightily impressed with a thunderous soulful approach that drew heavily on gospel influences amidst tackling contemporary social issues in her song writing. The business as usual sign hung proudly around Kyshona’s neck as she powered through a raft of songs in tandem with her partner for the evening.

On a night of contrasts, Michael Logen played catch up with familiarity. Although a known name and an artist with a wealth of experience, this was a debut connection and thus a first chance to check in with a sample of his music. Style here is moulded from your archetypal heartland singer-songwriter finding solace in the blossoming world of Americana in 2019. Where Kyshona strongly leant into deeply felt issues for her material, Michael fished in the richly stocked pool of observation and emotion. 

Both had the seasoned touring knack of illuminating their songs with the bright lights of clear, concise and informative introduction. Newbies to both artists would have departed a lot wiser alongside the satisfaction of experiencing two dedicated purveyors of their craft dealing a strong hand. This amounted to close on twenty songs corralling subjects such as the Susquehanna River and a coyote running loose in New York City in Michael’s case, and Kyshona honing in on the salvation side of the US prison system and sparked by social injustices afflicting her race and gender. 

On the recording front, each artist shared new material, although Kyshona appeared far more advanced on this front with an album in the can impatiently waiting to be unleashed to the world. Putting contrasts in styles to one side for a moment, both came across as your hard working shop floor singer-songwriters forever vigilant for a break to reward their diligence and profound hope. Michael proudly celebrates his cuts by Kelly Clarkson and the cast of the Nashville TV series. Kyshona painstakingly seeking reassurance that the call to trade her living from the deeply embedded but secure world of music therapy to the radically unstable existence of writing songs about it was that justified unequivocal calling. 

Evidence was in abundance that both artists are worthy advocates of a creative art form ripe for listener attention and appreciation. Kyshona and Michael Logen share as many inner similarities as stylistic differences. In the true words of the night’s stand out song ‘we’re all bleeding the same blood’. Check these two out either in collaboration or solo. You won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

GIG REVIEW: Danni Nicholls - Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. Friday 26th April 2019

The current phase of Danni Nicholls’ music career took a step nearer completion as she returned to Birmingham for the penultimate show of a first ever trio tour. To further initiate a year of change, the services of guitarist Thomas Dibb and bassist Mark Lewis added an extra dimension to how an increasing catalogue of impressive songs are presented in a live environment. An audience choosing the Midlands Arts Centre for their Friday night entertainment fix were left in little doubt that this format proved a winner. 

Patience was likely to be the order of the day as new album THE MELTED MORNING meandered on a journey from creative inspiration to album launch tour. Joy for reaching the latter filled the air in the Hexagon Theatre of Birmingham’s MAC venue. A mutual feeling not only exuding from the stage, but felt in an audience frequented by many long term fans  bound by providing unconditional support. 

Listening to Danni guide her songs down an alternative channel proved a fascinating experience when first hearing the album. This process continued with the live presentation where a balanced setlist created a sense of equilibrium in terms of the old and the new. Interestingly the songs tended to be chunked in small relatable groups with the opportunity to share origins meticulously grasped. 

One early conclusion re-enforced from this gig was how the older songs have strengthened to find a niche in the midst of the new arrivals. ‘Beautifully Broken,' Long Road Home,'A Little Redemption’ and ‘Travellin’ Man’ were just four examples of those stoically fighting their corner. Of course, familiarity likely plays a significant part, but the concept of maturing being a process of enhancement is vivid here. 

A dominant feature of the new songs is the co-writing route that Danni headed down. Maybe prior knowledge of those in collaboration helps form an opinion and this is absolutely the case with a couple shared this evening. Close your eyes, imagine a seismic vocal change and ‘Wild as the Water’ could quite easily appear on an album by its co-writer Ben Glover. Likewise, the soulful input offered by Kyshona Armstrong on ‘Hear Your Voice’ steers Danni down a new path, working as wonderfully effective on stage as in the studio. 

As much as co-writing played a major part in the new record (Jess Morgan and Jaimee Harris were also credited during the between song chat), versatility in Danni Nicholls songwriting is still intact as evidenced by the beautiful and emotionally-laced ‘Hopeless Romantic’, one requiring no assistance in the writing process, and a touching notion felt by all. 

The roles played by her two talented accomplices cannot be understated in evaluating the merit of this gig. Thomas Dibb (known previously here for his work with Lauren Housley) effortlessly moved between multiple guitars and occasional  piano. The adaption and vocal space delivered created a wonderful canvas for the songs to flourish. A similar role adopted by Mark Lewis, rotating the electric and upright bass as dictated by the mood of the songs. More of the same sometime in the future is called for.

Inspiration from the wide and wonderful world of American roots music has long featured in the DNA of Danni Nicholls, though it sketches rather than defines where she takes her sound and style. Incorporating a cover of ‘Jolene’ plants a distinguished mark, not exactly revolutionary, but markedly symbolic. The capability of penning a good country song will never leave Danni and this trait is likely to appear in the future. 

Nobody investing in any aspect of Danni Nicholls’ music will ever be short changed. Evolution without compromise is an appropriate tagline for an artist who consistently delivers in whatever format circumstances dictate. Spring 2019 will favourably etch into the annals of Danni Nicholls when the dust settles. The MAC, Thomas Dibb, Mark Lewis and a grateful audience played a small part. Danni Nicholls did the rest. 

GIG REVIEW: Simone Felice - Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Thursday 25th April 2019

The lure of the back room at the Hare and Hounds once again proved strong for Simone Felice who could not resist a return to this Birmingham location to open his latest UK tour. The ultra connective atmosphere inspired a chipper persona in an artist bound by genius song writing qualities within an idiosyncratic exterior. Interweaving high tensile songs between hypnotic pauses  creates an intense aura when this native from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York hits the stage. Across two sets this evening, Felice pondered, toyed and conveyed a contented respect while powering through a bunch of songs reflecting a career enriched by many a smart manoeuvre.

The production side of his work may be increasing in relevance (the latest project being the new Jade Bird album), but releasing his own material is never far from the table. A new single titled ‘Puppet’ signalled the future, while the recent past dipped into last year’s THE PROJECTOR album with the title track inducing reflective commentary of its dark side credentials. This record also dealt the atmospheric poem ‘They Hang Upon My Every Word’, a piece brought to extra life via a Felice recital from a stage pouncing stance. 

It was hard to look past a prominent performance of ‘Don’t Wake the Scarecrow’ as the show’s magic moment, though there were many worthy candidates to challenge this mantle. Singalong invites hit a new high for a Simone Felice solo show. Not just content with the catchy repetition of ‘The Morning I Get To Hell’ and the rather more wordy, yet no less impactful ‘Radio Song’, the evening had to be brought to a stirring end with the Felice ode to his roots masterpiece, ‘Bye Bye Palenville’. 

Prior to this riveting finale, the audience had a choice for the penultimate number of another singalong (yes he was on a roll) or one to spit fire (our man has a way with words). A mixture of responses led to the latter, so ‘War Movie’ won the moment. Other highlights from a packed evening running closer to two hours than one included ‘If You Ever Get Famous’, ‘Hustler’ and a rare live appearance of ‘Ballad of Sharon Tate’ in the first half. A mention for second half opener ‘New York Times’ is also richly deserved, although many Felice classics from the STRANGERS album were given a breather for this gig. 

Connections with East Midlands promoters Cosmic American keeps the area on the horizon when Simone Felice hits our shores, and it is to the advantage of the western side of the region that the Hare and Hounds in Birmingham appears to be the preferred choice. Many dedicated fans packing the room had few complaints. A mutual feeling of humble admiration and respect filled the air as evidence of a songwriting great flourished from the stage. The solo shows continue to be the de facto touring mode for Simone Felice these days and they certainly reach parts to ensure that each gig proves a truly mesmerising and memorable experience.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

GIG REVIEW: Amber Cross - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham.Thursday 18th April 2019

The impetus of what a live show gives to an album can never be underestimated. This is certainly the case for Amber Cross, a singer-songwriter from California currently spinning the wheel of fortune in foreign lands. While the riches may be modest in some sense, the enormity of her approach to making music is landing directly onto ears taking a calculated chance on an artist ripened for appeal. When her most recent album headed across the ocean in renewed re-boot mode earlier this year (originally released in the US in 2017), you knew something was bubbling without being quite able to nail it down. Having now witnessed the live show, the multiple pieces effortlessly slot together to propel forward an artist capable of forming a deep niche on the international roots touring scene.

Scheduling Amber Cross in the Kitchen Garden for one of the dates on her UK tour was a wise move, even more so treading the same floor as compatriot Molly Tuttle did just a week earlier. Differences between the two may be aplenty, but the pair intrinsically link via a capability to deliver a song right from the heart of where country music should align itself. Amber Cross may be no upstart from the southern states, in fact just an idealistic roamer heading out of a corner of Maine at the first opportunity to finally make creative peace in northern California, give or take the odd inspirational moments from the romanticised south-west.

Given a hefty two- hour slot, either side of the obligatory break, was an opportunity seized upon by Amber and her guitar-playing sidekick, husband James Moore. Little time was wasted in playing the bulk of songs from the recent album, SAVAGE ON THE DOWNHILL, but more pertinently, flush out huge chunks of the Amber Cross backstory and the many fascinating experiences, roots and associated stories to her special songs. Leaving this show without falling for her traditional leaning vocals and simple yet such thoughtful music was an option not on the table. (Literally. the table had the most interesting of merch in the form of a range of flannel shirts for sale alongside the CDs).

Listening intently throughout rattled the brain for voice comparisons, which eventually settled with Iris Dement. The traditional flavor compounded on the evening in the shape of the sole cover, and cue for folks to look up the work of Rose Maddox in light of her contribution to country music in the Post war years. However, the show had its defining moments in recent times with a sizable chunk of inspiration coming from a rural background, highlighting water shortages out west and more specifically hunting stories and experiences of wild boar and wild turkey relevant to Amber. Characters also featured strongly, exemplified in three tracks from the recent album: ‘Tracey Joe’, ‘Trinity Gold Mine’ and ‘Echoes’, the latter focusing on relationship breakdown.

We learned a lot about the new album especially the process of hooking up with producer Ray Bonneville and heading down to Austin to record it. One of the premier songs on the album, also a candidate for the standout show moment, is the title track. Gaining further insight to ‘Savage on the Downhill’ was fascinating alongside learning about it starting life as ‘Cattle Trails’ (a line in the lyrics)  before Amber let others loose on one of her favourites.

Musically, Amber and James gelled perfectly. His 1932 guitar did the bulk of the solo inserts, with her 1961 version keeping to the three-chord remit. Occasionally, James switched to mandolin and for the ‘silly song finale’ a slice of harmonica cut in.

To give the latest album some respite, Amber checked back to her previous recordings. ‘Selma’, ‘San Joaquin’ and ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ were three selections from YOU CAN COME IN and off her gospel record MY KIND OF CHURCH, the self-penned ‘How Do You Pray’ featured. Perhaps for the key moment on the evening though, we have to go back to SAVAGE ON THE DOWNHILL, and say that ‘Pack of Lies’ came across as Amber Cross at her best.

This Kitchen Garden gig was one clearly not requiring a support as the main act brought their comprehensive ‘A’ game. Birmingham was fortunate to be on the Amber Cross horizon and a seriously impressive performer saw her credentials rise in the vivid minds of those sauntering down Kings Heath way on this Thursday evening.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Anna Tivel - The Question : Fluff and Gravy Records (Out April 19th)

They say place a stellar track in the opening slot to garner attention for an album in this age of diminishing attention. Not only has Anna Tivel heeded this advice with the title piece of her new album, but followed it up with a further nine delightful tracks to make it quite possible that you will fall in love with this record. THE QUESTION elegantly flows from start to finish delivering a slice of singer-songwriter nirvana to listeners excited by such craft. Several operations have conspired to bring the music of this Portland Oregon native to the ears of a UK audience in recent times and a grateful increasing fan base offers little complaint. The ten superlative songs frequenting this thought provoking album (in many ways) are best indulged in a solitary listening experience where distractions are cast aside; these songs warrant attention and supremely reward the attentive ear.

Pushing ‘The Question’ the distance in any ultimate futile game to syphon out the best is the gorgeous pivotal track ‘Minneapolis’. Both songs are loaded with delectable hooks and breathe an entity of their own. One guarantee is that while early plays are likely to draw you to either of these tracks, subsequent spins throw up alternatives such as the creatively vivid ‘Anthony’ , a centerpiece in the album’s second half and the poignant ‘Figure it Out’ a couple of slots earlier in the running order.

While the hypnotic velvet vocals instantly grab you, time and diligence is required to tap into the lyrical riches. A delicate instrumental canvas that illuminates the songs with the aid of assorted strings, keys, woodwind and percussion should not be underestimated. With all the pieces intact, this is an album without boundaries to where it travels.

Alongside the credence of a strong opener, a simultaneous closer also does the trick of bracketing a significant set of songs. Here ‘Two Strangers’ rises to the mantle and so much Gretchen Peters oozes from Anna Tivel at this point; a no mean association by far.

Scanning the credits revealed two familiar names. Jeffrey Martin, with whom Anna toured the UK last year including memorable sets at Maverick Festival, and ex- Della Mae member Courtney Hartman, who is starting to appear on different projects.  Further delving reveals this as the fourth Anna Tivel album on Portland’s Fluff and Gravy Records label, but a first one getting a wider circulation, although the previous release accrued lauded approval from select and trusted sources.

The story nature tagged to many of the songs means that not every crevice of the record can be explored in minimal listens. However, it is far from a hardship to allow oneself to drown in the beautiful vibes that radiate from whichever device you choose to plug in. Headphones attire in a comfortable armchair is one recommended mode.

THE QUESTION poses many, but more importantly offers answers to what an inspirational album should sound like. Anna Tivel may have arrived in several welcoming destinations via her previous records, but this 2019 album will widen things further.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Paul White - The Hurting Kind: Single Lock Records

John Paul White is no stranger to the odd duo and there is every chance that collaboration could eventually define the legacy of his new album. Maybe legacy is a strong word in the tailwind of an album release, but you do not have to search too far online to find the increasing presence of ‘This Isn’t Gonna End Well’ as a track breaking free from its birth as one of ten songs forming this brand new record. Teaming up with Lee Ann Womack for the featured track has proved a smart move for an artist most famously known for his work with vocalist, Joy Williams in the Grammy winning act The Civil Wars.

THE HURTING KIND is the second full-length release from John Paul White since he reverted to a solo recording artist in 2016 following a short post-Civil Wars hiatus. Like its predecessor BEULAH, the new record gets its release on the Single Lock label, a set up operating out of the Shoals region of Alabama and the home of several crack musicians. Accompanying press blurb hails the record as John Paul White’s third solo album, but you have to trawl back to 2008 for the first release. Bringing things right up to date, there is much to enjoy on THE HURTING KIND especially if you dig a sound dipping into timeless retro territory and freshening it up for a modern airing.

There is a lush appeal to many of the tracks, frequently harking back to echoes of the Nashville Sound. Using this backdrop, White’s vocals loosen up to whet the appetite of those hooked in on a vocalist riding the crest of a song. Strains of Chris Isaak, Roy Orbison and other iconic singers can be detected, but there is no reason why John Paul White should not be held up as a leading vocal protagonist in 2019.

Following a start when the album seeks to find its footing, the classic country cranks into gear with ‘Yesterday’s Love’, where plenty of strings and steel provide a launching pad for White’s crooning credentials to reach full flow. While the Lee Ann Womack duet acts as the focal point, it is just eclipsed in the preferential stakes by the track that follows it, ‘You Lost Me’. We are once again in the realm of traditional country, but perhaps we should jettison the ‘traditional’ prefix and anoint it as the way country music should sound. Leaving current debate to one side, this track racks up the bonus points in my book and lays out a template where the talents of John Paul White prosper.

While inevitably, some tracks bury deeper into the aural pleasure zone, there is scant evidence of any waste in the ten tracks forming this optimum recording as the production knows when step up and when to fade away. Forty-two minutes is just the right timescale to create an effect before a dignified exit. The two tracks that close this record are effective sign off pieces, with the penultimate ‘James’ bringing things slowly down before ‘My Dreams Have All Come True’ ushers the listener to the door in a soft and contented mood. This is in contrast to the rather punchy ‘The Good Old Days’, which launches the proceedings in a punctuated manner forty minutes earlier.

While not a comparison contest, THE HURTING KIND does appear to have more staying power than the previous record, ably assisted by the prevalence of clear-cut outstanding tracks. The whole support mechanism around John Paul White perfectly tees up his vocals, and if it is still possible that a successful artist needs a breakout moment on the solo front, this could just prove to be the vehicle.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

GIG REVIEW: Good Lovelies - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 12th April 2019

April is a month with a spring in its step and a perfect analogy for Canadian trio Good Lovelies currently right at the heart of their latest UK tour. A first ever visit to Bewdley Worcestershire (not to be confused with Bewdley Ontario) turned out to be a night of the familiar and the unfamiliar on a couple of footings. Despite a detected studio shift with the latest record, this evening’s performance by Susan Passmore, Caroline Brooks and Kerri Ough possessed all the gilded appeal that first drew attention to this trio when their music started to drift overseas. Some aspects of the Good Lovelies will never change and the status quo enriches rather than stagnates. A recent review of the new album concluded with ‘oh and those harmonies never cease to amaze’; a point nailed further to the ground after spending another ninety minutes in the musical company of the band.

The unfamiliarity mooted earlier links to this Music in the Hall presentation. A break was taken from providing a showcase for youth and local artists to enable the evening’s support to come from another Canadian act, a duo titled Fortunate Ones. They are currently accompanying Good Lovelies on this tour and re-enact the old warm up role to a tee. Maybe there was a slight gap on the evening from the usual menu; a concept and policy that embeds these nights as community events and likely to be a factor in the exceptionally large turnouts filling St. George’s Hall on a monthly basis.

It was mission accomplished after the opening set. Fortunate Ones explicitly presented who they are through their music and forthright chat. Descriptions leaning them in a folk-pop direction were not too far adrift and they came across on first listen as a duo adept at cutting a decent tune. Songs from their album HOLD FAST, including the title track and ‘Steady as She Goes’, formed a short set. The latter encouraged a bout of early audience participation. Without doubt, future Music in the Hall presentations will revert to the usual formula. While Fortunate Ones added to the zest of the evening, there was a little something missing, further compounded by the enhanced quality in the youth and local acts witnessed this year.

Although Good Lovelies have been seen several times live over the years, this was a first in a five-piece set up with the regular MJ Dandeneau joining on upright bass and a new addition in Mark Mariash on drums. He was introduced as playing with the band since early 2018, which fitted in with last seeing them play Birmingham in October 2017.

Across a set that expanded to twenty songs, the band played a cross section of material reflecting their decade of recording music. Early on, it was announced that this tour was in effect promoting two albums, BURN THE PLAN and SHAPESHIFTERS, and songs from these more than powered half the set. The latter proved an album that needed a bit of time to grasp, though the seamless thread tonight would have suggested otherwise to virgin ears. Conclusions from SHAPESHIFTERS hailed ‘When You’re Young’ has the top track, but it had to settle behind the impressive ‘Pulse and Flatline’ and the infectious ‘I See Gold’ in this absolute unfiltered setting.

The pick from BURN THE PLAN had to be ‘Old Fashioned Love’ (another invite for all to sing), closely followed by ‘The Doe’. This last piece opened a two-song segment when Susan, Caroline and Kerri unplugged, re-assembled in front of the stage and gave the most wonderful, harmonious performance. Caroline led on the first (one of her compositions) and Kerri on a version of the Crosby, Stills and Nash number ‘This Old House’, both magical moments.  

Vintage Good Lovelies cropped up on a couple of occasions. First in a pairing of ‘Best I Know’ and ‘Heebie Jeebies’, peaking in a rousing version of 'Lie Down' and a crowning encore rendition of ‘Crabbuckit’. Like many songs during the set, stories interweaved with a heavy bias towards the touring travails of three people leaving their loved ones behind during long days on the road. Family has never been too far from the agenda when it comes to the Good Lovelies, and sharing this part of their lives probably acts as a coping strategy for missing them when on tour.

There was so much admiration to take away from this Good Lovelies show. Inspiration, positivity and vitality were upfront, and for once, it was a pleasant change to leave the sad songs and misery on the shelf this Friday evening. After grappling a little with SHAPESHIFTERS, this wonderful performance from a band championed here for a long time acted as a reassuring reminder that what we love about them never goes away. Yes, those harmonies still never cease to amaze.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Gig Review: Molly Tuttle - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 10th April 2019

From the Grand Ole Opry to the Kitchen Garden CafĂ© in the space of days, not a journey you hear mentioned too often. On certainty, is that the performance Molly Tuttle gave in Nashville last weekend would have been something special to match the impact of this Birmingham gig to open her UK tour.  Buzz around this virtuoso singer, songwriter and most strikingly, an incredible guitar player has grown significantly in recent times. The long awaited debut full album release finally put the flesh on the bones of a promise given a major lift when the American Music Association crowned her their musician of the year last September. Of course, folks in Birmingham have long switched on after packing a nearby venue fifteen months ago to see an exceptional Molly Tuttle-Rachel Baiman show, and getting a brief glimpse of Molly in February this year when she joined the Transatlantic Sessions annual tour stop off in the city. Tonight though, was all about Molly Tuttle on her own for a full-on seventy minutes, and a blistering display of brilliant pickin’ music that passes through only occasionally.

Molly Tuttle graced the performing area in the packed venue (selling out in record time) around nine o’clock following an enjoyable and entertaining set from Norwegian singer-songwriter Ole Kirkeng. It did not take too long to ascertain the influence and inspiration for this artist, compounded when announcing a life split between Oslo and New York City. Taking a lead from the folk revivalists, he proceeded to turn his hand to a selection of decently crafted acoustic songs. ‘Rocking Chair’ was probably the pick of a bunch that found their groove early on then refusing to budge. A cover of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Blues Run the Game’ lifted him out of his comfort zone thus adding a touch of diversity to a specific sound he nailed from the off.

Covers from the greats (three for the record) played a part in Molly’s set too as she toed the party line of honouring the legends.  It was not just the fact that ‘Gentle On My Mind’, ‘White Freightliner Blues’ and Neil Young ‘s ‘Helpless’ were played (they have many, many times before), but that they were given the Molly Tuttle treatment, and a breathtaking piece of guitar picking to lift the songs into the upper echelons of their many versions.

While the covers played a small but distinguished part, the blending of evolving song writing, adept vocals and obvious ‘A’ grade guitar playing will project the star of Molly Tuttle. The brand new album, titled WHEN YOU’RE READY, bulges to the hilt with original compositions and the audience had the pleasure of listening to a majority of them live. It was hard to look past album opener ‘Million Miles’ as the standout song on the evening, with further light shone by explaining how it began life as an unfinished Jewell-Steve Poltz number before Molly added the final touch.

Other tracks such as ‘Sleepwalking’, ‘Take the Journey’ and ‘Light Came In (Power Went Out)’ represented the new album with distinction. This maybe is an album that entered the world wrapped in curiosity as the production steered it away from being a wholehearted traditional record to one where the term ‘contemporary roots’ plays a defining role. During this live show, you could detect the moments on songs when Molly toned down the intense claw hammer picking, likely to replicate when other instrumentation kicks in on the studio versions. However, the poise, class and owning the moment ensured that each of the songs were dealt in a state of ultimate control.

Outside the new record and astute covers, Molly’s 2017 EP RISE made a couple of set list appearances, notably from ‘Good Enough’ and a Kirby Lenker co-write ‘Friend and a Friend’. You only need to read briefly about Molly to decipher the circles she mixes in Nashville and this bout of collaboration obviously wears off.

From an artist breaking barriers down in her bluegrass roots to one who can seriously make waves in the wider world of country and Americana, Molly Tuttle is a heck of a talent and it was a humble privilege to witness her in our small humble abode. Many outstanding evenings have been spent in the Kitchen Garden over the last decade, but few come close to matching this event. One to warm the cockles of any American roots fan’s heart.

Monday, 8 April 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael McDermott - Orphans : Pauper Sky Records (Out in the UK April 12th)

Two top notch albums in the last three years and a new one in the can. Surely most artists will settle for that scenario, but not Michael McDermott. Reflect for a few moments and realise there are still a further twelve songs floating around in your head demanding some outage. It is of good fortune for many fans out there that these vagrant songs were plucked from the ether as they have morphed into yet another provocative release from a singer-songwriter hell bent on pouring every sinew into his craft. Cleverly collecting these songs under the album title ORPHANS, is just another smart move as McDermott creatively cashes in on this rich vein of form.

This record did get a US release earlier in the year, but its mid-April UK bow does tie in with a disappointingly short run of dates on our isles in May. Compensation that these barely head out of London is delivered in the sumptuous quality of material flowing from a record aching to be heard. 

While experiencing a Michael McDermott show in the flesh is a monumental experience for those who engage with a touch of passion, wrapping your ears around the recordings pulls up a close second.

The twelve songs that would not go away are all in the usual format of solo McDermott compositions, fired up by a stonking extolling of folk rock and served for a mixed palate in terms of straight rockers and some with more tender overtones. Although formed from an urban background, there is a heartland streak to the sounds and frequent leanings in the direction of The Boss would not be a too distant assertion. Opening track ‘Tell Tale Heart’ and popular ‘first among equals’ candidate ‘The Wrong Side of Town’ upheld this point of view and are as good a starting points as any to shed some light on the album.

On a record where we call in on several cities likely to have played a part in McDermott’s colourful life, ‘Sometimes When It Rains in Memphis’ probably tips the balance as the summit moment, with ‘Los Angeles, a Lifetime Ago’ settled nicely in the supporting cast. Whether you buy into the pumped up rousing moments like ‘Givin’ Up the Ghost’ or wallow in the gentler or, at least, less frantic offerings like ‘The Last Thing I Ever Do’ or ‘Black Tree, Blue Sky’ rich pickings are aplenty.

Weighing in at fifty-three minutes, ORPHANS is in the realm of a meaty effort and as we have come to expect from his solo outings and work with The Westies format, an avalanche of industrious words goes a long way to define what Michael McDermott does.

Musically, the album is in conventional territory and it would not be truly hailed as a folk rock record without a blast of harmonica that is duly found here on ‘Meadowlark’. Singer-songwriter makes a valiant stab at defining this artist, but is simply an understatement to how the vulnerabilities of one individual seek sanctuary in the body of an art form.

Tough as nails, pumped up and tub-thumping poetry are phrases jumping off the page as ORPHANS sinks in as a group of songs no longer possessing a homeless status. We know there is more to come, but for the moment Michael McDermott has turned out another gem, and complaints are absent from this direction.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Danni Nicholls - The Melted Morning: Danni Nicholls Music (Out April 12th)

An independent singer-songwriter’s journey is often a voyage across choppy waters, mixing moments of creative inspiration with mundane funding pressures and forever keeping an eye open for new opportunities. There is no doubt the journey of Danni Nicholls’ new album THE MELTED MORNING has followed a similar path from idea storming to the brink of release. The pinnacle moment of this bold venture is in touching distance as the finished piece banishes all barriers and eleven songs become freely available for all to listen. The result will not disappoint existing fans and firmly places one of the UK’s leading proprietors of heartfelt singer–songwriting fare at the point of maybe a significant potential breakthrough.

This last point is really for tomorrow, as today needs reserving to revel in a seriously classy set of songs that open an exciting new chapter for Danni Nicholls. Those au fait with her previous work will instantly feel a change, albeit one that complements a past where the sound was a little less intense than a fuller bodied one seemingly engineered by a link up with American producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin (Indigo Girls, Lucy Wainwright-Roche).

The feel of breezy past numbers like: ‘Hey There, Sunshine’, 'Travellin' Man' and ‘A Little Redemption’ remain in the locker as the serious introspective ballad takes over. These range from the sleek and slender ‘Wish I Were Alone’ to the powerful Ben Glover co-write ‘Frozen’, and probably peaking with the soulful gospel vibes powering the uplifting ‘Hear Your Voice’. The mention of the co-writer in the middle of this trio of tracks is a key feature of the album as Danni has sought seven excellent peers to lend a hand in this piece of the process.

Robby Hecht and Kyshona Armstrong were the collaborators on the first and third of this trio, with Glover featuring on two further songs, and the talents of Jess Morgan, Jaimee Harris, Amelia White and Jon McElroy utilised elsewhere. Many of these are long-term favourites in their own right here, and could only enhance any project to which they contribute.

While Danni is keen to co-operate on the writing front, she absolutely owns the vocal zone with her own rich distinctive voice bestowing each song without the need for widespread harmony enhancement.

To signify a multi-dimensional approach, three solo writes make the cut, each having a presence on different fronts. ‘Ancient Embers’ surfaced in the embryonic days of this project, introduced as a brand new track during a Birmingham gig in 2017. The version that night given the thumbs up; a view maintained upon now reaching recorded status. ‘Lemonade’ revolves as one of the more interesting tracks on the album, while ‘Hopeless Romantic’ finds its ideal slot as the curtain closer. The latter is a belter of a minimalist country-style ballad, giving a reminder that Danni is at least inspired by country music, if not necessarily guided by it. Indeed the whole feel of THE MELTED MORNING is one of contemporary singer-songwriter rather than a previously attached label of Americana.

This record is not necessarily bound by a monster track miles ahead of the rest in terms of presence. ‘Power to Leave’ with a lovely rolling feeling to the chorus stakes a claim to be in the upper quartile for those of a certain frame of mind. ‘Wild as the Water’ is the brash opener signalling a move into new waters, while ‘Texas’ is a moving track that pricks your ear into serious lyric listening mode.

The fact that a pair of strong numbers in ‘Losing It’ and ‘Unwanted’ have to fight it out to get a final mention explicitly defines the overall strength of the record. They both seamlessly fit into an entity that is beautifully balanced and arranged by the most acute of ears.

Danni Nicholls has recorded many fine songs in her string of previous releases to stand the test of time. THE MELTED MORNING, whilst being a giant leap forward, does not overshadow them, rather demonstrating the adaptability and evolution of a recording artist. This stunning collection of tunes will resonate deep into a community of likeminded listeners and likely court favour with those active in the award nomination game. More importantly, it branches out and opens up a new world that will no doubt create exciting opportunities. These will be richly deserved.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

GIG REVIEW: Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham. Wednesday 3rd April 2019

You could sense from the reaction at this show that the union of Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly has gone down well in the folk world. Maybe there is an aspect of curiosity surrounding Ruth Notman’s return to the front line, while the popularity of the ever-busy Sam Kelly continues to grow. This gig at the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham was one of the early dates on a tour organised to promote the duo’s new album that hit the shelves in March. It is always wise practice to get out and about when you have a new record. Not just to boost the sales, but provide a different perspective to those already acquainted with its content. Therefore, the sharing of CHANGEABLE HEART in its entirety was of little surprise, whilst wholeheartedly demonstrating what a talented pair of artists we have in our midst.

A recurring theme on the evening was Ruth’s medical career exploits; the main reason she has been absent from the music scene for a considerable period. A complimentary audience quip remarking on her multi talents sprang out as she eased from piano to guitar to accordion, all accomplished to supplement a vocal style that blends a touch of classical folk with an East Midlands brogue. In contrast, Sam concentrated on his pair of guitars alongside fronting the duo from the perspective of promoting and presenting the fruits of their collaboration.

From a standard format of a pair of forty-five minute sets, the duo covered numerous folk bases including shanties, bawdy traditional numbers and originals ordained with a touch of splendour. On the latter front, it was clear that Ruth is more of a lyricist, as opposed to Sam erring more on the arrangement side of reviving old tunes. This is born out on their previous work and carried through to the new album. The standout song on it, the title track ‘Changeable Heart’, had a co-write credit, although it was introduced as starting life in Ruth’s locker. Its eventual leaning in a pop direction remains alone, both on the album and what else the pair delivered during this show, but a distinguished charm is retained and it stood up as well live as flourishing on the record.

Bold Fisherman’ and ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’ could be classed as best of the rest in what came over live. Although, the reproduction of ‘School Days’ and ‘The Island’ in the last two slots of both the album and the pre-encore set list stacked up well, with the former getting a haunting rendition from Ruth as she linked her Mansfield roots to this Ewan McColl mining ‘coming of age’ piece.

Of the five set list songs not on the album, delving into Ruth’s back catalogue formed the majority, but a rousing rendition of ‘Billy O’Shea’ mostly lifted the spirits. A song last heard on a Birmingham stage when conducted by John Doyle at the recent McCusker, McGoldrick and Doyle show.

Whether the collaboration between Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly settles as a one off, the success in terms of acclaim and appeal is rewarding the investment and faith built into it. Not least, the backing the pair had from Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane. The audience, the artists and the ambience aligned perfectly once again at the Kitchen Garden and an engaging display of talent ensured the planned evening was expertly executed.

Review of Changeable Heart