Monday, 16 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Amy Speace - Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne : Proper Records

Amy Speace made a fleeting visit to the UK recently playing a handful of shows including an afternoon slot at the Long Road Festival. Her parting shot was leaving us with the most glorious of records and an outstanding reminder to what an all-round talent she is. A spacious delay between full length albums, punctuated by an EP release and an active involvement in the Applewood Road collaboration project, has served to further whet the appetite of those who intently listened to a pair of albums catapulting the name Amy Speace into directed overseas listening circles. As effective as HOW TO SLEEP IN A STORMY BOAT and LAND LIKE A BIRD resonated in the years between 2011 and 2013, the hot-off-the press new album moves the dial along significantly further. ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE emerges categorically as a work of art, theatrically gracing a lavish canvas.

A north easterner by background now submerged in the songs and sounds of the south, this Nashville based artist is at the heart of a community that ploughs down an alternative route, both culturally and politically to much of what defines this southern city. Many absorbed in the music of this community will not be surprised that Neilson Hubbard was handed the production duties and thus joining a growing stable of excellent recent releases to have his name inked onto the credits in a self-assuming yet truly diligent way. The eleven tracks housing the memorable forty-eight minutes playing time stride like a majestic march through the annals of classic singer-songwriting, whilst commanding a showtime feel for eager ears. 

Ten of these unveil as either Amy Speace solo or co-writes with the odd one out being album closer ‘Kindness’. This track written by fellow Nashville resident Ben Glover is a prime case of a tight knit community sharing fine songs and follows in the recording tracks of its writer including it on his 2018 award winning SHOREBOUND album. Contrasting the vocal styles of Amy Speace and Ben Glover could fill a notebook several times over, but let’s say merit is purely comparative with the former’s archetypal pristine ballad vocals taking the song in a different but equally as breathtaking direction. 

A recurring theme of 2019 stellar releases has been a stunning opening track and ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE is right on the ball with a song bearing the name of the album’s title. Speace’s lyrics prick the ear casting a net of wanting to know where they originate and where they are heading. Not only does this record start on the top shelf, but elevates slightly higher in the follow-on track, ‘Grace of God’. A classy standout candidate should one be sought. 

Album narrative peaks deep in the second half with the period piece ‘Back in Abilene’ as events of November 1963 spin off in a surprising direction. Here subtle acoustic guitar elegantly soundtracks Speace’s reflective vocals, in contrast to strident piano featuring prominently in the albums’s early throes. 

Other highlights include the Jonathan Byrd co-write ‘Standing Rock Standing Here’,provoking thought like so much of his work does, and the slightly more produced effort ‘Some Dreams Do’ featuring vocal contributions from Ben Glover and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Not names you see listed together too often. 

ME AND THE GHOST OF CHARLEMAGNE is an album not to be rushed and sways in whichever mood you wish to enjoy it in. A release on Proper Records widens its availability in the UK so you can choose your opportune moment to engage. Amy Speace may juggle priorities, but when focussing on channelling her hugely impressive songwriting and vocal skills, she delivers in epic portions.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jeremy Ivey - The Dream and the Dreamer : ANTI - Records

A couple of years ago Jeremy Ivey played a pretty low key opening set at the Bullingdon in Oxford that quickly slipped from the memory bank. This was escalated by a scintillating performance from the headliner of which the opener had more than a little in common with. Whether or not any of the songs from his debut album featured on the night is probably immaterial, but that would certainly change when the time comes for him to return to a UK stage. While that day awaits, the release of THE DREAM AND THE DAYDREAMER will give Jeremy Ivey's solo career a huge shot in the arm and it will comfortably sit in many a listening repertoire.

9 tracks and 33 minutes playing time suggests limitations, but sometimes less is more, an odd conundrum that comes into play here. Not a second of a tight landscape is wasted as Ivey gears his songwriting to a wide range of issues from the deeply personal to others of a more macro persuasion. The whole soundtrack echoes shades of country music caught up in a psychedelic haze, with an occasional rock tinge. It also contains an impressive amount of hooks and levers controlling moves in a shortened timescale.

From opening track 'Diamonds Back to Coal' suggesting some sort of environmental reversal to the record ending with the ultimate thoughtful comparison piece 'The Dream and the Dreamer', the whole listening experience is a smooth event. Peaks across the canvas rise with the dreamy blissful second track 'Falling Man' and the country pairing of 'Worry Doll' and 'Greyhound'. The latter represents the album's summit and the source of the duet unravels the picture further.

Almost twelve months ago Ruston Kelly released a solo album that met with critical acclaim proving that there is a creative force in both halves of the Ruston Kelly-Kacey Musgraves marital partnership. Music from that release reached award nominee status and a progression that could be replicated in THE DREAM AND THE DREAMER. Similarities extend in that Jeremy Ivey is also the spouse of a successful artist, in this instance Margo Price. One difference is that she has taken a far more pro-active role in her husband's record. Not only being the duet partner on the standout track, but also taking the reins on the production duties and helping to shape an album that will resonate strongly with many.

From the small acorn of opening for his wife in Oxford in early 2017 to releasing an album fit to challenge the best in the Americana genre, the journey of Jeremy Ivey is beginning to gather pace. The largest leap is to put out a very good record. The next step is see how far momentum from the team can carry it. I wouldn't bet against a fair distance. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

GIG REVIEW: Oh Susanna - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 10th September 2019

1999 certainly produced some albums that have stood the test of time, especially a couple that have helped mould country, folk and rock sentiments into the burgeoning 21st century genre of Americana. Within weeks of Lucinda Williams hitting our shores to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her seminal album CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD, Oh Susanna has done the same with her classic release of that year JOHNSTOWN. To keep the similarities going, both artists made Birmingham a port of call for the revival tour and followed a similar theme of playing the entire album in its original order plus a few old favourites to wrap the show. Much has been made of Lucinda’s Town Hall gig in August, but the time has arrived to shower rightful praise on Oh Susanna’s somewhat lower key celebration at the Kitchen Garden, albeit no less absorbing and wholly commendable. 
From a literal perspective, those attending both events may choose to contrast the scale differentiation, but a little twist of the mind reveals so much synergy. It became apparent during this show that Oh Susanna holds JOHNSTOWN dear in her heart as the album which unlocked so many doors, none so personal than the route to finally express herself in her beloved art form of song. The twelve songs that formed the body of this album battle with the duality of lightness and darkness, while demonstrating that such inner and slightly introspective thoughts can leap out straight into a listener’s heart. 
As previously indicated, Oh Susanna served up each track in album order starting with the murderous overtones of the title number and finishing just over an hour later with the tender offerings of ‘Tangled and Wild’. ‘Johnstown’, the song, is as strong an album opener that you are likely to come across, sung with a touch of aggression to blend into the theme of the writing. In line with other album presentations, a fair number of the songs had a background introduction. Oh Susanna optimally fine-tuned this portion of the show, leaving the beauty of the lyrics and the vocals as the sole conveyor of the thoughts of certain numbers. The album’s pivotal track, ‘The Bridge’, was one given an introduction and it proved to be the unexpected highlight of the evening’s core segment.
JOHNSTOWN itself has had a makeover to commemorate its anniversary. A digitally remastered version has been released across as multitude of formats, and this Birmingham date is one of several UK shows scheduled to promote the album in a country that has been very kind over the years to this Canadian.
Although Oh Susanna had appeared solo at The Long Road festival the previous weekend, she had re-engaged with Dutch guitarist BJ Baartmans for this Birmingham show, and his incredibly deft guitar skills added enormously to the textural sound of the songs. He has had a long association with Oh Susanna and their chemistry was evident for all to see. 
To complete a trio of artists on the bill, Austin-based singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician opened the evening with 30 minutes of deep thinking self-reflective songs that you have come to expect from artistic residents of that town. He set the scene warmly, lyrically and sensitively for a night where, not only was the song supreme, but the way it projects the inner dynamics of the songwriter. Strong stuff maybe, but explicitly palatable in delivery and reception.
One side benefit to this focus on the work of Oh Susanna is a perfect opportunity to go back and re-live her fabulous 2017 album A GIRL IN TEEN CITY, a most touching and nostalgic record that rose steep when assessing that year’s releases. Only a solitary track made the post-Johnstown section of the 90-minute set, but you might as well make it one of best in ‘My Boyfriend’. Those of us fortunate to catch her set at Long Road were also treated to ‘Tickets on the Weekend’ from that album. 
The evening’s finale also saw three more old favourites with folks choosing between ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, ‘River Blue’ and ‘Right By Your Side’ for their highlight pick, or maybe just enjoying them all equally for their widespread merit. Perhaps the most important song on the evening was a brand new one titled ‘Mount Royal’, inspired by her time at University in Montreal and a virtual meeting with fellow esteemed Canadian songwriter Jim Bryson. As much as the importance of celebrating past work is a rejuvenating venture for artists, there is nothing quite like a peep into the future and some sort of renewal. This side of Oh Susanna’s work sounded superb, showing the tank beginning to fill nicely. 

The success of this evening was as much down to the smart choice of many fans hooking into the work of Oh Susanna, as chances of her not delivering on this impassioned project were always slim. You tend to know when you are backing a winner and we were certainly in the sparkling company of one in Birmingham tonight.

Monday, 9 September 2019

FESTIVAL REVIEW: The Long Road - Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. Friday 6th to Sunday 8th September 2019

The 2019 festival season concluded with the second staging of The Long Road Festival in the grounds of Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. An event heavily promoted for its inclusive approach to bind ties between a rather extended family that loosely falls into a tag line of ‘country, Americana and roots’. From lavish expectations that raised plenty of eyebrows twelve months ago, the festival showed extensive signs of bedding in. Any parade of artists trying to meet such a bold objective will always be subject to close scrutiny, tinted with personal preference, taste and desire. Therefore any post-event look back can only focus on a) what was scheduled (without decrying what wasn’t), and, b) what you chose to see. Essentially the first factor dictates whether you were going to attend, while the second evolves into how you choose to spend your time on site. 
Ray Benson leading Asleep at the Wheel
My approach has often lent towards re-enacting the gig experience of watching whole sets rather than a roaming one which aims to absorb a general feel. Of course, plenty choose to engage in many of the other attractions on offer, but I’ll leave those to their own devices. From setting foot on site just in time for The Cactus Blossoms to play the Interstate stage on Friday to departing just as Josh Turner wrapped up the headline slot on Sunday night, 21 sets were seen in their entirety – give or take the odd song (sadly Amy Speace singing ‘Kindness’ was sacrificed to see Asleep at the Wheel start their set). Limited roaming was undertaken to catch snippets of William the Conqueror (already seen twice this year), Roseanne Reid (subject to a set clash) and The Steel Woods. The latter would have been longer but for the serious overcrowding in the Honky Tonk on Friday night. 
Rhiannon Giddens
This leads into possible improvements for a future staging. The Honky Tonk is a popular feature of the creative approach adopted by the organisers, but became a victim of its own success on Friday. The festival needs to get up to speed with its multi-use glass policy. There was still pockets of non-music downtime which other festivals avoid. The boldest step it could take in relation to the line up is to enable the Interstate to go head to head with the Rhinestone headliner. Saturday night saw an hour of sole Kip Moore which didn’t meet the inclusivity target.
With a few after thoughts out the way, the festival organisers have to be commended in how they revolutionised the Interstate stage following last year. It was far more spacious, plenty of easy access for all, and who can argue with a bar. (Yes, you can at £6 a pint).They also generally packed it with great music, bar an early finish to avoid the aforementioned headliner clash. The selection of artists away from those designed to meet the wishes of a vast majority of attendees was once again first class, and at a quantity and standard that few events can match in the UK. Ultimately, The Long Road Festival 2019 was a resounding success on a personal basis and it will definitely become a permanent fixture in the diary if it maintains the standards of the first two years.
With the parish notices out the way, over to the artists that defined the Long Road for me in 2019, as that is what we are really here for. After much format consideration, here’s 21 words for each of the 21 sets seen. No ranking just some sort of good ole’ alphabetical order and a dive in the direction of succinctness. 
Charley Crockett
Asleep at the Wheel – Interstate Sunday
Legendary Austin Western Swing outfit led by outstanding leader Ray Benson bringing the band class to Long Road and leaving unrivalled. 
Amy Speace – Front Porch Sunday
Gorgeous songs, immaculately presented and forever informative and engaging. Ably assisted by the ever versatile CJ Hillman on guitars. Singer-songwriter fulfillment.
The Cactus Blossoms – Interstate Friday
Coolest band sound across the weekend, needed very little else other than guitars perfectly interweaving with each other. Top class Americana.
Ian Noe
Carson McHone – Honky Tonk Saturday
No band required, just a consummate performer sharing with ultimate ease and appeal the real strength of classic Texas song writing. 
Charley Crockett – Interstate Saturday
A singer born to sing from the soil and embody the deepest American roots alongside a crack band born to entertain.
Danni Nicholls – Honky Tonk Saturday
Her crest has been rising for many years and shows no sign of reaching anywhere near its limitless potential to entertain.
Amy Speace
Frankie Lee – Honky Tonk Saturday
Full band strongly enhanced some seriously good songs, presented with panache and a touch of edge. ‘High and Dry’ Saturday highlight. 
Ian Noe – Front Porch Sunday
Outstanding performance echoing Dylan and Townes at their best. Hyperbole? Nah, this set exceeded pretty high expectations from first online listen.
Jamie Wyatt – Interstate Saturday
Artist with a story to tell and told so well with passion, artistry and a UK band helping spread the message.
Suzy Bogguss
John Paul White – Interstate Saturday
Nailing the art of the sad country song and throwing in a couple of Civil Wars surprises. Steel and vocal bliss.
Josh Turner – Rhinestone Sunday
Throwback where fiddle, steel and tradition didn’t fight so hard in the mainstream. A set embodying the ethos of Long Road.
Leslie Stevens – Honky Tonk Saturday
Real deal country music in the true model of the great iconic entertainers sharing wit, spirit and plenty of harnessed talent.
Oh Susanna
Oh Susanna – Front Porch Friday 
Uniquely referencing punk with country was one of many twists as a series of inspirational songs flowed from a canny operator. 
Peter Bruntnell – Honky Tonk Saturday
Powerful rock from an experienced trio successfully filtering socially important songs into a hardened sound while honouring the roots of alt-country
Rhiannon Giddens – Interstate Sunday
Undoubted world class performer successfully rising to the challenge of American roots ambassador in her own inimitable and highly talented way. 
The Cactus Blossoms
Rose Cousins – Honky Tonk Sunday
Blending a sharp wit with meaningful songs in an unnatural habitat ensured Canadian folk music was not left on the shelf.
Sam Outlaw – Interstate Sunday
Moved up a gear with a new set up while ensuring his wonderfully crafted songs still retain an honourable country coating.
Sean McConnell – Front Porch Sunday
Showed that the art of fine melody and smart lyrics exist whether you are spilling your heart or chasing a cut.
Suzanne Santo
Susto – Front Porch Sunday
A blast of Sunday morning rock with a touch of roll proving that boundaries can be stretched in the right way.
Suzanne Santo – Interstate Saturday
Flying the flag for Americana folk rock in fine style proving that discovery is still at the heart of Long Road.
Suzy Bogguss – Rhinestone Sunday
Applying a brake on the runaway train of manipulated progress while showing that harking back can still be relevant and refreshing.
Danni Nicholls
Mission accomplished and a dagger in the heart of wordiness. Live reviews, especially festivals are unique beasts, entirely in the head of the beholder. 24 hours after leaving the Leicestershire site, positive reflections on a super weekend still bubble away. Hopefully, some of them have been captured even with a degree of small insularity. 

The Long Road continues to power on as a fledgling festival. Who knows how it will progress? Investment aims are likely to be measured in re-staging and innovation, but supporting an event where you can choose to plough down the road this review went is essential from at least two thirds of the festival tag line. Country, Americana and roots may have their differences but The Long Road offers bridges. It would be remiss to not buy into some aspects of what they offer. A fully bought-in advocate of the event resides here. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

GIG REVIEW: Native Harrow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 2nd September 2019

The mythical world of the unwritten artist-audience code was put to the test as the post-summer gig scene got underway at the Kitchen Garden. A venue that thrives on its warmth, intimacy and elective connectivity. A venue operating at the end of the scale where the spheres of artist and audience exist barely a hair breadth apart. One where building blocks are laid and positivity reverberates around the bricked interior.

This evening it hosted the American duo Native Harrow currently on a whirlwind tour around the UK in support of the recently released album HAPPIER NOW, courted lovingly by the indie record shop circuit. A record with an addictive streak that lures the listener into a transfixed zone through a narrow introductory passage decorated with neither: hooks, bells or whistles. Once there, a cathartic intensity takes hold as you are whisked down roads repeatedly compared to Laurel Canyon and dreamy singer-songwriter heaven.

Just as on record, Devin Tuel and Stephen Harms recreate the vibes in a live setting using a multitude of guitars, percussion accompaniments and fleeting keys. The magic of the album projects through Tuel's steely focussed delivery, best exemplified on this side of the Atlantic by the statuesque posterity of Laura Marling flowering the air with stern vocals, aligned with both beauty and harshness.

Two sets (45 and 38 minute long respectively for a touch of extra curricula accuracy), a raft of songs from across the Native Harrow repertoire and a finely tuned staging of a studio reenactment. A successful gig if you seek the headline terms of the unwritten code.

So where's the caveat implied in the opening sentence. Perhaps in the notion of a how a gig can start in one unassuming place and increasingly slip further away. Set 1: a brief acknowledgement to the dozen (hardcore) paying audience; a shallow but minimal insight into the inner workings of an artist. Reasonable without setting the world on fire and in line with the introvert nature of a performer wholly immersed in the beauty of the song. Set 2: barely a word spoken; playing to a distant place; a curt departure and a rebuked engagement with an encore request. 

Set 2 is not what the Kitchen Garden is about. Literally hundreds of artists pass through buying into the ethos. A vast majority abiding by the unwritten code. Of course shouts are heard "they bloody did their job, what more do you want?" Maybe Native Harrow did. Maybe this humble paying observer is guilty of witnessing what was in front of them. Maybe this is a small dot in a big picture. Good luck to them. They have made an excellent album. Perhaps live music just needs a little more. 

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Moseley Folk and Arts Festival (Sunday only), Birmingham. Sunday 1st September 2019

A fallow year for me at Moseley Folk in 2018 and a few observed changes in place when making the return in 2019. First, a formal amendment in the name to the Moseley Folk and Arts Festival, a slight adjustment long overdue in respect to the event's somewhat eclectic nature, Secondly, the expansion beyond the normal tracks to a sloped area housing the revamped Kitchen Garden stage at the foot and the aptly named Folk on the Slope towards the top. The programme also saw a considerable extension with the wider arts embraced in exhibits like comedy, the spoken word and embodied activism. Yet the core of the festival remains in the twin central stages hosting a host of fine performers ensuring the music flowed on a continuous basis from half eleven to half ten. 

Commitments elsewhere on Friday and Saturday restricted attendance to just the Sunday of this three day event. A day increasingly hailed as ‘folk day’, a little ironic in light that we are at a folk festival. Moseley has long sailed down the route of banishing boundaries and this is likely to intensify as straps are loosened. To tighten things a little, the main stage line up for Sunday left few in doubt to the direction with four of the artists being as closely aligned to the UK folk scene as you could wish. There may be a lot of years between Thom Ashworth and Peggy Seeger, but a commitment to the art of the protest song couldn’t be any closer. Likewise, few of their peers come close to matching the status of Richard Thompson and Daoiri Farrell on the contemporary folk scene, with the latter making many jaunts from his native Ireland to share exciting traditional music from the homeland. 

Where you place Sunday headliner Don McLean on the folk spectrum is open to debate. This is countered by a universal approval of writing some of the most popular songs of all time. One in particular had the unsurprising honour of closing Moseley 2019. You can have a single guess and probably won’t need another.

Those of a certain age associate the name with a popular 70s kids show as well. Not to miss a trick, the other Don Maclean sprang onto stage just before his illustrious (near) namesake. Who said the Brummies don't have a sense of humour when it comes to honouring one of their own.

The sixth and final act to grace the main stage on Sunday saw the sound lean towards a studio based art rock folk direction in the shape of Charles Watson. This was the swan song  of the current band set up and they signed off in fine style with a top class performance. Thus providing a smart contrast to the more conventional style that defined much of Moseley Folk Sunday.

During Charles Watson’s set thoughts turned to Dawes appearing on this very stage a couple of years implying that if you strip away all these layers of instrumentation it’s all folk music. A notion supplemented by banners adorning both sides of the main stage proclaiming, ‘all music is folk music’. 

In contrast to previous visits to this late summer festival, the entire time was split between watching all six main stage artists and those playing the quaint surroundings of the newly located Kitchen Garden stage. Timings enabled this thus striking the second stage acts from the agenda this year. Local singer-songwriter Philippa Zawe got proceedings underway on the stroke of eleven thirty, while many folks were still filing onto the site. She impressed earlier in the year when supporting Blue Rose Code at the Kitchen’s main residence and once again displayed shades of evolving into a real effective performer. 

The next three artists to appear on the Kitchen stage all possessed Transatlantic roots, in line with many American touring acts which pass through Birmingham’s leading acoustic listening venue. First up was Whitherward, a duo hailing from Nashville who now find the road, and especially Europe, an appealing home. JD Wilkes and Charlie Parr appeared in slots that dovetailed events on the main stage, both sharing a love for old time traditional American music with a leaning towards Country Blues. At these points, large crowds had assembled on the ‘slope’ to enjoy the rawer sound from the Kitchen stage along with the lavish surroundings of Moseley Park, an oasis in city centre suburbia. 

Closing the Kitchen Garden was out of town singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, a regular visitor to the Kings Heath venue and an artist with quite a lengthy back catalogue. She promised a huge dose of melancholy and didn’t disappoint. 

All that was left was a certain American songwriting legend and the climax of a brief but highly enjoyable dip into Moseley Folk and Arts Festival 2019. The future appears secure for this festival with a difference, and a pondering thought of who is on the horizon for 2020 starts to manifest. However ‘folk Sunday’ appears a lock in and following the stellar 2019 line up will be one hell of a tough task. 

Friday, 30 August 2019

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Over the Hill - Cogges Manor Farm, Witney, Oxfordshire. Monday 26th August 2019

The spirit of John Martyn loomed large on the stage of this inaugural festival as it soared towards a searing finale with a communal version of the latter’s popular tune, aptly named ‘Over the Hill’. Naming its festival in honour of one of this country’s finest roots artists was among many successful manoeuvres by the organisers. At the forefront of this was arranging for the hottest possible late August day to in effect bless the serene surroundings of Cogges Manor Farm in Witney, Oxfordshire. Obviously booking eight excellent homegrown acts to fill the pair of barn located stages played the premium part, with it proving a testimony to their lure and the pre-festival promotion that the sold out signs were raised with literally hours to spare. From the opening bars of Ags Connolly digging deep into his country soul to Dany and the Champions of the World playing their usual ‘best ever show’ vast riches were on display, especially for those glued to the near non-stop array of music from one in the afternoon to gone ten thirty on a balmy late summer’s evening.

Like most events tagged ‘Americana’ a diversity of styles reigned supreme, whether you took the artists at face value or their ability to mix ’n’ match mid set.  Leading the more rock orientated sound, the Niall Kelly Band laid down a pair of kings at the end of their set, thus challenging the Champs to play the best possible hand to take home the uptempo honours. The sets may have been eight hours apart and compared only in the competitive mind of yours truly, but they scored highly on many points, only contrasting in cultured panache where the Northern Irishman and his talented team held sway over the more roots orientated rockers from London and other assorted southern parts. 

Plying a more isolated path on the rock corridor was Ruarri Joseph and his increasingly acclaimed guitar fuelled trio William the Conqueror. Making use of the hour long set all acts on the American themed Nashville Stage were afforded, Joseph alongside his team of bassist Naomi Homes and Harry Harding on drums quickly found their rhythm and groove, a significant step for a band who rely strongly on these two attributes to provide a mantle for seriously emotive poetic outpourings. William the Conqueror is further expanding a festival presence in 2019 with the band set to feature next at the Long Road as part of their label’s (Loose Music) Saturday takeover. If they can hit their stride in this shorter slot as they successfully did at Over the Hill, then a wider audience in attendance are in for a treat.

Before returning to the hypothetical dual between Niall Kelly and Danny and the Champs, the fourth act to grace the larger Nashville Stage saw Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds expand their husband and wife duo format to a six-piece combo anointed as the Ramshackle Band. This was the only main stage act not to go down the electric route and thus a folkier sound emerged, in tune with the recent record, a positively reviewed collection of Appalachian songs. The front pair exposed their many years of performing experience to deliver an entertaining set, mixing original compositions with the archivist material. The family theme radiating from the stage was one frequently dealt as the day unfolded.

Niall Kelly was accompanied by his wife Caitlin on fiddle and frequently drew on an Irish brogue exuding wit between songs with his kids at the front sitting targets. This all added to the charm, with humour becoming a recurring theme later in the day. Ultimately the six-piece Niall Kelly Band rocketed to impressive heights as the set escalated. Blues, rock, rock ’n’ roll and some form of Americana were all celebrated in the set as the band excelled on many points especially a red hot keyboard player and a lead guitarist delivering some stunning licks when given the call. The name Van Morrison cropped up when mentioning that one of the great Northern Irishman’s band had played on the latest record PANDEMONIUM. It wasn’t too hard to detect where Niall Kelly gets a lot of his influence from. 

Van Morrison is not a name you associate with Danny Wilson. In fact there are few if any comparisons laying at the feet of this incomparable South Londoner. It’s common knowledge that his Champions of the World operation is in the midst of a quiet period as the Bennett Wilson Poole moniker takes up a lot of the leader’s current time Indeed this Over the Hill appearance is set to be the band’s only festival performance in 2019. It’s also common knowledge that the band play a ‘greatest ever gig’ every time they hit the stage and Cogges Manor Farm in late August proved no exception. Opening with a post fifteen minute version of ‘Colonel and the King’ set things up nicely and Danny’s desire to fill the extended hour and half slot with so much music meant ‘any questions’ had a night off. Yes, the Champs were great, that’s a given, and those ‘in the know’ never stop building that proverbial rocket.

The Nashville Stage was only 50% of Over the Hill, although maybe slightly over as the four acts assigned to play the accompanying Austin Stage had a marginally less forty-five minute (though still ample) playing time to share their wares. As previously mentioned, Ags Connolly opened both this stage and the whole festival with a brand of country music deemed maverick only in contrast to the slide of the UK country music mainstream down an inauthentic path. 2019 seems to have seen Ags get a foothold into the Americana side of the wide reaching ‘country family’, not that this proud Oxfordshire native playing on home turf seemingly gives a hoot to what labels are banded around. He just does his own thing. 2019 has greater significance for Ags Connolly in that his brand new album will see the light of day later in the year. New songs are beginning to seep into the live sets and early promise suggests another fine record is about to head our way, while striking a balance that traditional country music can be relevant in today’s eclectic market. 

To cement the ‘family’ theme embedded into Over the Hill, two further husband and wife duo acts graced the Austin Stage. In line with the comparative process of this review, sets by The Black Feathers and Hastings based duo Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou were lavishly savoured, while noting the contrasts with interest. If you wanted to draw a big thick Americana line between the duos, The Black Feathers reside on the southern side most recently exemplified in the song ‘3 Stars (and a Country Song)’, their latest single and on the day the climax moment of an impressive and enjoyable Over the Hill performance From earlier in the set, ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’ was a solid candidate for the best song heard on the day.

Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou are so far north on the Americana map that you could envisage them at the heart of folk revivalist New York City back in the early sixties. Whereas Sian and Ray harmonise a pair of voices with a single guitar in The Black Feathers, Trevor and Hannah go one step further with an additional guitar to achieve a similar level of unity. Both acts have an active past in touring America, with the latter duo detailing one adventure when opening for Tori Amos leading to a series of intriguing developments. Conclusively, both acts were astute additions to Over the Hill and represent our community so well in the harmony department. 

Seven acts in the book with the one and only Paul McClure raising the stakes on the Austin Stage to complete the line up. In a parallel universe, the Rutland Troubadour would have hot footed it to Witney straight from a sold out stint at the Edinburgh Fringe. A dry satirical wit is as much part of his stage show as the catchy and well-constructed songs that bridge the gags. Both aspects of the live presence have been firm fixtures for several years and Over the Hill 2019 saw McClure on top form. Family was also on the agenda in more ways than one during this set. Wife and kids in the audience were the red rag for the wit, while Clubhouse twins Danny and Tristran Tipping adopted the apt tag The Local Heroes to play bass and assorted strings in support. 

Over the Hill has been a long time in the planning for the Witney based Glovebox team and the endeavours had many rewards, best exemplified by a slick operation, the maximising of excellent sound in the barn environment and accruing full approval from those investing time, money and musical capacity on an often busy day of the year. A provocative question prior to the event was: is there room for another roots based Americana festival in a market prone to limitations? An Oxfordshire public plus a few travelling from more distant places resoundingly answered that question in the affirmative. Positive noises were heard about 2020 and maybe in twelve months time the lyrics to John Martyn’s ‘Over the Hill will be gustily sung in the main barn of Cogges Manor Farm at the end of another triumphant festival. 

Friday, 16 August 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Rod Picott - Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil : Welding Rod Records

From a partially hidden gaze on the front cover, Rod Picott is in a mean mood as he slips out yet another album of self-reflective industrial grit. Even by his own substantive standards, this latest record sinks into the depths of a mind — troubled, pensive and ultimately grasping at faint shafts of light. To get TELL THE TRUTH & SHAME THE DEVIL out from the inner vaults to the ears of a somewhat tuned-in listener, Picott engaged no more than his guitar, harmonica, gruff vocals, fertile mind and a living room-style setting appropriate to disseminate such candid thoughts. There was an extra helping hand from Neilson Hubbard to mould the recordings into a more palatable state, but this takes the term ‘stripped back’ into new territories and it wouldn’t be amiss to stamp some sort of ‘content warning’ on the cover.

This album challenges the notion of a third way when engaging with a record. If you get to the end of the forty-seven minute playing time, you are likely to be a fully paid up member of the Rod Picott Appreciation Society. All other entrants will likely fall at the first hurdle, with newbies probably requiring a dose of Picott’s greater produced back catalogue to ease themselves into the work of one of the most intense songwriters you are likely to encounter on the contemporary Americana scene. 

On a record where a personal health scare supplied the canvas to see these songs flow, mortality features prominently whether reflecting on the suicidal demise of one real life character in ‘Mark’ or the deeply personal outpouring in ‘A 38 Special & a Hermes Purse’. The latter sinks to its knees with the line ‘I’m a train wreck turning Beaujolais to piss’, but the good news is the parting track, ‘Folds of Your Dress’, shares a touch of hope and Rod Picott is still alive and kicking to tour the album in the UK in the autumn. 

Alongside mortality, nostalgia plays a strong part, although you could say the two concepts go hand in hand. When staring back at past events, ‘Mama’s Boy' considers masculinity, ‘Spartan Hotel’ recalls live music in its most basic form and ‘Sunday Best’ takes a twisted look at the mundane. To get the best out of the twelve songs, reading the liner notes is an essential companion. Context is key to how these songs played out and the subsequent importance of the vehicle adopted to share with a fanbase, one likely to be hardened to the stern stuff. 

Rawness and complexity melt into the listening experience of TELL THE TRUTH & SHAME THE DEVIL. Although a fan of Rod Picott’s music for over a decade, this was still a tough album to grasp, suggesting a contradiction to the earlier point that a third way doesn’t exist ie you’re either in or out. The jury is still out as to whether this record in its primal format reaches out past a core, but it is probably the most important album of Rod Picott’s career and may clear the way for a prosperous future where recognition of his stellar song writing skills sail above any facet of self doubt. You cannot deny this guy makes interesting albums and surfacing on the other side is an invigorating experience. 

TELL THE TRUTH & SHAME THE DEVIL is out in the US and available for listening on overseas platforms. It is scheduled for a formal UK release on September 6th and sure to be available at most Rod Picott gigs subject to the inevitable sold out sign.

Monday, 12 August 2019

FESTIVAL PREVIEW: Over The Hill - Witney, Oxfordshire Monday 26th August 2019

Is there room for another festival in an apparent crowded field? Definitely when it's a quality roots event within 80 miles of the West Midlands conurbation on a quiet Bank Holiday Monday. So let's embrace the birth of Over The Hill and wish it a prosperous existence. Plenty of top acts lined up for this inaugural staging including a somewhat rare appearance these days from Danny and the Champions of the World (for the right reasons though and we know they ain't going far away). For further details, check out the official press release below and look out for future coverage from the day's activities down Cogges Farm.

The beautiful Oxfordshire countryside is destined to become immersed in the world of Americana this Summer at the first-ever Over the Hill Festival. Proudly presented by Glovebox Live, Over the Hill takes place on Bank Holiday Monday 26th August at the picturesque Cogges Manor Farm.
With plenty of opportunities to delve into the Americana experience with authentic American food and bars, Over the Hill will also feature intimate performances from some of the finest live Americana and roots acts in the UK today, on two stages housed in beautiful tithe barns.
Local, award-winning brewer Wychwood Brewery will be providing the thirst-quenching beverages notably the refreshing American ale Shipyard IPA and To The Moon will be running a Gin & Prosecco Bar. In addition, Over the Hill will feature authentic American food from vendors such as The Burn Out BBQ and Fat Lil’s providing a selection of Mexican and vegetarian cuisine.  You’ll also have the chance to discover the whole of the Cogges Museum site : the 17th century Manor House and it’s “Downton” links, the orchard and courtyard.
  • Venue is access friendly.
  • A limited number of 12 and under tickets are online priced £5 + booking fee.
  • PLEASE NOTE that both Stages are STANDING only – no seating inside the Barns.
  • The Courtyard will have some seating and you are welcome to bring your own camping chairs.
  • You can find details about the venue, and travel options here
  • There is plenty of FREE parking.
  • No dogs on site apart from Guide Dogs which must be on a lead at all times.
  • The site is totally NON SMOKING but you can vape.
  • PLEASE NOTE your own food and drink are not permitted on the festival site.
  • If you are looking to stay over we can recommend The Premier Inn and Oxford Witney Hotel both of which are walkable to the venue.
  • Enquiries and box office 0845 2574938
26th, August 2019
 doors @ 12noon
On the Door Price: £30
Advance Ticket Price: £30
Book Tickets: Click here