Sunday, 31 August 2014

Amanda Rheaume - The Guitar Bar, Nottingham Saturday 30th August 2014

One of the joys of being actively involved in championing country, roots, folk and Americana music is being exposed to a continual stream of high quality new Canadian material in search of UK promotion. Nationally acclaimed Ottawa based singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume is one such artist who, after relative success in her homeland, is seeking further expansion into European markets. On the back of increased press for her most recent Juno nominated album KEEP A FIRE, and a formal UK release of the record, Amanda has undertaken an inaugural visit across the Atlantic to share her talents in a series of developmental shows. On the evidence of her assured performance at Nottingham’s intimate Guitar Bar venue, it shouldn’t be too long before the term ‘developmental’ is dropped and the wider music community takes note.

Amanda appreciates the value of enhancing a live show and for this tour has enlisted the services of two fine Canadian musicians. Fraser Holmes, a fellow Ottawa resident, played mandolin and electric guitar on Amanda’s recent record and switched effortlessly between the two sounds during the show which took the format of a pair of sets with the second being slightly longer. MJ Dandeneau from Winnipeg Manitoba has an incredible CV of playing bass with a who’s who of contemporary Canadian folk and roots artists with Amanda now joining many who have visited the UK. Intermittently, MJ played her electric bass guitar with a bow and together with Fraser provided the perfect setting for Amanda to showcase live her excellent array of songs.

Both MJ and Amanda share Metis heritage, a mix between European and First Canadian Nation, and their intense pride became a theme of the show culminating in the song ‘Keep a Fire in the Rain’ with its traditional language segment. This was one of eight songs extracted from the latest record for the set with the superb tracks ‘Passed Down the Line’, ‘AGB Bannatyne’ and ‘Not This Time’, all having traditional or historical sources and getting the informative insight treatment from Amanda in her between song banter. The appeal of these and so many other of Amanda’s songs is their ear pleasing aurora without selling out to popular whims and keeping within the tight defined structure of authentic roots music.

Amanda did play it safe with her choice of three covers for the set which is understandable when taking new original music thousands of miles from home. Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, with Amanda on harmonica, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s, fast becoming a standard, ‘Wagon Wheel’, complete with invited audience choral accompaniment, are far from radical selections but offered a bout of familiarity. During the encore Amanda also played an interesting version of Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’ with especially the guitar execution of Fraser giving the song a country rock feel.

Apart from the airing of a new song ‘Steal it Back’ suggesting that the time for Amanda to move on from KEEP A FIRE is imminent, the remainder of the set saw her delve a little further into the back catalogue. There were four songs from 2011’s LIGHT OF ANOTHER DAY and the closing number ‘All That You Need’ stretched even deeper into the recording vaults. This finale was the sole song that Amanda played totally solo with Fraser and MJ stepping aside to allow her to emotionally deliver a song written about appreciating what you have and inspired by playing to Canadian military personnel in Afghanistan. It was the fitting end to an evening full of invention, finesse and truly enjoyable music.

It has been stated here on many occasions that the influx of Canadian and American talent complements the home grown folk/roots/country/Americana scene well and serves only to raise standards. Amanda Rheaume is a valuable addition to the growing list of artists exporting their craft and it would be delightful if this liaison continued to grow and blossom in the future.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ben Glover - Atlantic Self Released

One of the pleasures when exploring Americana music is the background, circumstances, belief and passion that surrounds many of the recordings. While essentially the 42 minutes playing time of ATLANTIC by Ben Glover is what fundamentally matters, this record is so much more enjoyable when savoured by understanding its spirit, drivers and desire to drill to the very core of its influences. First and foremost Ben is a proud Northern Irishman but his passion to explore the connectivity with the musical soul of his homeland and that of the US southern states has led to a collection of songs strong in sense of direction and fertile in the sound of its objectives.

Ben has had some success in connecting with a wider UK audience via his association with Mary Gauthier and Gretchen Peters and unsurprisingly both have lent a hand in the compilation of this sincere and scintillating album. Mary and Ben co-wrote the record’s standout song ‘Oh Soul’ and this redemptive masterpiece intrinsically linking itself with the life and death of Robert Johnson shivers your senses for its near 5 minute duration. Ben’s recorded version joins Mary’s one from her excellent new album TROUBLE AND LOVE and it’s made perfect for a duet when the pair tour together this autumn. On the subject of duets, Gretchen went one step further with her co-write ‘Blackbird’ and the album is enriched by Ben and herself sharing vocals on this stunning and quintessential murder ballad.

The press blurb for ATLANTIC was far from laden with superlatives, just explaining the context of the release and for once acted as the perfect accompaniment for listening to the album. For the record, Ben has spent a number of years living in Nashville and in pursuit of his deeper understanding of roots music has travelled deep into the fields of inspiration. However the calling was to return home, assemble a bunch of likeminded musicians, strip away the layers of production and seek the reasons why the Atlantic divide might be lengthy in miles but much, much shorter in terms of musical heritage.

Along with Mary and Gretchen, Ben has shared the writing duties with acclaimed American troubadour Rod Picott on album opener ‘This World is a Dangerous Place’ where deep ingrained vocals reflect the perils of life. Ben’s other writing collaborator is producer Neilson Hubbard who has been present on his three previous albums. The careful assortment of instrumentation represents the finest sounds you would expect on a roots driven Americana recording with perhaps only fiddle missing but the dual steel input of pedal and lap fuse perfectly between the ideal mix of electric and acoustic guitar.

It would be remiss to not include a sad country song in this journey of discovery and ‘True Love’s Breaking My Heart’ fits the bill neatly and rather effectively with a waltz-like back beat. The big river was never going to be left out and Gretchen Peters once again lends her vocals this time to the graceful ballad ‘The Mississippi Turns Blue’. This track would not be out of place on Rosanne Cash’s epic album THE RIVER AND THE THREAD and that is no faint compliment. A gospel feel adorns the track ‘Take and Pay’, while homeland sentiments fuel the jaunty number ‘Sing a Song Boys’ and go a long way to linking the two lands inspiring the project.

Either side of this spark of gaiety, Ben once again gets in deep sombre exploratory mood with the solemn ‘How Much Longer Can We Bend’ and the philosophical album closer ‘New Year’s Day’. The two remaining tracks are more upbeat with the soulful rocker ‘Too Long Gone’ sang with aggression while the excellently written reflective song ‘Prisoner’ begs for forgiveness and namechecks the legendary Highway 61.

In writing, recording and releasing ATLANTIC, Ben Glover has made great inroads in realising his objective of delving into the spirit of the two lands close to his heart. Ultimately the pleasure is in the listening and all the better if you buy into the ideals.

Cara Luft - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 27th August 2014

At her best Cara Luft can be a lively performer but the injection of an extra refreshing bout of exuberance made her return to the Kitchen Garden Café a truly memorable occasion. Her link up with fellow Winnipeg artist JD Edwards appeared to be the source for this rejuvenation, although Cara continues to cultivate her passion in cross Atlantic collaboration with the renewal of association with English folk singer Bella Hardy. The pair will be hitting a select few UK venues later in the year but for now it’s her work with JD taking centre stage.

With a combination of old, new and a trio of JD Edwards songs to be aired, the format for the Café this evening reverted to a no support-twin set show and the well- attended venue, containing many familiar faces to Cara, was treated to an entertaining night of stories, songs, fine musicianship and a little impromptu humour. Right from the start, Cara couldn’t contain the delight of the link up and the pair is well down the route of recording a new album which should hit the UK market in 2015.

On an evening which was based on heralding the new, Cara eased into the show with a series of her popular old songs and got everybody singing three numbers in with the lively ‘My Darling One’. The DARLINGFORD stories were toned down tonight although it’s impossible to introduce ‘Idaho’ without Cara mentioning the picture of GW Bush while favourites like ‘No Friend of Mine’ and ‘Only Love Can Save Me’ need little introduction. Other popular songs to feature were the traditional duo of ‘He Moved through the Fair’ and ‘Black Water Side’.

At this point it’s worth mentioning the string expertise of Cara on both guitar and banjo with JD excelling on guitar, harmonica and backing vocals in primarily a support role on these older numbers.  However it wasn’t too long until he took the spotlight with the rendition of three originals either side of the interval. While ‘Had I Paid’ and ‘Old Garage’ came across well, it was the background and delivery of the haunted tale ‘The Stranger’ which had had the most profound effect. Being informed that he fronts the JD Edwards Band back home in Winnipeg with a folk rock tinge to them was of little surprise after listening to the slightly worn vocals which coated each song with smothering of urban grit. The adaptive nature of his vocals was impressive as sufficient restraint was needed to work in the Café’s intimate surroundings.

In what was rapidly developing into a duo show, the influence of JD breathed new life into the Wailin Jennys song ‘Something to Hold onto’ and he worked in a Woody Guthrie number late into the second set with a version of ‘Way Over Yonder’, one of the Guthrie tracks resurrected by Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy. Cara herself introduced an historical element into the show by explaining her passion for Sacred Harp (or Shape Note Singing), explaining it to an inquisitive audience and demonstrating it through merging a couple of songs – ‘Wondrous Love’ and ‘The Traveller’.

Three of the new songs introduced during the evening were ‘Fast Turning World’, the Bella Hardy co-write ‘Time Wanders On’ and the striking encore number ‘Home Song’. Cara was quite poignant in introducing this final song as it reflected her current habitual status of not quite having a base but blessed by the warm acquaintance that she has in many towns across the seas. With it now being a couple of years since Cara first toured with her latest record DARLINGFORD, it is an exciting prospect to know that she is likely to return next year with a shiny new release.

Since her days with the Wailin Jennys, which is quite a while ago now, Cara Luft has had a lengthy love affair with UK audiences. This seems set to continue and is certainly reinvigorated with the tie up with JD Edwards. The Kitchen Garden Café heralded an old friend and made a new one in the same evening.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Vena Portae - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 26th August 2014

She may be a proud Australian but Emily Barker is now firmly established as one of the UK’s leading ambassadors of alt-folk, Americana and roots music. This ridiculously talented young lady has successfully turned her hand to a number of different projects and styles over the last few years with this new Vena Portae venture matching up favourably alongside her best. Emily would be the first to acknowledge the importance of the collaboration which has evolved into a recently released debut album and this hastily arranged short UK tour. A packed Kitchen Garden Café appeared to be at its most appreciative in turnout, attentiveness and after show mingling as this Anglo Swedish quartet served a near complete menu of the new record with a couple of extras thrown in.

Although Vena Portae officially market themselves as a trio comprising of Emily (vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica), Dom Coyote (guitars, vocals) and Ruben Engzell (bass), the Swedish contingent has been doubled for these live dates with Jesper Jonsson adding the percussion spice. Despite self-admitted limited practise, the band had few problems transferring the excellent songs from studio to stage, or more precisely a cramped corner of the Café where the electric sockets are. These surroundings have brought the best out of many an artist and tonight was no different as friendly banter, informative inter-song chat and mighty fine musicianship brought the record, especially its Swedish origins, to life.

With a likelihood of the main act playing just over an hour, the promoters went to local artist Michael King of Boat to Row to open the evening and he duly entertained the audience while his own band were just around the corner recording some new songs. When Michael supported Blair Dunlop at the neighbouring Hare and Hounds venue in May, it was felt that the sound system didn’t do justice to his slightly lo-fi vocals but there was no such issue in the Café.

In a somewhat surprising twist, Vena Portae added a couple of new songs to their set suggesting that there is more to come from a group of artists so involved in other activities. To most of the audience, all the songs were new but to someone who has played the album countless times since its press issue, the unrecorded tunes were a significant style switch with ‘What We Do Matters’ adopting a more rockier feel and ‘No Enemies’ an acoustic duet featuring Emily and Dom. The other non-album song to feature acquired encore status and also added a further Swedish ingredient with ‘Young Folks’ being originally recorded by Peter Bjorn and John. The link between this and the new record is that Peter Moren was responsible for the remix of the lead single ‘Summer Kills’, one of the many songs contributing to the success of the evening.

Apart from the prominent and aforementioned flagship track, the two standout songs were the fabulous ‘Flames and Fury’ and the Christian Kjellvander (more Swedish connections) penned ‘Transatlantic’. Both songs were introduced with background stories and we were duly informed about the effect of Emily’s bourbon intake on the spirited first track and the location of the writing for Christian’s song, the only album track not to feature the writing input of Emily, Reuben or Dom. The other tracks to infiltrate the set from the record were ‘Foal’, ‘Turning Key’, ‘Stingrays’, ‘All Will Be Well’, ‘The Mapless Sea’ and show opener ‘Before The Winter Came’. All were expertly executed with Ruben and Jesper holding them together on rhythm allowing Emily and Dom to share vocals, switch guitars and decorate some tracks with the classical Americana combo of banjo and harmonica.

Further insight reveals that Vena Portae have been bubbling under the surface for a number of years and it’s to the joy of the enlightened music public that a release and tour has emerged. With her prominence elsewhere, Emily is going to attract the attention but essentially Vena Portae is a carefully crafted ensemble of fine musicians and few in the Kitchen Garden Café would argue as to the quality of their show. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Catherine MacLellan - The Raven's Sun Self Released

One route to a successful album is to lure the listener in before locking them into the groove of the record. With delicate astuteness and refined skill, Catherine MacLellan has accomplished this on THE RAVEN’S SUN, the fifth album from this award winning East Coast Canadian songstress. Teaming up wonderfully with long term musical partner Chris Gauthier, the pair has explored the self-released path to put together a record which succeeds in balancing the art of acoustic and electric alongside a bunch of songs etched with a faint distant familiarity.

No doubt exploiting the gifts bestowed by her father, the legendary Canadian singer songwriter Gene MacLellan, Prince Edward Island native Catherine continues to melt into the roots sound so entrenched in her home surroundings. The new record resonates with this influence and many listens reveal an album of two parts, equal in merit but sufficiently different in their feel and mode of effectiveness.

The first half a dozen tracks each have an alluring element either through their instant effect, melody or song construction to tempt you into the record. The stand out number from this segment is the utterly charming ‘Tell Me Luella’ which will have roots fans drooling over a song straight out of the Gillian Welch School of music making. This is closely followed by the enigmatic ‘Don’t Call Me Stranger’ where a darker sounding number packed with indie vibes steers the album in a more contemporary direction with a memorable chorus line and electric guitar pieces.

Album opener and title track ‘The Raven’s Sun’ reveals Catherine’s elegant vocals right from the first bar to launch a record which demands your attention. Catherine and Chris have enlisted the services of Nashville session musician Andy Leftwich (Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder) to play fiddle on a pair of mid album roots oriented tracks in ‘Jack’s Song’ and ‘Beneath the Lindens’. The other captivating track on the album’s first half is the enchanting ‘Gone Too Soon’, another song sung beautifully in a timeless manner with Chris’s mandolin providing the backdrop.

Having been seduced by the fabulous first few tracks, the albums settles into a groove where mood prevails over instant appeal and you are led into a world of tranquil serenity. Once again graceful vocals and subtle guitar work are the keys that lock you in and the sound is best epitomised in the pair of tracks, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Frost in the Hollows’. Read downbeat as sensitive for ‘Rushing Winding Wind’ and ‘Left on My Own’ while optimism reigns supreme on the closing track ‘Winter Spring’. Despite not possessing the highs of the first half, the latter part drifts only in soothing your senses and makes the album a neatly packaged complete offering.

It will only take a couple of listens to be enamoured with the sound of Catherine MacLellan and THE RAVEN’S SUN is a release that will fully deserve all the plaudits received. This is a composed and assured record and confirms once again what a talented crop of Canadian folk and roots artists are being promoted in the UK at the moment. This is not to the detriment of the home grown scene but provides a perfect complement.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Samantha Crain - Electric Circus, Edinburgh Tuesday 19th August 2014

The Fringe may have been in full swing but the opportunity to take in this Samantha Crain show amongst the comedy, theatre and dance was far too good to miss. The annual trip to the greatest arts festival on earth occasionally throws up the odd show reflecting Americana heritage but, while Samantha’s gig at the Electric Circus was outside the formal promotion of the Fringe, her performance was a worthy addition to the overspill of talent thronging every corner of Edinburgh’s contemporary and historic crevices.

Although on my horizon for a while, the music of Samantha Crain truly entered the domain of this reviewer with a set at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and it leapt up several more notches after this extended solo show. The easiest way to describe the music of Samantha is to mix the styles of Mary Gauthier and Lucinda Williams into a melting pot, add the zest of youth and fine tune the product with a dose of prime Oklahoma song writing talent. Quite simply Samantha strains every sinew of soul in the self-penned songs which reflect well her perceptive lyrical output and all projected majestically with cultivated pickin’ skills.

The experience gained from a series of album releases and no doubt countless shows has helped develop the story telling skills of 28 year old Samantha and this evening we were treated to a host of background tales bringing the songs to life. Whether paying tribute to the late Jason Molina with ‘For the Miner’, playfully conspiring a little Taylor Swift irony on ‘Never Going Back’ or playing syllable games with rival cities in titling ‘Devils in Boston’, the majority of tracks forming this hour long set were decorated with enticing insights.

Prior to Samantha taking the spotlight, Edinburgh based acoustic folk roots duo The Jellyman’s Daughter showed that this exciting and enthralling brand of music is in good health north of the border. Emily Kelly (vocals and guitar) and Graham Coe (Cello and vocals) were the individuals on stage but the sound was heavily weighted in gentle unison. Three songs from their opening slot possessed an eyebrow-raising appeal notably the excellent ‘Anna’, a song reflecting their Appalachian influences ‘Carolina’ and a unique bluegrass makeover of The Beatles standard ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. An upcoming album release from the duo is certainly something to look forward to.

Samantha later humorously commented that ‘she should vet her support artists more thoroughly in future as they were in danger of being too good’. The irony in this statement is that Samantha herself hits the road later in the year as the opening artist for the US shows of Swedish alt-folk trailblazers First Aid Kit. Inevitably she will probably continue to focus on songs from her latest album KID FACE such as numbers featured this evening including ‘Churchill’ and ‘Somewhere All the Time’. However there is surely a place for the standout song from Samantha’s time on stage and the brief outbreak of kindly requested audience participation on ‘Songs in the Night’.

The joy of seeing Samantha Crain live primarily lies in the depth of her warm expressive vocals which act as an evocative median in conveying her thoughts. The guitar gremlins which hindered her Cambridge set did not surface at this evening’s Edinburgh gig, although it was noted at the time in how well she dealt with the amplification issues. This is probably what you would expect from an artist so adept at excelling in the art of song, and performing right in the heart of the final week of the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival was a fitting platform for someone treading the golden path of Oklahoma song writing.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Blue Moon Marquee - Lonesome Ghosts Self Released

Imagine the scene; with shimmering percussion in the background, bar room shenanigans in the foreground, the stench of illicit alcohol filtering through the juke joint and the band just played on. That band could well have been Blue Moon Marquee in time travelling mode so authentic have this duo, labelling themselves ‘Canadian Gypsy Blues’, proved to be in their second release LONEOME GHOSTS. Harking back to a bygone age, this record, the musical fruits of A.W. Cardinal and Jasmine Collette, is unashamedly retro and sets out the stall that regressive music can be cool in 2014.

Weighing in at a meagre 28 minutes, the solution for the shortness is to hit the repeat button and play the 9 tracks again as the record is as much about the ambience created than crying out for critical song dissection. The ambient environment can be that idyllic bar listening to the duo on their many live dates, though the alcohol is legal and a lot more expensive than the in the aura created, or for those solitary moments when all you need is something medicinal and a set of headphones.

A serious grounding in the jazz and blues venues of New York City and Montreal fuelled the creative desire for A.W. who fulfilled his passion by venturing out west to the wild pastures of Alberta to settle for a sound that has subsequently criss-crossed the Canadian land under the touring guise of Blue Moon Marquee. With song titles like ‘Scotch Whiskey’ and ‘Gypsy’s Life’, you get a feel for the content of the sound which with a little bit of critical content probably peaks in the first couple of tracks. Album opener ‘What I Wouldn’t  Do’ dares you to shuffle your feet a little and a cover by old time American singer-songwriter/pianist Moon Mullican, ‘Pipeliner Blues’, displays the band’s canny knack of tapping into a style from an artist whose early active days can be traced back to 1926.

Bringing us back to the modern day and this album was recorded in Vancouver with Jasmine providing the vocals, bass and drums and A.W. adding guitars and harmonica to his prime singing and writing roles, along with selected other players. As indicated previously, Blue Moon Marquee are extremely active in their native Canada and with a little push from their PR may well want to consider the emerging markets for this bout of nostalgia in the UK and Europe. The irony to this review is that the whole old time feel is being underpinned by the global connective world delivering the music to far flung places.

So if you’re up for a touch of untainted pure retro then LONESOME GHOSTS by Blue Moon Marquee is an available option and with you at the click of a button (and insertion of a credit card number). However a warning, the worn vocals and crackling sound has more miles on them than a clapped out Ford, and not for discerning progressive ears, but retains a reassuring spirit of authenticity and is drenched in the art of preserving a snapshot of the past.