Sunday, 19 October 2014

Danny and the Champions of the World - O2 Academy 3, Birmingham, Saturday 18th October 2014

Danny Wilson proudly proclaims his band as ‘champions of the world’, while others hail them as the best live act on the UK circuit. The merits of both claims have great substance and plenty of evidence is on display each time they take to the stage. The belief Danny has in his band is undeniable and he fully understands the value of combination and co-operation. Closely observing, then immersing yourself into the work of this genre defying band is a riveting experience, although the true pleasure is leaving the scrutiny to one side and riding the euphoric wave of good time vibes radiating from the band in full flow.

This tour by Danny and the Champions of the World encompasses the past, the present and the future. While technically the tour is supporting the new record, LIVE CHAMPS, this particular release is celebrating the past or to be more accurate, one magical night at the Jazz Café. So the set list for this Birmingham gig contained many old favourites and a substantial collection from last year’s much loved studio release STAY TRUE. The country soul path that Danny led the band down on this record was a refreshing sound and similar soulful vibes adorned the two tracks that he previewed for the next record. These two were perhaps a little more up tempo, possibly proving comparable to the sound of US acclaimed band St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The un-naming of these songs preserves a touch of mystique about the new record with Danny himself still unsure of the ultimate direction, although one certainty is that they’ll make you dance.

Fresh from their successful worldwide support slot opening for Tori Amos, south coast based alt-folk duo Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou have re-united with Danny to show those arriving early at the gig what an exceptional duo they are. It was a pity that these pair of ex-champs had a prior commitment that prevented them joining in the fun at the end but an impromptu sentimental moment saw Danny invited on stage to sing them a song to commemorate their wedding anniversary. The two guitar-single mic format suits their unique vocals and the performance harked back to an excellent set they played at the 2013 Maverick Festival. Spinning visions of the 60s New York folk revival sound, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou deliver their songs with fine exquisiteness and aligned harmony, tantalising you to want a little bit more than their thirty minute opening set.

The country soul sound that has defined the current momentum of the champs centres round the pedal steel of Henry Senior Jr and Free Jazz Geoff’s luxurious sax contributions. Sparkling lead guitar segments by Paul Lush ladles each song with finesse while the rhythmic engine room of bassist Chris Clarke and drummer Steve Brookes keeps the tight sound intact. Danny George Wilson, to give him his full and solo status name, skilfully orchestrates a live performance which often sees three or four minute studio tracks turned into ten minute concert extravaganzas, liberally sprinkled with individual band member interludes.

An enthusiastic, committed and appreciative Saturday night Birmingham turnout bought into Danny’s mutual ethos from early in the gig, which eventually spawned into a set exceeding two hours. In a venue that hosts a decent sound system within a soulless corporate shell, few would leave without an affirmative acknowledgement that Danny and the Champions of the World perfectly execute the ultimate intimate interactive show. Any issues surrounding the Second City’s viable reception of Americana music are best debated elsewhere and true live music will always survive the situation.

For a more comprehensive documentation of the set list, it is suggested that you invest in LIVE CHAMPS but needless to say ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ is the ideal show opener, ‘Henry the Van’ oozes with alternative sentimentality and ‘These Days’ removes the static element from every member of the audience. Those with an ear for good taste understand and fully appreciate what Danny and the Champions of the World stand for. Intelligent acclaim is aplenty for Danny Wilson and commercial justice, with a prevailing wind, is within his grasp. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Seth Lakeman - Birmingham Town Hall, Friday 17th October 2014

Occasionally the wider music community takes a peep into the world of Seth Lakeman but all they will usually see is a focussed and driven artist pursuing his passion for traditional sound and song. The respect from his peers and loyal fan base is intact, with each tour and project sealing the pact between artist and audience. Seth’s now annual visits to the West Midlands have tended to rotate between Birmingham and Black Country venues in Bilston and Wolverhampton with a packed Town Hall this time welcoming him to the heart of the Second City. What was on offer was the usual high quality serving of flowing fiddle, stomping sound and a carefully crafted collection of compositions.

Seth is touring this year to promote his new album WORD OF MOUTH and skilfully weaved a set list strategically to support this release alongside old favourites which have formed the bedrock of his live shows over the years. A Seth Lakeman show is all about a switch of tempo and from the reaction of this Friday night audience, there was only going to be one winner as a usually conservative Town Hall crowd removed their shackles for a dance. Having seen Seth perform on countless occasions, a preference has long been developed for his up tempo material and to perfect cue, ‘Colliers’, ‘Kitty Jay’ and ‘Race to be King’ all raised the temperature and sent ripples of activity around the venue. Without being too crude, Seth Lakeman is a ‘red’ hot fiddle player and is at his best when orchestrating a rousing sound either solo or leading his band.

For what appeared to be the first time in my book, Seth was the only Lakeman on stage with Jack Rutter taking over general guitar duties alongside Cormack Byrne on percussion and regular in-demand bassist Ben Nicholls in his usual stalwart role. Lisbee Stainton continues to balance her solo career with a now regular place in the band adding banjo, vocals and harmonium. A striking visual observation of the band on stage is that rarely do any consecutive songs have the same musical line up present as instruments are exchanged and individuals stand aside on certain numbers. On one of the evening’s stand out slower songs, Seth and Lisbee excelled as a duo on ‘White Hare’ and there is a no more stunning atmospheric feel to the gig than the lights dimming and then shining intensely on Seth as the solo fiddle player on stage.

For what was believed to be the first time witnessed at a Seth gig, he utilised the opening artist and brought back feisty Aussie roots rocker Kim Churchill to the stage twice to add some glorious blues drenched harp most notably to a rousing number from the new album titled ‘Last Rider’. Kim’s opening thirty minute set was perfectly planned for a Friday gig with a dose of fast paced roots rock delivered in a one man band style. Kim was last seen in the city opening for Billy Bragg on a Sunday night but this time he tuned in more to the upbeat vibes of the expectation.

Seth’s role in powering a new generational appetite for exploring traditional song saw him explain the ethos behind the Full English project and played a song under that banner called ‘Stand By Your Guns’. He also delivered an impassioned version of a Jim Radford song ‘The Shores of Normandy’ amidst a respect to the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. An appreciable audience gave these songs their full attention and in contrast helped Seth with a chorus contribution of “Raise your glass to the one you love” on ‘Portrait of My Wife’.

This gig by Seth Lakeman was business as usual with the added bonus of Kim Churchill’s contribution leading to a slightly different sound on a couple of numbers.Business as usual in Seth Lakeman’s book is an exceptional night out with an artist who entertains, enthrals and embraces a traditional sound in a contemporary manner. The Town Hall in Birmingham certainly knows a winning formula. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone Highway 20 Records

If you are a paid up subscriber to the theory that CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD is by far the finest segment of the Lucinda Williams back catalogue then standby for a release that will at least challenge your perception. With a vocal acumen that gets richer in age and an appetite to re-discover her southern roots, DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE sees Lucinda capture the mood of the land, moment and feeling to embark on a prolific bout of stunning song writing and stellar music production. This 20 track collection signals a return of the classic double album and, while certainly not for the meek, submerging yourself into this golden seam of country soul will leave a prolonged essence of gratifying satisfaction. 

Lucinda, her husband Tom Overby and Greg Leisz collaborated on the production duties and emerged from their LA studio with an album dressed for classic recognition and an inaugural release on their appropriately named Highway 20 Records label. This road, so integral to Lucinda’s Mississippi upbringing, has acted as a conductive influence in much the same vein as Rosanne Cash’s recent masterpiece delved beyond the tales of the south. The drifting soulful tones of Lucinda mark a difference between the albums, although both excel on sound and production. The enlisting of Tony Joe White to play guitar on a handful of tracks and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Davy Faragher and Pete Thomas) on a significant number of others has enhanced the sound. Lucinda finds her superlative writing groove by directly penning 18 of the tracks, choosing a solitary cover in JJ Cale’s 10 minute epic ‘Magnolia’ and re-working one of her father’s poems ‘Compassion’. The album draws its title from a line in this piece and reveals appropriately where this record takes you with repeated listens.

Finding time in your busy lives to listen intently to all 103 minutes of both discs in one sitting may be tough but essential at least once or twice and it’s nigh on impossible to hone in on a stand out number. However no review would be complete without earmarking those tracks having a profound early effect and possibly may serve as focal points. ‘West Memphis’ recounts a miscarriage of justice in a resigned sort of way awash with sultry grooves and a languid backbeat. ‘Burning Bridges’ possesses the album’s knockout melody and is definitely a radio-friendly track, although in my book radio would be improved by playing any of the 20 songs. On the subject of airplay, the mainstream won’t touch ‘This Old Heartache’ but it’s tough to think of a better pure country song put to record this year. On an album almost entirely the vocal domain of Lucinda, Jakob Dylan, fast becoming a go to guest vocalist, makes an appearance on ‘It’s Gonna Rain’.

Several enlightening online interviews with Lucinda have proved invaluable sources in adding a background flavour to the record and reading them while listening to the songs evolves into a dual pleasure. ‘Wrong Number’ proves to be a very personal sad number and the spiritual pairing of ‘Everything but the Truth’ and ‘Something This Wicked Comes’ reveal a fascination with both sides of the religious divide. If you’re searching for a track to melt you away, ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing’) will seductively oblige, while ‘Walk On’ and ‘Protection’ possess an upbeat appeal to induce a more active feeling.

Apologies to anyone already smitten with this album and crying out for a reference to an omitted track. On the other hand, delving into the record via any of the 20 tracks will lure you deeper into its vaults and lead you ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’. Don’t worry staunch Lucinda Williams’ fans, the legacy of CAR WHEELS….. is still intact but we will certainly be talking about DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE in years to come. Savouring the delights of this magnificent piece of work comes with the highest recommendation and cements Lucinda Williams as an Americana artist of the highest pedigree.

Interview with Rolling Stone

Interview with Wall Street Journal

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Rod Picott - George IV Pub, Lichfield, Saturday 11th October 2014

He may be an established member of the UK international touring circuit but Rod Picott never loses the blessing of someone who came to full time musicianship later in life than the usual career trajectory of a recording artist. With a personal milestone anniversary on the horizon, Rod still retains the passion of taking his music, songs and stories out on the road and the knack of connecting effectively with his audience. In the last dozen or so years the records have flowed consistently from the guitar and pen of Rod, successfully maintaining their quality and ensuring that his set lists can accurately represent the full span of his recording career. This evening’s show in Lichfield followed this winning formula leaving a probably already committed audience content with their 2014 live fix of Rod Picott.

Staffordshire based promoters Hot Burrito were on fairly safe ground having booked Rod on three previous occasions, although they experimented this time by being forced to leave their idyllic usual village hall location for a more conventional semi urban venue. The back room of the George IV pub in Lichfield was packed to its limited capacity reflecting a turnout many promoters would be grateful for and creating an intimate environment that met the full approval of Rod. As is normally the case where no support is available, the main act spread their sets either side of a lengthy break and those present had far more exposure to Rod Picott than when he last visited the area. Twelve months ago he was slightly overshadowed by the Wild Ponies who excited many with their debut UK gigs and this year’s touring schedule gave the promotion the opportunity to book separate dates for them.

So armed with a bunch of albums including his latest 2013 release HANG YOUR HOPES ON A CROOKED NAIL and a clear run, Rod utilised every moment of his time in the spotlight to remind everyone how entertaining an evening mixed with fine music, song and tales can be. Although a few of the stories were familiar from last year, the expansion of time on this date allowed several additional ones in particular the family heritage link to ‘Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues’ and his own personal residential experience in ‘Mobile Home’. Of course a Rod Picott show always has the possibility of referencing two other popular artists associated with him over the years. The mutual and harmonious break up with his ex-partner Amanda Shires is documented in ‘Might Be Broken Now’ and his solitary happy song ‘Angels and Acrobats’ has the distinction of being recorded by both artists on individual solo records.

The other artist close to Rod is his good buddy Slaid Cleaves and it was good to hear their co-write ‘Broke Down’ especially has Slaid has seemingly taken a break from touring this country. This song had all the credentials of being the evening’s stand out number, although he launched the show with a couple of his classic industrial inspired compositions, ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’. While travels around the country have been necessary to promote his career including a stint in Nashville, where an association with Alison Krauss created opportunities, it is the industrial north east and his many years of hard labour that has influenced much of his writing. Recollections of his upbringing in South Berwick, Maine were extensive leading into songs such as ‘Where No One Knows My Name’.

The preview of a new song hinted that the frequency of Rod Picott albums may be maintained in the future and the closing moments of the evening saw a version of ‘Nobody Knows’ in tribute to a faithful UK friend unable to attend shows on this tour due to personal difficulties. It is this attention to touring detail that has served Rod well in the past and the likelihood of him continuing to visit us long into the future. An artist who maximises their talent and develops an affinity with their followers gives themselves a fair chance of succeeding and Rod Picott continues to rejoice in the path he has chosen.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Parker Millsap - Parker Millsap Okrahoma Records

Spin this record once and you’ll be impressed. Spin it a dozen times and layer upon layer of superior song writing talent will be revealed. Quite remembering that Parker Millsap is just 21 years old can be a tough task as his seasoned vocals and mature approach to music making belie someone at the beginning of what should be a long and fruitful recording career. This self-titled release is actually Parker’s second full length record but is packed full of breakthrough qualities. Musically Parker calls at several ports along the way notably blues, gospel, country, jazz and straight forward singer-song writing fare but rarely lingers long enough to be typecast. What you do discover is that Parker is adept at harnessing all that’s sirenic about roots instrumentation at its combo best. When mixed with his compulsive lyrical musings, the whole album is an edifying listening experience.

The Americana Music Association has already recognised Parker as one of the genre’s emerging talents of the last year and UK fans will have a brief glimpse of him as the opening act on Old Crow Medicine Show’s short tour. However there is so much scope for Parker to follow in the footsteps of fellow young Oklahoma based artists – John Fullbright and Samantha Crain – in cultivating a sizable European following by extensive touring. The ten songs composed to form this optimum offering will serve this mission well if it is on Parker’s radar.

Religion played an important part in the upbringing of Parker Millsap and the topic is a recurring theme throughout the album. Although the spiritual distance between his Pentecostal background and the present has grown wider, the topic and experiences prove a fertile source for his song writing. Lead off track 'Old Time Religion’ had recent exposure as a single release and possesses a haunting explorative feel to it, in contrast to ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ which has more lively rousing beat. However both songs take an almost outside view of their subject with just a little irony in the latter. While on the semi spiritual theme, ‘When I Leave’, complete with harmonica interlude and demo presence, also touches on the subject and houses one of Parker’s most impressive and non- clichéd lines “When I leave maybe I’ll go to heaven. When I leave maybe I’ll go somewhere else.”

Similarities to John Fullbright are liberally found throughout the record, although vocally Parker generally has a more gravelly and earthy tone. The twin tracks ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘The Villain’ follow Fullbright’s winning formula with the first aching in redemption and the second enriched by a soaring verse segment. This latter song was also featured on the OLD RELIGION EP and stakes a good claim to being the album’s standout track. This is closely rivalled by ‘At the Bar’ which edges into country territory with a waltz-like sentiment and the killer line “Melancholy melody that’s the place I belong.”

More sentiment follows in the ballad ‘Yosemite’, one of the dream locations Parker wants to take the subject of the song when his winning ticket comes in. Like a couple of other tracks, the input of horns is experimented with but mainly the sound of the record relies on the trusted trio of guitars, fiddle and banjo. A nod to the blues is more prevalent in the closing number where a grainy guitar sound accompanies ‘Land of the Red Man’, a curious and cutting take on his home state with a final remark that it is “better than Texas”. Of the remaining tracks, ‘Disappear’ is a steady number, while ‘Quite Contrary’ has a demo sound to it and a poetic lyrical make up set to traditional rhyme.

Parker Millsap’s second album is defined by an intuitive nature to explore a variety of experiences, feelings and styles within a context of the quintessential Mid-West songbook. Dive deep into this record and sunken treasure will be found in the guise of an artist locked in for a successful future.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Red Sky July - The Musician, Leicester Tuesday 7th October 2014

How do you follow up producing an album that flirted with perfection before nestling in the upper echelons of your music appreciation? Well just short of releasing its successor to equal acclaim, which on this occasion may not be too far away, taking it on the road and showing its excellence is far from confined to the studio  is not a bad option. We may have been short on full band production but when you are blessed with the two part harmonies of Shelly and Charity held together by the majestic guitar skills of Ally, the captivating songs from Red Sky July’s second album SHADOWBIRDS had little difficulty in making the transition. The transformation of Leicester’s established Musician venue from rock pub to intimate listening parlour added to the aura of a performance frequented by a respectful and appreciative gathering.

In what was an evening defined by quality over quantity, the trio quite rightly decided to major on the recent release which was played almost in its entirety. Perhaps we needed Jack Savoretti to bound on stage and sing his part on ‘Any Day Now’ but they wisely decided to put an alternative version on hold. However the rest of SHADOWBIRDS sparkled and flowed with several anecdotes and observations showing the record in a new light. Is it possible to listen to ‘New Morning Light’ again without a feel for the joy Shelly is sharing in Ally’s recovery, while an enlightening awareness of ‘Renegade’ metaphorically painting the canvass of a Cormac McCarthy novel turned this haunting tune on its head.

The latter heralded a brief fiddle interlude from Charity, although I’m pretty sure that she and Shelly will bow to the prime musical steering stemming from the dual acoustic and electric artistry of Ally McEarlaine bringing all the experience of his many years at the heart of Scottish rock band Texas. Not that the background of his wife Shelly and Charity (surname Hair thus the sole non-McErlaine in the trio) has been short on success and their sweet vocals comfortably smothered around both their own compositions and the selected works of others. These included recently aired social media versions of ‘Hey Brother’ and ‘Take It to the Limit’, along with the delightful ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’, one of a handful of tracks lifted from their self-titled debut release.

With Shelly extolling the virtue of an album carefully track ordered in fine precision, the closing number of SHADOWBIRDS ‘Solitary Woman’ shivered your senses in a similar way that ‘Made for Each Other’ exalted heart melting qualities. ‘Losing You’ has been a rapidly evolving progressive track from the record and although its stripped back version significantly altered the sound, the mesmeric nature of the melody refused to lower the effect of tantalising your listening genes. Maybe the light hearted closing version of ‘9 to 5’ was a touch out of sync with the ambience of the evening but by then the die was cast and this fine album had successfully completed its fulfilling journey from studio to stage.

Prior to Red Sky July showing how a UK act can make a great record absorbing all that’s special about country, its alt compatriot and Americana flavoured music, a four piece band (sadly reduced to three on the evening) under the name of Mr Plow opened proceedings with their take on the self-described ‘ugly side of Americana’. While struggling without a lead guitar, they left a dark but prominent imprint on the evening in a style not short of conviction and belief in the quest of their mission. Sad songs reigned supreme for half an hour before Red Sky July demonstrated a more balanced view of the human emotion.

Shelly McErlaine, Charity Hair and Ally McErlaine are well on the way to cementing Red Sky July as a key player on the UK scene. Since their support slot to Beth Nielsen Chapman in the early months of 2014, the trajectory of their career as a trio has grown steeply upward. This Leicester show crowned the joy derived from many repeated listens to SHADOWBIRDS and attention now excitingly turns to what next.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Kaity Rae - Spark EP Folkstock Records

First we had the compilation album previewing the talent, now the blossoming comes to the fore as more of the Folkstock artists move into the spotlight with their extended releases. Hot on the heels of Kelly Oliver and Zoe Wren sending their records out to press, Kaity Rae is next in line with a four track EP stunning in quality and blooming with maturity for one primarily at the outset of a promising career. If Kelly excelled in a song delivery to charm the traditionalists and Zoe possessed that innate ability to craft a magical tune, Kaity oozes with a confidence to reach out far out beyond the rapidly declining boundaries of folk music. Of course there is a school of thought for the need to preserve such boundaries but the beauty of Kaity’s music will rise above any curtailment.

From a personal perspective, lifting Kaity from the FEMME FATALES OF FOLK album and showcasing four of her songs in this introductory package has raised the appreciation threshold tenfold. Perhaps separating her from the other outstanding artists allows your senses to focus and the added concentration reaps the rewards with a showering of fine songs presented with a divine culture and elegance. What also aids Kaity is that the other three songs joining the previously released ‘It Is’ are at least its equal and pushes her talent in a limitless direction.

With the simple title SPARK lifted from the opening track, this trigger related metaphor fires the first shots of a career which has the potential to span the worlds of folk, pop and country. While it is wholly inappropriate to belittle the middle option to someone so young, opportunities to embrace the other two and shape the future direction of the original and traditional songbook are enticing. Selecting a favourite from ‘Spark’, ‘Across the Sea’ and ‘Final Bow’ is a near impossible task as each sparkles with imaginative writing and flawless vocals merging into the majestic music making. The experience may be a brief quarter of an hour but you surface richer and enlightened by the exposure.

Not yet at an age to frequent the ballot box and the bar, Kaity has used her musical schooling to such an effect that the plaudits are beginning to gather pace. The Barnet based artist has been working with John Dines, Benny Beaumont and Lauren Deakin Davies on this project and together the writing, musical arrangement and production has seamlessly evolved into a record capable of moving, delighting and just plain impressing the listener. SPARK is a debut release refusing to be constrained and destined to forge its own path. Kaity Rae is a burgeoning special talent and now recorded proof exists to provide a benchmark of what can be achieved in the future. Although let’s put the future aside for the moment as SPARK is very much about the present. 

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