Monday, 15 September 2014

Sunjay - Sunjay New Mountain Music

With a streamlined stage name and guitar in hand, Sunjay Brayne ups his ante in the world of studio recorded music in the form of this effortlessly arranged ten track collection of songs spanning the world of folk and Americana music. Singer-guitarist Sunjay has gone down the simplistic route when naming this new album, a follow up to 2013’s live release ONE NIGHT ONLY, and each offering carves out its own niche. Several familiar songs ring fence the album simply titled SUNJAY but they far from diminish the excellent guitar skills and developing vocals which glow with maturity.

Having seen Sunjay play short sets several times in his role of Stourbridge Folk Club host, he rarely plays down his passion to explore and interpret the blues. However that particular style is toned down a touch on this album with the biggest nod to it being his version of the popular old blues number ‘Drop Down Mama’ which brings his pickin’ skills to the fore early in the album. Sunjay definitely has one eye across the ocean when it comes to song selection and there is no finer choice on the record than a superb take on John Hiatt’s cracking tune ‘Memphis in the Meantime’. Alternatively, closer to home influence and guidance is always at hand as former Bushbury Mountain Daredevil founder member and local Stourbridge publican/music organiser Eddy Morton has produced the album and provided the opening song ‘London Road’, a traditional feeling social commentary number sure to be a winner in folk clubs up and down the land.

Recorded under license to and in the studio of New Mountain Music, Sunjay has collaborated with a number of artists of which the most familiar to current gig goers are likely to be Dan Walsh on banjo and Kat Gilmore on fiddle and background vocals. Both have been guests of Sunjay at his club nights and were no doubt honoured to play their part on this entertaining and gifted record. Likewise Sunjay has paid his respects to some iconic songwriters with complementary versions of the James Taylor standard ‘Close Your Eyes’ and the much covered ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’. It doesn’t take too much effort to sit back and enjoy Mark Knopfler’s tale of pioneering Americans in ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’, a song interpreted with consummate ease by Sunjay.

The Tom Rush penned ‘No Regrets’ taken to the upper reaches of the charts by the Walker Brothers needs little introduction and a further delve into American folk sees Sunjay deliver a stompin’ a cappella version of ‘A Folk Singer Earns Every Dime’ complete with a couple of subtle twenty first century references. Sunjay explores the American songbook a little further back in time with his arrangement of the traditional standard ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’, recorded by many over the years including Doc Watson. On an album that is equally as pleasurable to explore the song origins as to enjoy Sunjay’s renditions, the educational process is completed by tracing ‘Going Down the Road’ to the pen of yet another American folk singer in Mary McCaslin.

The dates Sunjay has arranged to promote this self-titled album are extensive and the opportunity to hear so many fine songs under the spell of this talented performer is one not to be missed. Grab yourself a copy of the album as well and stretch your mind into the vast vault of inspirational song; arranged, sung and presented in a faultless style.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Ort Cafe, Birmingham Friday 12th September 2014

“She has a string of live dates lined up throughout the summer and onwards, with hopefully the intention to keep writing and interpreting new songs to one day, be in a position to add to her catalogue of recordings.” These were the words that closed our review of Kim Lowings back in May and it was great to catch up with her and the band on this Birmingham date after a busy summer period. This included a prestigious opening slot at the Warwick Folk Festival, a residency at an Edinburgh Fringe venue and some extended recent coverage on Genevieve Tudor’s Sunday Folk show on BBC Radio Shropshire. The good news is also that new songs are taking shape and hopefully some of these will begin to surface in the New Year.

For this show at Birmingham’s eclectic Ort Café in the inner city suburb of Balsall Heath, it was very much business as usual for Kim as she served up her regular offering of intriguing interpretations of traditional numbers and plenty of innovative originals. One enhancement following that Stourbridge gig in the final days of spring was the return of Ami Oprenova on fiddle to give the Greenwood collective a more complete feel. She joined the usual combo of Andrew Lowings (guitar/bouzouki), Tim Rogers (cajon) and Dave Sutherland (double bass) with Kim confining herself to her favoured mountain dulcimer on this occasion. Together they produce a tight knit sound to present authentic roots music at its soul searching best.

A niggling minor ailment curtailed a few of Kim’s more vocal experimental songs on an evening promoted by Best Seat Sessions which presented local singer songwriter Malc Evans as the opening act. Kim soon hit her stride for a set lasting just over an hour with any temporary impediment being disguised in true professional style. A trio of her finest originals, ‘The Allotment’, ‘Off to Sea’ and ‘Deepest Darkest Night’ sounded as good as ever along with her memorable renditions of ‘The Devil and the Ploughman’ and ‘The Bonny Labouring Boy’.

For your musical record, Kim Lowings hails from the ‘creative hotbed’ of Stourbridge West Midlands, was schooled at the acclaimed Dartington College of Arts and to date has two major physical releases to showcase her vibrant and accomplished brand of folk music meeting the approval of both contemporary and traditional audiences. Sales of the debut album THIS LIFE have nearly depleted stocks of the initial production batch; while the four track EP DEEPEST DARKEST NIGHT is the perfect taster for people wanting to dip their toes into folk music. Alternatively Kim and the band are active in the digital world with a highly recommended live recording of ‘Annie Laurie’ being available on the world’s favourite video sharing site.

While this interim feature is designed to keep the flame flickering for Kim’s tried and trusted material, anticipation is growing to file some column inches on the next phase of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood. In the meantime there are still a number of Midland dates before the winter sets in including a support slot at the Kitchen Garden Café opening for BBC Radio 2 award nominees Josienne Clark and Ben Walker. Whether catching one of their live shows or sampling the recordings, marking the card of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood is a choice well worth making.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014




Saturday 20th September // Americana Music Conference, Nashville

The Americana Music Association UK is excited to announce its collaboration with British Underground, hosting The Bootleg BBQ at this year’s Americana Music Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The AMA-UK are thrilled to be jetting out to Nashville  to showcase the talents of three popular UK acts from its membership; Police Dog Hogan, Danny And The Champions Of The World, and finally, Emily Barker And The Red Clay Halo.

The Bootleg BBQ is a high profile industry showcase set up by British Underground to give UK acts performing at the festival an additional performance opportunity. It will also act as a fantastic networking opportunity for the growing number of UK delegates. The show takes place at the trendy Groove Record Store East Nashville on Sat 20th September 12.30pm – 17.30pm. The show will include additional performances from two rising US acts Israel Nash and Austin Lucas.

Food and drink will be on offer with a chance to indulge in delicious meat from the local butcher and beer donated by local brewery Yazoo.

The AMA-UK’s line up includes POLICE DOG HOGAN; a highly energetic, British, eclectic seven-piece band who combine fiddle, banjo, mandolin, drums and guitars alongside knockout four-part harmonies in an exuberant  fusing  of country, pop, folk, and rocking urban bluegrass. The Sunday Times described them as “wonderful”; the Telegraph named them one of its “favourite new bands” whilst Radio 2 called them “a band to watch”.

Next on the bill is another UK live favourite, DANNY AND THE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD (5* Maverick 4* The Sun, 4* Q, 4* MOJO), a folk, rock and soul band that formed in London during the summer of 2007 by Danny George Wilson. The band are renowned for their live performance with Danny’s vocals sure to captivate any audience.

Finally we have BAFTA award-winning songwriter and performer, EMILY BARKER and The Red Clay Halo gracing the stage. The Times said of her album Dear River: ‘heartfelt songwriting... bridging the gap between folk, country and Fleetwood Mac” whilst The Guardian quoted “Emily Barker has a gift for great melodies”.

The Americana Music Conference is highly respected industry event run by the Americana Music Association (US) whose mission is to advocate for the authentic voice of American roots music around the world. It features numerous panels and seminars providing Nashville's most educational music industry forum. The event covers the interests and needs of artists, managers, labels, radio stations, publishers, agents, promoters, retailers, legal and business affairs executives, merchandisers and new media professionals – all enthusiastically attended and presented by music industry leaders.  The Americana Music Festival will feature approximately 165 live performances at over nine music venues in the vicinity of downtown Nashville. The programme begins with a spectacular awards ceremony held in the legendary Ryman Auditorium.

British Underground is an Arts Council England NPO working with export ready musicians and music-makers to help them maximize opportunities at international showcases and conferences. The organization specializes in genres outside the mainstream producing events at key platforms like WOMEX, Folk Alliance International, Americana Music Festival.

Review of new Police Dog Hogan album

Review of new Danny and the Champions of the World album

Review of Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo live in Bromsgrove

Justin Townes Earle - Single Mothers Loose Music

Whether you believe in nature or nurture, Justin Townes Earle has consistently used his talent to search for the true soul of Americana music. His five previous albums have been recorded amidst a host of personal barriers and, while commercial appeal has never been on the agenda, recognition for what he has been striving for has been forthcoming. Not an artist afraid to confront experimentation within the confines of his mission, the latest album SINGLE MOTHERS does reflect a maturity in the writing and outlook of a married man passing the threshold of thirty. Of course there is still fire in his belief that truly authentic Americana music needs to be made and has decided that the time has arrived to make a more laid back mellow version in search of the holy grail of contemporary roots music.

Despite an undulating rhythm and pace across its half hour, SINGLE MOTHERS is representative of an unhurried sound, placid in places but totally absorbing in ambience and effect. Pedal steel guitar reigns supreme on this ten track album, owning the softer parts of the sound and spearheading Justin’s delve into elements of classic country. However like all true Americana recordings it does possess smidgeons of blues, soul and a touch of soft rock.

In a bid to remove the potential of polluted tinkering, the album was recorded solely with his four piece touring band with minimum rehearsal and takes. In fact two of the more passive inducing songs feature just Justin and pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehouse, these comprise of the slightly solemn ‘Picture in a Drawer’ and the totally mesmeric ‘It’s Cold in this House’. In contrast both album closer ‘Burning Pictures’ and ‘Time Shows Fools’ are recorded with a little more upbeat and oomph but still retain the overall ethos of mild in overture and sentiment.

As you would expect the writing is deeply intense and personal but Justin leaves it open for the listener to decide whether to immerse themselves in the lyrics or kick back and enjoy the vibes. The latter has soulful tinges in ‘Wanna be a Stranger’ and ‘My Baby Drives’, while Justin flirts a little with the blues on his social commentary number and title track ‘Single Mothers’. Fantastic atmospheric pedal steel opens another heartfelt track ‘Today and a Lonely Night’ where Justin bares his sole and asks for nothing more back than a sympathetic ear.

Album opener ‘Worried about the Weather’ welcomes the listener to the milder and more conciliatory side of Justin Townes Earle to launch a seamless thread of music built to last. While there are a multitude of candidates for stand out track on an album pretty even in quality there is an ultimate soothing presence about the gorgeous ‘White Gardenias’ where once again pedal steel is king and Justin resonates with his new found contentment.

SINGLE MOTHERS has an open invite to join Justin Townes Earle on his new journey of discovery and an affirmative RSVP is an essential response. This phase of his career has seen him sign to Loose Music for the UK release of the album and he joins a growing band of artists exploring an area of country music where few dare to tread. Perhaps we are also a step nearer where the word Justin outweighs the other components of his name. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Police Dog Hogan - Westward Ho! Union Music Store

There is yet to be a coined term for the exported English version of Americana, but if there was such a word it would still struggle to define the musical world of Police Dog Hogan. This London based octet have the opportunity to share their brand of unique familiarity at this year’s Americana Music Festival and the Nashville alt-elite will get an early opportunity to sample the wit, passion, eccentricity and unrelenting excellence of their new album WESTWARD HO!. As far as steering their style into the blurred world of Americana music, Police Dog Hogan put the brakes on at the western extremes of the English seaside before sending a lyrical postcard to the world.

The mass amalgamation of roots instrumentation has been core to Police Dog Hogan creating their own niche on the UK live circuit and on this their third studio album they have elevated the extension of the quality right across the release. The writing is clever, cutting, mature and full of quip merging well with a sound taking only an occasional breather. Lead singer and guitarist James Studholme has the strongest links with the geographical heart of the album which starts with the exploding chorus of the opener ‘Thunderheads’, hurtles along in the blistering haze of ‘West Country Boy’ and reminisces refreshing heartfelt honesty in the outstanding ‘Crackington’. Packed with memorable lines, acute observations and more than the occasional landmark namecheck, each song demonstrates the inner soul of the writing in a similar vein to the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and trumpet adding the finer touches to the musical arrangement.

Three more bright and breezy songs present a sample of how good the band comes across on stage, whether at summer festivals or headline shows. The harmonica and mandolin sprinkled ‘One Size Fits All’ looks at some of life’s troubles from an egalitarian angle, while there is a definite Irish feel to the sparkling trumpet and fiddle infused ‘From the Land of Miracles’, confusingly also the title of Police Dog Hogan’s previous album. This lively trio is completed by a wander into gospel territory with the slightly tongue in cheek ‘Judgement Day’ and a tune driven along by blistering fiddle and banjo.

For the personnel record, Police Dog Hogan comprise of seven ‘experienced gents’ and then divide their age in half to present trumpeter Emily Norris. Both their studio and stage existence sees a frivolous mask covering a band serious about making good time music mixed with some hard edged themes. The guys have teamed up with a group of ex-prisoners Platform 7 to record the track ‘Home’ and have taken an active interest in the Music in Prisons charity. On a lighter note, the world of footballer’s wives is explored in ‘No Wonder She Drinks’ and ‘A Man Needs a Shed’ is a self-explanatory gender centric track. ‘St. Lucie’s Day’ and ‘Buffalo’ represent the gentler side of an album which has benefitted enormously from the producing skills of the Oysterband’s Al Scott and a tie up with the increasingly influential label Union Music Store.

In an album packed with a wealth of interesting anecdotes, references and themes, the final track to mention is ‘Ethan Frome’ which is based on a century old novel of the same name and adds a final shot of intrigue to a record expertly preserved for multiple listens. Police Dog Hogan now has a complete album to parade alongside their previous memorable songs and stirring live shows. WESTWARD HO! possesses a quintessential English charm and successfully takes Americana music on at its own game. Now we just need to search for a name to satisfy the genre junkies.

Catherine Ashby - Tennessee Tracks Self Released

British artists seeking the inspirational surroundings of Nashville, Tennessee can almost reach a crossroads of which path they ultimately want to major in. For some the glamour and bright lights associated with the image spun world of the multi-media age can turn into a distant goal while others gravitate to the side where they hope substance will prevail over style. It crudely can be pitched as pop versus folk or full blown electric versus fiddle and steel but country music should be diverse enough to accommodate a significant amount of diversity. One listen to TENNESSEE TRACKS by Catherine Ashby and there is little doubt that the goal is more AMA than CMA. The result is an EP wringing in emotion, sung with gravelly depth and capturing a sound drenched in Americana sentiment.

No doubt the songs were in place before London based Catherine headed to Music City and enlisted the services of the now late Lorna Flowers to bring them to palatable fruition in a style rich in atmospheric essence and aching in the longing sound of pedal steel et al. There must be an enormous amount of pride in the way the songs have grown roots upwards with the lead track ‘Memphis’ giving the release a fitting launch in such a grand style. This is followed by the haunting track ‘Dispel’ which itself lays the groundwork for the record to flourish into the beautiful ‘Magnolia Arch’.

 By now the fiddle is flowing alongside Dobro and Catherine is immersing herself even deeper into a sound reminiscent of many a leading female US folk singer seeking to soak their material in the fertile springs of classic country music. ‘Craving More’ is an apt title for the fourth track which now sees Catherine firmly in the groove and cruising towards the pivotal moment of the record. For me that occurs in the final song where ‘Letting Go’ does as it says with great reluctance and plants the ultimate question of what next for Catherine.

Realistically the quest is to raise awareness through the promotion of TENNESSEE TRACKS and spread the word that high quality folk-Americana is alive, well and flourishing this side of the ocean without the need for any pseudo American pretence. This is a release ready made for any fans of left field singer –songwriter fare and possesses a timeless feel to reach out to newcomers to the country genre in need of some substance. By nailing the songs, vocal intensity and musical arrangements to a tee, Catherine Ashby has produced a release ready to announce her arrival to listeners outside the bounds of her inner circle.

Available here and other sources

Friday, 5 September 2014

Andrew Combs - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Thursday 4th September 2014

He may have started out as the chosen opener for the cream of Americana music talent but on the evidence of tonight’s show, it won’t be long until Andrew Combs sheds this tag and joins the elite himself. With acute articulation, shared sensibilities and a touch of bar room dust, Andrew taps into the rich source of folk and country music to display a mature and assured status. Basing himself in Nashville and working alongside the likes of Caitlin Rose, Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope has helped Andrew develop into a repeat play inducing recording artist and a memorable live performer capable of turning heads.

Andrew is using this inaugural tour as a touring headline artist to launch his association with UK label Loose Music and share the dual fruits of his past and future. The first album for his new label in this country is due out early next year and we were introduced to several of the songs earmarked for the record when it’s released. This included the title track ‘All These Dreams’, the promoted track ‘Rainy Day Song’ and for me the standout track (on first listen anyway) ‘Suwannee County’. The latter had its origin in meeting a guy in Florida with a mutual interest in fishing. This simple, honest and observational approach to song writing aligns Andrew well with his contemporary peers and pays due respect to the pioneers of the craft.

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller
Andrew may be listed as a solo performer but he is far from alone on this short UK tour and hopefully the prelude to a fuller one promoting the new record in the New Year. Opening for Andrew is Austin singer-songwriter Matt McCloskey who himself had a statuesque poise and potential to rise above the mediocrity of touring one man and a guitar talent. Andrew’s stage presence was enhanced by a pair of Philadelphia based musicians who especially brought to life some of the livelier songs from his debut full length album WORRIED MAN. Dominic Billett held court on percussion while Jerry Bierhadt supported on electric guitar and rose to the solo mantle of excelled status on a couple of opportune moments.

WORRIED MAN has been a regular go to album in the months running up to this tour and on perfect cue Andrew added many of its finest tracks to the improvised set list. ‘Devil’s Got My Woman’ was possibly the highlight of the whole evening but closely followed by the title track, ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘Heavy’ and the requested ‘Too Stoned to Cry’. It has been a couple of years since the release of this album making the upcoming record all the more eagerly anticipated. Around a year ago Andrew did release the popular sing along single ‘Emily’ and an attentive Hare and Hounds audience responded politely to invited participation on the chorus.

Of the remaining songs recalled from the set, no country/folk gig is complete without a gospel number and Andrew duly complied with his excellent composition ‘Slow Road to Jesus’. Likewise reference to the Volunteer state is standard song writing fare and Andrew played the title track of his 2010 EP ‘Tennessee Time’. ‘Foolin’ and ‘Pearl’ were other songs featured and lined up for the new record. Hopefully these will have a warm familiarity appeal to them when Andrew tours again in 2015.

This gig was brought to Birmingham by promoters Cosmic American and highlighted once what a grand job they and Loose Music do in presenting fantastic Americana talent to us small but growing band of insatiable followers in the UK. Andrew Combs played his part in meeting this appetite and, with a dose of optimistic justice, can continue to flourish in the future.