Sunday, 20 July 2014

Emma Jane - Workhorse Self Released

For somebody who recorded such an inspirational song in ‘Sunday, Monday Blues’ back in the summer of 2012, every subsequent Emma Jane release has to match up to this standard from a personal perspective. Since then a publishing deal has been secured along with some movement in the American market as Emma Jane started to guide her music in a more country direction. 2013’s EP release SILVER STREETS initially followed up her debut full length album PENILEE SONGS and she has further cemented her sound in this sphere with her latest recording WORKHORSE.

The title could well sum up the character of an independent artist who undertakes most of the record making duties right from writing though to doing the PR. Funds have probably limited this release to seven tracks but this doesn’t diminish the quality as Emma Jane continues to cultivate a unique UK take on the country, roots and Americana genre. Her vocals are the main contributors to this stance as their slightly worn effect perfectly matches the blues tinge to her music and owns the mood of the songs.

Along with partner Iain McKinnon, who wrote the lyrics to the more sombre number ‘Unforgiven’, Emma Jane has recorded a set of songs that owe more to the western extremities of Tennessee with a Sun-styled rock n’ roll beat driving the sound. Add in traces of soulful keys and a sparsely recorded gospel-like closing piece to stir in more southern flavours, and you start to further visualise the journey Emma Jane is undertaking without losing sight of her Glasgow roots.

Ears are initially drawn to her self-confessed personally inspired track ‘Carter Cash’ and she is certainly not the first to interweave this iconic couple into a song which rolls along to a guitar driven beat and stakes a case as the record’s standout track. On the topic of musical pairings, Emma Jane has teamed up with fellow Scottish performer Sean C. Kennedy to record a straight down the line country duet ‘Old and Grey’ which romantically explores the notion of eternal love. The track where Emma Jane successful nails the art of searching for that striking chorus melody formula is ‘Delicate Minds’, also one of the album’s deeper songs that searches for guidance.

The opening track ‘Run’ launches the record with a dose of twang as Emma Jane puts down an early marker of what sound she wants to define this phase of her career. Although describing this as a fun number in her song notes, Emma Jane has quickly drawn you into her mode of an infectious beat and the search for a killer chorus. ‘Tunnels’ carries on a similar vein without meeting the same chorus highs as the other tracks. The surprise closer ‘Hold On’ with its simple production and strong message gives the record that raw feel essential to any release with a roots claim.

One development that we are still waiting for from Emma Jane is a wider live presence around the UK with more expansion from her present South East base. While the practicalities may be challenging, the rewards will surely surface. In the meantime the good news is WORKHORSE does evidence progression and while that memorable tune from the summer of 2012 is forever ingrained in my mind, the future remains positive for an artist able to put a personal imprint of the country, roots and Americana genre. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang - Tingewick Village Hall, Buckinghamshire Friday 18th July 2014

Every so often an artist needs to freshen up their live show to keep an audience engaged. For well over ten years Eve Selis has been touring the UK on an almost annual basis both with a full band and as a duo with long term musical partner Marc ‘Twang’ Intravaia. However for the 2014 tour including this evening’s show at the legendary Tingewick Village Hall, it’s a case of ‘California Dreaming’ or to be more specific ‘San Diego Singing’.

To headline this gig on a sultry evening in the Buckinghamshire countryside, more akin to the Golden State, Eve morphed in Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang to deliver a 75 minute set of glorious two, three and four part harmonies decorating a plethora of catchy tunes echoing the golden age of west coast music. For once the effervescent Eve happily settled into a co-starring role alongside Calman Hart, Jeff Berkley and of course Marc serving up his usual finger pickin’ treat. The occasion was to celebrate the release of the quartet’s new self-titled record and promote a load of original songs possessing that familiar instant appeal.

For a show introduced as one with a plan, the symmetrical and alphabetically ordered foursome was flanked by Jeff and Marc’s acoustic accompaniment which at one point took centre stage in a classic guitar duel, similarly to what Marc conjures up with fellow band member Cactus Jim. Calman and Eve primarily controlled the vocals to near identical proportion as they surfed through a batch of crowd pleasing new songs best reflected in ‘California Mountain Home’, ‘Tomorrow on My Mind’, ‘Long Road Back to Love’ and a rousing country flavoured sing along ‘Let’s Go Out Drinking’.

The evening was crowned by a trio of diverse covers that perfectly represented the mood of the evening and covered a variety of bases from the roots genre. Jeff introduced the San Diego origins of the Jack Tempest penned classic ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, Calman oozed with class tackling James Taylor’s ‘Steam Roller Blues’ and Eve relived her own connection with the folk tradition of our shores by leading the rendition of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. This set came right out of the blue to many Eve Selis regulars but from the sound of the applause there was a room full of impressed plaudits.

However for traditional fans of Eve and Marc, there was a middle 40 minute set by the duo recounting a selection of their favourite tunes over the years. Although a little impeded by being in the final stages of recuperating from a roller blade accident, Eve soared through ‘Angels and Eagles’, the now very appropriate ‘Bump in the Road’ and the popular live number ‘Any Day’. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has become a recent staple of the live set while Calman was invited on stage to duet on the excellent waltz number ‘Family Tree’ and title track from the most recent full Eve Selis album. Eve has also been busy making a record with her colleague Kim McLean under the Cactus Honey banner and introduced ‘A Little Bit of Heaven’ from this release.

Jeff and Calman, just like twelve months ago, were granted a support slot to present a bunch of songs from their lengthy career as the Berkley Hart duo. Primarily Jeff plays guitar and Calman provides the vocals and harmonica but this can be interchangeable and ‘Austin Girl’ and ‘My Name is Sam’ were probably the two most striking songs from their 20 minute opening set. At this point it is worth complimenting Mike Trotman and the Empty Rooms Promotion team for putting on another well attended gig at a location that epitomises the quintessential English village hall. This was my first visit to the venue and made all the more memorable by the show put on by Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang.

If as expected Eve reverts back to her duo and band work, and Berkley Hart continue the plough on in a similar vein, it was a privilege to be present when they came together for a special night to celebrate a style so reminiscent of their home state. If the intention was for Eve to freshen up her live presence in the UK, then Berkley, Hart, Selis and Twang hit the target with excellent precision. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Amanda Rheaume - Keep a Fire Self Released

One of the key events each year for fans of Canadian folk and roots music is to check out the nominees for the prestigious Juno awards in the relevant traditional category. In recent years this has become more relevant for us in the UK with so many artists visiting our shores to share their delightful music. To this list we can now add the name of Amanda Rheaume who, despite not being ultimately successful with her Juno nominated album, is about to undergo a period of promotion in the UK. The acclaimed album KEEP A FIRE is set for a formal release over here on 18 August around the same time that she undertakes an inaugural tour. It doesn’t take long to understand the merits of this record which succeeds in blending informed storytelling with a sophisticated sound merging the very best of folk, pop and rock.

Based in the nation’s capital Ottawa, Amanda’s music takes you on a Trans Canadian journey through the stories, tales and experiences of her family heritage which includes a line back to the Metis people, an aboriginal mix of European and First Nation. The simplicity and clarity of her work engages the listener from start to finish with a multitude of strong choruses and a concise approach which stays on message. The 10 tracks shift in style and mood but always retain a glow of positivity. This is no more evident than the optimistic opener ‘Strongest Heart’ with its simple repeated sentiment and pop overtures. In a similar vein the slightly soulful ‘Home on the Road’ closes the album by paying homage to her perceived comforts of constant touring in a style not too dissimilar to Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Photo by Sean Sisk
The core of the record revolves around Amanda’s heritage with possibly the standout track being ‘So Much to Gain’. With a chorus surely custom made for audience participation, the song recounts her ancestors being forced to pack their bags and move north in pursuit of a living. Amanda addresses the issue of mixed race acceptance, once more through the experiences of distant relatives in ‘Keep a Fire in the Rain’. The stories continue to unfurl in true folk tradition with the foot stomping heavy beat and fiddle infused ‘Not This Time’, recounting a journey that was special by not succumbing to inclement weather as in many nautical tales. The toe tapping roots style delivery surfaces again on ‘AGB Bannatyne’ a tribute to a relative credited with being a pioneering influence in the early days of Winnipeg Manitoba.

From time to time the album replicates that of a rock structure with key ballads interspersing more upbeat numbers as evidenced in the moving ‘Write You a Letter’. The pride radiating from Amanda’s writing is perfectly captured in ‘Passed down the Line’ where the importance of linear tradition is championed in a thought provoking way injected with a country feel.  ‘Ancient Rime’ is a track bestowed with a folk dressing while ‘You Walk Beside Me’ is far more conducive with a sound that could permeate the adult contemporary mainstream market.

Right beside Amanda throughout the entirety of the record making process has been John McDonald and the duo have enjoyed the benefit of full band input with mandolin and fiddle periodically adding the roots sound amongst the waves of modern electric guitar. This highly accessible and enjoyable album is further proof that we are in the midst of a cherished period of exported Canadian folk and roots music. KEEP A FIRE is Amanda Rheaume’s prized possession and it is a privilege that it’s being shared with a UK audience.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Red Sky July - Shadowbirds Shadowbirds Records

The name may not be familiar but a solitary listen to SHADOWBIRDS is all you need to be put under the hypnotic spell of Red Sky July. Dig a little deeper and the trio behind the band will reveal their talents and you can start to understand why they have just put together a record that could well be unrivalled as the best 2014 UK release heavily slanted towards the country and roots genre. With an optimum length of 10 tracks and 38 minutes, not a second is wasted as the album leads you down a blissful path of heartfelt emotion whilst tipping its hat to the core essence of Americana music.

Before we celebrate the finesse of each track, let's unveil the prestigious background to the trio starting with Ally McErlaine who was at the heart of the Scottish band Texas’s 15 million record sales followed closely by his wife, Shelly, one half of 90s million selling pop act Alisha’s Attic. The trio is completed by Charity Hair who includes The Alice Band and Blur’s Dave Rowntree in her musical CV. Together the Red Sky July project has had some industry doors opened for it but real momentum can develop as SHADOWBIRDS follows up a 2011 debut release.

Whilst from top to bottom the album is soaked in a country sound swinging from all points alt to Americana, the elegant drizzle of minor, and not to be unexpected, pop/rock, only adds to this amalgam of sartorial elegance. From the very start where the band have eyed some mainstream coverage with the breezy single ‘Lay Down Your Love’ through to the dark and broody closer ‘Solitary Woman’ the vibes of appreciation continually grow.

The enchanting qualities begin to really kick in with the second track ‘Here Then Gone’ packed with aching sensibilities and an upward spiral that refuses to retract. The blended voices and country guitar twang illuminate ‘Losing You’ which references listening to Bonnie Prince Billy, the American singer songwriter not to be confused with the historical figure of Ally’s homeland. ‘Made for Each Other’ is a sensitivity inspired love song drenched in choral elegance which leads into the moving and jaw dropping track ‘New Morning Light’, a serious candidate for stand out song if one’s arm is twisted.

On the sixth track which could be ‘Side 2 Track 1’ if this album gets a deserved vinyl release, the band showcase a very roots orientated sound with a slow backbeat and graceful fiddle giving ‘Renegade’ a back to basics feel. The band have invited Anglo Italian artist Jack Savoretti to contribute to the writing and duet vocals on the classy ‘Any Day Now’ with the smooth effect you would expect from Jack.

To complete a record that never drops its guard, a swirling dreamy folk feel surrounds title track ‘Shadowbirds’ while there are significant hoedown vibes to the fiddle adorned bubbly optimistic number ‘Warm My Heart’. Throughout each song Ally and his accompanying pack of Glasgow based musicians serenade and guide the wonderful vocals of Shelly and Charity which are both sublime and divine.

Red Sky July started the year playing support to Beth Nielsen Chapman on her UK tour and could well end it headlining with one of their own to take this excellent record on the road. SHADOWBIRDS may be a left field entrant to the race for the Best of 2014 but it is usually now when the heat is turned up. This album has unlimited potential and has certainly put a marker down as a contender.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Louise Petit - Louder Than Your Drum Self Released

The thriving health of any local music scene is dependent on the extraordinary hard work of artists showing great determination to plough on with their song writing, gigging and hoping one day to get the finance together to release an album. This often means songs become staples of live sets before they get the studio treatment. Just over a year ago, I covered a Louise Petit headline gig at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham and it is good to report that a number of songs played that evening have surfaced on LOUDER THAN YOUR DRUM, her debut full length release.

With her accomplished brand of acoustic folk alt-pop, Louise has been active on the Midlands live circuit for a few years now and the calm, composed and measured way she delivers her songs have made her a respected artist. For the recording of the new album, Louise was ably assisted by her two band sidekicks Russ Sargeant on bass and Tim Heymerdinger on percussion. Also producer Martin Atkinson was able to assist with the addition of extra musicians providing piano, viola and violin. This was topped by a choir being assembled for one of the album’s best tracks, the title number ‘Louder Than your Drum’.

The album weighing in at a meaty 13 tracks and 50 minutes is a touch mellower than her previous EP release which brought her to my attention a couple of years ago. Tender tracks such as ‘Tree Song’ and ‘Away With The Day’ set the general tone which paints a more sophisticated side to Louise’s music. While the additional string input has added to this, there still remains the roots part of her music especially when the ukulele takes centre stage such as in another of the album’s finer moments, ‘Damn This Part of Me’.

The song writing has immense depth to it and is very much a journey of experience. It is easy to bury yourself deep into the songs and this is best exemplified in ‘To The Sharks’ with its analogies and view on life. The rousing end to this track also adds to the appeal as well as being blessed by Louise’s near faultless vocals which adorn all 13 songs often supplemented by backing and harmony support.

The completion of LOUDER THAN YOUR DRUM gives Louise a sturdier platform to progress her music career and she is already beginning to widen her gig net to promote the record. So why not pop along to her Bandcamp page and try before you buy with a variety of formats available. Hopefully one of her live shows can be attended in the future to check how she’s progressing and continue to support artists at the very heartbeat of your local music scene.

Louise Petit Bandcamp

Ward Thomas - From Where We Stand WTW Music

It was only a matter of time until Nashville spread their net from promoting contemporary country music in the UK to look a little deeper into what home grown promise there is. While it is far from unique for a UK act to have their sights on country music stardom, Ward Thomas have come up with a package that matches up well with its similar styled output from Music City. Make no mistake this is unabated country pop done well and the siblings have hit on a formula which will give them every chance of exploiting their target markets.

The size of the home market is yet to be determined but ambition is high that the mainstream can be permeated by national radio airplay. This would be a great shot in the arm for the genre in the UK as FROM WHERE WE STAND has sufficient country merit to distance itself from the run of the mill chart mediocrity. Barely out of their teens, the twins Catherine and Lizzy from rural Hampshire, clearly understand where their influences lie and the direction they want to take their music in. Obviously the record has had a huge boost by being produced under the guidance of Chris Rodriguez and Bobby Blazier, both Nasvhille luminaries. The result is a fresh and spritely bunch of tunes showcasing Ward Thomas as no mere pretenders.

Of course there are work in progress elements to Ward Thomas and one of these is being rectified by hitting the road with a load of live dates. Perhaps a Maverick Festival appearance sandwiched between a host of hardened Americana acts highlighted an element of inexperience and a little on the light side but subsequent plays of their debut album reveal a talent to build on this and a subtle diversity to their music.

A recent EP release proved to be a tantalising taster before this 12 track 50 minute record hits the market. All four featured songs on the EP make the album including an interesting cover, ‘Caledonia’ by veteran Scottish folk performer Dougie MacLean. As you would expect from an album with such pretensions there are a number of brash pop songs designed to engage a wider audience but I prefer to home in on three tracks which highlight a more substantial side of their talents. ‘Wasted Words’ is the stand out track from my perspective, mixing harmony vocals with a hint of mandolin, steel and fiddle to reach out across the country divide. Following closely behind are a raucous piano led honky tonk belter ‘Town Called Ugely’ which rattles along with a considerable beat and a passionate emotional ballad ‘From Where I Stand’.

The latter sees the album title revert to the individual personal pronoun to give the topic of their parents’ divorce a more poignant angle. Piano, pedal steel and an uplifting guitar solo grace this track that captures the pain of the moment, a not uncommon trait of real heart stricken country music. These three tracks are the real gems of an album not unexpectedly wrapped in a combination of up tempo radio friendly numbers including the safe flagship songs ‘Push the Stride’ and ‘The Good and the Right’. Of the album’s lighter side, I have more of a leaning towards ‘Guest List’ with its unashamed tilt towards the works of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood as does the nostalgic anthem qualities to ‘Way Back When’, if nostalgia is allowed for someone so young!

It is to the album’s credit that the four remaining tracks ‘Footnotes (Happy Ending)’, ‘Try’ ‘Company’ and ‘Take That Train’ never give the impression that the record is being filled or scrambling around for songs without really hitting the peaks of the classier parts. Whether Catherine and Lizzy subsequently major on their song writing, vocal capabilities or musical arrangement, they have announced their arrival on the music scene with a record full of all three qualities. FROM WHERE WE STAND will find its own niche in the market and Ward Thomas are set to make their mark on the UK country music scene, perhaps a little wider in prevailing circumstances. 

Otis Gibbs - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 14th July 2014

Otis Gibbs is a regular visitor to the UK and will always guarantee you a good show. He has been a firm favourite of mine since first seeing him hold court at the Big Sessions Festival in Leicester in 2009. A subsequent duet with Billy Bragg on the Gram Parsons' classic 'Sin City' at that festival further cemented his status and the five most recent albums are a brimful collection of wonderful observational tales. Needless to say his Birmingham show at the Kitchen Garden Cafe matched the blueprint that has set the high standards and he acquired many new fans who were seeing him for the first time. Having reviewed Otis on countess occasions, this time I would like to predominantly share some of the music played on the night to tempt a few more people to seek out the wise man of Wanamaker Indiana coming to you via East Nashville and a listening venue near your town.

The first two songs were featured in his opening set and show the span of the releases that he draws his live material from. 'Small Town Saturday Night' originally surfaced on 2004's ONE DAY OUR WHISPERS and is as near as standard Otis Gibbs track as you get. Often introduced after his infamous story of singing Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers covers for tips to maintain the lifestyle of a drunken uncle, the masterful lyrics paint a symbolic picture of growing up in small town USA through the eyes of Otis Gibbs. The other track is brand new and can be found on his latest album SOUVENIRS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH. Once again the story telling is engaging as Otis manages to link boxing and Vietnam in 'Ghosts of Our Fathers', a track reminiscing about parents and neigbours. These are just two fine examples which were joined by the following songs making the opening set list for this evening:

Second Chance: Never Enough: Where Only The Graves Are Real:  It Was A Train: Back In My Day Blues: Plus an unknown cover dug out for a Bob Harris session.


After the break, Otis continued to serve up a lavish diet of sweet stories and savoury tracks which met the appetite of a well attended and hungry Kitchen Garden crowd. The two tracks selected to share were the final songs of the evening as Otis orchestrated his memorable stage managed encore routine. Both songs highlight his lyrical ability to capture the mood of the road, a place Otis knows too well. They also mix the rural openness and urban grit that lends a theme to many of his songs. 'Detroit Steel' became a flagship track from 2012's HARDER THAN HAMMERED HELL and has settled in well as a live favourite. 'Kansas City' contains the immortal troubadour line '7 hours in a car, 45 minutes singing in a bar' and comes with no higher recommendation than being my second favourite all time Otis Gibbs song (sadly 'Get Me Out Of Detroit' didn't make the set cut tonight). While these tracks take pride of place for this post, it is worth checking out any of the following songs that were played in the second half of this gig:

Joe Hill's Ashes: Beto Junction: Caroline: Aint' Nothing Special: Something More: The Town That Killed Kennedy: The Darker Side of Me:  Long Black Thunder.

There is so much more that can be said about Otis Gibbs but it would be better if you checked him out yourselves. The following three links are great starting points and then you can join the growing band of Otis Gibbs admirers.


Remaining dates on current UK tour