Thursday, 27 November 2014

Sharon Van Etten - The Institute, Birmingham Wednesday 26th November 2014

Sharon Van Etten is a respectful and unassuming performer who pours her heart and soul into a music rich in monodic noir yet wrapped in an alt-folk sweet sentiment. Gliding between swirling indie-anthems and pale shades of Americana, Sharon thrilled a millpond Birmingham audience on the Midlands leg of a tour to promote her latest album ARE WE THERE. In a set approaching an hour and a half, including the dual song encore, the five piece band spearheaded by Sharon (vocals/omnichord/guitars) and Heather Woods Broderick (vocals/keys) spun through a group of songs representing the past, present and future.

Sharon’s career has blossomed since she sought a move to New York City around a decade ago, settling in the creative hot spot borough of Brooklyn and soaking up the influence of metropolitan folklore. Critics have likened her to other female icons of the 70s Big Apple cool arts scene but approaching her music from an Americana angle sees comparisons in her sound and style to Lucinda Williams, although with a far greater vocal range. This presents a vocal vault of versatility fluctuating along a scale of slender Americana before nestling alongside brash indie-rock.

Sharon Van Etten first crossed my horizon as a live performer in the summer of 2013 with a daytime slot at the Calgary Folk Festival which struggled to make a significant impression in the surroundings. Fast forward a near eighteen months and a packed Library venue in Birmingham’s Institute (no intended pun on the respectful atmosphere) suited her far more. She superbly responded with an exhilarating performance, deep in emotion and supported by immense band competence. Opening with a trio of tracks from the new album, the soulful keys and mesmeric sound of ‘Tarifa’ just shaded ‘Afraid of Nothing’ and ‘Taking Chances’ with ‘Break Out’ played later highlighting further quality from this widely praised release.

The chat may have been minimal but a devoted audience held on to each word as Sharon mused about her sad song repertoire before playing a rare upbeat number, which not surprisingly missed the album cut. Described as a bit Tom Petty-esque, she did say that ‘I Don’t Want to Let You Down’ would be getting a 7 inch release in 2015 to emphasise how an artist like Sharon Van Etten is embracing the vinyl revival. Another special moment from the show for those tilting towards the folk background was when the band briefly departed leaving Sharon alone, perfectly at ease mulling over invited requests. She also used this solo segment to share a tender song written as a tribute to Karen Dalton and ‘Remembering Mountains’ showed the sheer beauty of her vocals when the sound is stripped away.

Ultimately Sharon Van Etten is adored by the indie community especially when the band gets into full gear and rebukes holding back. The encore numbers, especially ‘Serpents’ proved popular and sent a buzz around a near sold out audience who were having their polite respects rewarded. This respect was by and largely offered to support artist Marisa Anderson who played a curious instrumental opening set blending folk and blues rock. Detailed description preceded each song which partly compensated for the lyrical omission and allowed a degree of listener imagination as the tunes unfolded. If Sharon Van Etten flirts with Americana then Marisa Anderson lives and breathes it with delightful stories of caves in Kentucky, roaming around car parks at bluegrass festivals and worshipping at the feet of Doc Watson.

For a gig that came to late fruition for me as a result of a clash cancellation, the ghost of Calgary was erased and Sharon Van Etten escalated her level of appreciation. Acres of surreal substance constitute her chosen art form which echoes with a delightful darkness but presents an artist bestowed with talent spread across all facets of music making.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Jim Keaveny - Out of Time Self Released

There has long been a mystical image for us folks in Europe of the free roaming life of travelling troubadours, hobos or those seeking new pastures across the states. Whether inspired by Steinbeck, Kerouac or Guthrie, the exotic nature of such an existence (mythical or not) transports many a dreamer out of reality with often the soundtrack playing a leading light. One listen to OUT OF TIME by Jim Keaveny and one read of his bio leads to a 2014 personification of this wanderlust vision. The song is king for an artist who tooled up with a guitar and harmonica hit the roads and rails to find his true music soul.

Call it country, call it folk or call it just plain Americana, OUT OF TIME will satisfy any thirst for the imagery detailed above in a comprehensive collection that exceeds the hour without outstaying its welcome. Now statically swapping the roaming life for a more settled existence in the barren spaces of West Texas, Jim has his fifth release heading to the UK to the great delight of many Americana dreamers. While the strength exists in the lyrics, the sound refuses to be constricted within acoustic confines especially with full on electric and brass thriving on the album’s pivotal positioned title track.

While the album does have its experimental moments, for example in the style hinted in the title of ‘Someone To Talk To Blues’, there are three tracks which have the potential to rise above the pack in terms of popular appeal. If you’re seeking out a track to reflect the travelling life then album opener, ‘Eugene to Yuma’ will meet the requirement with a precision fit. Americana dreamers will feast lavishly on this sumptuous bait and use it as an introduction to explore the inner sanctum of this album. For a light snack a quarter of an hour into the album, ‘Ridin’ Boots’, with its traditional call and response chorus will find many admirers. At 5:40 long ‘The Yippee-i-ay Song’ sees Jim complete the circle and bring music wonderfully down to its rawest form. This exit number leaves you in a similar frame of mind to the opening song and grateful that you stayed with the album during the explorative phase.

OUT OF TIME, not be confused with the record that exploded REM’s career in the early 90s, had a near simultaneous release either side of the Atlantic and will no doubt engage many converts. While not particularly residing in either the country or folk camps, fans of both would do worse than to dip in and sample an artist steeped in the ideals of those genres. Available from the usual sources, it may be wise to utilise the best way to support a self-released record but that’s the prerogative of the buyer. Whatever the mode of purchase, OUT OF TIME by Jim Keaveny will be a valuable addition to any music collection.

Michelle Lewis - The Parts Of Us That Still Remain Self Released

Closing your eyes and letting Michelle Lewis’s soft vocals lead you on a velvet laden journey is not a bad way to spend half an hour of your valuable leisure time. The Boston songstress (that’s MA not Lincs) is having a tilt at the UK market with a December 1 release of her second album and it’s a record smoothed for palatable consumption, yet rich in a lingering sensual delight. THE PARTS OF US THAT STILL REMAIN fits the mould perfectly of a steady stream of folk-Americana music hitting our shores with a Nashville style song writing coating added to a north eastern roots sound.

Michelle fills the lyrical landscape with loss, pain, lust, true love and visual experience using every inch of her schooling at the Berklee College of Music in her home city to influence the songs. Teaming up with Robby Hecht, especially on the gorgeous ‘Runnin’ Back Home’, has reaped dividends on a record addictive in its groove and flush of finely tuned songs. The arrangements only observe the boundaries of true authenticity and beautifully complement the vocals of Michelle who shares production duties with Anthony J. Resta.

Snippets of accordion give a classic European urban feel to several tracks and Michelle poses the question whether a trip to ‘Paris’ will solve the conundrum of a dying love in the track of the same name. With words such as ‘broken, sorry, lost and goodbye’ appearing in four of the song titles then you begin to feel which side of melancholy is influencing the album but then we all know what makes the better song. Yet in contradiction and making a strong case for the album’s outstanding track is the pure melodic romanticism of ‘Just Like a Movie’. Running it very close is the simplistic album closer ‘Lost in LA’, maybe or maybe not the autobiographical experience of making the record in southern California.

What helps to make this album a gratifying way to while away the time is the genuineness and belief in the songs. How anyone could not forgive Michelle for pleading ‘Sorry I Forgot to Write’ in the opening track is implausible or not will her on the fanciful journey explored in ‘Run, Run, Run’.  An orchestral style arrangement adds a touch of elegance to ‘Something That Simple’ while a more pop infused beat graces ‘Goodbye’. An assortment of sounds decorates ‘Broken’ with simple organ and mandolin being vaguely detected and, last but not least, the accordion solo excels on ‘None of That Now’.

With the season of treats and indulgence accompanying the formal UK release of THE PARTS OF US THAT STILL REMAIN, the savouring of this seductive record by Michelle Lewis is surely more rewarding than that extra chocolate or tipple of your choice. However long after the festive season has subsided this record will retain appeal as Michelle Lewis is a talented singer-songwriter poised to spread her sensual sound far and wide.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wookalily - All the Waiting While : One a Chord Records

Reassuringly skeletal and free of impurities, the debut album by Belfast-based band Wookalily packs a tough punch to belie its status as a record stripped back to the bare bones of roots sentimentality. ALL THE WAITING WHILE has been simmering for a couple of years before emerging in a form, dark in places but always enlightened by a warm glow of excellence. The belief in organic growth and recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Association has steadied the rise of this four piece band creating a solid platform for an explosion of praise from across the British Isles and farther afield.

The mystically named Wookalily has been a flowing feast of musical talent and this album represents the past as the band prepare for the future. Adele Ingram (guitar, vocals), Louise Potter (percussion), Sharon Morgan (banjo) and Lyndsay Crothers (lead vocals) are the core of the current line up but four other lead vocalists appear on this twelve strong collection of songs entrenched in old time, bluegrass and roots lore. This does create a flavour of vocal diversity threaded by a quality that never wanes. The album’s finale see all vocalists celebrate in full collaborative manner with the gender induced ‘The Devil is a Woman’.

A clever line from this song, ‘Lucy-fare -well-go to hell’ illustrates the sparkling writing of Adele Ingram which illuminates all but one of the album’s tracks. Adele’s literary compositions court attention and scrutiny to reveal wit, love, recollection and sadness, ranging from sharp, cute to downright sassy. For instrumentation description, take your pick from any type of roots implement and you’ll find banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro and guitar finding their niche. The album is vibrant with appealing melodies adorning both verses and choruses with equal measure.

Standout tracks will fluctuate according to mood with ‘See Me For You’ being a repeat candidate. With a striking resemblance to the spiritual anthem ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’, the strength of the song towers amongst a sea of other giants. The beauty of ‘Diamonds on Gold’ alerted the IBMA of the girls’ talents and an invite to Nashville followed as well as the opportunity to record a respected Dixie Hall song,‘To a Dove’, for a compilation album. Alas this song is not on the debut album although a download code is available on the physical cover.

Other notable songs which do make up this superb collection include the bluesy ‘Black Magic Doll’, the waltz influenced ‘Got Me on My Knee’ and the evocative ‘Memories of New Orleans’, assumingly the latter is based on personal travels. ‘Banjo Blues’ sees Adele’s writing at its cutting best while ‘Johnny Kicked the Bucket’ is a fun packed number graced with a great fiddle finish. The only non-penned Adele song is ‘Fire Below’ which comes across as a racy bluegrass standard, while album opener, ‘Hands Pass in Time’, and one of several sang beautifully by current vocalist Lyndsay Crothers, is rich in string and sets the tone perfectly.

Like all debut releases, ALL THE WAITING WHILE now gives the band a tangible opportunity to get heard across the country, roots and Americana community in the UK, possibly into Europe and in the US as well. Backing this up with a live presence will also serve the band well and the name Wookalily will also play its part in growing awareness. Ultimately the ladies have produced a record true to the core, wide in appeal and aiming straight to recognisable status. A fine achievement for a debut record.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Darius Rucker - Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton Wednesday 19th November 2014

First and foremost Darius Rucker is a top notch front man and an entertainer of the highest degree. Regardless of the ethnic diversity, or lack of it to be more precise, within Nashville’s major country music labels, the executives were getting a sure fire winner when Darius headed to Music City to record the next phase of his music career back in 2008. Digging deep into his South Carolina roots and refreshing his natural charisma led to enormous success in sales of both records and concert tickets. Perhaps it was Darius’s eye for a challenge which sees him at the forefront of Nashville’s latest raid on the UK market. So eighteen months on from a successful slot at the inaugural Country 2 Country Festival, Darius Rucker has kept his promise to return to the UK with the added bonus of a provincial tour.

In the last half a dozen years, this prime venue in Wolverhampton has sporadically dallied with country music by hosting Hal Ketchum and Guy Clark but it was very much the changing of the guard audience-wise with this latest promotion. Darius admitted on more than one occasion that his heart will always be with Hootie and the Blowfish but fair play to the respect he pays to country music with his approach to the stage performance he puts on. Whether covering Hank Jr’s ‘Family Tradition’ or ensuring pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and mandolin play their part, any fears of a watered down version of this great genre were allayed. The Blowfish part circa 2008-2014 is in the format of the South Carolina Grey Boys, a fine bunch of pickers mixing some genuine roots music with soulful keys and refined guitar rock. Together they blistered their way through an hour and three quarter set led by the consummate aura of Darius Rucker, primarily on vocals with the odd acoustic guitar segment.

The breadth of Darius’s lengthy career in this show was celebrated, ranging from Hootie numbers such as ‘Time’ through to his latest single cut ‘Home Grown Honey’. It was no surprise that the popular songs like ‘Alright’ and ‘True Believers’ were greeted with exuberant audience enthusiasm which was only surpassed by the contrasting and curious encore pairing of ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’. With a polite nod to the Old Crow Medicine Show and references to Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, there were moments of embracing ‘cool Americana’ alongside the trademark brashness and posturing. Amongst the usual suspects for that premium concert experience, including his country chart debuting no.1 single ‘Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It’, was the impressive track ‘Southern State of Mind’.

Joining Darius on stage for the Hank Jr cover was opening act Patrick Davis who had earlier done a sterling job warming up the crowd with vibrant rigour and plenty of well received rapport. With a friendship going back to their South Carolina upbringing, Patrick and Darius exuded a kindred spirit which has seen the former share many tunes in the guise of his Nashville song writing day job. In the obvious style of chasing that lucrative cut, there was a strong contemporary feel to Patrick’s songs which in my view peaked with the fabulous ‘Numbers’. A little humour surrounded his cover of ‘I’m on Fire’ but in the name of perfecting that warm up slot, Patrick scored favourably with many in a highly respectable West Midlands turnout.

This assembly of Midlands based music fans mixed hard core Darius Rucker‘ believers’ with others curious to see a rare regional visit of a major country music artist. His musical background and style will naturally court a divided opinion in country music circles but what was in evidence at Wolverhampton’s Wulfrun Hall was a respectful and major league performer at the top of his game.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Wild Ponies - George IV Pub, Lichfield, Staffs Saturday 15th November 2014

The name Wild Ponies conjures up visions of freedom and roaming which pretty well sums up the musical lives of Doug and Telisha Williams. Forever on the road touring and spending time away from their Virginia roots, the East Nashville based duo have certainly chosen a life which perfectly aligns with their talents. If you’re seeking travelling artists with exquisite musicianship, balanced vocals, supremely crafted songs, engaging personalities and insightful background contributions, then the Wild Ponies will meet your approval. Throw in the added spice of a southern drawl and you are well on the way to being entertained by a band subconsciously alluding to the traditional country music blueprint.

The Wild Ponies are making their debut headline tour of the UK after receiving extended plaudits for supporting and backing Rod Picott around a year ago. Hot Burrito Promotions had little hesitation in bringing the duo back to the Staffordshire area to complete their autumn trilogy of promoting Americana themed shows. With a far more countrified sound to the Wild Ponies than the other artists booked, this show, in the back room of a small city centre pub, took us down both familiar and unfamiliar paths but never failing to enthral. Itching to take both his guitars to the limit, Doug exploited every opportunity to showcase his pickin’ skills and repeated a call from a previous show by replacing any missing slide sound with some serious Telecaster twang. Prime vocalist Telisha was far gentler with her precious stand-up bass, using every inch of the booming strings to inject rhythm and beat into a sound crafted in camaraderie and chemistry.

Split across two sets following a short opening segment from Midlands singer-songwriter James Summerfield, the guys explored the depths of their two most recent records with the enticing extra faction of presenting a couple of upcoming new numbers. ‘Love is Not a Sin’ and ‘Never Met’ were a pair of tasty songs laying the ground neatly for their next release. The former just shaded the latter on instant appeal and will be the first to be aired formally in the New Year with an accompanying video. As true song writers, Doug and Telisha limited the covers to just one solitary encore offering and who could blame them for celebrating the work of fellow Virginian Patsy Cline with a wonderful version of ‘I Fall to Pieces’. Telisha displayed a wide vocal range mixing classic heartbreak, southern sass and soft sentimentality. During a solo interlude, she sang a personal tribute to her grandmother with the song ‘Iris’ and waded through many other songs, mainly from the 2013 album THINGS THAT USED TO SHINE.

A fair amount of these songs were introduced to UK audiences last year including the title track. Opening with ‘Trigger’ from this release, we were also treated to the Amy Speace co-write ‘Trouble Looks Good on You’ and a hometown story from their local NASCAR circuit in Virginia ‘Massey’s Run’. In 2009 Doug and Telisha Williams released the album GHOST OF THE KNOXVILLE GIRL under their own names rather than the Wild Ponies and the title track has produced one of their most popular songs spawning much comment about Tennessee riverbank murder ballads. On an evening packed with heaps of fine songs, it was also enhanced by pre-meditated and spontaneous humour. The old saying of ‘what happens on stage; stays on stage’ was never truer.

For this inaugural tour, which has also included dates in Europe, the Wild Ponies have been presented with a decent schedule to build a UK support base. Not that any amount of dates will daunt such hardworking artisans as Doug and Telisha who upon their return home hit the States with another pre-holiday extensive tour. By summoning up the spirit of East Nashville and real country music, the Wild Ponies cemented a positive first impression with a call for a longevity rapport with folks on this side of the pond. Mutual appreciation is a very precious commodity and the foundation of a wonderful music experience.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Other Half - A story by Mark Billingham inspired by the music of My Darling Clementine Birmingham Rep Monday 10th November 2014

Where literature and music collide is a perfect wrap for this latest project by top selling crime fiction writer Mark Billingham and the UK’s premier act for keeping the flame of classic country alive My Darling Clementine. For one night only, the studio venue at Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre was taken to downtown Memphis and awash with a sound spanning the length of Tennessee’s Music Highway. Being a massive country music fan himself, I’m sure Mark Billingham was happy to let the evening evolve into a dynamic display of duet indulgence as his own reading of The Other Half was periodically splintered by the musical interjection of Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish.

With the songs of My Darling Clementine ripe for some form of literary collaboration, there was an inbuilt synergy with an author whose chief character D.I. Tom Thorne is an avid follower of western leaning music full of vivid stories and twang. Taking the location of his story from the song ‘Going Back to Memphis’, Mark tells a simple on the surface tale of three couples frequenting a rundown bar. With the exemplary oratory skills of the author, the story unfolds in the first hour of this double billed show as Michael and Lou choreograph their presentation of subtly inserted songs in sync with the ebb and flow of the tale.

You have to adjust your listening skills between the intensity of the reading and the more relaxing state of savouring the songs of My Darling Clementine. However the merging of the two art forms was pulled off with professional ease. The subjective nature of art saw an individual adaptation by Mark with the songs merely providing a backdrop rather than the narrative. While expecting a more significant music segment after the break, the number of songs interspersing the reading approached near double figures. Unsurprisingly ‘By a Thread’ opened the evening and other songs such as ‘No Heart in this Heartache’ and ‘No Matter Tammy Said’ were skilfully weaved into the first half as Michael and Lou appropriately marginalised their onstage chemistry.

Lou and Michael at Cambridge Folk Festival in August
After the break we were duly entertained with a full hour of My Darling Clementine as normal service was resumed with their cutting satire, dry humour and full blown song presentation. An excellent sound system bestowed a venue not the usual domain of consistent live music and, though there will always be a difference with the full band, the acoustic flow from stage to audience was impeccable and impressive upon reception. Both My Darling Clementine albums were heartily raided with ‘King of the Carnival’ and ‘Departure Lounge’ being particularly enjoyed on a personal basis.

Either side of a two pronged cover song presentation, were perhaps the two outstanding moments of Michael and Lou’s performance. Just prior to paying respects to George Jones with ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ and inviting Mark back to the stage to sing the timeless classic ‘Heartaches by the Number’, we were moved by an extra emotional version of ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’. Another heartstring pulling number sent the audience home content as the duo shared a personal tale of their own in the song ‘Miracle Mabel’.

This may have been a left field collaboration but as a project it worked extremely well and its short run as a live production deserves to be well supported. It would be a pity if no recorded format was made available to capture the evocative mood of the first half and such a product would perhaps help bridge the gap between the present and where My Darling Clementine go next with their music.