Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Crooked Brothers - Postcard EP

In this golden age of DIY music, artists are forever coming up with ingenuous ways of getting their sound out to both new and established audiences. The latest venture by Canadian trio The Crooked Brothers is based around blending the visual artistic talents of band member Jesse Matas and a self-gratifying desire to preserve the timeless and under threat postal system in their homeland.

However with keeping a foot on either side of the communication timeline, the band have launched three new songs which are primarily being made available by a limited edition of re-usable postcard downloads. The spirit is in posting the card on to a new user and thus spreading the content of some very good old time roots music laced with authentic instrumentation and delectable harmonies.

Each limited design postcard, featuring art originating from within the band and across Canada, has a restricted print run of 100 but rest assured a popular download site is making the tunes accessible in a more technological friendly format. The track earmarked for promotion is the breezy ‘There Ain’t No One’, which the ‘brothers’ imply is their inaugural happy track, and a song driven along by harmonica. Elsewhere the song writing threesome of Darwin Baker, Matt Foster and the previously mentioned Jesse Mata, interchange banjo, mandolin, guitars and Dobro with perhaps the EP’s most heart-warming track being the sublime back porch number ‘I Think I Need To Be Alone’. The final track, where the guys revert to their sad song comfort zone, possesses possibly the strongest chorus line of the three with ‘If I Had Known’ also having a more rootsy live feel to its sound.

With two full length albums behind them, POSTCARD EP is surely a bridging interlude to more timeless offerings from The Crooked Brothers who will use the release to support a handful of UK dates in May. At present there seems to be a bias of female Canadian artists flowing into the UK on the traditional roots bandwagon so a touch of gender balance is welcome especially with the substantial talents on show of The Crooked Brothers. There is also the prospect of your local postman personally delivering the postcard download, which will keep one group of Canadian artists happy.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Hank Wangford & the Lost Cowboys - Save Me The Waltz Sincere Sounds

You don’t have to listen long to any country music with an ounce of heritage in it to come across a tune played in the old three-four time. The waltz has been an integral part of country music for as long as couples have been heading down to the honky tonk to dance away the troubles and woes of a rural life. So in an age where there are a significant number of performers still keeping the traditions alive, UK country legend Hank Wangford has raised the preservation stakes higher by dedicating a whole double album to the sound which he proudly implies as always been a differentiation marker between country and rock n’ roll.

To keep within a choice of moods, Hank has neatly packaged this mixture of originals and standards into, whether you’re up for a dose of melancholy or need a little ‘end of the day’ pick up. There is a school of thought which suggests only the former exists in true country music but occasionally we all deserve the optimism of ‘Save Me the Waltz’ or a trip to ‘Sin City’. It is fitting that Hank includes a version of the latter as Gram Parsons was credited as one of the artists to lead him into the arms of country music. For this album Hank chose a duet with Billy Bragg that was initially recorded a number of years ago and included on the B side of Bragg’s ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.’

Of course enjoyment of this album will depend on your feelings towards the waltz but with covers of Willie Nelson, Louvin Brothers and George Jones songs, it defies country fans of any persuasion not to have a soft spot for this classic slowed down sound. In addition to timeless songs such as ‘Say It’s Not You’ by George Jones or the Willie Nelson penned ‘Permanently Lonely’, Hank, who has acquired cult alt-country status in his time, pays tribute to a more contemporary performer in Lucinda Williams with a fantastic version of ‘Concrete and Barbed Wire.’

Hank has contributed around half of this twenty-five track set with originals and for me there are three with particular stand out qualities. From ‘The Light’ disc ‘Sunk Without Trace’ and the album’s title track ‘Save Me The Waltz’ have a special quality about them to take their warranted place amongst the classics. Perhaps the finest of all Hank’s compositions included is the ultimate ‘giving up’ song ‘Lonely Together’ which proved a great sing along live number when Hank previewed this album with a duo show in Birmingham in February. This track anchors the final segment on ‘The Dark’ disc which also includes a Lennon/McCartney song ‘Baby’s In Black’ and another old Billy Bragg duet, this time on the Woody Guthrie song ‘Deportees’.

Hank’s long time band, The Lost Cowboys, make their presence felt on the record which was recorded in several locations, one including an old Telefunken microphone bought from the Abbey Road studios. Amongst the Lost Cowboys line up are UK pedal steel luminary BJ Cole and Martin Belmont who has recently been doing some stellar work with My Darling Clementine. However all tracks have benefitted from a lengthy list of contributors with Anna Robinson significantly stepping in with the Lucinda Williams vocal piece.

SAVE ME THE WALTZ gets its formal UK release on May 26th but if you pop along to one of the designated preview shows beforehand, a copy will surely be available. Either way this double album is an essential addition to any country music library and even the most ardent new country advocate would admit the waltz deserves its place in the genre’s DNA.

Review of Hank Wangford Birmingham show in February

Monday, 14 April 2014

Gilmore and Roberts - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Sunday 13th April 2014

They may be young in years but folk starlet duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have racked up a fair amount of experience on the UK roots and acoustic circuit. With three duo albums behind them (plus new songs beginning to take shape) and an ever increasing number of live gigs under their belt (this was a third visit to the CafĂ©), the careers of Kat and Jamie are beginning to gather momentum. A highly credible turnout for a Sunday evening gig at the Kitchen Garden saw the holy trinity of live acoustic music develop in front of them– great musicianship, engaging vocals and enlightening storytelling interludes.

Prior to a twin pair of forty-five minute sets by Kat and Jamie, there was a very entertaining performance by another duo, this time playing under a pseudonym-style name of Rita Payne. This duo houses the vocal talent of Pete Sowerby and the guitar skills of Rhiannon Scutt. They certainly possess an air of confidence to make audiences outside their hometown of Doncaster take notice and are an act to look out for in the future.

Kat and Jamie made great strides in the folk world when being nominated as Best Duo at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and their album out at the time, THE INNOCENT LEFT, featured prominently during this latest visit to Birmingham. My own personal favourite from the record ‘Silver Screen’ had its rightful place in the first half of their performance and is probably the closest the pair sound to replicating the feel of rural Appalachian music. Generally the duo deliver a style deep rooted in English traditional song although their musical mode is on the more contemporary wing of the genre. Jamie is a master of a quite unique style of lap percussion guitar playing while Kat excels both on fiddle and mandolin. They both share vocals, occasionally in harmony often in solo, and are very fine intuitive song writers.

Apart from the previously mentioned stand out song, the first set had its highlights in Jamie’s perceptive tale of a Subway customer ‘Louis the Boxer’ and a new song ‘Cecilia’ delightfully sung by Kat. The most intriguing story behind the songs in the opening set was Kat’s revelation of the origin for a new track called ‘Stumble on the Seam’, where we learnt of a Derbyshire family discovering a rare mineral many decades apart from its initial find.

Photo by Barnaby Aldrick
After a short break, the duo re-ignited the audience with their ear pleasing number ‘Doctor James’. If anything the stories were stepped up following the evening’s second bout of refreshments with Kat’s innuendo wit preluding her fiddle tune ‘The Badger Set’. A more serious tale of wartime correspondence introduced ‘Letters’, while Jamie’s comedy road observations led us into a rendition of ‘Scarecrow’. The humour definitely developed during the evening and it would take far too long to explain the events that led to the audience singing the encore number ‘Fleetwood Fair’ in a German accent.

The talents of Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts are there to be cherished, whether folk music is your preferred genre or you just appreciate a duo which can sing, play and entertain. They will be making an initial visit to Canada to play a couple of festivals this summer and mingling with transatlantic influences may lead to some interesting developments in the future especially as there is potential to further exploit an Appalachian roots sound. However in the meantime, Kat returns to Birmingham next month to provide backing support for Blair Dunlop’s band gig at the Hare and Hounds. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Matt Anderson - Weightless True North Records

The experience of seeing Matt Anderson live is one you won’t forget. His imposing stage presence, booming vocals and adept finger pickin’ all etch on your memory and recognition has been honoured by blues organisations on both sides of the pond. The release of his eighth album, and debut for True North Records, sees Matt venture further into a bout of discovery with a sound far more versatile than some of the labels previously attached to him. WEIGHTLESS gets its UK release in mid-April with a more polished production than earlier albums. The result is a breakthrough sound for Matt with a distinct soulful feel to the twelve tracks although there are elements of country, blues and rock to excite fans of the wider Americana movement.

It was a privilege to catch Matt live twice last year, once at a festival in his Canadian homeland and more intimately in the cellar bar of a UK pub, and the good news is that his distinct vocals which stretch every ounce of sinew are intact. It is felt that his skills as a guitar practitioner take a little backseat on this record with the keyboards and horn section coming more to the fore. Yet the style created under the stewardship of top producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) still utilises well the talents of Matt and this is an album that could open a few doors for the New Brunswick native.

Right from the opening track, you get a sense that this album may be a touch different with a reggae groove providing the backbeat to the soulful gospel number ‘I Lost My Way’. The horn combo of trombone, trumpet and sax continues to shape parts of the album including the title track ‘Weightless’ with its soul stompin’ pretensions, the more sensitive ‘Drift Away’ and album closer ‘What Will You Leave’ which reveals a taste of Memphis. The keyboard inclusion adds to the atmosphere as does some harmony and backing vocals probably most prevalent on ‘My Last Day’.

Fans of previous Matt Anderson material will feel very much at home with the intense guitar work adding a blues sound to ‘The Fight’ and his finger pickin’ skills are let loose on ‘City of Dreams’. The latter track is more blue collar in its lyrical content than blues influenced and in the press release Matt plays down any association with some of the great bluesmen of the past.

The diversity of this album is most apparent in the country style ballad ‘So Easy’ where the vibes of pedal steel guitar gently glide along in the background. Possibly the stand out track from a personal perspective is ‘Alberta Gold’ with a driving guitar style more akin to a rock track. The song tells the story of Canadians from the Maritime Provinces heading west to make a living in the oil fields of the more remote parts of this vast country. In order to develop his song writing skills, Matt elected to co-write all twelve of the tracks and felt his time spent with Joel Plaskett, Dave Gunning and Tom Wilson was highly productive.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ is a fairly straightforward ballad, ‘Let You Down’ has probably the album’s most effective chorus melody but is buried a little deep in the record, while ‘Between The Lines’ sees Matt’s vocals steered in a more mellow direction. Yet despite the variety of musical avenues explored, the presence of Matt Anderson never wains and to re-iterate the opening statement of this review, a short exposure to his music will have a profound positive effect. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Birds of Chicago - Live From Space Self Released

It is quite common for a roots album to possess a minimalistic production sound leaving an overriding live feel to the music often recorded on a single take. LIVE FROM SPACE, the latest release by versatile North American outfit Birds of Chicago achieves a similar objective albeit from a different angle with a live recording possessing a crystal clear sound to rival a studio release. If you are new to the work of the band’s core members, J T Nero and Allison Russell, then this comprehensive and authentic album will act as the perfect introduction to their appealing musical talents.

It was a surely a magical evening back in the summer of 2013 at the Evanton SPACE venue in Illinois, USA when JT and Alli served up this sumptuous amalgam of abrasive American roots music laced with a dressing of beautiful soul. The way the duo blends their contrasting styles around 17 self-composed tunes is the most striking feature of this record and will whet the appetite to savour this delight in person.

Apart from their self-titled debut album in 2012 under the Birds of Chicago name, JT and Alli have collaborated for a number of years which reached a high on JT Neros’ MOUNTAINS/FORESTS record in 2011. It is the title track from this album which is the towering song on LIVE FROM SPACE and is conducive to making the record a pleasurable listening experience. Not far behind this highlight is the mightily appealing pop-infused duet ‘All The City Girls’ where JT’s gruff vocals conjure up positive images of Rod Stewart shaping a song in an inimitable style.

Many will be aware of Allison Russell’s participation in Vancouver –based roots combo Po Girl and in her own sultry style she adds the elegance to the compelling sound of Birds of Chicago. Whether with her soulful vocals, impromptu clarinet or bi-lingual delivery, the richness of her presence graces this record in epic proportion. Her writing contributions include a Gallic feel to the Francophile number ‘Sans Souci’ with banjo and accordion merging the cultural divide. Also from the pen of Alli was the Po Girl song ‘Kathy’ while the beautiful ‘'Till It’s Gone’ was lifted straight from their HOME TO YOU album.

Jeremy Lindsay aka JT Nero is best known for his work with JT and the Clouds and their 2010 album CALEDONIA was a fruitful selection ground for the live album material, best represented by the excellent ‘Funeral’ and the fine ‘I Have Heard Words’, the latter blessed with some wonderful clarinet to raise the soul stakes. JT and Alli seem to love the flexible feel to the Birds of Chicago project with musicians wondering in and out but made sure for this special occasion the full 7-piece band was present with a melange of sounds ranging from the traditional vibes of the mandolin to the contemporary soulful presence of the organ.

The 76 minute length of LIVE FROM SPACE may be a slight concern to those understandably preferring more time efficient compact releases but to reassure you, this album does not outstay its welcome. The challenge is for JT and Alli to recreate the ambience and vitality of this record on their April/May tour of the UK to support its release but the pleasure will certainly be with those in the presence of their quest. Birds of Chicago are starting to spread their wings and joining them on the flight by supporting this live album is a suggestion not to be ignored.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Paul McClure - Smiling From The Floor Up Clubhouse Records

With strains of classic early seventies American singer-song writing, Paul McClure has announced his arrival as a solo artist with an album full of raw sentiment and stripped back sensibility. SMILING FROM THE FLOOR UP is the latest recording under the Clubhouse Records banner and complements perfectly the label’s wealth of slightly more rock flavoured material. For this debut album, the former HI and Lo band member McClure has put his songs firmly and deliberately in the foreground with an uninhibited invitation to share his thoughts and experiences. The result is a 10-track compendium of no thrills revelations to rival the output of any touring US troubadour preaching the gospel according to Van Zandt, Dylan and Young.

Before you even slip the CD into the slot, the extensive sleeve notes indicate what the record means to McClure who values the sparseness of the production as much as the therapy derived from committing his soul to song. Aside from the feelings of the performer, the listener is well rewarded for choosing this record by a trio of strong tracks cementing the core of the album. Each time ‘For You’ is played, which for me was rather numerous, you can’t help but be reminded of The Eagles in their prime with ‘Lyin’ Eyes’. This stand out track is well served with a sumptuous chorus melody designed to bypass any bands of resistance. Along the same lines, ‘Keep It Together’ possesses a stellar intro which hooks you straight in and is guaranteed to warm any strained emotions.

In a record where the ballad is king, the fabulous and punchy ‘Any Number You Like (As Long As It’s 4) rises like a beacon to remove any potential lulls of listening complacency. McClure switches to piano for this number which for me had a remote similar sound to some of Todd Snider’s material. This track contained backing vocals from Hannah and Alex Eton-Wall of Redlands Palomino Company. In fact Hannah also supplied a delicate female vocal contribution to ‘Pollyanna’ and ‘Keep It Together’. The camaraderie of the Clubhouse operation also saw Joe Bennett from The Dreaming Spires play lap steel on the title track ‘Smiling From The Floor Up’ but McClure felt he needed to limit the quality support available to him and this added to the legitimacy of it being an album truly from the soul of its creator.

McClure’s mission statement was for the songs to speak for themselves and the live album feel to the record suggests this has been accomplished. He subtly adds an optimum amount of acoustic, piano, accordion, drums and ukulele to each number and the highest praise possible is to compliment the song structure and state that wider instrumentation is not missed. This record will sound great in some of the country’s intimate listening venues and probably better still, the growing house concert movement in this country.

Paul McClure has shown in making SMILING FROM THE FLOOR UP that great song writing talent is prevalent in the UK’s folk/Americana/alt-country scene and that one day the mainstream music media may wake up to embrace the sounds. Meanwhile those in the know are not going to spend time waiting for the rest of the world to catch up and will just keep on enjoying the material these fine artists continue to share with us.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Simone Felice - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Wednesday 2nd April 2014

The phrase ‘too rock for country; too country for rock’ is often used to describe Americana music. If you’re seeking a band to epitomise this statement then look no further than Simone Felice when he hits the road as a trio. His latest trip to the UK kicked off on the second day of April and a well-populated Hare and Hounds pub in Birmingham lapped up this exhilarating performance by Simone and his sidekicks Matty Green and Gabriel Dresdale.

Many visits to our shores over the years has seen Simone cultivate a decent following this side of the Atlantic and the vocal adulation received from those present on this opening night left him truly humble. A man of few but well-chosen words, Simone let his song writing, guitar playing and compelling drumming do a bulk of the communicating as he utilised an excellent sound system to play a cross section of songs from the three projects of his career.

The latest solo album from Simone is starting to get rave reviews from the knowledgeable media and the four songs featured this evening acted as an excellent preview to the release. ‘Molly-O!’ was launched early in the set to lift the tempo and the chorus-friendly ‘Running Through My Head’ neatly slotted into the role of closing the pre-encore set. Vocal support for this compulsive track came from half the audience and the invited stage presence of supporting act Dan Whitehouse and his singing partner Harriett. Simone referenced the new album when introducing ‘The Best That Money Can Buy’ but surely the greatest plug for the album came from a stunning rendition of ‘If You Go To LA’, the stand out track from STRANGERS.

Fans of the Felice Brothers were not forgotten in the set list as Simone re-ignited his sibling recording days with versions of ‘Don’t Wake The Scarecrow’ and ‘Radio Song’. However two of the more popular songs on the evening were lifted from his debut solo release as ‘You And I Belong’ and ‘New York Times’ needed little encouragement for audience participation.

As previously mentioned, the sound quality was a redeeming feature of this gig with the slide Dobro and mandola of Matty Green giving the tunes a traditional edge and Gabriel Dresdale’s cello adding a touch of elegance. The song delivery from Simone was lifted straight out of the Americana blueprint manual and it was no surprise to hear the work of Springsteen and Dylan celebrated in the encore. The former’s ‘Atlantic City’ raised the rock tempo significantly before we were serenaded to the exits with ‘I Shall Be Released’.

It is also worth mentioning that Simone’s duet work in Duke and the King wasn’t forgotten with ‘One More American Song’ nestling securely amongst the wealth of emotive tracks getting the live treatment this evening. From start to finish this gig captured the spirit of Americana and delivered a taste of rural upstate New York to a suburban second city pub.

This venture was another instalment in the project of Nottingham based promoters Cosmic American and their welcome expansion into the live Birmingham music scene. As long as they bring artists of the quality of Simone Felice to the area then I’m sure the music community will respond in growing numbers. Many present at this gig will agree with this sentiment.