Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Red Molly - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 21st October 2014

Taking your music to new territories can be a daunting prospect but when you possess the talent of American trio Red Molly then the task is made a whole lot easier. With a recording career stretching back a decade, Molly Venter, Laurie MacAllister and Abbie Gardner decided it was time to try their luck in the UK and the latest release, simply titled THE RED ALBUM, was the ideal accompaniment to cross the pond. After a summer of UK press, the inaugural tour is underway and with little hesitation Midlands promoters Cosmic American booked them for a pair of gigs in Nottingham and Birmingham. The latter’s Hare and Hounds venue hosted a decent turnout frequented by those both new to the band and others who have tracked their career for a while. There was a unanimous verdict of approval at the end as another cracking and accomplished touring band were added to the growing list of recent times.

For genre junkies, Red Molly, who all hail from the North Eastern part of the US, comfortably ease between country, folk and many other corners of American music heritage. The latest record saw the band increase their quota of original music but much of their charm oozes from their ability to adapt the work of others in a confident, assured and innovative way. This is beautifully exemplified by a version of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning' where surely British guitar god and the song’s composer Richard Thompson is tipping his trademark beret to Abbie’s interpretation of the track’s breath taking riff on her Dobro guitar. In fact the whole evening was packed with magical moments emerging from her playing along with enlightening stories such as when she and Jonathan Byrd conjured up a dark Hank Williams-like number in ‘When It All Goes Wrong’.

On the opposite side of the stage to Abbie, Molly added the acoustic guitar sound to the mix and sung beautifully all night, no finer than on a Dolly Parton cover ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. This was as about as pure country as the band got throughout the evening with the ladies also giving a nod to the Delta Blues with a version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Come on in My Kitchen’. Bridging the pickin’ talents of Molly and Abbie, as well as cutting a re-assuring pose at the heart of the trio, was Laurie who held court with her 1963 electric bass guitar. All three showed off their vocal talents at opportune moments and blissfully filled the air with sweet music when coming together for sumptuous harmonies. These peaked with a wish influenced self-write ‘Copper Ponies’, a delve into the dark world of folk murder ballads ‘Clinch River Blues’ and an A Capella style finale believed to be ‘Dear Someone’.

Spanning either side a mid-evening break, the ladies also showcased ‘I am Listening’, ‘Sing to Me’ and ‘Pretend’ from the new album alongside their version of the Paul Simon classic ‘Homeward Bound’. Just to prove that they can also rock it with the best, a cover of ‘Can’t Let Go’ by Lucinda Williams went down a storm with an informed audience and the ladies paid respect to the Great American Songbook by opening the second set with the much loved ‘Fever’. Just picture all these iconic songs perfectly executed with exemplary musicianship and voices born to grace your ear with angelic bliss.

You got the impression of witnessing the birth of a long lasting fraternal relationship between Red Molly and UK audiences. A return tour looks on the cards for 2015 and word will surely get around that this trio are a hot ticket. The ice has been broken and relationships formed, leaving the prospect of adding Red Molly to the perennial list of regular UK visitors an enticing one.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Old Crow Medicine Show + Parker Millsap - The Ritz, Manchester. Sunday 19th October 2014

Blistering bluegrass; Classic country; Awesome Americana. Three simple superlatives that sum up the manic musical mayhem that transpires into an Old Crow Medicine Show live performance. Faint hearts and traditional deniers need not apply to join their band wagon but fans of Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel’ are welcome as long as they treat the song as an initiation into the old time world of the Old Crow Medicine Show. Many of those who packed the 1500 capacity Ritz in Manchester well and truly bought in to the ideals of the band with several hard core gig goers shuffling out at the end muttering that they had just witnessed the best concert of 2014.

With such a turnout and buzzing atmosphere throughout the evening, there was a satisfying re-assurance that the future of country music in the UK was heading down the right path. Although it has to be acknowledged that the Old Crow Medicine Show has made several UK visits over the years, cultivating a fan base and possibly attracting a cross genre audience. Recently acclaimed collaborations with Mumford and Sons via their award winning road trip documentary will have served them no harm but ultimately it’s their impressive songs and spellbinding stage show that successfully seduces an audience.

There was the added spice to this 2014 UK tour that Old Crow were bringing along Parker Millsap as their opening act. Stateside luminaries have been shouting from the rooftops for a while about the talents of this latest incarnation of an Oklahoma song writing gem, bestowing him with an Emerging Artist nominee at this year’s Americana awards. Armed with a stack of songs from his excellent self-titled new album, Parker brought a touch of dustbowl blues to a damp Manchester alongside his sidekicks of Michael Rose (upright bass) and Daniel Foulks (fiddle). Growing in influence and presence with each song, Parker was approaching his peak by the end of his short opening set. Whilst the projection of his stunning anti-love song ‘The Villain’ would have been more suited to a smaller quieter venue on this occasion, ‘Old Time Religion’ and especially ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ at the end saw him hit a mightily impressive stride. Old Crow’s decision to bring Parker back to sing a version of Van Morrison’s ‘On the Mystic’ during their encore also reaped vast dividends and sealed a positive impression of an artist deep rooted in the soil of authentic Americana.

Right from the lively opening chords of ‘Bushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ through to nearly two hours later, a closing celebration of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, the slick superiority of Old Crow’s supreme stage show sailed through a sea of mainly accelerated acoustic adulation. The interactivity and occasional hyperactivity of all seven band members raised the pulse of a show which ebbed and flowed through the band’s fifteen year recording career. Not surprisingly tracks from their current album REMEDY featured prominently and it is probably a touch harsh to single out ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’, ‘Firewater’ and ‘O Cumberland River’ as stand out live numbers. Many would no doubt enthuse about that other Dylan finishing project ‘Sweet Amarillo’ as main vocalist Ketch Secor sarcastically hailed the country radio playing of that other Dylan originating song as the prompt for the great man to send another unfinished masterpiece to them.

The current Old Crow Medicine Show line up is a transient co-operative of roots music artisans blasting out banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica amongst countrified pedal steel and soulful keys, all being kept in time by percussion and upright bass. Alongside Secor’s main vocals and band leading presence, Critter Fuqua provided most singing assistance with Gill Landry particularly stepping forward to heat things up with a hearty serving from ‘Mary’s Kitchen’. Kevin Hayes came to the fore impressively on ‘Sweet Home’, while comical interludes and theatrical step dancing were among the many talents of Cory Younts. Individual performance aside, the spirit of the band is in its collective aura and passion to pioneer the roots of country and bluegrass music long into the future.

As the show progressed, the packed venue responded to each request, whether restoring near silence for the band to deliver a couple of numbers around a single mic with minimal instrumentation such as ‘The Warden’ or needing little encouragement to bellow out the chorus to ‘Wagon Wheel’ word perfect. The renewed life of this old song has been incredible in the past year with a deluge of different versions accompanying many live shows up and down the country. From a personal viewpoint ‘Alabama High Test’ held a special moment as 2008’s TENESSEE PUSHER release propelled the band in my direction and there was a slight disappointment that ‘Dearly Departed Friend’ from the new album didn't fill the occasional moments when everyone needed a breather.

Best gig attended of 2014? It is wrong to assume that any of the remaining shows will not surpass the highs of this Old Crow Medicine Show gig. Credit to Manchester for hosting three great shows this year when you add in Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves to this one; Shame on the venues of Birmingham for not willing to bring the cream of country talent to the Second City. However some evenings are worth the investment of time and travel. Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap rewarded that investment many times over.

Review Parker Millsap's new self-titled album

Sunday, 19 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Rolling Stone

Interview with Wall Street Journal

Sunday, 12 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Parker Millsap - Parker Millsap Okrahoma Records

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

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

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

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

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

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