Friday, 31 October 2014

Sara Petite - Prince Albert, Stroud Thursday 30th October 2014

Around 5 years ago, via his Thursday evening BBC country show, Bob Harris introduced us to a couple of female artists who were plying their trade many miles, both physically and metaphorically, from the formal industry centre of Nashville Tennessee. Sharing a common trait of possessing a voice etched with the pleasure, pain and emotion of pure country music, Sara Petite and Zoe Muth soon became firm personal favourites showing the vibrancy of the genre on the nation’s west coast. Now in the space of 6 days, it has been a delight to catch up with both artists on selected dates during their current respective UK tours.

In contrast to Zoe who is touring with her band, Sara has taken the option of travelling alone on this trip armed only with her guitar, a bunch of neat songs and that voice extracting every inch of sinew from the core of her compositions. Sara has had more experience of touring the UK, often with her own band, without reaching the audience her music deserves. All four studio albums are well stocked with songs rich in melody, true in tradition and presented in a recognisable style full of passion and panache. This evening an audience in the town of Stroud on the edge of the Cotswolds had the opportunity up close and personal to connect with the music of Sara Petite.

The Prince Albert makes effective use of its surroundings with an unsurprising heavy folk bias to the artists it promotes. On the back of her double header slot with Stephen Simmons the previous evening at London’s prestigious Green Note, Sara shared this date with a UK artist Rhiannon Mair and used her hour wisely to showcase the breadth of her career. Stretching back to her sophomore album from 2008, Sara lifted ‘Heaven Bound’, ‘Little House’ and, as part of a medley, ‘Coming on Strong’ from her LEAD THE PARADE record with an air of confidence that saw her politely banish a couple of intrusive punters to the back of the room when she needed space to deliver the quieter numbers.

Of course Sara with her band could mix and win with many a raucous honky tonk out west in her home state of California and when in full flow there is no finer song to her arsenal than ‘Bootleggers’ from the DOGHOUSE ROSE album which launched her presence in the UK. Not shying away from providing some background to certain songs, Sara shared her experience of moonshine along with other musings such as her love for Kris Kristofferson’s simplistic approach to song writing. Also she acknowledged the importance of patching things up with her band member partner in a new song titled ‘Getting Over You’. With her next potential project seeing the feasibility of a live record being explored, there were still a few opportunities to indulge in the excellence of the latest record CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN.

This 2013 album had lots of favourable press from trusted UK sources and tonight Sara elected to play the title track as her opening number, alongside ‘The Master’ and possibly a song which would be better received in a more vibrant environment ‘If Mamma Ain’t Happy’. These tracks all sounded great stripped down in this setting and style but were definitely eclipsed by the emotion of ‘Flying in Your Dreams.’ Written in tribute to her grandfather and in the aid of raising funds for the Alzheimer’s Association, the song drained of pure emotion and feeling as well proving to be a fitting finale to her set.

It was inevitable that witnessing Sara Petite live for the first time would fuel a desire to see more and the hope that it won’t be too long until she returns, perhaps with a full band next time. In the meantime those who value a sound dripping in country music ethos should continue to help Sara raise her profile in the UK. She is an artist who understands the right path of the music, engaging and captivating those in tune with how the genre should unfold. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Daniel Meade - Keep Right Away From the Top Records

It took only a few bars into Daniel Meade’s live show to understand and appreciate what he is all about. In a country music community fragmented on both sides of the Atlantic, the portion true to the spirit and core continues to follow a path laid out by history’s pioneers and trailblazers. With a helping hand from likeminded souls across the pond, Daniel lays claim to the British (or Scottish to be more precise) rights with an excellent new album glorious in evocative re-creation and rich in ideal.

KEEP RIGHT AWAY may have been recorded in Tennessee with many highly respected contributors but it has its heart firmly in Glasgow and is a fluid flow of ideas right from the mind through to the pen of Daniel Meade. While it is actually Daniel’s second full length release, his recent support slots in the UK for Sturgill Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show have raised the profile and brought in a raft of praise and plaudits. When seeing Daniel support and back Sturgill on a stifling summer’s evening in London, an image of Justin Townes Earle flashed across the mind with all the poise and stature of a sincere artist. That is certainly a fair introduction to a performer.  

His last minute replacement support slot for Old Crow’s recent Glasgow gig probably owed as much to his connections with the band and their stamp of style resonates all over KEEP RIGHT AWAY. Among the stateside luminaries helping out, Old Crow’s Morgan Jahnig handled the production duties while Cory Younts and Chance McCoy joined the merry band of players and vocal contributors which extended to others with British connections such as Chris Scruggs and Diana Jones. Obviously Daniel still worked closely with his sidekick Lloyd Reid who does a sterling job both in the studio and on stage.

The relentless beat of bona fide and credible roots music rarely pauses through a rampaging thirteen tracks with a well-earned pit stop occurring when Daniel and Diana Jones team up for a dreamy delectable duet ‘Help Me Tonight’. This song featured on a recent EP release with the album’s lead off number ‘Long Gone Wrong’, a rip roaring song with more than a hint of Waylon Jennings in the chorus structure. There is an unashamed respect to the past running through the veins of this top notch record with visions of ‘Gimme a Draw’ being lifted straight from the 50s in the style of Lefty Frizzell.

On a breathless record given a lightly produced single take edge to it, you feel the studio presence of Shelly Colvin on ‘Not My Heart Again’ and the authentic twist to the opening and closing segments of the rousing anthem ‘Sing it Loud’ with fiddle player Joshua Hedley featuring prominently. There are not one but two references to blues in song titles with both ‘The Hangman Blues’ and ‘Rising River Blues’ joining the fun and contributing to a record that refuses to relinquish its hold on your musical attention.

On the UK circuit you are coming across more and more young acts inspired by the likes of Hank Williams and a sound timeless in appeal. The upcoming biopic may help to push this along and if these artists can follow in the footsteps of Daniel and produce an original album as good as KEEP RIGHT AWAY then the future is secure. This record is the real deal and perfect for an up to date fix of real country music.

Stephen Simmons - Hearsay Locke Creek Records

Sometimes it’s baffling to understand release dates in the digital age but HEARSAY by Stephen Simmons is getting renewed press in the UK well over a year since its availability and a couple of months after its successor! Putting industry labels and distribution methods to one side, this seventh album by Stephen once again showcases a singer-songwriter determined to plough an integrity laced route of country music true to his beliefs and heart. Maybe this means he has to work a little harder to find outlets for his music including regular sorties into Europe but when a solidified connection is made between artist and listener then fruition of a lifelong journey comes to a head.

HEARSAY is your quintessential collection of storytelling country music, rich in influence and aiming to capture the soul of a late night jam with or without the addition of the odd tipple. Combining the heritage of his rural Tennessee upbringing with the travails of the road, the album is full of themes akin to both city and countryside dwellers. Awash with pedal steel and an attention to careful lyrical details, Stephen succeeds in smoothing the path to the listener’s ear offering a favourable deal for those with an insatiable appetite for dose of refined nostalgia.

The track ‘I’ll Be Your Johnny Cash’ will meet the approval of those who ears prick up to any mention of the Man in Black, although this time it’s Audrey Hepburn who replaces June Carter in the chorus. Stephen’s curious take on love leads us into the seedy world of establishments as laid out in the memorably titled ‘The Boobie Bungalow Gentleman’s Club’. One black mark with Stephen’s lyrical offering surfaces in the export of his music to the UK in the use of the word ‘spaz’ which has far more offensive connotations than it appears in the US. The sentiment of the song, ‘Stardust’ is to create a derogatory image with the words ‘jerk’ and ‘ass’ also used without the same degree of effect to us Brits.

Close your eyes and falling into the charm of the beautiful ‘I Ain’t Lonely (I’m Just Lonesome)’ is one of the albums true delights along with the informed and inspired narrative to ‘Horse Cave, Kentucky’ spinning a tale of a painted canvas of real life. ‘Hearsay’ the title track which opens this eleven song strong release, just pulling up a minute short of the three quarters of an hour duration, is reminiscent of much of the current singer-songwriter style emerging from East Nashville, with a fair amount finding a receptive audience overseas. Without an over use of country clichés, the ubiquitous serving of melancholy is presented in album closer ‘Just Like a Sad Song’ and, like much of this record, the track attracts your attention and leaves a lasting rewarding effect.

It has already been referred to that Stephen Simmons is an eternal music traveller and opportunities to catch him live come around frequently. Renewed press for HEARSAY will help present an album which will meet approval by those looking to kick back and immerse themselves in a sound keeping nostalgia relevant in this modern age. It also acts as a perfect introduction to his work and certainly entices seeking out one of his shows.

Baskery - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 28th October 2014

For one night only, the Kitchen Garden Café ditched the quaint singer-songwriter ethos and kicked the proverbial in the guise of Swedish alt-country trio Baskery. The regular nine month stints the Bondesson sisters have spent in Nashville has formed a dim view of the modern country music direction and inspired them to further pursue a mission of spreading the word of mud country and banjo punk. A ninety minute set of frenzied activity, raucous tunes and using every inch of the confined space saw a Birmingham audience thankful that Baskery had ended their five year exile of playing the city.

In fact the three sisters, now veterans of three studio albums with a fourth on the way, admitted that they had neglected the UK market for too long with festivals and the odd date being their recent focus on our shores. On the evidence of this evening, the songs, sound, stage show and passion is in place to build an audience that had an initial lift half a dozen years ago with an opening slot on Seth Lakeman’s 2008 tour. With a striking visual presence and enamoured chemistry, the girls have well and truly branched out from their Stockholm roots becoming strong international artists in their own right.

From a left to right audience view, Stella holds things together on upright bass; Greta’s multi-faceted input excels on banjo and percussion, while Sunniva mixes the acoustic and electric rhythm guitars. Together they share, harmonise and combine vocals to bring a bunch of songs that both inform and entertain with only the odd cover thrown in. Tonight, Neil Young’s ‘Only Man’ got the Baskery treatment suggesting where they get their lyrical inspiration from to add flavour to a sound paying homage to bluegrass, old time country and the raw energy of new wave punk.

Interspersed between the songs, often in extended live mode, was a mixture of irreverent chat and informed background to their origin with perhaps the most interesting being ‘The Big Flo’, taken from the most recent album LITTLE WILD LIFE. In addition to the theme of that particular song, incidentally a contrived plane crash in Mexico, we also learned how newspapers inspired Sunniva to write ‘The Last Beat’. Along with these pair of songs, of which the latter shaped up to be the encore number, the recent album offered ‘The Shadow’ and an a Capella opening with ‘Northern Girl’.

The signal that the girls are about to enter the studio to record another album came with two preview numbers ‘Cat Flap’ and ‘Cactus Boy’, songs which on first listen appeared to have a more alt-country rock feel to them. However the two highlights of the evening saw the band return to their debut release, FALL AMONG THIEVES. ‘I Haunt You’ closed the main set, while the girls produced a frantic peak on ‘One Horse Down’ with Greta taking the banjo to its limit and Sunniva deciding it was time to raise the stakes in the Café a little higher turning the bass drum into a platform to showcase her guitar playing skills. The come down from that evening high saw a more tender song in ‘Tendencies’ as the venue had its usual demeanour returned.

An evening initially delayed by traffic problems, got off to an impressive start with a good opening set from local artist Alex Olm, ably supported by Julianne on fiddle and defined by a subtle mesmeric vocal style utilising the sound system well. An effective support artist always sets up the main event well as Baskery proceeded to raise the temperature and remind everybody what an exciting live act they are. We need the Bondesson sisters to keep their promise of increased Baskery UK shows as there is definitely a growing audience thirsty for more of their Swedish take on Americana music.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Angaleena Presley - American Middle Class Slate Creek Records

Articulate, authentic and actualisation are three carefully chosen words which perfectly sum up AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS, the excellent debut album by Angaleena Presley. Penned with extreme eloquence and enlightenment by Angaleena and her team of writers, all twelve tracks pin the album firmly in the camp of contemporary country traditionalism and creatively capture the realism of an individual perception on life. The skill and panache adapted to this record is a credit to Angaleena who now has a product to break out from her Pistol Annies days and demand the attention of an industry consistently wriggled with commercial conservatism.

It is worth noting that there is a perceived difference with the term ‘middle class’ between our two nations with Angaleena’s upbringing being far from as comfortable as the phrase suggests over here.  However Angaleena felt there was an untold story that needed to be shared and the challenge is not to be impressed with the outcome especially when we match up lyrical content with theme, song structure and a concoction of sounds to thrill the purists.

Whether or not the masses have been exposed to issues surrounding religion, drink, poverty, marital disharmony and unplanned pregnancies, Angaleena doesn’t shy away from any of them, often in autobiographical mode. However a serious candidate for the strongest track on the album is a marvellous melange of mundane observations and ‘Grocery Store’ is certainly an ode to gritty realism rather than the search for escapism. The bar for high level engagement is elevated to stratospheric heights for the pedal steel driven ‘Dry County Blues’ as Angaleena uses the medium of real country music to take a lyrical snapshot of the less salubrious aspects of life, introducing us to the wonderful phrase ‘pillbillies’ along the way.

Partnering the production duties with her husband Jordan Powell has worked wonders for Angaleena, as free from interference, they assembled a top team of players and writers as well as finding an ideal outlet in the form of Slate Creek Records. Their previous release 12 STORIES by Brandy Clark received cemented acclaim from influential sources and potentially acted as a blueprint to the depth of observational substance strived for in AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS. Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mark D. Sanders are three examples of the high calibre of writer to collaborate on the record as Anglaeena switched between solo and co-write status for each track. One of the former was a song Mark and she wrote a few years back when Heidi Newfield cut the track ‘Knocked Up’ on her 2008 album.

Probably the most talked about solo write on the record is the title track ‘American Middle Class’ which took its inspiration from the musings of Angaleena’s coal miner father and the decision to merge their spoken format into the song works wonders. This extended piece of social commentary provokes both thought and debate with the speech sampling being a technique also applied to Angaleena’s take on religion ‘All I Ever Wanted’. The themes roll on with ‘Pain Pills’ focussing on one angle of addiction and has the Pistol Annies sound stamped across it. ‘Drunk’ is made of solid country music staple stock in the tradition of the iconic trail of female performers, while ‘Life of the Party’ is another song awash with an everyday theme. This track has the potential to reach out to listeners who perhaps are free from many of the issues dealt with on the record but can identify with the subject of the song.

All the usual sounds you associate with country music appear on the record with a more leftfield segment being some glorious soulful keyboard work on album opener ‘Ain’t No Man’ where a deluge of ironic similes serve as an enticing starter to the prose of the record. ‘Better off Red’ and ‘Blessing and a Curse’ are further fine examples of how the sound keeps you hooked for the 47 minute playing time and album closer ‘Surrender’ ponders a resigned train of thought with a catchy groove to belie the message of the song.

Even if you are a listener who does not identify with the theme of each song, engaging, understanding and believing in the thoughts and words of Angaleena Presley is impossible to avoid. AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS is another release to prove that female country music output outside of the mainstream is at the top of its game and where the spirit of the genre resides. Don’t construct your end of year highlights list without listening to this record first.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Luke Jackson - Artrix ArtsCetre, Bromsgrove Saturday 25th October 2014

Luke Jackson has not been short of plaudits in his short career and having now witnessed him and his trusty guitars for a an hour and half, the jigsaw puzzle of praise reveals a talent raw, rare and rapidly racing ahead of time. It may be a reluctant cliché but this is clearly an extremely experienced head on such young shoulders with the winners being an audience hooked by the mesmeric charm of his songs, persona and guitar playing. Respected sources are potentially anointing Luke as the next big thing in British folk but sometimes it’s wise to remain in the present and enjoy the moment.

Midlands based promoters Bright Side Music were rewarded for the foresight to book Luke by a near sell out turnout in the studio venue of Bromsgrove’s Artrix Arts Centre and those who elected to spend their Saturday evening supporting live music had the joy of some splendid entertainment. With two albums under his belt and some new songs to share, Luke is not short of material and only throws in the odd cover to add flavour to a show by sharing his inspiration. ‘Beeswing’ by Richard Thompson allows Luke to indulge in a little folk rock and marry up his guitar playing skills with eloquent storytelling, while ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ tantalises us with a dose of Americana. While this Canterbury based young man is forging a very English path in style, there are forays into the world of gospel and blues leaving a thought of what could emerge if Luke ever took a trip down the Delta.

The vocals ride the emotion of each song, whether requiring impetus or retraction, and the guitar playing exudes the mood of the sentiment. Confidence flowers in the storytelling and the poise to shake off a broken string, although it’s always handy to have a part time techie named Doug in the audience ready to give a hand. Perhaps at this stage of his career it is the song writing that’s creating waves for Luke and paving the way for opportunities such as a recent 30 date tour supporting Martin Joseph. Many of these enlightening songs have surfaced on Luke’s two releases to date with an unsurprising slight bias in this set to the latest one FUMES AND FAITH. ‘Answers Have Gone’, ‘Father and Son’, ‘Sister’ and ‘Charlie in the Big World’ all excelled from this 2014 album while the title track from 2012’s MORE THAN BOYS took the honours from his back catalogue. ‘Heart of Stone’ was one new track previewed and the future sounded very promising indeed.

For me, appreciation of Luke Jackson took off after a set in the club tent at this summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival, although praise had been building for a while especially in the guise of a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk nomination in 2013. An abiding memory of Luke enticing the audience to sing along to a chorus of ‘She holds him close’ in his finale number was replicated at the end of this gig taking crowd participation outside of its comfort zone and encouraging folks to stretch their vocal chords. This crowned a night of class, quality and burgeoning talent. The bandwagon of Luke Jackson is freely available to be joined at anytime, whatever your persuasion, style or preference of roots music. This young guy will seriously impress anybody who opts along for the ride.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Zoe Muth - Wightman Hall, Shrewsbury Friday 24th October 2014

‘I’ve got the finest record collection that you have ever seen’ boasts Zoe Muth in the final throes of what is one of the most clever and cutting songs written in the last few years. However the finest record collection wouldn’t be complete without a Zoe Muth recording and a memory library of live performances will have a great hole without seeing Zoe and her band in full flow at least once. The UK are having a second opportunity to catch one of her live shows and the good folk of Shrewsbury heartily supported an artist with an intuition to follow the right path and tap into the soul of real country music.

The song referred to in the opening paragraph took its rightful place towards the latter stages of the evening and while Zoe introduced it as about the theme of being broke, ‘If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)’ can also be interpreted as a song about conditional love. Either way it was a centre-piece of a set which Zoe surprisingly focussed more on her 2009 debut material than the new record but there has been a consistent thread of quality throughout her work in a short but increasingly acclaimed recording career.

On an evening where the vocals were pitched just perfectly above the sound of the band, it was the sum of the four piece combo Zoe has assembled since moving to Austin which proved the key to the success of the show. With a minimum effort, the chemistry and timing between Zoe and her lead guitarist Eric Hisaw and bassist Sean Jacobi was a musical pleasure to savour. We must not forget the heroics of the unsung drummer and Zoe truly acknowledged her longstanding percussionist Greg Nies. Knowing when to move around the scale, the fine balance between the slower songs such as ‘Starlight Hotel’ and quite a rocked up version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ was perfectly tuned. There was perhaps a Friday evening tilt towards the more upbeat songs and for once a constant buzz of noise from the rear of a cavernous venue added a small touch of authenticity to an artist now plying her trade around the joints of Austin Texas. 

The pick of the songs chosen to entertain a sizable audience, apart from the obvious highlight, included the stand out number from current release WORLD OF STRANGERS, ‘Mama Needs a Margarita’, a gem from her first album ‘You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying’ and pre-encore belter ‘Hey Little Darlin’’. Without the fine detail of song knowledge, satisfaction was in plentiful supply by just kicking back and taking in the artistry of a hot tightknit band and a vocalist born to sing the sad country song in a distinct and original way.

While Zoe is very much an excellent songwriter cutting her cloth back in her home state of the Pacific North West’s Washington, the evening’s support act were a group of young local guys out to have a good time singing a host of classic country and Americana songs rather well. Two-Faced Tom and the Bootleg Boys to give them their distinctive name came across as dedicated followers of a great tradition, hailing Hank Williams, interpreting the work of Ernest Tubbs and delving deep into the history of American music with a version of ‘Midnight Special’. It was the perfect warm up opening set and the guys would surely have learned a few tips by hanging around to watch Zoe and the boys.

Since Zoe was introduced to UK audiences via Bob Harris a handful of years ago, interest in her has been growing. The move to Austin has worked wonders for her sound development and the 2014 stage show blossomed with poise and confidence. Many people know that the spirit of real country music has ebbed away from Music Row and a little bit surfaced in a young Seattle girl with a yearning to write songs. Today that young girl proudly stands as a consummate real country music performer and it was a delight to finally see Zoe Muth live in the UK.