Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Vena Portae - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 26th August 2014

She may be a proud Australian but Emily Barker is now firmly established as one of the UK’s leading ambassadors of alt-folk, Americana and roots music. This ridiculously talented young lady has successfully turned her hand to a number of different projects and styles over the last few years with this new Vena Portae venture matching up favourably alongside her best. Emily would be the first to acknowledge the importance of the collaboration which has evolved into a recently released debut album and this hastily arranged short UK tour. A packed Kitchen Garden Café appeared to be at its most appreciative in turnout, attentiveness and after show mingling as this Anglo Swedish quartet served a near complete menu of the new record with a couple of extras thrown in.

Although Vena Portae officially market themselves as a trio comprising of Emily (vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica), Dom Coyote (guitars, vocals) and Ruben Engzell (bass), the Swedish contingent has been doubled for these live dates with Jesper Jonsson adding the percussion spice. Despite self-admitted limited practise, the band had few problems transferring the excellent songs from studio to stage, or more precisely a cramped corner of the Café where the electric sockets are. These surroundings have brought the best out of many an artist and tonight was no different as friendly banter, informative inter-song chat and mighty fine musicianship brought the record, especially its Swedish origins, to life.

With a likelihood of the main act playing just over an hour, the promoters went to local artist Michael King of Boat to Row to open the evening and he duly entertained the audience while his own band were just around the corner recording some new songs. When Michael supported Blair Dunlop at the neighbouring Hare and Hounds venue in May, it was felt that the sound system didn’t do justice to his slightly lo-fi vocals but there was no such issue in the Café.

In a somewhat surprising twist, Vena Portae added a couple of new songs to their set suggesting that there is more to come from a group of artists so involved in other activities. To most of the audience, all the songs were new but to someone who has played the album countless times since its press issue, the unrecorded tunes were a significant style switch with ‘What We Do Matters’ adopting a more rockier feel and ‘No Enemies’ an acoustic duet featuring Emily and Dom. The other non-album song to feature acquired encore status and also added a further Swedish ingredient with ‘Young Folks’ being originally recorded by Peter Bjorn and John. The link between this and the new record is that Peter Moren was responsible for the remix of the lead single ‘Summer Kills’, one of the many songs contributing to the success of the evening.

Apart from the prominent and aforementioned flagship track, the two standout songs were the fabulous ‘Flames and Fury’ and the Christian Kjellvander (more Swedish connections) penned ‘Transatlantic’. Both songs were introduced with background stories and we were duly informed about the effect of Emily’s bourbon intake on the spirited first track and the location of the writing for Christian’s song, the only album track not to feature the writing input of Emily, Reuben or Dom. The other tracks to infiltrate the set from the record were ‘Foal’, ‘Turning Key’, ‘Stingrays’, ‘All Will Be Well’, ‘The Mapless Sea’ and show opener ‘Before The Winter Came’. All were expertly executed with Ruben and Jesper holding them together on rhythm allowing Emily and Dom to share vocals, switch guitars and decorate some tracks with the classical Americana combo of banjo and harmonica.

Further insight reveals that Vena Portae have been bubbling under the surface for a number of years and it’s to the joy of the enlightened music public that a release and tour has emerged. With her prominence elsewhere, Emily is going to attract the attention but essentially Vena Portae is a carefully crafted ensemble of fine musicians and few in the Kitchen Garden Café would argue as to the quality of their show. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Catherine MacLellan - The Raven's Sun Self Released

One route to a successful album is to lure the listener in before locking them into the groove of the record. With delicate astuteness and refined skill, Catherine MacLellan has accomplished this on THE RAVEN’S SUN, the fifth album from this award winning East Coast Canadian songstress. Teaming up wonderfully with long term musical partner Chris Gauthier, the pair has explored the self-released path to put together a record which succeeds in balancing the art of acoustic and electric alongside a bunch of songs etched with a faint distant familiarity.

No doubt exploiting the gifts bestowed by her father, the legendary Canadian singer songwriter Gene MacLellan, Prince Edward Island native Catherine continues to melt into the roots sound so entrenched in her home surroundings. The new record resonates with this influence and many listens reveal an album of two parts, equal in merit but sufficiently different in their feel and mode of effectiveness.

The first half a dozen tracks each have an alluring element either through their instant effect, melody or song construction to tempt you into the record. The stand out number from this segment is the utterly charming ‘Tell Me Luella’ which will have roots fans drooling over a song straight out of the Gillian Welch School of music making. This is closely followed by the enigmatic ‘Don’t Call Me Stranger’ where a darker sounding number packed with indie vibes steers the album in a more contemporary direction with a memorable chorus line and electric guitar pieces.

Album opener and title track ‘The Raven’s Sun’ reveals Catherine’s elegant vocals right from the first bar to launch a record which demands your attention. Catherine and Chris have enlisted the services of Nashville session musician Andy Leftwich (Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder) to play fiddle on a pair of mid album roots oriented tracks in ‘Jack’s Song’ and ‘Beneath the Lindens’. The other captivating track on the album’s first half is the enchanting ‘Gone Too Soon’, another song sung beautifully in a timeless manner with Chris’s mandolin providing the backdrop.

Having been seduced by the fabulous first few tracks, the albums settles into a groove where mood prevails over instant appeal and you are led into a world of tranquil serenity. Once again graceful vocals and subtle guitar work are the keys that lock you in and the sound is best epitomised in the pair of tracks, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Frost in the Hollows’. Read downbeat as sensitive for ‘Rushing Winding Wind’ and ‘Left on My Own’ while optimism reigns supreme on the closing track ‘Winter Spring’. Despite not possessing the highs of the first half, the latter part drifts only in soothing your senses and makes the album a neatly packaged complete offering.

It will only take a couple of listens to be enamoured with the sound of Catherine MacLellan and THE RAVEN’S SUN is a release that will fully deserve all the plaudits received. This is a composed and assured record and confirms once again what a talented crop of Canadian folk and roots artists are being promoted in the UK at the moment. This is not to the detriment of the home grown scene but provides a perfect complement.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Samantha Crain - Electric Circus, Edinburgh Tuesday 19th August 2014

The Fringe may have been in full swing but the opportunity to take in this Samantha Crain show amongst the comedy, theatre and dance was far too good to miss. The annual trip to the greatest arts festival on earth occasionally throws up the odd show reflecting Americana heritage but, while Samantha’s gig at the Electric Circus was outside the formal promotion of the Fringe, her performance was a worthy addition to the overspill of talent thronging every corner of Edinburgh’s contemporary and historic crevices.

Although on my horizon for a while, the music of Samantha Crain truly entered the domain of this reviewer with a set at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and it leapt up several more notches after this extended solo show. The easiest way to describe the music of Samantha is to mix the styles of Mary Gauthier and Lucinda Williams into a melting pot, add the zest of youth and fine tune the product with a dose of prime Oklahoma song writing talent. Quite simply Samantha strains every sinew of soul in the self-penned songs which reflect well her perceptive lyrical output and all projected majestically with cultivated pickin’ skills.

The experience gained from a series of album releases and no doubt countless shows has helped develop the story telling skills of 28 year old Samantha and this evening we were treated to a host of background tales bringing the songs to life. Whether paying tribute to the late Jason Molina with ‘For the Miner’, playfully conspiring a little Taylor Swift irony on ‘Never Going Back’ or playing syllable games with rival cities in titling ‘Devils in Boston’, the majority of tracks forming this hour long set were decorated with enticing insights.

Prior to Samantha taking the spotlight, Edinburgh based acoustic folk roots duo The Jellyman’s Daughter showed that this exciting and enthralling brand of music is in good health north of the border. Emily Kelly (vocals and guitar) and Graham Coe (Cello and vocals) were the individuals on stage but the sound was heavily weighted in gentle unison. Three songs from their opening slot possessed an eyebrow-raising appeal notably the excellent ‘Anna’, a song reflecting their Appalachian influences ‘Carolina’ and a unique bluegrass makeover of The Beatles standard ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. An upcoming album release from the duo is certainly something to look forward to.

Samantha later humorously commented that ‘she should vet her support artists more thoroughly in future as they were in danger of being too good’. The irony in this statement is that Samantha herself hits the road later in the year as the opening artist for the US shows of Swedish alt-folk trailblazers First Aid Kit. Inevitably she will probably continue to focus on songs from her latest album KID FACE such as numbers featured this evening including ‘Churchill’ and ‘Somewhere All the Time’. However there is surely a place for the standout song from Samantha’s time on stage and the brief outbreak of kindly requested audience participation on ‘Songs in the Night’.

The joy of seeing Samantha Crain live primarily lies in the depth of her warm expressive vocals which act as an evocative median in conveying her thoughts. The guitar gremlins which hindered her Cambridge set did not surface at this evening’s Edinburgh gig, although it was noted at the time in how well she dealt with the amplification issues. This is probably what you would expect from an artist so adept at excelling in the art of song, and performing right in the heart of the final week of the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival was a fitting platform for someone treading the golden path of Oklahoma song writing.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Blue Moon Marquee - Lonesome Ghosts Self Released

Imagine the scene; with shimmering percussion in the background, bar room shenanigans in the foreground, the stench of illicit alcohol filtering through the juke joint and the band just played on. That band could well have been Blue Moon Marquee in time travelling mode so authentic have this duo, labelling themselves ‘Canadian Gypsy Blues’, proved to be in their second release LONEOME GHOSTS. Harking back to a bygone age, this record, the musical fruits of A.W. Cardinal and Jasmine Collette, is unashamedly retro and sets out the stall that regressive music can be cool in 2014.

Weighing in at a meagre 28 minutes, the solution for the shortness is to hit the repeat button and play the 9 tracks again as the record is as much about the ambience created than crying out for critical song dissection. The ambient environment can be that idyllic bar listening to the duo on their many live dates, though the alcohol is legal and a lot more expensive than the in the aura created, or for those solitary moments when all you need is something medicinal and a set of headphones.

A serious grounding in the jazz and blues venues of New York City and Montreal fuelled the creative desire for A.W. who fulfilled his passion by venturing out west to the wild pastures of Alberta to settle for a sound that has subsequently criss-crossed the Canadian land under the touring guise of Blue Moon Marquee. With song titles like ‘Scotch Whiskey’ and ‘Gypsy’s Life’, you get a feel for the content of the sound which with a little bit of critical content probably peaks in the first couple of tracks. Album opener ‘What I Wouldn’t  Do’ dares you to shuffle your feet a little and a cover by old time American singer-songwriter/pianist Moon Mullican, ‘Pipeliner Blues’, displays the band’s canny knack of tapping into a style from an artist whose early active days can be traced back to 1926.

Bringing us back to the modern day and this album was recorded in Vancouver with Jasmine providing the vocals, bass and drums and A.W. adding guitars and harmonica to his prime singing and writing roles, along with selected other players. As indicated previously, Blue Moon Marquee are extremely active in their native Canada and with a little push from their PR may well want to consider the emerging markets for this bout of nostalgia in the UK and Europe. The irony to this review is that the whole old time feel is being underpinned by the global connective world delivering the music to far flung places.

So if you’re up for a touch of untainted pure retro then LONESOME GHOSTS by Blue Moon Marquee is an available option and with you at the click of a button (and insertion of a credit card number). However a warning, the worn vocals and crackling sound has more miles on them than a clapped out Ford, and not for discerning progressive ears, but retains a reassuring spirit of authenticity and is drenched in the art of preserving a snapshot of the past.

Various Artists - Femmes Fatales of Folk Folkstock Records

For a site known to occasionally champion female artists from the country, roots and Americana genre with probably a slight bias to performers pitching their wares from across the Atlantic, perhaps the time is right to focus on some home grown talent at the heart of the folk movement. While the leading lights get extensive column inches elsewhere, it is with great pleasure to present a collection of songwriters pursuing the endeavour of catching the glare of the radar. FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK contains ten tracks from nine artists and manages to capture a wide reaching flavour of what this cohort of talented ladies are capable of.

Under the guidance of the developing Folkstock Records team, each track makes its mark whether original or not and leaves a lasting impression with a desire to check out the artist. As you would expect in a diverse offering, different styles are accommodated to suit whether your desires are for a soothing, edgy, wispy, haunting, classical or impassioned sound. In some tracks the voice surpasses the song and vice a versa in others but whatever the merit, each artist deserves the spotlight they are getting through this release.

The gateway to coming across this album was catching and commenting upon Kelly Oliver’s set at Cambridge Folk Festival earlier this month. Her beautiful vocals resonated with high value and the Hertfordshire based songstress is the artist granted two tracks on this album. There is a slight contrast in her traditional style delivery of the original folk tale ‘The Witch of Walkern’ and her stunning cover of the Dougie MacLean standard ‘Caledonia’. It is ironic that this song has now been reviewed twice in the last month with the Ward Thomas version matching up well against Kelly’s charming effort.

While Kelly acted as the conductive artist in discovering this collection, the find could quite easily be the passionate protest message evoking tones of Marina Florance. With all the traits of those who have successfully ploughed this furrow in the past, ‘The Path He Chose’ is a stark reminder that a century on from the outbreak of the Great War, there are still not so great consequences from conflict.

FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK has introduced me to the music of a name familiar on social media but undiscovered to date. ‘Wise Words’ is a beautifully sung soothing song from Minnie Birch with a gentle acoustic background supporting a near pristine attempt to deliver a composition strong on melody and graceful upon reception. ’45 Fever’ by Zoe Wren is a more upbeat effort but another succeeding in hooking in your aural senses. Having listened to a fair amount of Canadian folk music recently this style has been successfully interpreted across the Atlantic divide in equal quality measure.

Kelly Oliver
The haunting vibes of the cello-supported ‘Here’s Tom With The Weather’ sees Roxanne de Bastion add a slight edge to her crystal vocals, while Kaity Rae has a more down to earth voice which replaces range with a warm connective feel on the aching ‘It Is’. There are hints of piercing aggression to the sound of Fay Brotherhood’s ‘Blue Spiral Dreams’ which springs from the record with an alluring effect and is in contrast to the more level sided offering from Helen Chinn with ‘Second Chance’ being an apt title to a song perhaps needing multiple listens. The final track sees her Russian roots influential in Daria Kulesh delivering the song ‘Fake Wonderland’ within a classical framework no doubt to the appreciation of traditionalists.

Apart from showcasing some excellent talent, the entity of FEMME FATALES OF FOLK is the redeeming feature and presenting opportunity in a format that has the potential to engage across the roots spectrum. Try before you buy will whet your appetite but cherry pick only when further pursuing artists after adding the whole of FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK to your collection. 

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Danny and the Champions of the World - Live Champs Loose Music

For me the live and recorded version of a song has always been a separate entity. This has been re-enforced since the explosion of the video sharing age but every now and again the lines blur to showcase a quality transition from stage to disc. While you can never truly re-create the experience of standing in a cramped venue, sipping weak beer and immersing yourself totally into the sounds of the moment, a couple of album releases this year have crossed the floor with prestigious effect. Following on from Birds of Chicago’s fabulous LIVE FROM SPACE earlier this year, LIVE CHAMPS has achieved a similar job and done the next best thing to hosting Danny and the Champions of the World in a house concert. Of course a live album should never replace that experience of getting off the sofa and supporting live music so this album from my perspective should be used to (excuse the pun) champion the live UK dates for Danny this autumn.

March 6 2014 was a special date in the calendar of Danny George Wilson and by the sound of this double album those present in Camden’s Jazz Café were very privileged punters on the evening. Spread across two CDs and spanning 96 minutes, it is assumed that the entire gig was captured for posterity as Danny took the audience, and now those owners of a shiny new CD (or download if compact and convenience is your motive), on a Champions of the World 6 year journey. The critics (including yours truly) drooled over last year’s STAY TRUE and Danny’s evolution into country soul is featured here with the album contributing seven of the thirteen tracks to the evening’s entertainment. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ has rarely sounded better and retains its usual show opening slot. ‘Cold, Cold World’ and ‘Darlin' Won’t You Come in From the Cold’ imprint the style deeper while the expanded version of ‘Stop Thief!’ has some great extended sing along parts.

Hare and Hounds Birmingham October 2013
Obviously being a live album, the band had licence to expand and interpret the songs in whichever way they saw fit with many of them taking on a greater length to cater for the magnitude of instrumental solos which are essential to savour the true feel of a Champs gig. Thirteen songs in an hour and half show is quite a low return in comparison to many live gigs experienced but the sheer passion Danny and the guys impart into each number renders the quantity meaningless. Danny never misses an opportunity to let loose the sax and keyboard talents of Free Jazz Geoff or the lead guitar solos from Paul Lush or some luscious pedal steel from Henry Senior Jr. He also values strongly the contributions of bassist Chris Clark and Steve Brookes on drums. For this gig, ex champs Hannah Lou and Trevor Moss join in the party as ‘Restless Feet’ brings the pre-encore segment of the album to a close.

For people new to Danny and the Champions of the World, LIVE CHAMPS does have a feel of a greatest hits compilation, though sadly or thankfully from the other viewpoint without the commercial trappings. Sparkling tracks such as the absorbing ‘Colonel and the King’ and the emotional irony of ‘Henry the Van’ highlight the more folk rock past of Danny but the guy is such a talented artist and soulful vocalist that he can excel in any format of roots music. Perhaps a stab at saving country music in the UK could be a possibility in the future.

As per usual this record is put out by the good folks at Loose Music and as was indicated earlier in the review, it is surely is an appetizer for taking in a Champs show later in the year. The live music fraternity of Birmingham have the luxury of a Saturday gig in a city centre venue in October and there is little excuse for not packing the place this time. Whether on a studio release, this LIVE CHAMPS album or in person, Danny and the Champions of the World are an essential band core to the alt country, Americana and roots music scene in this country and should be checked out.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Jane Kramer - Break & Bloom Self Released

With a sound rich in the subtleties of folk and soaked in the spirit of Americana, Jane Kramer has announced her arrival as a recording artist in her own name in an impassioned and sumptuous style. Not one to dwell too long on the solo status, Jane has assembled a lengthy list of players and a similarly numerous array of instruments to produce a sound born out of Appalachia and honed in the creative melting pot of Portland Oregon. BREAK & BLOOM is a deep rooted album reflecting the land, transient nature and inspiration that has guided Jane from band member of The Barrel House Mamas to a solo artist equipped to take on those female performers spearheading the folk-Americana movement in the US, Canada and countries further afield.

Jane drew a load of inspiration from working alongside fellow North Carolina picker Malcolm Holcombe and she has developed the confidence to commit to record ten self-composed tracks and play a major role in the production duties. The real strength of the record is the ability to wrap flawless vocals around reams of rural Americana grit and harness the full range of roots instrumentation. The album opener ‘Georgia’ has a haunting start before picking up the tempo and recalling a longing for the South with references to Asheville, the state in the title and the road that penetrates the area I-95. A piano ballad follows in ‘The Devil Don’t Want’ before Jane unveils the stand out track and a sad break up song titled ‘Nobody’s Woman Tonight’. This track with strains of Appalachia revolves around the fiddle and harmonica and references Patsy Cline in a successful attempt to convey the pain of loss.

The roots sound further evolves when the banjo is introduced to a pair of tracks, ‘Hold Me Whiskey’ and the emotional and personal theme to ‘Mourning Dove’. The rural reflection continues in ‘That Muddy Water’ where more electric has been added alongside the beautiful soulful tones of the organ. By now you can start to picture the concoction of sounds that pull together wonderfully around the sincere songs with a horn segment added to the laid back ‘Red Balloon’ and one that complements neatly with piano on the groove laden ‘Plant Me a Willow Tree’.

The only non-Jane Kramer composed track included is the gospel number ‘How Far Am I From Canaan’ where inspirational organ contributes to an uplifting number which raises the spirituality stakes of the album. ‘Any Way You Like, Child’ is Jane’s take on gypsy jazz and the accordion is used effectively to create an infectious beat and rhythm. The remaining track is the acoustically strummed classical folk song ‘One Precious Life’ where Jane’s vocals reach their peak and she uses the optimism and familiarity of Asheville, Virginia and Georgia to lead her out of some of her darker moments.

BREAK & BLOOM gets its formal UK release on September 8 and has the strength to enable the name of Jane Kramer to make inroads into the minds of UK Americana fans. Of course as per usual any UK press would be massively supported by a visit to our shores and the prospect of listening to Jane live is an enticing one. The market may be a little crowded but there is enough merit in the music of Jane Kramer for her to create a niche.