session-americana-with-jefferson-hamer-great-shakes-scrollerReview this album in one word? Gorgeous; ten beautifully-crafted and perfectly-arranged songs, six highly-gifted players and vocal harmonies to die for. If you’re looking for reference points, most of the songs here sound like they could have come from the late sixties/early seventies country-rock scene with understated playing, crystal clear production and those heavenly harmonies. “Great Shakes” is a perfect demonstration of the chemistry that great musicians can create when the stars are perfectly aligned. The album isn’t about the individual musicians, it’s about the contributions they make towards creating the best possible version of each song; in those terms, it’s a complete success, with each instrumental fill making each song that little bit more memorable.

The members of Session Americana are Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar) and this is their seventh album as a collective, although it has a coherence that suggests a long-established band, rather than occasional collaborators. The album opens with the delicate country-rock feel of “One Skinner”, a story of a long-standing friendship with a musical setting featuring pedal steel and harmonica and a lead vocal with a vulnerability that suggests Neil Young or Iain Matthews and blossoms out into a hugely varied set of songs with subjects as varied as American history (“Great Western Rail”) and an umbrella (“Bumbershoot”). Five of the members contribute songs in different styles but always of the highest quality and usually with an interesting twist.

There isn’t a bad or even indifferent song on the album and there are a few that stand out. “Big Mill in Bogalusa” is a bluesy shuffle with some raw harmonica and harmonies from the whole band; it’s catchy and full of the feelgood. “Mississippi Mud” is a historical Southern story built around an over-driven guitar riff which morphs into an Allman Brothers boogie in the choruses and it leads into the album’s most poignant song, “One Good Rain”, with the message that every relationship, no matter how strong, can be vulnerable. Just the line ‘One good rain is all it takes to break the dam that love can make’ is one of the saddest things I’ve heard this year.

This album will wrap itself around you like a comfortable jumper on a winter night. It will make you smile at times and it might even make you cry, but you’ll certainly feel uplifted and full of admiration for the quality of the playing.

“Great Shakes” is released on October 14th.

rachael-sage-interview-scrollerAs far as interviews go, I think I’ve been really lucky. In six years, I’ve never had that experience of the uncooperative, bored, jet-lagged or just plain hostile interviewee. I’ve had to work in cupboards stage-side while rock bands soundchecked, but everyone I’ve met has been interesting and charming. I’m pleased to say that Rachael Sage (singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, artist and designer) extended my winning streak when I met up with her before her performance at the Discovery showcase at 229 on Great Portland Street to talk about her new album “Choreographic” and her current UK tour (among other things). I even added a new Yiddish word to my vocabulary. Here’s how it went:

Allan – Hi Rachael.

Rachael – Hello.

Allan – How’s the tour going so far?

Rachael – The tour’s been really great. This tour’s a little bit different because, in addition to the club shows at night, we’re also doing workshops in the daytime along the tour route at various schools, either performing arts schools or the dance and drama departments of general schools along the way and it’s been fascinating. I’ve never really done that before; I’m not a teacher, I’m kind of inexperienced at that, but I seem to have a special relationship with kids between nine and fourteen so we’ve been enjoying and learning a lot.

Allan – And presumably that means that you’re performing at unusual times.

Rachael – Indeed it does. We’ve had some crazy call-times to meet at the tour van in the morning, like seven-thirty in the morning to drive a couple of hours to perform at 10 a.m. Actually, this morning we played at 9:30. But on the upside, our jet-lag is so confused that it’s non-existent; we don’t know what time zone we’re in. When we go home to New York, it’ll probably be easier to re-acclimate.

Allan – When you come to the UK, do you find the audiences very different from American audiences?

Rachael – I suppose it would be more politically correct to say no, that audiences everywhere and every environment around the world are just about the same, because people are people and we have deduced that people around the world love music the same amount and they all want the same things out of life and there is that unifying theme that we experience. But in terms of audience reactions we’ve found UK audiences and European audiences in general to be a lot more open and expressive when they really, really like something and it’s not necessarily loud whistling or heckling. They’ll come up to you after shows and have that familiarity and treat you like you’re their buddy they’ve known forever and talk to you about their own lives and themselves; it’s just an openness and we love that, that’s part of why we keep coming back.

Allan – I’ve spoken to American artists who think when they start the set that they’re dying on stage and suddenly at the end of the song, the audience erupts.

Rachael – I’ve experienced that to an extreme in Japan, where you think you’re not going over at all; they must hate it, and afterwards there’s the most gentle clapping and they come up to the merch table and they want to buy all your CDs when you weren’t even certain they were into it. People have their own way of processing music and there really is no wrong. As long as nobody throws tomatoes, we’re happy.

Allan – I understand there’s an interesting event you’re involved in at the end of the tour as well at the Royal Albert Hall.

Rachael – The Dance Prom? That’s an event where we’re running a contest and the school that performs the winning routine to one of my songs will receive a scholarship from my record label Mpress Records and myself. I’m not performing at the event, but it’s very much tied in to the “Choreographic” dance theme of this tour. We’re going to be back in London at the O2 Academy in Islington on October 28th, and The Bedford on November 1st. Looking forward to that.

Allan – For the benefit of the MusicRiot audience, tell me a bit about your background, because it’s been very varied, hasn’t it?

Rachael – It has, and yet everything has had the thread of music really. I started playing piano by ear when I was about two and a half/three years old which the exact same time I was thrust into a pre-ballet where really all you’re doing is running around and spinning around and having fun, somewhere for you to be busy while your Mom gets a break, but it quickly bloomed into a full-blown young ballet career and I ended up becoming quite serious as a ballet dancer and at the same time very serious about being a songwriter. I learned to play by ear pretty much exclusively from sounding out all the music I heard every day in dance class. So I would go home and play all these classical pieces and I have no knowledge of the composers or what they were called because it was an informal education, but it was a very thorough education and I think my sense of melody and dynamics really stemmed from classical music.

Jumping ahead, I kept the songwriting up and I pretty much knew, I wanted to be a professional singer/songwriter and composer well before high school, maybe at thirteen/fourteen. Then for my Bat Mitzvah, my relatives got together and bought me a four-track tape recorder. Once I mastered that, I fancied myself as a budding producer, bouncing vocal tracks and having a good time with that, and by the time I went to college, I was very firm that I wanted to be a recording artist and tour the world doing pretty much what I’m doing now, so I guess I was a planner.

Allan – I’ve spoken to artists who agonise about the genre they’re working in and the way it affects sales of their work…

Rachael – There’s an expression in Yiddish that I have to respond to that; it’s spelt F-E-H. Genre’s a useful tool to help maybe turn people on to your music to be able to describe it in an elevator pitch, as they say. Actually, yesterday another writer asked me ‘How would you describe your music in three words?’, and I said colourful chamber pop. The reason I said that was first of all, I’m in England and I feel like you have a unique appreciation of pop music and also that pop music is a broader genre here. If you say pop in America, people assume you mean Katy Perry and here it could mean The Beatles or Elvis Costello, you know, pop/rock, so it’s broad enough to feel like I’m at home in that category.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, you’ve pretty much invented your own genre, haven’t you?

Rachael – Oh my goodness, thank you. I didn’t invent the word, unfortunately. I guess what I did, what’s interesting is that my music was being used and embraced by the lyrical dance community in America and also over here well before I was aware of it and then a few of my diehard supporters started sending me YouTube links where I would see these full-blown dances to my songs in competitions and winning awards and I didn’t really know about that competitive dance culture because the in dance culture that I grew up with, there were no contests; it was strict ballet and that wouldn’t have been allowed, but it was fascinating to see these young, very prodigious, hard-working kids performing and interpreting the music in a way that that was completely different from how I might have envisioned it and sort of humbling. At the end of the day, you create it and the minute it comes out of you, it’s really not yours anymore; it’s collective ownership and I love that. Eventually when the show ‘Dance Moms’ started using the music, it brought me back to that time in my youth when dance was a huge part of my life and it defined who I was as a person and I hadn’t really thought about that time for a long time. When you’re a former ballerina, you kind of put it behind you because there’s some bitter-sweetness; it was painful and very gratifying, like breaking up with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You move on and you let it go, but this was a good time to revisit it and come at it musically from a more positive angle, I would say.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, there must be certain elements that make it work for that kind of interpretation.

Rachael – Yes, what happened originally was that they were using all these different songs from various albums of mine and of course there were different types of songs on those albums, but the ones they were using were usually very pianistic and very arpeggiated. I guess the average person might say there were hints of classical technique in the piano playing, and then also a lot of stringed instruments, cellos and violins, so I picked up on that. More than anything when I sat down to make this album, I tried to come at it more from a visual perspective of what I thought would work in a multi-media context with dance and music and I could only go by what my imagination was offering. I have done some choreography in my day, it’s not my forte, but I’m such an avid fan of dance and choreography in general that I have a pretty good sense of dynamics and what might be danceable, so that’s really where I was coming from. I also had the visual in my head of perhaps, one day, bringing one dancer or several dancers on tour with me and doing more of a show that’s theatrical as well as pop and that’s still in the works. We’re thinking about mounting something along those lines in New York in January.

Allan – Presumably, as well as the musical side, it has to have a fairly strong narrative as well. Your songs tell stories.

Rachael – Well, the genre of dance which has embraced my music most has indeed been lyrical dance, which is this term I had no familiarity with and I see these young girls, sometimes boys, but not as often, interpreting the music, usually very literally. I have a song called “Barbed Wire”, which was performed on ‘Dance Moms’ and the song itself is about someone in your life who can’t make up their mind and they’re very ambivalent, and how frustrating that is for you when you are certain how you feel. I think adults or maybe contemporary professional dancers might have interpreted it with more of an abstract approach, where you felt the emotion but it wasn’t quite so literal and of course the ten/eleven/twelve year olds literally had a backdrop of a barbed wire fence and were climbing it and interacting with it, and that was so interesting because it hints at the idea of doing a live show where the average person sometimes does need those very accessible touch zones to identify with a new art form.

Allan – Is it true that you actually wrote the album here in London as well?

Rachael – I did, yes. I wrote it in Camden. I had two festivals pretty far apart for me. I like to fill every single day, because I’m a busy OCD kind of an artist and I don’t like days off; they make me nervous. We were coming up on those shows and we had choice between trying to pick up some radio in between or just leave that gap and I said ‘You know what, it’s time for me to write a record.’ I’ve never quite set that deadline for myself before. I usually just let it happen organically; over the course of a year, I write twelve songs and then I have an album and then I’m ready to go record, but I had recently reunited socially with my co-producer from many, many years ago, Andy Zulla, who did my first few records with me, and we hit it off again so beautifully and we got all excited to collaborate again. He said to me ‘When you come back from England, if you have a batch of tunes ready, I can record with you in August and then I’ll be busy again after that, but keep me posted.’ That was a driver as well; I wanted to come back armed, like a fashion designer would feel: ‘I want that fall line all ready to go’. I had five days in Camden, so I holed myself up in a hotel, ditched the car and the tour van and stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’d go walking every day and just take in the energy of the city and then I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep unless I’d written at least one song. So that’s the story of how this record was written. It was during Glastonbury Festival too so that was what I watched if anything on the television and it kind of inspired me as well.

Allan – Apart from music and dancing, you have other artistic interests as well, haven’t you?

Rachael – I do, and that’s also why I was drawn to the word choreographic, because I’m a visual artist and I’m a graphic designer, but it evolved more out of necessity than anything else because I run my own record label and when you do that you have to wear a lot of hats, so there have been times when I felt I would just do better designing my own artwork because I had a specific vision. I just figured it all out and so there’s that graphic, visual aspect to my work and there are many artists I admire who have that as well like David Bowie, Kate Bush and David Byrne, so many artists, even John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, who I admire and I’ve become very interested in their artwork as well and that helps me to have a window into another side of them. I hope that people explore that aspect of my work as well and I have a section on my website, ’Visuals’, where you can see my paintings and collage, and just recently I developed some wearable art; I’ve been painting on jackets and dresses and things like that and it’s just another fun outlet for me creatively.

Allan – I’m always fascinated that most of the very gifted musicians I know have various other artistic interests, like photography, as well…

Rachael – Probably keeps them sane…

Allan – One last question, is there any particular song that always make you cry?

Rachael – My favourite contemporary folk artist is Glen Hansard. I was recently at his concert at Carnegie Hall and I was weeping like a little baby. It’s on his new record. He composed the music for the movie “Once”, which was such an incredible music film and the song’s called “My Little Ruin”. He’s an Irish songwriter who was with The Frames with and there was a Broadway show created from “Once”, which won the Oscar for best song and it ran in the UK and Ireland as well. He’s in the vein of Damien Rice, that kind of vibe, beautiful string section, acoustic guitar and I’m a big Irish music fan. Anything Irish makes me cry.

Allan – Many, many thanks Rachael.

Rachael’s album “Choreographic” is released in the UK on November 11 on MPress Records. You can also see photos from Rachael’s performance at 229 here.

double-take-scrollerThe promotion campaign for “Double Take” features some of the artists involved (Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack and Huey Lewis) talking about the first time they saw Frankie Miller. Now, that’s a great idea.

Freshers’ Week, Dundee University, 1976 and the first gig of the year was Frankie Miller’s Full House. I went to the gig with my new mate Steve (still a mate and writing great reviews for MusicRiot). The band were superb and we left the gig raving about Ray Minhinnet’s guitar work, Chrissy Stewart’s bass playing, but most of all about Frankie’s stunning soul voice. He started the ballad “With You in Mind” a cappella, and with perfect pitch, before the band dropped in underneath the vocal; I was completely hooked from that moment. I’ve seen an awful lot of gigs since then, but I’ve never heard a band that nailed it so completely, song after song.

So let me put “Double Take” into some kind of personal and historical context. As Frankie slowly fought back from the brink after a brain haemorrhage in 1994, you would hear occasionally from friends on the Scottish music scene about his progress; not frequently, but often enough to know that things were gradually improving, and it carried on like that until 2012 when word started to leak out that a project with Frankie’s old demo tapes was in progress. It’s taken over four years and probably a few unexpected twists and turns, but the final result is “Double Take”, nineteen unreleased Frankie Miller originals reconstructed from demo vocals, and all but one reimagined as duets with singers that wanted to be involved with the project. Although Frankie’s biggest chart hits (“When I’m Away From You” aside) were interpretations of other people’s songs, he also wrote a shedload of great songs for himself and other artists.

The nineteen songs on “Double Take” are pretty representative of Frankie’s songwriting output, covering soul, blues, rock, country and ballads. And that’s the staple diet of Scotland, right there; forget your deep fried Mars Bars. All of the songs have been arranged around the original demo vocals (with Frankie involved in quality control), but the quality of the voice is so good that almost everything sounds like a full-scale production. To be honest, given the choice, I’d rather listen to Frankie Miller demos than most singers’ finished product.

The guests on “Double Take” are a mix of megastars and people that Frankie knew and worked with in the past. Without listing the whole lot, how about Joe Walsh, Elton John, Kid Rock, Delbert McClinton, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson. Add those to the ones listed at the top of the article and you’ve got a huge amount of respect across musical styles for Frankie’s work. Great news for fans of Frankie from the mid-seventies is that Full House appear on three songs in the middle of the album. “When It’s Rockin’” (with Steve Dickinson) is a horn-driven rocker, “Beginner at the Blues” (with Delbert McClinton) is a slow blues and “To Be With you Again” (with Kim Carnes) is a mid-tempo ballad. For a while there, I was back in that night in1976.

With so many songs and such a variety of arrangements, it’s difficult to pick standouts, but the gospel choir of “Where Do the Guilty Go” (with Elton John) and the country ballad “I Want to Spend My Life with You” (with Willie Nelson) are hard to beat, while the hauntingly simple “I Do”, with only Frankie’s vocal over a sparse arrangement is the perfect closer for the album.

This has been a long journey for some very dedicated people, culminating in an album that can only add to Frankie Miller’s legacy by bringing those powerful vocal performances to a wider audience and unearthing so many unreleased songs. This is a classic.

“Double Take” is out on September 30th on Universal.

Here’s a sneaky little peek for you:

archive-x-scrollerNot so much a review, more of a heads-up. This is one to watch out for; it’s “Some Ungodly Hour”, the debut album from ArchiveX. It’s a melting-pot of his musical influences pieced together over a period of three years with help of a variety of musical collaborators. The variety of styles means that it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole, but the press release  calls it ‘Soul-Ambient-Electro-Roots’, so let’s stick with that. The album was inspired by a period spent singing with the a well-known San Francisco gospel choir and, although the aim wasn’t to make a gospel album, the choral style had an enormous influence on the overall sound and contributes to the impact of one of the two lead tracks, the gospel-house “Drink the Water” (featuring Dr Kucho).

The album’s second lead track, “Hard Times” is a cover of the old Ray Charles blues and the two songs together give some idea of the variety of influences. There’s also a remix package in the pipeline for future release.

The album’s released on Friday September 30th.

You can have a look at the trailer for the project here.

sots-scrollerWe’re all big fans of Hannah Wood and Abbe Martin, better known as Sound of the Sirens here at Riot Towers. Since seeing them for the first time less than two years ago at The Half Moon in Putney, they’ve been working incredibly hard to bring their own unique blend of perfect harmonies, dynamics that range from a whisper to a whirlwind and a bunch of songs that combine memorable melodies with lyrics that are poetic and profound. It’s not necessarily cheerful but the overall experience is always life-affirming.

After a reasonably busy 2015, which included Glastonbury, both Carfests, a live appearance on Radio 2 and an appearance on TFI Friday, Hannah and Abbe have really put the pedal to the metal this year with appearances all the major festivals from the Isle of Wight to Cropredy. Now the festival season’s over, it’s time for a rest, yeah? No chance, they’re working on the new album and they’re going back on the road headlining a mini autumn/winter tour. If you want to see this force of nature in action, here’s where to go:

Friday October 14                            Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, London

Saturday October 15                        Deaf Institute, Manchester

Tuesday November 29                    Notes Café, Southampton

Wednesday, November 30              Gwdihw, Cardiff

Thursday, December 1                    Exeter Cathedral

If you go along to any of these gigs, make sure you take along some extra cash because you will want to buy CDs at the end.

2160.epsRoger Roger; just to clear up any confusion it’s not a call-sign, it’s Lucas and Madeleine Roger, two twins from Winnipeg and their debut album, “Fairweather” is co-produced by their father Lloyd Peterson. Glad we got that cleared up. Each of the siblings brings their individual flavour to the album and the songs are split almost evenly between them. Madeleine’s songs are in the classic introspective, story-telling style, while Lucas brings a guitar-slinging slacker feel to the album with his contributions. Each takes lead vocal on their own songs and adds harmonies as the final ingredient on their sibling’s songs; the final confection is very tasty indeed.

“Fairweather” is a very clean-sounding album that doesn’t need too many production tricks to enhance the nine songs or Lucas and Madeleine’s vocal and instrumental performances. The album as a whole evokes the seventies Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter era (and Madeleine can sound a lot like Joni Mitchell), but there are hints of later styles, particularly in “Another Girl’s Shoes” which has the melancholy feel of The Gin Blossoms or Matchbox Twenty. The biggest production on the album is “Mad Trapper”, which combines an early Eagles feel with an over-driven guitar riff, Hammond and some nice harmonies.

The album’s opener, “13 Crows” is the moving story of an old man’s reminiscences as he nears the end of his life, set against a chiming guitar riff that has more than a passing resemblance to the main theme from Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s catchy and thought-provoking, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The clean production and the two superb voices tie in the album’s disparate elements, such as the contrasting songwriting styles and arrangements, creating an album that’s mellifluous and intelligent.

If you want recommendations, the title song is a lovely, melancholy picture of a person whose life revolves around missing opportunities, while the closing song, “Scott Free” tells the tale of a woman in a doomed relationship with a bad boy. “Fairweather” is a lovely album packed with catchy melodies woven round stories of smalltown characters and misfits.

“Fairweather” is out in the UK on Friday October 7th.

fightback-scrollerJust imagine this; your best friend tells you they’ve set the date and venue for their wedding and it’s only a few weeks. Then they go on to tell you that haven’t sorted out the catering, the entertainment or even the ceremony they want; they haven’t even got a partner. You’d be wondering about their sanity and looking for a quick escape. Well, that’s what the Music Venue Trust has done. They booked The Roundhouse for an event called Fightback on Tuesday October 18th. At the time of booking, no artists had been booked and none of the usual infrastructure (sound, lights and security) put in place.

It’s an example of a desperate situation eliciting a desperate remedy. The event aims to raise funds for a service to help smaller venues threatened with closure, but it’s also about raising awareness of the difficulties currently facing live music venues in city centres. It’s not just a London thing; it’s happening across the country as developers see venues and music pubs as prime targets for conversion into expensive accommodation. And it’s not just a logical economic progression; there are some dodgy tactics being employed (illegal demolition by CLTX Ltd of the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale for starters) and the odds are stacked in favour of the developers.

Music Venue Trust is trying to redress that imbalance by offering support to venues threatened by closure. The idea of announcing a gig without having any of the elements in place is drastic, but we’re talking about it and about the issues around it; it’s creating solidarity across the music business around tackling venue closures. At the time of writing, one band has been confirmed; The Carnabys, who are patrons of the Trust and donated the profits from pre-sales of their latest album to the cause, have confirmed their participation and others will follow.

It’s up to you now. If you want to support the event you can book tickets here.

al-scorch-scrollerMusicians love making jokes about each other; we’ve all heard the drummer jokes. Another old chestnut was the line about parking next to the banjo player’s Porsche. OK, they might not be driving Barbie-magnets yet, but, with the rise of Americana, the banjo’s regaining a lot of credibility. Personally. I’d rather hear a banjo than a ukulele any day of the week. In the hands of a maestro like Chicagoan Al Scorch, the banjo takes on a whole new character. It transforms from the kid that no-one would pick for the football team to a menacing, sneering, leather-jacketed Brando in “On the Waterfront”.

But, before I get too carried away with Al Scorch, what about some context? I was visiting Songwriters’ Night at The famous Troubadour in Earl’s Court with an element of trepidation. On my last visit eight months ago, most of the audience talked non-stop throughout the evening, drowning out some very good but quiet singer-songwriters. No such problems this time; as soon as the performers walked on stage, every conversation stopped.

First on stage was Freja Frances (or just Freja) who played a set of delicate, almost fragile, but ethereal, introspective piano-backed ballads. A few nerves, maybe, but belief in the strength of the material pulled her through, helped by respectful silence from the audience. You can hear two of the songs she played on the night, “Papercuts” and “Porcelain Doll” on Soundcloud; they’re well worth hearing.

Miles Horn ramped up the tempo and the volume a few notches with electric guitar backing (plus a couple of songs at the piano) as he ran through a set of melodic and introspective songs starting with “The Great Abyss”. His voice is strong (although he admitted that the falsetto in “Why Don’t You Love Me” was a bit misjudged) and combined with his interesting guitar style and original melodies hints at Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (never a bad thing in my opinion). He’s very assured on stage and, apart from the one mistake with a new song (which he predicted in advance), the set was spot-on, creating a rapport with the audience and giving some background to the songs. Have a listen to “Something Beautiful” and “Slow Motion” here.

Al Scorch and fiddle player Jess McIntosh were something else. They’d brought along a strong following from earlier in their UK tour, but they could have generated audience participation in a mortuary. They’re both very fine players who bring a very punk approach and huge amounts of energy to traditional instruments, creating a buzz from the opening of “Pennsylvania Turnpike” to the close of the set, which was based mainly around Al’s superb new album “Circle Round the Signs”, featuring “Lonesome Low”, “City Lullaby”, “Lost at Sea”, “Everybody Out”, “Insomnia” and “City Lullaby” plus a few others including the poignant “Two Flags” and the crowd favourite “Little Dog”. Both players are lively, but Al is a one-man whirlwind, stomping around the stage, stamping his feet in time and shouting out his declamatory and inflammatory lyrics. By the end of the set, following a banjo and fiddle version of the extended live rock song ending, the performers were running with sweat and the audience wasn’t so far behind them. This was the last gig of the tour, but watch out for them next time around.