Martin Harley scrollerIt’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.

Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.

And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.

In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.

Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.

 

Paul and Jacqui promoThe first and most striking thing on arriving at Stoke Victoria Hall is the stunning stage backdrop – very 1930s Russian, very tractor target 5 year plan, very Heatongrad. Very Beautiful North, if you will. No. Didn’t think you would. Anyway. This stage backdrop, a thing of not inconsiderable beauty, was created by a gentleman from Stoke – a Port Vale fan – who Mr Heaton astutely observed wasn’t in attendance as like most Port Vale fans he probably doesn’t like to leave the house much. And the point I make is that with every utterance, with every word, inflection and gesture, you get the idea that yer man Heaton, he understands. He understands the workings of the world, The System, the relationships which are forged in the long shadows of our Northern industrial past, and the implications these have for people living in the Now. And for years he’s been one of our leading chroniclers of these and as a consequence has created a body of work which is both artistically and commercially pretty much peerless.

Entry to Russianesque martial music, which, if there was a Heatongrad, would be permanently bleating from roof–mounted speakers on a drab–looking tram system, and we get “Wives 1, 2 and 3”, “Pretenders to the Throne” and “Man Is The Biggest Bitch Of All”, the latter being from their outstanding recent offering “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines”. They play seven tracks from the latest album and, whereas rather too often with artists with a considerable ‘heritage’ the ‘new ones’ are tolerated rather than enjoyed, the tunes from the new album were deftly worked into the set and were received with interest and enthusiasm. About a quarter of the way through the set the first Housemartins classic, “Five Get Over Excited” – thundered through with great aplomb and fizz by the four eye–wateringly excellent musicians accompanying the two main protagonists. You have to say, despite previous incarnations and previous line – ups being far from untidy, both Paul and Jacqui appeared to be absolutely revelling in the support of possibly the best musicians they’ve ever toured with. And through the set I kept hearing odd echoes – bit of Joe Meek there, bit of Motown there, bit of The Hollies almost out of nowhere. All the best writers are magpies.

In amongst the inter–song raps, a shortened version of the story of “Rotterdam” – where he thought he’d lost the notes for 20 songs including the aforementioned. Turned up in his hotel room. And how expensive a loss would that have been? At the time of “Rotterdam”, virtually everything the Beautiful South turned out became instant FM radio gold – and they’ve remained so ever since. Rarely has a writer and musician had his finger so securely on the pulse of The Sound Of Things That Win; the sound of a nation. And along with “Rotterdam” there were plenty of those airplay giants in this set – “Prettiest Eyes”, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, and “Good As Gold, (Stupid As Mud)” were all rammed home with conviction and were enthusiastically received, especially the latter, the life–affirming lyrics never sounding better – and I include the original recording in making that statement. And I haven’t so much as mentioned the voices yet.

If he was just an unnaturally-gifted songwriter that would be enough, but he’s also a phenomenally powerful and original voice as well. And talk about Hold A Note; he is sooo precise. The phrasing, the sustain, the use of the mic for distance etc etc., he is a massively accomplished performer, which is I suspect for many, expertly disguised by his ambling gait, shambolic appearance and diffident manner (and how does anybody manage to perform as he does in a plastic waterproof jacket? And why?)

Paul Heaton as a solo vocalist would be more than enough to carry it but oh my goodness, with the added textures and harmonies of long-time collaborator Jacqui Abbott, it is all just too irresistible. Only parallel I could attempt to draw is Paul Simon is a damn fine writer and vocalist and you’d love to go and see him any day of the week. And would we prefer that served with Art Garfunkel?

Thought so.

And throughout the set she proved herself a fine performer in her own right as well and she was presented with ample opportunity in a set which required both, then one, then the other, to take centre stage.

And as ever with these things, compiling a killer finale is an absolute must to send everyone home grinning themselves to death. So we enjoyed “DIY”, complete with the geeky dance moves from Mr H., an exuberant “Happy Hour”, which couldn’t help but roll back the years for so many of the assembled multitude (had been a sell-out gig for ages), a funked-up 70’s-style “Perfect 10”, followed by an uplifting and unifying “Caravan Of Love” – then a short break for the crowd to go bonkers before the band returned to storm through a sort of dub version of “A Little Time” which, I am convinced if it had been released in that form would have actually been an even bigger hit than it was, the sublimely naughty “Don’t Marry Her” – and then a final breather before returning to an avalanche of large orange ‘The Prisoner’ – style balls, an explosion of golden glitter – and a dash through a fave from the latest album, the previously-mentioned “Heatongrad” and finally “You Keep It All In”.

There’s nothing wrong with it. Buy “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines” – if you haven’t already – and go out and catch this tour. Off the top of my head I can’t think of many British songwriters and acts which have access to such a body of work, are still producing stuff which stands up to that body of work today, are earth-shatteringly brilliant live – and are willing and able to perform in venues where you don’t need to remortgage your house or buy high-powered binoculars in order to enjoy it.

Five stars with a bullet.

 

Candice Night ScrollerSo where do I start with this one? It’s an album with an identity crisis and it’s aimed at young children and their parents, so I’m really out on both counts, although there might be some debate about the first one. Candice Night shies away from referring to it as a lullaby CD, preferring the term ‘music to dream by’ which is probably a better reflection of the content. It’s a pretty varied selection of originals, a traditional song reinterpreted (Rock A Bye Baby”), a standard (Annie’s Song”) and some Disney songs, which is held together by the sheer quality of Candice’s voice, the playing and the arrangements.

And, just in case you didn’t know, Candice’s collaborator on the project is her husband Ritchie Blackmore, yes that Ritchie Blackmore, playing a lot more quietly than he did in the seventies and eighties. The musical settings throughout the album are exquisitely delicate, featuring acoustic guitar, assorted woodwinds, keyboards and violin. And most definitely no drums.

The cover of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” (the first single from the album) is a perfect example of everything that’s good about “Starlight, Starbright”. The gently-picked, almost medieval, acoustic guitar, subtle strings and breathy backing vocals, sit perfectly under a close-miked vocal that highlights the perfection of Candice’s voice. It’s a lovely version of a great song and will surely find its way on to the Radio 2 playlist, but where does that leave the rest of the album?

There’s no doubt that Candice has a superb voice and the understated arrangements help to emphasise its clarity and purity but the album feels like a compromise. If you took away “Annie’s Song” and possibly the Blackmore/Night original “Misty Blue”, this would be a very high quality offering for children; maybe the lullaby concept was right all along. It’s easy to appreciate Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night on a technical level, but it’s difficult to be moved by something largely aimed at infants.

As an added bonus, this is in an enhanced CD format featuring videos for “Once in a Garden” and “Lullaby in the Night”.

“Starlight, Starbright” is out on Minstrel Hall (MHM 0207) on April 8th.

Underhill Rose ScrollerThe Great Tomorrow” is Underhill Rose’s third album and it’s a lovely example of smooth and polished Americana with just an occasional hint of darkness to offer a little contrast. The three members, Molly Rose, Eleanor Underhill and Salley Williamson play guitar, banjo and bass respectively; they all sing and they divide the songwriting duties between them across the album (with the notable exception of one cover). Molly and Eleanor split the lead vocals almost equally but the true beauty of the gorgeous sound they make is in the blending of all three voices to create the beautiful harmonies that suffuse the album.

“The Great Tomorrow” won’t hit you like you a hammer blow; it’s a lot more subtle than that. Each soothing harmony, each plangent pedal steel fill, each yearning fiddle line is a shining thread in a rich, shimmering tapestry. You can appreciate the individual parts up close, but the true beauty only reveals itself when you see the whole picture. It may not be immediate, but it will stay with you for ever.

The settings for the songs on the album augment Molly, Eleanor and Salley’s guitar, banjo and bass with the traditional Appalachian fiddle and Dobro, and Nashville elements of pedal steel and Fender Rhodes to create a wonderful variety of arrangements from the classic banjo and fiddle combination of the haunting “Montana” to the unusual fiddle and Fender Rhodes combination on the lazy shuffle of “Whispering Pines Motel”. There’s a huge variety of lyrical moods on this collection, from the empty desolation of “My Friend” and the circle-of-life theme of “When I Die” to the backwoods outlaw tale of “Shine”. And there’s a joker in the pack as well; a cover of the Elliott Woolf song, “Straight Up”, made famous by Paula Abdul in the eighties. The first rule of covers club is ’make the song your own’ and that’s exactly what they’ve done, slowing down the tempo to a slow country rock feel and focussing the energy on a stomping pre-chorus; it’s exactly what a great cover should be.

A lovely album packed with deft and delicate touches and glorious harmonies throughout.

You can see Rose Underhill live in the UK in late April/early May at these venues:

April

Thursday 21st                    Half Moon, Putney (with Benjamin Folke Thomas)

Saturday 23rd                    Cranleigh Arts Centre, Cranleigh, Surrey

Wednesday 27th               The Biddulph Arms, Biddulph, Staffordshire

Friday 29th                        Green Note, London

Saturday 30th                   Union Chapel, London (with Colin Hay)

May

Sunday 1st                         The Stables, Milton Keynes

Wednesday 4th                 The John Hewitt, Belfast (Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival)

Thursday 5th                     The Ivy, Naas, Co. Kildare

Friday 6th                          The Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath

Saturday 7th                      The Bronte Centre, Rathfriland, N. Ireland

“The Great Tomorrow” is out on March 25th.

Eskies ScrollerWhen music venues are closing on what seems like a daily basis, it’s heartening to see the success of places like The Finsbury. It’s taken a few years of building and investment, but The Finsbury’s now well established on the small gig circuit delivering a programme of music and comedy seven days a week. Which brings us to an excellent triple bill on a wintry Tuesday night in March featuring Brian Grogan, Ringlefinch and The Eskies; it wasn’t a packed house, but the enthusiasm of the crowd and the bands more than made up for that.

Brian Grogan opened the evening with a set of confessional songs focussed on fears of sexual inadequacy (plus a very interesting cover) backed by a striking combination of sparkling Rickenbacker, fretless bass and cajon and some superb harmonies. With a voice that has a strong resemblance to Ian (or Iain) Matthews, he couldn’t really go wrong. And the cover; well, it was a soft-rock version of the theme from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, with a few snippets from other tunes thrown in to create a live mash-up. Mad idea, really, but it worked.

Ringlefinch were next up, taking the tempo and volume up a few notches before the headliners with a bunch of songs full of lyrical invention and interesting arrangements featuring mandolin, resonator bass, ukulele, banjo and guitar. All good fun and topped off with a lively cover of Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” for good measure.

How do you describe The Eskies? Well, I asked their tour manager and he was struggling with the concept, but I’ll have a go anyway. You’ll find elements of klezmer, Gaelic folk, gypsy jazz, spirituals and American ragtime in there seasoned with a healthy sprinkling of the craic between songs. Oh, and a huge dollop of fun. Despite the raggle-taggle appearance, the musicianship was extraordinarily tight as the band navigated its way through rhythm, tempo and key changes at breakneck speed throughout their set, throwing in some exquisite four-part harmonies as well. The set leaned heavily on material from the debut album “After the Sherry went Round”, including “Fever”, “Down, Down, Down”, “Down by the River”, “Chin up Jack”, “Shame” and the current single “Jesus Don’t Save Me”. And there you go; a live set that left the audience gurning like loons and breathless with admiration. What more would you want from a gig?

If you want to catch this experience, you can still see The Eskies live during the remainder of their UK tour.

 

TLD ScrollerWell, it’s an interesting one. You can certainly pick out the indie influences (Radiohead for a start) but this adds a few touches that take it several rungs above 2016 shoegazing. “Looking Glass” starts with a simple bass riff leading in to an acoustic guitar part which sounds like the theme from a murder mystery set in a southern Italian village and keyboards which thicken the sound out while still leaving plenty of room for the high, ethereal, almost keening vocal. The guitar part alone sets this apart from most current indie bands, but the addition of saxophone as the song builds creates a very interesting soundscape. It’s a hypnotic and almost soporific sound which leaves you intrigued and eager to hear more.

As a first single, “Looking Glass” is good enough to stand on its own merits while hinting at the bigger picture of the album “Duelism” which is released on March 11th. If you want to see The Lazlo Device live they’ll be doing album launch gigs at Camden Barfly on Friday March 12 and Brighton Green Door Store on Sunday March 20.

Meanwhile, here’s the video for “Looking Glass”:

 

Get-Well-Soon-ScrollerI know there’s an awful lot of good music out there, but it’s still a shock to hear something as good as “Love” and realise that Get Well Soon and its creator Konstantin Gropper, have been around since 2008. Admittedly he’s better known in his native Germany and also better known as a film composer, but an album of this quality makes you wonder why he isn’t better known generally. This is his fourth album and you can probably guess the theme from the title but this isn’t a chocolate-box, hearts and flowers version of love, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Gropper is highly literate and his take on the theme of love emphasises the mystery and the messiness against a constantly morphing musical background. The press release for the album helpfully supplies a list of artists that Gropper was listening to while making the album, and some of them are fairly evident in the finished product with a strong hint of early Tom Petty on “It’s Love”.

At times, the album has a symphonic feel; the opening song “It’s a Tender Maze” has an intro which is partly influenced by Eastern music and partly the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a performance, while the final song, “It’s a Fog” brings the album to a brass-led, raucous conclusion. Along the way, there are elements of disco in “Young Count Falls for Nurse”, St Etienne-flavoured pop in “It’s a Catalogue”, jangly indie in “Marienbad” and a Richard Hawley retro sixties influence in ”I’m Painting Money”. The musical quality and variety is everything you’d expect from someone who soundtracks films, and the lyrics are outstanding.

Gropper’s natural lyrical style is laced with cynicism which manifests itself here as a sense of puzzlement at the manifestations of love and the way in which it’s painted by our consumer society as he focusses on the strange and sometimes grubby aspects of the phenomenon. “It’s Love” is a song celebrating first love, but the reference to blood-stained knickers pulls it back into the physical world with a jolt. “33” is a series of little observations of the life of a person whose life has stagnated at that age and has a couple of fine lyrics which demonstrate Gropper’s wry, almost sarcastic, style: ‘your green batik doesn’t fit you no more, that’s a shame ’cause Batik’s coming back’ and ‘this year you are 33, but when you cry you still look 16’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a nineties Babybird album.

“Love” is a fascinating attempt to explore a theme that defies logical explanation. Konstantin Gropper’s answer is to admit that he doesn’t have a clue while painting perfect miniatures of the experience of love or its absence against a hugely varied set of arrangements. It works superbly.

Out now on Caroline/Universal (CAROLO10CD).

Righteous Reprobates ScrollerFor the follow-up to the rambunctious raunch of their first single, “My Psychosis”, Righteous Reprobates have taken a slightly different direction. The second single “We Go with What We Know” kicks off with a tinny pre-intro before launching into a simple guitar riff echoed by the unison lead vocal; it’s a lot like early Sabbath with a hint of late sixties psychedelia dropped in to the mix. When the guitar solo comes along, it’s not the shredding pyrotechnics of “My Psychosis”; it’s simple but effective. At about the two-thirds mark, there’s a tempo change before the riff reasserts itself in the build-up to the big finish.

In the run-up to the release of the album, this works well as a stand-alone single, but it also helps to establish, along with “My Psychosis”, that Righteous Reprobates aren’t just a one-trick pony. There’s a lot of subtlety to add to the blood and thunder and if the whole album’s up to the standard of the singles it should be very good indeed.

“We Go with What We Know” is released on April 15. Have a look at the video here: