GP TitleSo, Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel and I have to say that this one has a special significance for me. The first proper gig I saw was Brinsley Schwarz (the band) playing at Mansfield Civic Theatre on February 25, 1974 and you can read about that gig here. As a student I saw Graham Parker and The Rumour play at Dundee University Students’ Association (April 20, 1978 if you must know, and £1.50 to get in) and the following year at The Odeon in Edinburgh. The songs were great and the band was on fire at that time; Graham Parker should have had huge commercial success, either at that time or without The Rumour in the early eighties, but it didn’t happen. He’s continued to write, make albums, and play as a solo artist and with various group lineups, mainly in the USA, but after 2012’s “Three Chords Good” album which reunited The Rumour, the UK seems to be ready to clasp him to its bosom again.

The audience in The Union Chapel was pretty much what you would expect for this type of gig and surprisingly well-behaved (no loud conversations about how terrible the journey to the gig was or whinges about the bar prices) apart from the bunch that wanted to help GP by braying along like a tone-deaf rugby team; you can’t win them all. With a body of work going back around forty-five years and a new album to promote as well, there’s a chance that you might not get to hear their favourite song; it must have been my lucky night, because I heard two of mine.

The set started with a GP solo version of my first favourite, “Watch the Moon Come Down”, which lends itself to an acoustic interpretation and it’s probably known by most of the old fans so it was the perfect way to ease everyone in before the almost new “Stop Crying About the Rain” from “Three Chords Good”. It’s great to see Brinsley Schwarz back in live action again; his musicianship has always been superb and his harmonies add another layer to the sound. It’s not The Rumour, but it’s a big enough sound to work in an intimate venue like The Union Chapel.

The set spanned the forty years from the release of “Howlin’ Wind” (which was well represented with “White Honey”, “Silly Thing”, “Not if it Pleases Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Questions”) to the new album, “Mystery Glue” which has three songs featured: “Railroad Spikes”, “I’ve Done Bad Things” and “Flying into London”. There was an obvious warmth and camaraderie between Brinsley and Graham as well as between the audience and the performers throughout the set; GP seemed very much at ease with the whole thing and his voice still sounds superb.

As you might expect, there were a couple of interesting choices. The encore opened with an a cappella solo version of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch over Me” and ended with the big seventies hit “Hold Back the Night”. Throw in a scattering of great songs (“Turned up Too Late”, “Under the Mask of Happiness”, “Nation of Shopkeepers”, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”, “Back to Schooldays” and “Stick to Me”) from across the forty year period and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the career of one of our greatest singer-songwriters. And as for that second favourite song of mine – the second song of the encore was one of the best and most harrowing songs I know. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from the album “Squeezing Out Sparks”) is a controversial but very brave piece of songwriting which sounds as relevant now as it did in 1979.

So, Graham Parker can still do it live and this was a pretty good selection of his best songs of the last forty years. He looks relaxed in the live partnership with Brinsley Schwarz, but I suspect that the best is still to come with the reformed Rumour promoting “Mystery Glue” which is out on Monday May 18. You can also hear him doing a guest vocal on the new Stone Foundation album “A Life Unlimited” which is released in the UK in August this year.

Vanessa Peters - 'With The Sentimentals' - TitleVanessa Peters released an album in 2006 with her band Ice Cream on Mondays titled “Little Films” and if you wanted a pithy little phrase to describe her songs, that wouldn’t be too far wide of the mark but it’s not quite that simple. Vanessa’s songs describe a world that’s somewhere between Raymond Carver and David Lynch; the songs are vignettes of American life packed with highly visual images and a hint of darkness at the centre. Of the ten songs on the album, six are originals, one is a cover and three are reworkings of earlier album or EP tracks. Three reworkings may seem a bit excessive, but working with The Sentimentals (her European touring band) has created a different perspective on the songs which more than justifies their inclusion on the album.

The Sentimentals are based in Copenhagen and they are M.C. Hansen (guitars), Nikolaj Wolf (upright bass) and Jacob Chano (drums and percussion). They’ve worked with Vanessa on tour in Europe and the States and last year everyone decided that it was time to immortalise the magic, recording the album live in a couple of Danish studios without any overdubs. The band creates a mellow backdrop throughout the album which allows Vanessa to be close-miked, creating a very intimate setting for a voice which is part early Joni Mitchell, part Suzanne Vega and part Lana del Rey.

The opening song, “Pacific Street” is a cover of a Hem song which the band speeds up and builds around a laser-clean guitar figure. It might not sock you on the jaw, but it leads you gently into the album, hinting at the little treasures within. Of the reworkings, two (“Big Time Underground” and “Fireworks” are from “Little Films”) and tell the stories of variously dysfunctional individuals in relationships; the arrangements have more space and feel more intimate than the originals, allowing the narrative to shine through. “Afford to Pretend” (originally from the “Blackout” EP) goes in the opposite direction, replacing a solo acoustic guitar backing with the full band and a military drumbeat.

Fickle Friends” and “Light” are both moody pieces, the former having an almost trip-hop feel, while the latter is heavy on reverb and the visual imagery which runs through the album. It’s fair to say that either song would fit perfectly on “Born to Die”. The remaining four songs are classic Vanessa Peters short stories, telling tales of doomed relationships (“Mostly Fictions”), the partner who’s impossible to get close to (the country-tinged “Call You All the Time”), the impossibility of completely closing the door on a chapter of your life (“The Choice”) and the album’s closing track, “Getting By” which is about – well, I think you can work that one out.

The playing on the album is tasteful without ever breaking into showy territory, apart from the lovely guitar solo at the close of “Mostly Fictions” but the songs don’t really need too much embellishment, just a framework to hang them on. If you like your songs, to use a phrase I nicked from the great Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens, “somewhere between melancholy and miserable”, then you’re in the right place.

Vanessa Peters with The Sentimentals” is released on Monday May 11th.

 

Alice DiMicele - 'Swim' - TitleIf you still believe in the album format, and Music Riot certainly does, then the sequence of tracks on the album is important and the opening track should set the tone for the rest of the album: it certainly does here. There are no instrumental pyrotechnics on “Soul Fly Free”, no amps cranked to eleven, just a bunch of great musicians laying down a smooth groove overlaid with Hammond and steel guitar that wafts over you like a cool breeze on a still August day. I would normally namecheck most of the musicians, but Alice DiMicele has pretty much used two bands plus a raft of guest musicians to create “Swim”, her thirteenth self-released album so, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give that a miss this time.

It’s also difficult to pigeonhole Alice; she’s had a couple of attempts herself with ‘organic acoustic groove’ but there are an awful lot of other influences there as well. The album’s closing track “Ripple”, a Grateful Dead cover, is pure country, laid back and with some lovely piano courtesy of the legendary Bill Payne. “When Jane Rides Scout”, dealing with the bond between a woman and her horse, has a trumpet solo which adds a Mexican feel to the song, while “If I Could Move the World” (reworked from the 1994 album, “Naked”) is in a slow jazz styling with muted trumpet which evokes out-of-focus neon lights on a misty night and a vocal which is reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones.

Alice is renowned as an environmental campaigner and the album features a couple of songs which use human stories as a framework for highlighting environmental concerns. “Old Life Back” sets the controversial practice of fracking (and the ideology backing it up) against the story of a farmer forced to abandon his farm and move to the city. It’s powerful stuff. “School House” combines a narrative about returning to your roots with concerns about the environmental impact of damming the Klamath River in north-western USA. Alice creates a happy ending by looking into a future where the dams have been destroyed and the river is running its natural course again. Vocally, the pathos of “Old Life Back” and the passion of “School House” combine with simple and powerful melodies to create a powerful message.

There are some very personal songs on the album as well. “Inside” deals with the impact of death on those left behind, and the spirit living on in those people, while the uptempo “Open Road” concerns soul mates who are also free spirits and how the apparent contradiction is resolved. “This Love” creates emotion by having Alice sing at the lower end of her range (with a hint of k.d. lang) backed by finger-picked guitar and mellow strings, while “Swim” is unlike anything else on the album. Guitar, bass, Hammond and drums create a swirling, sinuous, funky groove to underpin the vocal, punctuated by stabs and fills from the horn section.

You won’t feel your attention wander while you’re listening to this album; it’s diverse both musically and lyrically. It takes you on an emotional journey for the uplifting “Soul Fly Free” through the harrowing “Inside” to the ebullient and irrepressible “Swim”. It should make you think a little bit along the way as well.

Out on Monday May 4th. Available from CDBaby or iTunes.

 

Natalie TitleNatalie Duncan is one of those artists that’s always guaranteed to grab my attention. She plays beautifully, has a powerful and expressive voice and she’s a genuinely original songwriter, so I couldn’t resist going to see her when she was playing in Camden. Her recently released “Black and White” EP with its loops and samples is a world away from the traditional instrumentation and production of “The Devil in Me”, so I couldn’t wait to hear how she would reconcile the two styles in a live setting.

Support on the night came from Chris McDonald, playing his last UK gig before moving to Ireland. His brand of honest and compassionate songwriting combined with a fairly partisan audience, and a band which seemed to add a new member every time you looked away from the stage, set the scene nicely for the evening’s headliner. It’s fair to say that since the initial publicity around “The Devil in Me”, Natalie hasn’t had a particularly high profile, but that doesn’t mean that she’s been forgotten; she still attracts a healthy audience every time she plays. And her creativity is still firing on all cylinders.

The last couple of months have seen a transformation for Natalie Duncan. The musical stylings have changed (she’s working onstage with a guitarist/keyboard player and drummer), but she’s also changed her appearance. The long hair has gone, replaced by a funkier look and the whole package feels like someone drawing a line under the past.

The set started with “Pure” and Natalie sitting at the piano as you would expect, but the second song, “Oh My God”, from the new EP saw her move out of the comfort zone (Natalie’s words, not mine) and stand centre stage with just the microphone between her and the audience. The move out to front and centre didn’t last for long, but it was another sign that things are changing in the way Natalie relates to her audience. The remainder of the set was a mix of material from the new EP (“Black and White” and “Elysium”), new material (“Sonic”, “Plastic” and the excellent “Diamond”) and two album songs to close out the set on a familiar note, “Sky is Falling” (with a lovely guitar solo) and “Uncomfortable Silence”.

Perhaps familiarity with the “Black and White” EP helped a little but the new material, although very different in style from the album songs, seemed to fit neatly with the more familiar piano settings. The two musicians backing Natalie, Tom and Ali, were deliberately self-effacing (apart from one guitar solo), allowing the songs and Natalie’s powerful, yet occasionally fragile, voice to shine through. There were a few technical glitches, but nothing that could suppress the feeling that we were all seeing something a little bit special.

If you want to see Natalie live in London the next week or so, she’s playing at:

The Social, Little Portland Street                    Tuesday May 5 (8pm)

St Pancras Station                                          Wednesday May 6 (5:30pm)

Get yourself down to one of those; you won’t regret it.

Duchess TitleOk, let’s get the whinge out of the way first; I really wish smaller venues would do something about their stage lighting. On a night when it looked like you had to have a pass if you weren’t taking pictures, the  lighting made it almost impossible to get a decent photo. Rant over. The good news is that the support for the evening, Shady Blue Orphans were very good, knocking out a great set of mainly seventies and eighties rock covers including “Hold the Line”, “Jump” (Van Halen, not the Pointer Sisters) and the classic Thin Lizzy ballad, “Still in Love with You”. The playing was spot on and singer Tony Monk has a very special rock voice. I spent ten minutes working out that his voice sounded a lot like Music Riot favourite Aynsley Lister, and that’s a very good thing in my book.

Anyway, on to Space Elevator. Their debut album was reviewed here last year and this is the first chance we’ve had to get out and see them live. For the Garage gig (the first of their summer mini-tour) the line-up was reduced to a four-piece, the band playing without the benefit of Elliott Ware’s keyboards. The songs from the album all fit in somewhere between good and very good and the standard of musicianship is as high as you would expect from seasoned session players but with all due respect to David Young, Brian Greene and Chas Maguire, it still needs another ingredient to make it special; to get upfront and sell that expertise and hard work to the audience. The not-so-secret weapon for Space Elevator is The Duchess and it’s fair to say she’s impossible to ignore. The voice is big and she commands stage centre with hyperactive moves and catsuit set to stun.

The set was basically a runthrough of the album with the occasional unexpected ingredient thrown in to spice up the mix, and it held together really well as a live set, opening, as the album did, with “Elevator”. The singles “I Will Find You”, “Loneliness of Love” and “Oils and Bubbles” were interspersed with “Ordinary Day”, “We Are the Losers” (which are definite singles material as well), “Little White Lies” “More Than Enough”, “Really Don’t Care” and “We Can Fly” to showcase almost all of the album. Two non-album songs, “Take the Pain” and “Far Away” were slotted in before the two sides of the current single and we even got a cheeky cover. I wouldn’t have predicted that “Day Tripper” would be a Space Elevator cover but the band made it their own with a truncated riff and a harder edge that worked particularly well. And not forgetting an encore of “Love in an Elevator” to round things off.

There were a couple of technical glitches, but you have to expect that on the first night of a tour and it was still a banging set. The songs work well live, the rhythm section was rock solid and David and The Duchess have all the melodies you could ever need. Throw in that extra bit of onstage exhibitionism and you’ve got the perfect rock package.

You can still see the rest of the tour here:

Railway Venue, Bolton                       April 25

Arts4every1, High Wycombe             May 9

Homefest, Buckinghamshire              July 19

The Foghorn Stringband - 'Devil In The Seat' - TitleOver the last couple of years, we’ve featured a few artists like The Kennedys and Carrie Rodriguez who very successfully incorporate elements of Americana and roots music into their own particular fusion of styles, but we’ve never had an all-out, old-school roots band to tell you about – until now. The Foghorn Stringband is two couples; one from Portland, Oregon and the other from Yukon. They all sing (in the old stringband tradition, around a single microphone) and the instruments line up something like this: Nadine Landry (upright bass), Stephen “Sammy” Lind (fiddle and banjo), Caleb Klauder (mandolin and fiddle) and Reeb Willms (guitar). The band describe their sound as ‘Ass Kickin’ Redneck Stringband Music’, if that helps you to get your head round the style.

The album wastes no time at all in establishing its credentials with the old square dance tune “Stillhouse”, before slowing down for the fiddle-led “Mining Camp Blues”, where you get harmonies from the female singers, a nice mandolin solo and even a bit of yodelling before moving back uptempo for “Columbus Stockade Blues”. As someone who doesn’t specialise in traditional and roots Americana, I was surprised by the variety of styles on the album but not by the quality of the musicianship, which is excellent throughout.

There album shifts seamlessly through the gears, taking in squaredance stompers (“Columbus Stockade Blues” and “Old Molly Hare”), traditional English folk (the haunting a cappella “What Will We Do”), country (“Longing For a Home” and “90 Miles an Hour”) and a few waltzes (“Henry Lee” and “Leland’s Waltz”). The lyrical themes are as dark as you would expect from traditional folk and country songs with tales of murder, mayhem and maidens led astray, and the old and the new rub shoulders comfortably in the hands of these exceptional musicians.

Many of the instrumentals are fairly short (around two minutes), which means that you get a whopping sixteen tracks on the album, emphasising the vast musical territory covered by the band. It’s a nice touch that the band credit not only the writers of tunes, but also the artists that brought the tunes to their attention initially; it’s not something anyone’s obliged to do, but it’s good to see.

As good as this album is (and I think you might guess where this is going), I suspect that you really need to see The Foghorn Stringband live to really appreciate how good they are. Fortunately for everyone, they’re coming to the UK in May and you can see them here:

Ireland

Wednesday 7              Dublin                          Whelan’s

Thursday 8                  Dungarvan                  The Local

Saturday 9                  Baltimore                     Baltimore Fiddle Fair

Tuesday 12                 Dingle                          John Benny’s Pub

Wednesday 13            Castlebar                     The Linenhall

Thursday 14                Galway                        The Crane Bar

Friday 15                     Manorhamilton            The Glens Centre

Northern Ireland

Saturday 16                Cookstown                  The Red Room (Sold out)

Scotland

Sunday 17                   Glasgow                      CCA

Monday 18                  Edinburgh                    Traverse Theatre Bar

England

Wednesday 20            Newcastle                   Cluny 2

Thursday 21                Liverpool                     The Caledonia

Friday 22                     London                        Kings Place

Saturday 23                Tunbridge Wells          Cajun Barn, King Charles Church Hall

Sunday 24                   Towersey                    The Three Horseshoes

 

The album “Devil in the Seat” is out on Monday April 27 and will be available on CDBaby.

Kris Delmhorst TitleYou have to admire the faith and dedication of musicians who fly across the Atlantic to spend their evenings playing to small audiences around the UK in an effort to get some recognition for their music. Kris Delmhorst and Hayward Williams completed their eleven days/eleven gigs UK tour at Green Note in Camden on Sunday with a couple of sets to warm the heart of even the most cynical of old gig warriors (and there were a few of those in the crowd).

The evening started with a short solo set from Hayward featuring mainly songs from his most recent album “The Reef”, including “Helping Hands (If I Go Under)”, “Beginnings” and the album’s closing song “Under Control”. Even without the band arrangements from the album versions the songs were strong and punchy (the guitar backing on “Beginnings” sounding a lot like The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”) and Hayward’s laconic musings between songs about his home town of Milwaukee and various other subjects were perfect for a London audience.

After a short break, Hayward was back to join Kris for most of her set, strapping on the electric to supply a bit of extra weight to the arrangements and some very nice fills as well as some assured harmonies. The interaction between the two performers kept the audience involved between songs, particularly when Hayward took a break as Kris performed songs from earlier in her career and had his guitar “stolen” while he was off-stage.

If you haven’t heard of Kris Delmhorst, she’s a singer-songwriter who was born in New York, but now lives in Massachusetts, plays a variety of instruments, and writes songs about her life and the lives of those around her which she delivers in a laid-back style relying on interesting themes and melodies to deliver her message. “Blood Test” is her first album since 2008 and, unsurprisingly, features heavily in her live set. The musical arrangements on “Blood Test” aren’t overblown so it’s relatively simple, with a bit of creativity, to make them work with two voices and two guitars. Lyrically the album leans towards the re-evaluation that life events force on you, and that was reflected in the songs included in the live set.

The set opened with the low-key reminiscences of “Blood Test” and worked through “Saw it All” (with some lovely guitar fills from Hayward), “Bees”, “Homeless”, “We Deliver”, “Little Frame”, “Temporary Sun”, “92nd Street” and “Lighthouse”, all performed as a duo. To take a break from the new material, which the audience seemed to be pretty familiar with anyway, Kris threw in a few older songs including “Freediver”, “You’re No Train” and “Magic” (a song from her album of Cars covers).

This was the first time Kris has visited the UK since 2008 (just before her daughter was born) but I’m fairly certain it won’t be another seven years before we see her again. Judging by the response of the audience, I’m guessing that Hayward Williams gained a few fans for his solo set and for riding shotgun for Kris. It was the kind of gig that sends you out into the cold spring evening with your own personal glow.

“Blood Test” is available now on Signature Sounds or Kris’s website.

“The Reef” is available at CDBaby.

Keltrix Title“Between & Beyond Storms” is the second album from Cambridge-based duo Keltrix, who are Keri Kel (singer, songwriter and guitarist) and Sharon Sullivan (violinist and producer) and it’s a bit of an interesting one. There’s a combination of folk and Celtic roots with elements of rock, reggae, trip-hop and harder-edged dance beats. The Keltrix mission seems to be to create something new by fusing all of these elements into a new genre. It’s not just a double album, there’s a major tour and a documentary film to follow; there’s a lot of creativity and plain hard graft going into this. So, does it work?

As always, this is purely a personal opinion; feel free to tell me if you think I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced. For me, the strongest tracks are on the “Beyond Storms”. The reworking of “Alibi” as “My Alibi” works and, in the middle of the set, “Displacement” and the remix of “Endure” both have an ambient, trip-hoppy feel and lots of space, allowing the songs plenty of room to breathe. These three songs, particularly “Displacement”, would stand up alongside anything else I’ve heard this year.

And that’s the upside, but there is a downside. There are a few things that don’t work at all for me and they’re connected with the individualism the band is trying to create. Keri Kel’s singing mashes up folk intonations and inflexions with elements of Kate Bush and Lene Lovich (maybe even Marianne Faithfull from the seventies onwards) and sometimes becomes a distraction, pulling the attention and focus away from the song. There’s also a bit of a kitchen sink mentality; there are loads of ideas bouncing around and it seems to be important to try to cram all of them in, so we get songs with lots of tempo changes and lyrics which sound rushed to try and fit in with the melody.

Keltrix mixes up a huge variety of styles and getting the blend right isn’t something that happens overnight. If you look at this album as part of the journey, rather than the ultimate destination, then it makes a lot more sense.

“Between & Beyond Storms” is out now.