I don’t know why the idea of Scandinavian Americana should have seemed so strange at first; significant numbers of Scandinavians emigrated to the USA in the nineteenth century and it’s reasonable to assume that they brought their own flavours to America’s rich musical stew and that there would still be a cultural connection. Turns out that Americana is big in that part of northern Europe, both in homegrown and imported flavours, and that’s where Buford Pope (real name Mikael Liljeborg) comes in. Although he references Dylan as a touchstone, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with Neil Young (particularly the Stray Gators phase) because of the high, keening voice and the plaintive pedal steel licks that permeate the album.

For his seventh album Buford Pope has opted for the naturalistic approach; learn the songs, get the right technical set-up and go in and play them once. And it works, although the album’s opening song “Still Got Dreams” is a bit too lo-fi for my taste. The lyrics deal with familiar roots themes: guns, drinking, driving (sometimes both at the same time) and families all feature in the mix. The recording process gives the album an intimacy and immediacy that recording tracks separately can never quite capture and highlights the interplay between the instruments, particularly the combination of slide or pedal steel and piano on “Infirmary” and “No Man’s Land”.

Standout songs? Well, the big chorus of “Freewheeling” and the epic Al Stewart feel of “The Baltic Sea” certainly do it for me.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” is released on Friday September 22 on Unchained Records (BP2017).

“The Spirit of God and Madness” is a perfect example of the way music evolves. Viper Central started their musical life as a traditional bluegrass string band, but on their third album they’re pushing the bluegrass boundaries by incorporating some non-traditional elements into the mix. And there’s a pretty clear demarcation as well; the first half of the album features the more experimental material, including the jazzy shuffle of the opening song “Gold Mine” with its honky-tonk piano solo, “Ned Kelly”, dominated by a menacing over-driven harmonica, and the slow, psychedelia-washed, “Say, Say”. That’s before you even get to the manic melange of “Losing my Mind”, blending Mexican trumpets, jazz mandolin and tempo changes.

The second half of the album is, by and large, more traditional, featuring short instrumentals and tales of the frontier era; “I Won’t be Left” tells the story of a young woman who left Ireland for the USA and walked across The Rockies with three young children. It’s open to debate as to whether this collection gels as a complete album but it’s an interesting effort, and that’s the way music develops, morphs and mutates.

“The Spirit of God and Madness” is released on Friday August 4th.

Nik Barrell scrollerWell, it’s an interesting idea, creating an album filled with only cheerful upbeat songs. Not only that, but Nik Barrell decided to record the entire album in one session using only acoustic instruments and no drums. That sounds like a pretty hard sell in world where the term singer-songwriter often means purveyor of melancholy confessionals, so  how successful is Nik Barrell in realising his vision? Well I guess that depends on the point of view of the listener; if you don’t share his vision and you do like a bit of musical misery, then it’s probably not for you. 

Within the limitations he’s set himself, the album works really well. There are slow songs, uptempo songs, the odd one in waltz time and even the raucous “New Orleans” praising the Big Easy in comparison with other American cities. The band, and particularly the female singers, create some sumptuous settings for the songs. And the songs themselves are great musically but the pessimist or fatalist in me finds the relentless cheerfulness just a little bit cloying, particularly on the final song “People are Good”. In fairness to Nik he stuck to his vision and delivered an album full of upbeat songs and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably love it. 

“Growing Peaches in Oxfordshire” is out on Friday July 7.

Pierce Edens - 'Stripped Down Gussied Up' - cover (300dpi)There’s an expression that always rings alarm bells when I read it in connection with musicians: genre-bending. And have you ever heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation? Anyway it manages to insinuate itself in to the press release for the Pierce Edens album “Stripped Down Gussied Up”, which is as contradictory as the title suggests; the arrangements have been stripped back to basics then topped off with a selection of ambient noises and studio trickery. It’s a bit like taking all the bodywork off your car, down to the chassis, then sticking a spoiler on the back end. Pierce has a voice that you might say is original and has character; it’s certainly idiosyncratic and I found it difficult to take over a whole album; you find yourself wanting to give him a bagful of consonants. To give you an idea of what I mean, he manages to out-Waits Tom Waits on his cover of “Mr Siegal”.

There were positives as well; “The Bonfire”, checking in at over six minutes, is powered by relentless, strummed acoustic guitar as the story of a doomed relationship unfolds with a lyrical hint at the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. “I Can’t Sleep” runs on the same fuel with the addition of Kevin Reese’s over-driven electric guitar and a quickfire, almost breathless, vocal delivery from Pierce. If you like a bit of aural experimentation and a twisted vocal delivering dark tales of smalltown North Carolina, then this might be just the thing for you.

“Stripped Down Gussied Up” is released on Friday June 2.

1479017278061[1]OK, let’s get this straight upfront; this is a good blues album. It covers a lot of the blues bases; you get slow blues, fast blues, funky blues, hints of gospel and some nice horns here and there. It’s an interesting listen and there’s nothing that makes you want to hit the skip button. It covers a lot of the ground that Robert Cray was covering in the late eighties/early nineties and the comparison stands up fairly well, but there is a problem with that. If that niche still exists, Joe Bonamassa has it well and truly covered and it’s a bit like “Highlander” – ‘there can only be one’. And the blues buffs will no doubt point out exceptions to this but while there are thousands of singer/guitar players out there, there aren’t too many, like the Reverend Shawn Amos, who don’t play.

Having said all of that, if you like your blues without too many rough edges, played and sung with a bit of style and well-written (there are ten originals and two covers, “La Joliet” and “Bright Lights , Big City”), you won’t go too far wrong with this. Standout songs for me were the midtempo shuffle “Hollywood Blues” and the closing gospel ballad “The Last Day I’m Loving You”.

And by the way, he isn’t really a Reverend.

“The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You” is released on Friday May 19th on Put Together PTM006.

Harrow Fair - 'Call To Arms' - cover (300dpi)Harrow Fair comprises Miranda Mulholland (vocals, violin and percussion) and Andrew Penner (vocals, guitars, drums, piano, bass, organs, synths, vibes, glockenspiel, banjo and percussion); just another Americana duo? I don’t think so. Just one look at the instrumental credits will tell you that. Miranda and Andrew have all the traditional skills for the duo line-up; they play a variety of stringed and percussion instruments, sing beautifully and build great harmonies, but they’re not content to stop at that. “Call to Arms” is experimental Americana. The opening song, “Hangnail”, gives you a few clues to the direction that they’re taking with its overdriven guitar, fiddle refrain and thudding percussion taking a decidedly lo-fi direction. 

As the album progresses there are more unexpected instrument sounds; there are a few songs with some evil distortion on the fiddle sound and “How Cold” has the feel of a Gaelic dirge with a constant drone, but with overlaid synths and some thunderous bass. The disparate elements gel to create a satisfying song. The preceding song, “Harrow Fair Pig Auction” isn’t quite so successful, featuring a recording of two auctioneers overlaid with freeform improvisation, but that’s experimentation for you. Definitely worth a listen for the bending and warping of musical forms.

 “Call to Arms” is released on May 19th on Roaring Girl Records.

 

Madison Violet - 'The Knight Sessions' - cover (300dpi)Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are Madison Violet and they’ve been together since 1999 using the perfect blend of the two voices as the starting point for experiments in musical settings. “The Knight Sessions” is an experiment with different musical settings created with junkshop finds including children’s wooden blocks and old electronics to create interesting sonic textures and ambience without distracting from their powerful melodic songs. Generally speaking it works, creating a hint of spacey trip-hop over the stripped-back instrumentation.

My only reservation is that this approach tends to create a uniformity across the album. There’s an attempt to address this by focussing on the guitars and vocal harmonies in the basic acoustic versions of “Trouble” and “Operator”, which is partly successful. The truly innovative treatment on the album is the roots/Americana dub version of the lullaby “Hush” (also known as “Hush Little Baby” or “Mockingbird”). It’s wonderfully trippy, spacey, disorientating, menacing, and a high point of the album.

“The Knight Sessions” is released on Big Lake Music (Cat. No.471203-2) on Friday May 5 and Madison Violet will be touring the UK in May.

Holy Smoke scrollerBlair Chadwick and Charlie Bateson (Steepways) set out to create an album with the feel of classic seventies singer-songwriter albums and with “Holy Smoke”, it’s mission accomplished. There are nods in the direction of country with “Ghost Walks” and “Pin it on Me”, bluegrass with “Rather be Alone” and even skiffle with “Chaperone” and “The Collector” (which also gives a tip of the titfer to early Kinks). The instrumentation is pure seventies Laurel Canyon with pedal steel and occasional banjo and an occasional glimpse of the classic seventies ornament, the nylon-strung guitar solo. And it’s all done beautifully. The album’s lovely closing song “Dying on the Vine” delicately exposes the evasions of alcoholism, while the lyrics generally lean towards melancholy on a personal scale; life’s minor triumphs and failures. It’s an interesting debut and it reminded me of one artist in particular; Ringo Starr just after the Beatles split. I’d say, on balance, that’s a good thing.

Out on May 5 on Mansion House Records.

Crazy HorseI’m not sure if any artist holds definite claim to having avoided as many expectations as Neil Young and I very much doubt there is. More than anything, the performance displayed at the S.E.C.C. has taught this reviewer more than anything not to presume anything about a gig upon purchase of tickets.

Entering the hall it was clear I was not about to witness the no-frills, stripped back grunge set I was prepared for. The enormous fake storage crates behind the band set-up (which were elevated to reveal giant pretend amplifiers) as well as the giant fake televisions hanging either side of the stage illustrated this much. Never mind the lab-coat- and builder-uniform-clad roadies running around frantically, seemingly performing a mime act in the entire run-up to show time.

After the intro music of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and a surprising playing of “Flower of Scotland” over the PA system, complete with saltire hanging from the back of the stage, Young and Crazy Horse chugged slowly into Ragged Glory track “Love and Only Love”, which laid the blueprint down for how many of the nights songs were to be performed: long instrumental openings, wandering, guitar-laden interludes and seemingly ceaseless final cadences. The final chord of “Walk Like a Giant” was stretched to at least ten minutes and with each crash, a different image of Neil and the band from decades past flashed across the TVs either side of the stage.

This was just one of the interesting visual elements implemented throughout the night. After the aforementioned song finally ended, an impressive lightning storm effect was displayed across the stage and dialogue from the weather warnings from Woodstock in 1969 were played before a massive banner in tribute to the event was dropped. During unreleased track “Singer Without a Song”, a young girl with a guitar case in hand playing the title role of the song wandered around the stage among the band members looking lost. It seemed to have little consistency with the rest of what was on display but then again, look at who we’re talking about here. Finally, at the end of the encore the giant storage crates were lowered back down to cover the pretend amplifiers occupying the stage. In terms of setlist, picks for the evening stretched far and wide across Young’s career, from tracks off the new release, Psychedelic Pill to more obvious numbers found on Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps.

Of course, the audience seemed most receptive during a short solo acoustic slot where “Heart of Gold” won back any of those lost during the quarter-hour of feedback. Singing into spot mics mounted on his harmonica, Neil was free to wander the stage unconstrained by a mic stand. It made for a really natural performance, wonderful to both look at and listen to. Here it was also clear just how strong his voice still is. Every word was clear and not once did it seem he was losing grip. In fact, the only moments where it seemed the audience were not totally on board were during the aforementioned feedback storm and later during Ragged Glory track “Fuckin’ Up”, where very few seemed willing and ready to join in with the chant of “you’re just a fuck up!”.  However the rest of the evening saw a rather hypnotised crowd ready for whatever came on. At the end of the main set, Neil seemed to echo a sentiment shared throughout the entire audience, singing “don’t say it’s over” repeatedly on the last chord of “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” (performed in the style of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) ?!?!?!?!).

The encore brought an emotive end to the night, with touching words spoken before the penultimate song, wishing everyone a save journey home that kids who parents had left at home would have a good night’s sleep. This moment was particularly important for the evening as a whole, reminding anyone unimpressed by what could be described by some as a self-indulgent set of noise and taking the piss that the man in front of them was entirely of sound mind when it came to every detail of what he was doing. This along with the length of time Young and Crazy Horse spent taking in their final applause illustrated how engaged all performers were and how truly grateful they were to everyone in attendance. This reviewer was certainly grateful to be there.

CATB @ The Finsbury (Photo by Allan McKay)

CATB @ The Finsbury (Photo by Allan McKay)

This exciting five-piece band from Canterbury headlined the Africana fundraiser tonight, raising money for projects in Kenya.  They formed in 2011 and only a year later, won the accolade of the UK’s best unsigned act.  They describe their music as ‘Fip Fok’ (the title of their first EP), a bouncing hybrid of folk, pop and hip-hop; even checking them out on You Tube before the gig, I was excited about the evening’s entertainment.  They feature a unique set-up of guitar, banjo, double bass, violin and beat-boxing so the sound is unlike anyone else I’ve heard.

The support acts: Brighton’s The Beatnik Horrors and singer songwriter, George Olgivie were good too making the long wait for the headliners a real warm up.  The Beatnik Horrors are a post-Chilli Peppers rock act with 3 guitars and helium vocals from their tom-boy lead singer, Ari playing memorable and distinctive songs.  George Olgivie is an acoustic singer-song-writer with a nice vibrato, playing covers and original material who will release a self-penned EP in July.

It was late in the evening when the Butterfields started  their set; C&TB are used to playing a variety of arenas from busking, which they still do, to thousand-seater theatres, but they seemed particularly at home in this large music pub, having brought some of their loyal tribe with them.  The audience are mainly students who gave them a warm welcome, but the venue is sadly not packed, probably due to the cool, wet weather.  They kick off slowly with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, but turn up the tempo half way through with some impressive beat-boxing.  Then it’s swiftly into Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America”, or their unique twist on it.  The crowd are on their feet and stay there for all of the hour long set  but the fun really began when they launched into seven original songs, starting with “Scarecrow”, apparently a tribute to the band’s variety of long or be-dreadlocked hair.  I was glad I had worn my dancing shoes as I was soon jigging around too, as were, I noticed, the support acts.  The last couple of times I have been at such a lively feel-good gig were Basement Jaxx in Brixton and going back further still, The Pogues in Kilburn on St Patrick’s night in ’87!  It was almost as if C&TB were playing a unique hybrid of both in this festival atmosphere.

Fan favourite “Astronaut” was next, utilising the strong musicianship of each member of the band, including Dulcima the female lead’s vocals.  Percussion duties were entirely the domain of the beat-boxer of the group, who had astounding energy, variety and talent, later soloing in a most entertaining way, but each band member, like in a jazz quintet, got to show their impressive individual skills in a short spot-light.  The next highlight, and there were many, was the new single “Warriors” which went down very well with the crowd and is released this week.  All this and a radio presenter I chatted to, who had interviewed them earlier in the day, confirmed what a nice bunch Coco & The Butterfields are, and they look the part too.

The evening of exuberance concluded with “The Hip Hop Song” and Flo Rida/T-Pain’s “Low”.  I hope the band get the wider audience they deserve; in an era of karaoke pop and synthesised dance, this band are the real thing constructing an original sound with great musicality and a very infectious energy.