When Country Was Proud titleEarlier this year I reviewed Ags Connolly’s excellent first album, “How About Now”, which was produced by Dean Owens. The album opens with “When Country was Proud” and it’s a pretty good choice as the lead track for the EP as well; it’s very accessible (if you have the slightest leanings at all towards country music, you’ll be singing along) and it’s a manifesto for Ags and the Ameripolitan movement generally. The song harks back to the glory days of country with references to Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow, contrasting the outlaws with the sanitised state of modern popular country, and it’s difficult to disagree. On an album that’s absolutely packed with great songs, this one stands out as a single.

The remaining two songs on the EP are from a solo session Ags did for Resonance FM earlier this year. “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” is a slow ballad about losing touch with a good friend, while the more uptempo “Trusty Companion” with its 60s sounding sus4 chords is a more hopeful look at relationships and possibly a companion piece to the album’s beautiful closing song “How About Now”. It’s interesting to hear these stripped-down live versions because they highlight the strength of the songs; if they work in that format, there’s no doubt that they’re good. The format also shows that Ags has a truly great voice for country music; with only an acoustic guitar for backing he sounds flawless.

The single is certainly worth adding to your collection for the live session, but if you really want to treat yourself, get your hands on the 180g vinyl version of the album which is released on Monday November 10.

“When Country was Proud” is out now on Drumfire Records.

No Man's Land TitleIt’s been a while since the last Dean Owens record, but that doesn’t mean he’s been doing nothing; far from it. Apart from the regular live shows (solo and with Deer Lake) and producing the wonderful Ags Connolly debut album, “How About Now”, he’s also been in Nashville recording his next album “Into the Sea” to be released next year on Drumfire Records. As a little taster for that album, the “No Man’s Land” EP is released on November 10. The timing of the release is significant as the subject matter of two of the songs is the effect of war on ordinary, everyday people.

“Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier returning from the First World War and deals with emotions of returning from a situation where terrible things have happened and the difficulty of dealing with the approaching reconciliations. The verses are sparsely delivered with mainly acoustic guitar backing while the choruses bring in the full band including accordion and a beautifully simple but effective piano hook.

“Seed the Roses” is much more sombre, minor-key piece dealing with the horrors and brutality of human conflict but still carrying the underlying message that, ultimately, flowers will grow on the battlefield. Harrowing, but a superb song all the same. “Forgotten Shadows”, co-written with Neilson Hubbard, is a bitter-sweet reminiscence of a perfect day and another reminder of the transience of human life.

The closing track on the EP is a solo live version of “Lost Time” from Dean’s cracking “New York Hummingbird” album. It’s one of my favourite songs from that album (although, to be fair, they’re all great songs) and it works well with only Dean’s acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The message is simple: ‘You can’t make up for lost time’.

It’s fair to say that the subject matter suits Dean’s song-writing style (as he says himself, somewhere between melancholy and miserable) and the war songs are powerful and, in turn, thought-provoking and disturbing. As a bonus, the cover art, from an original painting by Edinburgh-based artist and photographer, Philip Braham, captures the mood of the EP perfectly. It’s not an easy listen at times, but it is a rewarding one.

Out November 10  on Drumfire Records.

There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”.  These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there.  Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.

It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week.  The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions.  This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development.  Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.

Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight.  In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes.  So, signs of a marketing budget there.  Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.

Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically.  The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase.  There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.

“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too.  Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there.  The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats.  The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.

It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more.  Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising.  Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media.  The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it.  It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort.  It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.

So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil  Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band.  All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.

Now go out and support them.

How About NowYou might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now.  His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals.  I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today.  The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences.  It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.

The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players.  In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar).  I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel.  It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”.  Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take.  Now, that’s impressive.

The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media  today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle.  “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.

The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist.  “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub.  “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.

This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound.  You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well.  “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback.  The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.

It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting.  Top album and great artwork as well.

Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).

Dean OwensWe asked one of our favourite singer-songwriters, Dean Owens, what he was looking forward to hearing (or reading or seeing) in 2014, and he came up with some very interesting recommendations for us.  Dean’s comments are in bold type.

First on the list was the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, “Inside Llewyn Davies”.  It’s the story of a folk singer trying to get a break in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and features contributions from the Coens’ long-term collaborator, T-Bone Burnett and also Marcus Mumford.  As Dean says: I love the period in New York history it’s set in and I like pretty much like everything the Coen Brothers have done.

Next up was the new novel, “The Free”, by author (and singer and songwriter with alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine), Willy Vlautin.  This, his fourth novel, is the story of the intersecting lives of three people looking for meaning in difficult social circumstances.  Over to you, Dean: The new Willy Vlautin book should be good. He’s a great writer. I’m guessing there may be a new Richmond Fontaine album on the horizon too.

Very curious to hear the lost Johnny Cash album, “Out among the Stars”. Should be some gems on that.”  The twelve tracks on the album were recorded in 1981 and 1984 and have been in the Columbia vaults ever since; they aren’t demos out-takes or alternative versions, they’re the real deal and they include duets with June Carter Cash.  They were uncovered by Legacy Recordings and John Carter Cash.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the first album I’ve produced for another artist being released; it’s by Ags Connolly, it’s called “How About Now” and it’s out in February on Drumfire Records.  In November, we reviewed a great gig by Dean and Ags and we’ll be reviewing the album as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Deer Lake (who I sing with) should be releasing our debut album this year. I’m excited about that. We’ll also be doing a lot more live work this year.  Dean’s been singing with Deer Lake for some time now, alongside former Annie Christian frontman, Larry Lean and the album will be out some this year.  We’ll keep you posted.

I’ve got a few solo projects up my sleeve this year. Be great to get a new record out and do some touring.  So, it looks like Dean’s got a pretty busy year ahead of him in 2014, both solo and with Deer Lake.  We’ll be trying to keep up with him.

I love this; it’s time for the High Fives again and it’s a very different challenge this year with my live selections.  I had to work really hard to bring this down to just five gigs, but I think this just about sums it up.  In no particular order, here they are.

The Kennedys @Kings Place

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was one of the many venues I visited for the first time this year and it was a perfect place to see Pete and Maura Kennedy live proving that you can create musical perfection with just two guitars and two voices.  As well as having a stack of their own songs to create a set from (with plenty of input from the audience) they very generously feature songs by other writers and give the audience plenty of background about the songs and writers as well.  I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but they also did something that left me speechless; Pete played a ukulele version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which was stunning.  And I got to hear a live version of “Big Star Song” which had been impossible to get out of my head after reviewing the album.  And they are two genuinely lovely people.

08) Federal CharmFederal Charm and Southside Johnny @The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

Predictable, me?  The truth is, I’ve seen Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes dozens of times and I’ve never seen a bad gig.  I’ve also never seen anything resembling the same set twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We got to the venue just as the support band, Federal Charm, were starting their set and the impact was instant; frontmen Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe trading riffs and solos under Nick’s incredibly powerful lead vocal.  They’ve got self-assurance by the bucketload and a bunch of great songs as well.  And that was just the support act.  Southside Johnny, surrounded by a bunch of Jukes that have been playing as a unit for a few years now, looked more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years and sounded better than ever.  They played a set that wasn’t too reliant on the old classics, but was still appreciated by the old fans.  As always, the audience (and most of the band) had no idea where the set was going next and we loved it.

Dean Owens @The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

Dean OwensYou might have noticed that the Riot Squad are big fans of Dean Owens.  We’ve been telling you about his albums for a couple of years now but, living in London, it’s a bit of a challenge seeing a live show; luckily we like a challenge and the first one was getting the squad from various parts of London and the south-east to Twickenham on a Friday evening.  When we finally made it, the venue was perfect; intimate with a nice sound system and a very appreciative audience.  Ags Connolly (whose debut album on Drumfire Records was produced by Dean) opened the show with a strong bunch of songs before Dean delivered a great set built around the “Cash Back” album with loads of songs from earlier albums and audience requests thrown in.  It’s worth adding that Dean has a very dry sense of humour and the audience interaction between songs was great fun as well.  Top night and many thanks to Phil Penman and Drumfire for keeping the faith.

Marcus Bonfanti

10) Marcus BonfantiMarcus Bonfanti is the British blues equivalent of the Duracell bunny; he never stops working.  During 2013, he released an album and did a solo acoustic tour and a full band tour to promote the album.  I was lucky enough to see an acoustic show (in the unlikely environment of a casino in the West End) and a full band show in The Borderline.  Both gigs were excellent and Marcus is a superb blues player and singer with a great line in self-deprecatory chat and humour between songs.  The highlight of each set was the wonderful “The Bittersweet”, one of the best new songs from any genre I’ve heard this year. All of the songs are so strong that they worked perfectly in a solo setting and with the full band; spot on musically and great fun as well.

 

Carrie Rodriguez @The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet another venue that I haven’t visited before; this is a room above a pub with a capacity of about eighty.  Yet again, the sound system was spot-on and the audience were very appreciative as Carrie, accompanied by Luke Jacobs (and playing between them fiddle, tenor guitar, acoustic and electric guitars and lap steel) rattled through two sets of songs taken mainly from her current album, “Give Me All You Got”, with some old favourites thrown in as well.  The songs were very high quality, the playing and vocals were superb, and Carrie and Luke’s easy relationship with the audience made this a superb night.

It wasn’t easy picking just five great live shows from the many I’ve seen this year and I should really give a mention to some of the others who didn’t quite make the list.  I saw great sets this year from Coco and the Butterfields, Henrik Freischlader, Billy Walton (four times), Paul Rose, Aynsley Lister, Elvis Costello, Civil Protection and Bruce Springsteen, but the five I’ve chosen here are the ones which surprised and delighted me.

 

Dean OwensI’ve seen a lot of gigs in London pubs this year; in basements, back rooms and upstairs rooms.  I’ve seen indie bands, electronic bands and Americana artists, but I haven’t been to a gig that was as much fun as Dean Owens supported by Drumfire Records latest signing, Ags Connolly, at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham.  If you pay any attention at all to MusicRiot (or even Ricky Ross or Bob Harris), you’ll know that we’re all big Dean Owens fans; he’s always a great live performer and The Cabbage Patch is a lovely venue for an intimate acoustic performance.

Ags Connolly’s opening set featured songs from his upcoming country and Americana-tinged debut album (produced by Dean Owens) on Drumfire Records and was well received by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, setting things up very nicely for the headline act.  I’ve seen arena gigs and festivals this year, but I haven’t experienced an atmosphere as warm as this one.

Dean’s current mini tour is still under the “Cash Back” banner and is partly in support  of his current single from “Cash Back”, “I Still Miss Someone” but, from the beginning of the set, it’s obvious that this is about giving the audience what they want, rather than sticking to a rigid set list.  What we actually get is a mix of songs from Dean’s three latest albums, “Cash Back”, “New York Hummingbird” and “Whisky Hearts” (and that’s a pretty impressive set of songs to choose from) and a few surprises.  Dean’s a very relaxed and accomplished performer, full of self-deprecatory chat and dry Scottish humour between songs.  From the start of the set Dean lets the audience know that requests are very welcome and the audience can play their part in the performance.

At various times during the set we hear “Whisky Hearts”, “Man from Leith” and “Raining in Glasgow” from “Whisky Hearts”, “Lost Time”, “Little Baby Fireworks” and “Desert Star” from “New York Hummingbird” and “I Still Miss Someone”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Cocaine Carolina” and the self-penned “The Night Johnny Cash played San Quentin” from “Cash Back”.  They’re all stripped-down versions relying on guitar, vocal, harmonica, whistling and a few other vocal tricks, but it’s a mark of the quality of the songwriting that they all work perfectly with the minimalist approach.

There’s also an interesting selection of other people’s songs including “Teenage Kicks”  (which Dean played live and acoustic during an interview on an Australian radio station just as the news of John Peel’s untimely death broke), Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and the totally unexpected “Heart of Glass” (yes, that “Heart of Glass”).  The evening had everything you could ask for from a gig, great songs, great performances (from Ags and Dean) and an audience that actually wanted to see and hear the performers.  There’s a lot that’s wrong with the live scene in London at the moment (pay-to-play and play for exposure, for example) but when you see a gig like this, you think there just might be some hope.  When everyone plays their part (the performers, the promoters, the venue and the audience) as they did at The Cabbage Patch it can be a truly uplifting experience.  Thanks everyone.

I Still Miss SomeoneMy experience over the last couple of years has taught me that when something turns up for review from Dean Owens it’s always worth a listen and the single, “I Still Miss Someone”, is no exception. The song is taken from Dean’s classic album of Johnny Cash covers “Cash Back: Songs I Learned from Johnny” and is released to tie in with his current mini tour with his Drumfire labelmate, Ags Connolly.  I’ve already said in the review of “Cash Back…”that there isn’t a bad song on the album, so you know that the lead track is a good version of a Johnny Cash and Roy Cash Jr. Song which is well arranged and tastefully played.  It’s a great album track, but I’m not really sure that it’s a single.

However, it’s not the only track on the single; there are three more songs here.  “Virginia North” is a Dean Owens original which is interesting, but wouldn’t feature on a “Best Of…” and the two remaining tracks move progressively towards the basic elements of the songs.  On “Folsom Prison Blues”, it’s just Dean and an acoustic guitar, and it works perfectly; there aren’t any unnecessary distractions from a powerful song and vocal performance (including Dean’s version of the trucker’s gear change, where he jumps an octave instead of the usual tone or semitone).  The final track on the single, Rod McKuen’s “”Love’s Been Good to Me”, is a real surprise; it’s an a cappella version.  There’s nowhere to hide here and Dean absolutely nails it; you can’t strip it back any more than that and it’s a beautiful song sung by a great voice.  Whether you already have the album or not, this single’s worth having on the strength of the last two tracks.

“I Still Miss Someone” is out October 28 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).