Redwood-Mountain-Side-1-ALT-desat-40[1]If everyone was rewarded fairly for talent, creativity and pure hard bloody work, Dean Owens would be a very wealthy man. If the day job is being Dean Owens, singer-songwriter, the part-time jobs include his full band Whisky Hearts, his Deer Lake collaboration with Larry Lean, his Buffalo Blood project with Neilson Hubbard, production duties for Ameripolitan singer-songwriter Ags Connolly and the occasional project featuring covers or, more accurately, interpretations of other people’s songs (Johnny Cash for example). It’s fair to say that he doesn’t have a lot of downtime.

With all of those projects simmering away, why not do something else to stave off boredom? So what’s next? What can we cram into that fifteen minutes of the day that’s left? Well, someone gave Dean a copy of Alan Lomax’s “The Book of American Folk Songs” and Dean, having a bit of down time, decided that it would be a great idea to give some of the lyrics new musical settings and record the resulting songs with Whisky Hearts fiddle player Amy Geddes and bass/piano player Kevin McGuire. Although the project was about creating new settings for existing lyrics, Dean and Amy managed to sneak a few of their own compositions, which fit perfectly with the originals. Amy’s “Amang the Braes O Gallowa” has the Celtic authenticity of early American folk tunes, while Dean’s “Take it Easy, but Take it” is a perfect lyrical fit with the Lomax collection. There’s even that very rare beast, a Dean Owens instrumental, “The Two Davies Waltz”. As a creative concept, it works perfectly.

The minimalist arrangement of the songs (two voices, guitar and fiddle, with occasional piano and bass) works perfectly, Amy’s plaintive fiddle reinforcing the melancholy tone of the album while her vocal harmonies lighten the lyrical harshness that play such a large part in these folk ballads. The quality of the album’s so high that it’s difficult to pick favourites, but I loved “On the Range of the Buffalo” and “Rye Whiskey”.

Redwood Mountain is a little gem of an album and it’s out now.

musicriot 2017How’s everyone doing? We’re almost a third of the way through the year now and it’s about time to look at how things are shaping up and to give you some news about the direction we’re taking here at MusicRiot. Over the years we’ve evolved from reviewing everything that popped through the letterbox (and now it pops in to the inbox) to our current approach of only reviewing things that we really believe in and want you to hear (and there’s plenty of that to keep everyone busy at Riot Towers). And we don’t like negativity; you can get enough of that in the NME or letters/comments pages of the specialist music magazines and websites. So, if you think there aren’t many one or two star reviews, that’s the reason. There’s so much good music out there that we want to focus on, whatever the genre.

And we’re having a pretty good year so far. Of the 2017 predictions, Ags Connolly has released a very good and critically-acclaimed second album, Stone Foundation signed to 100 Per Cent records and charted nationally at 25 with their “Street Rituals” album, Sound Of The Sirens have their album “For All Our Sins” released at the end of May on DMF Records and they’re playing the Fields of Avalon stage at Glastonbury. Hannah Aldridge’s stunning second album “Gold Rush” is out on June 16, and Dean Owens has delayed the release of his latest album “Southern Wind” until (probably) early 2018 to focus on yet another side project named Redwood Mountain with traditional fiddle player Amy Geddes. Watch this space for more on that one.

As for MusicRiot, we’re going to launch a new review feature very soon called “Sound Bites”, where we take a brief look at albums and singles that are interesting and worth listening to but don’t quite get the full review treatment. No star ratings, no judgements, just a recommendation to give it a listen.

That’s about it for now. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and check out our Facebook page to find out what we’re up to.

Ags ScrollerIt’s been three years since Ags Connolly released his debut “How About Now”. A long time maybe, but “Nothin’ Unexpected” reflects the work Ags has put in during that time, getting himself out there, playing gigs here and in the States, headlining and supporting, and writing and honing this bunch of songs. It’s an album of interesting combinations; songs influenced by music from across the Atlantic, written and sung by someone from Oxfordshire and recorded in Edinburgh with a bunch of Scottish musicians. And that’s just the start.

“How About Now” was a very good debut album; “Nothin’ Unexpected” is a superb follow-up. The opening song’s a good indication of what’s coming on the rest of the album; the title “I Hope You’re Unhappy” sounds bitter, but the twist in the lyric is that it isn’t bitterness, it’s longing to rebuild the relationship. The album’s full of contrasts like that, on the surface the songs are robust reflections of everyday life, but dig a little bit deeper and they’re full of clever, delicate ideas; “Fifteen Years” would still be a great song it told the story of one relationship, but it’s actually the story of three different interwoven relationships. The deeper you dig, the more gems you unearth.

The songs are pure quality, featuring some regular Ameripolitan themes like the lone drinker, bars in general (with a particularly British twist on “Haunts like This”) but it’s when Ags applies his own poetic twist to songs like “Do You Realise That Now?”, intertwining the idea of his lyrics about a lover being heard a century later and having the same power, with a Latin-tinged arrangement that could have come from “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”, that you realise how good he really is.

And while we’re talking about arrangements, the production on the album is flawless. Whether the ideas came from Ags, producer Dean Owens, or the musicians involved, particularly Stuart Nisbet (playing just about every fretted instrument known to man) every song receives exactly the right treatment. Apart from the full band near-rockabilly of “Neon Jail”, the Nashville feel of Loudon Wainwright’s “I Suppose” and the Appalachian string band styling of “Slow Burner”, the songs are generally allowed plenty of room to breathe, with judicious addition of just the accordion on “When the Loner Gets Lonely” and acoustic guitar and vocal treatments of “Fifteen Years” and the album’s closer “I Should’ve Closed the Book”. It’s the perfect demonstration of the power of the songs that they don’t need huge amounts of embellishment to bring out their power.

Well, that’s the difficult second album out of the way.

“Nothin’ Unexpected” is released on Friday February 3rd on At The Helm Records (ATH198214).

2016 brought more than its fair share of challenges but also a respectable amount of great music, live and recorded. With 2017 knocking on the door, this is probably a good time to start looking forward again. I’m not making any rash predictions this year; I’m just going to highlight a few things that you should look out for.

ags-scrollerAgs Connolly

 Ags Connolly has his second album, “Nothin’ Unexpected”, out in February and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s produced once again by Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens (more about him later) and it should capture Ags in fine form, delivering his fine Ameripolitan songs in his rich, smooth baritone voice. Since his debut “How About Now”, Ags has been touring extensively in the UK and across the pond, including a high profile support slot for Rosanne Cash in 2014 and he’s never been on better form. We should be reviewing this one very soon.

09) Stone Foundation Stone Foundation

 These guys have been working their butts off for years now pursuing their new soul vision with a combination of hard work on the gig circuit to build up a devoted following and release some quality albums. They’ve raised their profile year on year and been rewarded with a record deal for their upcoming album. Each of their albums has been a progression from the previous one, so this one should be a bit special. They also have a reputation for attracting some interesting special guests, so we’re eagerly anticipating this one.

04) Hannah Aldridge Hannah Aldridge

 I know, this starting to sound like a broken record (whatever that is), but you really should be listening to Hannah Aldridge. Like many artists, she’s gone down the crowdfunding route to get her new album made. It’s her second, following her superb debut “Razor Wire” and Hannah tells me that the style has shifted towards a more rock sound (she did a lot of the writing using a Telecaster rather than an acoustic) and from the songs she’s played live already, it sounds like another outstanding album’s on the way, with an eta of June 2017.

 01) DeanDean Owens – “Southern Wind”

 Another example of 2016 crowdfunding; Dean Owens wrote most of the album before raising the money to record it in Nashville with his dream team, including producer and guitar player extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. Dean’s been working incredibly hard, over the last couple of years particularly, to get some attention for his songs and he’s been rewarded by national exposure from Bob Harris and a support slot for Rosanne Cash. Here’s hoping “Southern Wind” pushes him into the mainstream.

07) Abbe & HannahSound of the Sirens second album

 Oh god, he’s not still going on about Sound of the Sirens, is he? I am, and like everyone else featured here, the reason is that they’re very good. Despite playing just about every festival in the UK this summer, Abbe and Hannah still found time to record an album. I’ve tried to get some details, but the Sirens are staying schtum, apart from the fact that it’s a bit different. If the new songs I’ve heard live are any indication, it’s going to be very good. Onwards and upwards. 2017 here we come.

 

Ags is a regular contributor to this feature, bringing a unique Ameripolitan twist to the proceedings. We always like to hear what he has to say about music in general, so here are some of his favourite things from 2016. Oh, and by the way, Ags has his second album coming out in February and it’s produced that other Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens.

In no particular order…

Show w/ Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig at Off Broadway, St. Louis MO,  28th February

1-agsIn February this year I undertook a US tour with a full band, including co-headliners Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig. Jack and I toured the UK and Ireland in 2015 so this was the ‘return leg’ for me. The band included Jack’s bass player Brice Baricevic, Pokey LaFarge’s drummer Matt Myer and Ryan himself, who is also an integral part of Pokey’s band as a multi-instrumentalist sideman. Jack played lead guitar when I was on stage. Needless to say the band were superb and over the course of 16 dates around the South and South East we honed our act until the final show of the tour – a homecoming for the band at Off Broadway in St. Louis. A nice crowd turned up including the other members of Pokey’s band (and the man himself) and we played our tightest and most enjoyable show of the tour. Probably one of my favourite gigs ever, in fact. I hope I’ll have the chance to play with these fellas again.

Jack Grelle – “Got Dressed Up To Be Let Down”

2-jack-grelleSpeaking of Jack, in October this year he released his second studio album (under his current solo guise). It may seem biased for me to include this in an end-of-year list but, having played countless shows with Jack and heard these songs many times, I think I’m well-placed to say whether they stand up to scrutiny or not. And they do. Along with the title track and all the other country/honky tonk/Cajun etc. sounds on this album, I love the song “Birthday Cards” about his Grandmother, which he’d mentioned to me during its writing. It could’ve been written by John Prine or any of the great country singer-songwriters you care to mention. Listen and find out.

Luke Bell – “Luke Bell”

3-luke-bellLuke is a guy I discovered a while ago, and later found out, as coincidence would have it, that he is a friend of Jack Grelle’s. His self-titled album released this year includes some of the songs that featured on his previous effort ‘”Don’t Mind If I Do”, presumably to ensure they reached a wider audience. Luke has one of the most engaging and natural sounds of all the new breed of country traditionalists. I was due to meet up with Luke in Nashville last year but he was too busy opening for Willie Nelson. If there is any justice he’ll be kept busy like that for a good while.

4-mo-pitneyMo Pitney  – “Behind This Guitar”

It’s not often the current young darlings of the modern Grand Ole Opry would make it onto any positive list of mine, but Mo Pitney is an exception. A young, skinny -as-a-rake lad in his early twenties, Mo is unquestionably the heir apparent to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and every other neo-traditionalist that was left in the dust by pop music. His voice and the songs he’s put together with other excellent writers demand attention. His first album has been a long time coming but was worth the wait.

5-robbie-fulksRobbie Fulks“Upland Stories”

Robbie Fulks’ last album, “Gone Away Backward”, was one that grew on me and became one of my favourites. In fact, a lot of Robbie Fulks’ albums are my favourite albums. 2005’s “Georgia Hard” is a case in point. With “Upland Stories” Robbie revisited the sparse arrangements of “Gone Away Backward” and mixed it with his always exceptional songwriting. It was recently announced that this album has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, a better-late-than-never slice of recognition that will hopefully bring a new audience to this songwriter’s songwriter.

Ags is way too polite to mention this, but his second album “Nothin’ Unexpected” will be out on February 3rd on At The Helm Records.

02) Dean OwensOne of our Riot Squad favourites has been incredibly busy this year. Dean Owens has playing gigs around the country, solo and with his band The Whisky Hearts, but that’s just the start of it. He’s been in Nashville recording a new album with his old collaborators Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard and playing some gigs. The album’s well on the way to being ready and he’s launched a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe to cover the costs of travel, recording and accommodation costs. Have a look at the GoFundMe page and see if you think you can pitch in with a few quid; every bit makes a difference.

But that’s not all. He’s been producing the second album for his Drumfire Records label-mate Ags Connolly (who hasn’t exactly had a quiet year himself) and putting together a deluxe edition of his previous album “Into the Sea”, with four new songs, “Alison Wonderland”, “Cotton Snow”, “Forgotten Shadows” and “Keep Me in Your Heart”. And still only a tenner.

You can catch him live before the end of the year in the following places:

Sunday October 30                          Green Note, London

Friday November 18                       The Live Room, Saltaire

Sunday November 20                      The Maze, Nottingham

Friday November 25                       Drygate Brewing Company, Glasgow, (with The Whisky Hearts)

Friday December 2                          The Tolbooth, Stirling

Saturday December 3                    The Weem Inn, Aberfeldy

Monday December 12                   Traverse, Edinburgh (with The Whisky Hearts)

And there’s a new single, “Virginia Street”, out at the moment:

Cotton SnowIt’s not a great time to be involved in the arts at the moment, particularly if you’re hoping to make a living out of it but, somehow, people just keep on plugging away at it, grabbing any opportunity that comes along to create something that will enrich the lives of people who see, hear, read or touch it. Dean Owens is one of those artists; constantly touring, recording, promoting and generally getting his songs out there. He knows that you have to take every opportunity that comes along and that’s why a breakfast in a Nashville greasy spoon with guitarist/producer Dave Coleman led to his latest single.

Breakfast led to a quick visit to Dave’s home studio, swapping a few ideas and Dave creating a moody and magnificent backing track featuring drum loops, live drums, bass and an eclectic guitar arrangement which Dean completed with vocals recorded in Edinburgh. Dean’s always been a superb chronicler of emotions and personal history, but recently he’s built a few songs around historical events, particularly on his EP “No Man’s Land” and “Cotton Snow” is a song in that vein, telling the story of a soldier realising the futility of the Civil War, or any war. And cotton snow? When the cotton gins and fields were bombed, the cotton fell back to earth like snow. It’s a sombre and beautiful piece of work that enhances his growing reputation.

If you want to see Dean live, he’s taking part in a fabulous event called The Men from Leith on Friday May 6 at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh featuring Dick Gaughan, Blue Rose Code and Dean with his band The Whisky Hearts.

“Cotton Snow” is out on Drumfire Records on Friday April 15th.

And just as a wee treat, here’s the video:

Rod Picott - 'Fortune' - cover (300dpi)I think we need to introduce a new way of evaluating Country and Americana albums. The five star system’s all very well but I think we need another measure. I’m thinking of something like the Kimbrough Count; if Will Kimbrough plays on the album then it’s worth listening to. It certainly worked last year with his appearances on albums by Dean Owens and Sam Lewis, and he shows up again here on Rod Picott’s seventh album “Fortune”, but this is a very different proposition to the albums by either of those artists.

Rod Picott’s songs are intensely personal, zooming in on the lives of ordinary people (Rod included) and everyday events, and delivered in a gruff baritone that often sounds on the point of cracking, but never actually does. More often than not, he performs with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, but, on “Fortune”, he’s added a smattering of musicians including Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard to create a sound that’s still sparse, stark and sometimes downright menacing and intimidating. It’s still a fairly minimal soundscape but it reinforces the powerful lyrics which are poetic but never overblown.

Uncle John” is slightly untypical in that it deals mainly with family and society rather than personal matters, but the instrumentation is unsettling with detuned guitar, clipped notes, harmonics, heavy reverb and a sound somewhere between Dick Dale and Link Wray all underpinning a story of an outsider woodsman who pays the ultimate price for stepping outside society. The two lines ‘Drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break, Nine fingers from one mistake’ paint a graphic and economic picture of the lifestyle and its dangers, while the closing lines (along with the chorus) imply his death without actually making the statement.

The themes of the songs are mainly personal (although “Jeremiah” is written from the point of view of a woman hearing about the death of a soldier she loved), but it’s the moments when Rod steps back from dealing with raw emotion to singing about more general themes, particularly “Uncle John” and the moodily magnificent “Drunken Barber’s Hand” that the album really starts to soar. The album’s full of powerful, gut-wrenching songs that evoke the spirit of heartland America with imagery and playing that are equally powerful and simple. 2016’s looking good already.

“Fortune” is released in the UK on Friday January 15th on Welding Rod Records.