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.

Phil PenmanPhil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.

 

 

Into the SeaAlbum of the Year (aka I Love My Label)

In the literal sense Dean Owens’Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.

 DartsI Love My Job Sometimes

Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.

Sleaford ModsKeeping The Fires Burning (aka One That Nearly Got Away)

Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them.  Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability.  Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.

 Hannah Rose PlattBright Young Thing

One nomination for this category of mine this year.  I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.

 

Death Cab for CutieReturn to Form

Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases:  John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’sKintsugi”.

 

The next contributor to 2015’s High Fives is on one of my favourite independent UK labels, Drumfire Records, along with Dean Owens and Phil Burdett. Ags Connolly has had a pretty good year as word has spread about his 2014 debut “How About Now” and he’s played just about everywhere. As Ags hasn’t said anything about this in his contribution, I’ll just mention that he supported Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal in Leeds earlier this year.

Doug SeegersDoug Seegers – Live at Southern Fried Festival, Perth, 1st August

I’d already been enjoying Doug’s album “Down to The River’” so I was glad to see his UK debut would be at Southern Fried, a few hours after my set opening for Dean Owens. Doug’s live show was, in my view, even better than his star-heavy, Nashville-produced album. An interesting line-up of bass, drums and fiddle behind vocal and guitar gave a surprisingly big sound and Doug’s vocals were excellent. Doug is absolutely huge in Sweden and I tried to persuade him and the band to try the rest of the UK soon. Let’s hope they do.

J1545closed_GLUEohn Moreland – “High On Tulsa Heat”

I’ve been aware of John Moreland since his album “In the Throes” began to bubble under in 2013. He is easily one of the best new songwriters I’ve heard in years. I was excited to hear his new effort, “High on Tulsa Heat” and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with strong melodies and excellent lyrics. I do think his previous album was marginally better, but that’s a bit like comparing a massive box of sweets with another massive box of sweets. Looking forward to seeing John open for Jason Isbell over here in January.

Grand Ole OpryGrand Ole Opry show, 27th February

In February I made my first trip to the Grand Ole Opry and I picked a pretty good date. A country radio seminar was keeping a lot of the more modern acts busy that week so we were treated to a show including older legends such as Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee, Bill Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys and Jim Lauderdale. It was a very enjoyable experience and showed, reassuringly, that country music as we used to know it is still alive in some corners of Nashville.

Justin TrevinoJustin Trevino – “Sings Johnny Bush

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best traditional country singer alive today I’d say Justin Trevino. I’d probably say it without the gun, to be honest. This new album of him singing songs he learned from his hero, Texas legend Johnny Bush, is possibly his best. The opening track is the self-penned “One Night at a Johnny Bush Dance” and it fits perfectly with classics like “Whiskey River”. Trevino is about as staunchly traditional as you can get, and this album is one of my favourites this year.

Jeremy Pinnell and Max FenderJeremy Pinnell and Max Fender – UK tour, October

This October I had the pleasure of hosting and playing two shows with Ohio/Kentucky artists Jeremy Pinnell and Max Fender (lead singer of the band Alone at 3am) on their UK and Europe tour. I was already a fan of both guys but seeing them live was special. Jeremy reminded me of Guy Clark while Max was somewhere between Jon Dee Graham and REM. Both deserve a wider audience and I hope they make it back soon: credit to their road manager and label owner Mike Montgomery for getting them over here this time.

Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.

A Life Unlimited Title“A Life Unlimited” – Stone Foundation

It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.

Soultime Title“Soultime!” – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Heart of Gotham” – Pete Kennedy

This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Razor Wire” – Hannah Aldridge

This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.

Black Casino Scroller“Until the Water Runs Clear” – Black Casino and the Ghost

Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.

And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.

 

As you can see from the piece below, Dean Owens has had a pretty eventful 2015 (including four London gigs, the release of his album “Into the Sea” and the two major events at the end of the piece). We’re pleased he’s had a chance to slow down a little and tell us about some of his personal highlights this year. Dean’s also given us a substitute for his five-a-side team, so we’ve decided to include that as well.

 

All the Light we Cannot See“All the Light we Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. A really poignant and moving story, beautifully written.

 

 

 

 

Doug SeegersA gig I really enjoyed was Doug Seegers at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Kind of took me by surprise. His is a great story of survival. Check out his debut album “Going Down to The River” which was produced by my friend Will Kimbrough.

 

 

HeartsA big highlight for me was seeing my team Heart of Midlothian win the league and promotion. It was great to be at the matches with my dad (the inspiration for Dean’s beautiful song “The Man from Leith”).

 

 

 

Ambrose SalvonaVisiting the grave of my great, great Grandfather Ambrose Salvona (the lion tamer) with my dad in the Scottish Highlands. Ambrose features in the song “Dora” from my new album “Into the Sea”. It’s a great story.

 

 

Bob HarrisFinally doing a session for legendary presenter Bob Harris at BBC Radio 2 was special. It was kind of strange sitting opposite the great man and singing a couple of songs for him. Strange in a nice way.

 

 

 

Dean  ScrollerOpening for Roseanne Cash at Union Chapel in London was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. Such a beautiful venue. It was a magical evening. (This event also got a mention in one of Allan’s High Fives this year).

It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.

 

2014 wasn’t a great gig year for me, so I decided to catch up in 2015 by getting my cameras along to every gig I could possibly get to. It obviously worked; when I had to pick my favourite five photos of the year, I had difficulty narrowing it down, so I decided to cheat. I’ve seen a lot of female singers this year, so I decided to create a High Five dedicated to them. As always, in no particular order.

05) Mollie

Mollie Marriott at The Half Moon – By the time I saw this gig, it felt a bit like I was stalking Mollie. I’d seen her play live three times in three months. This gig was her second at The Half Moon with her full band and it wasn’t quite as busy as the first so there was a bit of space to pick some nice angles and just wait for Mollie to get completely absorbed in her songs and try to catch some special moments. She’s a singer who totally commits herself to the song and all you have to do is press the shutter release at the right time.

 

Elisa ScrollerElisa Zoot of Black Casino & the Ghost at The Finsbury – I’ve loved this band since I was introduced to them by John O’Sullivan of Red Adore Music. They’re totally original and Elisa has a phenomenal voice. It’s a little bit weird when you suddenly transform from two people talking in a pub beer garden to a photographer and a performer within fifteen minutes, but it’s always good to get a chance to get to know the artist. The lighting wasn’t great, but there was a lot of contrast, so black and white was the way to go. It’s good to know that Elisa likes this photo as well.

 

05) RosanneRosanne Cash at The Union Chapel – I have to say I got a very lucky break here. When I discovered that Dean Owens was playing as support to Rosanne Cash, it was full-on grovel mode with Dean’s manager, Morag to try to get a photo pass but, as always, Morag came up with the goods. It’s always an interesting shot at this venue if you can get the stained glass window in, but Rosanne Cash happened to look heavenward at exactly the right time to make this work. Maybe I need to rethink the atheism thing.

 

Amy

Amy

Nova Twins at FTFH, Birthdays, Dalston – FTFH is a monthly event at Birthdays promoting female performers and Nova Twins were topping the bill with their intriguing and eclectic mash-up of rock, hip-hop and punk attitudes. The lighting was decent and Amy and Georgia’s style and stage presence made it pretty much impossible to take a bad shot. I finally settled on this picture of Amy because of the attitude and power and the nice mix of colours in the background, but I could have chosen any one of a dozen shots from this gig.

 

 

05) 3300-0010Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – Green Note’s a venue where you have to put in a bit of effort to get a good shot. I went along to this gig on the strength of Hannah’s stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” and I wasn’t disappointed. I had just moved around the stage to get a slightly different viewpoint when Hannah introduced a new song “Gold Rush” which was incredibly powerful and completely enthralled the audience. I think the shot just about captures the emotion she was pouring in to that song.

Just click on any of the thumbnails to see the picture at full size.