String bands, bluegrass generally; it’s not for everyone and I guess most bands making music in this genre today must be trying to attract a few new listeners, but how do you do it? You can try playing traditional tunes and be better than anyone else, but that’s not likely to bust you out of the genre. You can write new songs in the bluegrass idiom, but that’s risky unless they’re very good. The third way is to cover familiar songs in the string band style, and that’s the way The High Bar Gang have gone with their previous album of gospel songs and this album of heartbreak and death country songs. And they did one more revolutionary thing; they recorded the album in stereo, as opposed to using the traditional one–mic technique.
Despite a few lovely guitar solos, particularly on the opener, Dolly Parton’s “Silver Dagger” and the penultimate “Rock Salt and Nails”, the sound of The High Bar Gang is built on a solid basis of ensemble playing, the interplay between bass and guitar and the more percussive mandolin and banjo creating the rhythms that drive the songs underpinning a rich and varied series of textures and melodic settings created by seven players with various combinations of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. There’s even some time signature variation, with almost half of the songs in ¾ time.
And then there’s the voices, working together in all sorts of combinations; two-part and three-part harmonies featuring in “How Many Times Have you Broken my Heart?” and “She’s More To Be Pitied” (sounding like a reply to the Arlie Carter and William Warren classic “Wild Side of Life”) and the male/female duet combination of “Branded Wherever I Go”. They all have that seemingly effortless lustre that only happens when a true gift is polished to perfection.
If you look at this as an experiment in adapting songs to a string band style, it’s a complete success; it should win over a few more fans to a genre that’s almost a polar opposite of everything we hear on mainstream radio. There are lovely interpretations of classic songs by Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, all accented with perfect harmonies and melancholy fiddle fills. Who knows, it may even help them earn a well-deserved breakthrough to a wider audience.
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal supported by Dean Owens at The Union Chapel; now there’s one that ticks all the boxes. The sound in the venue is outstanding for acoustic performances (it is a working church after all), the audience is receptive and the atmosphere’s always warm and friendly; even the security staff are pleasant. If ever there was a perfect venue for Dean Owens to play his biggest London show so far, this was the one and he wasn’t about to disappoint.
He opened with “Shine like the Road after the Rain” and immediately had the audience on his side; none of this polite applause nonsense, this was a crowd that immediately recognised great songwriting and performance. With only a thirty minute slot, Dean chose his songs carefully with four from his new album, the intensely personal “Into the Sea”, which we reviewed earlier this year. The gentle longing of “Valentine’s Day in New York” set a few toes tapping before the triple emotional whammy of “Virginia Street”, “Evergreen” and “The Only One”. The last song should have suffered from the loss of Will Kimbrough’s studio harmonies, but it didn’t; the audience listened entranced and gave the song the best response so far. Which left enough time to fit in “Raining in Glasgow” (just one of Dean’s anthems) and a completely unplugged crowd-pleasing romp through Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”. And leave them wanting more…
Rosanne Cash is a bona fide country legend, regularly bracketed with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and with good reason; she’s written some superb songs and also recorded some fine interpretations. The current European tour, with her husband, guitarist and songwriter John Leventhal, is nominally in support of her last album, the double Grammy winner “The River & the Thread” but it’s obvious that the show is much more than that. It’s about the links between that album, the delta, the blues and the history of the Southern states, and the various tributaries gradually joined up as the set progressed.
So, not surprisingly, songs from the latest album were heavily featured, particularly at the start of the set, which opened with “Modern Blue” and featured “Etta’s Tune”, “The Sunken Lands” and “The Long Way Home”. “The River & the Thread” featured again towards the end of the set as we heard “When the Master Calls the Roll”, “World of Strange Design” and “Money Road”, while the middle section featured some of the greatest hits including “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, “ Sea of Heartbreak” and “The Way we Make a Broken Heart”. The obligatory “Seven Year Ache” made an appearance towards the end of the set after many audience requests (and there’s a very personal story behind that one which I’ll share with you another day) but the focal point of the entire set, where the rivers and threads were gathered together, was a Bobbie Gentry song.
Rosanne and John’s performance of “Ode to Billie Joe” was heart-rending, the minimalist guitar picking underpinning the lyrical contrast between domestic banality and sensational events which are never fully explained. The song silenced the audience and drew the best response of the night while joining the dots in the overall picture the duo created; if you need a definition of tour de force, this was it.
Predictably enough, there were a couple of (well-deserved) standing ovations to round off an evening of powerful songs delivered by three gifted performers and everyone left happy and emotionally drained. Doesn’t that just define a great gig?
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.