Phil 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’s “Kintsugi”.
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.
A 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.
A 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”).
Visiting 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.
Finally 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.
Opening 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).
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.
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 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.
Rosanne 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.
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.
Hannah 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.
In December 2014, I made a conscious decision that I would get to as many gigs as I possibly could during 2015. Not all of those gigs became reviews or picture galleries, but I certainly broke my previous record, which has stood since my second year at university. I love those moments at gigs when something happens which is either so unexpected or so exceptional that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know that you’ll remember it forever. Here are five of those from 2015:
Sound of the Sirens – In mid-March this year I was at The Half Moon in Putney to see Mad Dog Mcrea. I’d just reviewed their “Almost Home” album and thought they would be good to see live. I hadn’t heard of the support band, Sound of the Sirens, but I like to see support bands because you never know when you’ll make a great discovery; this was one of those nights. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood grabbed my attention from the opening notes with superb songs, perfect harmonies and counterpoint and a huge dynamic range combining to create a set of acoustic anthems for the twenty-first century, all of it completely new to me. The entire set was stunning, but “Faith in Fire” had me transfixed; I had to just stand and watch, open-mouthed as the song progressed from the quiet intro to a rousing finale. Just perfect.
Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel – My first visit to the lovely Union Chapel and I was there with Phil Burdett to see one of my teenage heroes play a stripped-down set with Brinsley Schwarz (who was in the first proper band I saw live). Graham Parker has such a huge catalogue of songs that it’s impossible to predict which ones would make the cut on the night. Over the pre-gig pint, I came up with a small wish-list; one of which was almost a certainty, and the other a bit of an outsider. The opening song “Watch the Moon Come Down” ticked the certainty box, but it wasn’t until much later in the set that the harrowing “You Can’t be Too Strong” completed the list. The audience reaction of awed silence throughout the song and an explosion of applause at the end showed that I wasn’t the only person waiting to hear that one. I think I may have had something in my eye at that point.
Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – This is another gig that came out of hearing an album and deciding that I had to see the artist. Hannah’s debut, “Razor Wire”, is a wonderful piece of work featuring some brutally honest and sincere depictions of her life and I was keen to hear how these songs would strip down to an acoustic format. As expected, the songs worked perfectly in their original forms with Hannah’s pure, clear voice and acoustic guitar; Hannah was engaging between songs, giving some background to each piece, explaining the inspiration behind it. The song which completely silenced the full house at Green Note was “Parchman”, a song that, uncharacteristically, isn’t autobiographical; it’s the story of a woman on death row for murdering her abusive husband. I swear you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe as Hannah pulled the maximum emotion from the song by playing it completely straight; no vocal tricks or adornments, just a perfect song and a beautiful delivery, leaving the audience emotionally drained.
Dean Owens at The Union Chapel – It’s fair to say that Dean Owens is a bit of a Riot Squad favourite and it’s great to see that he’s having some very well-deserved success this year. Landing the support slot for Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel gave Dean a chance to play in front of a full house and an appreciative audience in London with only his guitar and a bunch of great songs. He had the audience with him from the start and got a great response for the whole set but saved something very special for the end. He went completely unplugged; no amplification for guitar or voice. I’ve seen this done in smaller venues (Hannah Aldridge did it at Green Note) but it was big moment in a venue this size, however good the acoustics are. Dean hit the ball out of the park; he pulled out a rip-roaring version of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” which rightly earned him a huge response from a slightly stunned audience. A magical moment.
Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal at The Union Chapel – I know, I’m just being greedy here; two epiphanies on the same night. Rosanne Cash featured a lot of songs from the award-winning “The River and the Thread” and, with husband John Leventhal, was superb throughout, taking time to tell some of the stories behind the songs and establish a warm rapport with the audience. Strangely enough, the entire set seemed to come into sharp focus on someone else’s song, Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic “Ode to Billy Joe”, which pulled all of the other threads together. A very simple arrangement and heartfelt performances pulled the audience into the song and generated a response that was part acclamation and part relief at escape from the song’s interwoven strands of tragedy and banality.
And I suppose that’s one reason that we go to gigs; we always hope that we’ll see those moments that you can’t capture on film or record/CD/MP3; the things that only happen once. I think five in one year’s pretty good going. Thanks to Sound of the Sirens, Graham Parker, Hannah Aldridge, Dean Owens and Rosanne Cash for those fabulous memories.
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 album’s been around for a few months but it slipped under the MusicRiot radar until we heard about The Kennedys touring to support it in the UK, so I guess that justifies telling you all about it a little late. This is the twelfth album the husband and wife team, Pete and Maura Kennedy, have released as The Kennedys, although they have both also been involved with various side projects. The Kennedys are one of those “well-kept secret” bands that have devoted fans but, for some reason, have never quite become massively successful.
“Closer than You Know” is an interesting piece of work. Just for once I agree with a statement from a press release; this is “pop for grown-ups” and, more importantly, it’s music for people who really care about music. There isn’t any filler on this album; all of the songs are good and, in my opinion, at least a couple are great. It’s difficult to define their style, but if you take folk-rock as your starting point, add a bit of Celtic seasoning and throw in 60s UK pop and The Byrds, you won’t be far off the mark.
The opening song “Winter” sets the scene for the album with Pete’s finger-picked guitar backing Maura’s breathy, multi-tracked, vocals before moving into the country-tinged “Rhyme and Reason”, followed by the story of a second generation illegal immigrant “Marina Dream”, which has a Celtic folk feel and a rhythm that evokes perfectly the flight and pursuit experienced by the girl at the centre of the song.
The middle section of the album moves across a variety of styles instrumentally and vocally featuring laconic Richard Hawley style-guitar, discordant synthesised strings and classical nylon-strung guitar arrangements. I’m not dismissing these songs by any means, because they’re all good but, for me, after a couple of listens, the album builds up to one focal point.
From the opening sus4 chords of “Big Star Song” I was hooked. The song is a celebration of Alex Chilton’s work and a lament for his passing; it’s a perfect marriage of words and music which evokes an earlier era while sounding completely contemporary. Like many great songs, this has several layers and, lyrically, it’s also about losing something or someone other than Alex Chilton. I don’t know what that something else is and I suspect it’s so personal that I don’t really want to know. Whichever way you look at it, this is a great song.
“Big Star Song” is followed by a U2 cover, “Wild Honey” , “Happy Again” (which has more than a hint of Rosanne Cash vocally) and “Winter Lies”, which completes the cycle. I would have reviewed this as a good album without “Big Star Song”, but with that song, it’s a very good album indeed. You can hear loads of influences at work here (you can probably add Stevie Nicks and maybe Emmylou Harris to the ones I’ve already listed), but this is fresh and original.
My only general criticism is that the album feels slightly over-produced at times. This may be a reaction to working as a duo because it must be natural at times to over-compensate by throwing too much at the production and adding another extra guitar part or vocal harmony. It’s a minor criticism and I’m really looking forward to hearing the live interpretations of the songs later this week.
“Closer than You Know” is out now (Catalogue No. TK1208), distributed by Proper Music Distribution.
Normally, Closet Classics would feature an album but I think this song deserves its own CC feature. “The Wild Side of Life” is a classic country song, which alienates most of the music snobs instantly. It’s great to see that country has finally become accessible, songwriters in the UK are admitting to being influenced by it and it’s hard to believe now that for decades the genre was seen as a bad joke.
This song played a huge part in my childhood. Country music has always been popular in Scotland. I’ve got a few theories about that, but I’m sure the sociologists and musicologists can give you much better-researched explanations; here’s a personal perspective.
In 60s and 70s Scotland there was a great tradition of families and friends gathering (usually after the pubs closed, which was 10 o’clock in those days) to sing songs and tell jokes, and maybe have a wee dram or two. Most of the songs were country: “Crying Time”, “Please Help Me I’m Falling”, “From a Jack to a King”, “He’ll Have to Go” and the occasional standard like “Summertime”. Everyone had their own song which they performed at every session. I’m guessing that they picked up those songs from American Forces Network (AFN) radio, American military bases and artists playing in working men’s and ex-servicemen’s clubs. However they did it, they learned those songs and passed them on in the age-old oral tradition. A lot of those songs made it on to the club circuit because you didn’t have to be a great guitar player to do passable job of supporting your voice with a few chords on an acoustic guitar to sell a good song; depending on your vocal range, you could get by with C, F and G at a push. Some combinations of those letters might have even helped you with hecklers.
So why “The Wild Side of Life”? Really simple, it was one of my grandad’s songs and he could really sing (and he fought in a world war, got shot, went to New York, and won a Fife Junior Cup football medal as well); when you grow up hearing a great song delivered with feeling by someone with a good voice, then it’s going to stick for life. And you’ve probably guessed that there was a bit of hero-worship in there as well. So the song was stuck in my consciousness and it wasn’t going away and, although the early 70s seemed to be a country-free zone on the surface (apart from the schlock that made the UK charts), my favourite singers and songwriters (Neil Young and Jackson Browne, for example) were heavily influenced by country singers; Neil Young even covered “Oh, Lonesome Me”. Towards the end of the 70s, it became acceptable to like “The Wild Side of Life” when it was covered by such rock tastemakers as Status Quo and Rod Stewart, but I was there way before all of those denim boys and feather cut fancy dans because I loved the original.
The classic version of the song, for me anyway, is the 1952 version by Hank Thompson, whose plaintive vocal perfectly matches the theme of loss in the song, but there are dozens of others by country artists before you even start to look at pop covers. The song even generated one of the earliest answer songs in Kitty Wells’ “Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, which was also a No. 1 in 1952. As the 70s morphed into the 80s, more country acts crossed over into the mainstream and artists like Carlene Carter, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash along with the bad boys like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Even angry young man Elvis Costello did an album of country covers and it was ok to admit that you always loved country music.
That should have been the end of the story, but there was still another twist. When I moved to London and worked with people whose parents came to the UK from the Caribbean, I discovered that they grew up listening to the same music that I had listened to as a kid in a Fife mining village. Now, that was a weird sensation; discovering a completely unsuspected common musical heritage with friends from a completely different background and maybe that says something about music being able to break down all sorts of barriers. Of course, the whole idea of country being big in the Caribbean in the 50s is old news now that Trevor Nelson has spoken about it, but it came as quite a shock at the time.
As for the song, well, whenever I pick up a guitar and start playing, it usually manages to poke its head in there and it’s a challenge to try to find a musical style you can’t fit it into. And it’s such a great song that it can make a mediocre player and singer sound reasonable. What more do you want?