Photo courtesy of Richard Bolwell

Beth Hart is at the tail end of her USA and British tour that culminates at the Royal Albert Hall on the 4th May, but I’m glad I went to Portsmouth with its bright, clear acoustics and more intimate setting.  It may be nearly game-over for this tour, but Hart showed no signs of tiring, she began singing confidently in the auditorium while the band struck up. Working her way through the aisles, shaking extended hands as she sung her opener, “Somethings Got a Hold on Me” towards the stage, dressed in a simple black shift dress.

It’s a small set-up, with a drummer, bassist and lead guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Beth is left to rotate between keys, guitar and acoustic bass (which she is still learning) while doing vocal duties as well.  Hart has no new studio album to promote, but has just released “Live & Centre, Live in NY”, not a greatest hits package but an eclectic showcase of mainly more recent material but we get mostly a different selection tonight.

Hart is a long-time collaborator with blues guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, with whom she has made a few albums, but on this tour the lead guitar is taken up by John Nichols.  Hart has chosen a set list that moves a little away from the kind of wailing blues she has a reputation for and maybe she has picked songs that her new guitarist can cope with.  Nichols arrived on stage with a Telecaster, more known as a rhythm instrument, and my heart sank a little.  Although he swapped guitars after every song, it was mainly Telecasters so there were no flourishes or stunning solos to melt the lighting track or thrill the audience.

However Hart clearly loves her craft and a grateful crowd and her charisma shines out, with a more attacking version of “Don’t Explain” and Tom Waits’ jaunty “Chocolate Jesus”.  Although she makes covers her own with her heady brew of blues, jazz, soul and country, she also showcased her own writing talents.  “Tell Her You Belong to Me” is an emotional rendition of a daughter’s plea to her father regarding his infidelity.  Hart’s Mother was in the front row and there was some banter with her on some of the more autobiographical tracks, eventually dedicating “Baddest Blues” to her Mum.  Beth Hart easily held the large room, she was engaging with just the right amount of chat.  Hart talks openly about her mental health issues, she has bipolar disorder and addiction issues and once blew the $100k she won on a talent show on hard living in 6 months, but sobriety has brought a new focus for her talent, though the sparks of wildness show through in her tough but tender voice.

Watching Hart, you get the feeling that she really loves performing, clocking up a 2 hour show and eventually, after singing “My California” to her tour manager husband, he kissed her then physically pulled her off stage.  A three-song encore ensued, ending on “There’s no Place like Home” and a wonderful evening flew past successfully.

The photograph for this piece was taken by Richard Bolwell. You can see more of his excellent photographs and reviews here.

Layla ZoeLayla Zoe blurs the distinction between rock and blues; although this live workout has shades of quieter emotion too (“The Lily” for example, which brings out the sweetness in Zoe’s voice). The set relies heavily on her most recent work, 2014’s “The Lily” and unfortunately, the Belgian crowd seem unfamiliar with those tracks. However she kicks off with ‘”I’ve Been Down” where she sings ‘… gotta get my act together…’ in what could be a tribute to either Janis Joplin or The Doors (“Been Down So Long”), she then seamlessly slips into forward gear with a 180 degree turn to “Pull Yourself Together”, a vehement musical rant that shows Zoe’s voice to full effect. Another angry highlight is “They Lie”, ‘They’ being the political establishment; if not exactly nailing her colours to a particular mast, Layla and band remind us that there are plenty of reasons to wake up and protest and you can almost hear her long hair whipping the microphone.

The difference between this album and the last is not just its alive quality, but that “The Lily” co-writer and axeman extraordinaire, Henrik Freischlader is absent, instead replaced by Jan Laacks. It would have taken a skilful and confident guitarist to audition for such an intricate set of tunes, but I have to say, if I had doubts previously, Laacks more than manages lead guitar duties, even if he tends toward more straight-ahead rock sensibilities on the whole.

It’s a big listen, clocking in both discs at about the same length as a feature film, and maybe a brave release given its coverage of her most recent album, only a few of older tracks and ending with three covers (Lennon/McCartney’s “Let It Be”, “Yer Blues” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” with a more relaxed jazz vocal in places; it’s twenty minutes long). But thankfully it’s not a “Greatest Hits: Live” which can so often result in overworked arrangements to stop the band nodding off. “Live” is a great listen but you might want to take it in in halves. As often happens, with live sets, three of the tracks come in at over ten minutes, for which you maybe had to be there. However, this outing on disc certainly makes me hope that she does a dedicated UK tour sometime soon.

It feels like this release is more of a confirmed fan’s date; newcomers should certainly dip into this album, but I’d probably recommend an earlier studio session or to just buy a ticket and get lost in the bluesy world of Layla Zoe.

“Live at Spirit of 66” is out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-46).

Almost HomeMad Dog Mcrea hail from Plymouth, Devon and comprise: Michael Mathieson – guitar & vocals, Dan Crimp – whistles & flute, Jimi Galvin – bass, Dave Podmore – Bazooki & banjo, Pete Chart – drums & Nicki Powell – Fiddle. But that line up of instruments doesn’t even begin to describe the rich fruitiness of the energetic soundscape they create.

A heady punch of mainly uptempo folk, acoustic rock, gypsy strains of bluegrass and jazz touches, with some Brit humour and delivery. They also have some rock’n’roll anecdotes and a buccaneering approach to music, throwing lots of influences into the pot and creating something very listenable from it. They have a good reputation as a live gigging band, having done at least their fair share of festivals and are currently on tour;” Almost Home” translates their live energy well to digital. I don’t know who the writing talent is in the band but the overall sound is very collaborative throughout. The arrangements aren‘t necessarily straight-ahead but they are not meandering either. Sean Lakeman takes credit for the even and bright production.

As well as local nods (“Devonside”) and peopled by gangsters, pirates, faeries and gypsies and the themes are quite diverse from the tunnellers of WWI(“You Can’t Find Me”) to the comically romantic “Cher”.

Overall it’s a good listen that entertains and uplifts.   I should imagine this would be a good drinking soundtrack, though there are cautionary tales about alcohol use, and a tinge of melancholy, “The Sound”, for home time.

Who We AreThis folky duo  have been around since ’94 although they evolved out of the much respected Albion Band and have already produced a “Best Of…” in 2006 so they are not short of musical and life experience to write about and this CD definitely focuses on interesting subjects rather than doomed love. The themes might not surprise you in this folk/country genre: dying babies, war and a tribute to the oldest holocaust survivor, who died earlier this year. “Who We Are” is their ninth studio outing for the Fat Cat label. They are frequent nominees as well as winners of Radio 2’s Folk awards and they have been covered by many acts including Mary Black, Fairport Convention and Barbara Dickson.

This is no acoustic camp-fire session though; the instrumentation is quite rich and diverse, allowing for some creativity with the arrangements.   The overall effect is that of sounding more expensive, but with disciplined production values; the outcome is balanced. My issue with it is probably one of tempo, which is a bit samey. The ballads tend towards upbeat while some of the other songs could use a little more energy.

This collection of all-new songs starts in a jaunty mood with “If This Were Your Last Day” with its bright jangly guitars and vocal harmony that asks us to ditch our regrets; ‘Would you do it another way/ if this were your last day?’ This is the most obvious single of the set, with its catchy chorus and daytime radio-friendly lyric. Their voices blend effortlessly and to great effect, my only comparison might be vaguely to the Indigo Girls. The musicianship is of a consistently high quality throughout, lending this album a sophisticated, professional atmosphere.

My favourite tracks are: “Drop Hammer”, a rhythmic vocal composition about women’s war effort in the Sheffield steel mills and “Mad Men”, a more contemporary arrangement, focussed on planetary ecology. I’m sure this collection of songs will keep the fans happy but I just don’t know their back catalogue well enough to know if this is their best yet.

Toumani Diabaté sizedToumani and his son Sidiki, come from a long line of griots, from Mali and they can trace back the family line an impressive 72 generations, all kora players, the knowledge passed from father to son for centuries.  Their instrument, the kora, or African harp to some has 21 strings and in the hands of a master, emits cascades of beautiful sound. The new album, ‘Toumani & Sidiki’ is rich in texture and melodies and the playing bright and clear, there is none of the squeak or scratch of strings as with a lesser player.  The strings are tickled, strummed or stroked into torrents of bells, lutes or piano, or there is more attack and the tones ring out; it is a flawless album but it is certainly not clinical.  Curiously, it is simultaneously stimulating and relaxing so I was looking forward to an inspiring evening listening to them live.

The concert had been rescheduled to the end of their UK tour after visa problems prevented their appearance at the Brighton Festival, of which this is part.  I have seen Toumani in action with a band at Womad a couple of years ago, but I was looking forward to seeing him with just his son.

Sidiki took the stage first and played alone for the first song, as if to prove his own virtuosity ahead of the appearance of his father, and what a highly skilled musician he is in his own right.  Toumani then appeared to rapturous applause and settled behind his slightly smaller instrument.  Father and son played so intuitively, mainly with eyes shut and they navigated the sophisticated melodies like fish in a shoal turning together.  Only twice Toumani shouted out a command to his son, perhaps to play louder, otherwise it was complete simpatico.

Just when I thought a melodic theme would be repeated, it would be explored and ultimately taken further.  There were runs and climaxes in the tunes, Toumani and Sidiki taking it in turns to either hold down the song or take flight in their soloing.  I don’t know the album well enough yet to have picked out the titles of songs, and all of the tracks being instrumentals made it harder still, but I did recognise much of the performance from the CD, although some of the tracks were longer than the studio versions.  Toumani is renowned for not doing rehearsals but just turning up and letting the magic happen; in fact it was more like the music flowed through them rather than coming from them per se.

I was shocked when the pair took a bow after an hour and the crowd took to their feet in a grateful ovation; it only felt like 20 minutes had passed.  Toumani, a man of few words, addressed the audience at last greeting Brighton and saying he loves the city and that he would be back. He also raised awareness of the continuing troubles in his home country and dedicated the encore to the victims of the Lampedusa boat tragedy.  When I got my CD signed afterwards, I shook their gifted hands and thanked them but forgot to ask if they felt their ancestors were with them while they played; I bet they were there.  The CD “Toumani & Sidiki” is out now and comes highly recommended.

KelisThis reasonably priced, sold-out concert was part of The Great Escape Festival and attracted a festival crowd.  Ella Eyre kicked off proceedings, most recently known for her vocal duties on Rudimental’s hit “Waiting All Night”.  She certainly warmed up a growing crowd, with her energy and stagecraft.  Kelis arrived on stage at ten pm for an hour and twenty minutes, predominantly to promote her latest album, “Food”.  Wearing a mid-blue empire-line dress, she began unaccompanied to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, which she returned to midway and finished with, but this was not a covers show.   Kelis then launched into four songs from “Food”, which were received with polite applause; I just don’t think the crowd knew the songs.  This was further in evidence when the audience raised the roof for the first few bars of “Trick Me”; I think most of them were here for a club set of former glories.  The seven-piece outfit were well rehearsed and sounded much bigger especially the brass section which comprised just tenor sax and a horn.

Whether by default or design, Kelis largely swerved the slower moments from “Food”, perhaps hearing the noisy crowd and knowing that a ballad would be unlikely to work; “Floyd”, a dreamier moment from the album was notably absent from the set. At one point Kelis delivered a Mariah Carey-like tour of her upper register, probably just to prove she could, but her voice, husky at times was in fine form.  Through her singles, Kelis is known for her assertive brand of sexuality and while this was demonstrated on the night with hits like “Milkshake”, she is much more than a one trick pony.  A mother and now a trained chef with her own line of condiments, Kelis is keen to explore other aspects of herself with this album as well as keeping her sensuality.  “Food” is a soulful, organic-sounding concoction including some big, brassy horns, but stops short of being a 70’s retro album.

The ageing club crowd certainly showed their appreciation for the back catalogue, which made up about a third of songs.  Studio-sound singles were reworked into live tracks, the best example of which was “Acapella”, heavy synths were dropped and replaced with jazz piano and horns, though not all the adaptations worked as well.  One slowie that sounded pretty good was Labi Siffre’s “Telephone”, by which time Kelis was on her stool and the atmosphere had calmed a little; Kelis was chatty and on-form with her banter.  The chairs had been removed from the front stalls to allow for dancing, though it was not much in evidence with the constant tempo changes.  Unfortunately, the stage atmosphere did not reach as far as the seated area or probably the circle, which was a shame given that Kelis must have had a fair experience now of playing theatres and not just clubs.  Kelis left the stage to a last chorus of “Feeling Good” and didn’t return for an encore.

In retrospect, this was a good night out, although I’m not sure it will encourage many to buy the well-rounded “Food”, which may appeal to a different demographic than the crowd here tonight.

Be Many GoneThis made-in-Nashville, contemporary country album is full of sweet surprises, the sometimes quirky arrangements, the lyrics, the instruments…  It has different moods and tempos and Eileen Rose makes you want to listen to her latest offering, she speaks clearly to her audience, one to one.  She’s no newcomer either; a few albums in and plenty of touring and festivals to support them, this is an accomplished and confident sounding album.

She started writing at 14, trying to emulate her idol, Kate Bush, but was listening to an eclectic diet of music from Bowie to Linda Rondstadt.  Eileen Rose has both American and Irish heritage and her first gigs were around Boston when she was playing mainly folk music.  Since then she has also lived in urban Essex and gigged in London for a stint, when she also released two CDs for Rough Trade.  She has toured the UK and US with such reputable company as Ryan Adams and Beth Orton, before expanding her growing fan base to Europe.  There are many hints on this album, that there is more to her than country as the Jive-paced, “Just Ain’t So” prove and the sultry “She’s Yours”, with fiddle and brushed drums, a well placed accordion also lends a European touch to some tracks.

Be Many Gone” opens with a bouncy “Queen of the Fake Smile”, complete with lively fiddle.  The mood then shifts to a slower pace including the bittersweet, “She’s Yours” and stand-out “Prove Me Wrong”.  “Each Passing Hour” features Frank Black as a duet, which doesn’t work so well for me but sonically it rolls nicely with castanets and Mexican sounding trumpet.  Eileen Rose plays guitar and taught herself piano, but she also picks up other instruments (including bongos) and is just setting up her own label Holy Wreckords with her collaborator and producer, mixer and engineer of “Be Many Gone”, Rich Gilbert, so it appears that Eileen Rose is experiencing a period of enormous creative growth.

This is an emotionally wrought set of songs where she wears her heart visibly, but in no way is it depressing; Eileen Rose clearly also has a sense of humour, “I can be a good friend, I can be a joker, but you can choke me up now baby with a single glance”  (“Comfort Me”).  Not that she comes from the old Patsy Cline school of victim lyricism, she clearly empowers herself and shares this, while retaining a capacity for vulnerability and intimacy.  Vocally Eileen Rose has a country voice pitched somewhere between Kirsty MacColl and Lucinda Williams, while she doesn’t stretch her voice much on this album, the comfort in her voice contrasts nicely with the sometimes uncomfortable lyrics.  If you like country music with European and folky twists, this is definitely an album to check out.  Eileen Rose is currently considering playing dates in the UK and if past accolades are anything to go by, it will be a hot ticket!

“Be Many Gone” is out now on Holy Wreckords HWER12714.

Klare rated this album at 3.5 stars, but we can only rate in full stars, so this is 4 stars because I think it’s a great album as well (Ed.)

It’s been an exciting year, particularly for live music, so my high 5 features 4 live acts, 2 of which I’ve previously reviewed for Music Riot, apologies for any repetition.  Here goes (in no particular order):

Angélique Kidjo HFAngelique Kidjo Live at the Brighton Festival

 Angelique Kidjo has taken over the mantle of Queen of African music, from the late, great Miriam Makeba and with today’s media has probably spread her reach further, having collaborated with dozens of Western bands and musicians.  The festival concert at The Dome was the first time I have seen her in an indoor venue and the containment worked very well for the atmosphere.  Kidjo criss-crossed between traditional forms and pop styles to great effect singing in four of her fluent languages, with an easy wit and story-telling in English.  As well as her extensive back-catalogue, she covered Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and Santana among others, but it was Makeba’s “Pata Pata” that got the crowd to their feet and she had them dancing for the rest of the show; everyone left with a smile on their face.

Lucinda Williams HFLucinda Williams Live at the Brighton Festival

 Lucinda Williams at the Brighton Dome was a very different proposition, intimate and largely downbeat.  She took to the stage with her ballad book from over the years and largely stuck to it.  With a backing band of just two, her guitar playing was a feature as well as her husky voice.  Although, she somehow managed to avoid playing my favourite tracks I was introduced to others from her catalogue and it was a great show for the festival goers, many of whom were not long-term fans.  Those expecting the most recent album ‘Blessed’ were disappointed however as she skipped it completely, this was a festival set, but one that left you with the sense of what a fantastic veteran singer-song writer Lucinda is.

CATBCoco & The Butterfields Live at The Blind Tiger Club

 Coco & The Butterfields are a newish delightfully up-beat, festival-ready band of real musicians from Canterbury.  They feature a unique blend of instruments including banjo and violin; percussion and drums are played entirely by vocal beat-box.  They played a lively and eclectic set, featuring tweaked covers from Dolly Parton and Supertramp to Flo Rida & T-Pain.  But it was their set of original material, such as ‘Astronaut’ and ‘Warriors’ that got the locals dancing.  The energy was huge for a small band in a small venue with, sadly, a small audience.  Let’s hope C&TB reach further in 2014…

The LilyLayla Zoe – The Lily

 The Lily was the first material I had heard from Canadian Blues trooper Layla Zoe and what an introduction to her 7-album catalogue.  This album is a collaboration with Henrik Freischlader, a German multi-instrumentalist and guitar trail-blazer, whose searing blues is the perfect accompaniment to Layla’s original voice.  Although it is very positive and reflective blues, an interesting development for the genre, this album is very deeply felt.  Tracks include those about ex-lovers and her Father as well as a couple of cover versions.  Layla is planning to gig here in the UK in 2014 and I’m planning to see her beautiful blues live then.

Boy George HFBoy George Live at the Concorde 2

 Boy George has certainly lived the life, from drug-use to DJ to internment and it shows in his husky voice, which surprised me by sounding stronger live than it sounds on “This Is What I Do”, the new album he was promoting in this compact but versatile venue.  He and his band, including brass, played the entirety of that album of country-tinged, low-slung reggae as well as most of the Culture Club hits that made him famous in the 80’s.  A very tender version of ‘Victims’ was almost sabotaged by the noisy crowd and I’ve seen George in a better mood, but overall this was a concert offering variety and depth.  It was great to see George out from behind the decks and back in the limelight.

Back to ForeverThis is singer-song writer, Lissie’s second album after her acclaimed 2010 debut, “Catching a Tiger”.  That album branded Lissie a ‘folk’ artist, but her follow-up, shows she’s made of much more musical variety.  ITunes brands it ‘folk/country’ but it’s probably more ‘rock/pop’.  Much of the production duties fall to the producer of REM and Snow Patrol and you can tell this, in fact it’s the production where I find fault, the album sounds rather muddy and crowded throughout, especially in the bass tones, lacking the light touch of her first effort.  The sound is more drivetime-friendly and stadium-ready; I don’t want to be like a Dylan fan erupting in rage at his first electric album, but if you like this type of Americana, there is plenty to sing along to.  Arguably, it might be hard to produce a unique sonic experience anymore with the standard guitars, bass, drums and keyboard, even with the range of tempos, themes and moods we have here.

Despite the carpet-bombing of her marketing team, Lissie has been rather over-looked, although “When I’m Alone” made it to iTunes best song of 2010.  Perhaps this is partly due to her not being either air-brushed or especially grungy, but she is starting to sell out stadiums across Europe and is currently performing dates in the UK.  This fuller sounding set of 12 songs (some extras with the deluxe version), are all originals written by California-based Lissie and the band.   The lyrics and music are all good, launching with the uptempo “The Habit”, ‘You’ll never get out/And you’re always gonna be an addict/ The heart breaks way before the habit’ and it’s these touches lyrically that make the album, along with her vocal timbre.

I don’t have a favourite amongst these tunes but there’s no real filler either.  The singles are here, “Further Away (Romance Police)” and “Sleepwalking” and they’re bouncy enough to get Radio 2 airtime, but also check out the slower “They All Want You” for a greater exhibition of Lissie’s voice.  This is not a concept album but a collection of songs about relationships and issues, including low pay, the anthemic “I Don’t Wanna go to Work” and the glamour industry, “Shameless”.  (‘I don’t want to be famous, if I got to be shameless’).

I was going to award this album 4*, but that’s the figure I gave the first album and I do believe that’s better, or perhaps I prefer her earlier, more acoustic sound, so maybe just 3.5 stars for Back To Forever.  Out now.

Some Dogs Think Their Name is No (Cover)I have previously reviewed Black Casino & the Ghost’s second single “Hoboland” (where you can find more details about this London-based band), and I settled in for a few listens to the album expecting a larger dose of “Hoboland”’s rocky, indie blues, but I was surprised and delighted to hear a much greater musical variety, including acoustic ballads and even a ghostly piano-led fairground carousel instrumental , (“We’ve Seen Nothing”) so it pays not to have rigid expectations…

We kick off with all musical guns blazing, “Boogeyman”, and keep the energy up for “Johnny Boy” before exploring ballad territory.  The whole album does justice to Elisa Zoot’s clear and distinctive vocals, especially on the tracks she is not competing for space with the band, “Son of the Dust”, where she switches genders, and “If It Doesn’t Hurt” which features acoustic guitar.  But when the band ramp up the tempo, Elisa can keep up without resorting to screeching at all, I suspect her voice would suit a variety of genres. She lets herself off the leash for the chorus of one of my favourites, “Been A Bad Woman”, then immediately reins herself in again for the pretty, “Son Of The Dust”: ‘I’ve been such a good Christian son/Said all my prayers/ joined your house and children every Sunday…, etc.’   Apart from vocal duties, Elisa also proves a competent pianist on the tracks that feature piano.

The drums are well recorded, which can be notoriously difficult and production credits go to the band as well.  “Some Dogs…” has largely been recorded live which always seems to make a difference in immediacy to me, and hints at how well the band would play together live.  Guitar alternates between searing and folkish as required and the bass throbs in all the right places.  It comes across like any tensions in this band are purely creative.  Another stand out track for me is the acoustic, “If It Doesn’t Hurt”.  It begins, ‘if it doesn’t hurt it means it’s not working/ if it doesn’t burst it means it’s not burning enough’.   Perhaps the lyric is a little gothic for some, but the beautiful tune isn’t.  The lyrical content is typically on the darker side, but not depressing, that is to say, they take you on a visit to their visions without leaving you there.  Topics on “Some Dogs…” include wolves, ghosts, sinners and bogeymen, but this is not some juvenile concoction; it’s a well crafted CD exploring these night themes and despite differences in tempo and arrangement the album hangs together well.  It’s both immediate enough and has sufficient complexity to bear repeated listening; all this and the entire CD lasts just a little over half an hour.  BC&TG deserve a wider audience than the underground ‘alternative’ scene and that’s why I’m awarding them an extra half star.

Out Monday September 2nd on Lucky Machete Records.