This triple-disc compilation offers the perfect chance for anyone impressed by seeing Hot Club of Cowtown or The Coal Porters play live to further explore the roots of their music. Selling for less than the cost of a single CD, it provides plenty to attract the interest of anyone with a hankering for some full-tilt bluegrass.
The Sunshine Delay
You can hardly accuse Scotland's The Sunshine Delay of rushing things. They've been playing together since 2001, yet this is only their second album, following up on their 2004 debut Outrageous Expectations. Although they've come up with a consistently melodic collection of songs, they struggle to stamp out a sufficiently individual identity to really impress.
Scott Cook is a Canadian songwriter based in Alberta and this is his third solo album. He is one of those songwriters who believe in travelling and playing. He performed 156 shows in 2010, and somewhere along the way it provides him with the material to produce an album every couple of years. As befits a man who spends his life on the road, the songs are simply delivered in a style that at times borders on talking. Yet that simple style is more than most songwriters can hope for and Moonlit Rambles is an excellent album full of stories.
Canadian singer-songwriters seem to be two a-penny at the moment, no doubt due in part to their government’s generous support for the arts that gives them the financial freedom to launch costly international tours. Yet amid the clamour from north of the border, there are a few that stand out, and Amelia Curran is one of those.
An album that contains songs about demolition derbies (“Crash and Burn” and “My Demolition Man”), but also has one lambasting the greed of the oil industry that caused the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico (“Ballad For The Gulf Of Mexico”) is contradictory and a little confusing, but in no way reduces the quality of the songwriting. Listeners will have their own opinions on whether it was the intention of Hosking to be ironic and make people think.
Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle
Expectations for this collaboration between Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle might not be too high, given that it's just eight songs long, only two of which are originals. But any such misgivings will vanish on first listen, as this album is a delight from first note to last.
‘Folk music is to be endured not enjoyed!’ Rod Picott quoted the late Bill Morrissey’s words with a wry smile during the last night of his current UK tour at the Cabbage Patch. But enjoyment clearly won out as two of the finest of today’s Nashville singer-songwriters performed a wide-ranging mix of their own material and occasional covers to a warm and receptive audience.
For one fantastic evening, Eilen Jewell and her super-tight trio played to a packed house in London with self-penned songs from across her six-album output. She also added some fine covers from the likes of Arthur Alexander, Eric Andersen, Loretta Lynn and Them.
This is the second album from Rosi Golan, who is Israeli-born but based in the US. Golan co-writes all twelve songs on the album, using no less than nine different co-writers. It might be fair to speculate from this that she's experimenting with different styles, but that would be a mistake as there's a consistency here that suggests Golan has a clear vision of what she's aiming for.
Robert Earl Keen
The latest album from Robert Earl Keen includes a couple of outstanding songs. But taken overall this is a perplexing mixture of an album, parts of which seem to find Keen, aided and abetted by producer Lloyd Maines, stepping out of his comfort zone in a calculated quest for more commercial appeal.
Silhouette is the fourth album for Canadian Catherine MacLellan. There is no doubt that she has a marvellous voice and she may also be an excellent songwriter, but the overriding feeling is that the album is over-produced (by David Baxter) and simply for the most part bland. Rather like the Silhouette of the title, there is an outline but no memorable details. One track simple blends into the next.
The Water Tower Bucket Boys
The latest release from Portland, Oregon-residents Water Tower Bucket Boys, is a five-song EP that showcases many of the traits for which they’ve become notable; tight harmonies, pop-friendly bluegrass melodies and an old-time sensibility. After five years on the road and four albums, this record sees the band ploughing a slightly darker, more introspective furrow.
Slaid Cleaves is far from prolific when it comes to the production of new studio material, and it’s coming up on three years since his last album. So while we wait a little longer for the next one, here’s a treat – a double live album featuring everyone’s favourites, released to coincide with his current UK tour.
Paul Wassif is a name that may not be familiar to many, but he's been around for some time, most recently playing on Bert Jansch's last two albums, as well as touring with Jansch. And it was Eric Clapton no less who gave him the encouragement he needed to take the plunge to make this, his first solo album. Wassif has assembled an album that's always easy to listen to, albeit one that shows promise rather than actually delivering a knockout punch.
Chris Thile’s London show coincided with the centenary of the birth of bluegrass pioneer and mandolin virtuoso Bill Monroe, so it was fitting that he began with Monroe tunes. But it was just as fitting that this was a show by possibly the only musician in the world who could appear solo and keep an audience rapt for two hours with just a 1924 Gibson mandolin for company.
Amy McCarley’s self-released album is a determinedly DIY affair and marks the artist’s first solo foray into the world of recording. Despite enthusiastic reception in sections of the southern States , McCarley, from Huntsville, Alabama, is largely unknown on this side of the pond – a circumstance she hopes this record (and the subsequent European dates that are planned) will rectify.
Whisky and morphine have been good friends to me is the opening line of Josh Harty’s third album. It pretty much ensures you know right from the start that this is not going to be a cheerful album and it doesn’t disappoint. Nor does this excellent album disappoint in any other fashion, except for the simple fact that it is only seven tracks long.
There is a weird contradiction in the music of Rod Picott. This is a man singing about real life, his real life – he is the son of a welder and former Marine and made his living as a sheetrock (that’s dry wall to you and me) worker from the time he left school until he released his first CD. So these songs should be branded with the mark of authenticity, bear the rough edges of a blue collar life. But it’s hard to use an adjective like “rough” to describe Picott. He’s a nice guy, a gentle guy, and it shows in his music.
The Good Lovelies
If you like your music sad and world weary then this Canadian trio with their upbeat approach to life and music is not for you. The Good Lovelies’ third album sees them continue with their bright and breezy approach, and there are obviously plenty of people who like it – they won the Juno award for Roots & Traditional Group of the Year and the Canadian Folk Music New Emerging Artist award.
On the title track of this album Eilen Jewell dubs herself the queen of melancholy, which could be true, as there's a clutch of slow-burning tales of heartache and passion on Queen Of The Minor Key which really show off what she does best. But musically, her penchant for rock 'n' roll, and even rockabilly, persistently peeps through, making for an interesting combination.
Devon Sproule ploughs a particularly introspective furrow on I Love You, Go Easy. From the outset, it is clear that this is designed to be an album in the traditional sense of the word; the songs it contains are thematically linked, all glint with the same sonic sheen and there is even a bonus number hidden after the final track – a nice piece of pre-download-era nostalgia. Much of the time Sproule comes across like a slightly quirkier, Topanga Canyon-era Joni Mitchell.
As a finale to the weekend-long Gateshead Summertyne Americana Festival, it would take considerable effort to come up with a more apposite combination than the country superstar Lyle Lovett supported by wunderkind Sarah Jarosz.
Though Abigail Washburn is billed as giving a solo show, in reality the interplay between her and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch is key to the performance. They have the rare talent of making a sound far larger than the sum of its parts – Washburn's sparse plucks on her bass banjo evoking broad tones, Welch's accompaniment, whether on keys, mute trumpet or acoustic guitar, perfectly complementary.
The centrepiece of every Summertyne Americana event is a commission. This year we are treated to a collaboration between Raul Malo and Northern Sinfonia, orchestra of the Sage Gateshead. Both parties seem thrilled about the whole affair, Malo beaming his wide smile at any opportunity, over the moon to be hearing his songs sounding so full, and conductor for the evening Paul Gambill urging the orchestra on with ever more elaborate flourishes.
For over a decade now The Woodshedders have plied their trade in the southern Appalachians, offering a new take on American country, old-time and gypsy jazz. O Dig sees them enlist the assistance of a number of contributors from their region, and together they serve up a potent mix of authentic sounds and backwoods lyricism.
In this age of MP3s and being able to download individual tracks, it's clear that the running order of albums doesn't matter as much as it once did. Nevertheless, it seems somewhat perverse that the title track and best song on this album should be relegated to the last track of eleven. On the song “Soon The Birds”, Suzie Ungerleider, who performs and records under the name Oh Susanna, produces her most soulful vocal performance, on a song which is a haunting contemplation on mortality. So if you want to listen to just one track to sample the album, it should be this one.
The question most people ask of Zoe Muth is how a kid growing up in Seattle in the 1980s found herself playing country music. Certainly the influence of Kurt Cobain and grunge seems to have passed her by. And for that perhaps we should be grateful, because it's clear that, on the evidence of Starlight Hotel, she has something special to offer.
Frank Drennen, dapper frontman and creative force behind Californians Dead Rock West, says he could “lose and arm, cut off a leg, but I’d still do the gig.” Yet last time the rest of the band took this stage, he was languishing in hospital, laid low by an unknown bug. Whether or not this mishap influences their performance tonight, it's difficult to tell – they're probably always this keen and intense – but it certainly adds a dusting of excitement to the atmosphere. The full band is here, and they've got something to prove.
Four years in, and still never a drop of rain has fallen on the Maverick Festival, either literally or figuratively. It’s the perfect antidote to the extravagances of Glastonbury the previous weekend – a child- and dog-friendly festival in rural Suffolk without traffic jams, toilet queues or mud, where the artists mix with the spectators and the campsite is filled with impromptu jam sessions.
If the Toy Hearts have ever considered the question of genre, they have long since stopped wrestling with the contradiction of being a British band playing American music. Even hailing from Birmingham, England, rather than Birmingham, Alabama, seems an almost deliberate and provocative challenge to convention. And quite rightly so, because with the first blast of faultless harmony from sisters Hannah and Sophia Johnson, any concerns about provenance start to seem petty and inconsequential.
Des Horsfall's Kuschty Rye
Right from the off it is apparent that the making of The Good Gentleman’s Tonic has been a labour of love; every aspect, from the liner notes to the super-deluxe packaging, exhibits an almost obsessive attention to detail. The aim? To be inspired by (but steer clear of aping) Ronnie Lane’s 1970s output with Slim Chance. This Andy Bell-produced release takes in folk, country, blues and rock and is intended as the first in a trilogy of Kuschty Rye releases to mirror the albums put out by Slim Chance.
Bob Harris OBE (congrats!) called Marybeth D’Amico’s songs extraordinary after the release of her 2008 debut album, so no pressure on this follow up, then! As any good country album should be, this one is full of death and dying, broken dreams and heartache. D’Amico may be attempting to move away from her country roots, but as yet her songwriting, though darker, still holds true to them.
As an Australian, Marisa Yeaman is perhaps well-placed to offer a slightly different perspective, or sideways glance, at Americana. “Warm Night In Austin”, the opening track on this album, seems to hold out the prospect of exactly that,with its lyrics: I'm just an impostor from another nation, But I'm more at home than you know.
Roosevelt Bandwagon describe themselves as an “Anglo-Canadian Americana collective”, have a changeable lineup and a policy of deliberate anonymity regarding individual band members. London-based, they have emerged to perform only the odd gig or festival – and that is a desperate shame, because this album is one of the most accomplished and most beautiful collections of songs you are likely to hear this year.
A glance at the song titles might give you a clue about what to expect from this album from The O's: “Tryin' To Have A Good Time”, “We Are Young”, “Sunshine” and “Everything's Alright”. For this is sunny, bright, good-time music that suggests their live shows could be a lot of fun. Musically, think The Avett Brothers with (a lot) more banjo and harmonica.
Levon Helm’s status as a true musical legend is beyond question. His contributions since the 1960s have cemented his place not only as a pioneer in the Americana/Roots genre, but as a leading light in the very evolution of popular music itself. It would, it might be assumed, be easy for such a man to rest on his laurels. However, what is so striking about this DVD tie-in is the genuine delight that Helm and the featured cast clearly have at playing the songs; they are granted a vigour that makes the assembled live versions every bit as vital as when they were first released.
"What I'm doing isn't exactly Brad Paisley, but I figure he's got that covered," says Jace Everett, before embarking into a version of Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?" that certainly won't be finding its way into any sugary Nashville productions any time soon. Everett's is a down and dirty, solid rock 'n' roll at its very best and if he's unexpectedly picked up a new following from having his song "Bad Things" chosen as the theme tune to the TV series "True Blood", then all good luck to him.
Austin, Texas - by all accounts, the coolest city in America, and by that definition, the world. Home to South By Southwest, the trendiest industry-shindig-cum-hipster-music-festival known to man, and the barometer to all that is hot and fresh in bands.
Hungrytown is on and offstage couple Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall who hail from rural Vermont. Their rustic sound at times resembles the stripped-down style of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The obvious danger with such a minimalist approach is that songs can blur together during the course of a set. Luckily, multi-instrumentalist Anderson lends an interesting variety to proceedings and the material is memorable enough to overcome such possible pitfalls.
Among the best albums, there are some that reveal how extraordinary they are on first hearing and some that need time to grow on the listener. Danny Schmidt’s latest offering is a bit of both, packing a punch immediately, but then continuing to deliver an almost unbelievable number of layers below.
Gregory Alan Isakov
This is definitely not an album that jumps out of the speakers and grabs you on first listen. Gregory Alan Isakov has one of those naturally attractive singing voices that is easy on the ear, and just about all the songs are taken at the same relaxed tempo, with acoustic guitar, cello and violin to the fore. It is an album with a consistent “feel” running through it and has an elusive allure that, given half a chance, is liable to creep up and capture you unawares.
If there’s one thing that most musicians would do unspeakable things for, it’s a one-line, nailed-on recommendation from an impeccable critical source. Laura Cantrell achieved this exalted status when no less an authority than the late John Peel decided that Cantrell’s debut album Not The Tremblin’ Kind was possibly the finest album he’d heard in his life: in one statement raising the bar for the rest of her career almost impossibly high. Ten years on, Cantrell has released an album celebrating the work of Kitty Wells, a hugely successful country st
Welshman Christopher Rees has run the gamut of Americana styles on previous albums, perhaps most notably with the murder ballads of Devil’s Bridge. Heart on Fire sees an additional shift in emphasis, this time to a horn-driven, Stax- style, countryish soul workout replete with the backing of Texas’ finest, the South Austin Horns. The album is well-played and well-recorded and explores the “…simmering soul…” element of Rees’ writing that has formerly won plaudits.
Lashley is an odd personality (by her own admission) who no longer performs live because of stage fright. Despite her fear of crowds, and the fact that she sees herself as an emotional misfit, she is still able to see things in everyday life and convert them into songs. However, her desire to lead a quiet life is perhaps reflected in the fact that this is an enjoyable trip, but one on which nothing particularly exciting happens.
The Foghorn Trio
The Foghorn Trio have been cited as a significant player on the US folk and old-time music circuit. The release of Sud de la Louisiane coincides with a tour of UK and Ireland and has the pseudo-Appalachian feel that has become synonymous with the group. The album finds them playing a variety of old time-Americana material with respect, energy and a vibrancy that flies in the face of those who may choose to question the relevance of this particular brand of music in the modern era.
Standing amidst gigantic portraits of bewigged 18th-century charitable benefactors (“Where are all the women?” she wonders), Mary Gauthier cuts a figure of self-confidence and success that belies the story that she’s telling – the true story of how she was abandoned at birth, raised by adoptive parents, how she eventually found her birth mother, and the many struggles she has gone through, and still goes through, to understand her history and her life story.
Alison Krauss and Union Station
This is the first release from Alison Krauss & Union Station since 2004. In the meantime Krauss has enjoyed enormous success with Robert Plant, while the band members have been actively engaged in pursuing solo careers. Coming together after such a break begs the question of how well they would adapt to working together again and whether they still have something to offer. No need to worry, Paper Airplane finds them in fine form.
This is BettySoo’s third album, originally released in the US in 2009. It seems that her expanding reputation has prompted her record label to take the plunge and put her music out to a wider audience. The album was produced by the outstanding Gurf Morlix, who has worked the likes of Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves and Lucinda Williams and for that reason alone it deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Those not familiar with the music of Carrie Elkin would be forgiven for deducing from her slight yet sturdy frame, impressively veiny biceps and spiky tattoo that we might be in for a set of challenging, perhaps even noisy music. But, inevitably, our mental preconceptions are proven quite wide of the mark. Instead of a rockabilly-punk jezebel, it turns out that Elkin has a voice with just the right balance of grit and honey, which she beautifully deploys throughout a low-key set.
Little Miss Higgins
The third studio album by Canadian country-blues artist Little Miss Higgins was recorded in Winnipeg on analogue equipment and features 10 originals all delivered in a sassy, sensual style that references the likes of Billie Holiday and Big Bill Broonzy, whom she cites as musical influences. Furthermore, there are shades of vaudeville theatre, the result, no doubt, of her drama school upbringing.
For his latest album, Gurf Morlix has chosen to record fifteen songs written by Blaze Foley. Foley was a fellow musician and performer in Austin, Texas who was shot dead in 1989 aged only 39. The album, while it does have its limitations, is a fitting tribute to a writer who never received recognition during his lifetime but who has undergone a deserved increase in interest in recent years.
What do you get if you mix a cowboy sauerkraut-manufacturer on stand-up bass, Blackadder’s Captain Darling playing a tenor guitar, an extra from Gangs of New York with a kazoo, and a cat in a beanie hat on everything else? The Wiyos think they know the answer. A collective hailing from New York, the Wiyos have been around the block several times, garnering a support slot with Bob Dylan in the process.
In western North Carolina, Lazybirds are local heroes; a busy band that mixes bluegrass and Appalachian old-time in a rich musical pick ‘n’ mix that taps into a long tradition of great string bands. Broken Wing is their third album and the title track serves as a personal ode to founder member Andy Christopher.
Brian Wright has described his own sound as “somewhere between Woody Guthrie and the Velvet Underground”. While that's a great starting point for describing him, on this album at least the Guthrie influence is the more apparent. What his definition misses is the strong pop sensibility which permeates much of House On Fire. This combination makes the whole album easy on the ear, and most of it a joy to listen to.
Lubbockite Kimmie Rhodes rallies an all-star cast of musicians around her for Dreams of Flying, an album following swiftly in the wake of the Christmas album released late last year. Rhodes, widely considered one of America’s best- kept musical secrets, will be hitting UK shores in support of the release for a series of dates in May. If Dreams is anything to go by, the tour should be an unmissable affair.
Hayes Carll’s reputation as a songwriter rests both on his sharp sense of humour and on his ability to produce touching and tuneful songs. Three years on from his last release Trouble In Mind, the good news is that KMAG YOYO contains a set of songs at least as strong, if not stronger, than its predecessor. It’s a rare achievement that, whatever Carll tries his hand at, from electric stomp to sly humour to lachrymose country ballad, there's never a false move, and he is never less than convincing.
Play Josh Bray’s Whisky & Wool to a Rip Van Winkle character who fell asleep around 1972 and you would convince him he’d only slept for a couple of hours! This beautifully crafted set of songs, however, was created in two 21st-century studios in London and Oxfordshire with much of the technology that was absent when the likes of Quintessence, Mighty Baby and Henry Cow were making their first appearance on vinyl and at UK festivals.
“Let me do a tune about birdshit…”
Never tempted to oversell himself or his songs, Malcolm Holcombe ambles onstage wearing what appears to be a tramp’s jacket, reading glasses dangling from his shirt, unkempt long and balding hair askew. The discerning viewer might notice the C F Martin logo on his guitar and conclude that, contrary to initial appearances, the man in front of us might just be making a decent living from this music lark – but then again so do some buskers…
The Wailin' Jennys
When a band possesses such proven pedigree as The Wailin’ Jennys, a real weight of pressure is brought to bear on each new release. Will it live up to the quality of its predecessor? Will those wonderful voices still sparkle? Will the ladies deliver? Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty much a unanimous yes in response to all three. There is the expected mix of pared-down arrangements and more fully-realised numbers synonymous with the lineup.
Chronicles from Catford may be a debut album, but it’s really a group of old friends getting together under one heading for the first time. The resulting album is a comfortable listen that never really sets the room alight but is perfectly enjoyable all the same. It does perhaps raise the interesting question of what really constitutes ‘Americana’ music?
Carrie Elkin made her new album in the “brilliant and bright home” of her friend and fellow Austin musician Sam Baker. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s encountered Elkin or Baker that the album begins with laughter and continues with a couple of upbeat songs that sound like a jam session. The joy that she clearly felt at making what she says is “the album I’ve always dreamed creating” is clear from beginning to end. And it’s a piece of work suffused with beauty, even when tackling sad topics.
Dead Rock West
Not many bands would choose to follow up a debut album made up of mainly self-written songs with a second album comprising covers of traditional gospel songs. So you can’t accuse Dead Rock West of lacking the courage of their own convictions. If their aim is to re-invigorate traditional gospel and make it appeal to modern audiences, the major part of this album finds them effortlessly achieving this goal.
Lowlands are an Italian roots band that have established themselves as a touring act in mainland Europe. Gypsy Child is set for UK release in May and follows on from 2008’s critically acclaimed The Last Call. An extremely well-produced album, it ranges from stripped folk to electric roots rock, but always does so with a slick audio sheen – credit to Chris Chacavas who mixed it.
“Hank Williams was singing ‘Lovesick Blues’ when I stepped into the living room armed with my father’s rifle.” Rodney Crowell announces, within pages of the start of this memoir, focused on his relationship with his parents. He goes on to describe how the five-year-old Rodney, watching the deterioration of a New Year’s Eve party in his home, fires a gun to “save my parents from themselves”.
Ray LaMontagne has known pop chart success, has a Grammy to his name, a big label behind him and he can fill the 2,500-capacity Royal Festival Hall for two nights in a row. But he’s done it without showing too many signs of compromise, and he’s not embarrassed to stand on a stage and tell his audience that while there’s nothing better than an old country song, “new country songs are shit – it’s just gross, makes you feel icky.”
JT & The Clouds initially come across as four polite Chicagoans; their show starts with a few similarly humble ditties which, whilst beautiful in their own way, are tunes for introspective nodding rather than boogieing on down to. There's a song about seahorses, for instance. But don't be fooled: their recent album Caledonia has been garnering all sorts of plaudits, and as the gig wears on, it becomes clear exactly why.
Together We Are All Alone is the latest project from Dublin songwriter Eamonn O'Connor, who wrote and sings all 11 tracks. Vocals are high up in the mix, with lyrics that are generally worth hearing. Overall the album is always listenable, at times energetic, at others heartfelt. But there is a sense that O'Connor is trying on different hats musically (including alt-country, protest, power-pop) and has yet to find the style to truly call his own.
Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog
The three Hughes brothers were musically weaned in the small village of Rhos Botwnnog, on the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales, on a diet of Neil Young and Gram Parsons from their parents’ album collection together with a welter of traditional Welsh folk music. These influences bear direct fruit in their Welsh/Americana form of music that resonates with mystical wistfulness, and particularly in Dyddiau Du, Dyddiau Gwyn, their second full-length album.
Being mentioned in the same breath as Townes Van Zandt is no mean feat; it suggests an over-familiarity with hard liquor, hard luck and hard-won knowledge of the other side of town. Approaching To Drink the Rain, therefore, is not without a weight of expectation – tales of suffering and calloused lives should be par for the course. Right?
Caitlin Rose attracted an audience of all ages to her sold-out performance at The Barfly. A too-short set of around 50 minutes was nevertheless enthusiastically received, and she did enough to consolidate her position as one of the brightest of country’s rising stars.
It’s impossible to listen to this album and not know instantly, without any doubt, that Susan James is from California. Something about the otherworldliness of her voice and the quirkiness of her lyrics instantly tie her to the Golden State. It’s equally impossible not to find yourself liking someone who sounds like the place they live, or perhaps it’s the inherent cheeriness that she conveys that make you want to like her.
When you enter a theatre to find the cast of the show sitting on the edge of the stage working their way through a selection of instrumental pieces on guitar, fiddle and banjo, you feel immediately welcomed into a family. The intimate atmosphere of London's Arts Theatre and the simplicity of unamplified music only adds to that feeling. "Woody Sez", playing in London for the first time, is an accessible, enjoyable, not-too-challenging presentation of the work of possibly the most important folk singer of the last century.
Bringing a Canadian offbeatness to proceedings, as well as a set of outspoken, unclassifiable songs, Miss Quincy and her “left-hand man”, guitarist/banjoist Tyler Toews have no problem keeping a roomful of people unfamiliar with her music entertained and tapping their toes. Straight off the plane, with a radio session already behind them, a drive to Glasgow in front of them, and taking to the stage some time after 10 p.m., the pair could have been forgiven for a little weariness. But if it was there, they kept it well-hidden.
The Transatlantic Sessions ethos is to demonstrate the links between Americana and roots artists and the Celtic folk music traditions that have influenced them. For the audience, it offers a chance to sample artists they perhaps wouldn’t go to see in their own right. So the traditional folk audience of Aly Bain get to see contemporary performers like Ashley Cleveland and Dirk Powell, and those who’d turned out to see Allison Moorer were exposed to the wonderful traditional Gaelic singing of Julie Fowlis.
On first listen, Andy Whittle's latest album comes across as fairly uninspired English singer-songwriter fare. But it’s worth persevering with to reveal a handful of memorable songs. Whittle at his best has a definite gift for melody, and some of these songs once implanted in your brain will be pretty difficult to shift. Unfortunately you also get a similar number of songs that are simply unremarkable, so there's a disappointing inconsistency.
No need to beat about the bush, John Fullbright is a songwriter of simply extraordinary talent, who has produced a collection of songs that deserve to be heard across the planet. And he did it at an age when most young men are still struggling to find their own identity, let alone to express it so literately and poetically.
JT and the Clouds
Chicago band JT and the Clouds have atmosphere down to a fine art. Their songs create a sense of desolation, or hope in bad times (as required) perfectly, and they are made for dancing to. Their song lyrics also add to the atmosphere, fit the music and rhyme – just don’t listen too closely, or you’ll find that most of them are disappointingly meaningless.
Hymn For Her
Hymn For Her – a duo comprising Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing - are certainly not afraid to mix their styles on their latest album. They play all the instruments themselves and bring a certain infectious energy to all that they touch. They sound at times like a couple of precocious kids let loose in a recording studio for the first time, willing to try their hand at anything and everything.
Earl Pickens & Family
Earl Pickens & Family previously released a bluegrass version of U2’s album The Joshua Tree with a degree of success. They have chosen to follow up with an album of 10 original songs written by three of the band’s members. Unfortunately, the result is an album of, at best, mixed quality, heavy on the banjos and bluegrass with cumbersome lyrics (you quit on me like some bad hand of cards) delivered with little harmony and grating voices.
For those who are not familiar with her music, Lynn Miles is a strong singer with an attractive voice. For her latest release she has produced a solid set of songs using a full band and a polished, at times plush, production which marks a change of direction from the sparse arrangements of her previous release, Black Flowers. Fall For Beauty gives Miles the potential to cross over and appeal to a mainstream country audience, should that be a direction she wishes to take.
Crosby Tyler says that he went into the recording studio to make Lectric Prayer without any rehearsal and with a group of complete strangers along for the ride. With such preparation, the result should have been a complete disaster, but this album is lively, compact and impressive.
It’s almost an embarrassment on an Americana website to find that almost every excellent new act that comes to one’s attention is actually Canadian, but that’s simply the way it is. The sassy Miss Quincy, hailing from the northern reaches of British Columbia, instantly joins those ranks with her self-released debut album.
Tom T Hall
Tom T Hall’s story songs are classics of country music – and, to be honest, classics of English literature – and a must-have for any music collection. He has produced 35 albums, so this 50-song double CD with full lyrics booklet that includes all his singles is a welcome roundup of the best of a long career.
Kimmie Rhodes has produced a Christmas album made up largely of her own compositions. So while not a collection of classic Christmas songs and carols, the album, from its cover art onwards, does encompass all the expected Christmas themes, and definitely has the feel and ambience of a traditional Christmas record. Rhodes’ singing is at its sweetest throughout, but it’s likely this album may be a little too cloying for many.
It was a pleasure to see Mary Gauthier performing up close and personal, on the second night of her current UK tour, in the ornate surroundings of the Union Chapel. Sound quality was excellent, the audience by turns attentive and enthusiastic and most important of all, Gauthier delivered an exceptional performance of some of her best songs.
It’s not surprising that someone working in the financial district of New York on September 11, and then caught on a tube in London on July 7 should decide that a complete change of lifestyle is necessary. Russian-born and US-raised, Daniel Hertzov moved to Glasgow and decided to follow his passion for music. After living a life so full of incident it might be expected that this debut album would somehow be adventurous, unfortunately Hertzov seems to have taken a very cautious approach to songwriting, resulting in an adequate album with the occasional hint of better things to come.
Celilo provided a small audience at London's Bull & Gate with a confident and assured – if somewhat short – performance, showing signs that they are a band destined for bigger and better things. The band – whose name is pronounced “suh-lie-low” – are from Portland, Oregon and are nearing the end of their very first UK tour.
In their current incarnation, Po’ Girl are made up of four alarmingly talented multi-instrumentalists, two of whom share songwriting and lead vocal duties. Follow Your Bliss, recorded to tape using vintage equipment, finds them playing with a characteristic joie de vivre, swapping instruments and playing off each other with infectious enthusiasm. The only word of caution is that both singers have a distinctive singing style, owing more to jazz than country, which is something of an acquired taste and may not be to everyone’s liking.
Rachel Harrington, on stage, has always seemed to be an artist whose work is affected by the experiences of her life, and particularly her deeply religious upbringing in the western state of Oregon. But until now that hasn’t been so reflected in the songs she records. That changes in her new album, a study of loss centred on the long-gone world of the Old West. It’s an album that doesn’t make an immediate impact, but with repeated listening, it proves to be well-conceived and with a lot to say.
Winner of the 2008 Performing Rights Society UK Unsigned Award, Tensheds (Matt Millership) has for his second album produced an album of amazing quality. From the opening “Go Out On The Weekend” through to the beautiful closing track “Paradise”, Tensheds never puts a foot wrong. To make the album even more of an accomplishment, not only did he write all the songs, he produced it too.
Given that the last time Devon Sproule headlined a show in London it was at the 900-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall, it was a treat to see her playing at the tiny Green Note for the launch party of her new CD& DVD “Live In London”. The ostensible purpose of the evening was a preview showing of the DVD, but the audience was also treated to a short live set from Sproule. The crowd included various band members and friends from record company and film company, which combined with some committed fans made for an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
It may have bemused Canadian guitarist Luke Doucet that he managed to win a folk award for his last album which he considered to be rock & roll, but it won’t surprise anyone who listens to his music. And yet again, with Steel City Trawler, Doucet and the White Falcon – the name of both his band and his beloved Gretsch guitar – has produced an album that’s both atmospheric and sensitive. There’s something for everyone in Doucet’s offerings, and in his heartwarming willingness to open himself up through his music.
Police Dog Hogan
Police Dog Hogan are a seven-piece band based in London who play what they describe as urban bluegrass. Their first album release shows them to be instrumentally competent, if never outstanding, but the songs are unfortunately not strong enough for the band to make a sustained impact.
Best known as the driving force behind Headwater, the Vancouver-based acoustic roots band, Jonas Shandel has produced a seven-track mini album all of his own, and a very fine effort he has made of it too. Each track is a lovely haunting ballad full of Shandel’s excellent voice. Although perhaps on a full album it would be good to add a little variety, on this mini one it all works fine. For fans of Headwater, this is a very different, far more melodic production with Shandel obviously wanting to show that he can produce his own sound.
Austin-based country rock band Stonehoney would seem to have everything going for them: they’ve been picked up by artist-led label Music Road Records, and their first album is 14 songs chosen from 40 that they recorded entirely live over four days in the label’s studios. This is a band with no passengers – all four write the songs, and all four sing lead vocals, and play some blistering guitar. So maybe it’s only the anticipation of what this perfect storm could produce that leads to a vague sense of disappointment with the outcome.
It’s possible Celilo were aiming for an anonymous feel to this album – for certainly band name, title and cover art (a shot of bare trees and grey skies, with no photo of the band to be seen) all conspire to give little clue of what awaits inside. If the intention is to persuade you to give it a listen with no preconceptions, let’s hope that strategy works, as this is really something of a hidden gem.
Is it possible to have too much talent on a stage at once? Do you risk duelling banjos amid the multiple mandolins? To be honest, the only thing the audience risked at this show was experience overload. After all, when Dave Rawlings Machine is the “opening” act and they’ve roped in Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, while Old Crow Medicine Show have invited along Mumford & Sons... It was quite a remarkable evening in East London.
It’s four years since the release of their debut album and after telling fans that they would have a new album out “sometime soon…”, The Snakes decided to call it just that. So having made everyone wait for so long, have the band Mark Lamarr described as “phenomenal” proved worth waiting for…? Fortunately, the answer is a very definite yes.
A new father at the age of 55 and making a pretty good living “for a borderline Marxist”, Steve Earle seems happier in himself than he has sometimes been in the past. He’s not done with shouting out about the way the world is, especially regarding US foreign policy, but his preoccupations seem to be closer to home nowadays.
Los Lobos are perhaps best known as a great live band rather than for producing classic albums. “Tin Can Trust” is pleasant enough to listen to, and proficiently played throughout – in particular, there’s some excellent guitar playing shared between David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez, and Hidalgo is a decent singer. But the songs are a real mixed bag, and this album will probably satisfy existing fans without winning them too many new converts, as there doesn’t seem too much here that’s particularly inspired or different.
There are many remarkable things about Sam Baker, but one of the most remarkable is his capacity to hold an entire room of people enthralled not only by the music he plays but by the long silences in between. A note here and a note there is enough. The word “spare” was invented for Baker. He says as much by what he doesn’t play as by what he does.
Irishman Tony McLoughlin’s fourth album, produced by Ben Reel, is not bad by any means, but it is mediocre. The songs are bland – for an album that blends rock with folk there is not a single memorable song. According to the release information that came with the CD, Ride The Wind is ‘undoubtedly going to rattle the cage’. It fails to mention that it will be rattling either in frustration or because the music is playing in an old-fashioned elevator.
Larkin Poe – comprising two sisters from Georgia, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, plus a four-piece band – have produced a debut release which is interesting without ever being fully satisfying. Still aged only 19 (Rebecca) and 20 (Megan), there’s enough here to suggest that they could go on to produce bigger and better things.
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
Four people were key to the making of Willie and the Wheel: the late Jerry Wexler had the original idea for Willie Nelson to produce a Western Swing tribute album; the spirit of Bob Wills, who originally performed many of the songs, looms large; Ray Benson produced the album, chose the songs with help from Wexler and created new arrangements for many of them; and finally, Nelson sings and brings his popular appeal to the project. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking or startlingly original, just a collection of classic songs, all easy on the ear and immaculately performed.
Caitlin Rose is bridging the gap between mainstream Nashville and singer-songwriter honesty in the best possible way – combining slick production with songwriting that’s extraordinary for a woman in her early 20s, not to mention a voice that has been rightly compared to Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn.
On the strength of a few songs from his fourth album, blues artist Sean Taylor was invited to appear at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and the completed album does sound great. However, if you are one of those people who like to listen to the lyrics of a song as well as the music, then this album will be a huge disappointment. Without the written lyrics it’s impossible to decipher more than the odd word; with the lyrics it’s a beautiful album.
Dr John has always had a distinctive, instantly recognisable sound, and his latest release Tribal is certainly packed full of music, with a running time of 66 minutes. The album – released as a double vinyl LP as well as a single CD – is musically immaculate, mixing blues, jazz and funk into a New Orleans melting pot. Lyrically, it’s not nearly so interesting, and as a singer, the best you can say is that his voice is individualistic.
For his fifth album, Dierks Bentley he has enlisted the help of an array of bluegrass and country artists, from Del McCoury to Kris Kristofferson
(sharing vocal duties on his excellent “Bottle to the Bottom”). In fact the album's best tracks are provided by Dylan, Kristofferson & U2 thus highlighting what impeccable taste Bentley has (in music and musicians). It does, though, leave you wishing that he would showcase more of his own material rather than relying on the songwriting talents of others.
Jeni & Billy
“Longing For Heaven” is something of a mixed bag. It’s a fairly slight collection, with a running time of only 30 minutes. Production is simple throughout: fiddle on one track and harmonica on another is about as far as Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp stray from their basic voice/guitar/banjo setup. Far and away the best thing about the album is the pure clear voice of the main singer, Hankins.
“The Foundling” is an autobiographical collection of songs in which Mary Gauthier describes how she was given up for adoption on the day she was born, and her attempts as an adult to find and make contact with her birth mother. It sounds sobering, and of course it is, but it’s a remarkable, touching and affecting album.
The idea sounded nice: a covered festival in the centre of London, 12 hours of high-class music in a historic and beautiful setting. The inaugural Leadenhall Market Americana Festival had a lot of promise. And indeed, in a sweltering London, the temperature inside the market was pleasantly cool, while still permitting shirtsleeves until its post-10 p.m. ending, and a relaxed audience held civilised gatherings around tables with plenty of beer and wine.
Nice venue, then. Pity about the sound.
What’s refreshing about the Maverick Festival is that it is so pleasantly small – all the stages are within a few steps of each other – and yet the struggle is to try to fit everything in at one of the very few dedicated Americana festivals in the country. Now in its third year, the festival has certainly fallen into a groove and is nicely familiar to the many return visitors, yet with a few changes to keep things moving.
Recorded at the age of 72, I Am What I Am shows no sign that Merle Haggard is thinking of hanging up his hat just yet. He sounds totally comfortable with a relaxed approach to both singing and playing, and remarkably has written nearly all the songs himself. At this stage in his career, you truly get the feeling he is only doing what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. As he aptly puts it in the lyrics of the title track: I do what I do because I do give a damn.
Maybe’s it’s Kevin Welch’s migration from the mild (though recently wet) climate of Nashville to the more extreme conditions of a log cabin near Austin that has him musing on the way the weather mirrors human emotions. From the album title onwards, Welch’s first solo record in eight years is a storm-driven ride through floods and heatwaves, rain and wind-blown bushfires and moments of hope amid the madness.
The John Henrys
The John Henrys from Canada have put together a set of tuneful melodic songs on White Linen. This is not one of those albums you’ll fall in love with on first listen, as it takes a few airings before the catchy hooks start to embed themselves in your consciousness. Reminiscent at times of REM and Tom Petty, this is music to listen to while driving along on a sunny day.
All the ingredients seem to be in place for Welder to be Elizabeth Cook’s breakthrough album: she’s in fine voice, and producer Don Was has brought the best out of a hand-picked collection of musicians. Most important of all, Cook has written some great songs, demonstrating the rare gift of being able to switch seamlessly from songs that make you laugh to songs that make you cry, in a way that is reminiscent of John Prine.
In one of his many between-song comments, Ray Wylie Hubbard puts his commitment to performing down to “never learning to do anything else”. But it’s clear he puts care into every song he sings, so you never got the impression he’s just going through the motions. He’s obviously paid heed to his own advice to new songwriters: “The most important thing to ask yourself after writing a song is ‘Can I sing this every night for the next 36 years?’”
LeE HARVeY OsMOND
LeE HARVeY OsMOND – a band not a person – is the latest project from Canadian brother and sister Michael and Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies fame, and this album suggests this is a proper band, not just a vanity project. Tom Wilson (formerly of Junkhouse) is the prime mover, singing and co-writing most of the songs. The album has a distinctive ‘feel’ throughout, set by Wilson’s deep singing voice, adopting a whispering, conspiratorial tone on many of the songs.
The Green Note in London’s Camden Town offers the perfect setting for Sarah MacDougall’s intimate and personal songs and gave her a chance to engage with the audience. Tim Tweedale accompanied her on a Weissenborn lap steel and backing vocals, and occasionally the cornet.
Although Chuck Prophet ‘s latest album is a tribute to Waylon Jennings, it’s more than that. He has chosen to cover Waylon’s 1975 album Dreaming My Dreams in full, track by track. Prophet has said it was recorded “as a kind of dare” and never intended for release. Comparison with the original version is inevitable: with a couple of reservations, Prophet does a remarkably good job of re-interpreting these songs more than 30 years later.
There may be an ever-increasing number of festivals across the British Isles, but the number of festivals dedicated to Americana, especially at the highest level, is still pretty small. That’s why the trip across the Irish Sea for the 13th Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots is more than worth the effort for many music fans, and no year more than this one.
It’s a testament to the extent of Josh Ritter’s following in Ireland that he manages to headline a four-day festival despite being the first act on stage on the first evening of the event.
Two-time Grammy award nominee Kim Richey returns to her Americana roots for her sixth album. In an album of varied quality, it is odd that it opens with its weakest song; even more oddly, this is also the title track. That’s not to say it isn’t a pretty decent album which improves after the first couple of plays, it’s just that some of the tracks are a little bland and repetitive and the majority are too short to have any real substance.
One of the results of the change of administration in the United States has been a very tangible change in the content of protest music. Artists who are ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the new incumbent of the White House have looked around for new subjects for their songs. With the global economic crisis uppermost in their minds, they have often turned the fate of the working man and the stories of the great hero union leaders. When they’ve made it to that ground, they’ve found that Otis Gibbs is already there.
The Ship That Sailed is the excellent debut album from the stalwarts of York’s Little Num Num Club. All 14 songs were written by the band’s lead singer Daniel Lucas during the past five years. If the songs are any indication, it was five years full of drink, drugs and lost love.
Canadian singer-songwriter Lynn Miles may have a great voice – one of her claims to fame is that she gave voice training to a young Alanis Morrisette – she may even be a great songwriter, but the songs on this double album are delivered in such a way as to make it almost impossible to decipher the words, making the whole album incredibly frustrating.
The Wynntown Marshals
What is it with certain Celtic bands that stirs the soul and sends shivers down the spine? Think Del Amitri, think Stereophonics and then listen to Westerner and find that same intelligent, gritty melodic rock’n’roll throbbing through the lyrically strong material of Edinburgh’s Wynntown Marshals.
Canadian Barney Bentall has produced an immensely likeable album in The Inside Passage. Even on the first listen or two, the tuneful songs and relaxed playing of his band impresses.
Bentall had some success, particularly in Canada, during the 1990s with his band The Legendary Hearts. He’s made a number of solo records since the band split in 2000 and now divides his time between cattle-ranching in British Columbia and making music. Unfortunately, live shows over the past couple of years seem to have been limited to Canada.
The Curst Sons
Brighton-based trio The Curst Sons may have a old-timey, stripped-back style, without drums or bass (they go for cowbells, washboard or rhythm pole instead), but they’re far from understated. This is in-your-face music for a good old singalong stomp, supported by a group of strong songs and Willi Kerr’s unmistakable lead vocals.
Brooks Williams hails from Statesboro, Georgia and has spent the past 23 years travelling between the US and the UK, stopping off at all the places in between, mixing blues, jazz and Americana with his excellent guitar playing. Baby O! is his 17th album and for the first time Williams chose to record it in the UK, where he now lives for part of the year.
With just two albums behind him and a mere five years as a performing artist, Ben Bedford is making a considerable stir amongst those who value the poetry and passion of the classic singer/songwriter. His first UK gig was performed on March 14 in the intimate surrounds of the Twickenham Folk Club to an enthralled audience.
Dave Gunning, from Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast, explores the theme of a yearning for earlier, simpler times on his seventh album, ranging from a touching elegy to an abandoned small town to seeking a time when pride wasn’t foolish and a man was measured by the weight of his word.
You only need to meet York-based singer-songwriter Mark Wynn once to know what a fan he is of Townes Van Zandt, and listening to this new album that admiration is evident. It’s an album of ramblings (self confessed) and probably isn’t going to be played at too many weddings. That’s not to say it isn’t good, you just need to be in the mood for songs that are mournful with little cheer.
Trouble & Mercy is the sound of six months on the road, as recorded by a weary musician who's seen homelessness from many sides. Canadian Cam Penner describes a world of motels and diners, living in a car, "in the madness of a rich man's town where the poor and elite collide." Trouble & Mercy, he says, is a collection of songs that he "found" along his way, in glimpses of emotions, joy and suffering. "There in the midnight hours, I'd sometimes peel back the gauze and poke it to see if it still hurts," he writes in the sleeve notes.
The sleeve notes to Raina Rose's fourth studio album – or should that be her first living room album? – tell the same tale as many of the songs on the album. Having broken up with her boyfriend, a hard-working, free-spirited Oregonian folk singer is on the road, sleeping on friends' floors, writing songs, making music and seeking the perfect environment to make a record.
His guitars and his panoply of hats stowed in the back of his car, Bad Blake, a country great fallen on hard times, is criss-crossing the southwest of the United States, playing in bars and bowling alleys with a different band every night, finding his comfort in whisky and whichever female fan takes his fancy in a series of run-down motels. He has four ex-wives and a son he doesn’t know, while the singer he mentored has a road crew and a bus and doesn’t want to make another album with Blake.
The Coal Porters
Bluegrass bands are often awe-inspiring when seen live but their albums sometimes disappoint and the tracks all sound the same. Not so the Coal Porters.
The long-established, London-based transatlantic band that bills itself as the world’s first alt-bluegrass band has produced 13 songs with strong stories to complement top-rate playing that will get you jigging around your living room.
Gordie Tentrees hails from the Yukon Territory in northern Canada, and his songs possess that slight difference of tone that makes some Canadian artists stick out from the crowd of their U.S. peers. It will surprise no one that he and his band have toured with Fred Eaglesmith, but Tentrees is far from being an Eaglesmith clone.
Lyle Lovett never makes a bad album, and his voice is unmistakeable, so it’s extraordinary how very different one album can sound from another. After his 2007 album that was “large” in every respect – including the title – Natural Forces is a gentler, lyric-heavy offering that should set the tone for Lovett’s solo acoustic tour of Europe this year with John Hiatt.
Some artists make good albums, some are better live, but few really manage to put across on CD the energy and power of a live show. The Wiyos are an exception. Their fourth album, Broken Land Bell, will have you up on your feet and imagining the ukuleles, washboards and megaphones in your living room.