Saturday
Sep232017

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club @Whelan’s, Dublin - 21st Sept 2017

This was the sound of a band firing on all cylinders (to use the auto analogy). Slim Cessna’s Auto Club were making their Irish debut to a less than desireable attendance number. This was a show that should have been packed and no-one who was there will forget the exhilaration of the evening. Despite the small numbers there they gave a show that was worthy of a much bigger audience. Entering the venue and seeing the banjo’s, upright and pedal steel onstage one might expect something very different than what was actually about to occur. If you put country, country blues, blues, gospel, punk, folk, rockabilly and Radiohead into a blender you might get something like this coming from the PA.

Slim Cessna, Munly Munly, Lord Dwight Pentacost, Rebecca Vera, Ian O’Dougherty, Andrew Warner are the current line-up and they are a tight focused set of musicians who deliver a show that is part revival, part tent-show-but full on entertainment. The first three have been consistent members of the band for nearly twenty years and work together as a well oiled machine. Slim is tall and acts as master of ceremonies. Ceremonies that are equally focused on Munly Munly skeletal thin all black, fedora hatted look. His voice ranges from a whisper to a keen falsetto to a gave deep growl. Don’t mistake this for something contrived rather this is the development of some deeply rooted vision of redemption and temptation. 

Throughout the show there are lyrical references to Satan and to Jesus as well as to a way of life that is partly influenced by living in Denver, Colorado  and its environs. Munly Munly is the chief writer in the band and his words give the band their defining outlook on life (and death). While Cessna and Munly share the lead vocal they are joined by Pentecost and Vera on the choruses. Vera plays the pedal steel guitar in a way that makes it something far more sonic than is usual. At different times she uses both a drum stick and violin bow to draw different atmospherics from the strings. She also plays a keyboard to further add to the band’s arsenal of sound. In this she is joined by Pentacost on his trade mark Madonna-imaged twin neck guitar as well as coaxing discordant feedback from his 5 string banjo. However it is, naturally, the two lead singers whose voices and moves that are an essential element to their uniqueness. Their voices assuming a sense of harmony that relates to traditional church shape note singing - even if in a very different context. They also ventured into the audience to shake hands with it’s members and to get us all down on our knees along with them in beer and supplication.

Much of the material is taken from the most recent album The Commandments According to SCAC but some older favourites such as This Is What We Do In The Country and Jesus Is In My Body - My Body Has Let Me Down. In many ways the titles don’t matter this was a complete show from start to finish. And what a finish. After leaving the stage the band returned for a much deserved encore which saw all the band members onstage in a row singing and clapping along to a prerecorded rhythm track. Then then began to pack up their instruments as Slim Cessna sang a karaoke version of For The Good Times. He then thanked us for being there on the night. Slim, the thanks were all ours as this was a night that will rank with the best that live music has to offer.

Review by Steve Rapid  Photography by Kaethe Burt O'Dea

Sunday
Sep172017

Aubrey Sellers and Dylan LeBlanc @ Whelans, Dublin - 14th Sept 2017

 

Expectations, especially when it comes to live gigs are, well, quite often confoundedly the reality of what actually takes place. Having listen to, and enjoyed, the most recent albums by both of the artists playing tonight there was a distinct difference between tonight live shows and those albums. 

First up Aubrey Sellers delivers a set of songs largely taken from her debut album New City Blues She is accompanied by her guitar player (from Nashville) and a  drummer, who she tells us she picked up in London and got him to play country music. Well, from where I was standing, you would be hard pressed to call the sound coming from the trio anything remotely “country.” Not that there was anything wrong with that. The album is an edgy and at times rocky confection with strong vocals and lyrics. Something that she has dubbed “garage country.”

In this context I found both the guitar and her vocals pretty much drowned out by the bombastic drum sound. Sellers is a good singer who can obviously straddle the divide between country and rock with ease. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Luxury Liner (a song that she told us pretty much was the story of her life) showed that her guitar player could embrace twang as well as garage treble. However both played second fiddle to the drumming. A pity overall as Sellers with an acoustic or with the addition of the electric guitar would have been a more effective introduction to her live show and such strong songs like Liar, Liar. Tonight the vocal, electric guitar and drum combination failed to connect.

Equally at odds with the bulk of his recorded work was the powerful set from Dylan LeBlanc who was playing with members of the band The Pollies and celloist Courtney Blackwell. She and guitarist Jay Burgess were fundamental to the sound which was completed by bass, drums and keyboards as well as some energised electric guitar playing from LeBlanc himself. His distinctive, high register soaring vocals were the centrepiece of the show. Even though it was difficult to hear the lyrical content, mainly due to the reverb on his microphone and the volume the band played at. Many of the songs were taken from LeBlanc’s three albums. The latest of those Cautionary Tales was released in 2015 so a new album is due and it is likely to be much more in keeping with the hard rock of tonight’s show.

Mid show there was an extended song that became a cathedral of sound the built to a peak of intensity, control and conscious melody. LeBlanc introduced one song as a new one before adding “ you probably don’t know the old stuff so it doesn’t really matter.” Between songs LeBlanc didn’t chat too much but said his previous visit to these shores had been to a festival in Belfast. This was his Dublin debut and despite the somewhat sparse crowd he gave a great performance that was animated and full of attitude a swell as powerful and compelling music.

He switched to his acoustic guitar for one song mid-set but otherwise he stuck to his black Gretsch and showed that he is as talented a guitar player as he is singer and songwriter. He closed the show after a final encore telling the captivated audience “It’s been great, It’s been Dublin, It’s been fun!” After the show a fellow audience member summed up the general feeling: which was that what she had just heard wasn’t at all she had thought it would be but that it was, in it’s own right. something mighty and memorable. This, then, was a cautionary tale of keeping an open mind and being rewarded (in LeBlanc’s case) by something pretty special.

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photography by Kaethe Burt O'Dea

Sunday
Sep032017

Nadia Reid & Julie Byrne @ Whelans - 30th August 2017

Twenty-four hours after the appearance of Courtney Marie Andrews at the same venue two more young female artists turning industry heads both grace the stage at Whelans. Equally encouraging is the impressive attendance for both evening’s shows, a welcomed reassurance that emerging acts are not going unnoticed.

Tonight’s double act features Nadia Reid and Julie Byrne, both having released albums earlier this year to positive reviews and both signed to the Basin Rock record label. However, the comparability ends there.  Label mates they may be but their music, styles and personalities are from different ends of the scale. In classroom vernacular Byrne might be seated in the front row, attentive and impeccably behaved with visions of an academic career on the horizon. In contrast Reid would most likely be at the back, restless, disruptive and questioning, possibly firing paper bombs at the front row and counting down the days until she could break out and pursue a more challenging and nomadic lifestyle.

Slipping quietly on to the stage Byrnes demeanour in keeping with her song writing is laid back, wistful, somewhat anxious and unhurried, almost as if she would prefer not to be noticed. Seated throughout her set she expresses her delight at playing at ‘the legendary’ venue and adds that her father is Irish before starting her set with Sleepwalker and Follow My Voice, both from her latest album Not Even Happiness. Her vocal is low pitched, disciplined and relaxed, complimenting her delicate guitar playing. Welcoming her close friend Taryn Miller on stage to accompany her on Korg Mini Moog she continues with Melting Grid from the same album before visiting her debut album with the track Prism Song. Towards the end of her set she asks for the house lights to be dimmed and appears more comfortable on the darkened stage introducing Natural Blue. Her final song I Live Now As A Singer is inspired by travel, reflection and self-determination. Byrne possesses the lyrical ability to create dreamy trancelike landscapes even if her material suffers from time to time from possibly being one dimensional.

Nadia Reid’s studio output to date has consisted of her debut album Listen To Formation, Look For Signs, which dealt head on with personal heartbreak and love lost, and her current release Preservation which found Reid growing from her experiences and coming out the other end reconciled, confident and fighting. If Julie Byrne’s set, body language and material could be described as monochrome, Reid’s was in technicolour. With both microphone stands adorned by bunches of pink roses she takes the stage confidently, colourfully attired in a black blouse and matching coloured harem pants, her guitarist and occasional backing vocalist Sam Taylor equally looking the part in a two-piece tailored suit and plastic boot lace neck tie. Picking up her Gretsch guitar she immediately launches into Preservation and The Way It Goes, two obvious crowd pleasers notwithstanding the fact that her vocal is somewhat drowned out by the powerful sound of her guitar. Explaining that she is now performing show twelve of a thirty four date tour – and convinced that it’s actually Thursday rather than Wednesday – she switches to acoustic guitar for Runwayand Right On Time, both delivered beautifully, bringing her vocal out front where it deserves to be.

Reach My Destination she explains was inspired by reaching the rock bottom status of moving back home to her mother’s house in Port Chambers after a relationship breakdown. The song is underpinned by stunning guitar playing by Taylor, matched equally by his playing on Hanson Street, Part 2.

An unfortunate juncture during the performance found Reid, visibly disturbed, having to pause mid song and call out a couple of people that insisted on talking during her performance – why do ‘talkers’ always position themselves upfront – and while succeeding in shutting them up she did appear noticeably unsettled for quite a while before regaining composure. Ruby, Track Of The Time, Hanson Street Part 2 also featured together with an audience request for Richard before closing with The Arrow and The Aim. Reid made a point of thanking her close friend and producer Ben Edwards for the inspiration and encouragement in the recording of Preservation. Interestingly she did not reappear for an encore, possibly still unnerved by the mid set distraction.

Ironically, printed on the flip side of Reid’s hand-written set list at the front of the stage was the following ‘I Want Freedom For The Full Expression Of My Personality – Mahatma Gandhi’. No truer words could sum up the exceptionally talented young New Zealand artist.

Spare a thought for Jim Ghedi, another Basin Rock recruit, who opened the show. The young Sheffield folk singer’s band members failed to make the gig due to transport problems leaving him to borrow equipment and perform solo. Given the trauma he performed remarkably well.

Review and photography by Declan Culliton

Friday
Sep012017

Courtney Marie Andrews @ Whelans - 29th August 2017

This was not Courtney Marie Andrews first time to play Whelans. She explained that she had come over on the ferry as a teenager having been advised to play the venue by an Irishman of her acquaintance and ended up performing to a couple of people in the public bar before heading right back to the UK on the ferry to do some further busking. This time around there was substantially more people there to see her perform and on the basis of her stunning show a larger venue may be required for her next visit. She was accompanied by her four piece band and delivered a set that was considerably more electric and rocking’ than her studio albums and videos might suggest.

She opened with How Quickly Your Heart Mends from her most recent album Honest Life, already a contender for album of the year in many quarters.  Andrews pointed out that straight after this tour, which ends at The AMA’s Festival in Nashville,  she and the band would be going into the studio to record their next album and that these shows would act as preproduction.  In that light there were a number of new songs in the set, all well received by her fans who would likely be hearing them for the first time. Table For OnePut The Fire Out, 15 Highway Lines and the gorgeous Rookie Dreaming were included from Honest Life together with a selection of  songs from a previous album (On My Page) that had been rereleased by her UK label Loose Music to coincide with the tour. One of these songs, highlighting her skill as a songwriter, is titled Paintings From Michael and is performed solo by her at the piano having explained the story behind the song; that of an incarcerated relation who painted while in prison. Throughout the show her superb vocal ability was readily apparent handling both solo acoustic folk songs and full throated rock work-outs. She also displayed slick guitar playing skills with some delicate finger pickin’ on Woman Of Many Colours also from the rereleased album.

There was some banter between Andrews and the audience, a couple of whom who were effusive in their praise. Another moment was when she strapped on her electric guitar for the first time and someone quipped “Judas” to much amusement all round. At the end there was a tongue in cheek request for Smells Like Teen Spirit which the band briefly, but effectively, played the intro before finishing the set with the crowd pleaser Irene. The encores included a solo version of a new song Rough Around The Edges, which might be the title of the next album and an amped up version of Bob Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You, highlighting the versatility of the band.

There was little to doubt the skill of those on the stage. Andrews quipped that they were known as Courtney Marie Band when they played together and the fact that these were her long time regular players (who were featured on her recordings) gave them an undoubted collective ability to serve the songs in the way best suited to that moment of performance. It was also apparent that although, still only in her mid-twenties, Andrews has so much  to offer both as a writer and performer and with a number of album already under her belt has the potential to become a much more mainstream artist. The style and delivery of her newer material also suggested that her next album may be a departure to a fuller rockier sound compared to the more intimate style of the exquisite Honest Life.

Sound designer, audio engineer and musician Scott Hirsch filled the support slot splendidly with a thirty minute set which included material from his debut 2016 album Blue Rider Songs. A former bass player alongside MC Taylor in Hiss Golden Messenger, his style varied from laid back country soul to a fuller bluesy rock sound and his accompanying three piece band included American keyboard and guitar wizard Sean Coleman, currently residing in Dublin. Darkness, Blue Rider and his closing track Isabella were particularly impressive. All in all a great opener from an act more than worthy to be headlining himself. 

Review by Stephen Rapid and Declan Culliton   Photograph (at top) by Kaethe Burt O'Dea. (Below) Scott Hirsch and Sean Coleman by Declan Culliton

Monday
Aug282017

Grant Lee Phillips @ Whelans - 23rd August 2017

Edinburgh native Dean Owens, who supported Grant Lee Phillips, is a highly regarded singer songwriter whose album Into The Sea received glowing reviews when released in 2015 . A close friend of Phillips, his thirty minute set was the perfect opener for what was to follow. Not unfamiliar to all things Irish having toured here previously with The Mavericks and more recently with Sharon Shannon in Australia, he joked  early in his set of been taken by surprise by the pin drop silence of the audience at Whelan’s, in total contrast to the rowdy Irish entourage that followed Shannon around Australia. To his credit the quality of his material and his confident and entertaining stage banter engaged the audience throughout, even managing to get them to sing the chorus on his final song. Highlights of his slot were the opening song Valentine’s Day In New York, written in a hotel room while spending some time in New York without his wife, the Ryan Adams sounding The Only One and Cotton Snow inspired by a visit to the Carter House in Tennessee where The Battle of Franklyn took place during the American Civil War and where ten thousand soldiers died during the five hour battle. 

Grant Lee Phillips most recent album The Narrows, released some twelve months ago and his first recording since relocating to Nashville from California, matched the excellence of his early career recordings as Grant Lee Buffalo and much of this evenings show featured material from both ends of career to date. Interestingly, The Narrows and Fuzzy – released nearly twenty five years ago – both feature quite similar looping and atmospheric guitar playing together with his quite unique vocal range. It’s a great compliment to Phillips that this evenings performance, even though delivered solo, managed to recreate the power, quality and excitement of the material from both those albums in particular.

Kicking off with It Ain’t The Same Old Cold War Harry and One Morning, both from his 2009 album Little Moon, he pledges ‘to start the evening off nice and easy and end it up in a coma’ and over the following ninety certainly delivers a storming set ending the evening jacketless, bathed in sweat and elated.

For a creator of bittersweet and often doleful lyrics, Phillips himself is quite the contradiction on stage, upbeat, humorous and possessing the ability to effortlessly engage and enthral. Introducing One Morning he refers to his rural country childhood, open fields, cattle and roosters before joking "I heard you can buy washed and fresh roosters in the stores here and was scratching my head until someone told me we were talking about potatoes!"

Smoke and Sparks, Holy Irons and Taking On Weight in Hot Springs all from The Narrows follow, stripped back versions but all performed wonderfully. A similar pattern of playing a collection of songs from a particular album follows with two selections from Virginia Creeper, crowd favourite Mona Lisa and Josephine Of The Swamps, and three from Mighty Joe Moon, Honey Don’t Think, Happiness and the title track.

Explaining how his relationship and friendship with support artist Dean Owens started in California and continued in Nashville he invites Owens back on stage to join him on two covers, Gram Parsons Hickory Wind and Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams, which features a striking guitar solo by Phillips.

The highlights of the evening however are probably his selections from the album Fuzzy. Phillip’s vocal delivery on Jupiter and Teardrop is stunning to say the least - soaring, dipping and echoing, aided by the excellent acoustics and engineered sound in the room. Audience requests are satisfied by two more from the same album, Stars ‘N’ Stripes’ and the title track Fuzzy, described by Phillips as his melodic nightmare, both bringing the house down.

The encore and closing track sees Owens back on stage taking the difficult chorus on a rousing Mockingbirds, with Phillips joking ‘you can sing the high notes, the ones I won’t reach having been travelling from London from 6am this morning’. It’s a fitting  close what has been a wonderful evening by an artist who remains every bit as passionate, entertaining and committed nearly three decades in to his career. 

Review and photography by Declan Culliton