Saturday
Dec022017

John Blek @ The Hot Spot, Greystones - 26th November 2017

A Sunday afternoon gig may seem alien to many people but for me it brought back memories as a young man when such events were weekly occurrences for a number of years with numerous choices of venues in Bray and South County Dublin.

John Blek dropped by to play a late afternoon set in Greystones on his way back to his native Cork having performed the previous evening in The Workman’s Club on Dublin’s Wellington Quay. Joking that the sparse attendance at the wonderful venue brought him back to his early career days as a busker, he proceeded to deliver the perfect afternoon’s entertainment with selections from his back catalogue, his recent album Catharsis Vol.1; a few well selected covers and a couple of new additions intended for his next project. His current album was conceived in an unorthodox manner while he spent over two months earlier in the year hospitalised, having been struck down by a virus. The two positives to emerge from this episode were, first and foremost, his return to the best of health but also the inspiration to create a body of work which over  nine tracks visits mortality, freedom, materialism and survival.

The material on the album is stripped to the bone, often featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar, perfectly suited for the live setting. He begins with the calming Lace, the opening track from the album and follows with The Night and The Liquor from his 2016 release Cut The Light. Salt In The Water, a highlight from his recent album, was inspired by a late night session with a casual Dutch visitor to Cork, who invited Blek back to his boat for a few nightcaps following a gig in Cork. Its delivery is captivating, making as much impact performed live as it does on the studio version. Also featured is Needle and Thread, whose lyrics visit adoration from an individual who lacks the financial means to materially express it. The studio recording includes only vocal and mellotron but with restrictions on the amount of equipment he can physically accommodate on tour, Blek substitutes the mellotron with a more elementary  and compact wind instrument named a Shruti box,  which achieves the desired effect, despite being christened by his disapproving trad-music girlfriend - in unprintable terms.

Compass and No Surrender also from Catharsis Vol.1 are performed with Blek explaining that he unwittingly included the latter in his set at a venue in the North of Ireland to the expected response. His stage banter is relaxed with references to suffering from mid-life crisis when he reached thirty last year (fifteen years too early for that John!) and to the number of musicians that have played in his band; testament to how difficult he must be to work with.

Little Sparrow and the Andy M. Stewart song, Where Are You Tonight? from his 2016 album Cut The Light, also get an airing together with The Barman, The Barfly and Me from his work with his band The Rats; resulting in an observation from the floor about the recurring alcohol theme in many of the songs!

Two new songs Hannah and Blackwater are auditioned to gauge approval for inclusion on his next album, with both very much getting the thumbs up from the floor. They Killed Joe Henry, written by Justin Townes Earle, is up next  before he winds up the afternoon with the timeless Townes Van Zandt classic, Pancho and Lefty, Hand On My Heart from his Rats repertoire, (requested from the floor), and on a more upbeat note, Tim Hardin’s classic love song If I Were A Carpenter.

Driving home I reflected on the quality of music recorded by Irish artists in recent months. The Remedy Club, Malojian, Dovecote, Seamus Fogarty and Ritchie Healy all spring  to mind but the standout album of the year, for me, by our wealth of local talent is definitely Catharsis Vol.1 by John Blek. Get yourself a copy and more to the point take any opportunity you get to see these acts live, you won’t be disappointed.

Review and photography by Declan Culliton

Wednesday
Nov292017

Rhiannon Giddens@ Vicar Street 25th November 2017

Those of us lucky enough to have attended Rhiannon Giddens (above) sold out show at Whelan’s in early April of this year will no doubt recall her pledge to return to play Dublin again in 2017. True to her word she’s back in town this evening at an equally crammed Vicar Street, a further endorsement of the pulling power of the exceptionally talented Giddens and the outstanding band of musicians that travel with her. 

Very much part of her entourage at present is support act Kaia Kater (below), the 22-year-old Canadian virtuoso who studied banjo under the guidance of Rhiannon Giddens. Her set is both technically brilliant but also an indication of the distinction that Kater possesses as a songwriter in her own right. With two albums already under her belt the highlight of her set is the title track from her most recent release Nine Pin. "This is my first time in Ireland and I can’t understand a word anyone is saying but wow you are livelier than the English crowds" she jokes opening her set. Her impressive appearance will no doubt boost sales for her appearance at The Temple Bar Trad Festival in January 2018.

Freedom Highway, released by Rhiannon Giddens earlier this year, is without doubt one of the most politically charged albums of the year, tackling issues such as racism and immigration head on and while there is much pent up anger on the album, Giddens, in the live environment, delivers the material in a non-judgemental yet questioning manner. Early in the set and by way of introducing the albums most powerful song At The Purchasers Option, she speaks openly ("my biggest teacher is history") yet not overly hypercritically about slavery and the motivation for much of the album’s material, bemoaning the fact that ‘there’s still so much negative stuff out there at the moment’.

Capturing the essence of immigration in one sentence "Nobody leaves home without a good reason,"she proceeds to deliver a beautiful acapella style version of Coolings traditional Jazzmen’s classic blues lament Pretty Saro, aided by her sister Lalenja on backing vocals.

Despite the often-depressing topics featured in the core material the night is all about celebration rather than woe. "I’ve been coming to Ireland for ten years now and it’s the first time I’ve played this beautiful venue, don’t get me wrong though, I also love Whelan’s," Giddens adds, before reminding the audience, with a few words of Irish, that her two children attend Gael Scoil in Limerick.

It may only be less than eight months from her last Dublin gig but the setlist is refreshingly varied, having kicked off in fine style with Ola Belle Reed’s Going To Write Me A Letter she ups the tempo even higher with a melody of Fiddle Tune/Pateroller and Black Annie.

Similar to her Whelan’s show her band consist of Carolina Chocolate Drop colleague Hubby Jenkins (guitar, mandolin, banjo and bones), Jason Sypher (bass), James Dick (drums) and the albums co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. An additional two musicians are on stage this evening, a trumpet player and her sister Lalenja as backing vocalist. The family connection is further enhanced when she is joined on stage by her nephew Justin Harrington for the rap chorus on the gangland killing themed song Better Get It Right The First Time from the current album, establishing that rap actually can be sympathetic to folk and blues music.

A classic delivery of Waterboy follows, the traditional song immortalised by singer and human rights activist Odetta, now owned by Giddens whose striking vocal range is on full display before delivering another well-chosen cover Underneath The Harlem Moon written by the pianist and 40’s swing artist Bob Howard. She introduces Come Love Come as her platform to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’ before finishing the main set with a rousing Freedom Highway.

Back on stage for her encore she admits to be about to deviate from her setlist by having to ‘throw one in for my Irish friends’ and lets loose with the lively Gael/Scot instrumental S’iomadh Rud Tha Dhiath Orm before ending what has been an exhilarating nights entertainment and sending the house into raptures with Lonesome Road and Up Above My Head.

A different venue, different setlist and some additional personnel from her show earlier in the year in Whelan’s but the same result. Magnificent!

Review by Declan Culliton  Photography by Ronnie Norton

Thursday
Nov162017

Take Root Festival @ Groningen, Netherlands - 4th November 2017

Groningen is the largest city in The Netherlands located north of Amsterdam and easily accessible from the airport by train, a journey which takes approximately two hours. Take Root Festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year and they certainly pulled out all the stops with a line-up that featured twenty acts appearing on five stages inside the most impressive De Oosterpoort complex.

The festival kicked off at 4pm and finished at 12am and to the credit of the organisers there were no hiccups with each act starting on time and the sound and lighting quality being of the highest quality at each venue. Unfortunately, with the number of acts performing -often three acts were on stage at the same time - hard choices have to be made in deciding which shows to attend, taking into consideration that if you get upfront at any particular set you are likely to be at the back of the following show, given that three thousand punters had purchased a ticket for the sold-out festival.

Lonesome Highway decided to take in full shows of six acts, including the three acts that were staged in the Grote Zaal, a spectacular theatre with tiered seating surrounding a large standing area. The three bands in question were Hurrah For The Riff Raff, Margo Price and Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit. The three other acts we caught on other stages were The Americans, Chuck Prophet and Jesse Dayton.

‘We’re American, but we come in peace’, announces Alynda Segarra as she takes the main stage with her band Hurrah For The Riff Raff.  Segarra and her colleagues are a totally different act both musically and in personnel from the band that played The Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2013. Back then the focus was on Segerra and her side man and fiddle player Yosi Perlstein, with a sound that was a blend of folk with loose country trimmings. Their latest album The Navigator and to a lesser degree 2014's Small Town Heroes took a different direction, hard edged, politically charged and the work of an artist growing into herself and finding her sweet spot. Gone is the diminutive and shy young lady to be replaced by a fiery, super confident artist taking full advantage of her opportunity to play the largest stage at the festival. Her stage presence and delivery are simply wonderful, prowling around the stage, shaking hips, theatrical facial expressions – reminiscent of a young P.J. Harvey - and powerful vocals backed by an equally impressive razor-sharp band. Understandably the setlist in the main featured material from The Navigator, a compelling concept album that finds Segarra reconnecting with her Puerto Rican roots and her early years as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn. It's a passionate and political body of work that acts out even better live than on the excellent album, the material taking on an even more weighty delivery.  Life to Save, Just The Way, Hungry Ghost all feature together with super charged versions of Living In The City and Palante before closing with a pumped up delivery Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark.

Margo Price's is currently being hailed as everything from the saviour of country music to the next Janis Joplin and despite the considerable pressure on her shoulders her performances suggest that she is taking it all in her stride. Taking the stage in a racy costume of shorts with a flowing dress to match and with her trusted five-piece band her set concentrates in the main on her current album American Made with Nowhere Fast, Weakness and A Little Pain all played in quick succession. Matching Alynda Segerra’s earlier performance, she is equally impressive both vocally and works every corner of the stage (and jumps off stage to sing among the audience towards the end of her set), belting out favourites Hands of Time and Hurtin' On The Bottle from her debut album together with Kris Kristofferson’s Me & Bobby Mc Gee.  

Having witnessed Jason Isbell's magical performance in Dublin a week previously it was worth sacrificing some of the other impressive acts on the line up to catch his set once more. He repeated that performance again this evening with his 400 Unit presenting a slightly varied set given his allocated time slot, a shorter set than his Dublin show. Opening with Anxiety and closing with If We Were Vampires his performance was equally well received as the Dublin show with 24 Frames, Cumberland Gap, Cover Me Up and a killer delivery of his Drive By Truckers classic Never Gonna Change all crowd pleasers.

Jesse Dayton also played a blinding set in Dublin last week - to a very small audience it has to be said. Not so this evening where he had the punters in the main foyer venue dancing and rocking from start to finish with a show featuring practically the entire The Revealer album, with lots of anecdotes and tales including the George Jones show that never happened when, as a young boy, he tagged along with his father for one of Jones’s legendary no shows. However, better fortune was to land at his door many years later, striking gold in fact, when film director Rob Zombie commissioned him to write the soundtrack for the film The Devil’s Rejects. The film died a death but the soundtrack was a huge success and Dayton rejoiced ‘the royalty checks keep dropping in my post box’. An artist that has played with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash his guitar playing is dynamic and with his rocking rhythm section of Chris Rhoades on bass and Kevin Charney on drums they race through Daddy Was A Badass, The Way We Are and crowd favourite I’m At Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed) with killer playing and humour in equal measures. As was the case in Dublin Dayton hung around afterward having a drink, mixing and talking with the punters and in no hurry to move on despite having an early morning flight to catch to Spain the next day.

Earlier in the afternoon T-Bone Burnett favourites The Americans had kicked off the festival on the same foyer stage with a full on / in your face set of no nonsense rock and roll promoting their debut album I’ll Be Yours. Front man Patrick Ferris - with looks and style that would grace any Levi’s advertisement – leads the band through a high energy mix of rockabilly and blues with titles such as Nevada, Stowaway and The Right Stuff, all warming up punters as they arrived at De Oosterpoort for what proved to be a hectic eight hours of nonstop entertainment 

Fortunately, we did get to catch some of Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express on the same stage as The Americans had performed earlier in the day. Bad Year For Rock and Roll, Jesus Was A Social Drinker, In The Mausoleum and Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins from his current album of the same name were all delivered with Prophet’s trademark animated stage presence and humour. As we made our way to the main stage to catch the Jason Isbell gig crowd favourite Willy Mays is Up at Bat could be heard blasting away in the background.

Such a shame to have to miss so many other acts and you do wonder why the festival could not have started earlier in the day or preferably the evening before but credit again to the organisers for a smoothly run and wonderful festival with an entry fee of €36, the amount you might pay to see one of those acts at home.

The Line Up -

Hurrah For The Riff Raff / Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit / Margo Price / Chuck Prophet / The Americans / Tift Merritt/ Jim Lauderdale / The Secret Sisters / Baptiste W. Hamon / Jesse Dayton / The Cactus Blossoms/ Cordovas / The Como Mamas/ Joist Dijkema / Andrew Combs / Steve Gunn / Eilen Jewell / Curse of Lono / Sam Outlaw / Levi Parham

Review and photography by Declan Culliton.

Sunday
Nov122017

Brandy Clark and Jim Lauderdale @ The Sugar Club, Dublin - 2nd November 2017

A lengthy queue has already formed outside The Sugar Club well in advance of door opening time, evidence of the attraction of having two songwriters of the calibre of Brandy Clark and Jim Lauderdale performing on the same stage. The release of Brandy Clark's 2013 album 12 Stories finally brought the Tennessee resident to the attention, as a performer, to the large numbers her song writing richly deserves. Her earlier career was focused more on writing material for others to record including successfully co-writing with Shane Mc Anally and Kacey Musgraves, a combination that produced hits for The Band Perry and Miranda Lambert.  Born and raised in the small logging town Morton, Washington (population 900) may or may not have generated the visionary landscape for Clark, an artist with the ability to create intriguing tales from the everyday mundane run of the mill occurrences.  She followed that debut album in 2016 with Big Day in a Small Town, another insight to the trials, tortures, lives and loves of the neighbours and inhabitants of small town America. Somewhat more heavily produced than its predecessor but Clark's gorgeous accented vocal and fearless writing impacted every bit as impressively as her debut and charted highly in both the U.S. and U.K. Country charts.

Her natural vocal is every bit as effective in a live setting as evidenced by her opening song this evening Hold My Hand, delivered solo acoustic before being joined on stage by her two-piece band. You're left in no doubt after that introduction, and the audience reaction, that the show is going to be something special and to suggest it lives up to expectation is an understatement. Commenting that this is the final night of a tour that started on September 26th she also adds that the reception she's receiving (‘and the Irish whiskey'!) is energising. 'Please sing along if you know the words or better still clap along cause I've no drummer on this tour' she jokes, but in reality the absence of percussion and her acoustic band gives Clark's honeyed vocal the space to blossom with every lyric crystal clear in delivery. That's not to detract from her superb band of Okie Myles Aubrey on acoustic guitar and Vanessa McGowan from Auckland New Zealand on upright bass, both of whose playing is wonderful and both of who add backing vocals creating stunning three-part harmonies throughout the set. Selection from both her albums feature with The Day She Got Divorced evolving into a sing along but also including some cracking guitar picking by Aubrey. ' I think I need to record an album of drinking songs' she teases before launching into a succession of substance abuse songs  Get High, Drinkin' Smokin' Cheatin', When I Get  To Drinkin, You're Drunk, Take A Little Pill and Hungover. The three way harmonies on Drinkin' Smokin' Cheatin' are particularly stunning. Commenting on the legendary drinking of the Irish she comments tongue in cheek ' What we call an alcoholic in the States you guys call a lightweight' adding that the same joke didn't go down as well in Belfast the previous night! Three Kids and No Husband, Big Day in a Small Town, Daughter (‘a good girl gone bad story and the best revenge song I'll ever write') and Stripes finish the set to a richly deserved standing ovation. The three-song encore consists of Carol King's Will You Love Me Tomorrow, a song that inspired Clark to attempt to follow suit, a new song entitled Apologies and the closer Pray To Jesus with the opening lyrics adapted to ‘We live in trailers and apartments too, from California to Dublin’.

Clark is undoubtedly one of the finest female songwriters in country music today with material that can shock, amuse and move in equal measures but what is also evident from this evenings show is her ability to deliver equally (if not to a greater extent) in a live setting with her gorgeous vocal, wonderful stage presence and perfectly suited accompanying musicians.

No stranger to Dublin having performed around the corner at The National Concert Hall with Beth Chapman Neilson in August, opening act Jim Lauderdale is a much loved, admired and charismatic artist, respected equally by industry punters and his peers. A prolific recording artist that seems to record (at least) one album annually he appears on stage immaculately turned out as usual in a colourful Dandy & Rose shirt and wine nudie suit trousers. Kicking off with Three Way Conversation after announcing Dublin as his favourite city to perform, his set includes Sweet Time from his current album London Southern and his Gram Parson / George Jones inspired The King of Broken Hearts.  You Don't Seem To Miss Me is introduced as ' one that I got lucky with', a reference to both Patty Loveless and George Jones recording it before he revisits his current album with the slow burning love ballad I Love You So, delivered with delicate pausing and punctuation to pin drop silence. Also recorded by Patty Loveless and indeed Dave Edmunds and included in the set is Halfway Down. Due to head into the studio in three days’ time he plays a new song from the album, a country ballad titled Rubs Off On Me. Lauderdale also kindly gives Lonesome Highway a generous call out from stage mentioning our ' very talented graphic designer Steve Averill' and also Ronnie Norton's latest radio show Route 650 before finishing with Hole In My Head, one of his co-writes with good friend Buddy Miller.

All in all, a standout evening of quality music from two wonderful artists hugely enjoyed by a large and enthusiastic audience at The Sugar Club.

Review by Declan Culliton  Photography bt Ronnie Norton

Sunday
Nov122017

Eilen Jewell @ The Sound House, Dublin - 10th Nov 2017 

Jewell’s crack band started to play the opening song before she stepped onstage to say “good to see you Dublin, it’s been awhile.” She then led the band through a series of numbers that spanned from the title song of her debut album Boundary County through to several titles from her latest release Down Hearted Blues. The range of music covered was equally diverse from the blues of songs such as the title track of the new album which featured drummer Jason Beek on washboard and guitarist Jerry Miller on Jewell’s acoustic guitar through a solo folk cover of Bob Dylan’s Kingsport Town where the clarity of Jewell’s voice was even more apparent. There was also the honky-tonk of Heartache Boulevard and the 50’s styled rock of I Remember You. She also revealed that a pre-gig preview warned she would be in some kinda trouble if she didn’t play a Loretta Lynn song in the show. “I don’t want to be in trouble in Ireland” she said and duly delivered You Want To Give Me a Lift.

Throughout the set Jewell engaged with the audience telling us about the origins of some of the songs. How she discovered her father’s collection of blues’ albums and noted that if her father had actually given them to her that she would have told him they were tedious. Also, that as a parent, that if you want your kids to like something it would be best to hide it from them! Raised in Ohio she, as a teenager, just wanted to find the quickest way to leave. However she now lives back in Ohio and loves the space the State offers. Some of her songs were inspired by that desert of the location, even though while she said she loved it, it was not a reciprocal relationship. As for musicians from Idaho she reckoned it was down to her and Josh Ritter (but one should not forget the Idaho cowboy Pinto Bennett who flew the flag for the State some years back).

Other songs form tonight’s 24 song set included High Shelf Blues, Santa Fe, Sea Of Tears Hallelujah Band, Wandering Signs, Another Night To Cry and Don’t Leave Poor Me. The latter three all from the new blues album. Theses songs showed the dexterous skill of Miller who was as much at ease with the blues as he was with every other aspect of the band’s roots related sound. Down Hearted Blues allowed upright bassist Shawn Supra to shine with a melodic solo. Both players received ovations for their abilities as did Beek who also took his turn in the spotlight with his rhythmic turn on the vintage washboard for the two acoustic based blues songs.

After her solo spot on the Dylan song Jewell brought the players on again for a crowd pleasing take on the Johnny Kidd and The Pirates classic Shakin’ All Over, a song that was requested by some audience members and of which Jewell noted that they hadn’t played in over 3 years but this being Dublin … well how could she refuse. It was a perfect end to the evening with many of the audience joining in on the chorus and applauding Miller inclusion of selections from other well known guitar riffs in the extended instrumental breaks. The Queen of the Minor Key and her band ruled and she promised to return to Dublin soon. A city she informed us that she had loved, even before visiting, from her love of James Joyce - whose Portrait Of An Artist was the subject of a thesis she had written in her 20s.

For many this was the first visit to The Sound House on Eden Quay and it proved to be a venue that should be added to the list of those suited to hosting Roots/Americana music. 

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea