Thursday
May182017

Andrew Combs @ Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots

Andrew Combs is yet another talented young artist to emerge from East Nashville in recent years, joining the growing list of names flying the flag for Americana, Alt-Country or whatever the latest hip title for the genre might be. The East Nashville scene appears to be akin to an artistic co-op as so many of the same musicians, predominately female by the way, seem to pop up either in each other’s bands or featuring on their albums. Think Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Caitlin Rose, Molly Pardon, Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, J.P. Harris, Kelsey Waldon, Steelism, and you’ll get the picture. Enough talent in that lot and their bands to host a festival in its own right.

Combs and his band Jerry Bernhardt (Guitar), Dominic Billett (Drums) and Charlie Whitten (Bass) arrived in Kilkenny jet lagged and got straight down to business with gigs scheduled for lunchtime in Cleeres on Sunday 30th of April and the closing show of the festival at Kytelers on Monday 1st May at 9pm.

Hitting the festival armed with his latest and most ambitious and mature album to date, Canyons of My Mind. He also came accompanied with the tightest three-piece band you could imagine and their chemistry on stage at both shows was a joy to behold. Material on his latest album features dreamlike layers of strings on a number of tracks and he and his band managed to recreate the material live quite wonderfully, not an easy task. My first experience of Combs live was as the opening act for Caitlin Rose in Whelan’s four years ago, his talent apparent as he played an acoustic set of strong self-penned material before appearing with Rose’s backing band. It’s now barely nine months since the last occasion that I saw Combs perform with his band at The Fond Object in East Nashville and the progress over that short period of time has been staggering. His latest album may have caught a number of his followers slightly off guard, the Roy Orbison and Nilsson influences remain but a hardcore, edgier and fuller sound has also crept into his work allowing his band to let loose at times, a dimension which works spectacularly well in both his live performances at the Festival.  

His first show at lunchtime in Cleere’s to a sold-out house is a definite winner, a highlight of the weekend, a pin drop performance in fact. Togged out in a smart black suit, white shirt and cowboy boots he plays the perfect set focusing, as can be expected, on quite an amount of material from Canyons of My Mind mixed with some of the highlights from his earlier work.  In true traditional country writing style, unrequited love is well represented in particular by Lauralee and the beautiful Hazel, which Combs performs solo as an encore at both shows.

The more sonic additions on the current album also work spectacularly well live, Heart of Wonder and the anti-Trump Bourgeois King, which ended the sets at both venues, delivered with total passion on both occasions.

The closing slot at any festival can be the poisoned chalice with expectations high and in Comb’s case made all the more challenging having already performed the previous day and in quite a few cases to the same punters. The festival organisers made a brave choice given that previous years had featured rockabilly and blues bands bookending the festival and performing high octane sets to an expectant audience. In this case, they got the artist selection spot on with Combs and his band having the ability to rock out at times but also managing to silence a potentially boisterous audience, on the more mellow choices such as Too Stoned To Cry from his debut album and the equally moving Rainy Day Song and Strange Bird from his 2015 release All These Dreams.

Combs most definitely has the potential to follow in the footsteps of his Nashville neighbours Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price by making a major industry breakthrough and on the evidence of these two performance it’s more than well deserved.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton

Thursday
May182017

Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Review

The Kilkenny Roots Festival is now in it’s 20th year and it has evolved over the years to it’s current singer/songwriter Americana axis but with enough diversity of music to pretty much please ever taste from some hardcore country to the harder edges of rock. There are numerous venues taking part in the event and while some are more suited to the live process all have gained their reputations as welcoming venues. Here is a selection of just three of many acts playing this year.

There were obvious highlights, as there are every year, and they will depend on personal taste but from the word of mouth on one such act was the Western Centuries. The band, who feature three key singers and songwriters, had a winning combination of musical skill, humour, love of what they do and perhaps most importantly a set of good songs. Western Centuries consists of Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton who ostensibly play rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums respectively. But in truth are more variable with Morrison and MIller swopping acoustic and electric guitar depend who was taking the lead vocal on their self-written song. However it doesn’t stop there as Morrison and Lawton also swop roles with the later coming to the front to sing and Morrison playing the drums. This proved to allow for some onstage banter and for the set to have a variety that was with entertaining and effective. Completing the line-up and adding much to the overall context of the show was upright bassist Travis Stuart and very talented steel player Leo Grassl. The steel added a layer to the overall sound that grounded it solidly in traditional country roots.

However, Western Centuries are not retro copyists and are in fact a living, breathing entity whose music is as relevant to an audience now as it would have been back in the ‘50s. The set included several from their debut album Weight Of The World. These included Knocking ‘Em Down, Off The Shelf, Hallucinations, In My Cups a song that Lawton noted was about his 6th grade teacher who had got into trouble; a bar fight with another adult he added rather than anything more salubrious. They also played Double Or Nothing by special request. There were also some new ones such as Cloud Of Woes and Three Swallows - a drinking song or rather a song about drink that references the Powers Whiskey label. There was one about a telemarketer, an inverted individual who likes to drink at home listening to his own records in his own private honky-tonk. One that mentioned “warm guns” and the way they played it tonight was, they said, their best yet. These tales from the “United States of Weird Americans” are scheduled for the next album which they are hoping to start recording on soon. 

They played two sets to a packed room, at one point asking the audience to move forward in the already crowed space to allow late comers to enter. Then commenting that there was room for one onstage who could play tambourine or rub board! They also asked that any pictures of the band should not show them drinking as the told their families that they didn’t drink on tour. This envisaged a big laugh as the evidence was very much to the contrary. Aside from the obvious strength of the playing and songwriting on offer there was a sense of ease and humour among them that enhanced the enjoyment of the show. One that finished with them being called back for an encore. That was dedicated to some of the great musicians lost recently and was a spirited version of Merle Haggard’s Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down. But tonight the band didn’t let us down and showed that Western Centuries would be welcome back at any time.

Holly Macve, joined by her three piece band, played a short 40 mins set that confirms her a new and interesting voice. One who seemed to have been a highlight of the weekend for many. Drawing on her debut album Golden Eagle. Initially she took the stage accompanied only by her guitar player Tommy Ashby who brought some subtle but telling tones to her songs. Anyone familiar with her voice on record would have seen her duplicate it’s tremulous and tender voice onstage. Those who may have been fans of Paula Frazer and Tarnation will recognise a similarity. Though having seen both acts Frazer and her band varied the tempo and mood of the songs more than Macve does here.

Macve moves between (borrowed) acoustic guitar and electric keyboard for different songs. Some employ bass and drums to underpin them with an added depth but alongside the key element of her voice it is Ashby slide guitar that is the main focus of the song. Aside from the her own songs the 9 song set included two covers, Melanie Safka’s We Don’t Know Where We’re Going a staple of her live set and sung solo at the piano before with to guitar one which she described as risky - a version of Willie Nelson’s Crazy (performed for Willie’s birthday that day) with a fine Nelson influenced electric guitar solo from Ashby. Communication between Macve and the audience was sparse enough as she preferred to let the music speak. Something that worked in the short set but may have seem lacking over a longer time frame. 

There was a pervading melancholy to her songs of heartbreak that included a piano-led Golden Eagle and closed with a slow lament in Sycamore Tree. She left the stage to resounding applause from the faithful as well as a set of new fans and there is no denying her talent and voice. It will be interesting to see how Macve develops her sound and songwriting in the future making her next album one to watch out for when it emerges.

Another making his debut at the Kilkenny Festival was the former Sons Of Fathers member and now solo artist Paul Cauthen. His album My Gospel finds the singer/songwriter delivering his music with a solid voice and traditionally leaning soulful country sound. In person it is a different story as it is stripped right back to it’s essence of story, voice and guitar … and Cauthen’s presence. Which is a big one which holds the audience’s attention for the hour long show. “I come from Texas and have been traveling America for the last 10 years. Now I’m thankful to spread my music across the big water” are the words that Cauthen greets us with. He also tells us that coming here to Kilkenny was the first he had stepped outside of an airport and that previously the oldest thing he had seen was the Alamo. He reflected that Kilkenny was a beautiful old city. 

He also told us that his relationship had recently broken down and that had resulted in some new songs. He said that the particular lady had been his muse for 5 years. It is these hard won (and lost) relationship with family that are at the core of Cauthen’s writing and of his album. A couple of the songs especially received a strong reaction from the audience who felt empathy with their theme and immediacy. These were Better Last Name and Hanging Out On The Line. Other songs that came from the album included

Let’s It Burn, Still Drivin’, Saddle as well as the title song. His version of Fulsom Prison Blues also we well suited to him and was equally well appreciated. 

Cauthen’s music has the air of an outlaw and his beard and black cowboy hat pretty much reflect that image. But that is backed up by his mix of tender and tough, of passion and pain. Contrasts that make his music more real and rewarding. This is obvious across the set of personal ballads that talk of his life and times, of his background and upbringing. His father, he explained, was leader in the church in Tyler, Texas and that his grandfather and his twin brother would lead the service. He also sang there and was dressed up in a 3 piece suit to make him look snazzy in the church. However, he then quipped, “I haven’t been snazzy since!” 

That grounding may play an important part in the way his voice is used to express his inner feelings. It has been noted that there are reminders of Waylon Jennings in his vocal as well as a hint of Raul Malo's vocal dexterity. Cauthen also impresses with his range and delivering that goes from big and boomy to something gentler and considered. An hour in this basic form might well be enough and it would be interesting to see him with a band next time out. Either way Cauthern made his mark and wetted the appetite for his next album and his next visit.

All of these gigs took place in the welcoming surrounding of Billy Byrnes pub whose back room is one of the premier venues that participates in the Roots Festival. 

With thanks to Willy Byrne, John Cleere and also to Willie Meighan

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

 

Tuesday
Apr182017

John Prine @ Bord Gais Theatre - 13th April 2017

The accolade ‘living legend’ is all too often bandied about carelessly when describing some of our surviving roots / country singer songwriters.  Recent years has seen the passing of Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen and George Jones, all who unquestionably fall in to this category, leaving a handful of artists including a very ill Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and John Prine carrying the torch. 

Prine’s inspiration to so many of this generations burning lights (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Ryan Adams to name but a few) is beyond doubt and the chance to still witness him in full flight is an opportunity not to be missed. Like Cohen in his latter years and as a result of recovery from throat cancer, Prine’s vocals have dropped a few octaves from his younger days, but in many ways his new found gravely vocal perfectly suits his more recent recordings and still manages to do his vast back catalogue justice indeed.

Prine’s wife Fiona, being Irish, practically guarantees us an annual if not bi-annual show in Dublin and some eighteen months after his last appearance in Vicar Street its business as normal for the enthusiastic audience this evening.

The added bonus this evening is the support slot by Amanda Shires. A regular visitor to Ireland in recent years the selection of Shires as support act also gives Prine the option of including a number of his well-loved duets in his set. The presence of Jason Isbell (Shires' husband) on stage gives the evening another dimension.

"Six shows in seven days, they shouldn’t do that to an old man" announces Prine three songs into his sold out show this evening. Having kicked off proceedings with Love Love Love, Glory of True Love and Long Monday it’s evident even at this stage that the full house at Bord Gais Theatre are in for a treat. Opening act Amanda Shires who showed a sense of humour with the remark that "you guys seem to have named your toilet bowls after me!" had already wooed the crowd with a thirty minute opening set, playing in a duo with her husband Jason Isbell and performing Devastate, Pale Fire, Swimmer, Wasted and Rolling before closing by sharing vocals with Isbell on a cover of Warren Zevon’s Mutineer.

Prines’s regular band this evening, Jason Wilber on guitar, Pat McLaughlin on mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar and Dave Jacques ("the best bass player in the world") on upright and electric bass are also accompanied, welcomed but somewhat surprisingly, by Kenneth Blevins on drums. An unusual departure for Prine to feature a drummer on stage but he explains, "never had a drummer, but heard this guy play my stuff recently and changed my mind".  As can be expected the playing is sublime to the extent that it is impossible to highlight any one of the players above the others. The three and sometimes four part harmonies accompanying Prine’s low down vocals aren’t half bad either.

All the crowd pleasers are delivered, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More ("an old song that I dust down and bring out at every presidential election, think I’m gonna leave it out for a while this time!"), Hello In There which he dedicated to his mother in law, Angel From Montgomery this time dedicated to Bonnie Raitt. What follows is a solo slot by Prine and his trusty acoustic guitar - one he bought it in 1968, and played on every song hes written,also quipping thatit "could play the show all on its own." He delivered side splitting versions of Jesus The Missing Years and That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round.

At this stage we are over an hour into a typical Prine show but what follows for the next sixty minutes is magical. Firstly joined by Shires on stage, Prine delivers a saucy duet of In Spite Of Ourselves with Shires adopting Iris De Ment lyrical role to perfection. The duo continue with Unwed Fathers before Prine invites Isbell back on stage and asks him to select one of his own songs. Prine tell us that "I love singer songwriters and this man is the best I’ve heard in the past twenty five years." Isbell obliges playing Travelling Alone noting that it was Mrs. Prine’s favourite song of his which he freely admits having ripped off from John Prine.

Prine returns on stage and tells the tale of how he came to meet Galway born Fiona, his current wife ("she’s given me three wonderful sons, two grandchildren and the happiest twenty five years of my life") in 1988 in Blooms Hotel after he had performed at the Point as part of The Sessions. She then joins him on stage for My Happiness, the duet included with her on his latest album For Better, Or Worse. A solo Sam Stone ("for all the veterans in the world") follows before his band, Shires and Isbell come back on stage for a grand finale that includes Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness (dedicated to Nanci Griffith) and a rousing Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and show closer Lake Marie.

In response to the deafening applause and cheering from the audience the whole entourage return to stage for an encore of Paradise to conclude the show. From a personal viewpoint I have had the pleasure of attending many wonderful John Prine shows over the years. This evening’s performance, for me, surpasses in many ways any of those experiences and judging by the reception John Prine and all his accomplices received at the end of the show, I’ve no doubt many other would concur.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton

Friday
Apr142017

Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio @ Whelans 11th April 2017

The opening act, Italian band Don Antonio, played a short set of mainly instrumental songs from their debut album, which was musically interesting and tinged with humour. Italians playing rock ’n’ roll may not be an easy concept take on board front man and lead guitarist Antonio Gramentieri mused and how the dance The Twist gave them an in. They played with a passion and ability that went down well with an audience that they had quipped earlier doesn’t particularly like support bands, setting the tone for a rewarding evening.  

After a short break, and a change of clothes, the band emerged with Escovedo and preceded to play four songs that were fiery examples of a hard rock attitude that took the level up a notch or two from the recent Burn Something Beautiful album. The band were with him all the way with a strong rhythm section bolstered by lead guitar, saxophone and keyboards. What was immediately apparent was the commitment that Escovedo brought to his performance. His vocals were powerful and purposeful and his guitar playing integrated with the overall sound blasting from the stage. 

After four songs Escovedo let us know how he was happy to be back in Dublin and, in particular, Whelans again. “Thanks for coming out on whatever night this is” he noted with some obvious touches of touring fatigue. He changed from electric to acoustic guitar for the next few songs which would be for the “Americana crowd.” He preceded that with a brief history of his past and his love for influences such as the New York Dolls and The Stooges (among many others). He talked of his move to New York where he met old friends Chip and Tony Kinman (of fellow punk band The Dils) and how they drove across America with a plan to bring together George Jones and The Clash. The result of this was of course the influential band Rank & File. They arrived in Austin “the City of Songs.” A small spec of blue amid a sea of red - a place where you could find the likes of Blaze Foley or Townes Van Zandt wandering around looking for a misplaced guitar from the previous night!

He played a song he co-wrote with his old friend Chuck Prophet Bottom Of The World that addressed how things had changed in Austin (and everywhere). In this set he also played a song that he’d been singing for the recently departed. On this occasion, he dedicated the song to Irishman and music lover Frank Murray. Sister Lost Soul was a song that he had co-written with the late Jeffery Lee Pierce of Gun Club. He also included Down In The Bowery from his Streets Songs Of Love album. He took the opportunity also to introduce the band, Don Antonio: Matteo Monti on drums, bassist and singer Denis Valentini plus Francesco Valtieri who played saxophone and keyboards as well as tambourine and backing vocals as well as the aforementioned Antonio Gramentieri on guitar. They proved to be a superb backing band given that they only had a day or so rehearsal before driving 10 hours in a small van to Frankfurt for the first gig of this European tour.

Escovedo discussed the current situation in America and how his family had come to America from Mexico and of his 12 siblings eight had been involved with music. Two were noted percussionists and how he felt that they had enriched the cultural life there in the US with their contributions. His father was a hardworking man whose own father had been abusive. This had caused his father to run away at an early age. That sense of freedom is something that seems fundamental to his son too. A troubadour who brings his talent to different towns and shares his life experiences, both good and bad, with his audiences.  

Sally Was A Cop was a song that brought some of his shared heritage into play. It was one of the strongest performances on the night that mixed some older songs with those from the latest album. He closed the show with his take on Bruce Springsteen’s Always A Friend, a song that the Boss had invited him to sing with him at a big show in Texas. The penultimate song was not his but one from BP Fallon, who joined the band to deliver, in his unique way, I Believe - a song originally recorded with Jack White but here given justice with the band directed by Fallon’s hand movements and vocal phrasing. 

For many reasons a great gig, even if, at times, the vocals seemed a little lost in the mix, Alejandro Escovedo is a survivor as well as a showman. A man imbued with the spirit of rock ’n’ roll who transcends genre to deliver his heart and soul. In doing so he is burning with something beautiful.

Review by Stephen Rapid   Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea (top) and Stephen Rapid (bottom)

Sunday
Apr092017

Samantha Crain @ Whelan’s - April 7th 2017

Tonight, sees the welcome return of Samantha to Ireland for a short tour, which includes dates in Dublin, Kilkenny and Cork. It has been a fast rise to prominence among her peers for this gifted song-writer and musician who has released 5 albums over an 8-year period, culminating in the current offering, You Had Me At Goodbye.

Her new release is strongly featured, as expected, with the first half of the show taken up with the live performance of the entire project, ten songs in all, played with a band that has been assembled for the tour. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the relatively short rehearsal time that the musicians must have had to get to know these songs and to add their individual touch to the overall arrangements. Credit Samantha in that she appears to be a very generous band leader who allows each player the space to play and stretch the songs into understated and complete performances.

Her previous catalogue has fallen into the reflective song-writer category often exploring the fracture of relationships, the failings of individuals to do the right thing and the broken-hearts that must mend as a result of so much chaos. She is an advocate for the underdog and often writes from a personal viewpoint but dressed in character songs.

The new release seems much more upbeat with bright arrangements and a strong sense of letting the songs go where they will go. One song, Red Sky, Blue Mountain is written in Choctaw, her native language, and the overall impression is of a musician who is wholly comfortable with her muse and delivering songs of a mature nature to augment her growing body of work.

Emma Gatrill plays oboe and delivers a performance that is very impressive as she swoops around the melodies and colours the arrangements with subtle touches that fit perfectly. Equally Mike Siddell on violin displays a virtuoso performance of embellishing the song structures with understated playing lines that harmonise perfectly with the oboe parts and lift the songs to increasingly interesting places. Ben Rubenstein on bass is a very steady player who keeps things simple but is always driving the songs forward with lyrical playing. Sebastian Hankins is a fine drummer who never overplays and tucks-in very neatly behind the acoustic playing of Samantha with little touches of class on percussion when not anchoring the beat for the more up-tempo songs.    

The attentive audience is treated to stories of self-absorbed asshole friends; Airport-naming in Oklahoma and a tribute to the wife of the legendary Will Rogers; name checks for Richard Thompson and the late Jason Molina; her best friend honoured in a song and her first cover of a song from Will D. Cobbe, When the Roses Bloom Again.

Samantha is very relaxed on stage and her fine voice and guitar style signpost the real depth that lies within this gentle soul who displays a persona of wanting to have fun onstage above all else. Finishing her show with a number of older songs, Outside The Pale, Santa Fe, Kathleen, Somewhere All The Time and encores of Elk City (solo) and For The Miner, we are left with the feeling that the only way is up for this gifted and intelligent artist who continues to win over more admirers as she grows into the years ahead and continues to produce work of real insight and meaning

Review and photograph by Paul McGee