Tuesday
Jan302018

Hayes Carll @ The Oh Yeah Centre Belfast - 25th Jan 2018

You don’t have to be long haired, bearded, denim clad and gravel voiced to make the cut as a genuine outlaw troubadour but it certainly helps. Hayes Carll qualifies with distinction on all fronts but more importantly has the songs and stories to match. Sixteen years into a career that has yielded five albums to date and the Texan remains the most authentic apostle of the late Townes Van Zandt.

Fortunately Carll does not possess the same self-destruct tendencies as his master and even if his vocals do suggest a partiality for good whiskey and tobacco, his reputation for delivering stellar live shows goes before him as evidenced by  tonight’s performance before a large crowd at the OH Yeah Centre in Belfast. There was not a weak moment from his opener the confessional ballad  Good While It Lasted , through  his rousing  Drunken Poets Dream (a co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard he informs us) and his closer the priceless She Left Me For Jesus ("She says I should find him and I'll know peace at last -If I ever find Jesus, I'm kickin' his ass!").

He entertains the pin drop quiet crowd with tales and songs across his complete back catalogue, while also managing  to include a few new song titles including Times Like These, performed on stage for the first time. Confessing that ‘you can get pulled over by the cops an awful lot when you look a certain way’, he introduces the hilarious Bible On The Dash, advertising the advantages on strategically placing the holy book on your dashboard when crossing certain States in America. It’s a practice used by Carll and the co-writer of that song Corb Lund when they are on what Carll calls their "Outlaws on A Budget" tours.

Introducing Beaumont he describes it as your average South East Texas town, adding that he won a gun in a raffle playing in a bar in the town some years previously. The Magic Kid, he explains, is a co-write with Darrell Scott inspired by a simple card trick performed by his son. It’s a simple yet beautiful song written from the heart. Wild As A Turkey, I’ve Got A Gig, Bad Liver and A Broken Heart all get an airing but the highlight of the evening is a rattling delivery of KMAG YOYO ("Here I am standin' in the desert with a gun, thought of going AWOL but I'm too afraid to run"), not an easy song to perform solo given the speed at which the lyrics are delivered but absolutely nailed on the evening. Jesus and Elvis (written with his partner Allison Moorer) also features, it is a song that was subsequently recorded by Kenny Chesney.

Notwithstanding the ease at which he recounts his tales and delivers his songs, the standard of his guitar playing is wonderful as is his harmonica playing, particularly on the gorgeous Love Is Easy.

Carll’s career will continue to be underpinned by more main stream artists picking up on his songs (Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Jim Lauderdale) and deservedly so as he remains to be one of the most intelligent, creative, descriptive writers bar none. Few songwriters nowadays have the ability to successfully mix their art with humour, Carll has the talent to combine both effortlessly.

Eight years since his last visit to Belfast, it’s a pleasure to see him once more in such stellar form and in a super venue among similar music loving folk. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eight years for his return.

Thumbs up also to Ciara O’Neill who opened the show in style with a collection of songs from her debut album The Ebony Trail and newer material to be included in her next recording.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton

Saturday
Dec162017

Malojian @ The Set Theatre Kilkenny - 9th December 2017: A Rollercoaster Records Presentation 

"There's so much love in this room," a beaming Wilie Meighan whispered in my ear as he perused the crammed attendance at The Set in Kilkenny, enjoying a rocking performance by Malojian. The date was 15th October 2016 and the occasion was the album launch of This Is Nowhere, the first album to be released on Willie's Rollercoaster Record Label. The majority of those in attendance had probably not heard of Stephen Scullion (aka Malojian) twelve months previously, or at best may have come across his previous incarnation Cat Malojian. Not intent in taking the safe option and celebrating the album launch in a smaller venue, Willie had the confidence and foresight to select The Set as the venue, comfortable that the near 400 capacity venue was the correct location and that the occasion would be suitably supported.  

Willie had previously realised the potential in Stevie Scullion’s Malojian, got on board, put his money where his mouth was and kick started the Malojian journey that continues to go from strength to strength to this day. There was an intense pride in the whole project for Willie and his delight was clear to see as he glanced around the room at the smiling faces, a scene which no doubt meant so much to him. From the moment he introduced the band from the stage that evening as "the greatest fucking band in the country," to the moment at the end of the show, when he was persuaded to return to the stage and accept a cake baked in recognition of his achievement, his euphoria was there for all to witness and enjoy.

Barely fourteen months later and many of the same crowd are gathered at the same venue for another performance by Malojian, this time under entirely different circumstances. We were all aware how ill Willie was over the past months but were shocked to the bones by the tragic news that he lost his fight on 28th November, at the all too young age of 48.

A huge turnout attended his funeral at St. Mary's Cathedral on 30th November, a most dignified yet heart breaking occasion where his great friend Malcolm Noonan spoke so eloquently about Willie, recalling his early days as a bass player with Crawl Babies, his twenty-eight years as head honcho at Rollercoaster Records, his unfaltering loyalty as a friend and so much more. The Malojian show at The Set had been arranged some months ago by Willie and we all in our hearts hoped and expected that Willie would be present at some stage to enjoy the occasion, sadly not to be. In other years it would have been the much-cherished Rollercoaster Christmas Party which Willie arranged each year with various bands performing and the legendary Willie and Dave Holland's disco kicking on to the early hours after the live music ended.

In many ways it was fitting that the occasion had been arranged as it gave so many people the opportunity to gather together and celebrate the very thing that Willie had provided for years in Kilkenny and what he particularly cherished, live music, smiling faces, togetherness and love. All those ingredients were there in abundance on the night. There were tears of course but the overall sense was one of celebration and remembrance. The opening act was Mark McCambridge, the founding member of Belfast band Arborist and an act also very special to Willie. The gentle acoustic delivery was the perfect evening opener and set the scene for what was to follow. In what must have been a difficult personal challenge Stevie Scullion delivered a faultless set, choosing material actually perfectly suited to the occasion, accompanied by an outstanding band of musicians. No thumping drums or screeching guitars this time around but instead some gorgeous strings and keys delivered by Rachel Boyd on violin, David Murphy on pedal steel, Una McCann on accordion, Laura McFadden on cello and Stephen on acoustic guitar and occasional piano. Backing vocals were contributed beautifully by all.

Emotionally explaining that he only knew Willie for three years but reinforcing the impact both musically and personally in that three-year period the first half of the set concentrated in the main on material from his earlier albums including Whittle Me Down, I’ll Be Alright and Lean On Me from This Is Nowhere, Communion Girls and Crease Of Your Smile from Southlands and a note perfect cover of Neil Young’s Out On The Weekend.  Moving yet always tinged with humour, (the piano temporarily dying a death mid song was greeted by a ‘Willie’s in the room’ comment), and the sense of loss always prevailed but was eclipsed by the sense of togetherness and relevance. More recent material featured in the latter half of the evening with the excellent Ambulance Song, witty Beard Song, Damp and Purity Of Your Smile all featuring from Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home his current release on the Rollercoaster Records Label.

However, the most sombre inclusion was the traditional farewell song He Was A Friend Of Mine, immortalised by Bob Dylan and on the lips of everyone in the room. Tear jerking, mournful, sentimental but more than appropriate. I glanced around the room and thought of Willie, in another world looking down and saying to himself "There’s so much love in that room."

Willie Meighan RIP 

Review and live photography by Declan Culliton

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.