Tuesday
May312011

Emmylou Harris @ The Grand Canal Theatre - 28 May

Emmylou Harris is one of those artists. She came to my attention first as a backing vocalist years ago & then through her more recent solo work, namely the stunning Wrecking Ball record produced by atmospheric master Danny Lanois.

She has guested on what must now be over hundreds of records, many of those classics. Her ethereal, textured & unique backing vocals, I would often say, make a track. Her vocal passion, depth & originality cannot be matched - on record. She has worked with artists ranging from Patty Griffin, to Neil Young, to Daniel Lanois, to Midnight Oil to Gram Parsons. A few years back she made a stunning record with Mark Knopfler which many including myself, hold in high regard. For those achievements alone & as a backing artist she is rightly considered a legend in the country music scene.

This was the first time I had seen Harris live & I was hugely excited.

Harris walked on stage to an almighty cheer from the crowd. Despite this warmth she started off in shaky fashion. Perhaps it was the first show of the tour? It doesn't seem so. She didn't do credit to her well known recorded version (or Gillian Welch's original version) of Orphan Girl. Part of her vocal charm is her textured & liberal approach to melody but really this was not good vocal form. Her voice felt ropey & to anyone with even a hint of a trained musical ear, she was clearly not close to making many of the higher & lower notes.

As things moved on, Harris clearly felt more comfortable onstage singing her own songs from track 3 onwards. Her band were putting in a fine performance but they lacked a leader despite a stunning effort from her drummer who played with a lovely feel & solid metronomic attention to tempo. Perhaps they were under-rehearsed?

Things stooped a little lower when she admitted to the audience that her fret marker stickers on her guitar neck were missing as she'd had to change guitars due to technical difficulties. This meant she didn't know how to play the upcoming tune & left a very difficult silence for a number of minutes until she worked through the tune onstage prior to performing it. Always a vibe killer.

Later in the show she hit something of a stride especially with some of the newer songs she's written. Performing her own finely crafted tunes was indeed her strength on this night. As a writer she started late in her career but it's obvious a large part of her talent lies in writing & adding that extra sparkle to other artist's performances. There's something to be said for some artists having either a live or a studio voice.

I'd say that some are born to be lead singers & others are born to remain a support to those lead singers. Unfortunately to my mind Harris belongs in the latter category & although the entire crowd seemed to go wild for the performance, the show lacked direction & vibe.

The show very clearly tapped into the nostalgia revival going on these days with the likes of reunion tours & 3rd time reissues of classic records judging by the age group of the audience in attendance.

It's worth saying that the majority of the audience seemed to go wild for the show calling for an encore from Harris & her band The Red Dirt Boys. Unfortunately for this reviewer I seem to have been at a different gig from the one the audience around me were attending.

I will perhaps be shot down for writing an honest review of this show, but Emmylou, we expected better. I'm really grateful to have seen this legend in concert but for me I'll always enjoy her tweaked & produced records & backing vocal appearances far more than seeing her in concert as a lead artist.

I'd say her new record with some class production will be a stunner though. 'Hard Bargain' (produced by the wonderfully talented Jay Joyce) is available now from Harris' Official Website & you can listen to the album for free on Groove Shark here (listening to selections now it sounds pretty special).     

Review by James Cooper.

Photo by Ronnie Norton.

Sunday
May222011

The Secret Sister @ Academy 2 - Wednesday 18th May

Greeting the audience with a cheery "how is everybody" the Secret Sisters charmed the small but enthusiastic audience. This suggests that sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers may not be such a secret for too much longer. Both Sisters play rudimentary guitar, though Lydia tells us that her sister is better at it (and Lydia agreed) and that she has never really got betteras a guitarist. But the truth their playing works in context and really it's their voices that everyone is here to hear. Both sing lead on different songs with Laura generally singing lead on the self-composed songs. They also included several other songs from their self-titled debut album including Why Baby Why and the traditional Do You Love An Apple. Noting the comparison that has been made between themselves and the Everly Brothers the delivered a striking Devoted To You, which included two fluffed lines from Lydia much to the amusement of Laura. But was was apparent with this song and throughout the evening was the striking harmonies the sisters bring to their performance. That and a natural exuberance which is evident in the stories and general observations that Laura gives between the songs. These included the fact that European hotel rooms are much smaller that ones in the U.S. and therefore leads to the pair having small tantrums, something that she reiterated a number of times. That, in it's own way adds the the openness and intimacy of the evening. That they had sung in church was reflected by the inclusion of several gospel songs including their self composed River Jordan. Laura said they were still finding their way as they were "new to being artists". They paid homage to artists they had grown up listening to with versions of Patsy Cline's Leaving On Your Mind which Lydia sang solo. Laura cracking that sister Lydia would be "a big country star" when they broke up. They told us that they were so proud that Hank Williams Sr. was from their home state of Alabama and then sang a spirited Your Cheatin' Heart. Laura also told us that she had moved to Tennessee when she was young and that "a boy broke my heart when I was there" this was the reason she had written Tennessee Me. This led to her revealing that they were really looking forward to flying home the next day to see their parents and that they were both "Daddy's girls". Other tales including touring with Willie Nelson but staying off his bus. They brought support act Simon Lynge onstage for an excellent three voice version of Dream Lover. There is a rawness to their performance that is endearing and infectious and it remains to be seen if that will be lost once they become veterans of the industry. It can be hoped that they stay this way for as long as possible for they are a breath of fresh air in an over-produced musical world. The closed with an acapella rendition of You Belong To Me that was stunning and a final testament to their talent and undoubted charm.

Review by Steve Rapid, photograph by Ronnie Norton

Wednesday
Mar232011

Lonesome Highway goes to SXSW

Row one: Jon Byrd, Troy Campbell, Eilen Jewell, Row two: The Hickoids, Zoe Muth, The Wagoneers with Joe Ely
Row three: James Hand, Eddie Spaghetti, James Intveld.
This was my first visit to both Texas and SXSW and yes it was as crazy as everyone had said it would be. The amount of music on offer, in any given genre is overwhelming and, in truth, as has often been said you can't see everything. So you set your targets and try to catch those you haven't had a chance to see live previously. John Conquest's alternative show is one you could just simply spend your entire weekend sitting at the one spot, in this case the G & S Lounge and listen to a whole lot of good music. Another spot where a lot of good things were happening was inside in Threadgills. Though it's a working restaurant and unless you want to eat continuously a little less easy to spend an entire day there.
As it happened I caught two bands who played in both locations Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers and Eilen Jewell. Both play contemporary country, are strong singers and songwriters and have fine bands. Jewell, interestingly played substantially different sets at both locations. At Threadgills she played more songs from her upcoming album. In a way these two sets provided a fuller more normal picture as the nature of SXSW showcases is that most acts are playing 30 to 35 minute sets. This is often a pretty good way to get to know a new act. I saw some singer/songwriter sets that included the inventive songwriter Matt The Electrician among others. At the Bloodshot showcase at the Yard Dog shop I got a chance to view Jon Langford's original artwork and to see Exene Cervenka, Freakwater, Whitey Morgan and Eddie Spaghetti. The latter two playing some roughed up country songs in their sets. Other highlights included a rare performance by Troy Campbell, who played a new song in his short set but proved he should be playing more. Jon Byrd with guitarist Tom Mason was good as was the roots rock of Deadman. The Hickoids are a combination of many influences but the pedal steel gave a roots edge to their raucous and entertaining set. James Hand and his backing trio played a very hardcore set of traditional country music at the Saxon Pub and proved why he is a local legend. Two other acts caught at the Continental Club were John D Graham and James Intveld, the latter with Rick Shea playing lead guitar. The highlight, however for this writer was catching the first set from the newly reformed Wagoneers who still sound unique and vibrant with their Buddy Holly inspired country music. The songs were largely from their debut album but sounded great, as did the closing song were they were joined by Joe Ely (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rQUWKzTPYk). This is one of the bands that got me interested in the music in the first place and they sounded good at the Austin Music Awards. However I caught a second appearance later at the Continental Club where I got up close but their sound was unbalanced and bass heavy from where I stood and lacked the impact of the earlier performance but both bode well for the future. I also got to see Roky Erickson but that's a whole other story.
Steve Rapid

 

Sunday
Feb272011

Lucky Bones @ The Sugar Club, Dublin - 24 Feb 2011

This new Dublin band were using this date to launch the album Together We Are All Alone. The album was recorded in Barstop,Texas by singer/songwriter Eamonn O'Connor and some session players. O'Connor then put together this band on his return to do full justice to the songs which show O'Connor to be an interesting and intelligent writer. The music covers several bases and influences, including country and roots rock, celtic soul and '60s based melodic pop. In the live context these disparate elements are drawn together by the versatile band. With a solid rhythm section of Leon Kennedy and Ben Clark powering the songs over which keyboard/banjo player Conor Miley and guitarist Billy Morley added texture and grit to the songs. This made the live band renditions of the songs rougher edged and punchier than the recorded versions. Songs like their debut single Longshot, Toward The Setting Sun, Stand So Tall, Unbelieving Eyes, Frank Sinatra and the extended, intense closer Commercial Presentation are all memorable and melodic. Eamonn O'Connor is convivial frontman who leads the band from the front and is a captivating singer. This is early days for Lucky Bones who have only played a handful of gigs to date, which included opening for Marty Stuart as an acoustic trio, and sound issues with monitors and small tuning problems should soon be eliminated with experience and confidence. That two of the stand-out songs, including the song of infatuation bordering on stalking - , are new songs shows that this band can only get better. These are tough times for any new band, especially one making its own way in the world but the signs are that these guys, if they hold their nerve, will be lucky.

Sunday
Feb062011

Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives @The Helix, Dublin. Feb 2nd 2011

Sparkle and Twang. That may well sum up Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives as they gave a masterclass in how to keep a tradition alive and healthy. At the outset Marty Stuart said that "the most outlaw, most outsider thing you could do in Nashville today is to play country music". How right he is, and as someone who has been at the heart of the music, its people and its rhinestone look he knows what he's talking about. In his first visit to Ireland in quite some time he captivated the audience in the intimate Helix Theatre. It was his first visit with his current and longtime band which includes 'Handsome' Harry Stinson on drums and vocals, 'The Apostle' Paul Martin on bass and vocals and 'Cousin' Kenny Vaughan on guitar and vocals. The "and vocals" shouldn't be underestimated as all four deliver distinctive and dynamic contributions either on harmonies or stepping up to the mic themselves. Each member showed themselves more than capable of holding their own. Vaughan sang Country Music Has A Hold On Me, while Handsome Harry sang a song from his Who Is This Man? mini-album, Paul Martin sang Bluegrass Express. It also was a gig that emphasized what a talent Marty Stuart himself is; from his exemplary vocals, his lead guitar playing - using Clarence White's B-Bender Telecaster, alongside his acoustic guitar and mandolin dexterity, highlighted in a section of the show that he played solo. The full band played songs from the early days like Tempted and Hillbilly Rock to a selection of songs, often prefaced with stories of how the came into being, from Ghost Train and Badlands. They also played several songs from the CD that is only available at gigs and from their website Cool Country Favorites. These included the theme from the Marty Stuart Rural TV Show La Tingo Tango as well as his Johnny Cash tribute, a song which he had explained he had attempted to write in several occasions, Dark Bird. He also sang Merle Haggard's Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down, an audience request, and a part of obvious and warm interaction between the audience and the band throughout the show. The music covered all aspects of what makes country cool to those who know and believe in it's merits. From bluegrass to Bakersfield, from honky-tonk to gospel they covered it all with skill, humour and commitment that made it a perfect show in so many ways. Mention should also be made of Mick Conley's sound mix, as all too often in the past gigs have been too loud and volume does not replace dynamic, here they got it right in every aspect. Something that was expressed by many of the audience who waited to have a CD signed, have a picture taken or just to say "hi". The foursome sat for an hour after to make sure that anyone who wanted to had the opportunity to meet them. Now that's country.