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

Thursday
Apr062017

Jim White @ Whelan’s - 4th April 2017

With the room still echoing from applause for the opening set of gravely blues and stunning slide and acoustic guitar picking by Clive Barnes, Jim White is already perched centre stage and eager to get down to business. "Are we ready to start yet," he asks, "because I’ve a lot to say." It’s a welcomed return to Dublin for the rare talent that is Jim White, singer, songwriter, raconteur and overall entertainer. He possesses a genre all of his own, probably yet to be defined and has been visiting Ireland for many years to audiences that ‘get him’. "First time I played Whelan’s I had five songs, no more. Audience said that’s cool just keep playing them over and over again." Promoted by Rollercoaster Records, tonight is the first night of a six date Irish tour and it’s heartening to see a great turn out.

Decked out in western shirt and Levi’s, the former male model, taxi driver, comedian and surfer proceeds to deliver a set that lasts an hour and three quarters yet seems to pass by in a flash. In customary fashion, each of White’s songs is preceded by a story (often taking longer than the song itself!) and the set list includes a trawl through his extensive back catalogue together with material from his latest album, due for release later this year. Accustomed to more than often playing solo these days with only his drum machine ("my trusty Japanese drummer") for company, the contribution of Clive Barnes on guitar brings the experience to another level entirely, more than recreating the studio atmosphere so integral to White’s work, no mean achievement considering the pair had only rehearsed for a few hours the previous day. The relaxed chemistry and interaction generated by both artists certainly would suggest otherwise. "The promoter told me this guy would drive me around and maybe play a bit of guitar as well, Jesus he is awesome, loves his music too! Joy to be on stage with him, I’d almost do it for nothing ... I said almost!"

Alabama Chrome, given a slightly varied treatment than the studio version, opens the set followed by The Wound That Never Heals ("a great lady serial killer song, too many man serial killer songs, had to set that right") before continuing the dark country noir theme with the first of a number of songs from his latest work titled Wash Away The World. Next up is his "one big hit" Handcuffed To A Fence in Mississippi which introduces his Japanese drummer and some powerful chunky guitar work by Barnes. Burn The River Dry follows with an accompanying tale of how the song was conceived while working as a taxi driver in New York, being jilted by a girlfriend and left stranded having blagged his way into renting accommodation for them both in Brooklyn, way beyond his financial means.

An account of tripping on LSD in his younger days as a surfer on a beach in California with a friend explains the origins and is the lead in to A Perfect Day To Chase Tornadoes, before a flawless version of Jailbird , one of the many highlights of the night.

Weighing in at a lengthy six minutes and thirty-four seconds Still Waters is introduced as his ‘bathroom song’ as White articulates how a Louisville Radio Station was playing the song regularly, to his surprise, when it was released. So much so that he was encouraged to visit the station to offer his appreciation. The reaction of the lady DJ when he proudly owned up as the writer of the song was "wow awesome, its six minutes thirty-four seconds long, I can get to the bathroom and back when its playing.’’

Hilarious tales are also recounted of upsetting, to put it mildly, some seriously right wing conservative Canadian bluegrass players and American rockabilly player Sleepy La Beef by performing God Was Drunk When He Made Me on stage in their company at a festival. If Jesus Drove A Motorhome and A Bar Is Just A Church Where They Serve Beer follow on a similar irreverent path before encores of the intoxicating Girl From Brownsville Texas and a moving new song written for his daughter, with a tear in his eye, called Sweet Bird Of Mystery.  

It’s a joy to witness Jim White in such good form and at the top of his game. Hats off to promoter Willie Meighan for having the foresight to arrange the tour and introduce him to Clive Barnes. Hopefully this won’t be the last time these two appear on stage together in Dublin. 

Review and photography by Declan Culliton

Wednesday
Apr052017

Rhiannon Giddens @ Whelan’s - 3rd April 2017

With the show sold out not long after it was announced it is not surprising that the venue is packed to the rafters for the welcomed return of Ireland’s adopted daughter Rhiannon Giddens, whose last appearance in Dublin was at the same venue in July 2015. Giddens and her band have marginally more elbow room on a stage that also accommodates a mandolin, two banjos, three acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, two fiddles, drum kit, upright bass, keyboards, a Cajun accordion and bones. Not that the lack of space concerns Giddens in the least who adds "it’s great to play at Whelan’s again so close to you all and my band. The stages at some of the venues we play in these days are that large that I can hardly see my band and they become more like an ensemble!" It’s a pointer towards the splendid form that Giddens and her band are in on the last night of their tour of Europe before heading to Australia the following day.

The Grammy Award winning artist has for many years been adored for her exceptional vocal range and technical musical ability but since her last appearance in Dublin she has also revealed an excellence as a song writer on her  recent release Freedom Highway, possibly the most potent political protest album for many years.

Once every so often gig attendees are fortunate to witness an artist or band when they are particularly on fire, whether it be in support of a career best album, the last night of a tour or a special occasion. Tonight, is without doubt one of those magical event, with a performance that has the audience totally engaged from the opener Spanish Mary to the couple of Scottish Gaelic reels that conclude the evening some ninety minutes later. The audience’s mood rises and dips from pin drop silence, to hand clapping and singing along, as Giddens delivers a set combining material from her recently release Freedom Highway as well as revisiting her extensive back catalogue.

Her band are made up of three members who appeared on her last visit to Dublin, Carolina Chocolate Drop colleague Hubby Jenkins on guitar, mandolin, banjo and bones, Jason Sypher on bass and James Dick on drums. Giddens on her earlier albums had engaged producers such as Joe Henry, Buddy Millar and T. Bone Burnett but decided to co-produce Freedom Highway and sought out the services of multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. Powell’s presence on stage this evening playing keyboards, electric guitar, fiddle, accordion and adding backing vocals, is the catalyst that brings the performance to a higher level. Giddens is on record insisting that the band she wanted touring the album would also be the musicians who recorded it and their timing, chemistry and comradery certainly reinforce this.

Following on from Spanish Mary Giddens performs four tracks in succession from Freedom Highway, the upbeat The Love We Almost Had, the instrumental Following The North Star, the gorgeous ballad We Could Fly performed by Giddens and Powell as a duo and the particularly moving At The Purchaser’s Option. Giddens explains the history behind the song which was motivated by a newspaper cutting she came across while researching African American history, advertising a twenty-two-year-old slave girl for sale with her nine-month-old daughter available also "at the Purchasers Option". Her vocal delivery as you would expect is exquisite, soaring and dipping throughout the set and the passion, most notable on the material from the current album, is there for all to witness, most particularly on Birmingham Sunday ("a song we should not still be singing") and Julie, the first song she wrote for the album. Giddens explains that the banjo she is playing on Julie is in fact an 1858 replica that she acquired which sounds exactly as it would have back then.

The delivery is painfully moving on many songs also, particularly her current material, but there is also no end of humour. Giddens arriving on stage stylishly attired but not realising that a large price tag is dangling from her skirt which raises a giggle as much by herself as her audience. Her good-natured anecdote is also well received when telling the audience that her two children attend Gael Scoil in Limerick. "Thanks for not laughing when I mentioned Limerick, everyone else does."

 The set list also includes the crowd pleaser Waterboy, the Patsy Cline favourite She’s Got You ("my all-time favourite weepin’ in the beer song"), Powell taking centre stage playing some foot tapping Cajon dance waltzes on his accordion and Hubby Jenkins singing and ripping some electric blues on the African-American bible song Children Go.

The first encore is a rousing version of The Staple Sisters 60’s rally song Freedom Highway with UK artist and support artist Jordan Mackampa invited on stage to perform backing vocals. The final encore is a medley of Lonesome Road and Up Above My Head followed by a couple of Scottish reels with Giddens declaring ("I can’t sing another note, I’ve sung my brains out") before leaving the stage to rapturous applause.

For those who were fortunate to attend the show and witness Giddens and her superb band in such fine form it’s an occasion that will remain in the memory bank for quite a while. For those who did not the good news is she is back in Ireland in November. 

Review and photography by Declan Culliton

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