Reviews by Declan Culliton


Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway Nonesuch

It’s both poignant and indeed disturbing that Freedom Highway, the title of Rhiannon Giddens second solo album, was inspired by the Staple Sisters song of the same name, recorded over fifty years ago and motivated by the Civil Rights movement in Alabama at that time. The album was originally to be named At The Purchaser's Option but the prevailing political tensions and developments during the writing process made her reconsider the title.

Giddens debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn was released in 2015. Produced by T.Bone Burnett, it featured, in the main, interpretations of material previously written or performed by artists ranging from American blues singer Geeshie Wiley to country legend Dolly Parton together with a quite spectacular rendition of the traditional American folk song Waterboy. Only one song, the closing track Angel City, was penned by Giddens.  While never concerned with concentrating on a particular style the album deservedly received glowing reviews, in the main earned by Gidden’s stunning vocal delivery throughout. 

Freedom Highway on the other hand proves to be a more fiercely personal project, unfolding in documentary style and giving the often faceless and anonymous the opportunity to articulate their struggles, pain, helplessness and abuse. Many of the songs are taken from the female’s perspective, a recurring theme is the mother child relationship with the album visiting the casual and cruel manner by which that relationship was shattered both in former times and indeed to the present day. The inner sleeve of the album features a newspaper cutting from 1797 advertising the sale of a young female slave with the inclusion of her nine-month baby At the Purchasers Option. This proved to be the inspiration and motivation for the opening track of the same name."You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul."

It plays out as an album that Giddens was always going to record and on her own terms.  Her previous solo album and recordings with The Carolina Chocolate Drops were produced by T. Bone Burnett, Joe Henry and Buddy Millar. This time around Giddens avoids the possibility of a more polished and over produced recording by taking control herself in the co-production with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. Produced at Powell’s studio in Breaux Bridge Louisiana, the majority of the songs were recorded in a pre-civil war wooden structure and captures a timeless ambiance. 

The Angels Laid Him Away, a cover of the Mississippi John Hurt original, is stripped back to feature vocal and acoustic guitar and dwells on a mother’s loss at the death of her son. Better Get It Right The First Time, full on country soul, visits similar territory but in the present times, questioning the shooting of a young black man and featuring an unexpected yet entirely compelling rap by Giddens nephew Justin Harrington. Julia, tells the tale of an exchange between a slave girl and her mistress as Union soldiers arrive at their plantation, the mistress pleading with the defiant young slave to dutifully safeguard the family’s trunk of gold. "Mistress, O Mistress, that trunk of gold Is what you got when my children you sold."

Birmingham Sunday, written by Richard Farina and immortalised by Joan Baez, is delivered vocally almost trance like as if Giddens is reliving every last word. Opening with Dirk Powell’s slow piano intro and closing with the addition of an accompanying choir it moved me to the point that I found myself playing it on repeat a number of times prior to continuing with the rest of the album.

Giddens interpretation is at odds with the Staple Singers version on the closing track Freedom Highway. Favouring a less pacey delivery and introducing horns and handclaps, it may stray somewhat from the more gospel sound of the original but lyrically delivers the same message that it did back in the mid 60’s.

Giddens has been in receipt of numerous awards and nominations over the years including a Grammy Award in 2011 with the album Genuine Negro Jig. A late comer to song writing she can justifiably be as proud with this album as any other career highlight to date. 

Kaurna Cronin Southern Loss Self Release

Kaurna Cronin was voted Folk Alliance Australia’s Artist of The Year in 2015 following the release of his last album Glass Fool that year. Southern Loss follows twelve months later and is further recognition of the growing body of talent in the Americana/ Folk genre coming out of Australia in recent years. Artists such as Kaurna Cronin, Emma Swift, Ruby Boots, CW Stoneking and Beth Brown have the ability to follow in the footsteps of fellow Australian's Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson and Anne McCue by establishing themselves in a market that is highly competitive.

The album consists of ten tracks written and produced by Cronin and recorded at Mixmasters Studio in Adelaide with the mixing and mastering carried out by Mick Worley. Musicians featured on the album are Cronin’s touring band members Tom Kneebone ( guitar/vocals), Kiah Gossner (Bass) together with session players David Resce ( Drums), Aaron Nash ( Organ/Grand Piano and )Julian Ferraretto ( Strings).Tara Mc Henry, Laura Knowles and Delia Obst all contribute additional vocal harmonies.

The material ranges from the country rocking opener Passion Parade with an addictive laid back riff and harmonies to the gorgeous love ballad Never Get You Off My Mind and the dreamlike 5019. The song writing is strong, solid with tales of love, loss, regret and reflection. Cronin’s high pitched and sometimes fragile vocal is the winner throughout, quite often complemented by well-timed harmonies. 

The Looking Lead Me To The Water Rhizome Man

The Looking is in essence New York City based singer songwriter and producer Todd Carter. His previous album Songs For a Traveler, released in 2013, explored the American songbook from the 19th Century up the 1950’s covering standards such as Black Is The Colour, Old Man River, Blue River and Long Black Veil. Lead Me To the Water. Carter’s inspiration for this current album was the songbooks of the Country music legends Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Townes Van Zandt, whose work he immersed himself. 

Between the recordings of each album Carter produced recordings by Argentinian Bernardo Palombo and French artist Leopold.

Carter, who received degrees in Religion and Philosophy at Indiana University most certainly has an open mind in respect of his musical influences. Together with his research of the great American songbook for his previous album he also cites Syd Barrett, The Circle Jerks, Husker Vu and The Smiths as artists that were very much on his radar. As a result the listener won’t make an immediate connection individually with the music of Haggard, Price or Van Zandt on first spin of the album though further plays expose their influences.

The title track and open track draws the listener straight away thanks in no small measure to some dreamy pedal steel playing by Gerald Menke. The Well, which follows, is a fuller and rockier affair with a killer guitar riff and backing vocals compliments of Sasha Dobson who plays regularly with Nora Jones. Not Your Friend and Where Did You Go have a mid-70’s West Coast Jackson Browne feel, You And Me recalls the sound of Josh Rouse. Burning Doves bookends the album very much in a similar style that the title track opened it, a gentle country rock sound aided once more by Menke’s lovely pedal steel.

The album was produced by Carter and Bill Finizio with all songs written by Carter with the exception of You and Me co-written with Finizio and Where Did You Go which was written with Tim Curtis–Verderosa. It credits thirteen musicians other than Carter and Finizio and is most certainly the work of an artist that has the talent and achieves a sound that could make a major industry breakthrough.

Erika Kulnys Rise Up Self Release

The possessor of a quite extraordinary voice, Rise Up, the seventh studio album by Kulnys, finds the Nova Scotia resident in fine form reflecting on matters worldly as well as closer to home.

The album’s twelve tracks, all penned by Kulnys, are both personal ( Love Me In The Morning, Carolina, Love’s Not Wasted) and political (Rise Up, Roaring For A Revolution), the common bond being the quality of the story telling and that heart stirring  vocal that dips and soars effortlessly throughout.

The aforementioned Roaring For A Revolution, the cream of the crop, bears a healthy relation to Anais Mitchell in style and indeed delivery. Kulnys powerful and soaring vocal is the winner here without doubt, bringing the poignant lyrics and melody to life.

The title track speaks for the repressed and downtrodden "Rise up, Now is the hour Rise up, Take back your power, Rise up, We will not wait, We rise up today."

Equally comfortable singing the blues on I’m On Fire or folk ballads such as Angel On The Road and Honeysuckle the album as a whole reinforces the versatility and rounded talent of an artist well worth checking out. 

Callie Hopper Out of the Shadows Callie Hopper Music 

This is the second album release by the 20-year-old Nashville resident Callie Hopper. As the title would suggest the album features open hearted material  and is a large step forward from her debut album Notes On Love And Such,  which she recorded as a sixteen-year-old. It also reveals the song writing talent of a young lady mature well beyond her years. The material is credited as co-written with producer Ryan Speakman and Chad Alexander, with the exception of Stay which is credited to Hopper alone.

The music in general is quite mainstream, possibly closer to the pop end of the market rather than that wide umbrella we classify as Americana and it’s probably the correct market for her to target. 

Created over a two-year period it is commendable that much of the album was primarily written when Hopper was a teenager and it’s understandable that many of the songs deal with relationships and vulnerability (Stay, So Much, Hold On, This Songs Not For You).

The title and opening track, however, is a wonderful coming of age song with the writer prepared to bare her soul while agonising over how her stories and honesty might be perceived. "If I open up my heart to you, if I show you what’s inside, will you listen to my words, will you feel what I wrote."

Notwithstanding Hoppers ability to pen strong material she also possesses a delightful voice and engaged a strong band of musicians to bring the songs to life including co-writers Alexander on guitars and piano and Speakman on drums percussion and organ. Chad Alexander also shares vocals on Fire and Ice.

Possessing the song writing ability, a gorgeous vocal ability and style, Hopper is more than than well situated to enjoy a successful career and is in the right place both musically and geographically to be noticed and nurtured.  Whether her journey continues down a mainstream route or takes a slight diversion in a more countrified direction will be interesting.

One to watch without doubt.

Jemima James At Longview Farm/When You Get Old Team Love Records

An extraordinary project and album in many ways.  Jemima James, now 65 years old, wrote At Longview Farm in 1979 and it has taken 38 years for it to see the light of day, being finally released by Team Love Records. But the story does not end there as the album has been released as a double which also features When You Get Old ( 65’s not old anymore Jemima!), her recent 2015 recording. James’s life story is intriguing, having dropped out of art school in the early 70’s, she relocated to New York and was employed by Famous Music as a songwriter. The great grandchild of the most famous American  philosopher William James (brother of the author Henry James),  her career  has seen her employed as a writer, performer, cook, pre-school teacher and carer. Her early life also found her working for three years at Long View Farm, cleaning, cooking, milking cows and also serving food to a range of artists including J.Geils Band, Tim Curry, Arlo Guthrie and The Rolling Stones.

She and Michael Mason are also parents to Willy and Sam Mason, both accomplished artists in their own right, both understandably feature on When You Get Old.

What makes the intriguing story complete is  the quality of both albums. Notwithstanding the musical excellence, the packaging, liner notes and photography are delightful. The cover on the earlier album features James with the classic 70’s singer looks, wild hair and sweet impish smile. When You Get Old depicts James in more recent times, still in possession of the impish smile!

It was during her three year stay at Long View Farm that she recorded At Longview Farm. Two tracks in on my first listen had me reaching for the liner notes in full expectation that the track Havana Cigar is a Townes Van Zandt song that had somehow escaped me over the years. The standout track on the album, It is in fact written by James, as are all the other tracks on the album and is of a standard that compares with Van Zandt’s finest. Not trailing far behind in the quality stakes are One More Rodeo, Jackson County and Esperate. The album is most definitely of its time, folk music soaked in country, assured playing throughout and delivered beautifully by James. The work of Linda Ronstadt and Guy Clark come to mind.

When You Get Old was recorded at Old Soul Studio in Catskill, New York in October 2015 and unlike her earlier album includes four well selected cover versions, If I Could Only Fly by Blaze Foley, Tennessee Blues by Bobby Charles, Gillian Welch’s One and Only and If It’s The End written by her son Willy Mason. She also revisits the earlier album with versions of Sensible Shoes and Easy Come Easy Go featuring in the thirteen tracks. The vocals remain as sweet and disciplined as her earlier album with the playing equally accomplished.

Listening to At Longview Farm one has to wonder how many quality recordings are packed away in attics, garages and recording studios that for a variety of reasons never found their way on to the record store shelves and a subtle reminder of the thin line between commercial success and oblivion. 

Various Artists Five Years of Country to Country C2C (2013-2017) Hump Head Records

The Country to Country Festival was first staged in 2013, bringing a wide range of artists annually to London, Glasgow and Dublin. It takes place over a weekend and includes acts that represent traditional country, modern country, crossover pop country, bluegrass and rock music.

In celebration of the continuing success of the festival Hump Head Records have released this double album featuring many of the acts that have appeared at the various venues over the past five years.

Impressively packaged and including a glossy forty-page booklet, the album features forty tracks in total across quite a wide musical range catering for all tastes. Full on rockers Brantley Gilbert (One Hell Of An Amen) and Eric Church (Springsteen) sit side by side with more classic country honky tonkers Dwight Yoakam (Take Hold Of My Hand) and Marty Stuart (Time Don’t Wait). Legendary Nashville household names Reba Mc Entire (Consider Me Gone) and Lee Ann Womack (Last Call) are complimented by their neighbours and a new generation of female singer songwriters in Ashley Monroe (If The Devil Don’t Want Me) and Brandy Clark (Girl Next Door). UK duo’s The Shires (State Lines) and Ward Thomas (Guilty Flowers) represent acts closer to home that have benefitted greatly by the exposure they have been given by appearing at the festival. Multi award winner Chris Stapleton (Tennessee Whiskey) introduces a slice of country blues in to the mix. More modern country is featured with the inclusion of Brad Paisley (The Mona Lisa) and Jennifer Nettles (That Girl). Female singer songwriter Miranda Lambert (Little Wagon), with the capability to excel in all the foregoing strands of country music is also represented.

 The purists may argue that the material is not entirely representative of country music in the true sense (which it does not claim to do, in fairness), but without doubt one of achievements of C2C has been to introduce a younger UK and Irish age group in considerable numbers to country music, both recorded and live, as well as the ‘older grey hairs’ who would traditionally be considered the target audience. 

It’s inevitable that not all tracks on the album will be to everyone’s liking. However, it does present what the music industry considers to represent country music today and with the depth of artists featured should include music to suit most country listeners taste.

Michael Howard Gasoline Dream Self Release

Alaskan born and reared Michael Howard, similar to so many other singer songwriters, had an early career playing punk music prior to settling back in to a career as a folk singer songwriter. Maybe the remoteness of residing in the rural setting of the Last Frontier with its long dark winters made a mark in terms of self-survival as Gasoline Dreams, though primarily folk and some protest songs, also retains the DIY dimension with a number of the tracks being recorded entirely live by Howard. The album was recorded at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco with production and engineering duties carried out by Jacob Winik (Magnetic Fields, Samantha Crain).

In the main it is very much a stripped to the bone affair with the emphasis most definably on the written word and the stories within. Vocal and acoustic guitar dominate  with minimal additional instrumentation courtesy of Kevin Worrell on bass and keys, Andrew Maguire adds percussion.

The songs are heartfelt and personal, written and delivered by an artist with an obvious deep social conscious and a passion for storytelling. With Howard’s distinctive almost spoken vocal the album  may take a few listens to grab you but songs such as opener Meet Me at the Front Line, Hog Butcher Hog Butcher and  the title and closing track are representative of an album that is a Sunday morning rather than a Saturday night listen.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives Way Out West Superlatone/Humphead

The latest album from this collective is further example of the quartet’s prowess in bringing some hardcore country music to the masses. For Marty, this is a life-long commitment. Way Out West, as the title indicates, is loosely themed with tales of a temporal nature together with the various  temptations and travels in the American West. The album opens with the ambient Desert Prayer (Part 1) which features the voice and drum of Lakota native Everette Helper. That sets the mood for the band instrumental Mojave, one of several on the album. Buddy Mize and Dallas Frazier co-write Lost On The Desert which follows, a simple tale of being adrift in the sun-drenched heat with devilish distractions. It was originally recorded by Johnny Cash and a song that Stuaret remembered when this project was in production. The title track follows. It is a slow paced cautionary tale of a pharmaceutical enhanced entrance into some of the wide-open spaces, in every sense. It is also the story of Big Bill Chisum and a Johnny Cash prison concert.

The Fabulous Superlatives on this occasion welcome bassist and steel guitar player Chris Scruggs to their midst although the former holder of that role Paul Martin, who adds bass and harmony vocals to a couple of songs. Otherwise Stuart is accompanied by his usual top notch team of Kenny Vaughn on guitar and Harry Stinson on drums and vocals. Another factor in the success of the album is producer (and Heartbreaker) Mike Campbell who brings, at times, a broader palate to the sound that not only has elements of his regular musical employment but also of that time in the early 90s when elements of British beat blended neatly with some Bakersfield twang. This is perhaps best exemplified by Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go) a Stuart-penned song of the trucker’s life. Campbell is also a player, adding guitar to the arrangement.

The instrumentals include El Fantasma Del Toro, Quicksand and Torpedo. All are effective in adding to the flavour of the album’s theme and sit as bullet points between the vocal led songs. Air Mail Special is given an up-tempo electric guitar picking workout from Stuart and Vaughn. It is a song written by Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman and James B. Mundy which was later something of a bluegrass standard. Here it is given a vibrant country music makeover that shows the versatility of both the song and the band. On Please Don’t Say Goodbye they use a string arrangement by Kirstin Wilkinson that sees the string quartet playing a role that might otherwise have been taken by pedal steel. It adds much to the songs overall mood of hoping against hope. The second version of Desert Prayer is a brief atmospheric unaccompanied vocal choral that leads into Wait For The Morning, a song that is imbued with hope and promise. The album closes with a reprise of the title song where the string quartet is again used to add a filmic quality. 

In the end a thoroughly satisfying and varied album from a band that lives up to its name. It is one of Stuart’s best and certainly a direction we don’t hear too often in these days of rap, rock and EDM influenced pop country we hear so much today. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives can take a bow for, again, pointing the music in the right direction and doing so in style.

Will T. Massey 30 Years In The Rearview Route 61

A Texas-born roots artist who released his first album proper back in 1991 on MCA. It had offered the world a new talent and was co-produced by Roy Bittan but failed to gain commercial success. Previously he had self-released a cassette albums. Following a period of illness, he got back on track and has subsequently released several albums of which this compilation is an overview of later releases with three tracks taken from the pre-MCA period.

It opens with A Summertime Graveyard recorded in 2016 and which features Massey’s voice and piano accompaniment. It is a good introduction to the slightly world weary but engaging voice and to a credible songwriter. The original version was on the MCA debut as was You Take The Town. The following three tracks were produced by Lloyd Maines and have a loose, relaxed feel that features some fine playing and memorable songs in Mr Johnson’s Store and Long Distance Love. The latter a country ballad sung with Tish Hinojosa.

From Letters In The Wind, an album produced by Stephen Foster, come three tracks including the title track.  Massey has some notable players on the recordings including Will and Charlie Sexton, Bukka Allen and Lloyd Maines. Peace Train is a soft focused plea for hope.

Wayward Lady was released in 2008 and features two tracks here. Massey produced it himself and Rosie Flores, Mike Meadows and Marvin Dynkuis are among the players. The sound is a gentler and more folkish.

The songs from 2016’s The Weathering include Meadows and Maines and finds Massey coming to terms with the cards that life has dealt him. He is a storyteller in the tradition of many of the notables from Texas through the years.

In the Wind is just Massey and Maines on a demo from The Weathering sessions and has a world weariness that is perfectly underlined by the guitar and pedal steel behind his cracked voice. The final three tracks are taken from the cassettes he released in 1987 and 1988. They featured friends from school and fellow local musicians. They are noticeably a little more lo-fi than the preceeding tracks and show his country roots and his obvious potential. They round out a career overview that has not been an easy one in terms of recognition or reward. But one that has produced some songs that deserve to be out in the open. Will T. Massey’s music has drawn from his own life and from that of others and produced a body of work that he can turn to as a testament to the positivity of music.

Matt Hannah Dreamland Gamine

Influenced by the likes of Steve Earle, Townes van Zandt and Lucinda Williams, Hannah has just released his second album. While there are elements of the aforementioned artists (as well as others) it should be judged on its own merits. This Minneapolis based singer/songwriter has his band around him as he dispenses his folk/roots music with a solid, satisfying demeanour. All the songs are written by Hannah and are supported by the players who use bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and pedal steel. Matt Patrick who plays guitar and keyboards on the album also produced with a warm and generous sound. His overall ethos may be summed up by the lines from Banks Of The Mississippi: “We came here from New York City, worn out feeling bad, these were some of the worst years, and the best I ever had.” His reflections cover the good and the bad.

Many of the songs are taken at a slower pace but on occasion they kick the beat up and are driven with a harder energy on such songs as Set Free and Gone. There is an overall feeling to the album that sits well together as a set of songs that move with ease around each other. The assembled players all get behind the mood of each lyric to highlight its essence. Often understated the music retains the essential nature of guitar and voice yet adds much to the overall presence in a way that is effective and enjoyable. Hannah songs are melodic and memorable and Dreamland highlights a talent that, in his own space and time, may be under recognised but is never-the-less worthy of greater attention.

Bill Scorzari Through These Waves Self Release

A voice for the ages that has been left to rust and crack in all the right places. One of those voices that is full of resonance and raspy righteousness, if not of great range; so more Kristofferson than Caruso then. Yet it is a voice utterly perfect here. Scorzari’s songs are often about seeking a kindred soul and in that finding solace. There is a poetic grace that makes them worth listening to and reading. In Holy Man, he writes “I questioned the wrong, I questioned the right … I got no answers to my questions, why?” Despite this, Scorzari songs look towards the light and navigate the waves that are sent his way.

This is an album full of atmosphere and allocation. Scorzari has, with producer Jonah Tolchin, assembled a select crew of seasoned players who bring much to the recording without ever taking centre stage away from the song itself. To name a few of those involved may be a disservice but those who will be familiar to many include Joachim Cooder, Will Kimbrough, Chris Scruggs, Laur Joamets, Eamon McLoughlin and Kim Richey. Alongside Scorzari and Tolchin there are 14 players listed in the credits. All bring something important to the process and make an album that has depth and diversity.

There are 12 songs here, all recorded in a thirteen-day period, in the Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville. They were written over a period of a few years but represent a writer who is crafting songs worthy of exploration both lyrically and in musical terms. There have been comparisons to Sam Baker and that is understandable yet Scorzari is as unique in his telling of tales. There is a sense of profoundness in the way these songs unfold in a compelling and truthful way. Scorzari has made previous albums but this release finds him at the top of his game. However, there is also the sense that there is more to come and that Through These Waves finds him discovering his sense of purpose and need.

Miss Tess Baby, We All Know Rights

A feisty singer and accomplished songwriter who performs original songs that straddle various aspects of Americana. A Maryland native now located in Nashville she and her band The Talkbacks have built up a strong reputation for their live shows. In the studio, she has with co-producers Dan Knobler and Thomas Bryan Eaton put together a selection of players to bring these songs to life. Utilising keyboards, guitar, fiddle, pedal steel, upright bass and drums, as required to suit the needs of the individual songs, she has made the best album of her career to date.

Miss Tess possess a sultry and silver-tongued voice that swings and sashays across these country, blues, jazzy and rockabilly sounds. As timeless as a well-stocked jukebox but equally contemporary in outlook. There seems nothing contrived about her love for these classic forms that she uses as the basis for her fiery songs. The eleven songs are all written or co-written by Tess and include the sax savaged I Can’t Help Myself that should have graced a 50s-teenage rampage movie. Equally invigorating and upfront is Shotgun Wedding with its pointed urgency and unequivocal message. However, as Do You Want My Love proves, she can be subtle and sensual as much as she can enliven and energise.

Throughout, the players get in some telling licks that both highlight their individual skills as well as giving the songs that added zest. Miss Tess is part of a wave of women who are exploring roots music but doing so under their own terms and in their own way. Baby, We All Know lets you know that Miss Tess understands and delivers on a promise of an authentic take on a musical heritage that lives and breathes and continues to get people up on their feet as well as listening. There’s not a track here that feels out of place and that shows that Miss Tess loves what she does. You should too.

Manitoba Hal Live In Ghent Hal’s Kitchen

Some may feel that a double CD of 24 tracks recorded live and featuring just voice and guitar might be a little too much. However, be that as it may, and it largely depends on just how much you enjoy the big voice of Manitoba Hal and his acoustic guitar (or ukulele) skills. Hal Brolund (for it is he) has numerous other albums to his credit prior to this live set. He has a baritone voice that is totally suited to these songs that range from classic blues songs by names like Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt or later exponents like Bo Diddley, to the theme of the Wire; Way Down In The Hole and the closing show version of B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone.

The authors of the songs are uncredited but there are a mix of classics and originals. There’s Baby Please Don’t Go, St. James Infirmary, Ain’t No Grave and Evangeline Blues, sitting alongside more humourous outings like Taste Likes Chicken. There are songs like Turn Out The Lights which he dedicates to all those in love in the audience. All highlight Brolund’s big personality and obvious love of performing live. He also has the chops to entertain and hold the audience and tells some tales between songs that are all part of the show and who he is.

Some of the songs run over the five-minute length and are best exemplified by a strong version of the music voodoo of Ellas McDaniel’s Who Do You Love. Over the course of the evening Manitoba Hal entertains this live audience and while it’s an obvious souvenir for anyone who attended the event it stands up well as an example of his skill and talent in its own right. For lovers of the blues (and more) by a man who himself loves the blues.


Reviews By Paul McGee


Chris Murphy The Tinker’s Dream Teahouse

What do you get when you mix some Reels, a few Jigs, a couple of traditional airs and a waltz? Well, you get a damn fine example of what is commonly called World Music or indeed, Roots Music. The strong well of Irish traditional themes is a central influence throughout, but the array of instruments used outside of this strict idiom makes for a collection that celebrates all types of indigenous, native music.

From the giddy opening of Connemara Ponies, which comes bursting out of the speakers, to the more reflective Union of the Seven Brothers; the 12 tracks included here spin off in different directions like a flock of birds looking for the open sky.  Guitars mix with mandolin & fiddle; bodhran & Bass duel with uilleann pipes & accordion, while flutes, whistles and violin vie with piano and violin to make a joyous sound and lift the spirits ever higher.

The celebratory nature of this music is perfectly captured in the production and arrangements. recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Chris Murphy and Joshua Cutsinger, the sound is very liquid in feel and reflects the wealth of experience gained over the years by Chris in absorbing the eclectic sounds of all kinds of traditional music.

It is impossible to keep still when this music is playing and it is the perfect party CD. Wicklow is a great dance tune as is Cape Horn with the guitar, fiddle and whistle interplay. Small Wonder has a refrain that stays with you, while Thistlewood Bridge will have you skipping around the floor.

Throughout, the dextrous playing of Chris Murphy is a delight and the overall sense of fun and living for the moment makes this an essential purchase for lovers of all things traditional.

My Politic Anchor Self Release

Well now, this is impressive. Sounds like everything that new Country music should embrace; a lot of the old with a healthy sprinkling of the new.

My Politic is an indie/americana trio hailing from Nashville, Tennessee. Originally formed in 2007, this troupe deliver a nine-song set of laid-back, melodic songs that just keep getting better on repeated plays.

Tight harmonies, interesting lyrics and a musical identity that brings to mind the best of Americana/Roots musical artists, I have no doubt that this release will be figuring in my favourites of the year.

Nick Pankey and Kaston Guffey recorded their first album in 2008 and over the next five years they released a further four albums. A move to Nashville in 2013 led to meeting their newest member Wilson Conroy, who has added further colours to their sound.

This is the sixth album and the song-writing is of the highest order with reflective musings on the human condition (God Vs Evolution), youthful hope (Before It’s Too Late), Love in all its complex forms (Ways of Love and Heartless), drug addiction (Nobody to Blame), marital breakdown (The Truth), temptation and human failings (Ain’t No Saint) and the need for a solid base in life (Anchor). This is highly recommended.

Little Diamonds New Orleans Bound Self Release

Luks LeBlanc has a classic country delivery and his vocal is reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan meets Randy Travis. The 12 tracks on this CD are well produced and recorded with plenty of variety in the arrangements. According to media research, Little Diamonds is a combination of Cajun, folk, Americana, Appalachian rockabilly, gospel, and Dixie-land, however to my ears it is simply acoustic folk.

LeBlanc is a self-taught musician, who plays multiple instruments and has just released this second album. On the cover, he is seen hitching towards New Orleans and on the inside, he is pictured in a bar with some bikini-girls in a cosy huddle – hardly the image of ‘having arrived’; or perhaps his sights are just set very low…?

In any event, the music is very good, despite the off-putting album sleeve. The easy song arrangements feature LeBlanc on guitar, piano, harmonica & and banjo. He is joined by lap steel, saxophone, violin, drums and bass on various tracks and he is definitely a talent to watch over the coming years.

Too Early Gone and Duluth Grandma are fine examples of the song-writing talent on display and Drive Away highlights his easy guitar proficiency and style. Understated and peppered with simple sentiment; a song collection that will bring rewards to those who like music that quietly grows on the senses.

Runaway Horse Beautiful Blue Self Release      

This EP of 5 songs marks the debut of Mari Tirsa and her band, Runaway Horse. Daniel Barrett produces and also plays guitar, bass, percussion and backing vocals. Rick Richards plays drums.

Holy Water speaks about not giving up and standing on your own ground, on your own terms. The Well is a reminder that the reserves we have can always be called upon, whatever the adversity faced. Once reflects on the spiritual journey that results in the realisation that ‘everything is in me’. Beautiful Blue is soothing and Arrive considers whether we have already been given all the gifts that we need for a fulfilled existence.

A fine collection of songs that are light in touch and gentle on the mind as we seek to find the personal treasure within.

Backtrack Blues Band Way Back Home Harpo 

The Backtrack Blues Band hails from the Tampa Bay region of Florida and has been performing original blues music since 1980. They have performed with many blues legends over their career and this album was selected as one of the world's top 50 blues albums for 2016.

Think early Chicago blues and you have a good idea of what is on offer with Sonny Charles on harmonica and vocals, Kid Royal on lead guitar and vocals, Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums, and Stick Davis on bass.

If Paul Butterfield got together with Fabulous Thunderbirds, then you have some idea of the musical storm created here. It is heady stuff with impressive performances throughout. It may not be the country blues of the original rural folks who created the genre but it certainly swings with a New Orleans vibe on Shoot My Rooster and some mean and dirty licks on Your Funeral, My Trial by Sonny Boy Williamson - great song title and the title of a Nick Cave album.

There really isn’t a weak track on this collection of 10 stellar workouts and there is no doubt that this is a band to see live and just boogie the night away. Sonny Charles writes 6 of the songs here and the cover of Baby Please Don’t Go, is a real treat.

Proceedings are brought to a close with Help Me Just This Time, which really sums up this band who are more than a sum of its’ parts with all members playing with a loose abandon that just rocks the blues.

Jude Johnstone A Woman’s Work BoJak

What a consummate artist this lady is…

Across a career littered with plaudits for her song-writing talents and her regular supply of hit songs for other artists, her body of work has gone largely unnoticed by the general listening public. Perhaps this will be the release to push that tipping point?

Never Leave Amsterdam reflects on a love affair abroad that cannot survive the need to return to a child at home. The title song, with sublime cello and piano, speaks of the price of love and the embers of a failed relationship. People Holding Hands could be a Randy Newman classic with a diatribe from the protagonist against the fuzzy logic of love’s desire, complete with jazz-tinged trumpet. The Woman Before Me is a song that served Trisha Yearwood very well some years back and Jude sings it with an understated sadness that really brings out the true meaning of the lyric.

Little Boy Blue is just a gorgeous example of the talent on display here; a song that touches on the need in all of us to find comfort in the wake of personal vulnerability in a relationship. What Do I Do Now speaks of the vulnerability we all expose ourselves to in trying to be honest in our search for happiness. Road To Rathfriland is a song that reflects on love lost and the need to endure. I’ll Cry Tomorrow is a song about a fractured relationship that points to a new tomorrow and Turn Me Into Water is a Gospel/Soul lament for a resigned feeling of lost trust. The album ends with Before You, which is a beautiful affirmation of love in all its’ ragged glory.

This lady is one of the great songwriters and is deserving of every attention that can be directed to her door. A must buy for any record collection.


Reviews by Declan Culliton

Tom Baxendale In The City a Short Time Ago Backwater

Tom Baxendale is a Sheffield based singer songwriter, former front man of UK Americana band Rainy Day Club and lead guitarist with The Payroll Union. In The City a Short Time Ago is his debut solo album and it is a solo effort in every sense of the word with all the material written, performed and produced by him and recorded in his home studio.

Before even playing the album you get a sense of what’s to come with the dark, blurry album artwork and song titles such as All My Nightmares, Leave Me Be, Better Than You and Red Rag. Whether a reflection of Bexendale’s state of mind at the time or the artist creating and capturing a particular atmosphere, it’s fair to say that the album succeeds. Probably best described as psychedelic folk, comparisons to both Kurt Vile and Vic Chestnut come to mind, though Baxendale vocals are strained at times.

Opening with the lively All My Nightmares and closing with the wistful and introspective Every Dream the mood on the album swings from the somewhat countrified Honey and the reflective and positive An Old Hand to the driving Stranglers-like vibe of Straight Face.

In The City a Short Time Ago is a body of work that does take a few listens to penetrate but is well worth the time invested. Wonderfully atmospheric, achingly painful at times and the work of a very talented young song writer.

Riddle & The Stars New Coastline Self Release

Riddle & The Stars are a three piece band made up of Australian Ben Riddle and Californians Bobbo and Tracy Byrnes. Whereas their debut album This Is Happening was recorded in California during a three week visit by Riddle, New Coastline, the bands second album, was created by way of Skype communications between Australia and America and songs being exchanged and developed over the internet.

Nine of the ten tracks included on the album were collectively written by them with John Prine’s Mexican Home also featuring. Their sound is quite laid back Americana probably best described as landing somewhere between The Jayhawks and Crowded House. Particularly impressive are the vocal harmonies throughout with all three contributing. 

Standout tracks are the catchy opener Running Back To You, the country tinged When We Ride with Tracy Byrnes taking the lead vocal and the closing track When The Weight is Gone.

Eliza Mary Doyle It Ain’t What It Seems Self Release

Eliza Mary Doyle is a distinguished banjo player and vocalist from Saskatchewan whose fifteen-year career to date has seen her work with a variety of acts as a professional session player together with sharing the stage as a member of bands such as Swift Current and The Cracker Cats.

It Ain’t What It Seems features eleven tracks in total, ten penned by Doyle together with Anne Louise Genest’s Wish I Felt This Good Without The Whisky.

Doyle has recounted  how an extended stay in Nashville, following her car giving up on her, led to playing local bars and encountering various musicians in the Music City and was a motivator in the release of the album. 

Abandoning much of the good time feel of her previous work It Ain’t What It Seems has a more reflective and personal theme to it with the writer visiting dark places suggesting regret and world weariness in equal quantities, topics often to be found in traditional bluegrass. 

The album certainly succeeds in achieving an old time ageless feel with Doyle’s fragile vocal and banjo picking the winners. Opener Nothing to Lose kicks the album off in fine style, Doyle’s picking complimented by searing pedal steel. Say Darlin’ Say is achingly stripped back to the bare bone featuring only vocal, banjo and harmony. Wish I Felt This Good Without The Whisky is the most upbeat offering fleshed out by some slick fiddle playing alongside Doyle’s standout banjo playing.

Accompanying Doyle’s banjo, acoustic guitar and dobro on the album are Paula Mc Guigan on upright bass, Lucas Geotz on pedal steel and drums, Liza Holder on acoustic guitar and Dustin Olmsted on electric and acoustic guitar.

Deni Bonet Bright Shiny Object Zip 

NYC resident Deni Bonet is a classically trained violinist with a CV that any artist would be proud of having performed over the years with household names such as R.E.M., Warren Zevon, Cyndi Lauper and Sarah Mc Lachlan. She has also toured in her own right  in support of Patti Smith, The Tubes, Marshall Crenshaw and Robyn Hitchcock.

A singer songwriter as well as a violin virtuoso, she originally performed as a member of the NPR radio show Mountain Stage before moving on to pursue her solo career.

Bright Shiny Objects is a brave departure from her previous albums with Bonet favouring an all instrumental recording unlike her earlier career work. Being a sucker for electric violin I was immediately struck by both the sheer power, atmosphere and indeed stunning instrumentation created over the thirteen tracks on the album.  A few tracks into the album and I was reminded of artists such as Eddie Jobson in full flow in his Roxy Music days, Steve Wickham with his Waterboys hat on and more recently Lillie Mae’s appearances with Jack White.

Difficult to categorise without doubt but none the less effective for all that, the listener is treated to the uplifting and stormy Red Dog, the delightfully dreamy Magic Wand, which lives up to its title and the jazzy Nuages which conjures up scenes of sunny Parisian afternoons, martinis and untipped Gitanes. The aptly named BBC2 could have been plucked from The Old Grey Whistle Test archives on the same TV channel in the mid 70’s. 

Its thirteen tracks (eleven co-writes together with the cover songs Edgar Winters' Frankenstein and Nuages written by Django Reinhardt) effortlessly swing from rock to  folk, power pop and jazz capturing the imagination and drawing you in from the opening track Light This Candle to the extent that the absence of vocals goes unnoticed and in many ways is welcomed.

Produced by Paul Bevan (John Wesley Harding, The Soft Boys, Morheeba, Hardcore Nation) Bright Shiny Objects is refreshing, melodic, timeless and highly recommended indeed.

Courtney Chambers Tales of The Aftermath Royal Daughter 

With understandable comparisons to Stevie Nicks Tales of The Aftermath is the Californian’s latest release eight years after her last album Bigger and Brighter. She founded her own independent record label, Royal Daughter, in 2001 and Tales Of The Aftermath is her fourth album appearing on the label. Together with her work as a singer, songwriter and guitarist she is also a member of the Heart tribute band Dog 'N' Butterfly and is guitarist and backing vocalist in country band Jasmine Fields.

Despite the comparison with Stevie Nicks, possibly suggesting an AOR recording, Chambers is not afraid to leave her comfort zone with  both the opening track Fool In Me and Young Lovers being delivered vocally with classic  phrasing and discipline more akin to Amy Winehouse. Love And Music is instantly catchy with a thumping bass line, very radio friendly and the beautiful ballad Heart of This Man recalls Tori Amos at her most melodic. The Bitter End rocks out with a divine driving drum and rhythm guitar beat up front and the album closes with the stripped back ballad Winter.

Produced (wonderfully it has to be said) and mixed by Sean Hoffman (American Music Club, Bedroom Walls), vocals and lead guitar are handled by Chambers with guitars, keys, bass and percussion performed by Hoffman. The line-up is completed by drummers Joey Galvan and George Sluppick

Caroline Reese & The Drifting Fifth Tenderfoot Self Release

Tenderfoot is the debut album by Caroline Reese and The Drifting Fifth and follows two solo releases Indian River (2010) and Slow Code (2013) by the young Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter and musician. Recorded at The Headroom Philadelphia, the album is produced by Reese and her guitarist Mark Watter and was mixed by Matt Poirier at Miner Street Recordings in Philadelphia, the studio chosen in recent years for recordings by accomplished alternative artists including Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Strand of Oaks, Marissa Nadler and Joan Osborne. 

Formed in 2013, Reese and Drifting Fifth have supported Grammy Winner Chris Stapleton and Brandy Carlile on tour and Reese in her solo career has opened for John Hiatt, Cord Lund, The Secret Sisters and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Tenderfoot features Reese on vocals, rhythm guitar, banjo and keyboards. Mark Watter plays guitars, Karl Germanovick plays bass and John Macko adds drums.

Comparisons could be made with Lydia Loveless’s latest offering Real, closer to alt-rock than alt-country, a direction which quite a number of artists including Lera Lynn, Elizabeth Cook and Hurrah For The Riff Raff appear to be heading.

It kicks off and is bookended by two laid back acoustic songs, the opener Unlocked featuring vocal, acoustic guitar and harmonica and the final track I Can’t Love You. However, much of the album is more up-tempo including Airshow of which Reese says "the lyrics were inspired by a World War 11 re-enactment that takes place in my hometown each year and a Rainer Maria Rilke quote that I heard songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard quote to his audience." New Tricks and the first single to be released from the album Snake Eyes maintain a similar driving pace. Angel Fire is stripped back with Reese on banjo and acoustic guitar combined with an aching vocal delivery. Beast, co-written with Watter, is possibly the stand out track, beginning with a great twangy melody but changing direction mid-stream to a more grungy finale compliments of some super fuzzy guitar work.

The eleven tracks most certainly showcase Reese’s crafty song writing ability, mixing honesty, helplessness and an attempt to understand and accept the unpredictability of relationships. It’s a fine offering that hopefully won’t be ignored, well worth checking out

Glenn Alexander Glenn Alexander & Shadowland Rainbow’s Revenge

Composer, guitarist, saxophonist and singer Glenn Alexander has been recording since the mid 80’s and has enjoyed a career that found the Kansas resident  performing or recording with Bruce Springsteen, Levon Helm, Elvis Costello, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes and Tom Scott to name a few. 

Born in small town Maize Kansas to humble beginnings, Alexander was the first member of his family to graduate or indeed attend college. He earned the first ever guitar scholarship offered by Wichita State College and within three years had received a BA and as a result of his mentor taking a sabbatical, was promoted to the role of full time professor, managing the guitar department and tutoring thirty guitar majors. A relocation to New York with aspirations of making the big time followed, as did the subsequent  abject poverty as the stardom did not quite materialise. A teaching career in New York proceeded together with touring as a band member with various artists, solo performances and recording whether as a session player, collaborating or indeed his own projects. The one consistent feature is the exceptional guitar playing whether it be jazz, blues or soul orientated.

Shadowland is a project that features Alexander on guitar and vocals with a stunning backing band of Oria (backing vocals), Greg Novick (bass), Tom Seguso (drums) and a horn section of Chris Anderson, John Isley and Neal Pawley. Shadowland is in fact the name of a roadhouse in Wichita Kansas that claims to have staged the first electric guitar appearance in 1932.

The result is a blues drenched soul album, driven by Alexanders stunning guitar work and raspy vocals with blazing horns, thumping bass and drums a plenty.

Come Back Baby and Blues For You and Me could be lifted from the Van Morrison songbook and though Alexander rocks out The Odds Are Good the benchmark is most definitely Van the Man and Southside Johnny and The Asbury Dukes (Southside Johnny in fact contributes blue harp on Get A Life). 

All in all a rousing and upbeat blues drenched package, I expect they would de spectacular in a live setting!

Doghouse Roses Lost Is Not Losing Yellowroom 

Doghouse Roses are Glasgow duo Paul Tasker and Iona Mac Donald. Lost Is Not Losing is their third release and recalls the UK folk sound of the 60’s with Mac Donald’s haunting vocal and Tasker’s accomplished guitar playing drawing obvious comparisons to the work of artists such as Sandy Denny and Bert Jansch. 

The eleven tracks on the album include four written by Mac Donald, six by Tasker and one co-write by Tasker and Sara Reith. Recorded at La Chunky Towers Glasgow, the album does indeed bring to mind the work of Denny and Jansch but could also be compared, particularly in the song writing, with the work of our own Mary Coughlan. 

The opening track Pour sets the tone for what is to follow in the main with Mac Donald’s honeyed vocal telling the tale of love gone wrong and over indulgence on the bottle. Feed The Monster follows a similar path and is one of a number of politically motivated songs on the album. Similarly Weather The Storm, though more up-tempo in delivery, follows a similar ethical theme with a plea and for an inclusive and caring society. Fairground tells the story of an ageing prostitute and the album closes on a high note with Days of Grass And Sun, possibly the strongest track on the album, bright, breezy and summery. The album was mixed and mastered by Slovenian Dejan Lapanja who also contributes lead guitar on Diesel Engine.

With the combination of Mac Donald’s gifted vocals, flawless guitar work by Tasker and a collection of well-structured songs Lost Is Not Losing is well worth checking out.



Reviews By Stephen Rapid


Jim Lauderdale This Changes Everything Sky Crunch

Not noted for lengthy periods between releases Jim Lauderdale is nothing if not prolific. As an independent artist, he can release records when he wants to. This has on occasion led to the comment that a tighter rein on the output may make for a stronger album. However, This Changes Everything dispels that theory to a large degree. Rather it is the context that Lauderdale places his songs that make them more appealing to some sections than to others. Which is why those who favour his more overtly traditional country outings have taken to this Texas recorded album.

Produced by Tommy Detamore - a musician steeped in the traditional aspects of Texas country - it also features a selection of Austin’s finest players, from Detamore himself, alongside such respected players as Bobby Flores, Hank Singer, Floyd Domino, Tom Lewis, Kevin Smith and others. Singers like Sunny Sweeny, Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay all add background vocals. These are a set of Lauderdale penned co-writes with the likes Frank Dycus, Bruce Robison, Odie Blackmon and Hayes Carll. Add to that that Mr. Lauderdale is in top vocal form here. The end result over time will be seen as one of his very finest releases.

Some of the songs featured here have had previous incarnations. George Strait recorded We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This while All The Rage In Paris which was cut by The Derailers in their heyday. But, Lauderdale makes these songs his own here and they are enriched by the talented players and the Texas environment they have been recorded in. The pedal steel, Telecaster twang and fiddle are well to the fore as one might expect with a Detamore production. And while, in strict commercial terms this is unlikely to change everything, it underlines the strengths and integrity that Jim Lauderdale brings to his musical output.  

Levi Cuss Night Thief Self Release

This album was originally released in 2014 but is being given a European release now to coincide with a tour. Cuss is a Canadian roots artist based in Alberta who, for this album, worked with fellow Canadian artist Steve Dawson as producer. They recorded this album in Henhouse Studio in Nashville with a rhythm section and a keyboard player. Dawson handled all the stringed instruments requirements. Using his inherent playing and production skills he is able bring depth and focus the songs such Pills where the sweet pedal steel enriches a song about a drugs and his girl who “liked her oxy better than she liked me.” There’s one cover, which is a Canned Heat style boogie-fried version of JJ Cale’s Bringing It Back.

Between those points Cuss uses his solidly lived-in voice and life experienced songs that have encompassed his personal battle with drink and drugs as well as incarceration. Cuss’ lyrics reflect this former lifestyle and the type of people who tend to inhabit the locations with a certain lowlife lassitude. Tecumseh is a dark story of those moments of a sudden bold rush that may lead to regretted violence … and possible matrimony - the title being the lady of his affections. There are eleven self-penned tales of those who have taken the less fortunate path in life. Some have made it, others not.

Levi Cuss wears a baseball cap and has a beard on the album cover so fits the current “look”for some of the the non-mainstream artists at the moment. But Cuss knows about hard work as he found employment as a manual labourer to put himself in the position to make and finance this album. It followed his one previous album and as this album was originally released in 2014 leaves him about due for a new one thoiugh he touring in the UK and Europe later in the year. He normally tours locally but these European dates should expose him to a wider audience who will appreciate his varied and vibrant hard folk, blues and roots music.

Karen Jonas Country Songs At The Helm

This second album from the very talented Ms Jonas arrived at the tail end of the year and escaped the best of lists but is well worthy of a place up there with the best. It is another example of an artist sticking to their guns (at this point) and playing their individual take on country songs at a time when a number of other of her contemporary artists have moved to a much broader palette of sounds. Jonas was born in Virginia, in Fredericksburg and recorded there with her own musicians. These players include Tim Bray on electric guitar, Jay Starling on lap steel and keyboards with Eddie Dickerson on fiddle over a solid rhythm section of bassist Jordan Medas and drummers Jack O’Dell and Jason Cizdiel. There is no production credit as it was recorded live in the studio, something that gives the sound a spontaneity and an undeniable energy if, in the long term, that doesn’t allow for some development of the overall sound.

Jonas has written all the songs and they show an understanding for the traditional themes of country music while putting a personal and perceptive viewpoint on relationships - good and bad. Add to this a voice that is redolent of your favourite country singers while being both passionate and poignant. Jonas is building from the experience of her excellent debut Oklahoma Lottery and the performances that followed its release. There are 10 songs here and not a bad one among them. They are solidly ‘country’ yet have a certain popish quality at times that makes them eminently listenable.

There are a number of slower songs like Why Don’t You Stay or The Garden which contrast with the big beat stance the Bakersfield (and Dwight Yoakam) referencing title song or the brush off of Keep Your Hands To Yourself or the twanging Ophelia. A song where guitarist Tim Bray shines. Country Songs shows the continuing promise of Karen Jonas - her song writing and singing and one can only hope that it creates a platform that will allow her a producer and more time in the studio next time out. But this album lives up to the promise of her debut release and places her alongside the likes of Zoe Muth and Eilen Jewell. Good company to be in. 

Adrian & Meredith More Than A Little Vertigo

This album reminded me of some of the earlier recordings of Paul Burch in the overall sound style. It is the duo’s first album together though Meredith Krygowski played with Adrian (Krygowski) on his 2014 release Roam. It is an amalgam of various roots styles that fits under the Americana banner. The album is ably produced by Mark Robertson (the upright bassist and producer for The Legendary Shack Shakers) who gives the recording a punkish patina while holding the songs together to give a cohesive overview. There is a little of the Shack-Shakers/Dirt Daubers in the mix too.

Alongside the duo are a set of players whose names will be familiar to many such as Paul Niehaus of Lambchop and Calexico fame. Then there’s Fats Kaplan on tenor banjo and JD Wilkes on harmonica with Robertson himself joining the rhythm section. Meredith is the band’s more than able fiddle player and Adrian its guitar player. The latter is also the main songwriter penning all the songs including one with Niehaus. The sole cover is the traditional Greasy Coat and Kitchen Girl. The album was cut live to tape and that approach is inherent in the overall feel of the engaging results.

The duo handle all their vocals mainly with Adrian taking the lead vocals but on some tracks Meredith is the lead, otherwise she provides duet and harmony vocals. The song Birthday Cakes opens with a solid drum beat before Adrian’s nasal vocal takes up the story and Meredith joins him over the solid beat with pedal steel and fiddle enhancing the sound that resonates in a number of ways that suggest the duo’s influences. Beat is a bedrock for many of the songs as illustrated by the floor stomp of More Than A Little. The use of a trombone allies it to an earlier time while sounding very contemporary in its context. Suffic it say that the Krygowski’s make a noise that is nourishing and more than a little natty.

The Grahams and Friends Live In The Studio Three Sirens

The husband and wife duo revisit the songs that they recorded for their previous album and for the film soundtrack Rattle The Hocks. That release came to Europe through the Sony Music Group but this one sees them independent again. Somemay be familiar with some the songs from other releases, such as the opening song Glory Bound, the title song from their previous album. The version here features the Watkins Family (including Sara and Sean Watkins). The hymn-like Lay Me Down comes from the soundtrack and is an outstanding vocal from Alyssa Graham, as is the version of Alejandro Escovedo’s Broken Bottle. The slower songs also include The Lonely Ones which features the Milk Carton Kids on harmony vocals or Tender Annabelle a duet with guest with John Fulbright and a strong vocal chorus. These stand out well alongside the up-tempo nature of the songs like Griggstown, Kansas City with New Orleans style brass. There is also a related cover (in terms of sound) of the classic City Of New Orleans. Mama opens with the voice of Douglas Graham before Alyssa accompanied by David Garza and Suzanna Choffel join in. Another strong emotional delivery and highlight from Alyssa is on the song Blow Wind Blow.

There are a host of musicians featured on the album who help differentiate the songs from the previous versions on the last album - though some are taken from the deluxe edition of Glory Bound. They include Luther and Cody Dickinson (the former was also director of the Rattle The Hocks movie), Alvin Youngblood Hart, The Norman Sisters, Mark Rubin and others. It is a shame that the duo is not getting the backing that they received when with a major label and this single CD has been released to tie in with some dates in the UK. However, if you didn’t pick up on them with Glory Bound then this collection of 14 songs will help fill a gap until the next album sees the light of day.  

Alt-Country in the UK.

Ags Connolly Nothin’ Unexpected At The Helm

This is the third release from Connolly and follows on from How About Now? and a limited edition album, whose title pretty much explains its content, Traditional - 12 Cowboy Songs. Born in Oxfordshire in England but could easily have been Oxford, Mississippi in that there is an authenticity to the music that largely negates its origin. The album was produced by Dean Owens himself a recording artist both solo and as a member of The Felsons, an Edinburgh based alt-country band from the mid to late 90’s. He is the perfect person to helm this project with an understanding of both traditional and contemporary country music.

Connolly has a voice that is well-suited to the self-written songs that detail the upside and downside of life and its often-complicated relationships. There’s is a sense of depth that feels well-worn and wearied, but hopeful. Something that is borne out by the captivating opener I Hope You’re Unhappy. From then on, the album is a consistent run through of Connelly’s tales of regret, reason and refuge. Louden Wainwright’s I Suppose is the only cover and it is a testament to Connelly that he makes it fit right in. There is a strong melancholy to songs like Fifteen Years and When The Loner Gets Lonely. Both are stripped back arrangements featuring just guitar and fiddle or guitar and accordion (the latter played by ace Mavericks sideman Michael Guerra) -a song that could have easily fit on the Cowboy Songs album. Mention should be made here of the other players involved who include London-born fiddler Eamon McLoughlin (formally of the Greencards and now a player on the Grand Ole Opry), the man on all stringed things - Stuart Nisbet, Kev McGuire on stand-up bass, Jim McDermott’s steady drumming and Andy May on piano. All of whom, along with Connelly and Owens, serve these songs well and deliver an album that stands up with the best - no matter where it may have been recorded; it is the heart involved that matters most.

Guerra’s contribution adds a ‘border’ feeling to many of the songs that is not dissimilar to the feel that UK expat Wes McGhee brought to his Texas influenced music through the years. Ads Connelly can be justifiably proud of the way he and the other players have brought his songs to life with such authenticity and assiduousness. Would that Connelly (or My Darling Clementine and many others for that matter) were getting the kind of exposure that The Shires are currently receiving. But in the end, it’s the music that matters and here it matters.

Daniel Meade Shooting Stars And Tiny Tears From The Top

The versatile and talented Scotsman is back with a new solo album that is pretty much the definition of solo. He is releasing the album on his own label and looking after every aspect of the project from the cover design, the manufacturing and the promo. That’s as well as writing, producing and playing everything on the album. Its genesis came from an idea to write each song in an hour and then record the song with four hours. A self set limitation to see what he could come up with. He also didn’t read the lyrics but improvised them as he recorded them. Some in first takes, others took a little longer, but each take was individual in terms of arrangement and lyrics. The theme was to take conversations with his girlfriend as his inspiration. Initially it was something he was just going to for her but he was happy with the outcome and decided to make it available on a wider scale. 

The album proves again that Meade is a distinctive singer and a songwriter who can write songs that have strong hooks as well as an all-round musical vision - as is witnessed on the album. Several of the songs are instantly likeable (to this writer) like Sometimes Falling, Sometimes Flying, Your Voice At Night, Throwing Pebbles (Round My Head) and Today Doesn’t Matter. There are heartfelt ballads and other more up-tempo songs that are played in a style not unfamiliar to Meade’s fans or of his previous recorded output. His early country, acoustic country blues, folk and old-time influences are all present. Given that it was recorded in his kitchen, there is a lo-fi quality which, however, suits the overall nature of the project.

Meade hopes to be back with a full Flying Mules album later in the year but this is a pretty good listen in the meantime. Daniel Meade deserves all the attention he can get for his commitment to his music and again confirms his position as one of the shining lights of UK roots music.

The Most Ugly Child Copper And Lace Self Release

This Nottingham based 6-piece band are fronted by the male/female vocal interplay of Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison. These are songs in the template set by many of the classic country male and female duet partnerships; offering mighty support are the remaining band members, including rhythm section Matt Cutler and Max Johnson, alongside Nicole J Terry on fiddle and Big Jim Widdop on pedal steel and dobro. They also bring in the Blidworth Brass Band as well as Daniel Meade, Lloyd Reid and Henry Slim from the Flying Mules. The end result is a solid take on country music as it was (and should be).

The writing is also strong with songs from Meade (What Might Have Been), Townes van Zandt (Lungs) sitting alongside the original  songs, mainly from Wright, with a couple by Goodison. The songs in the main are looking at the love and loss that relationships are fraught with. Songs Like Another Lesson In Pain, Today, You Said Goodbye and Long Gone Woman Blues all consider aspects of failure and a need to forget its effects. While other titles like Queen Of The Honky Tonk offer more of a ray of hope for the lonely, while the acoustic album-closer My Pony is perhaps metaphor for life. All this means a good variety in terms pace and style that makes for a very satisfying album.

This is undeniably country music with a contemporary edge and attitude. Rather being retro in outlook it takes in obvious favourites as well as more diverse influences to produce an album that is as well-packaged as it is played. They may be the ugliest child in the town but they come from pretty good stock.

The Lucky Strikes The Motion And The Moving On Harbour Song

This Essex-based band deliver a new album that rocks as much as it rolls with its roots and blues energies. The five-piece band employ fiddle, banjo and pedal steel as much as they do sax, keyboards and loud guitars. The steel laced Lilac And Soil is a downbeat ballad while  Michael is a a song about a friend going through band times. While Carry Me Lord is another tale of searching and seeking with a spiritual context and that allows the dobro and voices to deliver its message. Gone, Gone is a gentle reflection of another man who slowly drifted away that has a folk feel that is reflective way to close the album. There is a sense of looking for meaning - for motion and moving on in fact. The authorship of the songs is not listed on the sleeve but I assume that they are all original songs by the band’s singers Boulter and David Giles. Songs that need time to reveal themselves to the listener.

The band’s main singer and writer Matthew Boulter also release albums under the MC Boulter name but here he meshes with his bandmates to produce a sound that has been likened to the Waterboys, Tom Waits and Crazy Horse. A pretty disparate bunch to be sure, which just goes to show how The Lucky Strikes are going to mean different things to different listeners and how their sound touches a number of bases while remaining a consistent entity. The Lucky Strikes are following where the individual songs take them. This may mean that some listeners will lose interest in the way the band have chosen to deliver their songs. Others will be happy to go on the journey with the band and find for themselves what it has to offer. Something which is individual, interesting and a little intense.