Monday, May 30, 2011

Acoustic+ 27 May

There is always a problem in store; one of ever increasing expectations. Another one is where to start. In this case I'm going to heed some old advice...
"Start at the beginning, continue to the end and then stop."  First to play was Douglas Hamilton and I must say it took a while for me to appreciate his song writing style.
Originally from Nebraska and very much American, this is not a problem musically or otherwise to me, but this time it just took a while for me to get his line. These songs he sung and played solo, either on electric keyboard or acoustic guitar.
Sometimes that lack of immediacy is actually a good thing. Currently based in Somerset, for the last track he was joined by a couple of members of Appalachia for a song that, he commented later, American audiences don't understand...

This was about the English belief that whatever has gone wrong it can be solved by brewing a pot of tea. It is not that of a sardonic outsider looking at the foibles of the English, which accounts for its reception in the US perhaps, but a rather acute observation.
It reminds me of two things: the commentary that Bill Bryson routinely makes in 'Notes From A Small Island' - and the reason we later adopted him as the head of the Council For The Protection of Rural England. Outsiders can sometimes see and explain the value of what we just take for granted. The song itself is also probably one of the best that Flanders and Swann never wrote or recorded and I don't suppose that even the irascible W.S. Gilbert would be particularly disappointed.
Next to play was Katie Marie, all the way from Totnes, with some very accomplished acoustic guitar and fine songs - traditional in many ways and certainly entirely acoustic but not hidebound in style or content.
I'd seen her play live before as part of Nicky Swann's band but this was quite something: Great songs, great singing and oooh... that guitar.  If you doubt me go see live... in the meanwhile get the album 'To The Journey'.  It is currently sold out on CD but available to download (Amazon, iTunes, etc.).  I was assured that another batch of CDs is on order too. I would buy this on vinyl if that were possible and I said as much.
Leonardo's Bicycle were next on stage. They hail from Frome but their twin harmony guitar and vocals have a great deal of influence from across the Atlantic; a neat counterpoint to Douglas Hamilton. Fascinating were their, rather successful, attempts to imitate the sounds of pedal steel guitar. Now that's something I'd like to see at the Cheese & Grain for real...
Last, so headlining, were The Pigeons. This was a good contrast and also a very good performance indeed. Somewhat less acoustic than the forgoing but very taut and well thought out.
My verdict is that it was another stunning Acoustc+.
The question is that, because it raises the bar yet higher, how can it top that in July?  There is also an announcement coming - there is another Acoustic event on the horizon in the greater Frome area...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Live and Local - Zora and The Tatsmiths

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon if that is not a short walk from home, at one of the best pubs anywhere, one that brews its own beer too, listening to one of the best new live acts that I have heard in some time?   No "rapture" for me as I clearly don't know what heaven really is.  If this is just life however then it is certainly good enough for me.

This was the last date on their first ever tour - a four-day jaunt around Wessex - and I think it fair to say that it went down very well indeed with the audience at The Griffin. The Brighton-based five-piece played a long set that was as well paced as it was varied. The only tinge of sadness came with the announcement that for Belinda, playing electric violin, it was her last show with the band as she is relocating to California.
For a band that only recently evolved from being an all-acoustic three-piece as heard on the 2010 Places Like This EP, which I highly recommend, to perform so much material so well, and interspersed with banter with the audience that was often of true Ealing-inspired comic genius, was something to remember.
The songs are all strong and distinctive. 'Secret', which I have mentioned before, is a highlight for me as is 'Mary Jane'. They played this twice - the second time being as a request for an encore at the end.
This one is just a warm up...
Zora McDonald playing some of 'Secret' solo.
This being Somerset it is worthy of note that a poster has crept into all of these photos...  one announcing a performance by the long reigning kings of 'Scrumpy and Western', The Wurzels!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis - Smoking In Heaven

This is an outfit almost as far removed from the 'major label music industry' as it is possible to get. Three siblings, in their early twenties at most, on a mission to subvert the perceived digital obsession of their peers. Not just in a superficial way but from start to finish - one that not inappropriately has an almost religious fervour.
Their first true album, the eponymous 'Kitty, Daisy and Lewis', was released on the label 'Sunday Best' in 2008 and consisted mostly of covers that would have seemed quite straightforward in 1958, if not before. Therein lies the catch, and the total deceit, for not only was the music old-fashioned it was entirely performed, recorded and mastered on collected and restored valve-driven analogue equipment of that era. Lewis is the retro-electronic wizard behind most of that part of the endeavour. The result did not meet with critical approval all round; sometimes because it was mostly covers, also because the equipment produces a sound that is to most now rather unfamiliar and because not many artists sing this way any more.
I bought it (on CD, which was a misjudgement of a criminal nature) and yet it was certainly interesting and, once I got used to the sound and styling, really quite appealing. The issue came to a head at Latitude 2010, late on Thursday evening or perhaps early Friday morning, in the Music & Film Tent when, as part of a 'Blues Brothers'-themed film-dance-music performance they were doing some of the live music part. This is, unfortunately, the only half-worthwhile picture I have.  The poor photo is entirely my fault. For some reason I always get off to a bad start.

  Kitty and Daisy a capella at Latitude 2010.

While 'Smoking In Heaven' will do nothing to spoil the bliss in analogue heaven it certainly does address the other critical point; this is all their own new material, new in a relativistic sense. 
Released on May 30 by 'Sunday Best' it will be available on two vinyl formats: 2 x 12" 33 rpm LP, a collectors' edition of 6 x 10" 78 rpm and also on CD. I have no way of playing 78 rpm, and in any case it is a very costly package, but given my earlier comment I shall be certainly be taking the 12" micro-groove option on this one!
Rarely, if ever, has Kentish Town seemed this far south!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Looking forward to festivals...

What with this last weekend being BBC Radio 1's outdoor 'Big Weekend' and Brighton's multi-venue indoor 'Great Escape', a fortnight after 'Camden Crawl 2011', I have been busy remotely listening to, watching and reading about the very best in new and established live music as it marks the start of the 2011 festival season.  I also watched the Eurovision 2011 Grand Final in its entirety. It is always important to maintain a sense of proportion and perspective.
This has of course made me think more about all the acts that I will have a chance to see and hear live at festivals this summer.  As my last post concerned new music from Canada where better to start than with more music from Canada?

Just added to the line up at EOTR 2011 is a Canadian act that I first mentioned back in 2010 - Slow Down, Molasses. Walk Into The Sea is the second album.

Little did I suspect that the band would be added to the confirmed artists for EOTR 2011. Indeed so unlikely did it seem that it never even occurred to me to include it on my list.
Be careful what you wish for.  Be amazed by what you don't.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Music 2011 - Clara Engel - Madagascar EP

The chain of events that led to me purchasing this pretty much sums up everything that I like about music and writing a blog all rolled into one. Three days ago I knew nothing - not even the existence - of this artist.  By yesterday evening I was listening to physical music by the same... something that only the combination of the digital age, independent artists, labels and stores and snail-mail-on-speed could achieve.

Clara Engel is a singer-songwriter from Toronto, Canada and a very prolific one so my research since Wednesday attests.  The Madagascar EP is however her first physical release and it is, even for purists and I am not one of them, a 'proper' EP - three tracks on vinyl, in this case of the 12" 45 rpm variety and only in this format.  It is released by new label Vox Humana Records as VHR01. It is available from Rough Trade Records, always a dependable source for new music.
Now to the music.  I don't tend to write about music that I don't like and this is certainly no exception. Many of the UK-based comments on Clara Engel's music compare her to Anna Calvi, indeed the Rough Trade website and sticker on the cover did so. That is unfair, if a little understandable. Yes, they both write, sing and play guitar big time but actually Anna Calvi is the newcomer here if already better known in the UK; we can do parochial just as well as anyone else and I don't think lumping both artists together does either of them a favour.
Take a listen to this EP or indeed any of the other downloads available from and make up your own mind. There is plenty as her next album will be her eighth or ninth! The three tracks on the EP come from two albums; 'Blind Me' and 'Madagascar' from 'Secret Beasts' and 'Accompanied by Dreams' from 'The Bethlehem Tapes'.  There is a new album in the making, so long as she can get the funding together to make it happen. Another track from 'Secret Beasts' is 'Lick My Fins', which is available as a free, legal download.

You owe it to yourself to listen to new music. If it turns out that you don't like it then that is just fine but at least you will know and so it will influence your future forays in to the unknown.  What I want to do is take it out (on vinyl) and find people to play it to...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"I Will Return I Promise" - Beth Jeans Houghton

It has been a couple of years since she first popped up on the scene with the EP 'Hot Toast - Volume 1'. I first heard (of) her, and then immediately bought the EP at the Rough Trade pop-up store, at End Of The Road 2009.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the toast is getting stale, and there certainly hasn't been a second round, but now things are moving fast. Here she is, in the then rather basic 'Local' tent, at EOTR 2009.

It is very easy to forget that this is actually not much more than eighteen months ago.
This may well have actually been her first festival performance but, due to The Horrors having to cancel due to illness, she did a slot on the very much larger Big Top stage later in the weekend, which I did not see, and again to much acclaim by all accounts. There is something very EOTR about all this (as Caitlin Rose proved in 2010)...
The début album has taken a while longer than anticipated, though it is now (May 2011) complete. Nevertheless she appeared again in the meantime with her band The Hooves of Destiny on the Lake Stage at Latitude 2010 on Sunday afternoon.
Both these photos do not however include an absolutely vital part of the live 'Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves of Destiny' experience, so it is high time to put that right.
Rory Gibson on bass.
She is good on her promise too: on Monday it was confirmed that Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves of Destiny are to appear at EOTR 2011 with, no doubt, the album to showcase.
Now signed to Mute Records the track Dodecahedron is available as a free, legal download in the meantime.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

More New Music for 2011 - UK acoustic

Having yesterday purchased my ticket to see Martha Tilston live at Rook Lane Chapel, Frome, that I mentioned in a recent post I thought it time to mention some more new English music in a broadly similar genre, which has recently been released.
Tarry Awhile -- Gill  Sandell

This is actually the first released of the three, by Rowan Tree Records in November 2010.  I had first become aware of Gill Sandell when I saw Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo at EOTR 2009, with which she plays piano accordion and contributes backing vocals.  This is her first full recording as a solo artist and, as far as I can tell, is currently only available as legal d/l. It comprises twelve tracks, all but two her original compositions, with backing provided by Red Clay Halo members amongst others. It also shows a true multi-instrumentalist as she predominantly plays guitar or piano on this outing, which has been six years in the making.
Songs Lost & Stolen --  Bella Hardy
Although this is Hardy's third album (after 'Night Visiting' and 'Lost In The Shadow of Mountains') it is the first released by Navigator Records and also first to consist of entirely self-written material; the previous two having been at least predominantly intriguing re-workings of traditional material.  I saw her live towards the end of last year and it was an excellent performance and given this new material I would not be at all surprised if she were a whole lot better known by the end of 2011.

Time Travel -- Alessi's Ark
It was a bad start to 2010 for Alessi Laurent-Marke.  Following her 2009 début album 'Notes From The Treehouse' she was dropped by ever-insolvency-defying EMI.  It is true that Laura Marling remains with EMI, at least as far as I know, as her third album release nears but it has always struck me as an odd home for the new folk movement.
Cast adrift, the eponymous Ark soon found a new haven and one that to me at least seems a far more spiritual home and so she was back in the business of releasing her music that can probably never simultaneously be assigned a place and a time. Bella Union, for it is they, wasted no time in releasing the 2010 EP Soul Proprietor.
For her part she has wasted no time in coming up with her second full-length album and a scattering of covers, including Lesley Gore's 1964 hit 'Maybe I Know', only serve to show how good the new songs and their arrangements are.  This is, freed from major label meddling with content and style, all EMI's loss and our collective gain.
If there is one place that this sort of music should fit in just perfectly it is a sunny afternoon in the English countryside. To that end Alessi's Ark is appearing at Truck Festival 2011.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Arts venues.

Frome is, for a town of approximately 25,500 inhabitants, blessed with a remarkable selection of arts venues, both for static displays and performance arts.  In the latter category the Cheese and Grain, capacity 800 and hopefully soon to be augmented in both capacity and facilities, is the most versatile if not particularly architecturally distinguished. It is a 19th century produce-market hall that has been adapted many times since. Frome also has two theatres, The Memorial Theatre completed in 1924 in memory of those killed in the Great War and the more recent Merlin Theatre, which seats about 250 and is part of the Frome College campus. All three are used for all kinds of performance arts and other live shows.
Then there are many historic pubs, some of which regularly feature live music: amongst those most active are The Griffin and The Olive Tree (link currently broken, phone 01373 467140) and also many other venues that are used from time to time, most notably for the annual Frome Festival - taking place this year from 8 - 17 July.
One however, that survives at all more by luck than judgement, is the most architecturally significant and spectacular by a long mile.  Built when Frome was a town very wealthy indeed, based on the wool trade, it spent 251 years in continuous use as a non-conformist place of worship before it was declared redundant and then spent the next quarter of a century falling into decay. It was eventually compulsorily purchased by the local authority and restored.
It now houses, appropriately enough, an architects' practise in the ante-rooms while the main section is used as a space for static and performance arts both traditional and modern by the trust Rook Lane Arts.

As well as being an early example of such a building on a grand scale the bountiful finance saw to it that it did not have the minimalist functionality of many and that its patrons succumbed to more than a flourish of the baroque. Nobody - whose mission was truly to live the life of an ascetic - would ever have sanctioned windows like those!
When it was built John Wesley certainly wasn't preaching simplicity and sobriety to the masses in open-air sermons across Britain, such as became his trademark, not least because he was then only a toddler (b. June 28, 1703)!
I'm not the religious kind in any traditional sense but wish to thank those that were for the venue.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Cover Versions 2011 - Thea Gilmore - John Wesley Harding

Song lyrics and cover versions put a great deal of traffic here and I have intended to address more of both for a while now. I'm going to start with the latter as it happens and this is released in the UK today.
It is a dangerous thing indeed - not an album of covers but the cover of an entire album - and is a tribute to one of the most inspiring and widely covered artists in honour of his seventieth birthday, on May 24, by one of the most prolific singer-songwriters that the UK has and, very importantly, one to whom sticking with traditional music industry conventions is quite alien.

Including 'Loft Music' (2004), which was an album of covers, this is only her second venture into such territory but between 1998 and 2010 she has also released nine studio albums, a live album and several (often limited edition) EPs.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Acoustic+ 29 April

Another fantastic evening courtesy of Acoustic+.  The date had been set before a certain well-known couple chose the same day for their wedding and I did wonder if the public holiday on Friday and resultant four-day weekend would severely dent the size of the audience.  It probably had some effect but not a huge one and those of us there were treated to four excellent acts. This time I would not be willing to choose my most or least favourite.
To start things off was singer-songwriter Mark Wynn, who had travelled all the way from his home city of York to play Acoustic+ solo.

Next up was Anna Young, who hails from Bristol, and she was playing her own material while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.

The second half comprised two bands the first of which was 'Rivers of England'.

Rounding off the evening was a band consisting of a lead singer originally from Frome and three compatriots from Brighton, which has to be one of Britain's most musical cities.
Glass City Vice normally play as an all electric outfit and were somewhat concerned that this, their first ever public largely acoustic set, might go awry. In fact it was excellent: definitely something they should do again although I would like to see them in their normal incarnation too.
The were several moments during this set that made me think of 'Last Night On Earth' era Noah and The Whale, which is no bad thing as I have seen them live several times through the years.
So there you have it - and all this for an entry charge of £5.