The Arisaig Americana Festival takes its first steps

arisaig-festival-1The West Highlands of Scotland may well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and there’s been no shortage of music emanating from the area over the years, most of it in the traditional vein and reflecting the rich culture of this historical landscape. Now, an enterprising musician, Mairi Orr, wants to see the West Highlands, or, more specifically, the village of Arisaig,  on the romantically named “road to the Isles” to become a beacon for Americana music in Scotland complementing the sterling work carried out by the likes of Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. Orr (whose music we’ve discussed here) recently moved to Arisaig after living in Edinburgh and she’s decided to use her contacts to set up a festival which she hopes will grow into a popular attraction. Obviously that’s a long term goal and on the understanding that great oaks from little acorns grow this year’s inaugural Arisaig Festival is a small (but perfectly formed) affair. Intrigued as to why and how Ms. Orr set about this Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to her and we started off by asking her why she decided to have a go at setting up the festival in the first place.

I moved back here three years ago, not long after I released my album. It’s a lovely place but I found that I was kind of missing the music scene I’d been around in the big city. There are some amazing musicians up here but it tends to be mostly Scottish and traditional music and while the musicianship is second to none I felt that there was room for more Americana type music and importantly, that there is an audience for it, so I decided to see if I could kind of kick-start that, get it off the ground. I’ve always loved being up here.  Before we moved here permanently I visited a lot because I’ve got family here and I always thought it would be great to have some sort of event here. It’s a popular tourist destination, absolutely mobbed in the summer and there’s a great appetite for cultural events, music and such. When we got here I had my baby girl and that obviously took up my time but I started thinking seriously about setting up an event at the beginning of this year. In reality I’ve set up this first festival in a ridiculously short time but I’ve got a three year plan where I want to build the festival up, hold it over a couple of days and hopefully get some American musicians to come up and join in. So this year is really just to get it off the ground, put the word out and gauge the reaction.

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So this year is pretty much dipping a toe in the water and seeing how it goes?

As I said it’s really just a launch pad for what I hope will be a bigger festival next year. We’re holding what is the main event on the Saturday night but before that we will be having musical workshops for guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, on the Saturday afternoon. There’s also going to be what I’m describing as a big pub session on the Sunday and I know there’s going to be a lot of musicians turning up for that, a good mix of people I hope.  A lot of local people have expressed their interest since we announced it and we’ve received some funding from a local trust fund and it’s great to get their support. There will be tourists around looking for something to attend and then folk I know in the music scene have also said they’re coming up, they’ll join in the session so that should be good fun.

 

Tell us who you’ve got lined up to play

Well I’m really pleased to have The Wynntown Marshals as our headliners as they are one of Scotland’s best known “Americana” bands. They’ll be playing here as an acoustic trio which suits the hall we’re holding the concert in although I’ve asked Iain Sloan to be sure to bring his pedal steel with him. We also have The Jellyman’s Daughter, an excellent duo who have just released their second album and for this they’re bringing some friends with them to add bass and banjo on stage so that should sound great. Then there’s The Daddy Naggins who will be rounding off Saturday night with some good old foot stomping bluegrass. They’ll also be around earlier in the day as they are going to be helping out on the afternoon workshops.

You’ve missed out an act, the Crow County Pickers, which, after some extensive research, turns out to be yourself and some chums!

OK, that’s me with David Currie, Craig McKinney and Alan Finn. David is a fantastic Dobro player who did several shows with me when I was out playing my album. We hadn’t played for sometime after I had my daughter but we got back together a little while ago and started working on this and Craig is bringing along his mandolin while we’ve got Alan on bass

It seem to me that aside from the concert you’re trying to inject an awareness of roots type music, folk, Americana and such in a place that’s probably more used to trad fiddle sessions and pipers galore.

Well there’s a lot of music students up here who are learning trad music along with a lot of “closet” players out there who would probably love to have a go on the banjo or mandolin. We’re just trying to expand the idea of folk music to encompass more than trad so the workshops are aimed at them. One of things I like about Americana music is that it’s really open and friendly and inclusive, I’m hoping that if you play guitar or banjo or mandolin or anything really you can come along and join in. The workshops will be free as will the session on Sunday, bring an instrument or just come along to hear the music. The Sunday session is being held in a great bar where they’re really encouraging to musicians and I’m getting feedback that a lot of folk will be coming to that.

It is a small festival, we don’t have a great capacity in terms of the venues but I really want to grow it over a couple of days and bring artists up here who probably don’t come to this part of the world that often. Really we just want this year to put us on the map, there are musicians who come to the West Highlands but not often enough. I’ve been talking to some other promoters to see if can start to join the dots as it were for American acts coming over here so that they don’t just play the cities, to see if we can make it attractive enough for them to play a bit further afield.

Which bring us to my final question. A lot of folk will thing that Arisaig is out in the sticks, cut off from the mainstream as it were. If we were to go would we have to hike there or get a helicopter?

Although we look as if we’re out in the wilds there are good transport links. There’s a steam train that comes from Fort William, it’s actually the one you see in the Harry Potter films which goes over the Glenfinnan viaduct. That’s the tourist way of getting here but you can get the train from Glasgow while buses run from Glasgow and Inverness. I think most people will drive and we’re only about three to four hours away from most cities in Scotland. It is a bit of an effort to get here but it’s such a beautiful part of the world it’s well worth the effort. We’ve already got a successful trad festival here, Feis Na Mara, which is held in October and it always sells out and that’s in the off season so there’s no reason not to come.

The Arisaig  Americana Festival takes place on 23-24 June. Their website is here and tickets are available here.

And here’s some video of Mairi in action. She’s sure to give The Marshals’ a run for their money.

 

 

 

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Ramble on down to The Ramblin’ Roots Revue

ramblin-roots-revue-2018-905016388-300x300We’ve mentioned previously a couple of the newer (and smaller) festivals which have been popping up over the past few years. The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, held in Bucks University Union in High Wycombe, has its second outing this year from the 6th -8th April and will be featuring a host of acts who are Blabber’n’Smoke favourites so we spoke to organiser Tristan Tipping about the weekend’s events. First of all we asked Tristan why he decided to dip his toes into the perilous waters of organising a festival.

Why did we start Ramblin’ Roots? I guess we’re just gluttons for punishment.  We really just wanted an excuse to have a big weekend surrounded by lots of people we knew while enjoying some great music.

You run Clubhouse Records with your brother Danny but I believe that the festival is a separate entity. Aside from yourself who else is involved in setting it up?

Ramblin’ Roots is really myself along with Noel Cornford who runs Earbelly who do pop up stages for acoustic acts and Jamie Alexander who is the events manager for Bucks University Union where we hold the event. Last year we got off to a real flyer, we were pleasantly surprised both in terms of ticket sales and the feedback we got so we decided to try and have it as a regular event. We don’t really see it as a festival; it’s just a big get together of like minded people who are into the same type of music, not muddy fields and bad camp sites. It’s all indoors in an award winning venue with some great bars and food. We’re all in our forties so the idea of standing in a wet field for days doesn’t really appeal, personally I don’t want to be more than 15 feet away from a bar.

It certainly seems to be a bargain in terms of the ticket prices.

Yes, it’s under a pound per band if you buy a full weekend ticket. We’ve got 36 artists playing and it’s only £32:50. We’ve tried to keep it reasonable and the drinks and the food are all sensibly priced,  having it in the Union keeps costs down and we’re not out to make a huge profit, we just need it to wash its own face. We want an event that attracts folk so we’ve kept the prices as low as we can manage. It’s great if you think that it’s a bargain, I hope other people see it that way. It’s difficult to get people to get out of their house to come to events but I think we’ve chosen a good weekend to hold it on, there’s not a lot of other things going on near us then. It is hard work and there is a bit of a risk in putting anything like this on but as I said a lot of people turned up last year and we’re getting really good support and good mentions.

And it’s not dependent on the weather as it’s indoors.

We’ve got three stages. There’s the acoustic stage which is actually outside and two indoors, the main room holds around 600 people and the other is more of a traditional bar setting. We never have more than one act playing at the same time so if you’ve got the stamina for it you can actually see all the bands that are playing.

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It’s a great line up, I presume it’s a lot of hard work to assemble such a cast but how do the three of you choose who is playing?

Well obviously it is down to availability but aside from that it’s important to us that there’s a mix across the Americana genre so that there’s a degree of variety. I mean it’s a broad church so we have some of the more traditional folky and bluegrass stuff alongside more alt country music and some almost psychedelic West Coast sounds.  So there is a common thread there and all three of us have worked in the industry long enough to have some great contacts and a lot of mates so it is a community we’re tapping into. We want to be surrounded by acts we enjoy but the main common denominator is that they are all excellent live acts. Between us we’ve seen all who are coming to play and we know they can offer a great experience on the day.

Looking back at last year’s festival I see that aside from the music there was a pie eating contest!

Yes although it’s a bit of a hazy memory. I think it was my brother who won it. I mean it’s all about the music over the weekend but we’re trying to make the whole event an experience with the food and drink just as important. We’ve got lots of food stalls with free tastings and we wanted to have a bit of fun as well which is where the pie eating came in.  I’m not sure what we’ll do this year, someone suggested horse shoe throwing!

This is maybe an unfair question but who are you looking forward to seeing?

That’s a tough one but I’m really looking forward to The Midnight Union Band who I’ve seen at Kilkenny a couple of times and then The Raving Beauties and The Hanging Stars are right up my street as I really like that West Coast type of thing. But it’s all quality from top to bottom. The act who most people seem to be really looking forward to are Bennett Wilson Poole who are just starting off and who release their album the weekend of the festival.  The other set I’m excited about is the Clubhouse All Stars tribute to Tom Petty. We actually did that at Truck Festival five years ago and with Tom passing away quite a few people asked if we could do it again. We’ve got a wealth of people who can come on and sing their own personal tribute so it should be a great show.

The Revue has a charity partner this year, Ridin’ The Roots.

We’re supporting our good buddy Del Day who is doing a sponsored cycle ride from Lewes to Kilkenny to raise money for Cancer Research. It’s in memory of Willie Meighan who was at the heart of the music scene in Kilkenny and who I had the pleasure to meet when I was at Kilkenny Roots. We’ll be having a collection at the shows and Del will be there to tell folk all about it. It’s a pleasure to do our little bit to help.

Tickets for The Ramblin’ Roots revue are available here

You can read about and support Ridin’ The Roots charity cycle here.

Winchester Texas? The Evolution of SC4M

sc4m-2017-for-webYou wouldn’t think that anyone would mistake a one day music festival in Winchester for the sprawling SXSW held annually in Austin. However, the lawyers at SXSW thought the possibility was there so they slapped a cease and desist order on Oliver Gray’s SXSC (South By South Central) some years back. Oliver, an author and long time music fan had set up SXSC in 2009 although he had been promoting shows in Winchester under that banner since 2004. Writing about his encounter with the SXSW folks he says, “The 2013 SXSC Festival was to be the last under that name, following a surreal series of email exchanges with lawyers representing the South By South West Festival in Texas. I tried to respond with levity but was always flat-batted back with stern, unresponsive legalese, so in the end gave in.” Thus was born SC4M – South Central For Music. Held annually the festival has featured many acts mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke and this year is no exception so we reached out to Oliver to chat with him about the festival and his tireless promotion of Americana and roots music.

You say that you first really got interested in Americana type music when you saw Peter Bruntnell back in 2000.

Yes, although I’ve been going to gigs since the mid sixties I really first stumbled upon this more roots based music when I first saw Peter Bruntnell. That was in the Tower Arts Centre in Winchester and I decided then that I’d have a go at promoting what was then called alt-country with my friend, Richard Williams. Our first show was in 2003 and the act was of course Peter Bruntnell. After that, we put on shows at The Railway Inn on a fairly regular basis and also started doing house concerts before we decided to try a one day festival. I’d been to SXSX several times and thought we’d call ours South By South Central as it seemed to fit Winchester geographically and sum up the music.

So this year is the eighth festival?

That’s right. We started off in 2009 with Peter and Richmond Fontaine headlining. We call Peter our lucky mascot because he is one of our very favourite musicians and he’s played at The Railway Inn so often and it’s almost a tradition that he and his fans will be at the festival and this year is no different. His latest album, Nos Da Comrade has been so successful  that we take it as a compliment that he’s still happy to come along and play for us. He’s a busy man these days touring in various formats and we’ve actually got him coming back in October when he’ll be playing with the legendary BJ Cole but for SC4M it will be the four-piece band who can really rock. I saw them a few weeks ago at Static Roots in Oberhausen and they were really good as were Danny & The Champs, another great band who have previously headlined SC4M.

The festival takes place in The Railway Inn. Can you tell us a little about the venue?

Yes, it’s almost my second home. It’s your classic, slightly dingy, music venue but it has a great atmosphere and it has the advantage of having two rooms, the barn, which is the main room where we have the bands, and the attic which is where we put on the acoustic acts. We alternate the location so there’s never two acts playing at the same time which is one of my pet hates at festivals when you’re watching a band but really wishing you were at another one playing at the same time. So the audience can amble from room to room and see all of the acts. It’s very homely, almost club atmosphere, just a bunch of friendly people having a nice time together which is what we’re all about.  The capacity is 100 and if all of them came into the attic it can be a bit claustrophobic but some people take time out for a drink or a bite to eat so usually it’s not too crowded. It starts at noon and goes on until 11. Tickets are £32, same as last year even though our costs have gone up and there’s a range of food and lots of ale. It’s not your overpriced festival stuff, it’s a proper pub.

There’s quite a lot of these smaller events going on these days and I’m glad to see that. I was at Ramblin’ Roots a few weeks ago and they had a similar set up with several of the artists who were on veterans of SC4M but it seems that as the appetite for what we call “Americana” grows there’s room for more, we’re not in competition.  The more the merrier I say as there’s an astonishing amount of talent out there and if we can help in any way to let them play to sympathetic audiences then it’s a job well done. It’s always a fraught time as financially it’s extremely tight, we don’t make a profit and each year I get into a bit of a panic over whether we’ll sell enough tickets but in the end we always do. I hand out flyers for example at The End Of The Road Festival and quite a few people seem to come having seen them so it seems to work. We don’t have a publicity budget so it comes down to word of mouth and sympathetic folk mentioning us although I have to say that RnR magazine (formerly R2 and before that Rock’n’Reel)  very kindly gave us an advert in return for us advertising the magazine at the festival. It’s very kind of them and they’re a great supporter of roots music. 

Blabber’n’Smoke has mentioned many of the acts appearing this year : Peter Bruntnell, Emily Barker, Benjamin Folke Thomas, Joanna Serrat, Curse Of Lono, Robert Chaney and Vera Van Heeringen. There are a few we’re not familiar with, can you tell us about them?

Lucas & King are two girls from the Southampton area and we’ve put them on a lot. There’s quite a taste right now for sweet voiced duos but these guys are quite different. Bo Lucas sings and she sounds almost like Tammy Wynette but the songs aren’t anything like traditional country as they go into quite biting and original topics while Hayleigh King is a wonderfully fluid electric guitarist who plays with no effects sounding almost like Chet Atkins. Jonas and Jane are a bluegrassy husband and wife duo from Farnham, just up the road for us  and they played last year and blew the audience away so we’ve moved them up the bill a bit this year. Finally there’s Dan O’Farrell, the “token” local guy, he’s quite a political writer, our local Billy Bragg.

As with Peter Bruntnell we’re happy and proud to have Emily Barker back as she puts on a lovely show and she has been a stalwart supporter. As for Benjamin Folke Thomas we’re hoping he has the Swedish Mafia with him but at  present we’re not sure if he will or if it will be a solo performance. And then there’s Curse Of Lono. It’s unusual for me to book a band I haven’t seen personally but they’re playing a bunch of festivals and I thought we’d better get them while we can. It’s a great line up and you could say we have two themes really. The first is Internationalism as our acts are from all over – Sweden, Spain, Australia, Holland etc and secondly we wanted to try and feature as many female acts as we could and I think we’ve managed that.

I was looking at the SC4M website and the list of artists you’ve promoted over the years, at the festival, The Railway Inn and your house concerts, is just astounding. Are you able to mention any particular highlights?

We always love it when Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express come as they always do a storming show and I was really pleased to see that Uncut did two full length album reviews this month of acts that we’ve presented.  They featured John Murry who  headlined the festival last year and This Is The Kit who are of course originally from Winchester.  I think that the best show that we’ve ever done was not at the festival but we put on Sarah Borges with Girls, Guns and Glory and there was only about 12 people in the room. Despite that they played the most exciting show I’ve ever seen.

The house shows have been going on for some time and they’re a wonderful experience. As empty nesters we’re able to offer to put the musicians up for the night which of course helps them to keep the costs down. These musicians are inevitably incredibly nice people especially the Americans who are so polite and appreciative. Through this we’ve become good friends with some of them over the years especially the guys in Richmond Fontaine. Although it’s a hobby and doesn’t make us any money it’s a privilege to be a part of it and I honestly believe that we’re living in a bit of a golden age for Americana.

So, it sounds like a great day out and you can purchase tickets here. As Oliver says there’s only space for 100 folk so best to snap one up quickly. At £32 that’s less than £3 a band!

The SC4M webpage has a host of information including a great list of all the acts who have appeared under the SC4M/SXSC banner over the years. There’s also a Youtube channel, The Swiss Cottage Sessions , where you can see many of the acts who have played at the house concerts. In the meantime here’s classic clip from a previous festival…

Static Roots Festival takes off

sr posterBack in the sixties Immediate Records (home to The Small Faces, The Nice, Humble Pie and others) had a neat little slogan which went, Happy To Be Part of The Industry of Human Happiness. Reason I mention this is because I recently had spent some time in the company of a German friend of Blabber’n’Smoke who just about epitomises that epithet especially with regard to music. Dietmar Leibecke is a tall (very tall) and wonderful human being who may be known to several readers given his habit of turning up all over the place whenever there’s some good music to be heard.

Dietmar lives in Mullhelm An Der Rhur in Germany and for the past ten years he’s been promoting Americana and roots music in Germany with a host of house concerts along with booking tours for bands we’re all familiar with. Last year Dietmar ventured into the dangerous waters of setting up a music festival which he called Static Roots. Held in Oberhausen it was a two day event that featured Leeroy Stagger (Canada), The Wynntown Marshals (Scotland), John Blek & The Rats (Ireland), Malojian (Northern-Ireland), Meena Cryle & The Chris Fillmore Band (Austria), The Midnight Union Band (Ireland), and Anna Mitchell (Ireland). By all accounts, it was a great time and he’s set to do it again this year. Intrigued by the thought of setting up such a venture from scratch Blabber’n’Smoke wanted to hear more so we spoke to Dietmar to learn his story.

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The first Static Roots was held last year. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you did it?

Well last year was a year of anniversaries. First off, there was my Silver Wedding anniversary and it was also my 50th birthday. It was also ten years since we had started to promote shows and on a personal note it was five years since I had received a kidney transplant so there was a lot to celebrate. My wife and I wanted to do something special and we decided on the idea of setting up a small festival. Where I stay there wasn’t anything like that going on and I was completely influenced by the Kilkenny Roots Festival. They always have a great line up and it’s so much fun. Wherever you go you see great acts and it’s not just the music but it’s the people as well, a real community. So we were thinking about that and decided to go for it and we got in touch with some of our friends in the music business and asked them to come over and play and we got a great response. Artists we had met in Kilkenny like John Blek and The Rats, Malojian and The Midnight Union Band agreed to come and then my friends from Scotland, The Wynntown Marshals signed up. And then there was Leeroy Stagger from Canada who has become one of my best friends, I’ve known him for around ten years now. The one act we got who I didn’t know personally was Daniel Romano. I’d seen him live and thought he was great but in the end his satnav took him to another town called Oberhausen which was near Munich. He called and offered to come the next day but by then the festival was closing so we didn’t get to see him.

It sounds like quite an adventure but you’ve been promoting shows for around ten years now. How did that start?

It was another birthday, my 40th. Steve Wynn has been my biggest influence since I was young, his album with The Dream Syndicate, Days Of Wine and Roses was really the first record that blew me over and made me think that this was music that was made for me. It opened up a completely new world for me and it’s still one of the best albums I’ve ever listened to.  So I got in touch with Steve and asked him to play my 40th birthday and he said yes! He came with the Miracle Three and put on a fantastic show and that’s really how we got into the business of putting on shows. When Steve came over he introduced me to the idea of doing house concerts.  I hadn’t  really heard of the concept up till then but then I looked it up and found a couple of American bands who were open to playing house concerts so a little while later I invited Leeroy Stagger over to play our house. He was the first artist to play there and it was just so touching and so intense so we’ve continued to do it and so far we’ve hosted about 50 house concerts. We started off with solo acoustic shows but then we had Easton Stagger Phillips (Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillips) come to play and we had to get a PA system for that. From then we went on to have full bands like Danny & The champions of The World and The Wynntown Marshals playing in our house. I think that Leeroy has been here the most, about five times. It’s great fun and nowadays I occasionally book tours in Germany for bands I want to see in my house. The house concerts, even with a full band are very intimate and it’s great to see the audience being so attentive and the acts can take their time and tell their stories behind the songs, it’s so much more than playing in a bar for them.

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So how many people would you normally have at a house concert?

Well they always sell out and we have space for around 65 people there but it depends on the size of the band. If it’s a six-piece band we only let in 60 people but for a smaller band we can squeeze in maybe five more people.

You must have quite a large room

It’s not so big but we have a couple of beer benches, you know the traditional lederhosen and sauerkraut German beer benches so we have space for about 30 to 35 seats with the rest of the audience standing at the back of the room.

OK, you’ve got a full band, amplified, playing in your house. What do the neighbours think?

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They are all invited! Last summer we had John Blek and The Rats over and it was loud but it was so hot we had to open all the windows and leave the door open and some folk came over to see what the noise was and ended up staying. We converted a few people that night and made some new friends. Sometimes it’s been so loud I’ve wondered if the police might show up but so far so good.

 

Back to Static Roots. Can you tell us a little more about that?

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It’s held in an old zinc factory which has been converted into a theatre. It was built I think in 1904 and it’s a lovely building with old brick walls and some of the original fixtures. It looks really cool with huge windows, a big stage and a great sound and a great crew. It’s a nice big venue with a beer garden out front, burger stands and all and it really worked well last year. It holds around 300 people which I thought was a good number. I didn’t want to go for a bigger place because I knew it would be hard to fill it. Again I was thinking of Kilkenny where I think the biggest venue holds around 400.

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Have you gone again for acts you know?

Danny and The Champions of The World, Peter Bruntnell and John Blek are good friends but we’ve also got David Corley who I saw last year at Kilkenny and Erin Rea and The Meanwhiles, both of them making their first appearances in Germany.

Hopefully this is not an insensitive question but do you expect to make any money from this?

Well last year, because it really was a celebration of our wedding anniversary and such it was an invitation only event in the main. We did spread the word around friends in the music world and asked them to donate to a fund we had set up for Doctors Without Borders (AKA Médecins Sans Frontières) so there was no ticket fee, just a donation and we collected around 9,000 Euros for the campaign. We covered the artists’ fees and the cost of the venue out of our own pocket. This year it’s a public event and we’re selling tickets for the show and so far it’s going fairly well with more than half the tickets already gone. We are getting some press coverage and we’ll see how it goes but I’m sure that the festival is going to be a success some day along the line. It will need some time to get established but it was so much fun last year and the audience was great. We had a bunch of folk who came over from Kilkenny, the Kilkenny Roots Family we called them and there’s a great bunch of Scottish people who came over as well. A lot of people I had met at shows before, there were so many friends there. It’s quite funny but also important that wherever you travel music wise you meet people, like minded people and you keep in touch and it’s such a great community of open minded people interested in music, peace, love. I love the idea of music bringing people together, I’ve been to Rambling Roots in High Wycombe, March into Pitlochry and Kilkenny Roots so far this year and I can keep all those memories for ever and I hope that Static Roots will be as good. I’m going to have the time of my life at it even if it’s been lots of work in setting it up but once the last note is played I’m going  to say, “Man, this was brilliant” and then it will be looking forward to next year’s festival.

Static Roots takes place on the 9th and 10th June at Oberheim  with the following line up

David Corley

Peter Bruntnell

John Blek & The Rats

Danny & The Champions Of The World

Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles

Torpus & The Art Directors

David Ford

Nadine Khouri

Jack Marks

Tickets are available here. It’s only a hop and a skip away.

Festival pictures by Klaas Guchelaar

 

 

 

The Sweet Water Warblers. With You. EP.

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With a band name that could have featured in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Sweet Water Warblers are actually a concoction of three excellent Michigan singers; Lindsay Lou may be familiar to many here as the singer with Lindsay Lou and The Flatbellys (who wowed their crowds at Celtic Connections earlier this year). Completing the trio, Rachael Davis and May Erlewine may not be as well known over here but a swift Google search reveals critical and popular acclaim for both in the American folk and bluegrass communities. Here all three stand as equals and it may well be said that the sum is greater than the parts as this brief disc is astounding.

With Erlewine writing two songs and Lindsay Lou and Davis one each (the writer taking the lead vocals on each) and one traditional number (with Davis on lead vocals) the EP is a truly collaborative effort. Lindsay Lou plays bass, Erlewine guitar, keyboards and fiddle and Davis guitar and banjo and the music is an engaging mixture of folk, soul and blues but the standout element is the entwined harmony singing from all three on all of the songs here. Despite the variety on the EP (which reflects each writer’s individuality) the harmonies knit the disc together recalling the likes of Sweet Honey In The Rock and The Roches at times.

Lindsay Lou’s Sing Me A Song opens the EP. An acapella showcase for their voices it digs deep into the Gospel, spiritual and hymnal roots of American music with a slight sugaring of doo-wop at times. Erlewine’s Too Soon is a delicate salute to late night fun as the sun comes up while the band still plays. Her voice is a delight here, slightly reminiscent of Maria Muldaur, as are the harmonies. Her other contribution, With You, is a magnificent ballad dripping with graceful piano and guitar and it brims with a romantic yearning.

Davis’ contribution, Lazarus, is a rootsier affair with an Appalachian air as she sings of a mother swept away by a biblical flood and hoping her bones will return home. With aching fiddle from Erlewine it’s spine chilling.  The one traditional number here is actually a mash up (if one can use that term when writing of roots music) of Amazing Grace set to the Animals’ arrangement of House Of The Rising Sun and for the most part it works. Davis wails with a bluesy abandon and riffs away on electric guitar but again it’s the harmonies working their magic that lifts the song.

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Alison Krauss. Windy City.

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It kind of takes your breath away when the first thing you read in the PR blurb for an album is that the artist is the recipient of 27 Grammy Awards. Apparently that’s the case with Alison Krauss and it ties her with Quincy Jones as second most winner (Conductor George Solti is at the top with 31). Krauss of course has won most of these in the Bluegrass category, her work with her band Union Station considered to have been a major force in the recent resurgence of Bluegrass especially via her contributions to the soundtracks of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. Originally it was her fiddle playing that made people stand to attention but increasingly she has concentrated on singing with her album recorded with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, a major success.

Windy City is her first solo album in 17 years and it marks another signpost in her career. In tandem with her producer, the Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon, Krauss has selected ten songs that sing to her for various reasons, the majority of them recorded before she was born. The result places Krauss in pole position if we ever need a replacement for Dolly Parton, a singer with significant country chops but who is able to offer up radio friendly fodder without descending into mindless pop. A couple of the songs here are delivered in a mainstream ballad style (both of them  associated with Brenda Lee, Losing You and All Alone Am I) that are just a wee bit too stage musical for comfort and  Roger Miller’s River In The Rain  taxes her voice at times but elsewhere Krauss and Cannon deliver the goods.

The delightful honky tonk drive of It’s Goodbye And So Long To You with its curling pedal steel and rinky dink piano offer Krauss an opportunity to dive in with an unalloyed joy before she delves into the classic tear stained Windy City. Dream Of Me is a fine slice of Nashville pop with the band expertly delivering some twang guitar, sweet pedal steel and nifty piano as Krauss croons the lyrics. Apparently this was a song she chose not knowing that it was written by producer Cannon and once decided on Cannon and his daughter Melanie sing the background vocals. Whatever, it’s a perfect vehicle for Krauss as is Poison Love, another pedal steel fuelled swoon of a song with some added exotica in the Mexican stylings of the guitar solos. While the majority of these covers might be considered somewhat obscure Krauss breaks out two that will be familiar to most. John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind is given a fine run through with the arrangement more in tune with Hartford’s original as opposed to Glen Campbell’s version and Krauss manages it with flying colours. Willie Nelson’s I Never Cared For You is given an appropriately dramatic arrangement, the vocals soaring over this darkly romantic song. Closing the album Krauss revisits the ballad treatment we dismissed earlier on but on You Don’t Know Me (recorded by Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles), she dips into Patsy Cline territory as she swoons and croons and the band lay down a tearful country backdrop.

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Courtney Marie Andrews. Honest Life. Loose Music. Review and interview.

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The grainy portrait of Courtney Marie Andrews (almost like those pictures of lost kids on American milk cartons) which adorns Honest Life’s cover is close up, intrusive. The grain suggests a zoomed in crop of a larger picture, the surroundings unseen, allowing the listener to imagine the background, the baggage that inevitably clutters most photographs. What is undeniable is that Ms. Andrews’ stare is unflinching, defiant almost. Here she sets out her wares, crafted by her own hand and hewn from her own experiences and this fierce independence infuses the album as she sings of trials and tribulations and offers a sense of dignity to the downtrodden.

Still only in her mid twenties Andrews has packed a lot into her ten years in the music business. There’s a back catalogue which is somewhat confusing with several albums withdrawn apparently. Aside from her own ventures she has been an in demand musician and singer for various artists including Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World, a gig that ended up with her residing in Belgium playing for several artists there. The genesis of Honest Life occurred in Belgium as Andrews broke up a relationship and returned to the States taking up a job as a barmaid in a small tavern several miles out of Seattle. Here she served tables and heard the tales of the tavern’s denizens, several of which have made their way onto the album. She strips the tales and her own experiences down to the bone, the Honest Life(s) of the title, no aggrandisement here, the result recalling the naked emotions stirred on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Crafting the album Andrews courted several producers but felt that their ideas didn’t tally with her wish to deliver a raw and relatively unembellished record so she took the bull by the horns and produced it herself.

The result is an album of glacial purity with Andrews’ voice cool and clear over a subtle and perfectly executed band setting that has glistening guitars and warm pedal steel complemented by superb keyboard playing. The sound does hark back to Mitchell’s first forays into group arrangements and that “Ladies of the canyon” vibe so popular with the folk rock mafia of that time but such is the strength of the songs that Andrews surmounts any accusations of mere copyism. There’s a heart and soul to these songs which bleeds from the speakers with dignity. Irene is perhaps the best example as a powerful country rock pulse twitches with her forensic lyrics, “The heart is funny Irene, you can’t control who it wants to love, so let it love Irene, man or woman, or anyone it wants.
You dream of the north Irene, well then that’s where you oughta be. But you gotta want it Irene, don’t follow any path half-heartedly.”  

Paths and roads feature heavily on the album be it the routes (mainly dead end) leading to a local dive or the paths Andrews herself follows. The album opens and closes with ruminations on a journey. The opener Rookie Dreaming positing her as an ingénue with romantic notions of sixties movies in her mind as realises romance is not all sugar and spice. On the closing song Only In My Mind she’s somewhat wiser, able to recognise that the notion of a perfect love is mainly in the mind. In between there’s the winsome Not The End, a song that captures the transience of true love. Part of Andrew’s voyage is her time bar tending, her muse here the customers of the bar she worked in and she captures perfectly their dramas and woes on several of the songs. Table For One paints a picture of a lonesome traveller stopping off for liquid succour while How Quickly The Heart Mends is Andrews’ version of a honky tonk song with a sting in its tail as she sings,

“I can’t believe I got all made up, put on this dress that you love, only for you to go and pretend, like all those years meant nothin’. So go on and forget, act like we’ve never met, 
leave with your new friends, how quickly your heart mends. The jukebox is playin’ a sad country song, for all the ugly Americans. Now I feel like one of them dancin’ alone and broken by the freedom.”

The album is packed with such lyrical acuity and all the songs are gracefully delivered, the band excellent on all accounts. It’s early days but Honest Life is already a contender for one of the albums of the year.

Ms. Andrews will be touring in the UK (supporting The Handsome Family) at the end of February and she was available for a short chat with Blabber’n’Smoke at the tail end of last year. We started off by asking her about the writing process for Honest Life.

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I started writing songs when I was really young, a teenager but for this album I started writing when I was in Belgium. Then I was a bartender in a small town bar in Washington State and that’s where I finished writing the songs.

They’re pretty sad songs

I was going through a hard time, a breakup.

Some folk think that breakup albums are some of the best ones

Yeah, well songs are a great way to express emotions, sometimes I think when you feel pain it’s easier to express that in a song.

There are lots of images of roads, trains and such. Is the album like an emotional journey?

I’d say that it is. I was talking to an interviewer a few months ago and we kind of came to the conclusion that even the sequencing of the songs was like a travelogue. The beginning, the opening song Rookie Dream is getting on the train, the beginning of the journey.

I take it that Rookie Dreaming is one of the earlier songs you wrote as you’re singing about moving too fast to see the paintings in Paris and the sunrise in Barcelona so presumably it was written in Europe.

Yeah. It was written way before all the other songs, that was actually a different time when I was in Europe some way back

I was going to ask you about your lyrics in that song when you say you felt like you were a 1960’s movie. Did you have a particular movie in mind?

No, I didn’t have any one movie in mind there. It’s more of a “feeling ” lyric if you know what I mean but now that you ask I wish that I did have one in mind, that’s a cool question.

Again, talking about paths and roads in Only In My Mind you sing, “life is a road without any turns” and I wondered if this is in any way related to the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.

Well again, I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote that song but I love Robert Frost and it’s great that it has that effect on you when you listen to it.

Most of the album is just you and the band but there’s a string arrangement on Only In My Mind which is wonderful and sounds as if you had an orchestra in the studio with you.

That was my friend Andrew Joslyn. There’s a story behind that. He and a friend of mine were dating and they went on vacation and when they came back their house had burned down.  I’d asked him to write an arrangement and it was only a couple of days after the house burned down so he said that he wrote it in a kind of fervour, feeling all the pain and hurt he had and he managed it all in under an hour. There’s a lot of emotion in it and it really adds to the song.

You produced the album yourself.

Yes. I spoke to a few people but they weren’t really in line with what I wanted it to be, at least for this batch of songs. I wanted it to be raw and real.

People have compared the album to Joni Mitchell and I certainly thought that were elements of her and artists like Judee Sill and Carol King, an early seventies singer songwriter feel to it.

Well those women are definitely  huge influences on me and I respect and honour them but for me it wasn’t so much getting the sound of a certain time as getting a more timeless sound, one that you couldn’t pin down to a certain age. I think that when you have a more organic sound  and instruments on a record that people think of an older time and an older sound just because that’s what those records had on them.

The album’s being released here in January but I believe that it’s been out in the States since last summer. Has it done well over there?

It’s quite a big gap between the two release dates so it’s been a slow ride but yeah, it’s done well and it’s been a good time for me

For some of the songs you drew on your time spent bar tending.

Yes.  In these small time bars in America there’s all sorts of characters, people who don’t really seem to have many ambitions, not afraid to be themselves and especially when they’ve had a few drinks they’ll start to talk. They’ll tell you stories and I’m always willing to listen and be empathetic and try to connect with them. I think that everyone has a story in them but some are just more willing to tell you about it and those are the ones I wrote a song about.

In How Quickly Your Heart Mends you sing, “The jukebox plays a sad country song for all the ugly Americans.” It’s a very evocative lyric, a Hopper painting meeting a Tom Waits song.

Well when I played that song to some members of my family they were like, how can you say ugly Americans? But then it’s small town America and most city folk just don’t have the experience of being there. They don’t understand what that small town feel is. It’s people who have been stuck in a small town forever and that’s what I was trying to convey.

 

As we said Courtney Marie Andrews is touring the UK with Loose Music stable mates The Handsome Family. Dates are here