Northern Sky Archive 2021

Various Artists – Home is Where the Art Is (15 Years of Reveal Records) | Album Review | Reveal | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.01.21

A rather generous overview of Reveal Records, which features no less than 38 tracks (57 on the digital version), culled from the numerous albums released on the label since 2006 as well as a good few previously unreleased live tracks and radio edits.   Over those fifteen years, the label has grown in stature and has built up a strong and impressive roster of artists, which includes within its ranks Eddi Reader, Lau (both the group itself and each of its individual musicians as soloists), Boo Hewerdine, Blue Rose Code and notably, Joan Wasser, otherwise Joan As Policewoman, who kicks this collection off with a live take of “Valid Jagger”.  The Connecticut-raised musician was instrumental in getting the label off to its start back in 2006 in partnership with the independent record shop owner Tom Rose and on this collection, brings along some high profile pals to give the project even more creedence, as if it needed it, with duets with both Rufus Wainwright on “To America” and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) on “I Defy”.  In a way, Home is Where the Heart is can be seen as being reminiscent of all those iconic sampler albums of the early 1970s, where the majors would showcase their artists in the hope that listeners would go out and buy some, if not all, of the albums represented. Here, Reveal Records treat us to more than just the one representative song, indeed rather more a fair selection of each of the artists’ output over the years, including Lau’s “Himba” and “Ghosts”, Eddi Reader’s “Vagabond” and “Wild Mountainside” and Drever, McCusker, Woomble’s “The Poorest Company”.  If the label does at this point seem to towards the Scots alt-folk side of the fence, the label also champions other artists from around the world including the indie rock of Gramercy Arms and the songwriting of Benjamin Lazar Davis (both New York based), the electronic vibes of Berlin-based Grip Tight and the full blown orchestral work of the Derbyshire-born Richard J. Birkin.  With other notable inclusions of Martin Green with Adam Holmes and Becky Unthank, The Little Unsaid and  Nels Andrews, Home is Where the Heart is stands as a fine introduction to Reveal Records as well as a perfectly well structured overview of the label’s triumphs thus far.

Judy Fairbairns – Edge of the Wild | Album Review | Wild Biscuit | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.01.21

Having already brought to life the feel and atmosphere of the Inner Hebridean islands of Scotland in her stories as a published author, Judy Fairbairns now reflects on her place in the world, namely the Isle of Mull, in song.  Delicate in places, Judy has the knack of bringing the listener into her world, from the freedom of being an ‘island wife’, captured in the sleeve photography, to the simple domesticity of writing lists, baking cakes and making the occasional call. There’s a rich tapestry of influences built into the fabric of Judy’s songs, not so much in her musical influences, but certainly in the forces of nature that surround her, in the weather and the seasons, in the gentle landscapes around her and presumably what lies within her inner spirit. The songs are like melodic meditations that are simply constructed, such as the delicate “Who Are You” and the haunting “Girl on a Train”, yet are in places pleasantly unafraid of incorporating modern technology ala Portishead on “We Made the Rain” for instance. Tender and meditative, Edge of the World soothes.

Merry Hell – Emergency Lullabies | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.01.21

Several boxes are ticked here, in the crowd pleasing stakes that is, something we’ve come to expect from one of the UKs most vibrant live acts.  There’s really no disputing that Merry Hell are a great live band, their full-on stage presence does seem to give some of our younger bands a good run for their money, yet the last few months have effectively stopped the band in their tracks on the live front. Their sixth album to date, Emergency Lullabies, comes at a time when we most need cheering up, while at the same time it addresses some of our most concerning issues, something Merry Hell do so well.  The dithering rhetoric of Brexit is touched upon in “Three Little Lions”, which in a way could be seen as a companion piece to the similarly titled football anthem of yore, where instead of football coming home, we’re all coming home, as the jokes and sneers continue through the debate.  Merry Hell deliver quality records that always include songwriting of a highly conscientious  nature, whether it be on the subject of conservation “Sister Atlas”, with a Swedish schoolgirl heroine as a focus and the title song “Emergency Lullaby (Wasting Time)”, which is a reminder of the relatively little time we have left (if we’re not careful, which we are clearly not) to “Beyond the Call”, our debt to the NHS, a sure, dead cert winner with future live audiences, echoed again in “We Are Different, We Are One”, which would both have made for great doorstep choruses a few months ago. Both songs can also be found on a new EP released by the band along with a new song, “When We Meet Again” (not on this album), featuring The Social Isolation Choir, a 300 voice collective who contribute their voices via email.  Among all the thought provoking anthems, comes a throwback to our lamented Music Hall days, where humour is resurrected from its forced exile, with the joyful “Violet”, the kind of song Virginia Kettle ought to reserve for her fallback career, as the new Gracie Fields.

Catfish Keith – Blues at Midnight | Album Review | Fish Tail Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.01.21

A good catchy moniker has always served some of our blues men (and women) well, whether the name derives from a physical disability (Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Howell), a town or city from whence they came (Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell), a description of their actual physique (Arthur Big Boy Crudup, Slim Harpo),  or in one notable case, an entire Indian mausoleum (Taj Mahal). In the case of this particular blues man from Indiana, it appears to be a preferred delicacy.  Catfish Keith has been around the block a few times and has laboured his acoustic Country Blues around the world, releasing no fewer than nineteen album along the way. His trademark gruff vocal and assured finger picked guitar playing style are both prominent throughout Blues at Midnight, with little assistance from anyone else, other than a little violin on “Move to Louisiana” courtesy of Randy Sablen and a fine harmonica solo on “Oh, Mr Catfish”, delivered by Peter Mudcat Ruth. Eliciting the assistance of no fewer than thirteen different guitars on these recordings, ranging from a 1927 Gibson Nick Lucas Special to a more recent 2018 National Reso-Phonic Exploding Palm Baritone Tricone, which I’m in no doubt shines like, well the Mississippi Delta I suppose, the songs offer certain sonic differences.  Catfish Keith’s long career has been captured here in just thirteen songs, written throughout those forty years and still sounding relevant and punchy today. Blues at Midnight should serve established fans and new listeners alike, until such a time we are able to see him tour again.

Ross and Ryan Couper – An Den Dey Made Tae | Album Review | Couper Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.01.21

People talk of sibling harmonies quite a lot, that special familial connection which makes for such enduring musical partnerships from the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers to the Dransfields and the McGarrigles. This empathy and musical dove-tailing can also be found in instrumental music, where two players instinctively know what each other is striving for and this fine debut by Shetland’s Ross and Ryan Couper is proof of that. Named for a popular local saying, where stopping for a brew is a frequent occurrence, An Den Dey Made Tae is a fine example of high quality instrumental music and I dare say plenty of the old Island Botanicals was consumed during the making of this album. A good fine blend of traditional, contemporary and original reels, waltzes, hornpipes and other tunes make up this pot, with an unexpected Billy Joel cover, “And So It Goes”, via an arrangement courtesy of virtuoso guitar player Tommy Emanuel.  The brothers are from a family of musicians and their sister Mariann Allan takes to the piano stool for the final set of tunes, under the title “Da Foula Reel”. Uplifting for the most part, An Den Dey Made Tae will probably see you putting the kettle on at some point.

Rupert Wates – Lamentations | Album Review | Bite Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.01.21

The twelve new songs that make up Lamentations, the tenth album release from the British-born, now New York-based singer songwriter Rupert Wates, whose fragile voice and delicate finger-picked guitar have something of the Nick Drake about them, looks at the cycle of life, from birth to death, dedicating the opening song “The Carnival Waltz” to his own newborn son Gabriel.  Recorded in just one evening, much in keeping with a live recording, Lamentations has an intimate feel throughout, full of warmth and sensitivity, with just that little extra spark of something else, something difficult to describe but easy to understand once you hear it.  In places reminiscent of such performers as Antony Hegarty, Steve Tilston and Tom Baxter, the songs have a dream-like quality that makes repeated plays essential, certainly “California One”, “In Time of Breaking” and the title song “Lamentations”.  Though the cover shot and accompanying photos celebrate the beauty of motherhood, the Old Guitarist Picasso pastiche that fronts the accompanying booklet, expresses precisely what you hear in these songs. 

Various Artists – Sounds Like Knockengorroch | Album Review | Birnam | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.01.21

In lieu of last May’s popular Knockengorroch Festival, artists gathered for an interactive live stream in an attempt to capture something of the atmosphere of what is usually experienced up there in the Carsphairn hills in south west Scotland.  The organisers of the long running event, determined that the show must go on, have now released a double CD compilation featuring some of the music that would no doubt have been heard over the weekend.  The two discs also feature tracks that were especially recorded after the virtual event as well as some pre-release items from artists who are included in this year’s line-up scheduled for May.  The one thing we immediately sense when listening to these tracks is the musical diversity, from the ever vibrant Afro Celt Sound System, whose “Lockdown Gorroch Reel” is obviously written in honour of the festival. Contemporary electronica underpins the “Good Karma” of Samson Sounds & Dandelion, while songs from the tradition are represented by Kaela Rowan’s gorgeous reading of “As I Roved Out”.  The Poozies turn to their wonky Caledonian Reggae roots for their perfectly off-beat “Fresh Blood”, the promo video of which could easily be a sketch from The League of Gentlemen, while Twelfth Day’s Catriona Price and Esther Swift take to the dance floor with their colourful “Keep Me”.  Eilidh Ross and Ross Martin go all Country with their lilting “Stoned Again”, the whole thing ending with what else but bagpipes, with Awry’s psychegaelic “An t-Orceastrian”, something we can all imagine going down a treat at this little festival.  Hopefully it won’’t be long before the festival is up and running again.

Dave Thomas – One More Mile | Album Review | Blonde on Blonde Direct | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.01.21

By the time we reach track five “I Want the Blues”, there’s a strong sense that we’ve begun to accept that this new album by Dave Thomas is pretty much entrenched in the urban blues of Chicago, albeit from the docklands of Newport in South Wales.  The soul-drenched opener “It’s My Own Fault”, complete with full brass section, tear-stained organ and Lucille-styled guitar runs, probably misleads us as to what to expect later in the album.  Yes, those first five songs are as blues as you might wish to get, yet further listening invites a completely different stylistic approach in the acoustic “You Danced in My Kitchen”, as different as, let’s say, Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is to “All Your Love”, the iconic Otis Rush tune that opens that classic Bluesbreakers album circa ‘66.  “There’s a Train” continues in the same vein, songs that showcase Dave’s sensitive side.  Two thirds of the way in, it feels like we’ve discovered Dave Thomas’s true calling, that of a rock God, completing the album with three riff-laden rockers from an entirely different era, sounding for all intents and purposes like John Cale backed by Paul Kossoff and Duane Allman.  Plenty for everyone then.

Mossy Christian – Come Nobles and Heroes | Album Review | One Row Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.01.21

When the first few notes of the opening tunes “Market Rasen Feast” and “Louth Quickstep” rang out of the speakers, I thought I’d inadvertently put on something from the folk revival era, if not the original source singers and musicians from the turn of the century, and that’s not the last one either.  Mossy Christian foregoes the modern era, of samples, awkward time signatures, bits of electronica, tuned percussion and other assorted devices that apparently make folk music hip these days and chooses instead to go straight for the less hip tenets of traditional folk music and song.  Accompanying himself on fiddle, Anglo concertina and one row melodeon, Mossy makes an authentic noise, which you can imagine accompanying vintage flickering sepia footage of men in plus fours skipping around ladies in long frocks in a random Surrey garden.  For his debut album, the Lincolnshire-born singer and musician focuses on the music from his own neck of the woods, leaning towards the singers and musicians who have influenced him, Harry Cox for instance with “The Thresher’s Maid”, or Bob Roberts in “Homeward Bound” or indeed Jack Holden with “The Young Sailor”.  I didn’t initially think I was going to take to this album but surprised myself by listening to it all the way through and thoroughly enjoying it in the process.  In fact, I think I’ll give it another go right now.    

Western Centuries – Call the Captain | Album Review | Free Dirt Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.01.21

Cahalen Morrison possesses a voice that would raise the eyebrows of Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield were they still alive to enjoy Call the Captain.  On “Barcelona Lighthouse” and “Before That Final Bell” – two of the highlights from the latest album by Seattle-based country outfit Western Centuries – Morrison leads the band into sultry, soulful waters, but he’s not the only captain here.  Fellow vocalists Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller are also on hand to navigate the album towards some impressive territory indeed.  The rhythm is slick and the lap steel lithe on “Lifeblood Sold”, and with “Sarah and Charlie” it’s difficult to resist the urge to get right up and dance to the song’s infectious shuffle.  And then there’s the superb “Heart Broke Syndrome” which will not only please fans of The Band, with its respectful nod to Levon and the boys, but will have them rushing out to collect all three of Western Centuries’ outstanding LPs.

Wood and Wire – No Matter Where It Goes From Here | Album Review | Blue Corn Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.01.21

One of the great things about modern country outfits is that you get to pick out the many influences that have gone into the making of their music.  Listening to No Matter Where It Goes From Here, the latest album by Texas-based foursome Wood & Wire, is like sipping a well-aged bluegrass wine, with its notes of Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan, its aromas of Ricky Skaggs and Bela Fleck and its hints of Tim O’Brien and Tony Rice.  But what makes a truly great country band – which is what Wood & Wire absolutely are – is their ability to take those ingredients and give us something new.  Indeed, to see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savour this, the band’s fifth album since their 2013 debut, is to generously indulge one’s palette.  But enough of the metaphors.  Let’s just get blind drunk on this outstanding collection of songs which moves from the cheerful trickle of “John” and “Can’t Keep Up”, with their hot banjo and creamy harmonies, to more adventurous and bewitching takes such as “My Hometown” and the haunting “Roadies Circle” which shows off its influences by including an appearance from the great Peter Rowan himself. The best is saved until last, however, as the nine-minute instrumental “Clamp’s Chute” shows off the band’s outstanding musicianship.  Tony Kamel’s acoustic guitar shimmers, Dominic Fisher’s double bass purrs like an engine, Trevor Smith’s banjo is wild and exploratory whilst Billy Bright’s mandolin manages to go where no such little instruments have gone before.  There’s no doubting that No Matter Where It Goes From Here is good to the last drop.

TRADarrr – Strange News | Album Review | Hedge of Sound | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.01.21

At a time when it becomes increasingly difficult to categorise the various directions folk music has taken over the past few years, which is certainly no bad thing, it still comes as a pleasant surprise to hear an album that delivers on its promise and presents precisely what it says on the tin.  Indeed, each selection on this third album by TRADarrr has ‘Trad.arr’ to its credit, that is, a traditional folk song reworked and arranged around a rock band’s instrumental arsenal and then delivered with almost tangible excitement and with an additional thrust of urgency.  “The Rose of Allendale” was sung so many times in the folk clubs of the 70s and 80s, that I inadvertently cultivated an aversion to it, that is until Marion Fleetwood came along with this fresh approach.  Instead of abandoning the album at this point, I instinctively knew to continue listening and stay with it right through to the end.  There’s plenty to go at, with equally fine performances by Gemma Shirley, notably her tasty arrangement of “The Blacksmith”, which utilises her classically trained voice and complements Marion’s throughout the album.  PJ Wright offers some fine lead guitar playing, an essential ingredient in what we’ve come to know as Folk Rock, which is right up there with, and to the standard of, a Richard Thompson or a Jerry Donoghue.  No Folk Rock outfit can survive without a good rhythm section and with Mark Stevens, who also produces, on bass and Brendan O’Neill on drums, the band can consider itself grounded, especially on “Shore to Shore”, a song that could easily be mistaken for a recently written contemporary pop song, until further inspection that is. Gregg Cave, Guy Fletcher and Mike Stevens should also be mentioned for their invaluable contribution, which I’ve somehow foolishly missed from the above, but better late than never.

Boo Sutcliffe – Blink | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.01.21

Fuelled by a renewed and reinvigorated interest in songwriting, the Huddersfield-based singer songwriter describes himself as a ‘recovering drummer’ and now takes centre stage to deliver his own self-penned songs, drawing from innumerable influences.  Brought up on a diet of pop records from the collections of his two brothers, together with older standards from his mum’s LPs, Boo mixes all this up into a new and personal whole, the result sounding not unlike a hybrid of Neil Diamond and Willie Nelson with the Goo Goo Dolls behind them.  Unafraid to share the spotlight, Boo invites singer Ruth Bostock to join him for “Running Man”, while also bringing in further assistance from bassists Corey Clough-Howard, Paul Heckingbottom and Paul Melleney, with guitarist Roger Kinder and harmonica player Jason Kerry helping to make “Promises” such an infectious pop tune.  If the opener “Meet Me In…” employs the lush string arrangements of Andy Wright, then the closing title track brings it all around full circle, this time with a steadily building chorus of voices, effectively book ending a bunch of songs that offer but a glimpse at this promising talent.

Peach and Quiet – Just Beyond the Shine |  Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.01.21

Staples of the Vancouver Island music scene, Jonny Miller and Heather Read, otherwise Peach and Quiet, create a certain warmth with their songs, each one treated to inviting arrangements and gentle harmonies.  The duo’s debut album was created in trying times, yet their hopes for a brighter future shines through in these songs, embedded in their desire for social change and a better world. “Will You” asks all the right questions at the right time, while “There’s a Very Good Chance” anticipates lasting love, in a most tender manner.  The songs range in style from the straight country style of “California Way” to the Byrds-like opener “Empty to Fill”, with the occasional venture in to the bluesy back waters of “Shoreline After a Storm”.  Having both been raised on a healthy musical diet, Jonny’s father being a Reggae DJ in the US and his mother a radio engineer, who often invited musicians home, while Heather honed her craft singing in her dad’s band in the legion halls of Ontario, their shared parental influence certainly seems to have paid off handsomely in these nine memorable songs.  Kudos also to the sleeve designer Wrycraft, for the clever use of the mouth watering fruit in question. 

Stan the Band – Love | Album Review | Big Bright Beautiful Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.01.21

First appearing on the thriving North East music scene around twenty years ago, Stan the Band, (formerly The Stanhope Street Creatures, for about five minutes), has maintained a knack of writing instantly memorable rockers, infused with a soulful and bluesy edge, not unlike some of the stalwarts of the bustling pub rock scene of the early 1970s, just prior to the arrival of Punk.  Formed by drummer Dave Pipkin, the four piece band is led by the hard hitting vocals of Colin Burrows, with guitarist Dave Kennedy and bass player Rob Tickell making up the team.  Opening with the slow burning “Stay”, the band soon finds its groove and makes good use of its traditional basic rock band format, where each of the players provide just the right ingredients, with just a little additional keyboards courtesy of Dom Pipkin. The inner sleeve shows a photograph of the band in action on a big outdoor stage, where I’m sure the band works its magic best, though I suspect a small intimate space is equally fulfilling.  Sandwiched between a song about little soldiers and one about the Devil, the band want to talk about love, with four songs in a row on the subject.  “Looking for Love”, “Right Kind of Love” and the title song, simply entitled “Love”, investigates our strongest emotions without any obvious sentimentality, while “Right by Your Side” and “Got a Life” looks at the role of the radio in our carnal adventures, with songs that pour out of the speakers like fire on the airwaves.  I like Stan the Band; it’s good, clean, unpretentious rock and roll, and it should be heard. 

The 19th Street Band – Diamond in the Rough | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.01.21

The 19th Street Band are an Irish band who have nailed their own blend of authentic sounding hi-energy Country Western Swing.  The four piece, playing a host of instruments between them, recorded in Silver Spring Maryland and Clonmel Tipperary Ireland manage to sound like a Celtic Acoustic Orchestra.  “I Just Had To Say” opens with a frantic protest folk rock strum, before Meghan Davis’ sweet mandolin pulls it into infectious Western Swing with tight harmonies, but that tension and energy remains.  Razor sharp harmonies and playing with edge and attack until Davis’ spacey violin takes it somewhere else in this upbeat love song.  Caolaidhe Davis’ twanging guitar and a sublime brass arrangement make the opening of “Nothing To Do (All Day To Do It)” a delight.  Again The 19th Street Band are masters of a bouncing dance middle section and heavenly slower passages all carried by soulful and tight vocal performances.  This is millimetre tight, soulful, smile on the face music.  “Firefly” has a whiff of Klezmer and strutting vaudeville music hall.  The lyrics and delivery have a little bite this time, but the harmonies sweeten it as does the sublime guitar and instrumental ending.  “Hillbilly Boy” is a raw, earworm of a song, so infectious and natural, you are convinced it’s a cover or a standard, not a Davis composition.  Tongue in cheek, moonshine infused chorus and a beat that gets in your marrow with another feel good songs. “Away From Our Happy Home” is a train song, the percussive guitars, drums and brushes patter out the rhythm of the rails and the voices and violin are the distant prairie train whistle on this melancholic love song.  “True Love” is carried by Caolaidhe’s huge guitar, the sweetest harmonies outside The Eagles and a chorus refrain that nods to The Chemical Brothers “Hey Girl Hey Boy”.  I guess dance music is dance music as love is examined and unpicked. “The Cajun Rock and Roll Stanza” is a John Prince Philip Donnelly composition.  Carried by the rhythm section of Greg Hardin and Patty Dougherty the band’s Celtic Cajun Country sound gains a little classic American songbook, a touch of The Band or Little Feat’s dirty gumbo.  “Your Love Is Like The Lone Ranger” is another Prine Donnelly composition with a left field lyric and Meghan summoning the Bluegrass spirit of Dolly in a fine vocal performance.  This is the weird alt country of The Handsome Family with a a crowd pleasing bounce, Celtic Swing not Western Swing is very much a thing.

Mairi McGillivray – In My Mind | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.01.21

Sadly, young musicians around the world who are making their first forays into recording are continually having to face obstacles in their path during the current crisis, which affects such things as live appearances, studio restrictions and crucially, album and EP launches.  One can only sympathise and offer a socially distanced congratulatory heads up while popping a few bob their way in exchange for a sample of their hard labour.  This debut EP by Scots Gaelic singer Mairi McGillivray is a case in point.  Hailing from the island of Islay, just off the west coast of Scotland, this fine singer releases four rather splendid songs, a couple delivered in Gaelic “Tha Fadachd Orm Fhìn” and “Tàladh na Beinne Guirmeand”, and the other two in English, “Kelvin’s Purling Stream” and “Sea of Men”, each of which give us a glimpse into Mairi’s potential as a new major talent on the traditional music scene.  Graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland last year with a First Class Honours in Traditional Music, Mairi’s hopes and anticipations for the launch of her career in music haven’t been completely derailed, just slowed down slightly and this EP will hopefully bridge the gap between her graduation and her rightful place in front of audiences in concert halls and on festival stages up and down the country, which I’m certain her music is destined for.  This is not the kind of EP you play just the once and repeated plays has its own rewards.  Helping Mairi out are Seán Gray on guitar, Isla Callister on fiddle, Graham Rorie on mandolin, Charlie Stewart ion double bass and Paul McKenna contributing backing vocals, all of which makes it a very special debut.

Lucero – When You Found Me | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.01.21

Formed in the late 1990s, Lucero has held tight to a solid rock base over the years and has released ten studio albums, gone through one or two personnel changes and has maintained no small measure of Punk attitude along the way.  For their latest album When You Found Me, the Memphis-based band has borrowed from the sounds Ben Nichols heard during his formative years, not so much a retro record or indeed a pastiche of what has gone before, rather a simple nod towards it.  Also consisting of Rick Steff, Brian Venable, John C. Stubblefield and Roy Berry, Lucero is made up of musicians who appear to know what they’re doing, drawing from their country roots, yet offering a punchy rock backdrop to some of the songs, including the opener “Have You Lost Your Way”, which sounds not unlike Steve Earle singing over a Black Sabbath backing track.  Rick Steff’s pursuit of collecting vintage synthesizers is put to good use in some of the tracks, which adds to the overall sound, while avoiding the urge to create over-cluttered or overpowering arrangements.  Now a father himself, Nichols continues to address family issues, such as in the case of “Coffin Nails”, which addresses four generations of his own family, going back to the Great War.  Released in a time of extraordinary unrest, the album also includes “A City on Fire”, an obvious inclusion that appears to be filled with the pessimism we’re all currently feeling, rescued temporarily by the closing title song that offers a glimmer of optimism.  Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis with producer Matt Ross-Spang once again at the helm, When You Found Me was made under all the usual lockdown rules, the band maintaining distance and wearing masks during the sessions.

Special Consensus – Chicago Barn Dance | Album Review | Compass Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.21

Whilst 2020 was busy being a pain in the ass, the superlative bluegrass band Special Consensus marked their 45th anniversary with Chicago Barn Dance, a celebratory album that provides some much-needed joy in these dark times.  Produced by the wonderful Alison Brown, the album shows us precisely why this bluegrass band has endured all these years.  Greg Cahill’s uniquely sprightly banjo, Rick Faris’s agile guitar, Nate Burie’s trickling mandolin and Dan Eubanks’s noble bass are all here and firing on all cylinders, but there’s also some welcome contributions from fiddle virtuosos Mike Barnett, Becky Buller, Michael Cleveland and Patrick McAvinue as well as former Consensus guitarist and vocalist Robbie Faulks and the magnificent Rob Ickes on dobro.  As well as a few originals, such as Robbie Faulks’s “East Chicago Blues” which was written for the album, there’s a handful of superb covers here including Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” and a foggy mountain take on “Sweet Home Chicago”.  But it’s the band’s rendition of John Fogerty’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” which will have me returning to this lively and engaging album for years to come.

Robert Hale with the 8th Wonder Band – Blue Haze | EP Review | Pinecastle Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.21

The Beatles have provided many a bluegrass outfit with the potential for countless good covers, probably because a large percentage of their two hundred and twenty songs lean in a country direction. Robert Hale’s rendition of “Help!” is one of the finest, not just because the song is another one of those astonishingly versatile Lennon-McCartney wonders, but also because Hale and the 8th Wonder Band are deft interpreters.  Blue Haze presents seven versions of well-known songs, beginning with the classic Fab Four track, each with a zesty twist of bluegrass.  The Rolling Stones and Bobby Womack are represented via a chugging version of “It’s All Over Now”, there’s a harmony-smothered reading of “House of the Rising Sun”, which also benefits from the nimble banjo of the 8th Wonder Band’s Scott Vestal, and probably the sweetest rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles” you’re ever likely to hear.  And whilst the musicianship is top-notch and the content consistently appealing, the EP’s not-so-secret ingredient is Robert Hale’s voice, which has always been one of the main reasons to love Wildfire, the bluegrass band that Hale has fronted for the past twenty years.

The Wilder Blue – Hill Country | Album Review | Hill Country | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.21

After the first spin of The Wilder Blue’s Hill Country, I refused to believe that this was the band’s debut album.  Indeed, I found myself staring at the CD player with the expression of a man who was being played for a fool.  Surely, I’d heard this record before.  The truth is that these twelve delicious slices of Americana are brand new and this Texas-based quintet is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, the reason why these songs sound so familiar is that Zane Williams, the band’s front man and songwriter, has clearly spent the last four decades steeped in country music and southern rock.  Just listen to the album’s opener “River Roll”, with its nods to Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Taylor, The Allman Brothers and Stephen Stills.  This is music with a big old family tree and the roots are clearly showing.  “Palomino Gold” shimmers like a Wim Wenders film, “Evergreen” introduces a welcome bit of bluegrass to the sprawling record whilst “Adios” takes us to the Mexican border for a painterly song which owes much to the likes of Tom Russell, Guy Clark and Peter Rowan.  There’s also an achingly beautiful country waltz entitled “The Last Dance” which would have been a lovely inclusion at my wedding all those years ago.  Maybe I should get married again.