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Live Reviews

Michael Chapman
Upstairs At The Adelphi, Preston
Spring 1999
As we approach the end of the millennium, when live popular music is carefully packaged, market-researched, slickly advertised and ever more remote from the man in the street, it is good to see that a handful of artists uphold the venerable tradition of the travelling troubadour. Michael Chapman is probably the best personification of this dying breed. He always travels light; often arriving at a venue with just a coat, cased guitar and his hat, and within minutes of arriving is able to play a varied two hour set choosing songs which appeal to the moment, without resorting to a set-list. Although not as popular as in the late sixties and early seventies, he's still to be found playing somewhere, sometime, most weeks of the year. Tonight he's staying locally with friends, and seems relaxed as he regales the audience with tales from his latest jaunt to the United States.

Michael Chapman is an exceptionally talented acoustic guitarist, whose percussive style of playing is so very distinctive. All night he pulls and snaps at the strings on his guitar, conjuring out the resonances which hide in the guitar body, then contrasting this with delicately arpeggiated harmonics. Vocally, he is probably gruffer than in his commercial heyday, but his voice has always had that gritty Yorkshire edge to it. He tells a good tale too, both in song and in his introductions. "Fahey's Flag", for example, is introduced by a hilarious anecdote concerning John Fahey and a bear. The set ranges over all stages of his career with old favourites such as "Kodak Ghosts" and "Soulful Lady", as well as more recent favourites such as "The Mallard" and the amusingly spelt "Bon Tom Roulay" (sic).

He finishes off with a long, modal, instrumental exploration of "She Moves Through The Fair". His hat is his totem, and when he ceremoniously removes it at the end of the song and places it on the microphone, Michael Chapman, the performer reverts to being plain Michael Chapman again. Tomorrow there's probably another gig, in another part of the country, but tomorrow is another day, and in the mean time there are friends and acquaintances to be met up with again, and stories and news to be exchanged.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 1)

Gina Villalobos
The Roadhouse, Manchester
March 2005
Whilst Gina Villalobos’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Pony album is by no means over-produced, having caught her short acoustic set on Bob Harris’ Radio 2 show a week or so before this gig, I found that I much preferred the stripped down versions of her songs. Shorn of bass, drums and electric guitar, the songs had more space to breathe and her raw, cracked vocals were much more to the fore. And so I was more than happy to find that her gig at a packed Roadhouse was acoustic, the only backing coming from guitarist/harmony vocalist Ben Pringle.

Too often, support acts are treated rather disrespectfully, with most people taking the opportunity to chat-none too quietly-and prop up the bar waiting for the headliner (in this case Laura Veirs) to appear. Thankfully, that was not the case here, doubtless due in no small measure to the patronage of Bob Harris and some gushing album reviews. It was also noticeable, and heartening, that the audience contained a higher proportion of ‘younger’ people (as far as this reviewer is concerned, say 25-35) than you would normally find at an Americana/ gig.

From the slow, tortured opener, ‘Faded’, the audience, many of whom were clearly familiar with Gina’s material, was attentive and enthusiastic in its applause. Highlights of an all too brief 7 song set were the wonderful ‘Not Enough’ and the atmospheric, slightly menacing ‘California’, which admirably showcased her impressive vocal range. Ben Pringle, who looks not unlike a younger Brett Sparks, provided some perfectly weighted guitar and harmonies.

The appreciative audience would happily have settled for more. Unfortunately, on this occasion, time was tight but with her star rapidly rising, the next time Ms V hits town it will surely be as a headliner.

Bill Beaver

Cowboy Junkies
Lowry Centre, Salford
Spring 2002?
With a Cowboy Junkies concert you're going to get texture and atmospherics rather than snappy tunes with singalong choruses, so audiences have to be coaxed along through the band's mood rather than being bludgeoned into submission with flash and volume. The band haven't toured the UK in half a decade, during which the future existence of the band has been threatened several times, but they have the benefit of a loyal fanbase and so still managed to attract a reasonable crowd to the main theatre at the modern Lowry Centre development. Although a little formal, it gave the band an appropriate setting in which to display their subtle approach.

While respecting the contributions of the other long serving members of the band, the head and heart of the Cowboy Junkies belong to the brother and sister combination of Michael and Margot Timmins. Michael Timmins spends all the concert sitting, with head bowed over his guitar at 90 degrees to the audience, but concentrated on his sister who is placed at the focal point of the semi-circle of musicians. Margot Timmins, for most of the show, remains static at the front, often grasping the mike stand with both arms extended in front of her and her head bowed, covering her face in classic Jim Morrison style.

During the longer instrumental passages the modal element implicit within much of their music breaches the surface in a series of lead guitar lines which reference Television's Tom Verlaine as much as Lightnin' Hopkins. It shouldn't be forgotten that Michael Timmins first tried to make it in the post-punk era before he discovered primordial blues, folk and country. In fact it doesn't take much imagination to retreat a further decade back into pop history to hear echoes of the laid-back 'ragas' so beloved of West Coast rock bands; a notion strengthened by Margot Timmins' distinctly Lizard King mike technique. Using minimalist, limited chord patterns and vocal melodies that slide unpredictably over the changes, the band slowly, but surely drew the audience into the aural Cowboy Junky universe. As Margot rightly acknowledged from the stage the material from the album Caution Horses was particularly suited to the theatrical setting of the Lowry, but the first moment to really ignite was when they played "1000 Year Prayer" from their latest studio album - Open.

The set proper finished with "Murder In the Parking Lot", although the band encored with Trinity Sessions' "Misguided Angel" and finished with Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road". It was interesting to note that neither of the 'big' covers from messrs Reed and Young ("Sweet Jane" and "Powderfinger") were played, but at the end of the night they had managed to involve the crowd sufficiently to get some of the people in the stalls onto their feet and dancing along.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 4)

Rodney Crowell
Hop and Grape, Manchester
Autumn 2001
Rodney Crowell came on stage wearing a hooped sweater that would have looked more in keeping on the Boston Strangler than the Houston Kid. A very non-country image, and in a way, a harbinger for what was to come.

Only 13 years ago Crowell had a Grammy Award winning album (Diamonds and Dirt) which spawned 5 consecutive number one singles. Now seemingly shunned by the majors, he has released his first solo album for 6 years, the self-financed and critically-acclaimed The Houston Kid on indie label Sugar Hill, and here he was, promoting the album on a fairly low-key UK tour, accompanied only by guitarist Will Kimbrough.

Tonight's set contained several songs from the new album. Crowell of course IS The Houston Kid, but the album is not solely autobiographical, but as much a biography of the poor, tough, often violent neighbourhood where he grew up. Stand-out songs from the album were the beautiful parental requiem "I Know Love Is All I Need" and "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Wandering Boy", the latter two about the twin sons of friends of Crowell's parents, one of whom flees Houston to become a bisexual street hustler in California before returning home to battle AIDS and the resultant redneck prejudice. The set opened with "Topsy Turvy", a lively number belying its dark reminiscences of the domestic violence Crowell witnessed at home.

New songs were interspersed with old favourites like "Till I Gain Control Again" and "Stars on The Water" and more recent material such as "Learning How To Fly". Ironically, the first song to really light up the audience was not one of Crowell's own classics, but fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty", which had a good proportion of the largely middle-aged crowd singing along knowingly. Special mention must go to the most excellent Will Kimbrough; a talented songwriter in his own right who acted as the perfect sideman, supplying faultless guitar, mandolin, and 'Everly' harmonies.

Though known as a Country writer and artist, many of Crowell's songs (and particularly the more recent ones), do not strictly fit the Country template (whatever that is). Indeed, his music has the power, humour and above all, honesty so often lacking from much of what passes as Country music today. True, this is 'all-American music', but with influences beyond Country-Dylan, Berry, Perkins, Petty and of course, former father-in-law Johnny Cash are all in there somewhere.

Rodney Crowell is undoubtedly a sharply perceptive and imaginative writer, whose songs, though largely personal, are full of well-drawn characters, and though his commercial pulling power might have declined in recent years at least he's no slave to corporatism, and he certainly hasn't forgotten his roots.

Bill Beaver (Originally published in Triste 4)

The Handsome Family & The Willard Grant Conspiracy
Upstairs at the Adelphi, Preston
Autumn 1998
There's two main ways of facing life's many adversities: one is to meet the situation head on, accept that the workings of the Universe aren't designed to accommodate any comforting ideas of human fairness, and to get on with your life as best as you can. The other way is to curl up in a ball and moan about the injustice of life, and so allow yourself to be swamped in a wave of fatalistic denial. In simplistic terms, the music and attitude of The Handsome Family echo the former philosophy, while The Willard Grant Conspiracy wallow in the self-pity of the latter.

The Handsome Family support slot was bedevilled with technical problems, and with only two members on stage you need to rely on your gear working, but the problems were hardly noticed as the husband and wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks lived up to their surnames, and used self-deprecatory comments or black gallows humour to win the crowd onto their side. The set could be simplistically summed up in the story of two songs: "Weightless Again" sung in Brett's deep baritone swoon was superb; a cover of the Child Ballad "House Carpenter" (perfect "Handsome" material) was rather screechy and ground to a halt after two verses. Rock and Roll, but firmly located in the school of Grandma Moses primitivists rather than following The Clash. (Ed: Whatever that means!?).

The Willard Grant Conspiracy topped the bill, but when they seated themselves in a semi-circle I feared they were going to be as lethargic as their name suggested. Lead vocalist Robert Fisher has the look of a more mournful and overweight Jack Douglas, and when he groaned in the middle of the lugubrious "Archy's Lullaby" about saying, 'Goodnight, to no-one next to [him],' I felt like telling him to get a new haircut, change his diet, join a gym, cheer up a bit and he might find himself appealing a little bit more to the opposite sex.

Some of the WGC songs, it must be said, have a certain stately grandeur to the, and "Evening Mass" and "Work Song" both stood out, although their request for us to sing along community style with the latter song was resolutely ignored by the large Preston crowd. It was only when electric violinist David Curry started upping the wattage and tempo in their final number "The Visitor" that WGC started to make sense. A repetitive droning number, sounding like Cale-era Velvet Underground, the intensity built up and with it the level of engagement with the audience, but it was a long time coming.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 1)

Doug Hoekstra
The Witchwood, Ashton-under-Lyne
Autumn 2001
Only a dozen curious souls ventured out on a sharp autumn evening to see Chicago-born songwriter Doug Hoekstra touring the UK in support of his latest album. Clustered around the stage, sitting at candle-lit tables, with an empty space the size of a tennis court between themselves and the bar, it would have been easy for the audience to have fallen into the uncomfortable gap between close personal communication with the artist and the anonymous freedom of being another face in a crowd. But that would have been to underestimate the performing skills of Mr Hoekstra. On first glance he doesn't look your typical seasoned road warrior, but over the next couple of hours he charmed the audience with a series of tall tales, finely-crafted songs and a quirky line of banter with his backing vocalist and fellow songwriter Kat Parsons.

The set opened with a powerful rendition of "Sam Cooke Sang The Gospel" which was greeted with enthusiastic applause. "You're intimate, but loud" quipped Hoekstra and then continued with a varied selection of songs ranging from the up-tempo harshness of "Atticus", through the heavy-handed pillorying of the archetypal "Laminate Man", to the poignant observations and recalled memories of "Giving Up Smoking". Hoekstra's voice is not the strongest - sounding like the unacknowledged offspring of Lou Reed (circa Coney Island Baby) and mid-era Jonathan Richman - but is the perfect vehicle for his wry, melancholic reflections on the smaller, universal things in life, while on the bluesier numbers Parsons' voice provided the soul and grit needed.

At the end of his set the audience went away thoroughly delighted with what they had seen and heard. But only a dozen, curious and fortunate souls...

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 1)

Bert Jansch
The Marsden Theatre, Leyland
Autumn 1998
The Marsden Theatre is an attractively modified, stone stable block in the middle of a country park on the edge of Leyland. With its cluster of tables, modernised cafe bar and intimate atmosphere it should have been perfect for Jansch you might think, except for one thing: the audience. Walking into the room was like entering church, with an army of buttock-clenchingly uptight provincial beards out to see a living legend. On my way to the gents, I brushed past Bert watching the support act and it was obvious that he was already dreading his turn. When he came on, the reverent silence was quite unsettling and I felt paranoid even sitting at my table. Indeed, whenever I dared to get up to buy a drink, people were scowling at me for disturbing the atmosphere.

Jansch launched into his set, mixing material off his last two albums with the occasional old favourite. Despite the appreciative applause that greeted each song, he was so nervous he almost fell off his designer stool at one point and had to have it swapped for one in a more traditional style. He tried breaking the ice with a few cracks asking, "Couldn't somebody rustle a packet of crisps or something?" I think I must have been the only person who laughed out loud, and he looked up obviously relieved that someone had come without their penitential cloak. As a result, the first half was something of a technical exercise, but after the intermission he seemed to be determined to overcome the vibes and he delivered moments of real magic, despite the chilly ambience. Jackson C Frank's "Masquerade" was given a beautifully understated reading, as was Jansch's version of "Lilly Of The West".

Towards the end of the set though, he gave up the ghost and finished with a throwaway "Anji". It seemed to me that he couldn't get out of the venue fast enough, and who could blame him? A weird evening all round, but worth seeing, as even Bert Jansch sparking intermittently is worth travelling to see.

Iain Smith (Originally published in Triste 1)

Beth Orton
The Academy, Manchester
Autumn 1999
The last time Beth Orton played Manchester she played at The Hop And Grape, a venue a fraction of the size of The Academy, which was full to capacity. Then she had played to a few dozen aficionados of Ms Orton's folky brand of trip-hop, now she had crossed over to being the come down queen of every middle of the road student. As this was the first night of the tour she expressed genuine surprise at how many people had turned up. The question was, would her more introspective and fragile material stand up on a stage this size.

For the first two or three numbers the answer was probably "no", as the band and singer settled their nerves and shook off their stage-rustiness. Her recent album Central Reservation was heavily plugged all through the night and it was that album's up tempo 'Getaway Car' which eventually relaxed the band - although the lead guitarist was content to ape Ben Harper's licks from the record, without adding anything personal to them. A small string section accompanied the core band of guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, but were often lost in the mix in the large hangar that makes up the Academy. Her voice, which is often criticised, held up well, with only a couple of instances where she struggled with the pitch.

The crowd, needless to say, loved her, even the giggly comments and half-hearted jokes she told between songs. Towards the end of the evening everything came together, when she really hit her stride with 'Galaxy Of Emptiness', 'She Cries Your Name', 'Dolphins' and 'Blood Red River'. Somehow she managed to make the venue seem intimate and left the audience in a collective swoon

Iain Smith (Originally published in Triste 1)

Kate Rusby
The Arts Centre, Darlington
Autumn 1999
Kate Rusby is a diminutive but commanding presence on stage, wrapping an appreciative audience around her little finger with consummate ease. Her act features as much chat as music and although the folk ingenue posture can become a little wearing, it's good to see a folk artist actually making the effort to put on a performance.

Most of her set was taken from Sleepless ('The Cobbler's Daughter', 'The Unquiet Grave' and 'The Sleepless Sailor' all getting particularly beautiful treatments tonight), switching between acoustic guitar and electric piano for the accompaniments. She also returned to her first album for a haunting version of the 'The Drowned Lovers' based upon the Nic Jones arrangement from Penguin Eggs. Nic Jones, incidentally, seems to be a key influence on her guitar style, which shares the same supple but understated rhythmic quality (no flashy Jansch or Renbourn frills here), with the arrangements there strictly to serve the voice - which when you have a voice as good as hers, is exactly how it should be.

Also, I found it interesting to note that, for all the talk of her being the new face of authentic English folk, many of her tunes are actually from the Scots tradition - though just how "authentic" to any tradition such chamber folk arrangements can be remains debatable.

Kate Rusby certainly makes attractive music and also exceptionally good CD's, so I'm not complaining and whether she represents a true folk tradition or not, Kate is undoubtedly Barnsley's top PoMo Folk Babe.

Iain Smith (Originally published in Triste 2)

Ron Sexsmith
Upstairs At The Adelphi, Preston
Summer 1999
It was a typical Lancashire summer's evening - warm, balmy, and with the rain bouncing off the road, as we ducked inside the Adelphi - a pub which looks as though it has taken a direct hit from a gigantic yellow paint ball, but is none the less warm and welcoming. The small upstairs room was packed to capacity, and after a low-key, but pleasant enough slot by ex-Fairground Attraction and Morrissey collaborator Mark Nevin, Ron Sexsmith and his two sidemen waded through a cheering crowd to take the stage. From the moment he strapped on his "new toy", a black rosewood Fender Telecaster, and began fingerpicking the opening bars of 'Secret Heart' solo, he had the audience captivated, and held their unwavering attention throughout a near two hour set, both with his music and his between-song chat. So many singer-songwriters fall into the trap of taking so long explaining the background to a song there becomes no point in listening to it! Ron Sexsmith is much more economical, but seems to possess the gift of saying the right thing at the right time, in the right way. He seems genuinely sincere, modest and polite; after introducing 'Right About Now', the "big hit" from his new album Wherabouts he said he would be slotting in other new songs during the evening, "if that's okay".

Ron Sexsmith has a voice to die for; pure and without affectation, flawed yet strong.It is difficult to pick highlights, as one lovingly crafted song followed another, but my favourites were 'Riverbed', 'In a Flash' (dedicated to Jeff Buckley) and the McCartneyesque 'Doomed' (all from the new album) along with such gems as 'Galbraith Street' and 'Strawberry Blonde' from his already impressive back catalogue. For me he also achieved the hitherto impossible in making a Leonard Cohen song, 'Heart With No Companion' sound interesting, and he even did a quirky cover of Abba's 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (a-ha). He was also ably supported by Tim Vesely (bass, harmonies and accordion) and long-time cohort Don Kerr (drums, harmonies and cello), whose contributions although understated, shouldn't be underestimated.

Ron Sexsmith's music defies the tidy pigeon-holing we're so fond of; yes, there are clear folk and country influences, but these are blended with a touch of Nilsson here, a dash of Cohen or Young there, and most interestingly, particularly on the new songs, there are the shades of sixties pop sensibilities of the Beatles and the Kinks.

His appeal, however is easier to explain: Ron Sexsmith comes across as a genuinely "ordinary" person possessed of an extraordinary talent. And what's more he's a gentleman!

Bill Beaver(Originally published in Triste 2)

Chris Smither
Upstairs At The Adelphi, Preston
Autumn 1998
Playing a solo set of blues-based songs using only an acoustic guitar and the power of your voice is the musical equivalent of the missionary position - many people would regard it merely as a starting point, to be passed over as quickly as possible on the road to more sophisticated pleasures. Only the brave few choose to deliberately limit themselves in such a fashion, and only a small number can create sufficient interest and enjoyment, that they can then keep it up for over two hours.

Chris Smither is a celebrated American acoustic singer-guitarist who chose to play two long sets of bluesy tunes alone at the Adelphi, and with few dramatic gestures he built up the excitement, until he had the crowd hanging on every phrase he spoke, sung or played.

The fundamental problem in limiting yourself to the blues idiom is that you are always constantly being compared with the established classics of the genre unless you can subvert the style in some way. Chris Smither is an excellent songwriter, a tidy finger-picker and fine singer, but he wisely chose to mix up his originals with clever arrangements of crowd-pleasers.

Among his own songs, "Killin' The Blues" from his award-winning 1993 album Happier Blues, and his writing collaboration with Steve Tilston on "Can't Shake These Blues' were my personal favourites, although he delved deep into the Delta mud for a version of "Ain't No More Cane". To show he was unafraid to cover more modern material, his reworked version of Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted" and JJ Cale's "Magnolia" helped send the crowd home happy.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 1)

The Night & Day Bar, Manchester
Autumn 2000
Tandy are a band from the US/Canadian borderland and with their ever-changing combinations of various acoustic guitars, fiddle, lap steel, mandolin, bass, spot-on harmony vocals and drums, they produce the feel of a real old country string band, but with a 21st century edge. The Night And Day Bar is probably not the most conducive of venues in which to hear quirky, subtle acoustic tunes of love and loss, and when Tandy amble onto the stage they don't look the toughest of bands. At first you worry if the more fragile of their songs will be able to draw the audience inside their explorations of lead singer's Mike Ferrio's psyche. With their first song all such doubts are dispelled: there's an inner strength about the band and a natural warmth which endears them to the small turn-out of inquisitive Mancunians as a band to be mothered and treasured. What followed was one of the best gigs I've had the pleasure to witness in a long while.

Many of Mike Ferrio's more reflective songs are often imbued with a deep melancholy, but they never descend into total despair and they are balanced out with a number of up tempo songs which rely on fiddle and mandolin to elevate the mood and tempo. Some of the highlights included 'Hey, Darlene' dedicated to their fiddle player Darlene Snow, which had the band dancing along; 'Ship To Shore', which was a moving tale of Vietnam veterans, while 'No Earthly Reason' was dedicated to the late, great Townes Van Zandt - a friend of the band.

The interaction between the crowd and the band was very special with a long running exchange between the band and one particularly enthusiastic fan who persistently called out for them to play their cover of The Ramones 'Questioningly'. It was no surprise when they elected to forego the artificiality of leaving the stage for an encore, but played on well into the night until they'd fully exhausted their songs leaving everybody happy, except perhaps the fan/heckler who was still shouting out for just one more.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 3)

Western Electric
Upstairs At the Adelphi, Preston
Summer 2000
Sid Griffin has been following a vaguely country-rock musical path since the mid 80's, when he reached the peak of his commercial and critical success with the Long Ryders. Subsequent records, both with the Coal Porters and solo, saw diminishing returns and his recent Gram Parsons tribute project was an effort to stall for time, whilst trying to realign himself. His solution was to seek inspiration deeper in his record collection - to a time when the Byrds were at their most experimental and the Beach Boys were pushing the Beatles to ever further innovation. A decision to add new beats and samples to the rich harmonies of the period created a 21st century rethink of mid 60's LA pop-psychedelia. A new band - Western Electric was formed and an album recorded, which has seen Griffin receiving the highest praise of his career. As he said on stage, "At 44 I seem to be finally getting something right."

The main question was how would the album translate to the live arena. The vocal arrangements were ambitious and synchronising live musicianship with sampled music is never easy, especially with the complex harmonies employed on many of the songs. Despite problems with persistent feedback and monitor difficulties, the band played on and produced a reasonable live approximation of the record's sound. Familiar in the line-up of the band was Griffin's long-time collaborator and Coal Porter bassist Pat McGarvey who also wrote a couple of the tunes on the album. Support act Amy Rigby also helped out with some backing vocals.

The new album was played more or less in its entirety, with the general flow being broken only by a version of Gram Parson's 'One Hundred Years From Now', which was probably pushed higher up the setlist to give the band a breather. The new song 'Carousel Days' complemented the nostalgia evident in older Griffin material such as as 'When I'm Out Walking With You', which was resurrected from his solo album Little Victories and worked quite well in the new setting. The rendition of the unreleased Gene Clarke song 'Straight From The Heart' confirmed the quality and depth of the ex-Byrd's songwriting oeuvre.

Overall the evening was an ambitious attempt by Sid Griffin to break free from his increasingly unclaimed role as keeper of the country-rock flame. However, as a reward for listening to so much new music the band rewarded the audience with The Long Ryders' 'Ivory Tower' and the Byrds' version of 'He Was A Friend Of Mine'.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 3)


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