So here we are again – it’s that time of year when we think about what music has really moved and inspired us throughout 2014. We may be primarily an americana / folk / bluegrass / roots promoter, but of course we love all sorts of music (we’re not genre or year specific!) so read about our picks of the year (Top 5 and a bit!!) just passed, from Ken, Lloyd, Bob and Lynton.
Jamie Freeman Agreement – 100 Miles From Town
Scandalously underrated songwriter and performer within the Americana genre. Here’s a guy who can write about some pretty heavy duty subjects….and then wrap them up in a sugar-coated pop gem!
An album that keeps on giving the more you listen to it. Obvious highlights are the hook-laden radio friendly sounds of “Steel Away”, “The Knight” and “It’s Your Lucky Day”, but dig deeper and you’ll come across some beauts in the form of “Message From Limbo”, “Down From London” and “Scrabble In Afghanistan”.
The Black Feathers – Strangers When We Meet EP
One of the perennial joys of being a promoter is the discovery of new exciting artists, and one such for me this year was on hearing this sublime 5 track EP, sent to me by their agent. This offering is more like a taster of what is to come, and once you’ve listened to this, you’ll realise the enormous potential that this uber-talented duo possess.
5 beautiful self-penned songs that ease out of your speakers to gently caress your ears in a warm glow of finely honed melodies and luscious harmonies. Essential listening.
Danny and the Champions Of The World – Stay True
Bizarrely, I’d listened to this album back in 2013, and then promptly filed it away under the ‘must listen to again soon’ category and then stupidly forgot all about it! That is until I caught the bands killer set at this year’s (2014) Maverick festival – after which time the album made a swift and timely reappearance, and consequently left me wondering exactly why i’d ignored a bona-fide landmark record for so many months?!
Superbly produced, songs of the very highest quality and not a note wasted or out of place by Danny and his stellar band. An album of hope and optimism that will keep you mesmerised from the opening riff of “Never Stop Building That Old Space Rocket” to the closing pedal steel of “Time Again”.
Cale Tyson – High On Lonesome EP
I loved Rolling Stone’s description of Cale as “Old school, sad-bastard outlaw Country for a new generation of excited Country fans” – and this 7 track debut EP is every bit of that and so much more. Here’s a 23 year old who is writing songs way beyond his tender years….and can yodel!
These songs embrace and celebrate the ideas and authenticity of pre-commercial Country music, but add in the vitality and slightly skewed world-weary angst of youth. Check out “Long Gone Girl” and “Thorn In My Side” as prime examples of breathing fresh air into an oft-neglected genre.
The Jigantics – Daisy Roots
The long anticipated debut from a band packed full of top line musicians who have been churning out consistently great live shows for a couple of years now – and it decidedly doesn’t disappoint. If you’re looking to pigeon hole a band, then you’re going to have trouble with this lot, because there’s Americana, Cajun, Blues, Folk and a little Rockabilly all thrown into the melting pot, and what’s more it all works spectacularly well both in the live and recorded formats.
Daisy Roots is a lovingly crafted mix of choice (and in the main, obscure) covers and self-penned numbers that flow effortlessly into each other and form a pleasingly cohesive whole. From the cajun take on Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song”, through to Marion Fleetwood’s tear-jerking vocal tour-de-force “The Valley” and Martin Fitzgibbon’s inspired 21st century blues paean “George Foreman Grill”, this is an album that if there is any justice should have promoters and festival organisers falling over themselves to book them up!
Dreadzone – ‘Escapades’ (shaking radical roots rock grooves), Tom Petty – ‘Hypnotic Eye’ (welcome return to form), Hatful Of Rain – ‘The Morning Key’ (captivatingly wonderful songs by a band at the top of their game), Otis Gibbs – ‘Souvenirs Of A Misspent Youth’ (gritty, honest, whimsical and humorous – Otis at his best), Oysterband – ‘Diamonds On The Water’ (the standard bearers – still writing vibrant, fresh and exciting songs after all these years).
AC/DC – Rock Or Bust
Forget the tragedy and controversy in recent months, from the first riff, Rock Or Bust rattles those family jewels and lets ‘em hang out for a full thirty-five minutes of fist-pumping rock! With song titles like “Play Ball”, “Hard Times” and “Emission Control” it’s clear that AC/DC are still having a whale of a time and that slams through in the power of every track.
Some tracks even hark back to ‘Highway to Hell’ era guitar sounds such as in “Miss Adventure”, whilst Brian takes us on another of his butter-wouldn’t-melt escapades in, well just about every song actually. AC/DC have been my favourite band since I was a kid and I remember how I felt when I realised the (not so) hidden meaning behind their lyrics.
Not so blatantly rude “Emission Control” has an absolute powerhouse of a riff, but any long-time AC/DC fan will be glad to know Phil Rudd still hasn’t changed his standard drum beat – so all is good! Credit to Stevie Young for stepping into the massive void left by the departure of cousin Malcolm, this latest effort from the biggest band on the planet is still tighter than a Whole Lotta Rosie!
Brother Dege – How To Kill A Horse
I first heard Brother Dege when he had a track featured in the latest Tarantino movie – Django: Unchained. For those who haven’t seen Django, it’s an exhilarating and bloodthirsty western. Imagine a single horse rider galloping across the prairie with the sun going down in the distance. Brother Dege’s music is as stomping and dramatic as that image, yet tinged with a raw and distinct American brand of power.
How To Kill A Horse boasts Brother Dege’s unique sound – mainly produced through his sliding on a resonator guitar, accompanied by a single bass drum. “The Black Sea” and “Judgment Day” are typical examples of this. Brother Dege also has the ability to craft American folk-roots tales that are both tender, as in “The River” and haunting, as in “Last Man Out of Babylon”. The latter features a lush instrumental outro that seems to channel spirits of the Appalachians.
Brother Dege sure knows how to infuse musical styles, drawing influences from old-timey roots and folk, to blues and even the raw energy of rock. This album was in my car for an absolute age and I’m pretty sure it’s still lurking in there somewhere, with it’s dark and ominous themes.
Dennis Ellsworth – Love Knows Love
I’m sure you probably know by now that we here at Square Roots love Canadian singer/songwriter Dennis Ellsworth? Last year two of his records managed to sneak onto my top five! I can’t say that is un-heard of because that was the first ever top five, but it looks like he could be a regular on the list for the foreseeable. Dennis’ latest effort was meant to be an EP that he recorded on the casual, but it ended up with eleven tracks equaling nearly forty minutes of material.
Love Knows Love is very much typical Dennis in that his songs wear blue-tinted glasses rather than the proverbial rose-tinted ones. Dennis’ music tends to lean on the side of somewhat haunting yet beautiful, of which “Bottom of the Sea” and the title track are perfect examples. Ellsworth also explores the emotions and experiences of a close friend in “Valentine”, followed closely by the surprisingly upbeat “Forever to the End”.
For anyone who hasn’t managed to catch Dennis at the tower before, he is best described as ‘the most laid-back musician ever’, and any number of his tracks can be used as lullabies to sooth the blues, relax the mind or fix your broken heart. Perhaps this is most evident in “Sleep It Off” which features some of the most delicate guitar I’ve ever heard, accompanied by a rain-like pitter-patter of drums.
At one of Dennis’ shows in the Tower he quipped that he’d been encouraged to write more positive and upbeat songs, but we hope he doesn’t change the way he writes. We love his songs the way they are and hope you’ll all come along to see him this coming January (2015) 30th!
Cale Tyson – High On Lonesome
Name-checked by Rolling Stone magazine as a young country star for the future, you’d be mad not to check this one out. Tyson’s ‘High On Lonesome’ is a throwback to the old-time country sound of the fifties, filled with oo-ah harmonies and Tyson’s mature country vocals. It would be remiss of me to not mention the sublime steel guitar, rag-time piano and wandering bass lines that are abundant throughout.
Whilst only technically a seven track EP rather than an album, ‘High On Lonesome’ has done more than just whet the appetites of many an Americana fan, including us over here at Square Roots. Now might be a good time to shamelessly plug the show that Tyson is playing for us on April 28th at the Square Tower. It’s an up-close and personal show, limited to thirty-two places, so get buying those tickets! Being a Texan, I hope Tyson doesn’t bring any guns to the Tower… as far as firepower goes, I’m sure you’ll be captivated by the calibre of his musical prowess and learned songwriting, exhibited so often in ‘High On Lonesome’. You can pick it up on iTunes for the pittance of £5.53!
Bondax & Friends – The Mix Album
So this is kinda my wildcard album. If any of you who come to the shows at the Tower listen to modern house music then I’d love to chat! Bondax are a house/dance two-piece about to make a break in the UK. They have a distinct sound that I can only describe as a smooth and unique 70’s-funk infused variety of dance. I’ve seen Bondax live a couple of times now and their music just makes you feel like it’s summer again, even if it’s blowing a gale outside. It’s the only music I’ve felt physically warmed by.
The Mix Album is a collaborative effort curated by young producers Bondax themselves. It includes tracks from Karma Kid, Duke Dumont, Jerome LOL as well as the guys themselves (obviously). This album honestly has me at a complete loss, there’s such a huge variety of styles, sounds and influences all over the shop that I’ve got no idea how to describe it. If you’re into dance, electronic, house or pop music then give it a go – It’s just packed from start to finish with good vibes and that roasting summer feeling, even in the deep of winter!
It’s available for digital download only but you get 26 tracks for £6.99 – if that’s not a bargain then I don’t know what is?
Despite the recent sad loss of two of my all-time heroes Jack Bruce and Joe Cocker, I have resisted the temptation to include them. My first choice is the wonderfully soulful ‘Rain Or Shine’ from PAUL CARRACK who hits the best form of his career. Known best perhaps for his more popular mainstream work, Paul is an accomplished key board player and his voice has never sounded better on a selection of emotive soul classics and some impressive self-penned material. Catching him and his great band live at the Guildhall in November sealed the deal.
Next up is ‘The Road Chosen’, the third release of New Mexico singer guitarist RYAN MCGARVEY. Back in November 2013, Ryan produced a wondrous set of guitar pyrotechnics in front of a small crowd at The Cellars, still talked about by those of us fortunate to have been present. Yes his vocal, like many of his young male contemporaries is still a work in progress, and for a young man he seems to have experienced more than his fair share of romantic problems, at least judging by the theme of much of his lyrics! Catchy riffs and hooks, and a good variety of arrangements, with a symbiotic rhythm section and always tasteful and fluid guitar work. I am generally not a fan of instrumentals but check out ‘Firework Eyes’ and more importantly check him out for yourself on his return to The Cellars in June.
‘Goin’ Home’ by Louisiana’s KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD is next on the list. I have been a fan throughout his career and catching him at The Hawth in Crawley in October was a real treat. Kenny is another superb guitarist from the tasteful to the exuberant and critically acknowledges his vocal limitations, adding the superb Noah Hunt to the mix. This album returns him to the Blues classics after his work with Stephen Stills in ‘The Rides’ and adds his own trademark treatment. He has earned the right to put his own stamp on the covers following his critically acclaimed work with many of the old Blues legends on ’10 Days Out’. This fine release is given added lustre by the presence of guest artists of the calibre of Keb Mo, Robert Randolph, Joe Walsh and Kim Wilson, Warren Haynes and even Ringo Starr.
The extravagantly talented Nimmo brothers stand astride the UK Blues scene, a clear head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries. The great Alan Nimmo’s band, KING KING’s latest release ‘Standing In The Shadows’ contains two breathtakingly memorable tracks. ‘Long History Of Love’ with its aching vocal and pin drop soloing has to be the highlight with a cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Jealousy’ running it very close. They are on the cusp of breaking through to the big time in 2015 on the strength of their tour this year supporting legendary octogenarian John Mayall and won a standing ovation at the Guildhall for their magnificent performance. I am certain that their imminent new release will be on my list next year.
‘Get On The Horse’ by Worcester based band, that’s in the Boston MA area of the USA, DELTA GENERATORS is the odd one out as they have not toured in the UK yet. Craig Rawding’s distinctive Blues shouter style vocal gives them that critical trade mark sound over a range of Roots Rock, Blues and Soulful Americana original material. The four piece outfit have followed up the critically acclaimed ‘Hard River To Row’ CD with another superb offering. Highlights for me are the mournful and atmospheric ballad ‘Johnstown Flood’ and the infectious Country tinged ‘Rose For Rosa Lee’. I can only hope it is not too long before we get a chance to see them perform live.
2014. Possibly A Glorious Year….With foreknowledge I wouldn’t have believed so much new music released in 2014 would have Prog-Rock connotations? I mean this isn’t 1970, is it?
First off, THE MOULETTES released what is probably the album of the year, ‘Constellations’, with the participation of both Arthur Brown, on ‘Lady Vengeance’ and Herbie Flowers, on ‘Midnight Sun’ adding to that 70’s vibe, but it’s always cellist Hannah Miller’s songs that bind the group together. With an ever-expanding stage band, they produced some of the finest female 5 part harmonies I’ve heard in many a day, when potently live at the Joiners in December.
Running it close was ARC IRIS’s debut for Bella Union. Emerging from the shadows of Low Anthem, (like Father John Misty growing out of the remains of Fleet Foxes), Jocie Adams songs reveal unexpected depths that, like The Moulettes, rely on the full gamut of their orchestration to create the heart of the album. Certainly, the unusual combination of sounds, elaborate these songs beyond alt-folk into curiously jazzy stylings before reverting to unexpected traditional arrangements.
KIRAN LEONARD’s debut ‘Bowler Hat Soup’ had enough Prog-rock content to throw the casual listener. Released on the Hand Of Glory label, which also brought us Mary Epworth’s fine prog-rock influenced debut, it’s a roller coaster ride of 40 years of influences (Frank Zappa to Sufjan Stevens) from a talent still not yet out of his teens.
SUN KIL MOON’s Mark Kozelek has had an intriguing year, and despite his spat with War On Drugs, his album ‘Benji’ remains quite the outstanding listen of the year. Not for the faint hearted, it’s personal mixture of love and loss, challenges Commercial Beer Rock all comers everywhere, with the maturity of someone who has been on the road for well over 20 years.
ST VINCENT has been challenging our preconception of what a female singer can achieve now for 4 albums and her eponymous 2014 album, ratchets up the quality level yet again. Her performance at Glastonbury was way above anything else produced at this old warhorse of a gig.
One of the best year’s gigs was TIMBER TIMBRE’s show at The Haunt in Brighton. Their third album ‘Hot Dreams’ took the basis of ‘Creep On Creepin’ On’ by adding more instrumental layers, especially with a glorious sax section often playing in inspired unison. Spine-tingling stuff.
ANAIS MITCHELL won plaudits and gongs for her traditional folk album ‘Child Ballads’ (with Jefferson Harmer) at the BBC Folk Awards in 2014. Live shows at The Railway in Winchester and St Trinity’s in Guildford cemented her position as one of the finest and most intriguing folk artists of these times.
With more albums being reissued this year on vinyl than I can remember, highlights included John Grant’s historic re-issue of the Best Of The Czars, Mark Eitzel’s American Music Club’s ‘San Francisco’ from way back in 1994. Omnivore Records always re-releases great music, firstly with the Jellyfish back catalogue, then Big Star, and now the wonderful and totally obscure Minneapolis group ‘Trip Shakespeare’. Their 2nd album ‘Are You Shakespearienced?’ is a masterpiece of psychedelic-pop. Now that everything from Led Zeppelin to The Jayhawks is being rereleased, there is enough to capture the interests of anyone from folk and pop to Americana and Prog-Rock.
Finally, the summertime gig at The Square Tower featuring Birds Of Chicago, must have been the most enjoyable gig of the year. Check out their album ‘Live From Space’ wherever you can find it. Nice one, Ken!