Roots in May

Bob Bradshaw – The Ghost Light

Recorded in person with his core electric band (guitarists Andrew Stern and Andy Santospago, bassist Ed Lucie, and drummer Mike Connors), and remotely with drummer/producer Dave Brophy, bassist/engineer Dave Westner and bassist Zachariah Hickman, Bradshaw penned the songs with various collaborators, including old Resident Aliens bandmate Scoop McGuire and Boston stalwarts Andy Santospago and John Sheeran. Tango inflected ‘Sideways’ features Argentinean bandoneon player Francisco Martinez Herrera, melancholy ‘Blue’ draws depth from Chad Manning’s fiddle and the shuffling ‘Gone’ is lifted by James Rohr’s soulful B3.

Cohesion comes from Bradshaw’s trademark humour and heart, his warm, full-bodied voice, and his transformative storytelling vignettes: one moment an impulsive daredevil plunging over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel; next, a sea-weary pirate lured to his death by a choir of sirens. The songs grapple with heartbreak and regret, memory and nostalgia, loneliness and liberation. He’s one of us, an ordinary, everyday soul searching for meaning, hope and redemption wherever he can find it. The songs are timeless, the performances are subtle and understated, fleshed out with lush, evocative arrangements full of colour and nuance. The result is honest and empathetic, a rich collection that calls to mind everything from John Hiatt and Guy Clark to Bruce Cockburn and Nick Lowe, blended into a potent mix of folk erudition and rock and roll urgency. Immersive.

Annie Keating – Bristol County Tides

Lucinda Williams. John Prine. Bob Dylan. Allison Krauss. Willie Nelson. Johnny Cash. Bonnie Raitt. Emmylou Harris. Patty Griffin.

A short list of the musicians Annie Keating has been compared to over the last 15 years. Talent spotted by BBC Whispering Bob (Harris) she’s performed at leading festivals – Take Root (Netherlands), Glasgow Americana Festival, Maverick (UK), Buscadero (Italy), NXNE and The Brooklyn Americana Fest. She’s shared the bill with the likes of John Hiatt and Bon Iver, toured internationally and now launches Bristol County Tides, her 8th full length album, an epic pandemic story of awakening and inspiration that shows this veteran artist at the peak of her powers.

It is accomplished and inspired. It feels universal and deeply personal at the same time. It is an evocative story of love, loss and finding what
matters most in uncertain times. With a cover inspired by a road the artist and family retreated to during the early months of the pandemic (Bristol County, Massachusetts) we too go on a journey – from Brooklyn to the coast, the river to the sea, fifteen songs that uncover a heart and a truth. Keating is authentic, soulful, intimate, bittersweet and expansive, full of joy and heartache. You get upbeat, soul and swagger (‘Marigold’, ‘Hank’s Saloon’, ‘Third Street’ and ‘Lucky 13’) and heartfelt ballads (‘Half Mast’, ‘Kindness’ and ‘Goodbye’). You get intimacy, emotion and top-notch Americana. Evocative.

The Magpie Arc – EP3

With the next stop later this year being their full length debut album, EP3 is the last release in the trilogy of EP’s from the cross-Border Folk/Americana band The Magpie Arc, featuring multiple BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winning solo artists Nancy Kerr and Martin Simpson (the 12th best acoustic guitarist in the world as voted for by readers of Acoustic Guitar magazine), solo artist and three time Scottish Album of the Year nominee Adam Holmes, musician/producer Tom A Wright (The Albion Band) and bass player Alex Hunter.

Recorded at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and produced by Tom A Wright this is the four track follow up to EP’s 1 and 2, and it breaks with the completely self-penned tradition of those previous releases with two cover songs from Townes Van Zandt and US songwriter Si Kahn, as well as two originals. The beautiful melodies with multi-voice harmony singing, intricate electric guitars, gorgeous fiddle lines and solid bass and drums remain, but this time there’s the added crunch of amped-up countryrock via Townes’s heartfelt paean to “bar-room girl” Loretta sung by Adam Holmes, a rare Tom Wright vocal shared with Nancy Kerr on the Squeeze-esque It’s Too Hard, Nancy’s hauntingly beautiful Greenswell, the folkiest of all the tracks here, and EP closer, the powerful Si Kahn song of a twisted individual, What You Do With What You’ve Got. It’s with this last song that the band, via renowned activist and environmentalist Si Kahn’s powerful lyrics, take aim and fire at the selfishness of individuals in society, and just listen to the relevance of the words, written in the 1960’s. Sung (almost rapped?) by Martin Simpson, it shares a rhythmic DNA with Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Complete.

Water Tower – Fly Around

Los Angeles based indie-folk/bluegrass revivalists Water Tower were Water Tower Bucket Boys till their 2012 Meet Me Where The Crow Don’t Fly EP). Back in the day front man and co-founder Kenny Feinstein found himself without a crew, the others leaving him to turn his life around. Feinstein released a 2013 solo album then regrouped, calling on lifelong friends Peter Daggatt (Swiss Army Knife) Pat Norris (bass) and Harry Sellick (drums, backing vocals) to become his band. Former Germs drummer Don Bolles helped produce, played drums and some guitar/bass with Black Flag’s second singer Ron Reyes adding lead vocals to ‘Anthem’, ex. Old Crow Medicine Show ‘s Willie Watson lead vocals on ‘Fly Around’ and harmonies on their version of Spacemen 3’s ‘Come Down Easy’.

The result is a concept around leaving home for a better place, which Feinstein himself did, giving a personal story to each song. Rooted in bluegrass and folk, the band draw in psychedelic and punk influences, creating their own unique americana (Oasis does bluegrass?). And what a great idea getting a punk producer! Feinstein puts it better than me: “The main reason we approached Don to begin with was because we knew that he hadn’t done much work in the old-time/bluegrass/country genre, so we wanted to throw him in the deep-end musically. …. We wanted to have his punk rock/bubblegum influences – and he gave us that and more.” and “The music borrows from tradition, but feels no sense of restraint when it comes to traditional rules. We have spent many years playing traditional bluegrass, traditional old time, and Cajun……..there are many stylistic idiosyncrasies that are important to adhere to, but in the making of our album we treated the tunes as traditional songs that we wrote, that we’ve then felt we could break down and beat the tradition out of while still maintaining old-timey relevance.” Trad with attitude. Traditude!

Anna Tam – Anchoress

Anna Tam is a folk singer and multi instrumentalist (Wilde Roses, Mediaeval Babes) who gives traditional songs a personal twist. Historical string instruments used include nyckelharpa (no, me neither), viola da gamba, hurdy gurdy, cello. This is her first solo album of 13 traditional songs and two originals. During lockdown, she has kept folk entertained from her boat on her YouTube channel, and these songs, some of abandonment, loss, have provided both herself and her followers time for reflection, inspiration and connection.

I confess to a liking for the distinct sounds of medieval instruments, and the focus on the telling of stories. Digressing, I recommend you try Green Matthews sometimes, as their slightly modern take on the genre is appealing. But what we have here in Anna Tam is a clear, classical voice, wistful or joyful as determined by the song. The choice of instrumentation is equally as delightful as it is simple, and suited to her song arrangements. Roy Chilton, Tam’s father, joins on banjo for the sprightly ‘Elsie Marley’, whilst Geoffrey Irwin joins her on fiddle for ‘The Goblet’, one of her two toe-tapping songs. She makes the unique seem familiar, and the traditional sound fresh. You have time to breathe, reflect, listen intently, have spirits lifted or deeper emotions touched. Almost spiritual at times, certainly reflective of historical times yet suitably current, this is an entrancing album. Enchanting.

Nick Toczek & Signia Alpha – Walking The Tightrope

The album’s got an impressive array of experienced and talented musicians includes one track featuring bassist Paul Gray of Eddie & The Hot Rods, UFO and The Damned. I’m not sure it fits into roots exactly, and certainly would come as a shock to the system after Anna Tam! This Yorkshire-born poet has published more than forty books, and in his own words says he’s never had a ‘proper job’. Other than music journalist, professional magician, political writer and researcher, creative writing tutor (schools) radio DJ, rock lyricist and vocalist, puppeteer, stand-up comedian, librettist…..

Funky rock tunes are his springboard for his spoken poetry, with tight funk, subtle jazzy touches, driving percussion and scope for showy rock soloing, guitar, sax, flute et al -all the colourful background to his musings. Talking of which, music is by Signia Alpha, the musical project of drummer and producer Matt Webster (guitars, bass, mandolin & keyboards) supported from a variety of musicians including Mark Cranmer (bass), Keith Jafrate (saxophone), Chris Walsh (flute), Jack Atkinson (guitar), Dee Bo General (vocals), Stephen Andrews (Guitar), Jonny Botterell (bass) and Emmanuel Williams (guitar). Niche perhaps, but not too far out there. His command of the spoken word is commendable, and the music suitably interesting and appropriate. Almost proggy. ‘Marmite’.

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