Emmylou Harris @ The Grand Canal Theatre - 28 May

Emmylou Harris is one of those artists. She came to my attention first as a backing vocalist years ago & then through her more recent solo work, namely the stunning Wrecking Ball record produced by atmospheric master Danny Lanois.

She has guested on what must now be over hundreds of records, many of those classics. Her ethereal, textured & unique backing vocals, I would often say, make a track. Her vocal passion, depth & originality cannot be matched - on record. She has worked with artists ranging from Patty Griffin, to Neil Young, to Daniel Lanois, to Midnight Oil to Gram Parsons. A few years back she made a stunning record with Mark Knopfler which many including myself, hold in high regard. For those achievements alone & as a backing artist she is rightly considered a legend in the country music scene.

This was the first time I had seen Harris live & I was hugely excited.

Harris walked on stage to an almighty cheer from the crowd. Despite this warmth she started off in shaky fashion. Perhaps it was the first show of the tour? It doesn't seem so. She didn't do credit to her well known recorded version (or Gillian Welch's original version) of Orphan Girl. Part of her vocal charm is her textured & liberal approach to melody but really this was not good vocal form. Her voice felt ropey & to anyone with even a hint of a trained musical ear, she was clearly not close to making many of the higher & lower notes.

As things moved on, Harris clearly felt more comfortable onstage singing her own songs from track 3 onwards. Her band were putting in a fine performance but they lacked a leader despite a stunning effort from her drummer who played with a lovely feel & solid metronomic attention to tempo. Perhaps they were under-rehearsed?

Things stooped a little lower when she admitted to the audience that her fret marker stickers on her guitar neck were missing as she'd had to change guitars due to technical difficulties. This meant she didn't know how to play the upcoming tune & left a very difficult silence for a number of minutes until she worked through the tune onstage prior to performing it. Always a vibe killer.

Later in the show she hit something of a stride especially with some of the newer songs she's written. Performing her own finely crafted tunes was indeed her strength on this night. As a writer she started late in her career but it's obvious a large part of her talent lies in writing & adding that extra sparkle to other artist's performances. There's something to be said for some artists having either a live or a studio voice.

I'd say that some are born to be lead singers & others are born to remain a support to those lead singers. Unfortunately to my mind Harris belongs in the latter category & although the entire crowd seemed to go wild for the performance, the show lacked direction & vibe.

The show very clearly tapped into the nostalgia revival going on these days with the likes of reunion tours & 3rd time reissues of classic records judging by the age group of the audience in attendance.

It's worth saying that the majority of the audience seemed to go wild for the show calling for an encore from Harris & her band The Red Dirt Boys. Unfortunately for this reviewer I seem to have been at a different gig from the one the audience around me were attending.

I will perhaps be shot down for writing an honest review of this show, but Emmylou, we expected better. I'm really grateful to have seen this legend in concert but for me I'll always enjoy her tweaked & produced records & backing vocal appearances far more than seeing her in concert as a lead artist.

I'd say her new record with some class production will be a stunner though. 'Hard Bargain' (produced by the wonderfully talented Jay Joyce) is available now from Harris' Official Website & you can listen to the album for free on Groove Shark here (listening to selections now it sounds pretty special).     

Review by James Cooper.

Photo by Ronnie Norton.

pete Molinari- October 19th@The Workingmen's Club Dublin

This talented and versatile singer-songwriter was making his Dublin debut in the recently launched Workingmen's Club. Those who came were given a great show, and although the venue was far from capacity it was a very mixed audience, both in gender and in age, a testament to Pete Molinari's wide-ranging appeal. Molinari opened the show with three solo numbers, the last of which was the song that originally caught my attention as a listener. That was Lest We Forget a song that seeks remembrance for those who lost their lives in two world wars. He then brought on his three piece band of bass, drums and guitar with the former two also handling deft backing vocals. The whole thing kicked up an notch then, maybe a little more with a volume level that was a little loud for the room, as it was commented on after, and the foursome delivered some fearsome versions of songs from Molinari's recent releases, and some not officially released. A refreshing change from the usual new album promotional scenario. Unusually, in some ways, he chose to feature songs not only from his albums but some that featured as extra songs on recent singles. Molinari led from the front with his Fender Coronado 11 electric guitar while his live guitarist Tom, from Stockholm, played his black Gretsch throughout until the final encore where he picked up and played his pale blue Telecaster.

What I had not really expected was a sound that approximated the 60s sound of a high octane beat group. That point where George Harrison's playing was still showed the influence of Chet Atkins. This was tight, melodic dance- floor orientated uptempo rock. Not something you might have expected from listening to the studio albums. These versions of his songs included Sweet Louise, Street Car Named Desire, No Trace Of You and other songs across his recorded output which offered another perspective on Molinari's musical influences; all of which seem to stem from the 60s and earlier though now filtered through the last half century of individuals interpretations of those influences. In this instance the often cited Dylan comparison had little relevance. The end result, which is driven by Molinari's distinctive vocal style, seems fresh and vital and bodes well for future live performances in whatever setting he wants to place his strong, memorable songs.

Review: Steve Rapid   Photography: Ronnie Norton


Chatham County Line - 25th September 2010 @ Crawdaddy Dublin

Arriving onto The Crawdaddy stage, decorated with the flag of North Carolina, Chatham County Line leader Dave Wilson greets the enthusiastic audience with a cheery "Hello Dublin". They then launch into a selection of songs from their latest album Wildwood. These include Saturdays & Sundays, Alone In New York and the title track. The show also closed with two further tracks from the album Blue Jay Way and End Of The Line. Between those bookends they played what Wilson termed the "hits". Allowing the audience to call out selections which resulted in such well loved songs as Speed Of The Whippoorwill, Route 23, (which Wilson described as an anti-highway song while he extolled the positive state of the highways of Ireland which had enabled a speedy trip between Belfast and Kilkenny) Birmingham Jail and a song about falling in love with a woman on a train journey The Carolinian - "not his wife's favourite song" he quipped. He talked about the fact that in a lot of cases touring meant they went to a lot of places but rarely got to have a chance to look around, but they had had a short time to walk around Dublin before the show.

The other CCL members John Teer, Chandler Holt and Greg Readling have a natural ease and ability and add comments to each other and the audience throughout the set which again highlighted that even though the wear suits onstage in homage to the bluegrass tradition that inspired them and play, between them, guitar, fiddle (Wilson remarking that Teer was nervous of playing that instrument in a country famous for its fiddlers), banjo, mandolin and double bass they are coming at the music in a different way. This is mainly down to their original songs which are broader than the repertoire of many bluegrass bands. These songs could easily be delivered in a rock band format.

Their musical ability is never in question, though they never display the look-at-me-I'm- wonderful prwess of some bluegrassers I've seen. Rather it is a band where the some of the whole is greater than the individual elements. Which is what a band should be. But, perhaps, the most striking thing is the balance and harmony of the vocals. Wilson is lead singer with his distinctive and emotive voice. He's joined on most songs by John Teer with Holt and Readling all added their voices to powerful effect. Using the central microphone situation of traditional bluegrass the weave in and out of position to allow one instrument or another to take lead focus which makes for an interesting and visual focus. Holt takes over the guitar and sings lead vocal on his song Whipping Boy. The also play a couple of instrumental which highlight their playing skills and interaction.

The audience loved them, but remained respectful with a distinct lack of overt rowdiness, other than calling out for favourite songs which caused Wilson to comment that "you're so well behaved, you'll give Belfast a bad name". But given that both sides of the stage went home satisfied who we can only hope this excellent live band will return again in the non-too distant future.

Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes - 1st July @ Vicar Street

Elvis Costello performs at Dublin's Vicar Street with his band the Sugarcanes.Elvis Costello and his all star band The Sugarcanes played their first ever Irish gig on July 1st. It was also Costello's first Dublin gig since he stopped living here in Ireland some years ago. It was one of those gigs where it was hard to decide who enjoyed themselves more Elvis and the band or the audience. The Sugarcanes include many of the players who were on Costello's most recent album Secret, Profane & Sugercane. They are all amazing players and have their own projects but on the night Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro and vocals, Mike Compton on mandolin and vocals, Jim Lauderdale on guitar and vocals, Dennis Crouch on double bass and Jeff Taylor on accordion and tin whistle were inspiring. Elvis played acoustic and four string electric guitar and song better than I've heard him in a long time. All of which gave them the scope to play whatever they wanted to, and much of what they played was spontaneous and a departure from the set list and all the more powerful for it.

The set included many songs from that aforementioned most recent album. Complicated Shadows, Hidden Shame, The Crooked Line and what was supposed to be the final song Sulphar To Sugarcane, which Elvis said was his I've Been Everywhere travel song, all sounded more at home on the stage than on the album. The set proper was followed by an extended encore which was, in turn, followed by a few more songs. Much to the delight of the enthralled gathering of friends and fans. Songs from his vast back catalogue included Alison, Red Shoes, Everyday I Write The Book, America Without Tears and Mystery Dance - songs which span his entire output but which easily adapted to this acoustic setting and gained a new perspective in their retelling.

Opening with Mystery Train outside songs chosen also included two George Jones associated songs The Race Is On and A Good Year For The Roses, which had excellent harmony vocalist Jim Lauderdale right up there with Elvis, both singing their hearts out. The Rolling Stone's Happy, The Grateful Dead's Friend Of The Devil, Rockpile's Girl's Talk, Nick Lowe's What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding were all included and delivered to the delight of the audience who sang along on many occasions.

There were also some new songs, including one recently co-written by Jim Lauderdale and Elvis. Another, new to me, song was about a vauderville entertainer who was playing cowboy songs about which Elvis joked that "there's never a good time to go into cowboy music". What ever the song and what ever the mood the song required here was a band who could deliver on that and make it look easy... and fun. Between songs Elvis joked with the audience, talked about the World Cup and how when they played support to Paul McCartney in Hyde Park England still had a chance to win. That was not to be, but this team played a blinder.

It was one of those magical gigs where the venue was right, the sound was right, the band was on top form and the entertainer did what he set out to do - he entertained and then some. It was a welcome return to Dublin...  from both sides of the stage.

Steve Rapid

The Tallest Of The Tall? - Whelan's 10 June

The Tallest Man On Earth 'The Wild Hunt'

I heard about this show via a MySpace (yes, remember MySpace?) link forwarded around.

Arriving to a sold out show is always a good feeling. On arrival at Whelan's Dublin I could taste a healthy dose of anticipation in the air.

Oddly enough, I noticed a large number of tall men in the audience. Perhaps they had seen the billing out front & thought to themselves 'I'll show him'. We were there, after all, to see The Tallest Man On Earth.

Cue the arrival of a very normal sized man stage left to a raucous cheer. Opening his set with the album opener 'The Wild Hunt' was a great place to start.

With a look of  Emile Hirsch from Into The Wild Kristian Matsson (Tallest Man's real name) was not going to let guitar pedal technical difficulties interrupt his opener, despite battery failure 3 times during the song. Matsson used the opportunity to show us his ability to stay in the moment - taking up exactly where he left off a minute earlier. He proved a humorous soul too, quipping "F*ck you Duracell!".

Firstly, let me say what a beautiful & intense performer Matsson is. A brilliant guitarist complete with vocal control is not something one comes across every day. And while the comparisons to early Gaslight period Dylan abound, Matsson is a far better guitar player than Dylan ever was & arguably a far more engaging stage presence (A big call, I know).

Secondly, I'd like to mention the fact that sometimes it takes more than technical ability & stage presence to really move an audience. Don't get me wrong. This crowd was being manipulated by Matsson as if we had all been invited to his house for a party that only he could throw. However, a friend & I commented that mid-way through the set, we felt we had heard the same song repeated over & over again - with different lyrics.

My major criticism of The Tallest Man On Earth would be this: he only ever got to 3rd gear. And 3rd gear is a good & sound gear. But what about 4th & 5th? At a show like this we want to be taken not just down the side streets, but we want to gush onto the highway in 5th gear & really hear the performer's musical engine take to the road.

Having said that, without a doubt, the anthemic 'King Of Spain' was a crowd favourite prompting a loud sing-along & the haunting 'Burden Of Tomorrow' reminded me of putting on a Dylan vinyl for the first time. Only this time, it was live & perfect in it's execution & vocal reach. 

The highlight of the evening was unquestionably the sublime rendition of Dylan's 1964 tune 'I'll Keep It With Mine' performed by Matsson & a mystery female guest invited up on stage. Positioning themselves very intimately on stage around one microphone with one guitar the duo cast a spell on the crowd.

Asking the sound man who the girl was he replied with a witty "The TM (Tour Manager), Girlfriend & Rodeo (I think he meant Roadie) all rolled into one!". If anyone knows who this mystery woman was, we'd be interested to know!

All in all, a fine show. I'd like to see Matsson again perform with a small ensemble. A small kit with brushes, an upright bass & a banjo (much missed from the album renditions) would be a welcome addition - just to get us out onto the highway of folk where we belong by the end of a set.

Check out The Tallest Man On Earth on MySpace here

Buy his album 'The Wild Hunt' here