JP Harris – Ent Shed Bedford – November 17th 2018

I feel robbed by the imposter. JP Harris has surely given a sort of shout-out to me from the stage of Bedford’s Ent Shed and  somebody else, a nemesis in a front row seat, has just claimed the glory. 

“We’ve got somebody who’s travelled all the way from Spain tonight to see us”, he offers, mirroring some text we’d previously exchanged. “It’s a great country – we’ll get there next year”, he might say in his Southern drawl but I’m distracted, already reeling from the blow. 

JP now thinks that I’m that distinctly uncool person sitting to his right, the one waving at him like a deranged, drunken harlot. She clearly doesn’t  know the words to his tunes like I do; she’s not getting his references to great Country songwriters of the dim and distant past; FFS, I bet she’s never even been to Spain for longer than that week in Benidorm. 

My anger isn’t healthy. There’s little that can be done. I temporarily toy with the idea of standing up and arguing the toss but “No, I’m your Spanish fan”, seems like a foolish intervention. I anonymously slink into my chair and resolve to get on with enjoying the gig. 

And enjoying yourself at a JP Harris gig is an easy pastime. This is a songwriter who’s at a pinnacle of sorts. His latest album, Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing, sees the slightest of diversions from the out and out country that’s made his previous records so great. But the variety, the veering into blues, soft-rock and folk, simply makes this two hours in his (and his astonishingly talented bands) company more palatable. And ultimately it does still feel like we’re being transported to a backstreet bar in Nashville.

The Ent Shed is a new venue for Sonic Breakfast; it’s an impressive community hall, an extended skittles alley in the backwaters of Bedford. Attached to the Gordon Arms pub, it’s a place to love, cherish and value. Capping capacity at 100 people, it seems to be building a fine reputation in promoting these sorts of gigs. The plethora of punters in cowboy shirts and wrangler jeans have clearly clocked on that if they want their fix of slightly under-the-radar Nashville quality this is the place to be. 

The sound could be better. JP’s songs come alive with the lyrics, sometimes poignant, often sad but mostly true stories about past misdemeanours and struggles. Happier tales do surface from time to time. If only his vocal was slightly elevated within the mix we could engage more. As it is, we marvel at the playing and at the tunes without quite getting the full blow by blow account.  

His banter is engaging between songs. Hirsute with the best of beards, authoritative and tattooed to the hilt, you’re inclined to accept his murmured wisdom without question. He talks genuinely about the extreme hassle that women face in the music industry before launching into set highlight, ‘Lady In The Spotlight’. A curious explorer,wanderer and reveller, he talks of leaving home when young and the impact it had on his Mum. Crazy tours of the past, lost love, mistakes, regrets, solitude and his battles with alcohol also come to the fore. ‘When I Quit Drinking’ and ‘I Only Drink Alone’ being gut-wrenching statements of his stark honesty. 

I’d hate to give the impression that this is all navel-gazing therapy though; for the most part it’s a rollicking ride, a bar-room blitz, a storming hoot. The pedal steel merges with the guitars and drums to create a pretty party on this Saturday night. 

Miss Tess supports. Part of JP’s band, her set is a gentle prelude to the main event. Clearly a Nashville name, she duets acoustically with Thomas Bryan Eaton (also JP’s pedal steelist) giving a showcase of her cabaret-country tunes. Like JP, she’s also an entertaining raconteur moaning that her professional touring life gets in the way of her love life. She glows when telling all that a marriage proposal came her way earlier on this tour in Scotland and delights in disappointing Bedford’s Tourist Information Office by questioning the greatness of the castle. I didn’t know Bedford had a castle. I won’t now go. Essentially though, the songs stand up to scrutiny and I resolve to check out more when I get back to Spain. 

Like all here, I’ve loved my night out in Bedford. I’ll head back to Spain happy. As the gig draws to a close I think about waiting around to put right the wrong and to claim my prize. I realise such behaviour would simply be churlish and head out to the car with a spring in my socks. 

 

 

 

 

Michael Nau – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread

I miss my headphones. When I was working back in England, I never travelled anywhere without my Sennheisers. Comfy to wear, I got through many train rides to far-flung towns by simply putting them over my ears and allowing myself to drift away.

My headphones half-broke quite early in my Spanish travels. They still work and it’s probably nothing that a good coating of super-glue wouldn’t fix properly. The foam cushion has detached from the ear-speaker thing. I have to hunch my neck a bit now if I want the full headphone listening experience.

And mostly there’s no need for them over here. The villa is so remote from others that there’s little risk of complaint should I turn my speakers up to 11. I enjoy the peace and quiet and listening to the sounds of nature but when I need to blast music out it seems to impact upon nobody. 

In cases of emergency, I have a pair of Apple earplugs. They’ve improved since the early I-pod days and slot into my ears quite neatly. I couldn’t wear them for long periods of time though. 

This weekend, I’ve been listening to Michael Lau’s latest album through them. It’s a dreamy, reverb-laden Country soul thing. There’s a sort of laconic fuzz that drifts across the album and it draws you in. You want to get closer to the action, to hear the vocals and the pedal-steel close up, and headphones become a natural choice. 

Lyrically, it’s a record open to interpretation. The best I can deduce is that Michael feels on the edge of something. In the Autumnal ‘Shadow On’, the second tune on the disk, that something is hanging by a thread, the final leaves are falling and you wonder if Michael Nau and The Mighty Thread might be setting itself up as a break-up album. 

But as the album progresses, there are signs that whatever has been failing has turned a corner. “The shit from here on in isn’t going to be so hard”, he sings on No Faraway Star as the mood of the record lightens. The reconciliation continues during ‘On Ice’, a highlight of the album and a song about separate beds and the power of the lampshade in fixing what has gone before. 

“Could you let me help you smile?” asks Michael on ‘Funny Wind’ and you sense that the journey is nearly complete before album closer (and another highlight), ‘Smudge’, throws a bit more doubt into the mix with lines like ‘walking together, walking apart’ and ‘another sinking boat’. That all builds towards the final lyric of the record, “waiting for something to never end“. And you realise that this is probably the point of the record. 

Life drifts; there are few clear-cut beginnings and endings. That’s the preserve of films and books. For the rest of us, we wander, often aimlessly, through things. We’re curious about our future and reminiscent about our pasts. We’re all ‘waiting for something to never end’. 

 

JP Harris – When I Quit Drinking

It might be rash of me to say that I’m going to quit drinking for October. But, at present, nine hours into the month when many are going sober for charity, I’m also part of their club. 

Truth is that after a skinful on Saturday night, it’ll take a while until I fancy another drop. But, probably not a month.

I’ve got a lot of respect for those that are able to give up for months on end. I did it once one January. It wasn’t so much the lack of alcohol that got me, rather how incessantly humdrum life got in those desperate four weeks. 

Given my acknowledged dependency, I suppose that I really ought to give more attention to abstinence. 

As JP Harris has. ‘When I Quit Drinking’ is a prime cut from his record, ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing’, that’s due for release this week. It’s a fine country tune from a songwriter who’s consistently been turning heads for a few years now. It’s as authentic as a Hank Williams reprise with the timbre of his voice perfectly capturing the dilemma a drinker feels when not drinking.

If his press release is to be believed, JP has lived quite a life. He “doesn’t fancy himself a musician as much as he does a carpenter who writes country songs. He left home on a Greyhound bus in the middle of a summer night and since then has consistently worked hard in every sense of the word. Hitchhiking and hopping freight trains while making his living as a farm labourer, shepherd, woodsman, and carpenter, among many other titles, he has also forged his own path in the world of raw country music.”

JP’s album is fabulous. When he breaks into the soft and tender gentle balladry of ‘I Only Drink Alone’ one doesn’t know whether to weep or holler. That’s just the way it is for us drinkers. 

 

Gregory Alan Isakov – Nottingham Bodega Social – March 27th 2017

I’ve got a busy week of gigs coming up. I’ll be reviewing some for the Leicester Mercury and some directly for Sonic Breakfast. If they’re all as great as the one I went to last night, Gregory Alan Isakov, then it’s going to be a fine, fine time. 

(Click on page 2 for the review)

Catherine McGrath – Starting From Now

I’m not sure I care too much about discovering the new ‘Taylor Swift’. It’s not that I’m particularly dismissive about her music. She’s just somebody who’s largely passed me by. I could be wrong but I’d file her under the sort of Country crossover music that rarely registers above insipid. She’s the one they’d cover on X Factor if they wanted a week away from the R’n’B’ standards, right? I concede I’m probably doing Ms Swift a disservice.

 

So – when I receive a set of press E-mails about Northern Irish singer-songwriter, Catherine McGrath, and mention of Taylor is prominent within each release, I’m reluctant to give it a fair shot. She might be the rightful heir to the Taylor Swift crown but that don’t impress me much. Somebody reminds me that I was an early endorser of Ward Thomas (here) but I maintain that’s a different kettle of fish.

 (Click on page 2 for what I really think about Catherine)

 

Ward Thomas – Cartwheels

I’m a bit out of touch with music charts. Long gone are the days when I would study the data in Smash Hits; when I’d know who was ‘this week’s highest climber’ in advance of the now disgraced Radio One DJ telling me on Top Of The Pops. 

I had absolutely no idea that an act I once wrote about in 2014 (here) had now had a bona-fide number one album. I knew that the career of Ward Thomas had taken an upward trajectory but I had no sense how much. I don’t hate it when my friends become successful. Well done Catherine and Lizzy.

I’d love to claim that I was there at the start of their journey and that it was my blog post that helped them on their way. But, clearly it wasn’t. This is down to hard work on their part, enthusiastic Radio 2 support and a sprinkling of promotional activity from their record label. I saw them again at Brighton’s Great Escape in May 2015 and it was easy to see the progress since that night in the Italian restaurant.

Ward Thomas released a new video today to accompany their third single from the number one album, Cartwheels. This song, also called Cartwheels, will have some Sonic Breakfast readers sticking their fingers down their throats in general disgust. “Sean’s gone soft“, some might say with others arguing that it’s always been thus.

But I like this. The harmonies are fab and the arrangement exquisite. The song stands up to scrutiny as well. It’s a bit of a heart-wrencher, a lament of a lover who refuses to accept that a relationship has bitten the dust. The video’s full of artistic endeavour, ballet being the chosen dance form with which to express the pain of the withering love. 

I never could cartwheel.