Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Review - Mary Chapin Carpenter & Shawn Colvin

Royal Festival Hall, London – 22nd October 2012

By Babba

I spent the evening at the Royal Festival Hall, watching what is currently my “Gig of the Year”. I've been a fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter for a long time, ever since Simon Nicol introduced me to her “Moon and St Christopher” on his first solo album.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: remarkable technique
I'm less knowledgable of Shawn Colvin, but I do have four of her albums. To see the pair of them, especially for the very reasonable price of £35, was something I've been looking forward to for a couple of months, especially as they have dispensed with their bands for this short tour, and are performing as a duo.
They've been friends for over two decades, they've played and sung on each others albums, they get together privately for a bit of a play and a sing from time to time, and late last year they had the idea of putting the “bit of a play and a sing” on stage, performing the songs they like to harmonise together, both their own and other people's.
Starting with a flawless, crystalline reading of Donavon's “Catch The Wind”, this was an evening that brought both gasps of recognition, cries of ecstasy and bursts of applause from sections of the audience as the intros to songs were played. The “other people” the duo favoured included The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Finn and
Steve Earl.
Shawn Colvin: sublime
It was their own songs that most had come to hear, though, and I doubt anyone left the RFH disappointed. “One Cool Remove”, with MCC on backing vocals.... “This Shirt” with SC supplying a counterpoint that will now be forever missing when I play the original... there were many such differing, sometimes stripped-back interpretations.

We all knew that they had fine voices, and voices that worked together well. What some may not have realised is what fine guitar-players they are, too. On a spare stage containing two chairs and five acoustic guitars, I saw a demonstration of technique that was remarkable, from MCC's mastery of clawhammer picking to SC's sometimes sublime use of lower-string plucking to accentuate the rhythm as her fingers danced around the dusty end of the frets.

MCC played mostly new songs, concentrating mainly on the latest album, “Ashes And Roses”, and spoke both movingly and humorously about her recent divorce. SC revisited earlier points from her back catalogue and chatted about the elements that drive her songwriting. As they left the stage, after ninety minutes of pure magic, many in the audience rose to give them an ovation, and it was clear that they would not be satisfied without more. 
The “more” was supplied by a four-song encore, and as the duo put their guitars down for the final time, they bowed - and rose to see their entire audience standing and clapping.
I have waited many years to see Mary Chapin Carpenter live. My companions had waited many years to see Shawn Colvin live. To see them without their bands, not just as performers but as the songwriters they are, with no excitable lighting, no tearing lead guitar, thunder of drums, underpinning bass, lovely mandolin solos or other flummery — just two women, two guitars and many songs of extraordinary emotional maturity... well, that's a better deal than we could ever have hoped for.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

REVIEW - Caroline Herring


Signature Sounds Recordings, Out Now
(Click to go to album page at Amazon.co.uk)
Caroline Herring has been busy. From her debut in 2001 the Mississippi-born, Georgia-based singer-songwriter has released six solo albums. The latest, Camilla, is strongly rooted in her homeland and digs deep into the Deep South's still raw, still shocking history of racial strife, violence and civil rights struggle.

However, British audiences probably know her best as the least well known member of 2011's Cecil Sharp Project, the super group brought together for a week to write an "instant album" and touring show based on the life of the Victorian folk music collector. Other members of the Project included stars of the English folk scene such as Steve Knightley, Jackie Oates and Jim Moray, with Herring at the table helping to echo Sharp's own transatlantic adventures in folk song.

Her solo work explains why she was invited to the Cecil party: her keen song-writing skills allow her to cut through to the heart of difficult stories which should not make for attractive musical subjects. On Camilla she pens deceptively beautiful vignettes of horror; on the surface they appear to be pretty country songs full of back porch fiddle and banjo, plus occasional distant, plaintive wail of a pedal steel guitar, but behind the harmonies and attractive tunes are ugly stories of brutality, pain and loss made all the more cutting by being true.

This is a challenging album of contrasts. It is also a very feminine album. Herring's own lyrical guitar and assertive, Joan Baez-esque vocals dominate and the stars of the stories in song are all women - the mother-to-be beaten unconscious by police; the black woman on a bus firebombed by the Klan; the mother of a child killed by a freak mining accident; even an apparently charming story of a little girl chasing fireflies is haunted by images of violent destruction, although with the hope of renewal.

Caroline Herring and friend
Herring is joined by a medley of harmonising guest vocalists, and they are all women: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Claire Holley, Aoife O’Donovan and fellow Cecil Sharp Projectionists Kathryn Roberts and Jackie Oates. The men involved are kept away from the vocal mics. Herring's four-piece band of blokes play on all but one track. Leonard Podolak picks a banjo on one song, the album's Nashville-based producer Erick Jaskowiak plays electric guitar on another track. Seth Lakeman supposedly plays electric guitar on one track, but is totally buried in the mix.

It is a very American album - a gentle mix of bluegrass and mostly acoustic country instrumentation with intense vocals and harmonies pushed front and centre to project songs of unswerving and at times uncomfortably stark social conscience drawn from all-too recent history. It's an album that rewards repeated listening but the subject matter of these sweet-sounding songs leaves a bitter taste that can be hard to take.

FolkCast reviewer Carys, from Suffolk, England, listened to Camilla. Here is her review:

Having not encountered the music of Caroline Herring before, I was intrigued to hear she was the only American representative for the Cecil Sharp project. I wondered why she had been selected to take part in the project. That was before I heard her sixth album, Camilla. 

My first impressions of a rich alto voice (I hesitate to say 'soulful' but there is certainly a great passion in her singing)  blending attractively with a slightly understated guitar, though I wasn't immediately gripped by the opening track. Perhaps this has more to do with my lack of knowledge regarding the US Civil Rights movement, a subject which features heavily in this album, than any shortcomings in the song.

However, after the opening came the beginnings of an understanding why this is Ms Herring's sixth album, and why she worked alongside names such as Steve Knightley and Jim Moray for the Cecil Sharp project. Upon first hearing, “Black Mountain Lullaby” seems like a nice, comfortable, simple, traditional kind of song. Nothing out of the ordinary, almost a little too safe. Then I listened again, this time to the lyrics, did a little research on the song's origins, and was stunned. I'm not going to tell you why, I'll leave you to find out yourself. But I promise you won't see the lyrics “Mama will rock you 'til you're sleeping” in the same light ever again.

By now I was impressed, I wanted to hear more. From the blues-tinged “Fireflies” to the a capella harmonies of Ms Herring and Mary Chapin Carpenter on “Travelling Shoes”, to the heartbreakingly beautiful lyrics of “Until You Go”, I was hooked. Not that every track stood out equally; once or twice I found myself skipping forward to get to a new favourite that was already beginning to feel like an old, if unfamiliar, friend.

Such was the case with “Maiden Voyage”, written about Herring’s trip with her four-year-old daughter to the Obama Presidential Inauguration in January 2009. At first I felt uncomfortable listening, as if a US president and pledging with hand on heart was something that this Englishwoman shouldn't try to relate to, as if I was somehow trespassing into someone else's feelings. But when those feelings and thoughts are given so freely as Caroline Herring has done, it's hard not to find yourself involved.

If you are already familiar with her music, you'll no doubt be delighted with this release. If not, you could do a good deal worse than to give this album a try.