SMITH AND BREWER – Live 16/12/2017 (Own Label)

Smith And Brewer LiveRiding high on their success in front of their biggest audience to date at Cropredy, as well as playing a host of other festivals, Americana duo Smith & Brewer are having a good year. For everyone who’s been enjoying their performances, Live 16/12/2017 provides a chance to take the magic home and skitch the coat-tails of summer a little longer.

Even though this soft-launch album is not the band’s main-feature release this year, it’s worthy of an honourable mention. Recorded before a live audience on a wintry December night in The Plough pub in Shepreth, near Cambridge, the album gives a solid representation of the duo’s live set and sound, with a crisp, clear audio quality that keeps the tight harmony vocals and guitars in sharp focus.

Four songs will already be familiar from their Ben Smith & Jimmy Brewer EP, including a slightly more leisurely version of the delicious ‘Blow Wind Blow’, the uplifting ‘Isabella’ and intense ‘Beaten Track’.

Smith & Brewer seem to specialise in writing songs where a light touch in melody, harmonies and guitars counterpoints something far bleaker in the subject. The sunny, chilled vibes of ‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ hide a heart of darkness, “lately all my food’s delivered, in little boxes I forget to throw away”, and the bright guitars of ‘A Better Man’ belie self-doubt, “I have always thought you deserved a better man”.

Love, in all its aspects, is very often the subject matter, and on ‘Better Than Your Father’, Smith’s beautiful hymn to his son, it’s a pragmatic wish-list, “may you not pick up bad habits, I’ll try not to give you mine”. Yet even as the chirpy country of ‘Life’s Too Short’ coldly throws out “if she wants to leave you for somebody new, then let her”, it also features some gorgeously warm intricate picking. Along with the insistent, rolling blues of ‘Julietta’ with its frenetic guitar interplay there’s no doubting just how seriously good Smith & Brewer are and how compactly they work together.

Live 16/12/2017 certainly captures the Smith & Brewer sound and, despite the slightly disorientating “Happy Christmas” sign-off (give it a few months, it’ll be relevant again), it will help keep summer in mind until they drop their full studio album, due later in the year.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘Life’s Too Short’ – live at Cropredy:

SMITH AND BREWER – Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (21st April 2018)

Smith And Brewer

It’s surprisingly hard to recall, on this bright sunny Spring day, that a little over a month ago, snow and gales stopped play. Back then, I should have been reviewing Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer as part of the Cambridge Roots Festival. This afternoon comes my chance to make amends, courtesy of Anglia Ruskin University’s programme of “Lunchtime Sessions”. A mixed audience of students and civvies flow into the theatre’s darkness from the warm sunlight outside.

The artists formerly known as Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer have recently undergone a, some might say, rather overdue metamorphosis. Now appearing simply as Smith and Brewer, they proudly display the embossed guitar straps bearing their respective surnames. Yes, maybe it does sound a tiny bit like a craft ale, but it rolls off the tongue so much more easily. And I have been known to say it often when evangelising about this pair to anyone within earshot. Not normally Americana/Country’s loudest advocate, I’m utterly beguiled by this duo’s charming blend of close harmonies and melodious songs. It’s an obvious, perhaps even rather tainted comparison to make, but they’re a sort of English Simon and Garfunkel – without the relationship issues, hopefully.

Starting off with ‘Isabella’, a natural classic from their eponymous EP, they motor on through ‘Another Shade Of Blue’ and the vigorous, sassy guitar of ‘Life’s Too Short’. ‘Blow Wind Blow’, another EP track, follows after which Smith leads on a sweetly tender ode to his young son, ‘Better Than Your Father’. As a young artist in the front row makes rapid sketches of them, Brewer delivers some Spanish-tinged guitar with ‘Love You Forever’.

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ is another of those instant classics: but despite sounding deceptively like a chilled summer anthem, it’s lyrics are rather gloomier. It’s still not entirely an obvious choice to appear on a Dutch horror movie soundtrack, but do be sure to listen out for it, coming soon to your local Dutch cinema.

It’s not just their facility with melody and harmony; they are richly proficient guitar players too, with a cooperative style that elaborately interweaves Smith’s warmth with Brewer’s steelier tones. Mostly, they look quite relaxed, but their most “guitarry” song, ‘Julietta’ (continuing a tradition of four-syllable female name song titles), features a lengthy, fast and energetic break that illuminates the physicality beneath their playing.

The forceful, lively ‘Favourite Photograph’ follows, and they close with the angular ‘Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me’. Although time hasn’t really been allotted for an encore, such is the crowd appreciation that they return anyway to finally round off proceedings with the gently funk-inclined ‘Hold On’.

A group of students filing out say, “Well, that was really great”, and mean it. It was, really great.

Smith and Brewer’s first album is due to be released later this year.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’:

MARINA FLORANCE – This, That & The Other (Folkstock)

MARINA FLORANCE This That & The OtherMarina Florance is one of the new wave of female singer-songwriters emerging from nurturing by the Folkstock organisation alongside Maz O’Connor, Kelly Oliver and Daria Kulesh. This, That & The Other is her second studio album. She came late to performing but brings a wealth of experience to her work.

Marina is an accomplished instrumentalist, using only Roland Garson’s melodeon on two tracks and alto sax from Greg Camburn and guitar from Ben Smith on a third. She is modest about the scope of her talents on the package but the record features hand percussion under multi-tracked guitars and a mandolin weaves its way through some of the tracks while at least one has piano and strings (or synthesiser) and there is some tasty electro-acoustic leads here and there. Actually, sometimes it’s hard to be certain about what is actually being employed.

Songwriting credits are sometimes shared with Julie Fox-Allen, Mick Kennedy and Richard Pierce whose spoken words add something rather special to ‘A Better Song’ but Marina is at the centre of them all. ‘Take A Little Time’ is a song which quickly stands out – powerful lyrics allied to a tune that gets under your skin but it’s not alone in that. ‘Carried Away’ has a definite feel of Americana with mandolin to the fore and something rather more upfront in the way of percussion.

I’d heard only a couple of Marina’s songs before this album but it’s rapidly grown on me. I’m impressed by the way that she keeps everything tight and restrained. even when, as with ‘A Room Of Your Own’, she pours everything into the song.

This, That & The Other is an impressive album that will be launched officially at The Straw Bear Festival next month.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist’s website: www.marinaflorance.com

‘Big Legged Woman’ isn’t on this album but what the hell?

VARIOUS ARTISTS Downtown Compilation (Folkstock FSR 22)

VARIOUS ARTISTS Downtown Compilation (Folkstock FSR 22)Downtown is a compilation released to coincide with two concerts curated by Folkstock Records at the London Folk & Blues Festival. It’s a limited edition with several tracks recorded specifically for the project so you may want to make your purchase with due alacrity.

The set opens with ‘Miles To Tralee’, about to be a single for Kelly Oliver and slated for her second album. It was produced by Stu Hanna and just exudes style and confidence. Kelly has come a long way in a very short time and deservedly so. Next come Fred’s House and their digital single ‘Shut Up And Dance’. On first hearing I thought that they’d discovered it on some obscure album of Americana but, no, it’s all their own work and a thumping good track. Minnie Birch’s ‘Dustbowl’ is taken from her debut album and ‘Little Black Cloud’ is a taster for Marina Florence’s forthcoming album and is already receiving radio plays. Mariana has a smoky, sultry voice that demands your attention, possibly on pain of a cane across the knuckles.

There is something of middle-period Joan Baez about Zoe Wren’s singing and ‘Nothing To See’ is a particularly powerful performance and one of the collection’s unique tracks as is Kaity Rae’s ‘When You Go’. ‘The Moon And The Pilot’ can only be by Daria Kulesh. Kate Rouse’s hammered dulcimer is an obvious clue and the allegorical lyrics and a hint of the 1940s about the vocal delivery remove any doubt – the mention of Stalin seals it. This is another original recording for this compilation.

‘Nashville’ is the second selection from Minnie Birch’s debut album, Floundering, and then comes Ben Smith with ‘Let Me Down Easy’. Ben is a superb guitarist and the song has the feel of the sixties troubadours with a laid-back band and little electric fills that build up as the track progresses. Finally, we return to Kelly Oliver and ‘Rio’, a song co-written with Nigel Stonier and her most recent single. It’s a happy, uplifting song with which to end an excellent set. “Thanks for having me” indeed.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: www.folkstockrecords.com

Fred’s House – ‘Shut Up And Dance’: