Saturday, 25 April 2015

Live in 2015: Zervas & Pepper at The Louisiana, Bristol on Friday 24th April 2015

After a beautiful week over the majority of the UK, the sun decided to cloud over - but not in Bristol as Paul Zervas & Kathryn Pepper brought their own sunshine sounds to The Louisiana.

I last saw Zervas & Pepper sell out The Level 3 of St David's Hall in Cardiff  last year.

This year saw the release of the duo's third album Abstract Heart. Now well into their stride as a band, Kathryn described the new album as being somewhat more intimate. And you can't get much more intimate than The Louisiana.

Tonight's show, as in previous years, concentrates on the new album, includes some old favourites, and a few surprises - well, no so much surprises as followers of the band will contest. OK, maybe ONE surprise.

Support for this tour comes in the form of John Anthony Fell - from the band Goodnight Lenin. With a similar taste in music to Paul & Kathryn (CSNY etc) - it was no surprise that they chose John as support. 
Stripped of his bandmates, John performed his songs admirably and had a nice line in self-effacing humour. The bands album was mixed by none other than Johnathan Wilson, he of the Gentle Spirit & Fanfare albums. And the fairy dust seems to have worked it's magic. I bought the CD after the gig and it's well worth a purchase. I would like to see the band play live and hear the songs in their recorded context. Although it's always nice to hear the songs as they would have been written.

Paul Zervas & Kathryn Pepper took to the stage with a band of Keyboards, Drums, Bass & Guitar.

They kicked off with the opening track from Abstract Heart called Miller. It's an upbeat opener and gives the whole band a chance to loosen up and get though fingers and harmonies working.

With a good six tracks taken from Abstract Heart - tonight was as much about the new music as the old.
The ease with which the new material slots into the show seamlessly shows just how Zervas & Pepper have grown as songwriters. The new songs are as good as the older material.

Zervas & Pepper released two songs as singles before the album was released a couple of weeks back. The next song of the set was one of these - We Are One. A song full of layered harmonies and dynamism, it certainly helped to heat up the crowd as much as the band. It was getting warm in there. And that's only two songs in.

My current favourite track on the new album is the short but sensational title track Abstract Heart. It's full of Laurel Canyon sunshine ( I know it's now a cliche but Paul & Kath still reference it, so I believe I'm OK). As with previous albums, the duo share the lead vocals and come together on the harmonies, which are as glistening as crystal.

I like to think of Paul & Kathryn as as Buckingham/Nicks combination. Both excellent songwriters who come together to produce magic - but hopefully without the domestic dramas. Their close relationship certainly comes across on stage with various in-jokes and the way they speak without words between and during the songs.

Two new songs in the shape of Terraform and Reaching Out are up next. Both get a great reaction from the now, shall we say, 'Glowing', crowd. 
It's always difficult for artists premiering new songs live but the quality of these songs are such that many of them feel like older classics.

After this initial  section of new songs, the band launched into the sublime Living In A Small Town from second album, Lifebringer. It's one of the highlights of that album and got a tremendous response tonight. Zervas & Pepper often perform these songs as just a duo but the songs certainly take on a different persona when played with a full band, as recorded. 

Most of the explanations of the new songs during the performance are by Kathryn, with Paul chipping in with his dry wit every now and again.

For anyone who has a working knowledge of Zervas & Pepper's career so far, it will come as no surprise that they have inserted another Joni Mitchell song into this year's set. This time it comes from the brilliant 1975 album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, and is the track Don't Interrupt The Sorrow. The band play a superb version of the song (played on the album by the top session musicians of the time) and Kathryn gives a lovely interpretation without a hint of sycophancy. 

Another favourite of mine from the new album comes up next, Foolish Dreamer. A song sung by Paul which on the album has a rocky 12 string sheen. Tonight Paul gives it his all on the vocal front. He is definitely the spice to Kathryn's sweetness.

It's back to Lifebringer for the next song - the show stopping Buffalo Crow. The song has always been a crowd pleaser live and tonight is no exception.

Kathryn then introduced the next song as being the collectors item - one of the first releases, King Of The Skies - it was released as a 300 print, so are pretty damn rare these days. This is quickly followed by the the ultra-catchy Sure Fire Bet from Lifebringer. Still sounds a great song live.

The glorious Lookout Mountain from Lifebringer is another lovely highlight of the evening before we are introduced to another cover - again, not a surprise to fans of the band - it's another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, but not the sweet harmonious song you might expect - it's Neil Young's overtly political Ohio. Which, as Kathryn says, is as relevant today as it was when it was released back in 1971. It's a muscular performance which allows the band to let rip and rock out. Something that I kind of hope they do when rehearsing or just practicing their talents.

It's now an established tradition that the sets always end with the ethereal, Cigar Store Indian. And so it does. Paul & Kathryn seem genuinely pleased at the crowd's reaction, particularly to the new songs and following the gig, the Merch Stand seems to be doing big business - always a good sign.

But, like all good shows, there's always an encore. Now, in The Louisiana, the bands normally don't bother going off the stage as they have to go through the crowd to get on there and leave too.

The first song of the encore was the first song from Lifebringer, Jerome. The band certainly looked as if it wanted to leave the crowd on a rocking high. As was to be proved by the last song of the night. Not the gently beautiful, Celestial Friend from Abstract Heart but a pleasingly rocky version of the Steppenwolf classic, Born To Be Wild. Suffice to say, it brought the house down.

With a few more dates to go on this short tour to introduce Abstract Heart to the public, it seems like they have hit on a winning formula for their live performances and with a wider choice of material to choose from, they will only go from strength to strength.

Although if you're reading this Paul & Kath, another intimate acoustic night at The Chattery in Swansea wouldn't go amiss. (But that's just me being greedy, really).

Twitter - @zervaspepper

Twitter - @goodnight_lenin

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Albums Of 2015: The Dreaming Spires - Searching For The Supertruth

The first album release of 2015 by Clubhouse Records was always going to be something a bit special. My favourite label keeps it's finger on the pulse of superb Americana, Country & Folk. And I was dying to see what came out of the traps first.

The beginning of the year brought us the sublime Darkest Before The Dawn EP by The Dreaming Spires, which was just the perfect aperitif for the main course to come.

Comprising of brothers Robin & Joe Bennett, together with drummer Jamie Dawson, The Dreaming Spires have brought us their sophomore release, the magnificent 
Searching For The Supetruth.

If their debut album, Brothers In Brooklyn, found the band searching for a sound, the Dreaming Spires have certainly found their sound with this album. It's a swirly, organic, joyous experience. With Robin Bennett writing all of the songs - the last 3 as co-writes - it's a natural progression from it's predecessor. 

Searching For The Supertruth opens with the 70s Glam Rock stomp of Still Believe In You. With a pounding beat, soaring harmonies, psychedelic guitar swirls, it calls to mind a 1960/70s soundscape brought right up to date in 2015.

Robin writes a lot of the songs based on real stories and experiences - the same characters keep popping up on various songs in The Dreaming Spires repertoire. This opening track, is one such song. But it doesn't mean that Robin can't be creative with his wordplay. 

'The revolution that you just can't feel holding on for something real in this endless galaxy, this strange depravity that holds you with its gravity down.'

The lyrics have definitely taken a more interesting route with this new album. Robin isn't afraid to ask the difficult questions and ponder on the even bigger ones.

 I haven't heard such a great opening track to an album for quite some time. It just makes you want to jump up and thrash that Air Rickenbacker 360/12.

photo courtesy of Megan Bennett

With just enough time to take a breath we're straight in with track two as the jangling guitars and speaker to speaker drums bring in All Kinds Of People. It's an anthemic joy and features questioning and anwering guitar phrases over tuneful drumming from Jamie that brings to mind Keith Moon from The Who. The track features a terrific wailing guitar that just begs to be answered.

'There are some kinds of people who don't think before they speak, there are some kinds of people who prey upon the weak.'

While you are left trying to catch your breath the boys just push the sound that much further with those jangling Rickenbackers & Danelectros, with what sounds like backwards guitar which The Beatles & The Byrds trademarked back in the 60s, which provide the backing to the truly magnificent title track, Searching For The Supertruth. The Spires have never been ashamed of showing their influences such as The Byrds, The Beatles, Big Star, Tom Petty - to name but a few. The guitars and multi-layered harmonies (the kind which only siblings can seem to conjure up) bring to mind these terrific musical influences.

'Sometimes you're a ripple, sometimes you're a wave, sometimes you're a footnote at the bottom of the page.'

After the breathtaking first three tracks, the Spires then slow the pace down with one of the more alternative sounding tracks on the album, the distinct shuffle of Strange Glue with an insistent piano riff. This is the first track that gets me thinking that Robin Bennett may have the spirit of Ray Davies buried underneath that skin of his. His wordsmithery and vocal phrasing bring to mind that great songwriter.

Although hailing from Oxfordshire, The Dreaming Spires have always had every other heartbeat in America and the next track up, the plaintive and intoxicating Easy Rider has the taste of the desert and the plains. It reminds me in structure of the excellent Johnathan Wilson track called Moses Pain from his Fanfare album. And at the moment, it is my favourite track on the album. It builds from a gentle balled into a widescreen epic. I have been privileged to see the guys perform this track live, with Simon from the band The Rosellys on extra guitar and it sounds like one of those 70s American classics like Freebird.

Robin Bennett & Simon Roselly

The next track sees the band return to America for their inspiration with another show stopping track (this album has SO many highlights) the EPIC Dusty In Memphis. The track has an autobiographical feel to it - again bringing to mind the great Ray Davies. The track starts off with a pounding beat and builds into a hymnic anthem with layered guitars and even sax provided by Geoff Widdowson (or Free Jaaz Jeff) from Danny & The Champions Of The World (of whom Robin & Joe have been members in the past).


If this was the end of the album, you'd have thought that you'd have heard a classic album. But, there's even more....

The calm always follows the storm and after the emotional storm of Dusty In Memphis we are brought down to earth again with the beautiful, We Used To Have Parties. This is a glistening, shimmering, slow dance of a track featuring the sublime vocals of Sarah Cracknell (from St Etienne - with whom Robin & Joe have been working recently). It has a gorgeous melody and is coloured by the lovely lap steel of Joe Bennett.

This version with the excellent Lisa Redford on vocals

If I Didn't Know You sees The Spires return to the melodic, upbeat 60s jangling as Robin gives it the full McGuinn with lightning strumming opening into a song that Tom Petty or Roger McGuinn would have been proud to have written. It is joyous and uplifting and is really the only track that could have slipped easily onto their debut from this album. Such is the progression the band have made on Searching For The Supertruth.

Next up is the brief but slinky When The Magic Comes which sounds like a 70s track with it's electric piano & organ sounds.

The final track on the album is the 7 minute So Pretty. Based around an initial piano and bass riff, it sounds as if it's it's come straight from the Laurel Canyon writers of the 1970s. With Organ and guitars joining the magical swirling mix of the sounds. The Track then builds into an epic multi level musical experience. If last tracks often point the way to the next albums then we're in for a very interesting third album by The Dreaming Spires.

I have to admit that this record (yes, I have the vinyl version - which also includes the EP) has never been far from my music playing devices. I have played it countless of times and I still think it is a magnificent achievement. The songs are memorable and varied, both uplifting and emotional in equal measure.

The Brothers Bennett have created a majestic album only two albums in. What other musical beauties do they have up their sleeves? God Only Knows but any band that can namecheck Pacific Ocean Blue and The Madcap Laughs has a special place in my heart. And The Dreaming Spires certainly do.

And remember - The Answer's All Inside

Just get this album - if you have a turntable, invest in the vinyl. It's a double!

Twitter - @dreaming_spires