Tag Archives: country music

Review, Eye of the Storm, Theatr na nÓg at Pontio Arts Centre by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

My love affair with theatre began a few years ago with Under Milk Wood. Theatr Clwyd’s production of Dylan Thomas’ most famous work was a revelation, a conversion experience that has led me to take a seat for many a show since. Over the last year or so, such journeys have become less frequent. Life has a habit of evolving with time, and I think I lost a sense of what made theatre so special for me in the first place. Two plays have recently rekindled the fire within me. I do not think it a coincidence that both happen to be made and based in Wales. Along with Emily White’s Pavilion, Theatr na nÓg’s Eye of the Storm reflects the nation in which I live; the nation from which I claim part of my identity. I wonder whether a lack of representation has been a factor in my dulled appreciation of theatre. If so, these two plays have supercharged my passion for the medium back to life.

Set in a small town, post-mining community, Eye of the Storm draws numerous parallels with Pavilion. This includes a focus on young people and the theme of aspiration. Writer and director Geinor Styles chooses to tackle the challenges faced by this demographic through an excellent supporting cast that circle around the main lead, played by Rosey Cale. Cale gives a strong and quietly emotive performance as Emmie Price, an intelligent and practical teenager whose ambition to study tornadoes at an American University is severely tested by the circumstances of her present reality. Living in a caravan with her mum, who has bipolar disorder, Emmie must juggle her role as a young carer with the demands of school and household chores, along with negotiating the rent and constant electricity problems with inept park manager Mr Church (Keiron Bailey). It is a wonder that she has the time, let alone the inclination, to dream big. Yet Styles has created a dogged and determined young woman whose empowering presence makes her the perfect role model for those facing adversity. She represents what can be achieved if you pursue your dreams in spite of your present situation.

Geinor Styles

Eye of the Storm is an uplifting narrative that does not shy away from the difficulties of life but adds splices of humour throughout. The poise and astuteness of Emmie is beautifully contrasted with the lovesick innocence of Lloyd, the cartoonish physicality of Dan Miles making for a truly affectionate character. Along with Keiron Bailey, who is fantastically hilarious as class clown Chris, Miles ensures that laughter is never far away in this production. For all that it deals with bigger issues such as climate change and the effects of austerity, like Pavilion, the real joy of Eye of the Storm is in its shrewd observance of ordinary life. The characters on stage are recognisable, relatable; all the more so to a predominantly Welsh audience who see and hear something of themselves reflected, including in the witticisms and references that season the script with a particularly Welsh flavour.

The script is bolstered by an original soundtrack created by prolific songwriter Amy Wadge. Most recently known for her work on Keeping Faith, here the ethereal, soulful sounds that accompanied Eve Myles and co are nowhere to be found. Instead, country music provides the backdrop to the action on stage. And it complements the narrative really well, offering extra pathos to the character arc of Emmie in particular. ‘Emmie Don’t Say’ is my personal favourite track, not least because Cale and Caitlin McKee (Karen) duet with such gorgeous harmonies, creating a poignant and tear-inducing moment that also represents a neat summary of the character of Emmie. It is a song that will stay with me for some time to come.

Awarded ‘Best Show for Children and Young People’ at the Wales Theatre Awards, such an accolade could lead to some confusion over its target demographic. Indeed, if my motivation to see Eye of the Storm had not come off the back of meeting Rosey Cale in her other guise as an independent singer-songwriter, it is highly likely I would have overlooked it entirely, considering I’m now approaching thirty. It is certainly a show suitable for children and young people but do not mistake Eye of the Storm as a show written exclusively for this age group. It can be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from 8-98. Indeed, overhearing the feedback as the audience filtered out at the end, it was overwhelmingly positive, from old and young alike. Coming off the back of Pavilion, it certainly made its mark on me. It reignited that spark which I had lost somewhere along the way, returned through seeing something of my own life reflected on stage. Eye of the Storm has been, for me, a reminder of the importance of representation on stage.

Click here for show dates and tickets.

gareth

Review, Talk of This Town, Catherine McGrath by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Catherine McGrath represents the next stage in the UK country music revolution. I say this because it is not just BBC Radio 2 that are championing her. Scott Mills and others have been playing the 21-year-old’s music over on Radio 1 too. Her debut album Talk of This Town is bursting with the kind of country-pop that made a certain Taylor Swift known to the mainstream. In that case, it might not be one for the country music purists. But for those of us who like the lyrical emphasis and authenticity of the genre, McGrath serves up a real treat.

Talk of This Town is essentially the soundtrack to the past three years of her life. Adopting a heart-on-sleeve approach to her storytelling, McGrath is open, honest and vulnerable about her relationships. It has the effect of making them relatable in such a way that even I, a 27-year-old male, could find solace in some of her songs. I say this because their themes resonate beyond the boundaries of their mostly romantic settings. For example, opening track ‘Talk of This Town’ presents the image of a person who doesn’t quite fit in (tick), who has been continuously shot down (tick), and whose dreams are waiting to be burned down at the first signs of fear or failure (tick). The more I listened to this song, the more I could see myself in it, and the more I gained inspiration from McGrath’s ultimately positive outlook.

The further one goes into the album, the more McGrath’s honesty and vulnerability transcend the catchy pop riffs of her songs. They may be coated in music that makes you want to dance, but contained within are raw and revealing emotions that are comforting, hopeful and inspiring in equal measure. For example, ‘Just in Case’ is underpinned by uncertainty, ‘Dodged a Bullet’ reveals hidden emotional scars, and ‘Thought It Was Gonna Be Me’ is a harsh lesson in heartbreak. This latter song is beautifully complimented by its predecessor ‘Wild’, the epitome of McGrath’s blend of honest storytelling and infectious country-pop music. ‘Wild’ is probably the standout track on Talk of This Town, followed closely behind by ‘Lost in the Middle’, which has the most stupendous chorus. Both tracks are heavily-laden with guitars, whilst the addition of the banjo gives each a sprinkling of country and western flavour. This seems to be the favoured musical mixture for McGrath, and it works well, despite what country music critics such as David West and Duncan Warwick might argue.

Talk of This Town is a wonderful collection of songs that might be influenced by the sound of Taylor Swift but are written from the heart of Catherine McGrath herself. They are a beautifully blended set of country-pop songs that draw comparisons not only with Swift but Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris too. There is a Kacey Musgraves-like honesty to her storytelling that definitely leans towards the hopeless romantic of Musgraves’ Golden Hour. Yet despite this emphasis it remains hugely relatable, largely because McGrath presents her experiences in such a way that the themes contained within them become identifiable beyond their specific context. She is the outsider, the dreamer, playing second fiddle and without much romantic luck. Yet in spite of her experiences she remains positive and inspired. You need only listen to the music that she combines with her lyrics to realise this.

Catherine McGrath is a real talent. She is going to go far, not just because she is making great music but because she is a genuinely lovely person too. The response to the release of Talk of This Town was evidence enough that she is fast winning a legion of fans. Her autumn tour will surely be the last in which she plays the UK’s smaller venues. The larger arenas beckon. It won’t be long before this talented (for so long supporting) artist becomes a regular fixture at the top of the festival bill. And she truly deserves it.

Click here to view her website.

gareth

Review, Ghost of You, Megan O’Neill by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Irish singer-songwriter Megan O’Neill has just released a beautiful debut album that I would highly recommend listening to. Ghost of You is a lovely collection of songs that represent a wonderful opportunity for some easy listening on a summer’s afternoon. Served as a main course of ballads with a side of electric guitar-infused pop, it is a delectable album that gently tantalises the taste buds. You certainly wouldn’t refuse more.

Opening track Don’t Come Easy sets the scene, creating an expansive space which O’Neill fills with her gorgeous vocals. The electric guitar here helps open up the stage so that when we enter into the slow, soulful sound of Let’s Make One Up, its full potential can be realised. With a great guitar solo and the lovely addition of an electric organ, this is a fabulous blues-inspired track that ensures the walls around this album remain wide and open for the rest of its duration. Into this space, O’Neill then steps to sing a succession of piano-laden ballads, each one beautiful in its own way. The title track is one that could easily make it onto a mainstream radio playlist, reminding me of a stripped back version of an Anne Marie or Dua Lipa song. To place O’Neill alongside these artists is also to say that her vocals are second-to-none. In some ways, it is all about the voice. Whether echoed (Treading Water), amplified (Don’t Say It’s Over), emotionally-charged (Any Younger) or naturalistic (Lost a Love), here is an artist whose voice is the defining feature in every song. Perhaps that’s why the ballad suits Megan O’Neill so much. Instead of drawing you in, she fills the space; rather than edging closer to her, she comes to you. It is a different kind of closeness and intimacy. It works well.

My personal favourite on this album has to be Bottle. Having recently listened to Mind of Mine by Lisa Wright, there seems to be an alcoholic theme emerging in my UK country music collection. Both artists seem to be seeking solace in the wine bottle. Whereas Wright’s troubles are told in a musically-dissonant way though, O’Neill takes a much more familiar line, pouring her despair and yearning into a big vocal performance full of aching emotion. It doesn’t make it any less relatable though.

Following close behind in the standout tracks on Ghost of You is the final song, Lost a Love. Despite thinking that catchy crowd-pleaser Good Love would be the one that would stick in my head afterwards, I actually found Lost a Love to be the song that left an indelible mark on my mind. It is what I call a “proper country ballad”. It evokes the likes of Emmylou Harris or Beth Nielsen Chapman in its simplicity, reflectivity and poignancy. Moreover, there is so much emotional vitality and variety in O’Neill’s voice here. It is absolutely compelling. Truly four minutes to savour.

No wonder Megan O’Neill has reached No.1 in the Irish country music charts, shared a stage with Miranda Lambert and Kip Moore, and appeared numerous times at C2C. She has an immense voice and a great songwriting talent which combine here to make a truly wonderful album. As debuts go, Ghost of You is more than pretty good. Full of ballads dealing with love and loss, it is engaging on every level. I’d encourage you to check it out.

Click here to sample some of her tracks.

C2C: Country to Country Festival 2018, 5 UK Country Music Acts to Watch by Gareth Williams

For most people, country music evokes images of Stetsons, cowboy boots and the deserts of the Deep South. And though these are perfectly legitimate symbols, this increasingly popular genre is a whole lot more diverse than one might ordinarily assume. To gain some understanding of how broad a church this music really is, I would recommend a visit to the annual C2C: Country to Country Festival which takes place at the O2 Arena in London. Here, you will find an incredible range of sounds that might seem completely opposite to one another and yet, in the world of country music, sit happily alongside each other in perfect harmony. There is no better example of this than from this year’s event, which I have recently returned from. Within a couple of hours on Sunday night, there featured mod-inspired rock, gospel-infused folk, and bass-laden pop. In no other genre would you get such an array of musical styles playing to the same enthusiastic audience, one after the other. Yet this is the joy of country music. It embraces almost every musical style. The only necessary ingredient is good storytelling.

Country music is a genre that is growing in popularity on both sides of the pond. But its rise in Britain has been especially notable in the last couple of years. Many point to the emergence of The Shires as the starting point for the growing interest here. Indeed, their debut single Nashville (Grey Skies) resulted in my own conversion to country. Whether it began before then, there is little doubt that their subsequent success has opened a door for British country music artists, and the success of C2C has further demonstrated a huge appetite for the genre. Having attended the event for the first time last weekend, it was so pleasing to see and hear the quality of the British acts on show. Don’t get me wrong, the Main Stage concerts, featuring the big stars of American country, were incredible. Yet I was especially excited by the range and wealth of talent on show from this side of the Atlantic. To this end, I would recommend any number of review sites to read about the fabulous talent that was on show from across the pond. Here, I simply want to highlight five British country music acts in particular that I think you should look out for in the coming weeks and months:

Elles Bailey

Bristol-based Elles Bailey combines rock, blues and country to create a mature, soulful sound. Her high-energy performance went down a storm on the Big Entrance stage. Touring to smaller venues around the UK and Europe, be sure to check her out. You are sure to be thoroughly entertained.

Katy Hurt

Soaked in country music from a young age, Katy Hurt is now maturing into one of the UK’s finest singer/songwriters. With a debut album on the way, these are exciting times for this young female artist who is a great advocate for country music here in the UK.

Clara Bond

Having discovered Clara Bond during my early forays into Twitter, I was already well acquainted with her music before seeing her play live on the Busking stage at the weekend. Her debut EP Out of Towners is a brilliant record, full of country pop vibes and catchy lyrics. She is definitely one of my top female UK country music artists to listen to.

The Adelaides

If you love the gorgeous harmonies of Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas then The Adelaides are sure to be your thing. These three girls create such beautiful melodies and have such a sweet rapport on stage. Be warned though. You’ll never look at jelly babies in the same way again after their song of the same name…

Twinnie

Why hasn’t this lady released an album yet?! With vocals to rival that of Imelda May and a sparkling personality to boot, Twinnie is surely going to be a major breakthrough act at some point in the near future. A Yorkshire lass with a dry wit and a soulful sound, I think it’s fair to say that she’s the Kate Rusby of the country music world.

These guys are just a small selection of the fabulous talent that is emerging on the UK country music scene. Exciting times are ahead, of that there is no doubt!