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'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' by Luke Concannon

Review

One of the most anticipated albums to be issued by a Coventry & Warwickshire artist has to be 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' which Luke Concannon is sharing with the world on February 5th.  The tunes have long been assembled & I've long wished to share my thoughts with you. Now the moment is here.

Thankfully, Luke has already released three of the songs as singles "Doing Nothing" which we reviewed in October, "Your Heart is in My Chest" the following month & most recently "Absolument" which has been out a couple of weeks. Three entirely different tracks & each quite stunning in its own fashion and hopefully you will recollect my thoughts on these, or if not refer back to the reviews.

You'll be pleased to hear that the seven tracks on the album which you won't have yet heard fit right in with the themes of individuality & excellence.  Produced by Nashville's James Prendergast at the Vermont farm of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (Luke now lives with his wife Stephanie Hollenberg, on Abenaki land in that state), the ten songs feature a most impressive array of musicians (including Stephanie whose voice in the harmonies is prominent).

I'd say that despite the wonderful eclecticism of the collection as a whole, there are several unifying factors. The first, and possibly most apparent, is Luke's abiding enthusiasm which elides into optimism despite whatever issues concern him. This has been so evident in the boundless joy of  "Your Heart is in My Chest" and "Absolument" where the chief problem seems to have been containing it & even "Doing Nothing" had a self deprecating wit which neutralised any possible negativity in his circumstances. The same, as you'll discover shortly, applies to the "new" pieces.

The other common thread, which I keep on returning to in my reviews of Luke's work, is how he has now completely transcended genres in his work: yes the songs as a set are eclectic as many excellent artists' are, but they are internally eclectic too: each individual one contains melded aspects of a variety of styles which he has achieved the art of getting to work together holistically: I think one can definitely hear the acquisitions of all his explorations of musics of the world.

So what are the other songs? A key one, the mighty "Join The Liberation" (which he originally released in 2017) is what you might call trademark Luke: a passionate exhortation for us to unite in meaningful action: plaintive in its description of the current horrors yet getting angry in response to them: at this point his vocals nearly burst out of the melody so great is his emotion.

"Coventry" is a nice touch, reconnecting him with the area covered by this magazine, but of course Luke is no parochialist & it is no token tip of the hat his homeland, but poetic use of the dreadful events of the November 14th 1940 "Moonlight Sonata" blitz to evoke parallels with the cynical & materialistic society he sees around him: strong imagery for sure but he seems unwilling to mince his words on this subject. To add to the sense of moral outrage, the arrangement is very unsettling: odd fragments of disparate cultural tones drift in and out: vaguely "Eastern" strings, sudden horn stabs, wailing harmonies. Like "Join The Liberation", "Coventry" uses the symbolism of civilisation on fire to make its point about impending apocalypse (and he's not the only songwriter from our area doing this currently: I think of Ellie Gowers' as yet unreleased "The Sky Is On Fire").

"The Hummingbird (Kieron's)" (I imagine the title is a nod to his Dad) is probably the most single minded of the album, being the nearest to a pure folk song & featuring absolutely gorgeous guitar playing of a stately reel picturing a pastoral idyll.

"Feel You In My Arms" has as its focus the plight of those without homes & those isolated from their families, the victims of alienation & rejection by society while pleading for compassion towards them & genuine connection.

"It Won't Wait" is a lament set appropriately over an arrangement built around a drone heart, though in characteristic Luke form, after a while his exuberance causes him to break away from this restraint & not only does the track increasingly swing, but we even get a rap section.

"Denial" is another stunner as you might say: sung a cappella, the absence of instrumentation leaves Luke nowhere to hide: but then why would he want to do that? He has the voice to pull it off (though the delivery is totally sincere: there is no showboating here) and above all with Luke it's about the message of the words: and you certainly can't escape them here.

Finally we have "Grow Wild", which certainly seems to be a highly personal one: possibly directed at Stephanie & it consists of a series of themes & metaphors which  twist around each other so organically it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them: which almost certainly is what you are not meant to do. We get layers relating to gardening, creating music, personal relationships & nurturing whole communities: both literal in every case (I think) and mutual metaphors: all delivered over one of the most "genre defying" arrangements on the record: another seamless concoction crafted from many elements with which Luke feels comfortable as a writer.

As I say, there is so much going on on 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning', yet despite the delights in all the many details, the core messages of hope, love, the need to engage etc remain crystal clear. He asks much of us, whether it's to respond to the challenges in his lyrics or get around his often very idiosyncratic song structures and arrangements, but that is not in my book a bad thing.  Luke's discography is extremely impressive, yet this is arguably his best work to date: many things are coming together & maturing & this is the album of a man confident in his own creative skin: clear on what he wants to sing about & clear on how to say it. An artist with a bulging portfolio of musical ideas to pull out in service of his songs & the skills to combine them into coherence.

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'The Righteous Jazz' by The Mechanicals Band

Review

We cover some excellent artists in the magazine who produce some great material. One extra special profile of an artist (to me) is one who works or collaborates across artforms, and another is a sort of restless one, who is ceaselessly seeking to develop ideas & who keeps a reviewer on their toes.

A really good example of both would be The Mechanicals Band. Inasmuch as you can pin down what they do, they set poems to new music (though that is far from all they do) and their music links hands intimately with not only poetry & drama too.

Their 2017 debut ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear‘ (when they were Rude Mechanicals) had a strong, yet not exclusive focus on Shakespeare & ideally was appreciated in performances they gave with the collaboration of actors. Then came 2019's ‘Miscellany #1' EP which set more recent poems by a range of writers.

However for the past few years, their main focus has been ‘The Righteous Jazz' project: a wholly Philip Larkin orientated one which went public in 2019 in a short form at Coventry's Shoot Festival & after Arts Council Funding was secured, a longer theatrical performance was given at both the Tin Arts in Coventry & Hull Truck Theatre, with the dramatic aspects directed by Connor Alexander & performed by Lisa Franklin & Steve Brown. Hopefully you read our review of the evening at the Tin from November 2019.

You might reasonably suppose then that their release of  ‘The Righteous Jazz' album will serve to capture the musical aspects of the show. This however, being the Mechanicals, is only part of the answer as no fewer than three of the eight songs have been created since those performances & hence we'll need to look forwards to hearing them live during the delayed tour of the project.

Wes Finch (guitar & lead vocals), Jools Street (violin), Ben Haines (drums and percussion), Katrin Gilbert (viola) and John Parker (double bass) have created another mesmerising collection which in very broad terms musically acknowledges Larkin's profound love of jazz but equally brings in a fair range of other styles, subtly woven into the tapestry.

Although Wes is the principle setter of existing lyrics to new tunes, as with earlier work, Jools has composed two tracks "Mr Bleaney" and "High Windows" & these raise the intriguing question of "can you capture the work of a writer without actually using their or any other words?". It's not as paradoxical as it might sound, for though "High Windows" is indeed an instrumental , though named for Larkin's poem, the band eschew actually setting the words as they have with all their previous word & just let Jools' stately & dignified tune evoke the absent lyrics. A bold move but hardly the first of their career.

"Mr Bleaney" is a little more conventional in that Wes does recite the poem of that name over Jools' ragtime tinged composition: but again this breaks new ground in that hitherto, the poems have tended to be sung rather than delivered in this manner.

"This Be The Verse" is probably the one text in the project whose use was unavoidable (I believe Wes & the band  selected all the poems to use themselves) given that this is the one poem by Larkin everyone knows (if they know of his work at all) & whose opening is presumably his most quoted lines. The band however do not tiptoe around this cultural icon with deference but approach it, as with everything else, with confidence & love and manage to bring fresh life to the meaning of the words.

On the other hand, "Long Lion Days" is one of the least known of the poet's work: composed in late July 1982 and unpublished during his lifetime, Wes  discovered it, rescued it from obscurity & now it is among the most loved not only of the band's live repertoire but also in Wes' solo sets (when these are possible): an excellent example of the deep power of the project & one which lends Larkin a service by revealing another side to his personality, often ignored. Were there to be a single released from this album, I should have thought that this was the outstanding candidate. Personally, having heard it live so many times, having a recorded version at last is delightful.

"Horns of the Morning" is I think the song I've heard second most often in concert to date (I assume it thus to be one of the earlier ones to be created) and is another tune inspired by the earlier jazz forms in terms of the arrangement, yet the vocal melody swings back towards a more folk tone, appropriate maybe given that this is another of the poet's more pastoral & optimistic pieces.

Of the newer songs, it's not too surprising that given the idea of setting the poems of a man who was jazz critic of the Times for a decade that the band should plump for one of his more overtly musically themed ones (from  1954): hence "For Sidney Bechet". The tune tips its hat to the New Orleans sound alluded to in the lyrics rather than the older stylings of "Horns of the Morning" in a most compelling and authentic manner. It's good to hear horns on this song, though ironically not the saxophone associated with the subject of the poem…. It's the groovy cut on the album.

"Days" shares a title with the famous Kinks song and some of that track's reflective tone: a timeless meditation on our lives & the human condition: it particularly resonates with the relentless passage of days during the pandemic & conceivably that is why this poem has been selected. The sound is much more classic Mechanicals with prominent violin & viola, echoing the sound of the first two albums.

"Trees", which closes the latest collection is rightly placed there & I think a very good decision: another of Larkin's best known works, this equation of seasonal changes to those of life & death is a profound one & the band rise to the challenge of a tune & performance to match it. Elegiac & melancholic at turns, this should, in my opinion, be a significant live addition to their repertoire & I look forward to hearing them perform this & the other tracks at the earliest opportunity.

As with all their earlier work, there is boldness in what the Mechanicals present us with: yes the tunes are highly melodic & burrow into our heads easily, but the apparent ease with which they perform the songs should not blind us from the challenges before them initially, to capture the essence of a complex individual, often using very well known texts & say something new about them.

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'Reflection' EP by Rob Lee Thompson

Review

It's uplifting to start a new year by reviewing another local artist whom I've not yet written about in the magazine & on this occasion, the release today of his new ‘Reflection' EP by local artist Rob Lee Thompson has afforded me such a chance.

This six song collection (EPs do seem to be getting longer these days) has its origins back pre-pandemic, in fact a couple are four years old.

A subsequent meeting with drummer and composer Tom Haines at the Stratford-on-Avon jazz jam in 2017 led to the creation of some of the rest with "Sing It To Me" being written during Lockdown #1 with saxophonist Jay Riley.

Of course writing new material & then getting a band together to capture the new songs are two separate things and the planned May 2020 sessions at Sansom Studios didn't happen. Thankfully a brief window of opportunity in November allowed the EP to be recorded over the weekend of 14th and 15th of that month with a band consisting of Elliott Sansom (piano), Tom Haines (drums), Mike Green (double bass), Rob Lee Thompson (vocals) and Jay Riley features on four of the tracks playing tenor saxophone, including the single "Reflection" which was released on December 12th.

As subtle hints in the above paragraphs may have alerted you, Rob is a jazz musician & this is a jazz record. I have no idea whether the musicians involved are aware of the work of PZAZZ who feature on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four' but I was struck with how in some ways they are carrying on where the earlier band left off: albeit with the crucial distinction of vocals. There is the same calm & confident virtuosity deployed in supporting the number rather than grandstanding & above all I like the fact that they not only groove well together but they genuinely swing: and that probably is the main criterion within my personal taste which separates jazz I connect with & that which I don't.

The groove is generally pretty laid back & the instrumentation sits behind the voice in the arrangement (thankfully). With the absence of showing off, we get real songs & the care over writing "proper" lyrics thus is exposed to view. The approach is pretty classic with careful construction rather than falling back on excessive repetition & the tone sits somewhere between acceptance of the world as it is and an optimistic vision of the future: in fact this rather brought to mind the sort of thing soul artists like Curtis Mayfield or the Isley Brothers were looking at in the early 1970s & in fact I can see some of their musical approach in ‘Reflection' too: it's a soul record as well as a jazz one.

The songs are the title track & "Sing It To Me" as mentioned above, plus opener "Rain Is Coming", "I'm Doing Fine", "Tell All the People" and "Out On the Scene" and they add up to a most thoughtful & inspiring collection: quality music to lift our spirits when we need that so much. However as Rob tells me "..the main aim of releasing the EP was to help get more live gigs, hopefully there'll still be some live music venues left!". Amen to that.

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"You The Creator" by River of the Dog

Review

Good news from River of the Dog who on 29th of this month are releasing a brand new single entitled "You The Creator"  (hopefully you'll remember their previous release, "On The Come Down" which we reviewed for you in February last year and which also appears on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three').

Last time out, River of the Dog comprised band founder & conceiver Callum Mckissock with the assistance of Alex Eardley-Scott on lead guitar. For this release, Callum (who provides vocals, drums, cowbell, humming, electric & acoustic guitars) is joined by Alycia Malta on bass and Stuart Mckissock on lead electric guitar. Fans of our local music scene may thus spot a clear similarity with lineups of Brass Hip Flask and it will be most interesting to see how both bands run along  parallel tracks

If "On The Come Down" was a stunning debut (and it was), I doubt if they would approach a song in quite the same way under current circumstances: a chilling & acerbic song, it worked really well but it's not the sort of vibe which chimes with our pandemic experiences. "You The Creator" is not a direct COVID19 response as such (if you want that sort of thing, check out the Brass Hip Flask song "Disrespect" on  ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three', though there is a little hint in the line "..a world that is frozen" in this current track), but it does offer an oblique look at the artistic process in a sympathetic yet clear eyed way. As Callum puts it, the song "…is a commentary on what artists are really making when they produce art and how that world is viewed and criticised by the artists themselves rather than seeing the beauty within it, mistakes and all." How many people we write about can this apply to? It is also worth mentioning in the context of this theme that the cover art is an original piece by Callum & Alycia.

Consequently, the song is considerably gentler in musical tone than its predecessor. Although adhering to the same skewed sonic approach & twisted processing to create a contemporary & fresh sound, the mood is gentler & contemplative: think of Pink Floyd in terms of material like "Grantchester Meadows" and then fly in elements of Callum's beloved blues and press the "2021" filter button on your console. In fact the track shimmers & shifts along its whole axis (credit to Chris Field for the mix which enhances this) & so hard is it to pin down that maybe this continually morphing style is going to emerge as the River of the Dog trademark once we have more examples to judge by.

At any rate, in a mere two releases, the band have already demonstrated admirable range. Given the interesting juxtaposition of rooting yourself in a musical traditional of considerable depth while utilising such an innovative approach to what they end up sounding like, it seems very clear that the future for this comparatively new band is very exciting.

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"Stay At Home" by Carrick

Review

This morning's news is that Carrick have just released their new single "Stay at Home", which will later appear on their forthcoming second album, ‘Ghosts in the Lens'.

Although Caroline Dyson & Rich Howell bill themselves as a "modern" folk duo (and the covers aspects of their live act certainly transcends both genres & eras in such a way), this latest release is extremely traditional & classic in sound. As the subject matter (as you'll have guessed from the title) is very much contemporary in inspiration, this juxtaposition of the old & the new gives the track extra power & by setting our current struggles within the much broader framework of the age old role of folk music to record the narratives of affliction, it gives an extra layer of meaning to both the song & our personal understanding of how the pandemic fits into our history & sits alongside what our forebears had to endure.

The song itself, quite apart from the above attributes is really well wrought & executed; thoughtful & articulate lyrics which address the impact of COVID19 on a variety of groups with empathy & understanding as well as a delightful clarity of expression, set above an equally clear & suitably restrained accompaniment. A cool & sympathetic vocal delivery, augmented from time to time with harmonies for emphasis & an ongoing woodwind motif which injects the poignancy part of the song, this is an excellent song which I'm sure will resonate long after the events have hopefully passed & which can act as a cultural testament for these times.

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"Another Sunset" by Caleb Murray

Review

Today Caleb Murray releases his new single, "Another Sunset" a year & a half after his previous record, the ‘Stories From a Sunny Side' album which we reviewed in July 2019: just before his really well received performance on the Main Stage of what remains the most recent Godiva Festival.

During the intervening months, Caleb has certainly evolved his craft it would seem. "Another Sunset" (created like so much else currently) at home, although clearly linked to his previous work  in terms of clarity & simplicity generating particular effect, however showcases a more processed sonic picture. In fact Caleb tells me that it is a conscious attempt to move his sound forwards without losing his roots.  Necessarily, he could not assemble his band (George Morton on bass and Ben Painter on drums) for a recording session & so this is a wholly self written, performed, recorded & produced song: I imagine once circumstances allow & the band can reconvene, we shall see further movement in this direction & fuller arrangements.

What we get in the meantime with "Another Sunset" is a side of Caleb he occasionally reveals: possibly less often of late as he has gone more for upbeat tunes & narratives, and that is of the contemplative & reflective dreamer.

Accordingly, the track is a dreamscape format with hypnotic guitars meshing together, instrumental breaks to savour the words in and lyrics which are poetic in their ambition. Ideas of melancholy, regret & the inexorably passage of time weave together to produce a range of messages: some it would seem directed at a particular individual, yet flexible enough to appear to be talking to us all. Am I alone in perceiving that the song seems also to be recounting how day after day is passing at the moment as we get lost in time passing without the ability to address what we long to address? Possibly: but it doesn't really matter as all my opinion really goes to show perhaps is that Caleb has the ability to write lyrics which make different impressions on each listener: which is a hallmark of good, mature writing. Above all, the decision to offer us his vocals in the way he does on "Another Sunset" adds to the overall effect: they seem more detached & objective, sitting just outside the concrete world in one of thought & feeling and this in turn adds to the poignancy and to the sense that he's addressing us more is sadness than anger: a little of the tone of "Same Old Ends" from his album too maybe.

Roll on more like this.

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"Castle With The Lights On" by Shannon Stevenson

Review

Within a month of telling you about "Midnight" by Shannon Stevenson, I find myself in the fortunate position of being able to now give you a heads up on her next release, the single "Castle With The Lights On" which comes out on 1st February and is in turn a foretaste for her next album.

With many reviews of tracks yet to be released, I walk a form of tightrope in terms of what I share with you: on one hand I am keen to share my enthusiasm for what I have heard & frankly encourage you to check it out (and buy it), on the other, I don't wish to provide a spoiler & deprive you of the quality of experience I had on my first listen when your turn comes.

To that end, at Shannon's own suggestion, you might like to think of this less as a detailed preview and more of an ‘exclusive insight' into "Castle With The Lights On" and then you can sample its delights for yourselves next month.

Firstly, I was deeply impressed by the standard of writing: Shannon is one of the local artists who does not rest on her laurels but kicks into a higher gear each time round, and this track took me by surprise and that it one of the delights of reviewing. From its imaginative title (which alone intrigues us and presses us to listen) to the crafty & original lyrical slant & details, this is a song which stands out & creating those is no mean feat.

Full immersion in the creative process no doubt helps to craft songs which reek of individuality like this & as Shannon wrote it, performed it & produced it with Jon Priestley at Abatis Studio, the level of internal artistic integrity is high. Such a level of ownership of each aspect of what we hear no doubt contributes to how much she rates the end product (she describes it as her "…favourite track recorded so far and one of my favourite diary entries and stories to write") though I'm sure my sharing details of the story would definitely be a spoiler too far: you'll just have to wait & learn that for yourselves (though you can currently check out a half a minute taster at https://www.facebook.com/ShannonStevensonMusic/videos/857112335123421)

"Castle With The Lights On" really struck home with me: honest, insightful & original songwriting at its best, delivered with a tasteful and truthful performance & I can't wait for you to be able to hear it for yourselves nor to sample the full album.

Bon appetit

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"Ain't Nobody Got Me Here But Me" by The Rising

Review

One of the key aims of both the features on artists in this magazine & by spotlighting many of them in the "Hot Music Live Presents" series of albums is to introduce people to artists they may not previously have encountered, to whet their appetites & persuade them to go & see them, buy their music & of course follow their online presence.

To that end, if you have enjoyed the work of The Rising which we have hopefully brought to your attention, you'll be aware of their recent news. Having enriched the local music scene over the past few years (including appearing on "Hot Music Live Presents" and being "Artists of the Month" on BBC Introducing for Coventry & Warwickshire shortly after their arrival), sadly current circumstances are forcing Chris Logan & Chantelle McAteer to take a fairly enforced sabbatical back in their native Belfast.

Having relocated to Leamington in order to facilitate access to the English live circuit, further developing their growing reputation, clearly the necessary opportunities have not been in place for the last year, and despite heroic weekly live streams & some cracking singles at roughly monthly intervals during the pandemic, for the meantime, financial pressures mean that their plan is on hold pending better times.

As I say, this has not adversely affected their writing at all: quite the reverse: they seem to go from strength to strength, certainly developing the creative side of their craft & their latest single,  "Ain't Nobody Got Me Here But Me" which is due for release on 29th January moves them to yet another level.

An absolutely direct & honest response to where they currently find themselves, it's another of those songs which would never otherwise have been written & once again I find myself torn between admiring what heights adversity can help writers attain and sadness that they've experienced the adversity at all.

They admit that it's "…the hardest song that we have ever had to write" and it pulls no punches in describing the sacrifices (both of their own & loved ones who have supported them) and frankly the depressive state of mind having your dreams at least suspended in this way. The lyrics swing (as the depressive mind will) from taking ownership of the situation, to bemoaning it, to despair & begging for external intervention,,,,

 

Though it may have been painful to have to write, I can also see how it is also the latest in a succession of really thoughtful lyrics which take on a range of challenging subjects which the outward bounce & optimism of the musical accompaniment often belies: a powerful tension within their songs: not least tackling child abuse on "Shadows on the Wall" which also appeared on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four ‘. This is fast emerging as a Rising trademark: bright country tinged pop stylings telling darker tales at need.

And of course they have the resources to pull this off: I've frequently praised the singing of Chantelle: not only is it so technically good with the power & range to offer so many choices and tones, but she deploys it with such taste, never grandstanding her considerable talents and above all telling stories with compassion & humanity, rather than just belting them out with no concession to the meaning of the words.  And so it is here with "Ain't Nobody Got Me Here But Me" which she delivers with admirable restraint, accentuating the considerable sense of sorrow yet with overtones of hope & determination over what is one of the band's most overtly country arrangements for some time.

This is a very fine & commendable release & again the band deserve praise & respect for wearing their hearts on their sleeves so candidly, yet on a purely objective level, it is another excellent song regardless of the personal truths it tells. The Rising work extremely hard & on record just get better & better: it would be a crying shame if their efforts & recent career momentum stall. I don't honestly believe they will: they are just too good & have clearly formulated a sensible plan to sustain themselves during the difficult circumstances they find themselves within. I look forwards to welcoming them back, but in the meantime, "Ain't Nobody Got Me Here But Me" is a stark & articulate reminder to us all of the straits in which most musicians currently find themselves.

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Old and gold

"The Fear of Missing Out" by Drop Down Smiling

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"Absolutment" by Luke Concannon

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"Slow" by Jonny Olley

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Press Release from David Goody

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"Midnight" by Shannon Stevenson

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"Make You Stay" by Kenzie Webley

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"Ghosts of Christmas" by Alchemista

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Introducing Monday Nights

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Jools Street and the Tile Hill Billies

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"The Spoons" by Wilde

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"Happy Christmas, All Will Be Fine" by King of the Alps

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"Free Lovin' Woman" by Shanghai Hostage

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Spotlight on Kenzie Webley

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"You Are (Live Studio Session)" by Luna Kiss

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"I Wish It Was Summer (At Christmas Time)" by Jack Blackman and the Beautiful Wreck

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"This Special Time Of Year" by The Rising

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"Intermission" by The Upsiders

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‘Stories About You' by Danny Ansell

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"We Still Have Next Year" by Ollie Bond

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"Silent Night (2020 Version)" by Stylusboy

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‘Along The Tracks' by Steven John Birks

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Catching up with Roddy Byers

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The Advent of Goody

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"Changing with the Seasons" by Chloë Boehm

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Introducing Ivy Ash

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"Straight Up Genius" by Jack Blackman

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"Heading Home" by The Upsiders

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I feel a little sad now we suddenly find ourselves at the penultimate instalment of The Upsiders' "Reconnect" project: today's new single ...

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"Scared" by Chasing Deer

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Unsurprisingly, I've not had the chance to review a new Chasing Deer release since their "Bad Decisions" way back in February.

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"Where The Stars Fall" by Man Made Moon

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I'm really pleased today to be able to review the brand new single from Man Made Moon called  "Where The Stars Fall": my first since ...

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'Christmas Time' EP by Rob Halligan

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Rob Halligan is another of our local musicians who could certainly be described as "prolific" in terms of just how much excellent music they are ...

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