Roots Fest - Kate Ellis, Mairead, Izzie Walsh, Phillipa Hanna & Isabella Coulstock
There was much to enjoy at Roots Fest, from the eclectic well chosen bill, to the almost military precision of performance timings, right through to a sound man who between acts blasted 229 with the likes of Morganway, Lisa Wright, Emila Quinn and many many others, the very cream of UK Americana.
Starting things promptly at 17:30 was Maiead.
her set was to be somewhat defined by her lengthy journey to the venue. It was to be a mix of chaos and magic resulting in some truly sublime moments, however not having a time to prepare a set list would prove to be something that would lead to some moments of madness later on. With her main man Tom joining her on acoustic guitar things kicked off with her single "If You Loved Me Once", with the twin effect of Mairead also on acoustic guitar making a nice blend.
For "Searching For Ghosts", Mairead ditched the guitar, took the mic from the stand and lived the song with a myriad of hand exressions as she delivered a powerful ballad vocal. The "Write Like A Girl" team were to make their presence a couple of times during Mairead's set "Catching a Feeling", an Emily Faye co write, came with Tom providing a solid riff for the verses, while the speeded up choruses were again delivered with some oomph by Mairead who had to contend with an ever lowering mic stand as she sang!
The high point of the set, after something of a discussion was "Another Day" co written with Matt McGinn it contained heartfelt lyrics that Mairead delivered with some style and power. Maireads acoustic's version of her single from earlier in the year "Crying In The Dance Floor" restored a lot more of the bitterness that got sidetracked when making it radio friendly and it sounded much the better for it. Another "Write Like A Girl" co write was to come in the shape of "Looking Glass" which was one of Mairead's first attempts at songwriting and has now been revamped after a session with Beth Keeping. Delivered while doing something of a sashay from side to side, this sounded like another quality song which along with the others previewed tonight should see Mairead fare well in 2022. Sadly the various set discussions ate up the time that would have been filled by "Belong To Me", Mairead's new single which was a shame as it would've been a great way to close but as we said at the start - sets were allocated with something of military precision
Next up was a first sighting for us of Phillipa Hanna, a proper old school entertainer, whose set was thought out from beginning to end and took us on something of a musical and emotional journey with her 30 minutes. This set felt as if it came with a narrative and that we were being gently guided to where Phillipa wanted us to go - and from the off she was determined to get the party started. Having been 2 years since she played a London show, partially due to covid and possibly a side effect of Lockdown the birth of her daughter - who was watching with regular percussionist, Dad from the sidelines! Phillippa looked as if she savoured every second on stage.
Immediately impressing by being able play while doing her introduction and simultaneously preparing us for a singalong, you could not help but like Phillippa from the off. Her opening song "Off The Wagon" had a classic up beat chorus that we were singing along to before we even knew it - this was a take on traditional country music yet sounded completly fresh even complete with "Yeehaw's". It even managed to segue into "Amazing Grace" and not seem awkward - and this was just the first song!!!
Phillppa's lovely racconteur style continued to impress throughout, and her next song "Speed Of Light" was as modern a song as the previous one had been old school. Providing her own percussion by tapping her guitar and then by encouraging the crowd to clapalong, and with a great vocal - this was another classic.
it's hard not like someone who starts the introduction to the next song with the line "Isn't it nice to be out of the house?" It is all part of Phillipa's charm, she shares with you to the point you feel that you know her and are therefore invested in her performance as well. The introduction to "Rag Doll" was heartfelt, so heartfelt it even got it's own round of applause. In another change of style this Jack Johnson like upbeat piece of singer songwriting managed to place a serious message inside a song that would equally not be out of place on a Toy Story soundtrack.
Losing a family member in the run up to a show you'd imagine would be good reason in itself to pull out altogether let alone making it a centre point of your set. Yet having lost Mother In Law, Yvonne just 3 days earlier, Phillippa pulled out all the stops and then some more to deliver what was one of Yvonne's favourite songs "The Goodness Of God". This was jaw droppingly good, full of spirituality and as fitting a tribute as one could ever pay.
Immediately lifting the mood with "Happy In My Skin" a piece of classy soulful pop which was so gloriously upbeat that we could even forgive the faux rap element inserted at times which the song could probably have lived without. Her short 6 song set was to close with "Come Back Fighting", another uptempo, audience participation, singalong piece of pop music. Time with Phillippa passed in no time and she left you with the feeling that we had only scratched the surface of what she had to offer and as the words of her song said "I'm just getting started!".
For the last few months Kate Ellis has peppered us with singles that will form part of her sophmore album , the followup to the excellent "Carve Me Up". With time limited, this was to be very much a showcase set of songs from that forthcoming album "Spirals" and even playing in this reduced format with just partner and impeccably dressed guitarist Andy Hobsbawm in tow, expectations have been set of just how good it might prove to be.
Seeming to visibly grow in stature the moment she started to sing, she remains a true enigma. The first of the new songs "Can't Not Love You" saw Andy provide a great guitar backing while Kate threw out lines about the things she could not do before finding her way to the song title. Seemingly deceptively simple while managing to sound effortlessly beautiful it was so great to see Kate back on stage again.
Her second recent single "Bluebirds & Rye" was relesed on the same weekend that Nanci Griffith passed away, and having seen Nanci a number of times across the years, i'm sure if looking down she could pass on a musical baton it would be to Kate. The way those opening lines unfolded was so spookily reminiscent that for a second they could have been interchangeable. The passing of wisdom down to her daughter was handled with such delicacy that it was a marvel to behold.
Kate's ability to see things and transform them into musical masterpieces via the art of storytelling is akin to an artist painting with his brush, "Another Way" came to her after her Dad had died and had the audience totally invested in every line of its unfolding drama. It was not all to be Kate's songs though with Andy contributing "Scars", an uptempo classic country rocker temporarily turning them into a latter day Johnny and June!
The third of Kate's recent singles was "Wonderland", which with a full band is amazing, this acoustic version initially seemed as fragile and delicate as the Earth's current position, with Andy's perceptively picked guitar lines, though later he still managed to deliver the splendour required for the chorus. The title track of the forthcoming second album "Spirals" proved to be a hypnotic affair, gently luring the listener in. Closing the set with another new song "The Story You've Been Told" only whetted the appetite for Kate's new album even more with this exemplary performance.
Having heard nothing but good things about Isabella Coulstock over the last few years it was a delight to finally get to see the lady herself and if anything she has been undersold, her 30 minute set was another revelation on what was proving to be a night of wonders. Looking tall and tanned and playing with a permanent grin while swaying from side to side she was to prove great compamy.
With the most overt guitar playing style of the evenings performers she immediately launched into Nice Ain't A Good Colour", and immediately she demanded your attention.
Her urgent guitar style was once again evident on "Broken" and her voice was exceptional for someone so young on this wonderfully layered song.
It was not to be all rocking tunesthough and her oustanding vocal talents shone even more on the ballad "Borderline" in a quite outstanding performance,
It was only when Isabella introduced "Outlaw" as a song written 5 ears ago when she was doing her GCSE's that we actually stopped to appreciate about quite how young she is - only 20 and yet playing like a seasoned performer.
Namechecking Chaz Jankel as co writer on "The Road", is not something you expect an Americana artist to do, nor is a 20 year old even knowing of Ian Dury and yet Isabella and Chaz have combined to superb effect to make something quite wondrous. As each song passed it seemed that it could not be bettered and yet with each passing song Isabella manged to do exactly that. Her next song, a slow ballad "Better Than That" was simply outstanding. reducing 229 to an absolute hush.
It was once again time to lighten the mood, with the chorus of "Honky Tonk Beer" proving impossible to dislike and not to sing along with while her closing song "Crazy Cowboy" insanely written at the age of 13, and therefore in any normal set of circumstances destined to be a clumker actually turned out to be a killer tune with some snazzy lines that anyone 20 years her senior would happily put their name to. Soon to be playing with Jools Holland and undoubtedly destined for great things - go see Isabella Coulstock as soon as possible!!
If there was to be one tiny disappointment about Izzie Walsh's set, it was that we were not to be treated to the full band show that had graced The Grace some weeks earlier. That set was undeniably one of the best of 2021 that we have seen, however tonight was to be a solo show. Having said that, Izzie solo proved to be an equally compelling event, we may have missed the swagger, the cream suit and the big band noise however what we got instead was a Directors cut, showing just how the songs came into creation and there was still time for a little showmanship that showed just what a unique treasure she is.
She took to the stage unannounced, and seemed to move seamlessly between soundcheck and starting her show with a few short words introducing "Not Today". Still managing to combine her unique style of delivery with a batch of cracking tunes she equally proved to be a magentic presence on stage that demanded your attention. In a little tease she brought the song to an abrupt stop, which elicited first some applause from some uncertain members of the audience, before a smile from Izzie herself as she then went on to finish the song.
"Take Me Back" managed to merge glorious intense verses with a gcracking upbeat rocking chorus, with Izzy's vocals veering from gentle to full volume with effortless ease. Izzie's new EP is something of a masterpiece, it comes with a full band, For tonight "San Francisco Or Anywhere" was totally stripped back, and once again 229 was dropped to a pin drop silence, with Izzie's guitar gently played and her vocals will probaby never be as beautifully subdued, extracting every syllable of meaning from the lyrics to great effect.
Another track from the EP "Blue Collar Coastline", again took on a new identity in this raw format, with Izzie's singing on the chorus being simply exquisite even including a short a capella section. Closing out the set with "Lie To Me" and "The Curse", this was yet another compelling performance from Izzie finishing in true Americana style with a "Whoo".
It was an excellent night for female performers, 5 brilliant performances from distinctly different singers who each brought something new and inventive to the evening - it was a pleasure to witness!!