Ian Mann enjoys this “Transatlantic Folk” double bill featuring the contrasting but complementary talents of local vocalist and songwriter Deborah Rose and New York singer songwriter Kenny White.
Deborah Rose / Kenny White, double bill, The Mash Tun Stage, Ludlow Brewery, Ludlow, Shropshire, 13/05/2022.
Billed as “An Evening of Transatlantic Folk” this genuine ‘double bill’ featured the talents of the Ludlow based singer, guitarist and songwriter Deborah Rose and the New York based singer, pianist, guitarist and songwriter Kenny White.
United by their love of words and music the somewhat unlikely duo of Rose and White, performers from different countries and different generations, have appeared together before at events organised by Rose, notably at the Worcestershire venues The Hatch and the now sadly defunct Tarc Gallery.
I saw White perform live on three separate occasions between 2010 and 2013 but it’s been nearly a decade since my last sighting of him, so this latest return to the UK following the Covid hiatus was particularly welcome. Tonight represented the last date of White’s European tour and followed a performance at London venue The Green Note, plus a series of well received appearances in Denmark. Nevertheless White appeared to be particularly happy to be performing in front of an English speaking crowd again, an audience who could thoroughly appreciate the nuances and humour of his articulate lyrics. But more on that later.
DEBORAH ROSE with BEN WALSH
Opening the evening was Deborah Rose, who has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages for more than a decade.
Blessed with a stunningly pure voice and an innate musicality her love of words, song and singing has found her exploring the worlds of folk, jazz and Americana with a variety of collaborators, including local gypsy jazz guitar wizard Remi Harris.
Following a number of self produced EPs Rose released her first full length album, “Song Be My Soul”, in early 2014, a charming collection of self penned songs combined with settings of the words of poets and authors such as Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake and Christina Rossetti. Review here;
The follow up, “Wilde Wood” (2015), was very different as Rose abandoned her literary leanings to explore the world of Celtic folk music in the company of locally based musicians from two different groups, The O’ Farrells Frolicks and Grey Wolf. The album also features backing vocals on three numbers from a certain Robert Plant.
Rose’s latest full length album is “The Shining Pathway” (2020), which was released shortly before the first Covid lockdown. Largely comprised of new self penned songs, plus the occasional cover and collaboration it was variously recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and at home in Ludlow. The songs are inspired by travel, literature, personal experience and her Christian faith. My review of the album can be found here;
A musician with a social conscience Rose has championed women’s issues, worked on teaching and song-writing projects with prisoners, children and dementia patients, and travelled to Africa to work for the charity Planting for Hope in Uganda. She has also performed fund-raising gigs for the charity in the UK. Her work has also won the approval of the American Democrat politician and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
Rose is a consistently excellent live performer and I have witnessed many of her local appearances over the years. No two shows have been exactly alike and I have seen her sing and play with a variety of accompanists. Her work has attracted the attention of many celebrity admirers including Plant, White, US singer / songwriter Mary Gauthier and American folk doyenne Judy Collins. Indeed it was a shared love of the music of Judy Collins that first brought Rose and White together.
Rose is also a great organiser and facilitator as well as being a significant musical talent.
“The Shining Pathway” saw Rose collaborating closely with the producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Walsh, best known for his work with the electronic music duo Plaid (Andy Turner and Ed Handley). Walsh worked with Rose in both Nashville and Ludlow and performs the majority of the instrumental parts on the album. Also a resident of Ludlow he was to join Rose on stage tonight adding acoustic guitar to her own guitar and vocals. Walsh was also part of the ensemble that backed Rose at a memorable concert at St. Laurence’s Church in Ludlow in July 2021. Review here;
Much of tonight’s material was sourced from “The Shining Pathway” album but the show commenced with Rose’s beautiful acapella singing of the traditional spiritual “Bright Morning Star”, a song I know best from Oysterband’s own acapella rendition on their 2002 album “Rise Above”.
Rose took up the guitar for the song “Anam Cara”, the title the Scots Gaelic for “Soul Friend”. Written during the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow the song was released during lockdown as a 7 inch vinyl single, backed by “The Rings of Saturn”, which we were to hear later. She was joined by Walsh, also on acoustic guitar, who was to feature briefly as an instrumental soloist.
Prior to the pandemic Rose travelled widely, including a visit to Laurel Canyon in California, once home to musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Mitchell has always been a hugely inspirational figure for Rose and was an influence for this song, which was actually written in Laurel Canyon. Incidentally, the musical history of Laurel Canyon and those musicians that famously inhabited it in the 1960s and 70s was recently explored as part of an excellent two part American made documentary series on Sky Arts. Catch it if you can.
Rose’s work in women’s prisons helped to inspire empathic the lyrics of “Grace Go I”, another song from the “Shining Pathway” album. This was another song to feature Walsh as an acoustic guitar soloist.
The previously mentioned “The Rings of Saturn” was written at a song-writing retreat in Nashville and proved to be a charming ‘counting’ song with a lyric making reference to Johnny Cash, whose son Rose had encountered at the retreat.
“Basket of Roses” was another song inspired by Joni Mitchell. Rose wrote the song after a visit to the cave at Matala on the island of Crete, where Mitchell wrote most of the material the material for her seminal “Blue” album. The lyrics made several allusions to Mitchell’s work with references to Matala, the “Mermaid Café” and the “Blue” album itself.
“Nigel”, a song about a bird who becomes fixated with an inanimate decoy mixed humour and pathos with Rose’s singing accompanied by Walsh’s guitar.
The as yet unrecorded “Thunder and Birdsong” featured the twin acoustic guitars of Rose and Walsh. This was another song that Rose had written during lockdown, the suspension of her regular musical and activities leading to an increased appreciation of the beauty of nature that has been reflected in her recent song-writing.
“Liberation Day” was another lockdown song, written in response to events around VE Day in 2020. Performed solo by Rose on voice on guitar the anti-war message was re-enforced by allusions to the lyrics of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and John Lennon’s “Imagine”. There may even have been a U2 reference in there also.
Finally we heard a song written as recently as Good Friday 2022. “Bright Field” is another of Rose’s ‘love of nature’ songs, but this one is imbued with a William Blake like vision of spirituality within the natural world. It’s an undeniably beautiful song, one that ranks alongside Rose’s best and for many audience members it was their favourite of the set. It represented an excellent way to round off a typically classy performance from Rose, who was skilfully and sympathetically supported by Walsh.
This was a home town gig for Rose and there was a near capacity crowd at the Brewery to support her, including many family and friends. A superb start to the evening with the American half of this Transatlantic double bill still to come.
KENNY WHITE with GIULIA NUTI
Based in Brooklyn, New York Kenny White is a pianist, guitarist and songwriter who spent many years as a session musician, mainly playing piano, before joining the singer / songwriter ranks, frustrated by the lack of artistic freedom in the session world as he recorded the music for yet another Coca-Cola commercial.
His years in the session world also included work on film soundtracks and work as a musical director for artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Ricky Skaggs, and Aaron Neville. He has produced records by Peter Wolf and Shawn Colvin and worked with artists as varied as Merle Haggard, Marc Cohn and Keith Richards.
Since 2001 He has released four full length albums of original material, the latest being 2017’s “Long List of Priors”, from which much of tonight’s song selection was drawn.
I was already familiar with White’s earlier work from his previous UK live appearances with Rose, plus two of his other albums, 2005’s “Symphony in 16 Bars” and 2010’s “Comfort In the Static”.
These live and shows and recordings revealed White to be a literate and intelligent songwriter and a particularly perceptive lyricist. His songs invite comparisons with the works of such revered American songwriters as Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Paul Simon and Donald Fagen. White’s works exhibits similar qualities, his songs are witty, streetwise and intelligent, the lyrics sometimes laugh out loud funny, sometimes scathing, but just as often full of warmth and compassion.
White describes his latest album as;
“A chronicle of how the heart copes with the passing years, these tumultuous times, and the struggle to find simplicity in a complex world”.
There’s a lot of humanity in his songs, which are a mix of the personal and the political. White explores both areas with wit, intelligence and a sharp observational eye. The songs feature a beguiling mix of hard won, hard boiled street wisdom and a surprisingly tender vulnerability. He’s a sharp and clever lyricist who is able to move adroitly between cynical humour and genuine pathos. His singing voice, a kind of stylised New York drawl is perfectly suited to his material and serves it well in the manner of a Randy Newman or a Bob Dylan. None are classically “good” vocalists but their singing voices are a perfect fit for their own songs.
“Long List of Priors” finds White supported by other musicians and vocalists, among them David Crosby, but his songs are equally effective in a more pared down voice and piano or voice and guitar format. White also occasionally plays a little harmonica, held in a neck brace in the style of Dylan or Neil Young.
White’s regular European excursions have won him something of a following in Italy, a country he visits regularly. His accompanist tonight, violist Giulia Nuti, hails from Florence and has worked regularly with White on his European travels for over a decade.
Tonight’s set began with White seated at his Yamaha electric piano. The first song was “The Road Less Travelled”, the opening track from the latest album and a piece that includes the line “I’ve got a long list of priors” in its lyrics. His semi-spoken vocals were augmented by Nuti’s viola and vocal harmonies, which helped to balance the black humour of the literate but world weary lyrics.
From “Comfort In The Static” came the song “In Magnolia”, a song whose lyrics chronicle the loneliness of the touring singer-songwriter on the road.
White’s session colleagues once included drummer Steve Gadd, keyboard player Richard Tee and King Crimson bassist Tony Levin. Other musicians that White name-checked as part of his between song patter included keyboard player Nicky Hopkins, once the ‘Sixth Rolling Stone” and Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cippolina, a musician best known to UK audiences thanks to association with veteran Welsh rockers Man on the 1975 live album “Maximum Darkness”.
Much of this was a pre-amble to the song “The Beautiful Changes”, song from White’s début album “Uninvited Guest”. The lyrics reference Charlie Parker and his tune “Donna Lee”, evidence of White’s love and knowledge of jazz. The ‘folk’ label is one that can only be applied to him, or Rose, very loosely. Appropriately for a song inspired by jazz this piece also included an instrumental solo as Nuti’s viola took flight.
The Mose Allison inspired “She’s Coming on Saturday” features one of White’s sharpest lyrical observations. This song about a dysfunctional relationship is wickedly humorous and appears on the “Comfort in the Static” album. It proved to be something of an audience favourite here, with some listeners remembering it from White’s previous UK visits.
After the Parker references John Coltrane got a mention in the lyrics of “Who’s Going To Be The One To Save You?”, a song that saw White moving to guitar and harmonica as Nuti provided harmony vocals.
“Call Me When You’re On Your Way” was a song that I recalled from White’s earlier visits. Another guitar song this was a work that tackled a serious subject (his widowed mother’s Alzheimers) in an amusing and engaging fashion.
White toured as a pianist with Tom Jones, a tour that saw Jones moving away from overt pop material to tackle songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Randy Newman and the UK’s own Richard Thompson. The material included Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder To Birmingham”, which was performed here by White with Deborah Rose returning to the stage as guest vocalist.
From the latest album came “Cyberspace”, with White back on piano, which was a witty and acerbic observation of the online world and White’s despair about much of its content. One of the things that I like about White is that he sings songs from the point of view of a person his own age, he’s no longer a young man and doesn’t try to adopt the persona of one for either song writing or performance. It’s a surprisingly rare quality, albeit one shared with the late Leonard Cohen and the UK’s own Peter Hammill.
“What Good Would That Do Me Now”, sourced from “Comfort In The Static”, was a song about a failed relationship written in the style of a jazz standard, a bitter-sweet tale of love and loss.
From the latest album “4000 Reasons To Run”, a witty and acerbic song about a ‘femme fatale’ was given a rollicking treatment by White at the piano, very different from the rueful band performance on the album. Here the emphasis was very much on the bitterness and humour of the lyrics.
Nuti had sat out the last couple of numbers, but returned on viola for the beautiful ballad “The Other Shore” a song to compare with Tom Waits’ writing at its most tender. The recorded version features a sumptuous string arrangement by Antoine Silverman, which Nuti did a marvellous job of replicating here.
The deserved encore was “Drawing Board”, a guitar song from the EP “Never Like This”, White’s second solo release. Written at the time of the millennium the song was laced with a prescient. black humour that was somewhat at odds with the optimism of the time.
White then returned to the piano for the title track of “Symphony In Sixteen Bars”, a brief but poignant tribute to his late father, who passed away in 2003.
White’s performance was given a rapturous reception by the Ludlow audience and CD sales were correspondingly brisk. A word too for Nuti and Rose, who both made considerable contributions to the success of White’s set. With her viola and vocal skills Nuti was a particularly effective foil, adding a welcome dash of colour and texture to White’s already excellent songs.
White’s European tour had ended on a high note and hopefully he has enjoyed a safe return to the US.
My thanks to Deborah Rose for inviting me to cover this highly enjoyable event, and to Kenny White for the gift of a copy of “Long List of Priors”, which has been most helpful in the course of writing this review, as well as being a highly enjoyable listening experience.
With the pandemic now seemingly receding it is to be hoped that Kenny White’s visits to the UK and Europe can become an annual event once more.
In the meantime one hopes that Deborah Rose will be able to record her new material. A lot of people will be looking forward to hearing “Bright Field”, among others.
The only downside of the evening was the fact that I was driving and couldn’t sample any of Ludlow Brewery’s excellent products. That said I already know their beers well as they are one of my local breweries, so there will be plenty of other opportunities!