Kelly Oliver + Speak Brother @ Kitchen Garden Café, 24th February 2016

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Nestled just a short hop from the bustling pavements of King’s Heath’s York Road, is where you will find the Kitchen Garden Café. With a name like that, you would be right to presume that such a place would be filled with the kind of wholesome treats that could satisfy even the most demanding of appetites. In addition to the premises operating as a café, there is also a restaurant; a garden boutique; and for quite some time now, a music venue which has sought to bring the very best in folk music to the city of Birmingham. One glance at the list of musicians scheduled to play this intimate setting over the coming months (Michael Chapman, Kathryn Williams, Alasdair Roberts, Martin Carthy and Trembling Bells) demonstrates not only the credibility of the Kitchen Garden Café, but also the variety of traditional and contemporary folk musicians that are out there.

In addition to those celebrated and more established artists that pass through the door of the Kitchen Garden Café, there are also the artists that are just beginning to find their voice. It is critical that such artists are not neglected. Indeed, there will always be a demand to hear the offerings from those that are relatively new to the game. Often, it is where you will find alternate visions that can breathe new life into any art form.

It is from this end of the folk spectrum that the audience attending tonight’s show are here to see. The headliner is the emerging talent that is Kelly Oliver. It almost seems crass to refer to her in such a way as this tour sees Oliver promoting her second album Bedlam, which gets its official release on the 6th March via Folkstock Records. Nevertheless, it is following the release of 2014’s This Land and the pending release of Bedlam that Oliver is starting to register on the radar of the likes of BBC 6 Music, the national print press and most notably, the esteemed and highly reliable Bob Harris of BBC Radio 2.

Before the arrival of Oliver, the audience claim their seats for the next couple of hours, ready to hear the latest additions to the ever expanding list of exponents of folk. First up is the Rugby based foursome known as Speak Brother. The band are actually a five piece, but mention that they have have had to forgo the services of their drummer on account of the intimate setting, and with space being at a premium, the running joke about the drummer being the fall guy of any group is once more endorsed.

Kelly Oliver with Speak Brother after the show

kgc speak brother and kelly oliver

The group politely secure themselves behind their instruments, which consists of a guitarist, pianist, fiddle player and a bassist who also does a fine job of providing additional percussion throughout. Speak Brother begin with a song called “Slow to Now”. The song begins with a delicate instrumentation and vocal which laps at a crescendo throughout before building the momentum which takes them over the threshold and into a rousing finale. A bold statement of intent which the group back up with standout songs “Dry Bones” and the delightfully poignant “Two Bands of Gold”. The latter made all the more heartfelt following the admission from the band around the inspiration for the song. Indeed, the backstory to each song does actually enhance the listening experience, although those notions of mystery and allowing the listener to forge their own interpretation of a song are sometimes more preferable.

These sentiments are echoed by Kelly Oliver later in the evening whilst recounting a story about a review of her song “Same World”, in which the journalist concerned offered such a revelatory interpretation of the song’s meaning, that Oliver herself forgot all about her original inspiration, and instead became preoccupied by the new take that had been pointed out to her. Following this anecdote, Oliver irreverently encourages the audience attribute their own interpretation to her songs, and not be restricted by those claiming to light the way.

And so to the headliner for tonight, the much heralded Kelly Oliver. Though the expanse of the sound documented upon Oliver’s releases thus far varies from full accompaniment to the minimal, the audience tonight are set to experience a completely stripped back variation on what they may have heard previously. This is always, always, a privileged opportunity. To hear songs in so close a way as possible to how they may have been composed is a rare treat. Irrespective of my idiotic assumption, it is always a joy to be privy such an exposing and intimate performance.

Oliver takes her place out front, poised with just her guitar, a pocketful of harmonicas and a voice which has already help secure her Folkwords’ ‘Best Album By A Female Artist 2014’ and the winner of ‘Help Musicians UK – Emerging Excellence Award’. These are the only tools that she will need in order to transfix the audience for the duration of a set that takes in a healthy dose of songs from not only This Land and Bedlam, but also her 2013 EP Far From Home. In addition to this, Oliver delves into the folk canon and cherry-picks a number of classics, some wholly familiar, some less so. Every song is executed with a glistening poise and there is not a hint of self doubt.

Oliver’s own compositions offer up intricate tales that are woven into the confines of a four minute song. “Miles to Tralee”, “Diamond Girl” and “The Witch of Walkern” draw the audience into the lives of the sometimes fictional, sometimes real, characters that exist within each song. The extent of the audiences’ descent into Oliver’s creations seems most apparent at the conclusion of each song. There is a momentary silence between the last notes produced by Oliver and the start of the audience applause which lasts just that tiny fragment of time long enough for the seeds of doubt to be sown in the artist’s mind. Though this might be uncomfortable for Oliver, rest assured, it’s simply the necessary adjustment time required for the attentive audience to snap themselves back into reality. Surely a testament to Oliver’s songwriting and her ability to cast an attentive spell over the listener.

My personal favourite performance of the evening was during “The Other Women” – an interesting examination into the emotions experienced by a mistress, who in an ironic twist, begins to grow envious of the women that is being cheated and lied to. At the conclusion of her set, Oliver makes light of the lack of a backstage in which she can disappear to before emerging for the encore. Instead, Oliver thanks everyone for their attentiveness before delivering a glorious version of “Boots of Spanish Leather”. I do hope that Kelly Oliver makes a return to Birmingham. She would easily go down a storm at The Moseley Folk Festival.

A reminder as to the humble beginnings that most musicians will encounter in those formative years in which they toil in order to take the fruits of their labours to as many discerning ears as possible greets you as you exit the Kitchen Garden Café. The opposite side of the road bares a mural of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. The remnant reminder of the long since departed Ritz Ballroom. A place in which the likes of the aforementioned passed through on their way to superstardom. Of course, such epic ascents, we may never see the likes of again, but it’s comforting to have that gentle reminder, both by the mural and the young talent on display this evening, that it’s ok to dream big. And that the spirit of the artist is still smouldering away, just waiting for that spark that could ignite their careers and the imaginations of a generation.


Review: Chris Curtis

Photographs courtesy of Folkstock

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