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MICK RYAN & CAST
Here At The Fair (double CD)
WildGoose Records WGS428CD
Mick Ryan always holds the golden reputation of writing prolific and absolutely singable material, which is why his songs get sung and there’s a lengthy queue of artists of artists just waiting to interpret them. His latest is his sixth ‘folk opera’, Here At The Fair, and he’s assembled a glittering cast; the year is 1850, and the fiery zeal which fired the political reformist Chartist movement is still an undying memory. The folk opera is set at a country fair, where travelling showmen and women arrive to set out their stalls. Mick plays Vincent Crummles, a character from Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby and an actor manager, who has now fallen on hard times. The cast includes Alice Jones as Crummles’ daughter, Ninnetta, ‘The Infant Phenomenon’; Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (of Granny’s Attic) plays reluctant clown Steven Starling, based on Sissy Jupe from Dickens’ Hard Times; Pete Morton is Professor Sleary, another character from Hard Times, who now runs a flea circus; fortune teller Madam Lavengro is played by Heather Bradford; Geoff Lakeman plays snake-oil salesman Doctor Maldini; and the other members of Granny’s Attic are in the cast as well; the strong, controlled voice of George Sansome plays ballad seller John Smith, and Lewis Wood is in perfect character as the itinerant fiddler.
The inspiring co-operation between Mick and WildGoose owner and recording engineer Doug Bailey deserves a whole heap of applause for pulling off his folk opera successfully; however, it must have been a careless slip of the keypad to announce in the notes that Chartism was an English movement for political reform. Wales and Scotland, too, marched together – in fact, Scotland had more than 20 Chartist churches. The Peterloo Massacre of August 19, 1819, saw 80,000 people hear radical speaker Henry Hunt address a political reform meeting at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, and 11 people were killed as the Yeomanry tied to seize revolutionary banners. However, this was completely overshadowed by The Newport Rising of November 4, 1839, where more than 10,000 coal-miners and many Chartist sympathisers – led by John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones – marched down the Gwent valleys to the town of Newport, determined to free their fellow Chartist prisoners from The Westgate Hotel; in the ensuing melee, about 22 demonstrators were killed by troops of the Nottinghamshire Regiment and 50 were wounded. Frost, Williams and Jones were arrested for treason and were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered; however, these sentences were commuted to transportation. Another Chartist leader, the notorious Welshman and druid Dr William Price, had serious doubts about the march on Newport and withdrew his support. He later escaped to France, disguised as a woman.
Mick depicts the middle of the 19th Century where the whole of the country was plunged into economic hardship and austerity, with the population having to scrape a living – those far-right Brexiteers should heed a deadly serious and totally inevitable warning. However, the whole of the cast really pulls together and comes out singing and shining with a double-CD of 22 tracks; Lewis plays the introductory tune, while Mick coaxes the punters with a calling-on song, ‘Here At The Fair’, with dancing tuba beckoning them on and persuading them to see the show and to stump up some money. The songs tumble out thick and fast; Cohen takes the lead with ‘It’ll Do’, swelling into a chorus belter, while the sweet, lovely voice of Alice (described by fRoots as “a seriously impressive singer”) caresses the lyrics in ‘We Must Wander’. Mind you, Pete steals the show with his over-the-top rendition of Sleary’s ‘I Have Fleas!’
Act Two shows the darker side, with Geoff’s tale of Peterloo, ‘I Was There’; Heather, as Madam Lavengro, tells the last great Chartist meeting in 1848 (‘Hope Was High’), and Alice pictures hard times on the road with ‘I Can Remember’. Mick, as Crummles, finally admits to himself and to his daughter that his great days are long gone in ‘The Turning Of The Years’. The folk opera finally bows out with a swaggering bow in ‘People Must Be Amused’. The whole cast give their all in a tremendous show; Mick can certainly be assured that his latest work is his best yet, and WildGoose Studios deserves to be heartily slapped on the back.
A Cure For The Curious
Trailblazing trio Solasta played their young hearts out to capacity crowds at the Valley Folk Club and Llantrisant Folk Club this year, where they showcased their debut album; the band were already riding high, boosted by The Guardian’s four-star review for A Cure For The Curious, which the newspaper hailed as: “Fizzingly bold new-generation folk”. In fact, veteran editor Ian Anderson broadcast their album track ‘Lost And Found’ on the internet at fRoots Radio, where Solasta nestled comfortably among the likes of The Kimberleys, Ìmar, The Furrow Collective and the thrilling hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe dance sounds of Belgian band Cecilia.
The trio comprises Welsh cellist Hannah Thomas, daughter of Porthcawl residents and harmony singers Neil and Louise Thomas, a professional musician working in Wicked, other West End shows and classical Royal Albert Hall performances in the London area and all over the country; award-winning spectacular Scottish fiddler Elisabeth Flett, also based in London, who performs in many musical combinations; and guitarist Jamie Leeming, who has amassed a host of international tours and recordings to his name and has performed at venues such as the Hammersmith Apollo and BBC Music Big Weekend.
Dylan Fowler recorded the album at his Abergavenny-based Stiwdio Felin Fach, which has certainly gained an enviable reputation for unbeatable and inspiring productions; right from the start, Gavin Marwick’s tune ‘The Plate Smasher’ conjures images of vivid raucous Greek weddings, followed by Gavin’s composing brainstorm of frenzied, dissonant fiddling, ‘cello and guitar in ‘Upstairs At O’Neills’. ‘The 5/8 Set’ is a dizzy combination between a trio of prolific composers, wonderful accordionist Phil Cunningham, Elisabeth Flett herself and Gordon Duncan. Solasta happily mine many contemporary writers, with Hannah and Jamie at the forefront; ‘The Pirate Set’ includes Simon Owen’s ‘Morgawr’, always a session favourite in Wales, Hannah’s ‘The Copper Pirate’ and Sarah Taylor’s ‘The Maam’, and ‘Reels’ contains two absolutely fizzing tunes by spectacular Scottish accordionist and bagpiper Mairearad Green, who – together with partner-in-crime Anna Massie – is coming to wow the audience at Llantrisant Folk Club on April 17.
Solasta throw down a big, bold uncompromising statement about new-generation folk, which is bubbling over and effervescing with inventive ideas concerning the tradition’s past and its blazing future. They reinterpret and examine two well-known and well-loved songs, ‘Bedlam Boys’ (Boys Of Bedlam, from Thomas d’Urfey’s 1720 text Pills to Purge Melancholy, where it had the title ‘Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom of Bedlam’; it was set to music by Dave Moran, from the 1960s trio The Halliard, with some input by Nic Jones) and ‘Terror Time’, a no-holds-barred winter warning from Ewan McColl’s 1964 radio ballad The Travelling People. Interesting fact: Steeleye Span’s debut album Please To See The King had this note about Bedlam: “The priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem at Bishopsgate, founded in 1247, became the male lunatic asylum known as Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, in 1547… The hospital of St. Mary Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) was its female counterpart.”
A Cure For The Curious is chock-a-block with inventive arrangements and really stunning, innovative playing; Hannah’s parents, who were included as executive producers on the album, should be pretty proud and very impressed with this gorgeous production. Come their next album, Solasta can reach for the stars.
MICK’S SICKS and QUICKS
In February 2019, I took to my bed with a nasty and incredibly painful dose of cellulitis, combined with a kidney infection; I endured the sheer hell of the Royal Glamorgan Hospital’s A&E – twice – and I spent a long time lying flat on my back, unable to work on my computer or my cellphone. My partner, Olly, was an absolute angel; I cannot thank her enough for her selfless sacrifices, which put her in considerable danger. I’m slowly recovering now – touch wood – but the constant flood of CD reviews, vibrant and vital Welsh folk news, the administration involved in running FolkWales Online Magazine and monitoring, checking and finally loading the all-Wales Listings of Folk-Roots Events looks as though I’m endlessly cleaning out the Augean stables – figuratively speaking. In the meantime, my ears and mind have been forcibly and pleasantly inspired by a plethora of fabulous music-making from these islands and beyond, and these are my supine thoughts. I do apologise for these very brief reviews, but I’m making the best of a very trying and tiring affliction – so please bear with me.
MICK’S QUICKS – James and Sam are The Brothers Gillespie, based in the market town of Hexham, Northumberland; their second album, The Fell (TBGCD002) is mixed with strong Incredible String Band influences, flowing guitar, sparing fiddle and raw, bleak voices that captures the Border Country to a T, with stark original songs mixed with familiar Scottish trad. Strangely appealing. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Award-winning multi-instrumentalist and Glaswegian Innes Watson teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, having graduated with a BA in Scottish Music; a plethora of stellar musicians, including Ali Hutton, Patsy Reid, Duncan Lyall and Mike Vass, all contribute to stun the collective listeners’ minds with 14 fabulous and self-written tracks which make up his debut Innes Watson’s Guitar Colloquium (Isle Music Scotland ILSE06CD). His masterful guitar-fingering flickers all over the place and is a total delight – highly recommended! FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Alt-folk singer-songwriter Katie Spencer is 21 and based in the Yorkshire countryside; her strong, rippling guitar is an acoustic benchmark, but her original compositions on her independent release, Weather Beaten (GUK-PR002KRS) are a tad samey and disjointed, and do not really work for me. She changes the tune of the only trad song, the well-worn chestnut ‘Spencer The Rover’ – not for the better, in my humble opinion. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs down
The spectacular Outer Hebridean five-piece Eabhal formed on the island of South Uist and consists of lead vocalist Kaitlin Ross, accordionist Megan MacDonald, fiddler Jamie MacDonald, guitarist Nicky Kirk and bagpiper, flautist and whistler Hamish Hepburn. Their debut album, This Is How The Ladies Dance (EAB01) is a thrilling and sublime melange of Gaelic waulking and Hebridean songs, original compositions, Scottish reels and strathspeys, plus a sparkling touch of Irish culture and the inspiration of Michel Bordeleau (of French-Canadian La Bottine Souriante.) A simply superb offering! FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Liverpudlian peoples’ storyteller and left-wing songwriter Alun Parry roars back with his latest hard-hitting album, Whatever Your Struggle (independently released, no catalogue number), and the latest welcome news is that his promo show was a complete sell-out. Alun is an inspirational and educational songsmith, and he pulls every stop out to really entertain; not a track is wasted here, and he takes special care with his lyrics and verses to strike the nail right on the head. The shining light is the jaw-dropping, disturbing and completely unaccompanied ballad ‘Come Join The Army, Son’, which deserves to be learned and sung loud and long. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
The deep, smoky voice of pianist and singer Katherine Campbell paints a lovely palette of ten songs of the famous Scottish bard in which the tunes have been lost, entitled Robert Burns: Tune Unknown (SCKCBU020CD), especially released on Burns Day this year. From ‘In Tarbolton, Ye Ken’ to ‘The Night Was Still’, she sets Burns’ poems to her own composition, making it a welcome reference link in the Burns repertoire. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Many moons ago, Blyde Lassies (fiddler Claire White and concertina player Frances Wilkins) travelled down from Shetland and really captivated the Llantrisant Folk Club audience; Lerwick-born Claire, accompanied by guitarist Robbie Leask, has recorded an absolutely delightful album of written and traditional songs and tunes emphasising the Shetland female viewpoint and called Lassies Trust In Providence (QUARFF101) and enhanced by some elegant bowing. She skilfully weaves ‘Da Fateful Tale O Marion Pardone’, ‘Da Hennie’ and ‘Betty Mouat’s Sang’, and there’s even a Shetland dialect glossary for good measure. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Irish songwriter, singer and guitarist John Blek is based in County Cork; his fourth album, Thistle & Thorn (WARR010), was recorded in the West Cork town of Clonakilty and across the Atlantic in Louisville, Kentucky, and it’s filled with his strong and mesmerising voice and his haunting songs. He’s played in South Wales before; the folk club world might shy away from his individual style, but he’s found new punters who are willing to listen. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Good-time quintet The Jake Leg Jug Band have an absolute ball serving up the authentic sounds of 1920s and 1930s America in droves in their remarkable and very enjoyable album Fifth Avenue (Green Bullet Records GB1802-1). The excellent line-up is guitarists Duncan Wilcox and Neil Hulse, Toby Wilson (banjo and dobro) washboard player Bryony-Rose and Liam Ward (harmonica and jug, who is also a member of Swansea-based The Rumblestrutters). All five take the lead at vocalising in the 17 standout tracks, with Bryony-Rose’s voice making grown men’s knees turn to quivering jelly. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Scottish songwriter, singer and playwright Karine Polwart follows up her outstanding touring show and album A Pocket Of Wind Resistance with her hard-hitting and totally mesmerising Laws Of Motion (Hudson Records HUD014PR), the latest in an evolving series of collaborative projects across which she has combined music and storytelling with politics and environmental-societal issues, with accordionist Inge Thompson and brother Steven Polwart accompanying. Her poetic storytelling shines out with ‘Suitcase’, the tale of thousands of Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and her grandfather’s influence in ‘Young Man On The Mountain’, where she traces his life from a forester in the Trossachs to his World War II experiences in Italy. However, the standout piece is ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’, her devastating put-down of Trump. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Award-winning singer-songwriter Katie Docherty hails from Teesside and was based in Newcastle, before she was spirited away to a Durham hill by her by her sheep-farming husband; she spent six years recording and touring in Germany and Europe with Broom Bezzums, fiddler Andrew Cadie and guitarist Mark Bloomer. And Then (Steeplejack Records SJCD023), her first album with The Navigators, fiddler Shona Mooney and melodeonist David Gray, constitutes 10 tracks of exquisite and original word-play, drifting harmonies and fabulous arrangements; It’s fair to say that Katie is one of the quiet revolution which has been evolving in Folk Music is all these years. A truly lovely album… FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Tinc y Tannau are artists and composers Ailsa Mair Hughes and Sioned Jones, who play bass viola da gamba and sing jarring, dissonant harmonies in their own original way; Dylan Fowler recorded and mixed their debut CD, Galw (independently released, no catalogue number) that leads listeners on a celtic dreamworld of a scattering of Welsh folk songs, poems by Taliesyn, Welsh contemporary Christine Watkins and Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, playwright and theatre director who was executed by Franco’s Nationalist forces in 1936. Punters who hoped for a night of easy listening might run away in fright, but the duo definitely falls in the Marmite category; however, I have a strange fascination for the sticky brown stuff. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
American folk singer, songwriter, banjo player and icon Hedy West was born in 1938 in Barlow County, Georgia and died of cancer at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in July 3, 2005; many notable artists, including Bert Lloyd and Martin Simpson, fell under her entrancing influence. Unreleased until now, Untitled (Fledg’ling Records FLED3110) was recorded in the late 1970s in Germany, where Hedy settled; it’s an 11-track time capsule that shows her, at Lloyd put it, as being “the best of the lot”. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
In the wake of Karine Polwart’s stunning Wind Resistance, Aberdeenshire songwriter Jenny Sturgeon and accordionist Inge Thompson, who was born in the remote Fair Isle in the Shetland archipelago, have produced their latest show and album on the similar subject of man’s relation to birds, Northern Flyway (Hudson Records HUD013PR). The twelve tracks, with titles such as ‘Rosefinch’, ‘The Gannets’, ‘Curlew’ and ‘Lost Lapwing’, recorded conversations and bird calls, are just a tad inferior to Polwart’s storming performance; nevertheless, they have succeeded in capturing the bleak, lonely shores and the seabirds’ soaring flight. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Last but not least, Topic Records have released an exhilarating and fascinating history on the best-loved and most utterly respected traditional singers in An Introduction To Norma Waterson (TICD013). From ‘Seven Virgins (The Leaves Of Life)’ from The Watersons’ 1965 debut album Frost And Fire, to ‘Bunch Of Thyme’, taken from Norma and her daughter Eliza Carthy’s 2010 CD Gift, the 15 tracks seem to radiate and glow. Norma’s husband, the great Martin Carthy, has an important hand in the compilation; the late Lal Waterson, plus other stellar musicians including Tim Van Eyken, Saul Rose, Ben Ivitsky, Chris Parkinson, Mary MacMaster, Rod Stradling, Peta Webb and Tony Engle, all contribute to this a stunning showpiece. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
I have to declare an interest here – in the days of yore, I booked up-and-coming Caldicot-based band One String Loose for Tredegar House Folk Festival. One String Loose metamorphosed into the butt-kicking South Wales indie-roots band Rusty Shackle, and the original members – amazing fiddler and banjoist Scott McKeon and bassist Baz Barwick – are still firing on all cylinders and creating enjoyment and mayhem wherever they go. The band have released a red-hot single, ‘Sam Hall’, as a storming prelude to their forthcoming album, The Raven, The Thief And The Hangman, which will be out in February; the old familiar ballad gets shocked alive with crazy bowing, crashing drums and howling guitars. The band will do The Album Tour in Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff (February 8) and The Exchange, Bristol (February 15) – It’s folk, Jim, but not as we know it! FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Norwegian vocalist Anne Marie Almedal creates her own magical dream-world on the third album, Lightshadow (i+47 18/012 CD); her lovely, flowing voice inhabits 10 ambient folk-pop songs, which she co-wrote with acoustic guitarist, keyboards player and co-producer Nicholas Sillitoe, and the whole album was recorded at the southern Norwegian town of Kristiansand. This is music to float serenely by… FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Me And My Friends are an English quintet consisting of the West African guitar and elegant vocals of Nick Rasle, cellist and vocalist Emma Coleman, five-string bassist James Grumwell, clarinettist and vocalist Sam Murray and percussionist Fred Harper; they joyfully combine the heady sound of English folk colliding head-on with the golden-era music of 1970s West Africa and the Caribbean in the album Look Up (Split Shift Records MAMFCD001). Gloriously danceable! FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
What and where are the SnowRoads? the answer lies in the Cairngorms National Park, located in the North East of Scotland; composer, singer and guitarist Calum Wood has created an EP called She Wynds On (Magic Park Records SRCM1018), including many noted musicians such as fiddler Charlie McKerron, bagpiper Ross Ainslie and Scottish accordion champion Robert Black – Calum spent six months playing alongside him and other accordion champion Matthew MacLennan at The Taste Of Scotland show. The project was commissioned by Visit Cairngorms to promote a new must-do scenic tourist route, and it leads you on spectacular journeys from Blairgowrie and Braemar, from Breamar to Ballater, from Ballater to Tomintoul and then on to Grantown-on-Spey. Like the Cairngorms, it’s grand and it’s beautiful. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
The Scottish trio Birichen consists of vocalist Catriona Sutherland, fiddler and guitarist Iain-Gordon Macfarlane and dobro player Robert McDonald; their EP Hush (CLS786BIR, independent release) is a heart-warming and varied quintet of written songs, composed by Robert (‘Hold On To Each Moment’), Gillian Welch and David Hawkridge (‘Scarlet Town’), Catriona herself (‘Gonnae Get Good’), Guy Charles Clark (‘LA Freeway’) and Jim McLean (‘Smile In Your Sleep’, stark verses and a beautiful tune about the Highland Clearances.) An EP to savour. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
London duo Dave Ellis and Boo Howard have been together since 1979, and Great Pleasure (Doghouse Records DGHCD529) is the ninth album they have recorded; 14 faultless tracks, masterful guitar and harmonious voices that are bang on target; however, they tend to align themselves with the commercial cabaret-style scene. This is one for the easy-listening crowds, who will be bound to snap up the product in droves; others will make out that the songs and the performance are just too sweetly saccharine. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs so-so…
The golden-voiced and pretty wonderful Jim Causley has released a Special Commissions EP (Hrôc Music, no catalogue number) in which he records seven one-off written projects based in Devon and Cornwall, accompanying himself solo on accordion and piano. ‘City of Trees’ is for Common Ground’s Exeter Tree Tales project, ‘Diamond On The Moor’, ‘Green Lanes’ and ‘On The Border’ was written for Tony Deane, Valerie Belsey and the Charles Causley Trust and ‘Pride Of The Moor’ was for Simon Pope’s Dartmoor Stannary project. ‘Glorious Devon Morning’ was for Martin Rooney and ‘Unearthed Theme’ was written for Villages In Action; all in all, it’s a gloriously satisfying feat and very well worth it. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
The excellent fiddler Alastair Savage, born and raised in Ayrshire and still a Scottish Symphony Orchestra member, has released a marvellous compendium of self-composed tunes and the classic fiddle repertoire including the legendary James Scott Skinner, Neil Gow and William Marshall called When Barley Reaches Shore (Woodland Records SAV005CD). The album features ‘Islay Wedding Music’: part 1, commissioned by friends for a 2013 wedding on that island and Part 2, which includes tunes written by Alastair for his 2016 wedding on the same island. Ewan Drysdale (piano and guitar) and double-bassist Iain Crawford accompany him to perfection. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!