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The Living Mountain
Hudson Records HUD021CD
The book The Living Mountain conveys the very essence of the Cairngorm mountain range in north east Scotland; it was written by Aberdonian Nan Shepherd in the 1940s, but it sat in her desk drawer until it was published in 1977. Singer and songwriter Jenny Sturgeon paints a fabulous picture of the brooding, empty splendour of the high country – and a number of session musicians complete the vivid, shimmering image. She is working on an audio-visual project of the same name, alongside award-winning curator, filmmaker, facilitator, strategist and producer Shona Thomson – a collection of songs and films triggered by Nan’s book. Supported by Creative Scotland and Help Musicians, the show was supposed to be tour on 2020 and 2021; however, the covid pandemic jinxed that. Here’s hoping that the tour will blossom and grow this year.
Jenny is an organic musician who forges the old and the new with a fine and rare skill and individual art. Her songs are seamlessly woven with nature, folklore and the beautiful, rugged wild country. Among her recordings is the 2016 geese-inspired CD From The Skein and the 2018 album Northern Flyway, with accordionist Inge Thompson, a virtual tone-poem which tracked the course of the migrating sea-birds. The Living Mountain successfully brings together all the emptiness and grandeur of nature’s ways.
The celebrated producer Andy Bell recorded Jenny’s songs in the remote Clashnettie Arts Centre, close by the Cairngorm range. Jenny plays a plethora of instruments, including guitar, piano, dulcimer and harmonium; Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach and Jez Riley French contributed field recordings of the copious wildlife which inhabits the thousands of acres – snipe, crested tit, snow bunting, golden plover, ptarmigan and red deer. Musicians include bassist Grant Anderson, viola player Mairi Campbell and cellist Su-a Lee; from the opener ‘The Plateau’ to the closing ‘Being’, ethereal harmonies and fleeting, wonderful strings abound. This album is like an isolated walk by yourself in the mountains; it soothes the mind and refreshes the soul.
Between Islands (double CD)
An Lanntair Records LANCD0006
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
In line with several creative ideas, the Between Islands Project had to be halted because of covid-19. Originally initiated by the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, Lewis, and funded through the LEADER 2014-2020 regional cooperation scheme, the project had been working with 13 artists from Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides. Musical performances were planned for the Shetland Folk Festival and Heb Celt in Lewis, but the virus put paid to that.
Project coordinator Alex Macdonald explains: “As the project was based on live events, initially we were at a loss as to how it could be saved. Thankfully we were able to redesign what was planned, and this double CD contains both live work previously captured and a series of entirely new tracks recorded in lockdown.”
Between Islands encapsulates the songwriting project, with Orkney’s Kris Drever, Willie from Lewis and Arthur Nicholson from Shetland; the fiddle project, with Shetland’s Maggie Adamson, Orkney’s Louise Bichan and Lewis’s Jane Hepburn Macmillan trading some stunning and beautiful tunes; and the folk project, with Orkney musicmeister quartet Saltfishforty, North Uist-born Julie Fowlis, Kathleen Macinnes (born in South Uist and living in Glasgow), Maggie Adamson, Jenny Napier Keldie and Neil Johnstone.
CD one is studio recorded and CD two live at An Lanntair; the many spectacular highlights include Saltfishforty and Jane Hepburn Macmillan’s rollicking and swaggering ‘The Curly Doddy/The West To The North/The Last Queen Of Burray’; the classic and serene ‘Da Slockit Light’, written by the late fiddler Tom Anderson after the passing of his wife; Maggie Adamson’s ‘Maggie Robertson’s Reel/Cosgrave’s Sound/Hurlock’s Reel’; ‘Fishing Puirt/The Stronsay Weaver’, an unaccompanied puirt a beul which tells the story of the herring girls following the fishing fleet; and fiddler Douglas Montgomery’s ‘Howe Hornpipe’, composed for his mother and father on the occasion of their fiftieth wedding anniversary – Howe is the family home in Burray where he grew up with his brother and sister. All the tracks are faultlessly superb, and they include Kris Drever pairing with Linda Macleod, Neil Johnstone linked with Louise Bichan, Arthur Nicholson duetting with Julie Fowlis, Maggie Adamson together with Kathleen Macinnes and Willie Campbell performing with Jenny Napier Keldie. All the artists absolutely strike sparks; Between Islands could have met with disaster because of the virus, but now this double album is a triumphant must-hear souvenir for all the world to share and savour.
Folky Gibbon Records FGCD0025
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
The Chair is a mighty kick-butt eight-piece dance band from the bleak and beautiful Orkney Islands; the line-up is drummer Erik Laughton, percussionist Robbie Thompson, bassist Andrew Gifford, guitarist Gavin Firth, accordionist Bob Gibbon, Brian Cromarty on banjo and mandolin, while Kenny Ritch and Douglas Montgomery magic up the singing, ringing fiddles. Orkney Monster is the long-awaited third album, and it’s living aural proof that nobody can keep still when these cracking musicians get down and just rock. They have become synonymous for live concerts, festival highlights, late-night parties and the unique ‘Orkney Stomp’, which fits in snugly with ‘The Orkney Soond’ – in fact, Douglas and Brian make up half of the Orcadian quartet Saltfishforty, which the magazine Living Tradition recommends as “a class act from start to finish”.
This album sizzles, backfires, steams and smoulders. Master tunesmith Gavin contributes his fair share, including the desolate-but-gentle epic ‘Wee Davie’. Douglas and Brian write barnstorming tunes, Bob fashions the marvelous ‘Margaret Davidson’ while Kenny pens ‘Fixing George’, the first in the ‘Fixing Jigs’ set. First up is a sizzling ‘Beachcombers’ set, which fires off with a polka penned by Gavin, building up with Donal Lunny’s ‘Tolka Polka’ and culminating with ‘The Angry Seal’, Douglas’s shuddering juggernaut of a dance tune. There are only two songs, but the vocals and harmonies are really impressive and refreshing – American Tim O’Brien’s juiced-up ‘Walk Beside Me’ and Tom Waits’ wistful, wonderful composition ‘Shiver Me Timbers’.
The Chair alternate between brash-and-swaggering original tunes – I’m just loving those fiddles! – and gorgeous, peaceful airs of beauteous splendour. Most of all, the traditional, chugging ‘The Rose In The Gap’ shouts loudly and clearly what the band is all about – a carnivorous energy-force coupled to a no-holds-barred attitude of creating never-ending hedonistic fun. No doubt about it – Orkney Monster places them fairly and squarely in the champions’ league of exciting artists to watch, hear, experience and savour.
ARC Music EUCD2935
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
The members of Llantrisant Folk Club were eagerly looking forward to experience the five-strong Belgian band WӦR coming to South Wales and playing their stunning set; alas, that wasn’t to be. Baritone saxophonist Fabio Di Meo, fiddler, mandolin and banjoist Jergen Goegebuer, bagpiper, saxophonist and pianist Pieterjan Van Kerckhoven, accordionist Bert Ruymbeek and guitarist/double bassist Jonas Scheys cancelled their British tour – and on the resurgence of the covid pandemic, music, shows, singing, dancing and the whole way of life came to a shuddering stop.
This is the third album from this Flanders five-piece, and it’s based upon the lovely tradition of the carillon – a set of tuned bronze bells, suspended in a bell tower. Belgium and The Netherlands enjoy the greatest concentration of bell towers in the world, with 68 in all. Carillons can vary significantly in weight, ranging from a few hundred kilograms to 40 tons; professional bellringers, or carilloneurs, play the music with a baton-type keyboard, where the keys are connected to the bells’ clappers and sets them in motion. Around 1644, brothers Francois and Pieter Hemony together with the carillonneur Jacob Van Eyck developed a technique to tune the bells accurately. From then on, Carillons mostly played arrangements of folk songs; however, from the 18th century onwards, original compositions were written for the instrument. The First World War broke out, and 13 carrillons were destroyed; this caused a great outcry and led to the introduction of the carillon culture in North America. In 2014, UNESCO recognised the carillon culture in Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia as an intangible cultural heritage.
WӦR develop this remarkable album as a full-on and delightful assault on the audience’s ears and minds – absolutely great and very startling writing, using hints of classical pieces melded to Belgian folk, and a never-ending battery of bagpipes, saxes, fiddles, accordion and echoing, ringing carillon stir the bubbling musical cauldron. The striking repertoire is entirely instrumental; voices would only break the spell of the scintillating atmosphere.
About Towers is overflowing with ingenuous originality coupled with a bonding love and regard of ageless Belgian tradition; from the opening ‘Beyaert’ to the entrancing ‘Jolies Filles’, the joyous ‘Bien Amoureux’ and the closing, quiet ‘Cecilia’, quite simply it’s a gorgeous cracker. When I travel to Belgium, notwithstanding covid and the appalling Brexit nightmare, I will see and hear carillons in a different light now.
Come Nobles and Heroes
Talking Cat Recordings ORRCD002
Mossy Christian comes from Lincolnshire and is a talented player of the fiddle, anglo-concertina and one-row melodeon; Jon Loomes, the well-known hurdy-gurdy player who set up Talking Cat Recordings and co-produced Mossy’s solo debut album, describes him as “a young performer who bears the mantle of tradition proudly.” Influenced by source singers such as Joseph Taylor, Harry Cox and Walter Pardon, his dextrous musicianship bubbles with a sparkling vitality. Come Nobles and Heroes is chock-full of traditional and Kipling-Bellamy material from England’s coastal counties and makes a very interesting listen.
Mossy’s session musicians comprise the wonderful Johnny Adams (trombone and bass brass arrangements), Gina Le Faux (mandolin), Tim Walker (percussion and cornet) and Jon on guitar and hurdy-gurdy. Edwin Beasant plays bass bugle and Ruth Bibby lends a hand – or rather, two feet – at clog dancing, on the finisher ‘Dan Leno’. First up is the ranting medley ‘Market Rasen Feast / Louth Quickstep’, learned from a manuscript which was compiled from 1823 to 1826 by Jushua Gibbons, a papermaker from Tealby, Lincolnshire, suitable for the band to get motoring. Methinks I hear Mossy double-tracked on fiddle and squeeze-box! Definitely one to watch…
…Then As Now
I’m really looking forward to a Llantrisant Folk Club visit by Nick Dow and his lovely gypsy wife Mally on July 7, 2021 – covid and the new dangerous strain permitting. Nick, a Londoner who has located to East Lancashire, is a mesmerising performer, impressive guitarist and respected song collector, and he makes it his business restoring and renovating travellers’ wagons. He has been performing and researching folk songs for over 40 years and is an acknowledged expert on the West Country tradition.
During the pandemic lockdown, Nick has taken the time to list together all the existing recordings that he owns. He recorded tracks for the BBC in 1990, with Nigel Canter on fiddle and Chris Robson on button accordion; however, the BBC eventually deleted all the recordings. Nick thought the tracks had disappeared – but, he says, imagine his delight when a long-lost cassette dropped through his letter box. A friend of Nick’s had stored the BBC recordings in his loft and kept them for the last 30 years; little did he know that he had found he had found a precious gem.
A lot has happened in those 30 years; Nigel went on to join the bluegrass band Bowed Legged Skeeter – recent favourites at the Gower Bluegrass Festival – and had a successful music career. Chris became a light operatic singer; both are still playing and performing. However, the recordings have been remastered and …Then As Now has been made into a CD, with three extra unreleased tracks. The songs are from the Hammond and Gardiner collections or songs which Nick found in Dorset on his collecting trips, and he has polished his reputable repertoire as good as new. Fourteen entrancing stories, from the opener ‘The Brewer Lad’ and ‘The Maid In Bedlam’ to ‘The Trees They Grow So High’ and ‘The Man Of Burningham Town’, come up as bright as a new pin; furthermore, Nick will charge you the amazing bargain of £6.50, postage and packing included. What’s not to like?
Reviews for 2020 and earlier have now been archived and can be found on the CD Reviews Archive (from 2017) page