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- STEVE TYLER
- SARAH DAVIES
- THE OLD SWAN BAND
- THE RHEINGANS SISTERS
- STACEY MCNEILL & JONATHAN SMITH
- REIMAGINE: BEYOND THE BORDER ONLINE
- THE CIDERHOUSE REBELLION
- JOY & ANDREW
- MAIMU JÖGEDA
- THE HAAR
- MICK’S QUICKS
- CHARLIE DORE
- VICKI SWAN & JONNY DYER
- ROAD NOT TAKEN
- ANNE LISTER
- MICK’S QUICKS
- SETH LAKEMAN
The Enduring And The Ephemeral
Innovative West Country hurdy-gurdy player and brilliant multi-instrumentalist Steve Tyler has performed across the UK and Ireland and across Europe; he is a founder member of medieval music ensembles Daughters of Elvin and Misericordia, and in 2011 he co-founded Woodwose with bagpiper Katy Marchant to explore composing new music for historical instruments. He has toured with Puppetcraft’s show The Tin Forest, played for French dances with The Wendigo and with Jon Swayne and Becky Price, provided music for radio, television and films and been involved in more experimental projects such as An English Journey Reimagined, with Shirley Collins. He also teaches hurdy gurdy, runs workshops or gives individual lessons – in fact the respected Blowzabella bagpiper and the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Chief Executive Officer at Halsway Manor, Paul James, paid this glowing tribute: “Steve Tyler is blessed with virtuosic technique and imagination. He is amongst the best players on the European scene.”
The Enduring And The Ephemeral is the first album comprising Steve’s own startling and creative compositions, and it really deserves to be heard. Jane Harbour of the Bristol band Spiro is there, contributing voice and violin on the concluding ‘Lullaby’, which she wrote with him; Katy Marchant plays bagpipes on the enormous 12-minute ‘Exercise Two’ and ‘The Great Unconformity’, plus shawm, recorder and voice; but the most poignant of all has to be ‘Tethys’, with Katy’s improvisatory vocals and a single bass viol sample by the late Mike Edwards, cellist with the original lineup of the Electric Light Orchestra. Mike performed and recorded in a band with Steve but was sadly killed in an unlikely accident. He was always interested in new projects, and he would have loved to play on ‘Tethys’; this 2007 sample miraculously fitted, as if he had had this piece in mind at the time.
However, Steve is multitracked all alone, and he plays hurdy-gurdies, cittern, reed organ, guitar, bass guitar, gothic harp and percussion; despite instruments going back hundreds of years, his go-ahead composing and spacey arrangements mark this as a totally relevant music of the future. The opening ‘The Second Law’ envelopes doomy and menacing bass, swirling gurdies and insistent percussion; the seven-minute ‘Chronophage’ is the follow-up, and the fanfare and coda is psychedelic-like restless, chattering instruments. The aforementioned ‘Exercise Two’ pictures an endlessly ticking clock, and Steve moulds this whole album into a thoroughly trance-like and hypnotic experience. It’s all very moving and completely inspirational – and I’m looking forward to his next recording with the greatest of pleasures.
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
These Five Star Choices keep on coming thick and fast! The multi-award-winning Calan has thrown down the gauntlet with a fierce pride and absolute spadefuls of brilliant musicianship – and I love it, love it, love it! Kystvaen is an old Welsh noun describing a tomb or burial chamber formed from stone slabs, and that’s exactly what they do – unearthing an ancient national culture and fashioning songs and tunes sharply back to life for the 21st century. It’s Calan’s sixth full-blown album, with a tempting bonus of a Giggly EP and a single; guitarist Sam Humphries, alias Samiwel Elias Humphries, has recorded and mixed this punching, utterly gorgeous battery of sound which doffs the reverent cap to that rich source of Welsh tradition and beloved icon, Merêd Evans, and other early pioneers who between them helped to form this unique and beautiful Celtic catalogue.
The core of this young band is still there, and they have morphed into stunning and sassy acoustic players. Angharad Sian Jenkins is still striking sparks on the fiddle, and this is the first time that Calan have switched to her own label, SEINCO; Bethan Rhiannon waves the flag as the impassioned and magnetic lead singer, utterly confident accordionist and eye-popping clog dancer, and Patrick Rimes just cannot be beat on sizzling violin, bagpipes and other wonderful Welsh instruments. Harp player Alice French has emigrated to the lovely Kaikoura on New Zealand’s South Island, and the fiery Shelley Musker Turner has taken her place. Shelley, who comes from Ceredigion and is based in Cardiff, is a harpist who designs and makes bespoke leatherware for musicians, the general public and Hollywood movies.
This is a mighty, intensely full-on and completely beautiful album, and the whole band have broken out and magicked these original songs and glittering arrangements. Patrick’s super-confident voice tells the story of ‘Jêl Caerdydd’, a rip-roaring opener from the National Library in Aberystwyth, and Calan just rocks and rolls. Welsh dance tunes such as ‘Cymro o Ble?’, ‘Cambro Brython’ and ‘Castell Caernarfon’ slam in and out of the traditional and written material, and Bethan, Patrick and Sam keep on carrying the traditional torch by composing some sensational tracks. Of particular mention is Angharad’s graceful instrumental ‘Dolig Abertawe’, which was written in the Christmas holidays back home in Swansea after a long hard slog at Oxford Brookes University; as Angharad says: “There was something about the fresh sea air and Mum’s home cooking that made it a particularly creative time!” Calan might be known as a high-energy band, but this is quite simply gorgeously pretty.
Angharad’s Mum Delyth is a class harper herself, and Calan delve into an old LP by her band Cromlech to retrieve the dreamy ‘Mari Morgan’, similar in tune to the Scottish song ‘Lizzie Lindsay’. Once again, it’s Bethan’s voice that is the icing on the cake. The whirlwind ‘Pat The Lucky Dog’ has two Bethan-composed tunes and culminates with the amazing ‘2Gardi3’ – Ar Log’s Steven P Rees is the inspiration here. And Bethan’s hybrid ‘As The Night Closes In’ is patently jaw-dropping, with the familiar swelling sound of Calan’s voices punching in.
The band stamp their unique mark on these 15 tracks, and not one is wasted here; special mention must be given to the 13th cut, ‘O. G. Greta’: “When the last tree has been chopped and the last river poisoned… then will we listen to reason? A nod to one of our heroes.” The ghost of Merêd must be smiling and giving Angharad, Bethan, Patrick, Sam and Shelley an approving thumbs-up.
More Than A Wave
Independently produced; no catalogue number
There are many pleasant and memorable sights when you venture along Pembokeshire’s remote and beautiful Gwaun Valley; for example, the ancient Calennig tradition, when children sing in the New Year just 13 days late, and the Gwaun Valley Brewery, where Len Davies used to fulfil his loving passion by brewing many real ales in cask and bottle. Len and his wife, Sarah, are retired now, but a new local brewer carries on the tradition. Sarah illustrates the beer labels on the brewery’s bottles with her eloquent designs; she’s a watercolour artist and teacher, who started painting about 35 years ago when she joined a local art class to make up the numbers. She was then living in Glanaman, near Ammanford, and she joined the local art society and regularly exhibited with them. In 1995, she completed a course in wildlife illustration and design at Gelli Aur College, near Llandeilo; following that, she went on a course in Swansea and began teaching watercolour at local art groups. She taught at Aberystwyth University for many years and held exhibitions at Pontardawe, Gorseinon, Swansea and Ammanford. She continues holding several exhibitions at her studio in Kilkiffeth Farmhouse.
Sarah is a songwriter and a guitarist; this is her debut album, and the 12 tracks were recorded at Studio 49 at the town of Narberth in Pembrokeshire with Dave Gould on bass and banjo, Barry Chantier on mandolin, backing vocalist Elizabeth Chantier and Richard Mann on concertina. Her music and lyrics are simple and pleasant, and she composes verses whenever there’s an interesting cameo that catches her eye and mind.
Sitting outside the Gwaun Valley Brewery on a balmy October afternoon with a glass of real ale inspired Sarah to write her opening title track, and ‘Stan’ is about a real character who lived on a farm. If he was stuck for an answer, he would always say: “I forgot to ask Mother”. ‘The Brighter The Sun’ is a picture of her brother John, who was in hospital before he passed away, and ‘Going, Going, Going, Going Gone!’ is the true story of Len and Sarah’s farm sale. ‘Poor Old Drake’ tells the story of a hapless suitor, with quacks as the chorus; and ‘Rhys And Menir’ is a sad story of two lovers who lived in the accursed Nant Gwrtheyrn in Llŷn; after they were married, Menir ran and hid from her groom. She was never found. Years passed, and Rhys grew old. However, a lightning bolt split an oak tree, near Rhys’s cottage, the ruins of which are still evident to this day; there lay the skeleton of Menir. (For an encore, the Mumbles Horse party sang ‘The Mistletoe Bough’, a similar tale of a lover marrying his bride, who ran away and hid. Years later, an old oak chest was discovered, and the girl’s skeleton was still there, draped in a bridal wreath.)
‘Heads We Win’ is advice from a wise old farmer, who always put his rams in with his ewes in October, and ‘My Auntie Plays The Banjo’ is just nonsense – and fun, too. Sarah is also compere at the weekly Saturday evening Gwaun Valley Brewery Zoom sessions, where she sings her own songs on guitar.
THE OLD SWAN BAND
Wild Goose Studios WGS434CD
The Old Swan Band have really celebrated an incredible 45 years of performing with this lovely and joyful collection, on which they salute dances and tunes from right around the world. And what a corker – Irish slides from Sliabh Luachra, Scottish two-steps, Swedish polkas, Australian scottisches and American quadrilles, Quebecois jigs, uniquely played as only a Gloucestershire-based bunch of musicians can. These feted veterans were the pioneers of the emergent ceilidh scene, spawning dance bands like The New Victory Band from Yorkshire, Umps And Dumps from Shropshire, Derbyshire-based Ramsbottom and Londoners Flowers And Frolics; they injected real verve and tingling tenacity into a genteel tradition that was in danger of disappearing up its own polite decorum.
The history of The Old Swan Band lies in the early 1970s with the London-based English country dance band Oak, one of a tiny handful who combined melodeon with fiddles. Oak were comprised of Topic Records manager Tony Engle, Peta Webb and husband and wife Rod and Danny Stradling, and they became known and loved around the South-East folk scene. However, Rod and Danny moved to the Cotswolds and formed The Cotswold Liberation Front, which morphed into The Old Swan Band – named after a Cheltenham pub – in 1974. They recruited fiddler Paul Burgess, percussionist Martin Brinsford and the teenage Fraser Sisters – nowadays, Fi plays fiddle and hammer dulcimer, and her sister Jo plays saxophone, clarinet and whistles. This new band took the staid English country dance scene by storm; beforehand, the English Folk Dance and Song Society ruled the roost for determined plimsoll-walking at Cecil Sharp House. In fact, fRoots Magazine cartoonist Lawrence Heath lampooned the members by nicknaming them DEAFASS – the Dance Earnestly And Forget About Song Society. The Old Swan Band shook up country dancing by bringing punchiness to a repertoire of tunes and a few songs, learned from the concertina player Scan Tester, the hammer dulcimer player Walter Bulwer, the melodeonist Reg Hall and the Copper Family. Their 1976 debut album, No Reels, was an acclaimed success, and another three albums followed; however, Rod and Danny left.
The depleted band recorded an EP in 1983, but did not return to the studio until 2004 – a gap of 21 years, by which time they had recruited ‘new’ members John Adams (trombone, fiddle), Neil Gledhill (bass saxophone) Flos Headford (fiddle) and Heather Horsley (keyboards). The musicians went their different ways and were collaborating with other bands. The Fraser Sisters recorded as a duo, and Jo changed her name to Jo Freya as a condition of joining the actors’ union Equity; she joined Blowzabella and its spin-off Scarp, and she plays with Token Women (as do her sister Fi and Heather Horsley) and with her own pan-European group called Freyja. Martin Brinsford went on to join Brass Monkey, with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick; Paul and Flos were founder members of the Mellstock Band.
This is a great album – The Old Swan Band really polish up the international dance scene as only experienced musicians can. The sleeve notes headline ‘English dance music from everywhere’; the repertoire emanates from a plethora of influences, including the Sliabh Luachra fiddler Julia Clifford, Perth-born multi-instrumentalist and band leader Felix Burns (‘Dancing Dustman’ and ‘Louis James Quadrille’), English concertina and Northumbrian pipes master Alistair Anderson’s composition ‘Road To The North’ – and the band segue into ‘Travellers’ Joy’ (written by Shropshire dancer Janet May to company a morris dance performed by Martha Roden’s Tuppeny Dish) and ‘Bälter Svens Paradpolkett’, a polka learned from the Benny Andersson Orkestra, led by the former ABBA singer and which is strikingly similar to the polka ‘Jenny Lind’.
No doubt about it – after more years than they care to remember, the band totally go for it and embrace these wonderful 28 tunes contained in 14 tracks as if there was no tomorrow. Nice arrangements, too! Let’s fervently hope that The Old Swan Band will still be storming on for the next 45 years.
Penny Fiddle Records PFR2004CD
Garefowl is the name of a project marking two sombre anniversaries connected to St Kilda, the wild archipelago which stands 50 miles out in the North Atlantic Ocean, west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides – it’s 180 years since the last great auk in the British Isles, or garefowl, was killed there, and it’s 90 years since the last community of St Kildans was evacuated in 1930. Now all that is left is a small military base, built in 1957, and parties of volunteers who restore the ruined buildings of the settlement Hiorta for The National Trust, who own the entire islands. Multi-instrumentalist Ewan Macdonald and his father Murdo are descendants of Lachlan MacKinnon, one of the men who killed the great auk – and Ewan and his father created the project to pinpoint their family history.
Great auks thrived across the northern Atlantic, and St Kilda was a perfect breeding ground. However, they were hunted down to near extinction; their down was much prized for making pillows. In 1840, MacKinnon and four men were hunting seabirds on the cliffs of Stac an Armin. They captured a great auk which was sleeping on the cliff, but the frightened bird caused such an eerie commotion that un-nerved the hunters. Suddenly a storm blew up, and the men believed this strange bird was a witch. They beat it to death with rocks; it took an hour to kill it, the last great auk in the UK. Four years later, the last great auk left alive was killed by Icelandic hunters.
The album sleeve is a selection of six panels designed by the artist, Cally Yeatman of North Uist, who named the creation ‘The Living Wall – Guillemot Cliffs’. The Cliffs project employs a vast array of instruments, including fiddle, cello, mandolin, harmonium, viola da gamba, percussion and a battery of synths; it’s intended to build a celtic sound-poem, a picture of St Kilda which emphasises the lonely windswept grandeur which serves as a haven for millions of seabirds. It’s a mix of traditional gaelic song and puirt-a-beul, contemporary tunes which have influenced the band of musicians and synth noodlings – irritating synth noodlings, if you ask my opinion. How can I give a proper hearing when there are all these intrusive electronic burblings kicking about?
‘Hion Daila Horo Ri Ho Daila Là’ – learned from a 1959 Joan MacKenzie recording – gets the album off to a good start, and Ewan’s fiddle just dances; a young woman is angry with a potential suitor, who tells her he has not brought her a gift of seabird eggs to prove his bravery. ‘Òran Hiortach’ (The St Kilda Song) appears in print in 1784, and it is simply beautiful in its starkness; so is ‘Mo Ghaol Òigear a Chúil Duinn’ (My Love, The Young Man With The Brown Hair), based on a Mary Munro recording of 1963. The musicians adapted the puirt-a-beul song ‘Cas Na Caora Hiortach O’ (Oh! The Legs Of The St Kilda Sheep) from a 1950 recording of Peggy MacRae; Ewan wrote the ten-minute ‘A Bird From A Rock’, linking the true story of a young St Kildan in the early 1700s who was captured by pirates and the 1864 sinking of the Dargavel, a huge blow to the St Kilda community. Murdo wrote the gay, skipping tune ‘Pink Sandals On The Street’ when he was volunteering on St Kilda; Helen Annan, one of the cooks of the work party, used to dance along the street wearing an incongruously bright pair of pink sandals. She passed away in 2018. ‘A’ Fagail Hiort’ (Leaving Hiorta) is another tune composed by Murdo, written as he rolled across the sea on one of the boats which plies between St Kilda and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and it brings Cliffs to a fitting end.
I’ll give the project a guarded thumbs-up – if they don’t turn down those bloody synths, that is…
THE RHEINGANS SISTERS
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
The Welsh label and Theatr Mwldan co-operative Bendigedig is entirely responsible for Anna and Rowan Rheingans’ fourth album and absolutely stunning new release; it was recorded by producer Andy Bell at the Giant Wafer Studios, located in the beautiful wilds near the village of Llanbadarn Fynydd, on the remote A483 Llandrindod Wells to Newtown road. The Rheingans Sisters are inventive fiddle-singers, contemporary composers and exquisite multi-instrumentalists. Rowan is well-sought-after on the UK folk scene as part of the BBC Folk Award-nominated trio Lady Maisery, as well as for her work with Nancy Kerr and The Sweet Visitor Band and the Songs of Separation network; she now lives in Sheffield. Anna gained a first-class diploma at the Conservatoire de Toulouse; she lives and works as a fiddler and teacher in this French city and is heavily influenced by Béarnaise and Occitan music, playing both the flabuta (three-holed pipe) and the tambourin à cordes, the elegant stringed drum.
The sisters grew up in the village of Grindleford in the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire; from a very young age, they were immersed by traditional music and were encouraged to pick up the ﬁddle by their historian-writer-musician and clog-dance teaching mother and their German father, a luthier of great reputation – he makes the fiddles and banjos which Rowan and Anna play. They have an incredible and unique knack of fusing thoroughly modern songs, swooping and soaring effortlessly and majestically with traditional European melodies which have proudly stood the test of time.
Their music is intensely proud and gentle, fleeting and featherlight, thoroughly hypnotic and mesmerising. Rowan’s opening song, ‘The Yellow Of The Flowers’ transports the audience into a timeless, summery dreamworld; the circulating fiddles buzzing like bees, drifting and dancing with each other, pinpoint shimmering harmonies. They spent a long time in Scandinavia, and ‘Ostbjörka’ brings memories of players and dancers who gather in a small Swedish village each Thursday night in July; it’s a traditional Scandinavian tune, ignited by Rowan and Anna’s arrangements. Butterfly-like, they flit and skip over moods and music, landing on countries as if they were flowers; ‘Salt Of The Earth’ is Anna’s beautiful tribute to her Maghrebian friend, outstanding violinist and r’bab player Amine Tilioua, who lived in Toulouse and died much too soon. In contrast, Anna wrote ‘One More Banjo’ as a loving and relaxing salute to their parents’ Peak District home and their father’s musical influence, as the sisters duet with their instruments; they confess: “Neither of us remember the first time we heard a banjo, nor exactly when we became banjo players.”
Anna and Rowan take the listener on a magic carpet ride of 14 musical wonderments, including the Canal du Midi in Provence and fighting the tiger mosquitos, French rondeaux and an Occitan shepherding song, wild Norwegian fiddling learned over three years from a 1935 recording from musician Jørgen Tjønnstaul (music described as “belonging to another world”), traditional dance influences from the Béarn and the Pyrenees, the Museum of Free Derry and an Irish mazurka, the Nagasaki bell which was rescued from the rubble of an atom-bombed cathedral, and fond memories of Anna’s high-rise community in the centre of Toulouse. The last track, and a perfectly fitting one, is the traditional ‘Waltz From Lozère’, which Anna found and researched when she was offered a gig in this remote region, famed for its cheeses and its wolves.
The Rheingans Sisters are unique; their songs and tunes are special, completely absorbing, alluring, simple yet totally complicated. They are definitely not ‘hummable’ material – however, I woke up one night with Anna and Rowan’s compositions ringing in my head. I class Receiver as being of gold-medal earworm status; I really treasure the album, and I hope their brilliant inspiration will last for a very long time. Once again: thank you, Bendigedig, for making the whole gorgeous thing possible.
STACEY MCNEILL & JONATHAN SMITH
Leaving Autumn Town (EP)
Smjsmusic – no catalogue number
Stacey McNeill and Jonathan Smith are both songwriters, living almost 50 miles apart; her in the centre of the island of Anglesey, near RAF Valley, and him in the beautiful little ex-slate quarrying village called Cwm Penmachno in the Snowdonia National Park, high up the River Machno valley which leads down to Betws-y-Coed, just a few miles away. They decided to form a duo early this year when Jonathan was producing songs for Stacey’s solo album – and the two realised their close bond and affinity where music-making was concerned.
They were just about to start work on their debut album – but the Covid-19 lockdown threw the whole of Wales into confusion. The Welsh Senedd imposed a ban on travel, but Stacey and Jonathan were not daunted. Leaving Autumn Town is the result of many Skype conversations to finish writing songs, plus many hours of solo home recording. Stacey says: “Fortunately, Jonathan is a very skilled producer and has worked hard to get it all together. Despite not being able to meet up, we’ve still been able to create something we’re really happy with.”
The six-track EP is a unique song-crafting cameo of what makes Stacey and Jonathan tick; they create a surreal otherworld of ethereal folk sound, sometimes experimenting with Americana; and although their fragile voices would seem to be blown away in the wind, their appealing harmonies form a firm foundation. Jonathan’s rippling acoustic guitar set the scene for the opening ‘Last Leaf’, with a hint of ‘cello drifting through – and the catchy ‘Between The Lines’ carries a snatch of lazy banjo as well. He employs delicate piano, percussion and violins, which are used sparingly and expertly in the production. ‘The Secret Gardener’ is the last dreamy, haunting pastoral-flavoured offering, and the album takes its title from the final lyrics of the song. Leaving Autumn Town is a first foray for the duo – but what a gentle, laid-back introductory fanfare.
REIMAGINE: BEYOND THE BORDER ONLINE
During the long, bleak months of the 2020 Covid-19 emergency, all festivals and folk music events have postponed their operations and are waiting to see what the future holds. Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival, which had moved from St Donat’s Castle grounds to a new West Wales home at the National Trust’s Dinefwr Park, was one of the midsummer casualties and closed its doors; however, I was specially invited to a virtual five-hour Zoom festival advertising a showcase of the spectacular delights that BtB will offer in 2021. Artists and musicians from Wales, Ireland, London and across the Atlantic in Minnesota State were waiting to hook the audience with their spellbinding performances and – thanks to the digital age – it meant that nobody had to leave the comfort of their own homes. Thanks, Zoom!
There were long, leisurely breaks between the five-hour stints: storyteller Tamar Eluned Williams hosted the mini-festival, and first up was Ireland’s Clare Murphy and Minnisotan Kevin Kling, each telling Minnesota lightning and truck jokes, tales of Fianna warriors and The Faeries’ Lament – the sound of the uilleann pipes directly corresponds to the cry of the hump-backed whales. Siân Miriam introduced us to the Tylwyth Teg, the little folk who inhabit the boundaries of Wales and who are given a wide berth by us ordinary mortals. Tawe Valley-born Ceri John Phillips told a rare story of the sombre, dark world of the sin eaters – the lonely souls, shunned by the populace who regarded them as pariahs, whose only job is to eat a bowl of cawl from a body of a dead relative and absorb all the sins into his being. Moch Bach was just seven years old when he came across the sin eater, who had eaten the sins of dead people from Pontardawe to the Brecon Beacons. The sin eater persuaded Moch Bach to follow him up the Darren Mountain to his shack, which he said was loaded with toffees. Moch Bach was just enjoying the last toffee, when the door burst open. There stood his parents, who begged him not to eat the sweets – but it was too late. The sin eater had tricked Moch Bach into eating all the sins; and Moch Bach became the sin eater himself, destined to eat all the sins for all the departed. He now lives in a lonely shack, and rues the day when he heard his Gran say: “You must not go up the Darren Mountain.”
Owen Sheirs – Cynefin, composer and gifted guitarist – took the audience on a three-song tour around Ceredigion with his tales on Caradog Jones, bailiff on the River Teifi, traditonal songs of the Clettwr Valley and ‘Y Deryn Du’, found in Llandysul. His lovely DADGAD tuning was a work of art. Stunning Mair Tomos Ifans plays her harp and tells her entrancing stories all around Wales; she tells her audience: “The Tylwyth Teg don’t wear pink tutus” – and breaks into a yarn about a fiddler who got spirited away while on the road to Llanidloes. And then there is TUUP – Godfrey Duncan, aka The Unorthodox, Unprecedented Preacher, an international storyteller, musician and poet who was born in London to Guyanese parents. Plucking his marimba, his super-long version of The Creation, introducing Overseas Man, Local Man, Woo-oo-man, Monkey, Snake and Spider, just caps it all – and he pulls a myriad of contorted faces to underline his gob-smacking tale. A wonderful entertainer, TUUP became a professional storyteller in 1981 when he joined forces with Ben Haggarty as part of the West London Storytelling Unit, which went on to become the internationally-acclaimed Crick Crack Club, where he still performs today. In fact, Carmel Crevola, International Literacy Advisor, says of him: “He is truly an elder of the storytelling revival in Britain. His style of total improvisation, fabulous capacity for mimicry and ear for a wild story is outstanding.”
A rip-roaring ceilidh crowns the end to a mini-festival, and what better than caller Cate Haynes and the Urban Folk Theory. Cate demonstrates a social distancing dance that she’s just written, and the band whips up a storm – everybody’s virtually Zoom-dancing with themselves! If you want to purchase tickets for next year, the Beyond the Border website is https://beyondtheborder.com/ – the Festival runs from Friday, July 3 until Sunday, July 5, 2021. I can’t wait!
THE CIDERHOUSE REBELLION
Nimbus Records NI6398
The InCider Sessions
Independently produced: TCR01
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
I was absolutely mortified when I guiltily confess that I hadn’t heard of The Ciderhouse Rebellion; I have now. Anyway, I selected the two albums from the rapidly-growing but dangerously-teetering pile of plastic and stuck them on the CD player without reading the notes. However, not twenty seconds of the first track had played when a flash of realisation leapt into my mind – that sounds incredibly like The Haar!
More exactly, two members of The Haar – spectacular musician Adam Summerhayes (who the late lamented fRoots magazine hit the nail on the head when they described him as “The Paganini of the traditional violin”) and Royal Academy of Music graduate Murray Grainger – are the Anglo-Irish quartet’s musical powerhouse. Accordionist Murray and Adam had been in the process of recording a duo album at very great length; and now, on an evening in June, they had completed the whole take and had wrapped up at 7pm. Not being used to early evenings – with the two quite accustomed to according sessions until dawn – they decided to knock off an extra album of entirely improvised music. Well, dinner was not until eight…
There are strict rules for recording an album: you must prepare, rehearse and allow plenty of time. Untold followed none of these edicts – no preparations or rehearsals took place and the three tracks (‘Chapter One’, which lasts for half an hour and one minute, the contrasting ‘Chapter Two’ and the two-minute calm-and-serene coda ‘Epilogue’) were thrown together as recorded on-offs. The result is quite stunning; Murray’s inventive, compelling accordion and Adam’s shimmering violin brilliance are a magical and wondrous mix, combining completely energized freestyle mastery with utterly gorgeous collaborative fusion. It’s exciting and totally marvelous, tumbling, wild, haunting and exhilarating. Their unpredictable and powerful interplay catches the listener unaware; it’s as if a stream of consciousness were flowing, pounding and pulsing through the Untold’ 45-odd minutes. With ‘Epilogue’, Murray used the reedier accordina, an instrument played by blowing instead of squeezing, which adds a certain mournful clarity to the gorgeous melody. This is a mighty album in spades.
In total contrast, The InCider Sessions is a limited production, born out of the covid-19 social distancing lockdown when Adam and Murray were separated 50 miles from each other – the accordionist in Lincolnshire and the violinist in Derbyshire. The problem was this: How can two musicians play together in real time when they cannot even sit in the same room? Even interacting and sessioning with each other was completely out, because of the internet time lags – so the duo had to employ an old-fashioned pair of landline telephones, a complex sequence of microphones, wires, mic’d-up earpieces and headphones wrapped in blankets as they recorded the album in their respective homes (and the back of Adam’s car).
The result is quite amazing – twelve tracks including four traditional tunes, all lovingly dressed up to an unrecognisably elegant degree, plus one from Murray (‘Moochew’), three melodies from Adam and four collaborations between them. Murray’s composition is the perfect opener, sending billows of rolling sound cascading around the two counties; then he and Adam pile in with the venerable ‘Salmon Tails’, absolutely and very prettily rejuvenated by the duo’s inspiring arrangements. Adam is proving to be a must-hear composer, with the lovely ‘Time’s Slow Dance’, the rumbustious, fiddle-and-accordion-drummed jig ‘The Highwayman’s Rat’ and the desolate ‘The Forgotten Wedding’, which lingers on for a full seven minutes.
In contrast, the windswept beauty of the traditional ‘The St Kilda Wedding’ creates a vivid sound-picture of the abandoned and ruined Hirta, the remote settlement on the treeless group of islands, 40 miles west from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, across the wild Atlantic. The hundred-odd islanders gave in to government persuasion and evacuated St Kilda in the 1930s; now, the only inhabitants are military personnel, conservation workers and scientists, and the whole archipelago is owned by The National Trust. Adam and Murray have sculptured such a stark sound-poem of the lonely place; it’s immediate, descriptive and gorgeous beyond measure.
The 18th century traditional Scottish air has the daring but questionable title: ‘Sweetest When She’s Naked’ – and it stirs a hot debate over several different and very obscure explanations. One theory is that ‘she’ is the wonderful Scots whisky, and a dram without water or ice is referred to in Scots parlance as ‘naked’ or ‘neat’. Anyway, both Adam and Murray artfully build up the foundations to conjure a crescendo of ethereal and mysterious music – like the whisky, it cheers the heart and refreshes the mind.
If you cannot purchase this limited album, The Ciderhouse Rebellion have broadcast The InCider Sessions on Youtube – it really is twelve of the most rewarding and inspiring tracks I have come across.
JOY & ANDREW
Dithis / Duo
Sradog Music SRM007
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
In this challenging lockdown year of 2020, amazing things keep happening; a welter of Five-Star Choice albums keep dropping through my letterbox. We all have a conviction that the folk scene carries on delivering inspiring, go-ahead and super-punchy material – and this one is a very special and unique debut album. After a decade working on very different musical paths, sibling duo Joy and Andrew Dunlop have come together at the Isle of Mull’s creative and cultural beacon and art sanctuary, An Tobar, to lay down 11 shimmeringly beautiful tracks – and it’s all recorded by An Tobar’s music director and acting CEO Gordon Maclean, erstwhile double-bass player with the late lamented Edinburgh band Jock Tamson’s Bairns.
Joy and Andrew come from the village of Connel on the Scottish West Highlands of Argyll and Bute, situated on the southern shore of Loch Etive. Joy was crowned Traditional Singer of the Year and Traditional Dance Champion at the 2015 Mὸd Pan Celtic Festival; she’s the weather presenter on BBC Scotland and BBC Alba, in addition to frequent appearances on Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidheal. She also conducts the Alba Choir, Scotland’s first ever Eurovision entry. Andrew is a versatile international musician, currently working as a pianist for Northern Ballet; he has won numerous awards and championships and is artistic director of the Lorn Live Chamber Music Festival in Oban. In addition, he teaches for Yorkshire Young Musicians and is an examiner for ABRSM, the examinations board and registered charity of the Royal Schools of Music, delivering countless thousands of music exams and assessments all over the world.
Dithis / Duo combines a magical blend of traditional Scottish culture, both ancient and modern, and dazzling keyboard mastery; the sheer simplicity of Joy’s plaintive soprano voice and Andrew’s brilliant piano arrangements make listening a real pleasure. ‘A Mhairead Og’ (Young Margaret) is a Gaelic version of the ‘Polly Vaughan’-type tragic ballad that is sung throughout the British Isles and America too; in this account, the girl goes to the pool to bathe, just as the mother sends her son out to hunt for duck. As he passes the pool, he sees a flash of white and fires – but he discovers to his horror that he has killed his one true love. The age-old moral of the story is: he should have gone to Specsavers.
Joy and Andrew remember hearing the gay, strutting ‘A Fhleasaich an Fruilt Chraobhaich Chais’ (Boy With The Golden Hair) by Mary Pollock, an Islay native who taught Connel children their Mὸd songs on a Monday afternoon after school. The duo have made a mighty song of that, and Mrs Pollock would have been proud and overjoyed. In contrast, ‘Solas M’aigh’ is one of the most entrancing and majestic Gaelic songs composed in recent history; it was written by Blair Douglas for Father Colin Macinnes, who left his home in South Uist to work in Equador. The starkness is breathtaking; Joy’s angelic vocals are overdubbed to create a heavenly choir, and Andrew’s piano is delicate and sparing – such lovely, lovely stuff.
They audaciously and expertly ring the changes, from the tripping and tongue-twisting ‘Puirt a Beul’ (Mouth Music) through ‘I Wonder What’s Keeping My True Love Tonight’ to Frank Higgins’ heart-rending ‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’, an actual statement which the 17-year-old Yorkshire girl gave to the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842. Patience had been employed in the Halifax mines for six years, the only girl working with naked men and boys – and the brutal experience bruised her body and her modesty.
Joy and Andrew make a grand job of Scottish writer David Francey’s wonderful song ‘Saints And Sinners’, and they revisit Edinburgh-based harp and fiddle duo Twelfth Day’s delicate composition ‘The Light Gatherer’ – Joy, Catriona and Esther collaborated on the album Fiere, an exploration on the lives, loves and experiences of Scottish women, and this song was recorded. There’s a brace of the great Gaelic love songs: the impressive ‘A Mhic Iain ‘lc Sheumais’ (Son of John, Son of James) and the tragic ‘Cadal Cha Dèan Mi’ (Sleep Evades Me), Joy’s description of a woman who has lost her love when he was drowned at sea. The last track is a perfect finisher: ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, the love-struck hopelessness which Robert Burns composed to Agnes McLehose. Their passionate relationship drifted apart, and Burns left Edinburgh and married. However, on the request of her estranged husband, Agnes sailed to The West Indies – and this song is the result. Joy and Andrew make a perfect combination; her passionate rendition melts into his empathetic accompaniment, creating a solid-gold musical pleasure. I, for one, will be heading north to hear them.
The One About…
Independent release: no catalogue number
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
Maimu Jögeda is a truly wonderful player of the piano-accordion; with her roots in a beautiful little village called Rõuge in Võrumaa, Southern Estonia, she has always been totally fascinated and influenced by traditional music. Folk was in Maimu’s blood – she says: “Growing up in a culturally rich place, I was taking part of folk festivals from a different angle than expected. My father has been selling the handicraft he’s been making, and me and my sister were always following him when he was selling his stuff at fairs, closely connected to folk festivals… all of that has a great deal in me becoming who I am today.” However, she started learning classical music, then got into jazz: “And 15 years after, I ended up where I always belonged – in folk music!”
Maimu released her debut album Pühendus (Dedication) in the summer of 2017, with twelve compositions written and performed by her. FolkWales Online Magazine awarded her a Five Star Choice, and the very same year she was nominated at the Estonian Ethno Music Awards in two categories, for Best New Folk Artist and Best Debut Album. The One About… is her eagerly anticipated follow-up album; she divides her nine inspiring and really lovely accordion compositions together with three traditional Estonian bagpipe tunes. The bagpipe is named torupill in the Estonian language, with toru meaning pipe and pill being a general term for a musical instrument; it is made out of a chanter, three enormous drones and the stomach of a grey seal. The torupill played for dances and was flourishing in a number of villages around the Baltic Sea port of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, but it gradually lost popularity in the 19th century. The last traditional bagpipe player died in 1968, and the tradition could have died out at that point; however in 1970, Olev Roomet, a singer with a great interest with bagpipe playing, decided to retrain 25 new players so they could take part in a festival. Together with musical instrument maker Voldemar Süda, they made 25 bagpipes based on some of the surviving original instruments. Then father and son Johannes and Ants Taul started reviving the bagpipe-making tradition – and Ants’ son, Andrus, carries on fashioning the torupill and has recruited more young players to make their own bagpipes.
Maimu learned to play the torupill, and the opening tune ‘Katsung’ is an accordion-scored traditional bagpipe piece from Karksi in Southern Estonia, played to signal that it’s time for the party to begin – very appropriate! ‘Saajalaul’ is her tribute to Jakob Kilström, an Estonian bagpipe player from Kuusalu, and she fell in love with this traditional wedding march; the woman became a wife and was then ‘handed over’ to her husband. ‘Torupillilugu’ is an old Estonian tune which was discovered written down in a 1905 notebook; Maimu learned to play it on the bagpipe and then she adjusted it for the accordion.
Maimu has an incredible talent for inviting audiences in and making them feel quite home as she weaves her peaceful yet powerful magic. She writes and performs entirely alone, letting her accordion speak for itself. ‘Melting’ was born after reading Tessera, a book by Taavi Temmel, and an odd little love poem inspired her to compose it. ‘Joululugu’ was written in the Christmas season, when Maimu’s heart was filled with thoughts of loved ones; and the accordion’s fleeting, fluttering notes prompted her to name her tune ‘Siisike’ – or the Eurasian siskin, the tiny bird closely related to the finch family. ‘Vaikesele Paul Robinile’ is dedicated to Malle, whom Maimu describes as “My best friend, sister and biggest role-model.” Malle became a mother this spring, and of course Maimu wrote this delicate, pretty waltz for little Paul Robin and “my dear sister.” ‘To All The Ppl I’ve Loved’ is Maimu’s praise of thanksgiving for folk music and the very dear friends she has met along the way; and the wistful, dreamy ‘From Here And Now On’ represents a very suitable ending.
Her compositions are pebble-dashed with luscious, fleeting dissonant chords which catch the delighted listener unaware. She possesses an unbridled desire to learn from the great accordionists (for instance the respected Estonian Tuulikki Bartosik, who performed in the Norwegian Church Arts Centre in Cardiff Bay recently; she was Maimu’s teacher and mentor.) Right now in this uncertain Covid-19 age, she is marooned on the beautiful Danish island of Fanǿ, studying for the Nordic Master of Folk Music programme. The six students, all from different countries, were supposed to visit each Nordic nation, Iceland excluded; but coronavirus put a stop to that, especially contact lessons. Maimu and the other students had to put up with virtual playing via the computer, but she says: “Hopefully we can continue with real lessons in September.”
She captures her own refreshing, exhilarating style which is very reminiscent of her rural upbringing; it’s flowing with expression and passion, gutsy but graceful, soothing and rampantly pretty. It’s Maimu…
Nimbus Records NI6404
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
This is a bleak and beautiful, utterly timeless album; it conjures up exciting and fabulous sounds which is reminiscent of the haar, the mysterious sea mist that rolls in from the wild Atlantic Ocean and then suddenly disappears in an instant. The origins of the band were drawn together when two musicians, bodhrán and percussionist Cormac Byrne and spectacular fiddler Adam Summerhayes, were standing in a packed late-night Irish pub at the Craiceann Bodhrán Summerschool in Inisheer (Inis Oirr, in the Irish language), the easternmost of the trio of Aran Islands in Galway Bay, when the traditional unaccompanied singing of this flame-haired girl silenced the crowd. Her name was Molly Donnery, and Adam and Cormac wasted no time in contacting her. The three arranged to meet next morning at The Plassey, the rusting hulk of a 1940 cargo vessel which was wrecked during a storm in March, 1960, and the fledgling trio captured on Youtube video their first version of ‘The Lark’ – there was no rehearsal, no arrangement, and Adam, Cormac and sweet-voiced Molly just performed intuitively.
Innovative accordionist, producer and sound engineer Murray Grainger was recruited to make up the quartet for the debut album; strangely enough, the band had not played before the recording, and Molly and Murray met for the first time in the studio. The effect was pretty stunning; what you hear is Molly taking command to nine grand Irish ballads and traditional songs, with absolute mastery from Adam (described as ‘The Paganini of the traditional violin’ by the late lamented fROOTS magazine), while there’s an uplifting and totally inspiring interplay generated by Cormac and Murray.
What you hear is not some genius composing wonderful scores; it’s just four musicians honouring the Irish tradition, experimenting and unlocking its unknown secrets. It’s stark, minimal, breath-taking and mind-blowing. Molly is seriously in control for the opener ‘The King’s Shilling’, the hypnotic ‘The Green Fields Of Canada’, the dual-language ‘Siúil a Rún’ and the County Down classic ‘My Lagan Love’, while the jaunty chorus song ‘Two Sisters’ hides a jealous sibling murder and a gory capital punishment. The last track, ‘Craigie Hills’, is a lovely and a very fitting ending.
Last year, I reviewed Cormac and Adam’s audacious debut offering Stone Soup, in which fiddle and bodhrán brilliantly danced and weaved on a spontaneous flight. Now Molly and Murray have joined the band, and The Haar can take the gorgeous sound further beyond and away to the stars.
Faith, Hope & Common Folk
Independently released (no catalogue number)
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Tim Crahart comes from Risca in the old county of Gwent, and this is his very first album; both he and Greg Rowlands staged a concert in Dan-y-Graig Church in Tim’s home village in February and donated the princely sum of £500 to the Australian Bush Fires Relief Fund. Tim says that as the show drew to a close, both he, his daughter Iona and Greg sang together and joined in the chorus; it was a pretty memorable night.
This album is Tim’s opportunity to record a clutch of self-written material, and it’s a true family album; Iona adds her confident and steady voice for two of his songs, ‘The Temptation’ and ‘Tell Me Martha’; his daughter Caley took some eye-catching photos (including the Mr Happy shot, taken at the end of Osbourne Avenue, near the Gloucestershire county cricket ground in Bristol!) and Tim’s wife Deb closely watched her husband through the recording sessions and always pointed out when he could do a better take.
The opening song, ‘Broken’, describes the Valleys’ defiance in adversity and austerity, but it adds a glimmer of hope; and a nagging-but-very-pleasing earworm burrows in the mental mind when Tim and Iona join in harmony in the unforgettable chorus of ‘The Temptation.’ He traces out his music-and-love philosophy in ‘Call Me A Fool’, and he rouses the republican masses with ‘Common Folk’. He acts as a one-man band, harmonising with himself and strumming a strident guitar, bouzouki, banjo and mandolin; in fact, Tim sums up his 14 songs in the album notes: “It’s about what matters to me and my faith and my politics are clearly intertwined and evident here… some people have described them as being radical. I don’t know about that, but in these dark times I that I have faith, I have hope and I have an unerring belief in the potential of common folk. If that’s radical, then count me in.”
The only bugbear is the recording quality; Tim sounds as if he’s singing down a manhole, the guitar is too overbearing and his lyrics are very indistinct. A songwriter’s words are his bread and butter, and it’s a shame if the listener can’t piece together the meaning. Still, I look forward to the second album!
Davy Cattanach (Old Blind Dogs, Pictones, Catford) and Paddy Buchanan (Marionettes, Jigs Akimbo) are the banjo and guitar-led La-Llamas; they go out on the road performing an enticing blend of rootsy Americana and Celtic folk, based on a foundation of funky world music rhythms. They started playing a few years ago, and now comes this fascinating debut album, Bread And Jam (LALLAMOO1CD), recorded in Davy’s Aberdeenshire home. Their writing is quirky and in-your-face – get an earful of ‘Media, Shmedia’. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Master piper, arranger and composer Ross Miller has won an array of awards in the Celtic Connections festival and many Scottish piping competitions; he was brought up in the Linlithgow, where he is the official town piper. His scintillating, must-hear debut album is named The Roke (Aventoun Records RMM1), which is the town tune; Ross takes you on a helter-skelter ride where white-hot reels, stomping marches, fierce strathspeys and fabulous airs joyously collide – and his backing band just can’t be beat. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Long-haired singer-songwriter Torgeir Waldemar comes from Tønsberg, Norway; his hoarse, shouting, incoherent voice just gives me an unpleasant headache. His album, Jamais Vu (Jansen Records, JANSEN094CD) is destined for the bin. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs down
Glasgow-based Robert Severin is a British-Hungarian singer whose songwriting has drawn comparisons to Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and The Beatles; his delicate and timeless songs on his debut album, Postcards From Budapest (RSM001), pinpoint the wartime Nazi invasion of Hungary which shattered the lives of the civilians and the Jewish community. Innotet, the Scottish string quartet featuring Innes Watson and ex-Breabach musician Patsy Reid, enhance his material. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Now, this debut album is mighty interesting! Peter Croft was born in the Scottish port of Leith and grew up in Felixstowe, Suffolk, where a visit from the renowned Tony Hall inspired him to take up the melodeon. He learned from several Suffolk players before returning to Edinburgh; he loves American tradition and the infectious Cajun music, which persuaded him to buy a one-row Cajun accordion. He plays regularly in the Edinburgh pub Sandy Bell’s, where his instrument can be heard playing Gaelic waltzes, reels and jigs. Two expert musicians, flatpick bluegrass guitarist Mark Jones and fiddler Hazel Fairbairn, join him on Button Box Breakdown (AWC 2071916), where the plan was mountain music and other Americana played on the Cajun accordion; this is the result… FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Scots husband and wife duo Jim and Susie Malcolm have released their appealing second album, The Berries (Beltane Records, BELCD113), and songs from the travelling tradition feature strongly; it opens with Belle Stewart’s ‘Berry Fields Of Blair’ and finishes with a jaunty ‘Twa Gadgies’. For 30 years and more, Jim has been the ultimate Scots troubadour, taking traditional Scottish songs and his own compositions to all parts of the UK and North America; the American folk magazine Dirty Linen describes him as “one of those pure, warm voices (two parts Archie Fisher, one part Dick Gaughan) that one never tires of listening to”. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
The Kentish duo Wildwood Jack consist of husband and wife Adam Piggott (acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica) and Jayne Freeman (ukulele, banjo); both write Americana-influenced material while Jayne is the low-voiced lead and Adam supplies close harmonies. Their smooth instrumentation is rippling and flowing, their chorus lines attractive and memorable. Their third offering, the independently-released Many More Ways Than One (no catalogue number), was recorded at Towpath Studios in Pontypool and is definitely an album to play on the long highway… FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Elis Macfadyen was born in Glencoe, Argyll, and is gigging around Scotland; he writes pleasant songs on his independently-released Dreamers and Journeys (EM2019CD), but his soft, rather limp voice is a trifle yawn-inducing and has the tendency to sing a tad flat. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs down
In the age of Covid-19, Liverpool bard Alun Parry has wisely used his self-isolating time and has released a solo digital EP called The Lockdown Sessions Vol 2 – six punchy, strutting solo songs including the Dylan anthem ‘I Shall Be Released’, the finger-pointing ‘Ballad Of Accounting’, Alun’s strike chant of the dockworkers ‘If Harry Don’t Go’ and Tom Moore’s joyous rabble-rouser ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’. Six sparkling gems to really savour… FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Bristol-based fiddle-and-guitar duo Kit Hawes and Aaron Catlow have really struck amazing sparks with their follow-up album Pill Pilots (self-released, no catalogue number), which was recorded in one room by Ben Capp. This delicious album is chock-full of Aaron’s songs and tunes, traditional Phoebe Smith material, a doff of the cap to Martin Carthy MBE and a flurry of North-Eastern airs and jigs, all exquisitely and expertly arranged and accomplished – definitely listenable and likeable. FolkWales verdict: Thumbs up!
Black Ink Music BICD10
Charlie Dore is an award-winning actress and one of the UK’s respected composers and songwriters, and she sits very comfortably on the folk scene and the commercial pop industry. I just adore her for her appealing, distinctive vocals, her gently flowing musicianship and her intelligent, searching lyrics that touch everyone’s heart and mind and inspires right then and there. Her last 2017 offering, Dark Matter, won both the Album Of The Year and Best Lyrics from the US Indie Acoustic Project, and her tenth and latest album focuses the internal landscape of the human brain; what makes us tick behind the herd mentality?
Charlie swaps guitar, piano, ukulele and harmonium on nine beautiful and memorable tracks; her co-writer and touring companion, Steeleye Span’s multi-instrumentalist and producer Julian Littman, co-writes her songs (Charlie describes him “my great friend and honorary brother… whose amazing musicality and spirit of adventure always knocks my socks off – still the best.”) Like Animals features an impressive array of serious musicians, including esteemed double bass and cellist Gareth Hugh Davies, leading trumpeter Quentin Collins and the highly celebrated violinist Jessie May Smart. Michele Stoddart, founding member of rock band The Magic Numbers, duets with Charlie on the absolutely gorgeous song ‘A Hundred Miles Of Nothing’, which they co-wrote together; viola player Jackie Oates is there on ‘Terrible Lie’, a mother’s attempt to calm her child’s innocent questions in a dark and dangerous world. There’s this relevant verse: “So why do the fires burn so bright / And where do the animals go? / They run to hills to be safe, little one / For the animals always know.”
The opening track gets you well and truly hooked; Charlie pinpoints the power-hungry go-getter who sees anyone and anything unlucky enough to get in his way as being ‘Collateral’: “No matter how strong / They always fall / He flicks off the dust / They’re just collateral.” However, she hands out a warning for those sitting on top in the vicious rat-race: “As sure as bankers hide their wealth / A younger version of yourself / Will soon be waiting…” A new shark in the fish-tank will certainly and inevitably hunt and kill you.
In this album, and all the other albums, Charlie always lobs the sweetest cherry-bombs in the ears of the most complacent listener; she experiments with strange and wonderful melodies, her dark wit sculpts her lovely lyricism and her gentle, unique voice is one to die for. The final track, ‘Ordinary Names’, is a sad salute to the names that have just gone out of fashion and disappeared: “They were loved / Long ago, long ago / Names I never hear anymore.” Names, and dear friends, slowly fade like the setting sun but will leave an everlasting impression on the mind. Charlie is no ordinary songwriter; she’s an artist who paints many brilliant pictures with her words. This is one to treasure.
VICKI SWAN & JONNY DYER
Wetfoot Music WFM200201
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
By George, they’ve done it – again. This Braintree couple have hit upon a wonderful concept contra dance album, all of it spectacularly composed by Jonny; it’s designed to while away the hours for musicians on the long late-night drive home, after packing up on yet another gig. I can ruefully say that I’ve done that many times and bought the T-shirt too, counting myself very fortunate that I hadn’t had an accident along the way and remembering many friends of all nations who had not been so lucky.
Vicky and Jonny are two of the most versatile musicians of the folk circuit today, and they are earning themselves a solid reputation on the ceilidh, contra and Playford scene. Sleep Deprivation is the latest of their obsessions, contra style dance music; all ten tracks are melded into one continuous hour-and-two-minutes soundscape, and they strongly advise listeners to turn off random play! The Australian artist Nicole Murray, of Cloudstreet, illustrates some lovely artwork of couples dancing – and there’s a tempting sketch of a chain dance on the back of the CD cover.
The vast majority of the tracks are entirely instrumental; Vicki and Jonny are must-hear multi-instrumentalists, and a little judicious double-tracking is sufficient to produce layer upon appealing layer of gorgeous and inventive variations. Above all, it’s Vicki’s entrancing nyckelharpa and Jonny’s snappy guitar melody that really impress. The tracks are long, lasting over five minutes for Jonny’s haunting voice-chant ‘Caucasia Contra’, not quite seven minutes for ‘Marvellous Meg’ and a whopping nine minutes for ‘Medieval Contra’. However, ingenious and artful interplay are piled one on top of the other; time has no meaning and the entire album seems to be gone in a flash. ‘Jiggle The Old Bones’ is the only dance-song, Vicki and Jonny deftly harmonising on some great and energetically foot-tapping lyrics.
The last track, ‘Driving Home Chapelloise’, consists of three lively bagpipe-led tunes, written by Jonny and reminiscent of the Chapelloise dance from Eastern France: the titles are ‘Double Shot Coffee’, ‘Diversion Ahead’ and ‘Don’t Drive Tired’. Vicki and Jonny have produced this ultimate road album, brilliantly dedicated to the contra dance – and dedicated to keeping all car-weary musos awake and safe as they head into the long, dark night.
ROAD NOT TAKEN
Fragment is a pretty impressive debut from this enterprising Bristol quartet, which comprises Ant Miles, Fancourt folk agency director and Downend Folk Club organiser (harmonium and guitar), Claire Hamlen (violin and viola), Joe Hamlen (harmonium, banjo, electric bass, brass and percussion) and the lovely, haunting voice of Anita Dobson, a weaver of magical stories and words. Road Not Taken are accompanied by musician, composer and producer Lukas Drinkwater, who runs Stroud-based Polyphonic Recording with his partner, Emily Barker; Lukas produced the whole album, and contributed double bass, nylon-string guitar and percussion.
Ant, Claire, Joe and Anita stir an appetising stew of familiar traditional songs, enhanced with their elegant arrangements, a smattering of Scots and Irish melodies plus a brace of Anita’s intelligent and artful compositions (‘The White Gown’ and ‘The Grey Of The Water’). There’s a wholly new interpretation of ‘The Blacksmith’ – solo banjo accompanies Anita’s introductory verse, while a delightful bevy of instruments pile in together with a heart-stopping woomph – and a hypnotic, slinky rendition of ‘William Taylor’. Robert Burns’ poetic classic ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’ gets its deserved treatment; and the final track, Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Queen And The Soldier’, is both moving and stunning.
What an exhilarating introductory fanfare – this band will go far.
Astar Artes AARCD4041
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
Cynefin represents three years of research and work into Ceredigion tradition and folk song; this project, which maps the past and the present, is the brainchild of musician and Bath Spa University music graduate Owen Sheirs. Owen grew up in the Clettwr Valley, north of Aberystwyth, immersing himself in the sounds of his father’s harp workshop. Cynefin is a Welsh noun with no direct equivalent in the English language; its origins lie in a farming term used to describe the well-worn hillside sheep tracks, deepening and changing to describe a very personal sense of place, belonging and familiarity. The artist Kyffin Williams described it as: “The place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.”
In 1973, author and poet T Llew Jones travelled up the Clettwr River for a BBC Wales documentary entitled Dilyn Afon – in translation, Following a River). One of the characters he met was the local ballad singer, Daff Jones, the last in a long line of balladeers, a tradition stretching back centuries. The balladeers had a spellbinding storytelling art that would have to make the enthralled community listen. In his copious bilingual booklet which is just overflowing with old photographs, Owen writes that 45 years on, West Wales is struggling for breath against the tide of modernity: “Economic decline, bubble-gum tourism and the lure of the good life has slowly unravelled the centuries-old social fabric, with oral traditions now the threadbare possessions of those few who are old enough to remember or alert enough to try and safeguard what is left. Since T Llew wandered up the Clettwr, native Welsh speakers have turned from the majority populace to a minority language group who are now struggling for their identity.”
Owen has worked as a musician, composer and engineer across a wide range of projects, including several album projects at Real World Studios and on the award-winning Clychau Dibon by Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, alongside producer John Hollis, founder of the Astar Artes label, who has lent his keen ear and experience to this new project. Nominated for Best Solo Artist at the inaugural 2019 Welsh Folk Awards, Cynefin gives Owen a stage to demonstrate his impeccable arranging and guitar skills, while taking him right back to his roots. Dilyn Afon is an enthralling compendium and reference library, with a startlingly beautiful score to boot; he says that some of the traditional songs have not been sung for hundreds of years. The opening song, ‘Cân O Glod I’r Clettwr’ (Song Of Praise To The Clettwr) brings this comment from him: “Were it not for T Llew Jones’s original BBC Wales programme, this captivating song by Daff Jones would have disappeared forever – indeed, it sat in the BBC archives for over 40 years until it saw the light of day in 2016.”
Owen is responsible for the striking but flowing, dreamy arrangements, which deserve a lot of attention, too; apart from his peaceful, pleasant voice, he plays a variety of instruments, including uke, percussion and harmonium, and the line-up lists percussionist Leandro Emiliano, harper Mali Llywelyn, vocalist Bethan Lloyd, pianist Maria Chiara Argiro, flugelhorn player and cornetist Steve Chadwick, trombonist Michel Padron and Flora Curzon and Sophie Rivlin (violin and cello). An honorable mention must be made for Robin Gwyndaf and Roy Saer, who collected and preserved the disappearing fragments of country life. Dilyn Afon brings together a fabulous mix of the Ceredigion ballad tradition and ambitious contemporary music-making; it is all part of that ancient county’s heritage and history, and it strives to cement the beautiful and fragile songs for years to come.
Memorable highlights are ‘Dole Teifi’ (Teifi’s Meadows), first noted down in the early 19th century, attached to ‘Lliw’r Heulwen’ (The Colour Of Sunlight), where a young man laments the constant changing of a woman’s heart and resigns a life of singledom; thrilling female harmonies in ‘Broga Bach’ (Little Frog); ‘Cân Dyffryn Clettwr’, a rarity particular to the Clettwr Valley, recorded in 1963 by Roy Saer from Kate Davies, a keen historian, author and singer and probably the last person to have learned the song orally; and the starkly mysterious ‘Myn Mair’ (By Mary), a Catholic lament which was kept hidden for years, for fear that anyone that who was caught singing it was banished from the chapel and confined to public disgrace.
I pride myself for being the first-ever artist ever to record (in 1983) the macaronic tale of a hapless West Walian, scammed by a seemingly innocent woman and her ‘baby’; the whole sorry mess took place on a train from Llandysul to London. I knew it as ‘Y Widw Fach Lan’ (The Neat Little Widow), but Gwilym Bowen Rhys followed it up by recording ‘Taith Y Cardi’ (The Cardi’s Journey) in his 2018 album, Detholiad o Hen Faledi. Owen completes the history of the comic song and offers a detailed explanation for it; my assumption is ‘Taith Y Cardi’ was probably written in the 19th century by John David Lewis, noted bookseller, local historian and founder of the Gomer Press in Llandysul. The three versions all have different melodies; I used ‘Torth Y Fara’, Gwilym put together the Irish jig, ‘Cill Liadain’, while Owen composed one of his tunes. Which is the better? I’ll leave you to decide!
For Dilyn Afon, Owen has conceived a wonderful soundscape, reminiscent of the old Fernhill albums but totally different as well. However, the absorbing booklet clinched it for me – perhaps I’ll take it to bed for a long read…
Independent recording: no catalogue number
It has taken a long gap of twelve years for Monmouthshire musician and songwriter Anne to release this thoughtful and intelligent album, but for two factors; she had been occupied on a doctorate degree, researching and presenting a thesis on a 13th-century Arthurian tale at Cardiff University, but Astrolabe was delayed owing to the sad loss of Liv Elliott, Anne’s longtime friend and owner of her Boscastle recording studio in Cornwall.
The definition of Astrolabe is an instrument used to make astronomical measurements; it was around for 2,000 years, and navigators relied on it for calculating latitude, before the development of the sextant. It derives from the Greek language, meaning ‘the taker or stealer of the stars’. Anne is best known as the writer of ‘Icarus’, her wonderful and timeless song which had Martin Simpson, Nic Jones, Archie Fisher and a world of artists queueing up to record it, even taking her to concerts, folk clubs and the USA. Like the ancient device, Astrolabe measures Anne’s musical time and space. ‘Camelot Revisited’ goes back to the 1970s, with Anne writing it as a 17-year-old; however, the newest 2019 track – ‘Small Ways To Beat The Devil’ – is an articulate demolition job on Trump and those popularist administrations who are plunging to the far right. Brazil, Hungary, the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement in Italy – and even the UK, where Number 10 was lit up with red, white and blue and Farage was stoking up the baying mobs in Trafalgar Square, as the final seconds ticked away before we were chucked into the deep, dark Brexit abyss.
Anne doffs the cap to Nic Jones with ‘Ten Thousand Miles’; it segues into ‘Heroes’, her tribute for those many friends who have, as she puts it: “joined the great session in the sky.” The song takes on a greater meaning; when Liv recorded the track, Anne had no idea that she would not complete the album. ‘Llanwenarth’ is “a little piece of Welsh heaven, just outside Abergavenny, where we lived for five very happy years.” ‘Grandma And The Wolf’ recalls Anne’s first days at university; her parents came to settle her in, accompanied by Grandma, who whispered this advice: “Whatever you do, dear, don’t have one with a beard.” In contrast, ‘Mametz’ is Anne’s epitaph to the many Welsh soldiers who were killed in Mametz Wood, just part of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
Anne’s gentle and persuasive musical poetry wins through; however, this was a very difficult album to make. Dylan Fowler produced ‘Small Ways To Beat The Devil’ at Stiwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny, and fitted in the voices of Helen Vincent-Tibke and Steve Purbrick, Anne’s husband; Mary McLaughlin, who sings with Anne as the duo Anonyma, does dazzling harmonies; fiddler Mike O’Connor, harper Barbara Griggs, multi-instrumentalist Steafan Hannigan and melodeon and keyboard player Matt Crum accompany. The only blips are the first and title track, where Anne’s lyrics are somewhat drowned out, and the last and final tune, ‘Roxburgh Castle’, where the musicians seem unsure of themselves and untogether. However, never mind; the sandwich may appear a little disappointing, but the ample filling is mighty delicious!
Liam Ward, master of the wailing blues harmonica and ex-Rumblestrutters member, has moved to the Stroud area; both he and guitarist Malcolm Thorne strut their tinglingly-hot stuff on a inviting debut EP called You Are My Medicine (Green Bullet Records, GB2002), which was recorded by Rob Evans at the Stroud-based Get It Together Studios. Liam and Malcolm wrote three of the blues-tinged numbers, including the title track; Liam contributed the partying ‘Crescent City Jive’ and Malcolm penned the last piece, ‘Song For Dennie’. They may be coming to a pub near you, so watch out and enjoy! FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
Scottish songwriter and singer Ainsley Hammill performs with folk bands Fourth Moon and Barluath and has appeared in the gigantic Festival Interceltique de Lorient and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections. Her debut solo EP Belle of the Ball (AVH001SD) is absolutely gorgeous; her deep-down soulful voice charts her impressive songs which are influenced by strong Gaelic culture, her home surroundings of Scotland and the people that surround her. two in the traditional Gaelic style and the other three self-penned and oozing spectacular maturity. Definitely an artist to watch and appreciate. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
World-renowned Danish guitarist Jon Hemmersam and Iranian university lecturer and professional player of the ancient Persian drum-like Daf, Asal Malekzadeh, had never met until the two-day recording of the album In The Moment (Naxos World NXW 76147-2); however, they create a dazzling acoustic dreamworld where tradition marries with ground-breaking modern jazz. He plays glittering Arabic-style runs and she mirrors his rhythms with startling percussive dexterity. This is an album to savour and enjoy. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
London and Bristol-based singer-songwriter Andrew J Newall has moved to Lanarkshire and released his second independent album, Janus (AJM2019CD). He composes and collaborates with some tight musicians, and his commanding voice stamps his own individual interpretation to well-known and well-loved folk songs, which he moulds into startling new material – however, he walks a fine line between impeccably-recorded professionalism and glitzy cabaret. Co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Sandy Jones has captured some very striking and uplifting sounds at his Foundry Music Lab in Motherwell. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
Exhilarating bodhrán player Cormac Byrne and expert fiddler Adam Summerhayes have totally triumphed with the album Stone Soup (Extinct Records NI6373); they planned to record a CD of fiddle and bodhrán music, but the two-day session quickly morphed into an amazing interplay where they experiment with caxixi, marimbula, berimbau, talking bones, alternately tuned junk-shop fiddle and anything else which they could get their hands on. Cormac and Adam develop and collaborate on nine inspiring pieces which are worth every penny, a startling jack-in-the-box of tricks. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
Guitarist Caesar Pacifici and British musician Brian Brooks (ex-Shegui and The House Band) met up in Caesar’s base in New York City in the 1970s and formed a folk-rock band called Banish Misfortune and a traditional group named The Flying Cloud, with Dan Milner supplying the vocals. The duo’s second independent album, Leaf (no catalogue number) is a pot-pourri of dreamy guitar interplay, mixed with familiar pot-boilers such as ‘Spencer The Rover’, ‘The Butterfly’ and ‘Spanish Ladies’. There are a few bright spots, but unfortunately both the style and the singing are rather limp and laboured. FolkWales verdict: thumbs down
Respected Glaswegian singer, choir director, composer and TV and radio presenter Mary Ann Kennedy says: “You can take the girl out of Glasgow, but never Glasgow out of the girl.” Her album Glaschu (ARC Music EUCD2833) is labelled ‘Home town love song’, and she expertly produces it with husband Nick Turner at their Watercolour studio at Ardgour in West Scotland; session musicians such as guitarist Finlay Wells, whistler Lorne MacDougall, uilleann piper Jarlath Henderson, a string quartet and a whole chorus keeps proceedings buzzing and bubbling. Mary selects the pick of Clydeside poets, in Gaelic and the Scottish language, and busy city recordings add flavour to this wonderful project. This is one to savour. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
Lismore (Lios Mòr) is an island in the Inner Hebrides, located near the Isle of Mull, Oban and Loch Lynne. Home to a couple of hundred souls, it is nick-named The Great Garden because of its fertile landscape and the incredible fertile musical talent, a phenomenon noted by islander Katy Crossan. She asked local producer Davy Clancart if he would like to collaborate on an album; not only did he agree, but he put in hours of skilful work in his Tirlaggan studio to make this happen. The result is a double CD named Sounds From The Great Garden (CLINC770190010) with internationally acclaimed local artists such as Mairi Campbell and Laura Cook to ceilidh bands, Gaelic Puirt a Beul, poetry, prose, readings, even Lismore Primary School. The result is a fabulous melting pot of island life, some of it uplifting, some of it a little bit uneven – however, this comprehensive and unique collection captures a thriving community right now. FolkWales verdict: thumbs up!
A Pilgrim’s Tale
Now, this is a rip-roaring, salty, stonking album! Seth Lakeman traces the Plymouth pilgrims and their little ship, The Mayflower, in search of The New World and story and self-composed song. It’s a time of rejoicing, known as Thanksgiving, which Americans across the globe celebrate on the last Thursday in November.
There’s a dark history of The Mayflower voyage; English puritans, persecuted in the Reformation, fled to the Dutch city of Leiden, where they lived and worked for ten years. In 1620, 102 pilgrims, skilled carpenters and Leiden citizens hired The Mayflower, which set off from the port of Plymouth and sailed across the Atlantic to live a religious life, free from all restrictions. Many years ago, a young girl from the Wampanoag native American tribe dreamed of a floating island with tall trees; strangers, who were climbing these trees, landed on the Wampanoag lands which nowadays is named Plymouth and Cape Cod. The girl was an old woman now, but she dreamed this strange dream twice. The dream became true; the Europeans carried deadly diseases, and the Wampanoag tribe was decimated.
The actor Paul McGann narrates the gripping tale, and it’s spiced with Seth’s mighty songs which juggernauts to the final end, with the help of stellar musicians Benji Kirkpatrick, Ben Nicholls and Cara Dillon. Cara executes some lovely harmonies across the way, and Geoff Lakeman – Seth’s dad, not to mention Sean’s and Sam’s – contributes his wonderful voice.
Seth and his chunky, biting fiddle bring a whole new lease of life to West Country tradition; for example, ‘Sailing Time’ tears a whole great chunk out of the familiar and well-loved ‘Farewell Shanty’, invigorating it, reviving it and giving the Cornwall sea song a shot in the arm. For God’s sake, buy it!
Reviews for 2019 and earlier have now been archived and can be found on the CD Reviews Archive (from 2017) page