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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