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JIM CAUSLEY & FRIENDS
I Am the Song
(WildGoose Studios WGS 420 CD)
Charles Stanley Causley was a Cornish poet, schoolmaster and writer who was born in Launceston on August 24, 1917 and died there, aged 86, on November 4, 2003. His mother was Cornish and his father was from Devon, from the village of Trusham on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, where singer and composer Jim Causley’s family originate. When Charles was just seven years old, his father died from long-standing injuries sustained in The Great War.
In 2013, Jim marked the tenth anniversary of his relative’s death by releasing the album Cyprus Well, named after Charles’ Launceston cottage, which is owned and maintained by The Charles Causley Trust, with the aim of using the tiny cottage as a base for writers and artists in residence. Jim set to music Charles’ poems and spent five days recording the project in the study in his tiny cottage: he writes: “I got to use his very own piano too! It was a magical experience and one that I always will hold very dear.” Last year The Trust commissioned Jim to create another project using Charles’ poems to celebrate the centenary of his birth. He says: “I felt that I would not want and create a ‘Cyprus Well 2′ and that it would not possible even if I wanted to.” Instead, he was made Artist In Residence in Cyprus Well, where he spent a week writing all the music on the Causley piano instead. He turned his attention to Charles’ Collected Poems For Children, which was about to be republished with a brilliant introduction by Roger McGough. Jim recorded I Am The Song in WildGoose Studios, and he persuaded eleven musicians who usually record there – Anahata, Mary Humphries, Keith Kendrick, Sylvia Needham, Jeff Gillett, Becki Driscoll, Nick Wyke, Mick Ryan, Matt Norman, Pete Bullock and Piers Butler – to make their contribution in marking 100 years since Charles’ birthday. The result is a very fine album indeed, absolutely dripping with glee, artful fun and wonderful tunes, all backed up
Charles was a very prolific poet, and Jim calls his volume of magnificent writing “a treasure trove”. The poet focused on Cornwall and especially Launceston; Jim interprets no less than 20 of Charles’ works with his deep baritone voice, including ‘Newlyn Buildings’ (a terrace of houses in Launceston), ‘Here We Go Round The Roundhouse’ (a building in the town’s Newport Square), ‘At Linkinhorne’, ‘As I Went Down Zig-Zag’ (a twisting path in Launceston), ‘The Mermaid At Zennor’ and ‘The Obby Oss’ (major figures in the Padstow May Day celebrations, where male dancers pick up and carry two mysterious round-shaped rival Osses, the Blue Oss and The Peace Oss, and continue to cavort from dawn to dusk.) The title track, and the finale, features Jim’s words and music, inspired by Charles’ original poem.
To cap it all, the album sheet has a myriad of gaily-coloured sketches, each one illustrating the subject of a poem – but artist Bex Bourne has jumbled them all up. You can happily spend time listening to Jim and solving the puzzle; the picture-clues are the fascinating ‘Good Morning Mr Croco-Doco-Dile’, ‘I Saw A Jolly Hunter’ and ‘Lady Jane Grey’. The entertaining notes make absorbing food for thought, too! In short, Jim is not the first to set poems to music, but he caps it all with some luscious tune-writing – and love and respect of his relative.
Independently released: No catalogue number
Liam Millinship and Jonny Matthew are back on the road again! They have released this brand-new offering, which was recorded in the South Wales Valleys at Long Row Audio in the Taff Vale village of Treforest and produced by Dan Edwards and Lawson Dando. BarlowCree launched their debut album Holystone to a great deal of acclaim, but they took a long and leisurely rest – however, the duo are now based in Bridgend and Gower, and Broadsword looks likely to seal their reputation as good-value entertainment who can be trusted to stoke up the guest-list in any festival.
Liam and Jonny write a trio of fine tracks (‘Crashing’, ‘Queen And Country’ and the proud South Wales anthem, ‘Man Of Steel’) but they revamp the well-known tunes and adapt the lyrics of six traditional songs (except for the magnificent closer ‘Starry Night’, and more of that later.) The opener is the pounding ‘Bold General Wolfe’, and Jonny’s rock-soaked voice melds with Liam’s steady tenor in startling harmony. They soup up the old chestnut ‘Fathom The Bowl’ and the long-lost Phil Tanner rendering of ‘Green Bushes’, which the BBC, along with the vast number of his repertoire, inexplicably deleted. However, they make a drastic change to the words and the tune of one of The Gower Nightingale’s most famous of folk songs, ‘Swansea Barracks’, renaming it ‘The Lass Of Swansea Town’. There are many versions to the song, but these absolutely beautiful, memorable tune and verses were Phil’s own interpretation of a traditional piece which was claimed to be his own. Phil’s Llangennith domain stands shoulder to shoulder with Gower, too. For the life of me, I cannot believe the reason why they tinkered with the most endearing of his songs.
Anyway, ‘The Lass Of Swansea Town’ was arguably the most controversial of BarlowCree’s reworkings, and the frustrating sleeve notes do not give us any information at all. However, they redeem themselves in a spectacular fashion by recording their charged-up versions of ‘Rambling Blade’ and ‘Spanish Ladies’, which rock along impressively. Liam’s strident strings are the fabulous anchor of all BarlowCree’s sizzling repertoire.
Ah yes, ‘Starry Night’ – what a corker. Jonny’s and Liam’s voices soar in beautiful precision, with instruments just meld and melt in fusion; it makes this proud and lovely Irish song a fitting finale to BarlowCree’s ‘comeback’ album. I, for one, cannot wait to see them again.
MICK RYAN & PAUL DOWNES
The Passing Hour
(WildGoose Records WGS417CD)
I always love seeing Mick and Paul performing their inspiring sets, and the particular care they have in choosing a great song; one of the most endearing things about the folk club tradition is the absolute wealth of material that is there for the asking, and Mick and Paul always cherry-pick the tastiest fruit. Mick is not only a wonderful traditional singer with a gorgeous deep-brown voice, but a discerning and exciting songwriter, too; Paul is the masterful anchorman, accompanying Mick with blending harmony vocals and excellent guitar, banjo and piano – in fact, he is regarded as one of the best acoustic guitarists in any style, and has played on literally hundreds of albums. The Passing Hour is their fourth offering, and the 14 tracks are a marvellous compendium of fine writing by Mick, together with the best work of other writers and some of the rarest traditional gems.
Mick takes the credit for six solo-written songs, plus one co-written with Paul, but The Passing Hour pays tribute to writers Helen North (‘The Midshipman’s Boast’), Tom Lewis (‘All At Sea’) and Steve Thomason (‘Adieu, Old Friend’), plus singer Annie Fentiman for her performance of the traditional ballad ‘The Lady Diamond’, learned by Mick some 35 years ago and still flashing brilliance to this day. The title track shows Mick at his poetical finest; ‘The Passing Hour’ points a gentle finger at the folk music scene and its inevitable mortality. We sing choruses for years until the Grim Reaper beckons; The Life Of A Man is very short, snuffed out in a flash, and many supposedly-famous names are forgotten altogether as the Earth rolls on in its orbit round the Sun – so let’s sing for the moment.
Mick composes on a plethora of subjects – the story of the ‘Thankful Village’, those lucky places whose sons came home alive from the war; ‘The Parson And The Pig’ was written when Mick searched for a song from the same title and, when he couldn’t find it, he made up a new version; ‘The Fowler’ tells of a disabled boy who has to kill a swan in order to eat and survive; ‘One Day’ is the sombre fact that since the end of the Second World War, there has been only one day when nobody was at war with anyone; ‘Last Will’ (co-written with Paul) is the true story of a Spanish grandfather who wrote his will the night before he died in the Civil War; ‘The Sea’, taken from Mick’s 1998 folk opera The Voyage, focusses on emigration to America to the British Isles and Ireland in the last century; and ‘Oh! Swine!’ came from reading Lark Rise To Candleford and the importance of the family pig, where villagers slaughtered their beast at a different time and shared the meat around – a magnificent ending to the show and the album.
Session musicians include the ubiquitous Jackie Oates, who sang vocals and played five-string viola, Kate Riaz (cello) and Martin Bradley (concertina). This is a deeply satisfying and relaxing album, and I recommend you to but it, pronto!
Who were the Freedom Riders? They were black and mixed race civil rights activists, who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and the following years to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court in two important court cases, which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The first Freedom Ride left Washington DC on May 4, 1961 and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17 – but the Freedom Riders, and the violent reaction that their defiant and courageous stand provoked, bolstered the credibility of the American Civil Rights Movement. They focussed national attention on the disregard for the federal law and the local violence used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. Police arrested riders for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local ‘Jim Crow’ laws, along with other alleged offences – but they often first let white mobs attack them without intervention.
It’s a true story that must be told, and Alun is the man to write it; this is his fourth album and the first EP to be released. He piles into ‘Dig Boys Dig’, the gritty story of a man who has been a miner all his life, the back-breaking toil winning the coal and the firm friendships that are forged underground. ‘Jack Jones’ is a song of praise for the Liverpool slum boy who became the popular leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which changed its name to Unite. He worked as an engineering apprentice then joined his father as a docker, but his education was reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. Jack led the protest against Moseley’s Blackshirts and got beaten up by a gang wearing knuckledusters; he later joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War until he was seriously wounded by a fascist bullet. ‘Song For John Hartwell’ tells the story of a teenager, killed by his own psychotherapists, and ‘We Are Not Afraid’ is a tribute in memory of Sophie Lancaster, murdered by a mob who did not like her goth style. ‘Too Scared’, ‘On This Old Guitar’ and ‘One Last Try’ tell of troubled, broken love.
All fine material, but Alun has a habit of moving and exciting me when I hear a new album, a rallying cry that urges me to get up and man the barricades. Maybe it’s just me, but Freedom Rider failed to winkle me out of my chair. Shame…
RATTLE ON THE STOVEPIPE
Poor Ellen Smith
WildGoose Records WGS419CD
Dave Arthur, Pete Cooper and Dan Stewart are marvellous musicians with a tremendous amount of good American tradition and lots of fun; this is the fifth Rattle On The Stovepipe album, and it tells the classic story-in-song of Ellen, who was murdered in the North Carolina city of Winston-Salem in July 1892, along with those other North Carolina victims, Omie Wise and Laura Foster. Dave sings lead vocal and plays banjo, guitar and melodeon, Pete harmonises and plays fiddle and viola and Dan is a wizard on guitar, banjo and mandolin.
One of their biggest fans is Dame Shirley Collins, who recorded Appalachian songs and tunes with the famous collector Alan Lomax. Dame Shirley says: “This engaging trio inspires in me the same devotion that old Virginia musicians like Wade Ward and Uncle Charlie Higgins do. There is that same sweetness, ease, subtlety and good humour, every song and tune so well understood, so deftly played and so perfectly paced. Dave, Pete and Dan are all master musicians, but there is no sense of ego, no promotion of themselves as stars, although they certainly can dazzle. They are completely at home with the music they love, and can switch comfortably from American to English songs and tunes… they know their material and they honour their sources, and Dave has a great knack of passing on information with wit and warmth. He is a great story-teller, too, and can compel your attention and break your heart when he sings a long ballad. Both Dave and Pete have that rare gift of drawing you into a song. As you’ll have gathered, I love them.”
Strong recommendation, indeed; and the trio kick off with ‘Deadheads And Suckers’, learned in Athens, Georgia, from the doyen of old-time banjo, Art Rosenbaum, which sticks the knife in layabout and ne’er-do-wells, shirkers who didn’t sign up for the First World War. ‘Little Billy Wilson’ is a tune recorded by Tennessee fiddler ‘Uncle’ Jimmy Thompson, and ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ was from Kentucky singer Justis Begley in 1937 and Grandpa Jones in 1946, although Pete learned it from The Grateful Dead. ‘Waiting For The Federals’, AKA ‘Seneca Square Dance’, recorded by fiddler Sam Long in 1926, rises to a true high. It reminds me of cartoonist Gilbert Sheldon’s 1970s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, where Freewheelin’ Franklin says: “I just lurve that shit-kickin’ music!”
In contast is ‘The Devil’s In The Girl’, collected by Cecil Sharp from farmer William Nott in Devon, and Dave’s version of the mysterious poetic imagery of ‘Blood Red Roses’, the shanty which can be traced no further back than 1956, when Bert Lloyd sang it in the John Huston film Moby Dick. Bert’s source was ‘Come Down You Bunch Of Roses’, published in William Doerflinger’s 1951 collection Shantymen And Shantyboys: Songs Of The Sailor And Lumberman. The sleeve notes say: “So the line that has caused so much conjecture is simply, like so many other memorable folk revival lyrics, another example of Bert’s fertile imagination.” And let it be said that Rattle On The Stovepipe have lost none of their authentic last-century New World atmosphere.
The blood count certainly mounts up; ‘Carry Me Back To Georgia’ was recorded in 1929 by fiddler Lowe Stokes, whose right hand was blown off in a shooting accident. Lowe had a special hook to hold his bow, and by the 1930s had resumed his playing career. ‘Wild Bill Jones’, which tells of story of death by shooting, really rocks; ‘Stackolee’ is the account of 25-year-old William Lyons, shot in St Louis by Lee ‘Stack Lee’ Sheldon in 1895. All in all, Dave, Pete and Dan manage to squeeze the 17 tracks to make Poor Ellen Smith really great value.
(Celtic Connections 1CCCD1100)
Sharon Shannon is an exciting revelation on the Castagnari accordion, the fiddle and the whistle, and she has a delightful habit of dropping startling musical surprises on her unsuspecting audience. This magnetic no-holds-barred album certainly doesn’t disappoint; while she is well known for arranging traditional Irish tunes and Irish-influenced compositions, she always loves to experiment with brand-new and age-old styles and collaborate and jam with players and singers from all walks of life. Sacred Earth is a roaring whirlwind where the County Clare-born musician – now living in Galway City – stands shoulder to shoulder with electronics, rap, rock, country, traditional Shetland culture and – for the first time – African music. And, of course, Irish gold…
Justin Adams produced Sacred Earth and contributed – as well as electric and acoustic guitars and bass – an exotic medley of djembe, tbaul, calabash, tebir and snare drum, and he even did the vocals to boot. He played on Renegade, Sharon’s 2007 album, and she wated to work with him again because, as she says: “he’s such a generous musician and I love his fearless approach to music.” He has long been an expert in African and Middle Eastern music, and the penultimate track – ‘Sea Shepherd’, co-written by Sharon – has the accordionist exploring the wonderful kora of Sekou Keita (of Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita fame.) Abass Dodoo contributes a flurry of African percussion instruments, including sojo, kagan, kidi, kpanlogo and tamalan.
All of the 11 tracks were co-written by Sharon, bar Finbar Furey’s fabulous crooning on the Jim Reeves classic ‘He’ll Have To Go’, Canadian fiddler Mel Lavigne’s ‘Frenchie’s Reel’ and the romantic musette of ‘The Merry Widow.’ The first track, ‘Rusheen Bay’, reunites her and amazing guitarist and keyboard player Alan Connor, and she co-writes the magnetic title track with Justin. The futuristic ‘The Machine’ tells the story of Sharon touring in the US state of New Mexico and collaborating with US singer/musician Alyra Rose and two great Native American performers, Steve Rushingwind and Arvel Bird; Alyra takes the vocal here. The closing track, ‘The Bull Fiddle’, is a chunky, meaty reel which has Sharon sessioning with the traditional Shetland Fiddlers: were Lyn and Lynda Anderson relatives of the famous fiddle teacher and campaigner for Shetland culture Dr Tom Anderson MBE, who had a hand in starting ‘Da Forty Fiddlers’ in 1960 and died, aged 81, in 1990?
Sharon has had a remarkable and adventurous career – including her new business venture, The Garden Of Vegan, a whole-food mobile truck which will go to festivals and events, expanding into Europe in the future. This lovely album is an effervescent reminder of why she is still so brilliantly unique.
(No catalogue number)
Now, this is something else! Concertina virtuoso Cormac Begley comes from County Kerry, and this remarkable self-titled debut album finds the solo musician playing Irish reels, polkas, scottisches, jigs, airs and slides on an incredible ten instruments – bass, baritone, treble and piccolo. If you’re not a concertina buff, thinking all these squeezeboxes are not for you – for God’s sake, open your ears and enquiring mind and just listen…
The concertina master Noel Hill – born in County Clare – says in the sleeve notes: “The name Begley is synonymous with an Ghaeltacht, Corca Dhuibhne and West-Kerry and with the songs, slides and polka tradition of that area. Cormac Begley is an entirely committed and dedicated musician – and a brave one… he injects his body and heart into his music in a way that enables us to experierence it at a very deep level.” Cormac writes: “All the pieces of music instantly struck a chord with me the first time I heard them. My approach has been simply to connect as honestly as possible with them. I wanted to produce a solo concertina album using the full range of concertinas… and to highlight some of the instrument’s possibilities spanning across seven octaves.”
Cormac’s concertina playing has been described as “a masterclass in timeless musicianship” (Irish Times, which gave him a five-star review) and in 2014 he received the Sean Ó Riada Award for his concertina music. He plays in a number of duets, including Liam Ó Maonlaí (Hothouse Flowers), Caoimhín O Raghallaigh (playing the hardanger d’amore), Rushad Eggleston (a completely off-the-wall, barking mad but brilliant Californian musician who plays what he calls his cello goblin) and Libby McCrohan (bouzouki). He is a member of Concertina, the trio with Noel Hill and Jack Talty, and plays in the band Ré – featuring Liam Ó Maonlaí, Maitiú Ó Casaide, Eithne Ní Chatháin (Inni-K) and Peter O’Toole (Hothouse Flowers). Cormac was also involved in the Rian dance production by choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan. He has recently returned from Cuba, where he played for Irish president Micheal D. Higgin’s first state visit to Havana. He has performed on RTE’s Other Voices with Caoimhín O Raghallaigh (The Gloaming) and has featured on This Ain’t No Disco – St. Patrick’s Day Special from New York (2017). He recently performed with Caoimhín in the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Recital Room in Dublin, and in October he performed again with Rushad Eggleston. He will play solo in the National Concert Hall in October 2017, and he will be performing at The London Irish Centre in Camden with Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh on May 11.
Each one of the 13 tracks was recorded only once, which accounts for the ‘live’ atmosphere. First up is a pair of kicking and joyous reels, amazingly played on a G/D Colin Dipper bass; the listener can plainly hear the deep snorts and the quick bellows breath. Then comes ‘The Frenzy Polka’, played on a German Suttner C/G treble; take a bow, concertina maker Jürgen Suttner from the university town of Siegen! Cormac follows up with a brace of schottiches, played on a Bb/F Lachenal baritone, a jig on an Ab/Eb Jeffries treble and the air, ‘Rocking The Cradle’, played on an Ab/Eb Dipper bass.
Cormac’s utterly delightful album leads us through the ‘Paddy Canny’s Pigeon On A Gate’ reels, the air ‘Beauty Deas An Oileain’ and the slides ‘Merrily Kiss The Quaker/The Lisheen Slide’. He goes out with a bang on the flamboyant reels ‘John Dwyer’s/McGettrick’s’, triumphantly expressed on a C/G Lachenal piccolo – revel in those flitting, dancing super-high notes! This is a collection to keep and to treasure – and revisit over and over again.
Megan Henwood lives in Oxfordshire and is a mesmeric, startling singer and writer. Her second CD, Head, Heart, Hands (DHARMACD21), is brimful of penetrating insights, observations, cracking poetry and breathtaking arrangements, of which Jackie Oates and her viola feature; ex-lovers had better run a mile than get in the way of Megan’s razor-sharp prose. Every track is a bonus, but ‘Painkiller’ is the be-all and end-all; Jackie harmonises with Megan, and this track is soooo beautiful. Absolutely magnificent…
…which brings us to the follow-up, a Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood EP called Wings (DHARMACD25) – only five tracks, but each one a little diamond. Jackie, Megan and double bassist Pete Thomas met at Nettlebed Folk Club, the blue touch-paper was lit and their talents just exploded. Amazing female harmonies, guitar, five-string viola, piano and bass just weave together and wrap around a quintet of gorgeous songs; they do an inspiring take on New Order’s ‘Love Vigilantes’, Megan’s ‘Bettystown’, Brian Bedford’s much-covered gem ‘What’s The Use Of Wings?’, a fabulous reading of the traditional ‘Setting Of The Sun’ and the great Lau anthem ‘Ghosts’ – all spine-tingling, heady stuff.
James McArthur and The Head Gardeners have conjured up a Mike Heron-like cache of startling, beautiful songs and heady string arrangements in Burnt Moth (Moorland Records MLAND003); the trouble is that Welsh-born singer-songwriter James is sadly lacking in the diction department. Nice sound, but what did it all mean?
Hickory Signals are Brighton duo Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti, and Noise Of The Waters (independently produced, no catalogue number) is their second EP; the title track, an original James Joyce poem, is Folk & Roots Music Webzine’s song of the day. Ian Carter of Stick In The Wheel recorded, mixed and mastered the EP, which contains six tracks, with Tom Prior added on violin and strings. It’s worth a mention that ‘Irish Ways’ isn’t traditional; it was written by John Gibb and recorded by Moving Hearts, the Donal Lunny/Davy Spillane Celtic rock band. Anyway, enough of these pedantics – Laura and Adam are definitely the ones to watch.
Not sure what Sweet Gum Tree are doing in FolkWales OM; Sustain The Illusion (DBCD002/1) has lots of twangy electric guitars and echoey sinths, and really average singer/songwriter Arno Sojo inaudibly drowns in electronic cacophony. Next!
Traditional singer and concertina player Dick Miles is alive and well and living in the West Cork village of Ballydehob, Ireland; he has released his 1983 album Cheating The Tide (MSCD 101) plus seven bonus songs, recorded in Ireland by Dave Howard. Martin Carthy, Sue Miles, Sam Richards and Trish Stubbs pop up on these well-researched 20 songs and tunes, and Dick comes into his own with a few self-written pieces. Dick is busy organising the Fastnet Maritime And Folk Festival, which will bring Irish and English artists (including Andy Irvine, Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Chris Wilson of the Wilson Family and Liverpool’s Andy Kenna) to Ballydehob from June 16-18, 2017.
Irish superband Kíla are eight rocking musicians, including the three Ó Snodaigh brothers, and their CD Alive (KRCD016) admirably sets the scene; exciting uilleann pipes, flute, flowing bass, crashing drums, bodrhan, testosterone-soaked male vocals (and hypnotic Polish female voice as guest) are all mixed together in a heady cauldron of self-composed sound, recorded at different locations across the world and capturing the sweaty, raving atmosphere by the shedful. Highlight is a celtic-flavoured a cappella rap called ‘Raise The Road’ – just brilliant.
Amy Duncan is an Edinburgh-based singer/songwriter, and Antidote (Filly Records FILLY002) is her sixth album; dreamy harp, floating sax and gentle, lazy drums set the standard for what is a mysterious and thoroughly relaxing 11 tracks. However, her voice is drowned in the echoey atmosphere and her lyrics are hard to distinguish, which is rather a pity.
The sweet soprano voice of Robyn Stapleton salutes Scotland’s national poet in the Songs Of Robert Burns (LAVE002CD), with Patsy Reid’s violin leading her string quartet together with a bevy of what she salutes as “many of Scotland’s finest instrumentalists” – including Signy Jacobsdottir, Innes White and Jenna Reid. Robyn grew up in the South-West of Scotland, and she says: “Scotland’s music and language are at the heart of Burns’ literary and musical legacy, which continues to inspire all over the world.” She salutes Burns with 12 splendid tracks, including ‘Parcel Of Rogues’ (which poured scorn on the Scottish commissioners, bribed into voting for the Act of Union in 1707) and the original tune to ‘Auld Lang Syne’; drunken crowds, which massacre the old song at every New Year’s Eve jolly, should listen to this!
Watch out for Derry singer-songwriter Eamon Friel; I certainly have! Eamon, who was born in Stockwell, London to a Mayo mother and a Derry father, attracted considerable attention when he released an album called In My Time in 2015. Now he’s followed up with Takeaway (Thran Records 7072), an utterly gorgeous EP which is bound to put him on the highest pedestal. The title song, about working in a Chinese fast-food shop, is complete whimsy; the poetry of ‘Across’, the word-picture of ‘James Joseph Alphonsus’ and the carefully-built construction of ‘All The Lost Things’ are just a sheer delight.
Exeter-based song-writing duo Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood are Sound Of The Sirens, and their pop-folk debut album For All Our Sins (DMF Records DMF112) promises good things to come; lovely angelic voices wrap around the well-constructed 10 tracks in harmony to make a lovely album.
Oh dear – creative American singer-songwriter Anna Coogan has become just another rock chick on the 11-track album The Lonely Cry Of Space And Time (AC004), and thrashing guitar and crashing drums do their best to drown out her sensitive words. Born in Boston and now living in New York State, Anna’s classically-trained voice rises above the mayhem in what can be described best as a wail. Next…
Jerusalem-born writer Avital Raz started off a child classical singer, then shifted her focus to India to study the ancient art of Dhrupad singing. She now lives in Sheffield where she teaches singing and Indian classical music, and has amassed a band of excellent musicians for her album, The Fallen Angel’s Travelling Descent (Sotones Music Co-operative STCD081). Percussionist Keith Angel produced the CD, which includes Mina Mikheal Salama (oud, ney and duduk), Andy Seward on double bass, Avital’s musical callaborator Pete Harvey on ‘cello and accordionist Luke Carver Goss (not ‘Gross’, as the cover states – shurely shome mistake?) and showcases 12 of her off-the-wall, startling and surprising works.
Scottish composer and singer Christy Scott flits between traditional music and her own work. Her EP Amaranthine (CSM01EP) contains five self-written songs which snuggles into the acoustic atmosphere of the fiddle, guitar, cello, double bass and percussion; the electric guitar even pops up occasionally to lend splashes of colour to the tasteful arrangement. One to watch!
NICK WYKE & BECKI DRISCOLL
The Songs Of Edward Capern, The Postman Poet
Edward Capern was born in Tiverton, Devon, in 1819, and his family moved to Barnstaple when he was a young child. He toiled in a factory from an early age, but he was forced to abandon his work because of failing eyesight. He dreamed of writing poems and building a fairer society; however, these aspirations could not put food on the table, but his fortunes changed when he got a job as a postman in Bideford. Capern’s post route took him on a 12-mile trip to the village of Buckland Brewer and back; he composed poetry to while away the time and he published several volumes, including one collection called The Devonshire Methodist, which had 21 selected poems set to Capern’s own music. He was an amateur musician, too, and played the flute and concertina.
North Devon musicians Nick and Becki were inspired by the local folk music of that time and a novel by Liz Shakespeare, drawing on her historical research and Capern’s own writing, which tells the story of Bideford’s Postman Poet, capturing the opportunities and inequalities of the Victorian Age. Liz has edited a new selection, The Poems Of Edward Capern, which focus on the writings of this self-educated man which celebrated the scenic, tranquil country lanes on his postman’s round, and demanded a fairer deal for the impoverished labourers he met. The CD contains a lavish illustrated booklet which enables the listener to interpret Capern’s philosophy through his verses.
Nick and Becki employ guitar and fiddle, and throw in a few appetising twin-fiddle styles; their 17-track selection sheds a new light on the rural postman who grew from obscurity to national renown. The album kicks off with a peon of praise for ‘The Old-Fashioned Plough’, introduces ‘The Rural Postman’ and marks ‘The Spring O’ The Dawn’. However, Capern rings the changes with the dark ballad ‘Kitty Lyle; Or, Mazed Kate Of Clovelly’ and the beautiful, mysterious ‘The Robin Is Weeping’; nice, drifting harmonies there. The country dance tunes ‘The New Rigged Ship’ – which is a dead ringer for the Welsh jig ‘Pedwar Postr Gwely’ (The Four-poster Bed) – and ‘Off She Goes’ are a tribute to Capern’s music-making abilities, and ‘Song Of The Keeper’ paints a portrait of country lore. In contrast, ‘Epitaph/A Song Of Sorrow’ casts a bleak shadow; however, Christmas rejoicing comes again with the poems ‘It’s O! To Be In Devon At The Merry Christmas Time’ and ‘Christmas Bells’, which rounds off the album on a merry note.
Liz Shakespeare’s two Edward Capern books are available from her website, www.lizshakespeare.co.uk, and can be brought from Walter Henry’s Bookshop in Bideford (01237 425727), if you’re down that way. £1 from each copy sold will be donated to the North Devon Food Bank; the stark fact that these charity banks have got to exist at all is an appalling condemnation of the obstinate and uncaring dogma which widens the chasm between the very rich and the many ‘new’ poor. It seems that the injustices of Edward Capern’s Victoriana and this age of austerity are not so different after all.
One of my proudest moments, apart from facilitating the appearance of Brass Monkey, was booking Calan – a young up-and-coming band who were an absolute breath of fresh air as well as brilliantly supporting John Kirkpatrick, Martin Carthy and the other stellar names in Tredegar House Folk Festival. Those days are long gone, alas; but Calan have evolved into the storming, steaming juggernaut of Cool-Cymru-with-attitude power-folk, their jaw-dropping repertoire putting lots of bottoms on seats and taking no prisoners as they demand to get super-proud Welsh tradition noticed – and how! Beware the exhausted but happy bodies that lie littered in their wake.
Calan have travelled a long and mighty road since they recorded Bling, their promising debut album; they released their second CD (Jonah) and first EP (Giggly), with title tracks which their manager, the inspiring and prolific songwriter and thoroughly entertaining performer Huw Williams, wrote for them. Huw is also a champion clog-dancer and accordionist Bethan Rhiannon’s father, and seven-year-old Bethan learned a great deal from his skills and art. Solomon is the band’s fifth album, and it’s a joyous celebration and a dancing, jigging revelation – furthermore, you can’t help but marvel at their full-on and really astounding musicianship.
The three original core members of the band are Bethan, fiddler, pibgorn player and Welsh bagpiper Patrick Rimes and smiling, sparkling fiddler Angharad Jenkins; Llŷn guitarist and excellent studio producer Sam Humphries joined them for Giggly and flaxen-haired harper Alice French’s considerable talents were used on Solomon. Calan grabs the listening public by the throat with the first startling track, ‘Kân’, with an eerie monotone chorus based on the psalm chants which were popular in West Wales chapels; Bethan writes a stand-up-and-be-counted song about the future of the Welsh language and culture, there’s an extra ‘Ble Rwyt Ti’n Myned?’ tune going on somewhere and to cap it all, the sampled voice of Angarad’s late father, the poet Nigel Jenkins, reads an extract of his piece ‘The Creation’. Calan roar on with ‘Ryan Jigs’, a tribute to the Welsh soccer team who came so close in the European Championships and the greatest player of all, Ryan Giggs, and follow with ‘#DeportationSelfie’, a wry look back at Sam and Patrick’s nightmare US tour. A visa computer broke down at the US Embassy in London, and the upshot was that the two of them were arrested by US immigration at Chicago airport, had to share a night in a prison cell with an Estonian death-metal band and were put on a transatlantic flight for London Heathrow the next morning. The combination of ‘The Black Joak’, ‘Chwi Bachgen Glan Fri’, Patrick’s ‘Ooh-Eeh, Nasty Devil’ and ‘Naid Dros Llanerch’ must be total coincidence!
Calan never let up with ‘Apparition’, their all-systems-go original song based on Edward Jones’ diaries that traces the fairy realm in South Wales. The fairy folk don’t like iron or metal of any kind, and disappeared with the rise of the smelting industry; but the furnaces are gone now, and perhaps the fairies will come again. The band slow down with ‘Hayes And Quinn’s’, a delicate, beautiful tune which they wrote as a wedding present for their American friends. Angharad composed ‘Madame Fromage’, a dedication to the band’s favourite cheese shop and restaurant in Castle Arcade, Cardiff and their own special Madame Fromage, Carrie Rimes of the Cosyn Cymru creamery and Patrick’s mam. In total contrast, Bethan’s lovely voice interprets ‘Pe Cawn I Hon’ (If She Were Mine), accompanied in striking fashion by Sam’s solo Stratocaster, played through a vintage tube amp.
One of the most pleasing things about Calan is that they always strive to hit the highest peaks in intelligent and exciting arrangements; they go for broke all the time, and they don’t understand the phrase: “That’ll do”. Bethan’s voice draws the well-known folk song ‘Yr Eneth Gadd Ei Gwrthod’ (The Rejected Maiden) right out into the present; the heart-breaking and shocking tale concerns a pregnant girl, thrown out by her family and ostracised in the community, who in utter misery drowns herself. The song is based on a true story, and Calan throw it into a minor key to make it even more macabre. The title track is ‘Synnwyr Solomon’ (Solomon’s Wisdom), a traditional song warnng of feisty Welsh women which Calan learned from the singing of the great icon, the late Meredydd Evans. ‘Dennis, Polca!’ is a fabulous track which builds up from the traditional ‘Welsh Morris’, past Bethan’s catchy ‘Anastacia Riddles’ to the full-blown ‘Polca Cefn Coed’ from the Llewelyn Alaw collection, with electronic drum-beats, gleeful hand-clapping and the band just flying.
The lovely ‘Yr Hwiangerddi’ (The Lullabies) is for Iori Gwyn, born to Lllinos Jones, Calan’s orginal harper, on September 20, 2016, the first Calan baby; The final track is ‘Big D’, dedicated to carpenter Dafydd Gimblett for being an all-round legend and for making Bethan’s clogging boards, which the band carry around on tour. For starters, Bethan does an eye-popping clog routine which to guaranteed to fry anyone’s brains, and the band pile in for ‘Y Fasged Wyau’ (The Egg Basket), the long-lost reel which is enjoying a bit of a revival in current Welsh circles. The minor-key ‘Roaring Hornpipe’ and the band-composed ‘Pibddawns Morfydd’ bring Solomon to a bouncing, breathless end. As for me, I’ve already decided who I’m going to vote for when it comes to choosing the Radio 2 Folk Awards’ Album Of The Year.
Lovers, Soldiers And The Tramp
(Independently produced; no catalogue number)
Pembrokeshire-based Quarto are Chris Kay, who sings lead and harmony vocals and plays whistle, keyboard and percussion; singer Holly Robinson, who plays three violins – a standard, a five-string and an octave; guitarist and melodeon player Paul Sharp, who sings lead and harmony; and singer Peter Kay, who plays guitars and mandolins, writes Quarto’s original material and performs with Chris, his wife, as a duo. Pembrokeshire folk value their independence, and Quarto have gone the same way by organising their own Folk And Food gigs, which have been complete sell-outs. They have even gone the whole hog by independently releasing their debut CD, which was recorded in their homes using modest equipment; they say: “We are our own recording engineers, producers, and everything else involved in the process.” However, Chris, Holly, Paul and Peter seek to justify doing it themselves – but there is really no need. Barring one or two glitches, they can be very well satisfied with what is an endearing, lovely album.
First up is ‘Massacre At Béziers’, written by English artist, author and prolific songwriter Alan Tunbridge, which tells of a sacking of this small Occitan town by Northern French crusaders on July 22, 1209. Béziers and the whole Languedoc region of southern France was a hotbed of Catharism, an alternative Christian religion which was at variance with Catholicism. The modern Occitan cross is a national symbol of the Cathar cross. Pope Innocent III tried to suppress Catharism, but when this failed he declared the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. The population of Béziers was swelled by refugees fleeing the crusader army, who burned them alive; between 7,000 and 20,000 died that day. When a crusader asked how to tell catholics from cathars, the Bishop of Citeaux replied with what can be translated: “Kill everyone and let God sort them out.” Quarto tell the whole horrible story in convincing, matter-of-fact style which emphasises the whole bloody religious mindset; how you are prepared to kill everyone who does not subscribe to your beliefs.
‘Bonny Portmore’ was an Ulster village, built on Lord Conway’s 2,000-acre estate; but Lord Conway fell on hard times and sold off the estate to English buyers, who demolished Portmore Castle and stripped the woodland, including famous oak The Ornament Tree. Quarto have rescued what is a beautiful Irish lament; in complete contrast is Jez Lowe’s funny-but-making-a-protest tale of ‘Aloysius’, the old dog that stays silent but talks intelligently and angrily whenever his canine race is exploited – rather like Brian Griffin.
The whole album is a sheer delight, through the traditional ‘High Germany’ to Peter’s whimsical ‘Seaside Song’ reminiscing and the ‘Cuckoos’ tune set – the first is Peter’s composition, followed on by a traditional slowed-down Morris dance and Welsh reel, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Nyth Y Gog’, which has Holly’s fiddle dancing and sparkling. ‘White Cockade 2009′ follows on; Peter takes up the familiar old song and transforms it into a 21st Century statement about military men killing and dying for our political leaders’ lies and incompetence. The amusing ‘The Yorkshire Couple’, from a poem by Jim Mackie, was learned from the singing of Kate Rusby, and Holly does some inspiring arranging on the stark and melodic ‘Morfa’r Frenines’. Quarto take on the very familiar chestnut ‘The Water Is Wide’ and coax simplicity and innocence into a great musical piece.
Peter really is a fine writer; the last track on the album is ‘The Jonas Trilogy’, which tells the story of a tramp who has very few possessions, except for his prized fiddle; however, when he gets out his instrument and starts to play, everyone is singing the old tunes which they thought they had forgotten. Then he slips out into the night, alone again…
On April 21, Quarto will venture out for their first out-of-Pembrokeshire booking, courtesy of The Valley Folk Club in Pontardawe. Let’s hope that Chris, Holly, Paul and Peter will have many clubs clamouring for them; they certainly deserve it.
(Green Man Productions GMCD 008)
Way back when, I used to look on a Chris Foster set as something extra-special, where you came away really energised and totally convinced that you had your good moneysworth. Then Chris emigrated to Iceland, where he married the traditional singer Bára Grímsdóttir and settled in the capital city of Reykjavik, where he and Bára play as the English-Icelandic duo Funi and conduct workshops and week-long courses on the fascinating, ancient and mysterious Icelandic music and song, which remained hidden and obscured by the other, stronger higher-profile folk cultures. Now Chris has come back with a mighty bang and has released the wonderful album Hadelin; it was recorded in Dylan Fowler’s marvellous green oak Stwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny, with producer Jim Moray playing and Dylan engineering, and the 11 tracks include John Kirkpatrick, Martin Brinsford, Jim’s sister Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Dylan’s partner Gillian Stevens, five-string double bassist Trevor Lines, Bára, Amy Dawson and Simon and Libby Metson as among the stellar musicians. It seems as though Chris’s sojourn in The Land Of Ice And Fire has generated into a stunning collection of mesmerising pieces which will grab you by the throat and just demand to be listened – that’s how good they are.
So why Hadelin? Chris explains that it’s not a title track; if you’re not careful, you might miss it in the second that Chris sings it. He thinks ‘Hadelin’ is a corruption of ‘Holland’; in the many versions of ‘The Trees They Grow So High’, Jack Barnard of Bridgewater sang “I’ll make my love a shroud of the hadelin O so green”. Chris, born in the same county of Somerset, really liked the unusual noun, so he named the album Hadelin.
Chris, accompanied by Jackie’s sweet five-string viola, revisits ‘The Seeds Of Love’, the first folk song which Cecil Sharp collected from John England of Hambridge, Somerset in 1903. Chris had not sung it since the 1960s, but he uncovers a special beauty and dignity and does it justice. Chris was living in Leiston, Suffolk in the 1970s, where he encountered many traditional singers, including Jumbo Brightwell; He became a friend, and gave Chris songs which were written out on recycled greetings cards. However, Chris says that he never heard Jumbo singing ‘The Faithful Plough’, which he picked up from a recording of Jumbo’s father, Velvet Brightwell; here, Chris and John (playing the one-row melodeon), Jackie, Jim, Trevor and Martin have an absolute ball. In contrast, Chris pays tribute to the magnificent ‘Once When I Was Young’, the wonderful Leon Rosselson’s bleak description of an alien landscape where everybody must conform, perhaps to a faceless multi-national corporation or a grim dole-queue lubyanka. Leon, and Chris, does the job right down to a T – Chris’s ringing voice and his insistent, driving guitar, Trevor’s bass and Jim’s bass synthesiser paint a vivid picture of an unfriendly otherworld, and Leon’s remarkable song-writing quickly resolves into a harmonic, hypnotic explosion of a chorus.
With Leon and others, Chris worked on the 1981 album Nuclear Power? No Thanks where Leon wrote the fiery, prophetic and poetic ‘Who Reaps The Profits? Who Pays The Price?’, levelled at greedy, uncaring corporate power crushing the indigenous peoples – and us – for another quick deal. Leon doesn’t take any prisoners with his mind-boggling and ultra-complicated composing; but it’s left to the inspiring vocals and expert musicianship of Chris to realise the enormity of Leon’s work. The Rosselson repertoire will never age; but as Chris completed his recording of the album, he wrote: “The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has set up the largest Native American tribal gathering in a century in North Dakota, USA. Their aim is to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline being built upon their lands. But the White House election nightmare has only just begun; the unstable racist bigot of a megalomaniac, who gives away corrupted handouts to Wall Street and his boardroom buddies, has just signed away with a stroke of a pen the birthright of the Sioux nation. Why? To guard the corporate profits. Leon’s lyrics ram home the message: “Black like the dust, brown like the earth; this is our land, the land of our birth…” and: “You take the gold out of the earth and you throw the corpses in; one profit’s as good as another, just as long as the cash keeps pouring in…” Meanwhile, across the Bristol Channel, Chris notes that the decision to build the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station in his native county of Somerset has just been ratified.
From Bára’s beautiful arrangement of ‘The Holland Handkerchief’, via the incest-murder ballad ‘Rosie Ann’ (sung by Frank Harrington in 1908) to Chris’s life-affirming ‘Spring Song’ optimism, this is an album that just cannot be beat. I urge you to go to see him in concert at Dylan’s Stwdio Felin Fach, Mill House, Ross Road, Abergavenny NP7 5RF on Sunday, March 5 – you won’t be disappointed.
Everyone Is From Somewhere Else
(5 / 5)
Shimi Records ShimiCD009/Osmo CD061
This is Lowri‘s third album, and producer Mason Neely (of Cerys Matthews reputation) takes over the controls; it’s a new, refreshing look at the Haverfordwest-born singer-songwriter’s performance, where Lowri enters into a few song-making collaborations with Henry Priestman of The Christians, ex-Tunng frontman Sam Genders and Amy Wadge’s guitarist Pete Riley. Lowri’s repertoire walks the very fine line between contemporary folk and easy-listening pop, and Neely guides the whole 10 tracks down this path, with a broadened sound that consists of gorgeous strings, slinky, solid guitar and bass accompaniment and heavenly voices in harmony. The opening track, ‘Don’t Know Why’, lays its cards squarely on the table, with Lowri’s girlish but seductive vocals just blossoming in a manner that leaves the listener wanting more, just like a tempting, tasty glass of Moscato d’Asti white wine.
Everyone Is From Somewhere Else finds Lowri delving deeper in her lyrics; the title track demonstrates how her writing is maturing. The rock ‘n’ roller ‘Who’s loving you tonight?’ rings the changes in complete contrast, with Lowri accusing her ex-lover; Lee Mason (Lowri’s partner and musical associate, with whom she lives in Newport, Pembrokeshire) twangs a mean guitar. ‘Piece Of Me’, a tender description of living alone, written with Henry Priestman, is the introduction to Lowri’s collaboration trilogy; ‘Wanted Heart’, penned with Sam, finds her in dramatic, soul-searching voice, while ‘Stars’, the last venture with Pete, is a life-affirming song of hope.
Above all, the theme of Lowri lyrics charts tender, painful love; ‘Somebody’s Girl’ is about lonely heartache, ‘Seventeen’ is a touching story of lovers torn apart in The Great War, ‘Rolling On’ describes the inevitable break-up and ‘We Were In Love’ is just mysteriously beautiful and sad. Neely does his magic touch and leads Lowri into a more accessible and widely appealing sound; her writing and her impish voice certainly deserves it.
(Independently produced – no catalogue number)
Back in 2010, I interviewed and snapped pictures of harper, accordionist and beautiful singer Stacey Blythe and classically-trained violinist and teacher Helina Rees, who were just embarking on a voyage of inspiring musical discovery; they called themselves Elfen, which translates as ‘element’ in the Welsh language. Elfen expanded into a trio, bringing in the whistles, the writing and the considerable talents of double-bassist Jordan Price Williams, and they recorded the appetising March Glas EP. Now the full-blown March Glas CD has been released, and it’s a jazzy, jumping jamboree of joy, chock-full of new, exciting melodies that visionary pioneers and brilliant masters Fernhill had classed as ‘deconstructing’, and subtle, intelligent arrangements that make you punch the air with your fists and shout “Yeah!” – not that you would in quite such refined company, I hasten to add… or would you?
Stacey, with the magical Lynne Denman, is one of the instigators of the West Wales duo Ffynnon; composer, performer and multi-instrumentalist, she has performed all over the UK and America, and she is a musical director and repertoire coach at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in the centre of Cardiff, and is a regular composer for the Welsh National Opera. Stacey collaborates with a horde of artists and musicians, including Dylan Fowler (who produced this stunning album at his Stwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny), Julie Murphy, Nick Hennessey, Michael Harvey and Billy Bragg, who sang one of her songs. Helina is a leader of the all-female Cambria String Quartet, who perform classical works ranging from Karl Jenkins, Haydn and Handel and cover loads of hits by U2, Bon Jovi, Robbie Williams and Star Wars. Jordan, Helina and Stacey are looking forward to returning to Brittany next August, where they conquered a delighted crowd at the massive Lorient Interceltique Festival; there’s bound to be many a grateful Breton CD-buyer who will willingly testify that March Glas was money well spent.
The album steals up on you like a pleasant dream; the sweet solo violin, accompanied by the lovely, lazy harp, sounds the beautiful melody of ‘Adar Mân Y Mynydd’ (Small Birds Of The Mountain), which segues into Stacey’s playful interpretation of the folk song ‘Bwlch Llanberis’ (Llanberis Pass). Her honeyed vocals are absolutely dripping with smoky, slinky jazz-influenced passion, and her lilting voice becomes another instrument which dissolves into fabulous harmony. From these two tracks, Elfen firmly lay their cards on the table; Stacey, Helina and Jordan are subtly, excitingly different, with old, familiar folk songs injected with shimmering, sparkling new composing offering soulful singing, breathtaking strings and really gutsy bass.
The third track is influenced by Macedonian folk dance, with Stacey’s solo accordion quickly embracing the instruments before dissolving into Helina’s composed jigs, with a mind-boggling time signature designed to trip up anyone who is bold enough to dance. The delightful ‘Chwarae’, verses painting memories of children playing imaginary house games, was written by Waldo Williams, born in Preseli, Pembrokeshire in 1904 and died in the county town of Haverfordwest in 1971. His father spoke Welsh and his mother was an English speaker; Williams spoke English as a teenager, but he learned Welsh and became became one of the leading Welsh-language poets of the twentieth century; he was also a notable Christian pacifist, anti-war campaigner and Welsh nationalist. The familiar traditional song ‘Seren Syw’ (Beautiful Star) is barely recognisable, with Stacey doing some lovely juggling with the tune. ‘A La Court’ smells lusciously of Brittany and the Breton tradition, where the sensuous tale of the little shoemaker and the royal courtesan sleeping together transforms into a fuelled-up pilè menu, resolving itself into a harmony-voiced an dro.
‘Aderyn Du’ (Blackbird) is turned into a warm, soft Mediterranean musette; the title track, which translates as ‘Blue Stallion’, is proudly strutting, with minimal pizzicato violin before Stacey’s voice and the instruments just explode. In contrast, Jordan’s tune ‘Wals Maria’ becomes a delicate solo harp piece, and ‘America’ is a song of hope to Welsh emigrants starting a new life in ‘The Welsh Tract’ in Pennsylvania.
However, the final set just cannot be beat. Elfen transform ‘Morgawr’ (Cornish for Sea Monster) into a piece of stark, sedate splendour. It was composed by the late Cornish musician Simon Owen – however, folklorists speculate that Cornish showman and author Doc Sheils dreamed up Morgawr as an elaborate hoax in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the legend carries on to this day, with rare sightings between Rosemullion Head and Toll Point; the coast here is popularly dubbed as ‘Morgawr’s Mile’. ‘Rîl Glan Llyn’ is laughing, tumbling piece of invention, and Elfen round the whole magnificent collection off with ‘Y Fasged Wyau’ (The Egg Basket), a brilliant tune which has only been played very rarely since Calennig first recorded it over 35 years ago. Here, Helina, Stacey and Jordan go the extra mile to wrap it up with such perfection – it really is a storming little blinder. In fact, the whole of March Glas is a storming little blinder, and Stacey, Helina and Jordan – Dylan, too – deserve to be congratulated.
Prospect Music PM CD 001
Country-folk guitarist and singer Hilary spent some fabulous dream time recording this album in Palm Studio on the island of Big Pine Key, Florida. Paradise Mountain was her first album in nearly 30 years, and it was made with the help of what she calls “three special people – two dear friends and one lovely husband”: Tony Palmer, who offered the use of his studio and played pedal steel, dobro, rhythm guitar and bass, as well as acting as sound engineer and producer; real estate executive Patti Nickless, who gave her time and friendship to add harmony vocals on several tracks; and Hilary’s famous boogie-woogie piano-playing hubby Bob Hall, who accompanied Hilary’s pleasing soprano voice on mandolin.
Her preference is Americana-tinged, from Tom Paxton’s ‘How Beautiful Upon The Mountain’ through the Cashes’ ‘I Still Miss Someone’ to The Carter Family’s ‘Sweet Fern’. The familiar Alabama folk song ‘Going To The West’ and the bluegrass favourite ‘Old Dan Tucker’ are given a new lease of life here, but Hilary rings the changes by including the Donegal singer Packie Byrne’s composition ‘For Ever’ and Janet Russell’s ‘Curtain Call’ – and she copes admirably with the Ewan McColl phenomenon ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, which has been recorded time and time again – nice stuff.
Songprint Recordings SPR001CD
Siobhan Miller is the one to watch in Scotland’s exciting music scene at the moment. She’s the daughter of musician and singer Brian Miller, twice winner at Scots Trad Music Awards and the owner of a first class honours degree in Traditional Music from the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. She released her debut album, Flight Of Time, in 2014, which promised many good things for the future; now Strata is out on February 24, and this collection reflects her special musical influences while Siobhan forges her path as a singer in her own right.
Strata consists of Siobhan’s 11 carefully-chosen songs which formed her musical upbringing and culture; she grew up listening to writers like Dylan, Bob Franke and Si Khan, but Scotland’s source and revival singers sit proudly alongside them. In this album, Siobhan pays tribute to Sheila Stewart, Dick Gaughan, Geordeanna McCulloch, Rod Paterson and her father Brian for sharing the songs they have passed on to her – and double-bassist, composer and producer Euan Burton has lined up a stellar cast of accompanying musicians, including Admiral Fallow drummer Louis Abbott, Lau’s Kris Drever and Aidan O’Rourke, guitarist Ian Carr, pianist Tom Gibbs, accordion master Phil Cunningham and Paul McKenna on vocals. And Siobhan rises to the occasion, her passionate, soulful voice taking absolute control; it’s a joy and a privilege to hear her silky, sultry presence, injecting traditional and written material with polished electric energy.
Strata is a joy to listen to, from the traditional ‘Banks Of Newfoundland’ to the late, great Andy M Stewart’s chorus roarer ‘The Ramblin’ Rover’ – in fact, Phil requested that in memory of his Silly Wizard colleague and friend. Bob Dylan’s ‘One Too Many Mornings’ is the chosen single, while Si Khan’s ‘What You Do With What You’ve Got’ and Ed Pickford’s ‘Pound A Week Rise’ are just exquisite. However, Siobhan is completely and respectfully at home with ‘The Unquiet Grave’, ‘The Month Of January’, ‘False, False’ and ‘Bonny Light Horseman’. With this young woman steering the ship, the strong folk scene north of the border is disgustingly healthy and roaring along at a rate of knots. Nuff said?
Independent label – no catalogue number
Mike is one-half of a fine and very inspiring South Wales-based duo, where he sings and accompanies low-voiced Mid-Wales chanteuse Blanche Rowen with guitar and octave mandola; he also plays lyrical waltzes, scorching boureés and the driving rhythms of a Breton fest-noz with Northern Ireland-based fiddler Mark Prescott in the duo Deux Sans Frontières, well-regarded and loved by all the French and Belgian festival dance aficionados. Mike’s interest in French and Breton dance was kindled when he was a member of London dance club On Bouge, and together with Blanche and Mark, he has played at Le Grand Bal de l’Europe and Festiv’allier in Central France and Marsinne festival in Belgium; however, Barking is his second solo album, and it just shows the eclectic and slightly quirky tastes of his performance and his repertoire, which have been pleasantly spiced by the differing influences of the English, Welsh and continental folk scenes.
Blanche designed the artwork of Barking, and the front cover shows his smiling face through a hole in a tree in a Cardiff wood. All the generous 17 tracks are Mike completely alone, recorded and mixed by Pete Coleman at Pipedream studio. His tenor voice and his instruments ring out clearly; ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ is the opener and a little bit of an eyebrow-raiser – but, as Mike says in the sleeve notes, it makes a good rondeau. It’s an interesting collection, which he has enhanced by finely adjusting the words and the tunes; the instrumental ‘Trip To Skye’ has been made into a mazurka, while Mike gives a new gloss to the familiar Northumberland folk chestnut ‘Dance To Your Daddy’.
‘Azerba’ and ‘Genesis’ are two of Mike’s compositions for the octave mandola, and he picks a variety of traditional and written material, from Martin Carthy’s adaptation of the gleeful ‘The Devil And The Feathery Wife’ to Mike’s arrangement of the well-known and well-loved ‘Polly On The Shore’, from 1970s Leslie Duncan and Elton John duet (‘Love Song’) to Sting’s drowsily hypnotic ‘Sister Moon’, from Matt McGinn’s anti-war song ‘Lots Of Little Soldiers’ to ‘The Loving Game’, the Chris Wood classic ‘The Sweetness Game’ which Mike adapted, changed the title and fine-tuned the words. ‘A Stitch In Time’, Mike Waterson’s clever tale which he swore was true, is artfully conveyed with a storyteller’s flair, and Mike updates Greenwich Village writer Michael Hurley’s song ‘The Werewolf’; which he heard from the traditional singer, fiddler and later violin restorer Barry Dransfield; he says: “We still have werewolves around today, but they’re in more human form.”
However, I could easily pass by the parody ‘Ghost Chickens In The Sky’, the Tommy Cooper hit ‘Don’t Jump Off The Roof, Dad’ and Eric Idle’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ – sorry, but these tracks just don’t boil my kettle, and perhaps Mike has developed a sense of humour that is greater than mine. But as I said, Mike sprinkles his magic Oofle Dust over the other 14 tracks, which makes it a pretty good album and one which I know I must revisit over and over again.
Market Square MSMCD180
When the dark clouds gather in threatening menace, when the ugly far-right voices hoodwink and baffle the nation with their subterfuge and deceit, when the working poor and the forgotten unemployed have to wait in line for charity food banks, when libraries, care homes, municipal arts centres and even the street lights are snuffed out because of selfish and uncaring grant cuts, I thank my lucky stars that Steve Ashley is on my side and that he is writing and recording prolifically. Now in his seventies and the proud possessor of a brilliant, biting poet’s mind coupled with razor-sharp wit, Steve takes on the crushingly-powerful media of Murdoch, the Daily Mail and all the press barons, what used to be the independent and neutral BBC, the state snoopers at GCHQ, the Cheltenham-based “listening post” all gathered in his home back yard, and the scheming rats of his teasingly obscure song ‘Oh No No’.
Steve has travelled a mighty long road and his songs have influenced and shaped the folk scene greatly. Born in London in 1946, he began singing traditional songs in the folk clubs of West London in 1961, and with Peter Bellamy he helped to establish the successful Maidstone Folk Club. Throughout the 1970s, his reputation was growing; however, his first solo collection, a landmark album called Stroll On, was highly acclaimed. Karl Dallas, writing in The Melody Maker, hailed Steve as “One of the finest singer-songwriters in Britain, if not the entire English-speaking world.” Stroll On was followed by Speedy Return, which was produced by Robert Kirby who also orchestrated many songs with strings and brass. In Melody Maker, Colin Irwin called the album “a flourishing confirmation of the imaginative songwriting showcased on Stroll On.”
Steve highlighted a long career by recording several albums, with his friend and arranger Robert Kirby orchestrating strings and brass, until Robert’s untimely death in October 2009. Steve collaborated with an entire army of folk’s great and good, from Shirley and Dolly Collins to Fairport Convention to Richard Thompson to Steve Knightley, but he delighted and astounded his discerning audience by coming up with his amazing, unique songs all the time. Another Day is his eleventh solo album, just Steve alone at his home, with his guitar and harmonica, recorded by Martin Mitchell in the summer of 2016 – but beware. However much you try to escape, you won’t be able to switch it off. This, truly, is a fabulous, hypnotic album.
The overall situation is totally bleak, what with the Brexit disaster, May and the Government running around like headless chickens, the Farage-Trump alignment, with the far-right Marine Le Pen just waiting in the wings to take the French presidency; but Steve shines a ray of hope with his opening title track. Another day is brightly dawning, birds are singing, and “another voice is in the hall, another choice is gaining favour.” Could it be Corbyn and McDonnell, or back here in the nation of Wales, the passionate, reasoned voice of Leanne Wood? I mentioned before in my review of his last album, This Little Game, how Steve takes advantage of his pared-down guitar for the words to burn through; in this album, his subtle, dancing runs are the icing on the cake.
Steve celebrates the legacy, the wisdom and the compassion of Tony Benn with ‘One Strong Voice’, observing how the media vilified him. Just before the Osborne cuts, a right wing panellist on BBC’s Any Questions announced: “There will be pain”. Steve revisits his stunning prediction, the song title echoing these words, made before the London riots which spread out from Ealing and Croydon to cities near and far. In Steve’s song, embittered mobs set fire to buildings; the depleted riot squad, already weakened by Government cuts, cannot control them. And it’s not just the young; in Steve’s flowing words: “By the torment of an empty glass / an old and weathered hand / is measuring the remnants of a pension / in memory of time long past / this proud old working man / reflects upon a life too hard to mention; / the fight for health and welfare / peace and jobs for all / a chance for kids to learn and thrive / but now he sees the selfish / put families to the wall / and he wonders how they’ll manage to survive.” When Steve sang ‘There Will Be Pain’ to a live audience a few years ago, there was a shocked silence; then the applause started in wave after wave. I have been longing for the song ever since.
Steve rings the changes with the artful, mocking ‘The Paper Song’; readers buy the dailies from habit, and the press barons influence their thinking; for instance, the caustic: “Nigel is a fascist / so he always buys The Sun / where racism and sexism / are just a bit of fun / he hates no one in particular / he just hates everyone…” In ‘One For The Playlist’, Steve voices his concern for the BBC: “Auntie’s not been well / We’ve known it for a while / She thinks we can’t tell / though it stands out a mile / when she tells her news / it’s like she’s acting in a play / nothing rings true / like someone’s told her what to say…” ‘For Bruce’ is Steve’s a capella obituary for Bruce Rowland, the Grease Band, Fairport and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance drummer who lost his life to cancer in the summer of 2015; ‘It’s Just A Stage’ reflects on the artist outlining his hopes, aspirations and fears with the paying audience; ‘The Months Go Round’, similar to The Wheeling Year, is Steve’s inspired interpretation of the changing seasons compared to ‘The Life Of A Man’.
There are so many songs for Steve to sing, and please forgive me if I miss out one or two. However, he signs off with this poignant, affectionate farewell piece; he reflects that his time is growing short, he’s had an amazing life and challenged the Establishment, but the Grim Reaper is ever calling his name. ‘Another Shore’ could be the ultimate goodbye – but he hopes that he and his companions might meet again in some mysterious afterlife. Here’s wishing that Steve will continue writing and performing his magical, quirky material for a long, long time to come, that he will poke and prod and annoy the rich and powerful from this day for evermore – and that is precisely what the folk scene is all about. All right?