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CD Reviews Archive (from 2016)


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DECEMBER 2016


THE RUMBLESTRUTTERS

Prohibition Blues

the-rumblestrutters-prohibition-blues

3 Stars (3 / 5)

RS001

www.therumblestrutters.com/home

Pub regulars and folk fans, beware! Swansea-based jug band The Rumblestrutters have launched their debut album, jam-packed with songs of bootleg liquor, all-night parties and bacchanalia, washed down with a bountiful supply of authentic and not-so-authentic sounds of 1920s and 1930s America in those crazy prohibition years. John Toft, Jonathan Nicholas and Liam Ward have researched some great archive material for their labours, and they write some mighty stuff to zap up their set. Their considerable reputation has extended across Wales from Haverfordwest and Fishguard to Cwmbran and Pontyclun and across the Severn Bridges to the London boroughs of Camden and Kinston-upon-Thames, the plentiful pastures of Hove and Broadstairs in the South-East and Wrexham and Congleton in the North.

This CD resembles a 1920s 78rpm shellac disc, and The Rumblestrutters launch right into ‘Stealin’ Stealin”, first recorded by blues legends The Memphis Jug Band in 1928, followed by Robert Johnson’s ’32-20 Blues’. Jonathan sings lead voice and plays driving up-beat guitar, and John (mandolin and banjo) and Liam (harmonica and jug) contribute some snazzy harmonies. Liam, John and Jonathan pen good-time, foot-tapping compositions with sing-along choruses; but the real deal is when the trio imitate the 1930s blues musicians, such as Hezekiah Jenkins’ ‘Shout You Cats’ and the many-times-covered ‘In The Jailhouse Now’, usually credited to Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded the song in Camden, New Jersey in 1928 with Ellsworth T. Cozzens playing banjo. Tommy Johnson’s ‘Canned Heat Blues’ is a winner, too – the Los Angeles blues band Canned Heat named themselves after the 60-year-old Delta blues singer’s song, who died of a heart attack in 1956 after playing at a party.

The Rumblestrutters’ delving into the last century’s prohibition blues paints a vivid picture of life and culture of supposedly-dry America, and I can’t wait for the later material which their researches unearth. Raise a glass to them!


NOVEMBER 2016


CARREG LAFAR

Aur

carreg-lafar-aug

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Sain SCD2754

http://carreglafar.co.uk/

Carreg Lafar have celebrated 20 magnificent years with this stunning 10-track wake-up-to-Welsh-tradition album; it’s magnetic, immediate, beguiling and so full-on that startled listeners could be soundly forgiven for taking a hasty step back from the speakers. The band comprise the pure-voiced and mesmerising Linda Owen Jones, who was born in Wrexham but moved to Cardiff to train as an actress; dynamic and soulful fiddler Rhian Evan Jones, from Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley, who graduated with a Cardiff University music degree; Llanelli-born flute and whistle player James Rourke, who trained as an actor and film maker and now writes television and film scripts, as well as being a novelist; self-taught Pontllanfraith-born pibgorn player and whistler Antwn Owen-Hicks, who is pioneering a revival of the Welsh bagpipes; and Cardiff-born guitarist and trac director Danny Kilbride, who has played with many enterprising bands including sibling trio Kilbride, Juice, Taran and Yr Hwntws.

I reviewed Carreg Lafar’s three-track EP Y Cadno (The Fox) about two years ago, but it was just a appetising taster of what was to come. I could listen to Linda’s magnetic and dramatic singing time and time again; she has the brilliant knack of projecting her voice, throwing it so it lands right slap-bang in the laps of the audience – and the musicians spin mighty fine arrangements to burnish her considerable talent in its true colours. The opening track explodes with ‘Aderyn Bach’ (Little Bird), a popular folk song in 6/8 jig-time which paints a picture of small carefree bird; but the tempo goes up a notch with the lovely 9/8 slip-jig ‘Beti O Llansantffraid’. Carreg Lafar change down a gear with the stark and beautiful ‘Cariad Aur’ (Golden Love), a Nicholas Bennet gem from his collection Alawon Fy Ngwlad (Airs Of My Country) – and Linda captivates with an old favourite from the EP, ‘Bwthyn Fy Nain’ (My Grandmother’s Cottage), Daniel’s solo guitar filling all the spaces exquisitely.

The band is on fire with the heady ‘Llangefelach Lon’ (Joyful Llangefelach), with James’ whistles weaving artfully in and out of Antwn’s Welsh bagpipes; and Rhian arranged the Gwent fiddler Mike Lease’s tune ‘Naid Tros Lannerch’ (A Leap Over A Glade). Normally a fast reel in a major key, Carreg Lafar turn it into a slow minor reel. Two songs from the EP, ‘Y Cadno’ (The Fox) and ‘Glan Môr Heli’ (The Salt Sea Shore) keep the pot bubbling; Canadian Siân Thomas, who has returned to Toronto after her sojourn as trac director and who speaks fluent Welsh, gave Carreg Lafar the nonsense song about a sly old fox, and Linda plays a part of a young woman lamenting that her love has had to sail away to Ireland; this is one of their favourite folk songs. Incidentally in ‘Y Cadno’, the band tack on two of Stephen Rees’ outstanding tunes for a final, glorious flourish.

‘Tom, Dic A Chwrw’ (Tom, Dic and Beer) is a delightful trio of Welsh dance tunes, and Linda conveys a mother’s love for her little one in ‘Baban Bach’ (Dear Baby); Antwn learned this melody from Siân Emlyn and added the words from another folk song. The band leaves everybody hanging with the last piece, a fine Anglesey song called ‘Titrwm Tatrwm’ (Pitter-Patter) – the sound of little stones raining on a lover’s window to catch her attention.

Above all, Carreg Lafar sets light to my imagination and mind; Aur serves up some nourishing mental food for the soul. The thrilling mix of ancient Celtic instruments, spiced with inspiring arrangements, gives the band so much power, drive and absolute confidence – which brings me on to the age-old problem about bands that are prophets in their own country. Carreg Lafar have toured America many times, triumphed in the Celtic Colours Festival in Canada’s Cape Breton Island and Glasgow’s prestigious Celtic Connections, Asturian festivals and at the vast Lorient Interceltique too – but back here in South Wales, they are unknown to folk clubs and festivals who seem unsure about their  drawing power. Seems that there ain’t no justice in brilliant cerebral artistry…


UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO & MICKEY

Unplugged (Double CD)

ub40-unplugged

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Independently released; no catalogue number

Ali Campbell – son of folk icon Ian Campbell – should be a happy and contented man; but this is a story of three brothers, two UB40s and one epic battle. Ali co-founded the Birmingham-based UB40 to promote his love of reggae; the band scored 70 million singles in their career, which was stable for 29 years until Ali suddenly left in January 2008, citing management problems. However, he joined up with ex-UB40 musicians Mickey Virtue and Astro Wilson to form a second UB40 – and this is the band that has released the Unplugged double CD, with the trio revisiting their hits in a totally acoustic style on the first CD and a compendium of original UB40 successes on the second.

Ali’s actions have meant that his brothers Robin and Duncan – who joined UB40 as lead singer after Ali’s departure – have sought legal advice. Ali says that he and his brothers have not spoken for years. In the BBC-TV news programme Breakfast, when Ali, Mickey and Astro promoted Unplugged, Ali referred to his brothers as “the dark side” – and he has said that father Ian (who was leader of The Ian Campbell Folk Group and who shaped the careers of famous musicians, including fiddle master Dave Swarbrick, guitarist Spencer Davies, Christine Perfect and bassist Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention) sided against him, before he died of cancer in 2012. He said in an Express interview in 2014: “He ignored me the last time I saw him before he died. He looked straight through me.”

Ian Campbell’s folk lifestyle influenced Ali; he says that many respected musicians dropped in at the family’s house. A fourth brother, David, who used to manage UB40, still sings traditional songs; but it was his obsession with reggae that set Ali on a different path.

The second disc is a history of UB40’s hits before Ali left, from ‘Red Red Wine’ to collaborations with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders to ‘Sing Our Own Song’, but it’s the first disc that we need to evaluate. Here are 16 tracks, including ‘Kingston Town’, ‘Red Red Wine’, ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ and ‘Rat In Mi Kitchen’, in glorious unamplified style – and I’m going to stick my neck out and affirm that it’s Ali, Mickey (who plays a piano) and Astro at their best, just full on, close and up front. Ali’s daughter, Kaya, replaces Chrissie on the cover of ‘I Got You Babe’ – and don’t think for even one second that this review is irrelevant. There are countless numbers in the folk world that cherish Sonny and Cher’s hit and know every line by heart!


IONA FYFE BAND

East (EP)

iona-fyfe-band-east

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Independently released; no catalogue number

www.ionafyfemusic.com

Iona Fyfe is 18 years old and is rapidly maturing into one of Scotland’s finest ballad singers and tradition bearers. She grew up in Huntly, north-west of Aberdeen, where she was nurtured by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland movement; she studies traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, and she was a finalist in the 2017 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. She’s won a string of prestigious ballad singing competitions and has been featured in BBC Scotland programme Landward ; in fact, she sang to actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West in the latest Channel 4 series of Great Canal Journeys. Her band, which embraces fiddler and tenor guitarist Charlie Grey, bodhran player and guitarist Chris Ferrie, double bassist Callum Cronin and border pipes player Ross Miller, will open the Royal Albert Hall Music For Youth Proms in November. This six-track EP, which embraces ancient folk song and inspiring, fresh acoustic music, is a tempting taster of Aberdeenshire’s strong traditions, language and everything that she holds dear.

Iona is strongly influenced by the age-old songs and ballads of the Scottish travellers; her reading of the singer Belle Stewart’s ‘Queen Amang The Heather’ is a new and subtle interpretation, with Iona’s piano weaving amongst the pipes and the fiddle. ‘Cairn O’Mount’ is a beautiful unaccompanied song, while ‘Earl Richard’ just shimmies along. The last track, ‘Bonny Udny’, scored an unprecedented 100/100 mark for Iona’s sensitive singing in The Buchan Heritage Society 2016 traditional song competitions; here in the studio, both she and the band rise to the occasion.

Above all, it’s Iona’s steady voice that cuts clear as a bell through the songs, stories and tales that comprise her Aberdeenshire roots. Verdict: Highly recommended!


ALUN PARRY

Tressell And Me

alun-parry-tressell-and-me

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Independently released; no catalogue number

www.parrysongs.co.uk

Alun Parry is a Liverpool University graduate and holds the coveted title of “one of the most incisive songwriters on Merseyside”. BBC Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene featured his music in a 2006 one-hour profile and a second one in 2009; The Liverpool Echo, in the run-up to European Capital of Culture year, named him, along with the city’s other poets, playwrights, authors and songwriters, as the top 30 reasons why Liverpool was culturally great. He was chosen by BBC Radio 4 to present a grassroots music special to introduce Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture celebrations.

Alun used to lecture in the old infirmary where Robert Tressell, Irish painter, decorator, sign writer and author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, breathed his last. This “radio ballad”, with a really punchy script peppered with Alun’s own uncompromising but very entertaining songs, tells how his mother gave him the book as a child; he read Tressell’s political philosophy, which inspired him to sing his own political material, rising to media fame as Merseyside’s number one busker.

Robert Tressell was the author’s pen-name; he was born Robert Croker in Dublin on April 18, 1870, the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a retired magistrate. He emigrated to Liverpool to find work, then to London where he changed his name to Noonan, his mother’s maiden name. He moved to the coastal town of Hastings, where his unhappy marriage ended in divorce. He emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa, with his daughter Kathleen, where he organised the Irish militia that fought against the English in the Second Boer War. Returning to England, he wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, altered from The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists, in 1910 – the philanthropists of the title are the workers who acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their rich bosses. Three publishing houses rejected the book, and Kathleen had to save it from being burnt by the dejected Tressell. He decided to emigrate to Canada, but died from pulmonary tuberculosis in Liverpool infirmary, aged just 40.

After his death, Kathleen showed the book to a friend, the writer Jessie Pope, who recommended it to her own publisher, Grant Richards. Grant Richards bought the rights for £25, but cut all the socialist 250,000-word ideology to just 90,000 words; an unabridged edition, with Tressell’s original ending, was not published until 1955.

Alun says Tressell laid bare the bosses’ ideology of blaming the working class – too much education, too lazy to work, and what he says is “the Daily Mail chestnut: too many foreigners, too many immigrants”. But Tressell replaced the capitalist idea of money, “bits of tin”, with “stuff” – a place to sleep at night, food, going to the show, all the necessities which the working population strive for. Imagine being shipwrecked on a desert island; you might have a thousand sovereigns, but money cannot buy “stuff”. However, your friend has a tin of biscuits and a bottle of water; who, now, is the richer man? Tressell showed how capitalism enslaves the workers, and Alun explains how the whole concept of capitalism – such as the parasitical advertising industry, which contributes nothing to society and only exists to make someone rich – could be abolished, once the idea of “money” is shelved.

Tressell places the action in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on Hastings: the original title page carried the subtitle: “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.” His hero, Frank Owen, tries to convince his colleagues, but is continually mocked and brought down by the fellow workers who are brainwashed by their “betters”.

Alun’s songs include the great verses and music of ‘The Ship Song’, ‘I Want Rosa To Stay’, ‘Greedy Fingers’, ‘All Hail To The Market’ and ‘Letter To Kathleen’. What does the world think of him? Folk hero Dick Gaughan enthuses: “In dark days like these, songs like Alun’s are needed more than ever and they shine like a beacon through the fog of lies, disinformation and propaganda to present a working class view of reality. Great singer, great guitarist, great songwriter and hugely entertaining in live performance.” The respected Roy Bailey celebrates: “Powerful stuff. There is something essentially Liverpool about the songs and the sound – songs that address the world we live in now.” However, The Daily Mail rages in typical fashion: “Vile lyrics”. What must be said is this appeal – as America, the UK and Europe lurch to the far right and drops over the abyss, we sure need you, Alun…


BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY

Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad

billy-bragg-joe-henry-shine-a-light

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Cooking Vinyl CV30

www.shinealight-joehenry.billybragg.co.uk/

Picture yourself in a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona, on the old Route 66, being lulled to sleep by a lonesome locomotive whistle… maybe you saw a Galloping Goose, a Santa Fe railroad car, a locomotive roundhouse in Colorado or a gigantic steam snowplough cutting a courageous path across The Great Divide. If you haven’t been lucky enough to encounter these romantic experiences, then Billy Bragg and his friend and collaborator, American singer and songwriter Joe Henry, want to whet your appetite with this unique album.

Billy – the Bard of Barking, singer, songwriter, political activist and musical historian – has made no secret of his obsession with the songs and mythology of the United States, not least of his personal hero and his artistic forebear Woody Guthrie. With his friend and collaborator, American singer and songwriter Joe, Billy boarded The Texas Eagle at Chicago Union Station, a mighty train bound for the California coast across four days and 2,728 miles of winding track. Guitars in hand, the pair set up their recording equipment and made this remarkable CD, 13 railroad-themed songs from Hank Williams, Lead Belly, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rogers, Glen Campbell, Gordon Lightfoot and many more besides. They played in waiting rooms, in sleeping cars and in vast echoey stations, capturing all the railroad ambience. They had to keep an eye on the train, which paused to pick up passengers in St Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson; finally, the train pulled in to Los Angeles Union Station at 4.30am, and Billy and Joe recorded their last song, accompanied by the first tweets of the dawn chorus.

Shine A Light traces the history of railroad music, and it’s a fascinating tale; the opener is ‘Rock Island Line’, a 1929 composition by Clarence Wilson of the Coloured Booster Quartet, a singing group of employees at the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad’s freight yard at the Biddle Shops freight yard in Little Rock, Arkansas. Alan Lomax made a 1934 recording of Kelly Pace singing the song, accompanied by a group of convicts at the Cummins State Prison Farm; the blues singer Lead Belly accompanied him, and he recorded the song in 1937. Jazz singer George Melly released a single in 1951, and the British skiffle star Lonnie Donegan scored a huge hit in 1955.

Jean Ritchie was an Appalachian dulcimer player, born into a family of folk balladeers in the Cumberland Mountains in Eastern Kentucky. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad owned a passenger train that used to run by Jean’s family home; however, the coal mines shut down and the train was discontinued. She released ‘The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ in 1965, and attributed the song to her grandfather, Than Hall. It was made into a glitzy success by Johnny Cash, and it was notably covered by Michelle Shocked and Kathy Mattea. Now, Billy and Joe have fired the memories of the old Appalachian miners one again. ‘In The Pines’ was a Southern Appalachian folk song, dating back to the 1970s but often associated with Lead Belly; Glen Campbell is often mistakenly accredited as being the writer of the million-seller ‘Gentle On My Mind’, but it was folk and bluegrass fiddler John Hartford – however, it was the great Woody Guthrie who did compose the well-known and well-loved ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’.

Railroad folklore had a field day with prolific legends of ‘John Henry’, who is immortalised in ballads in just about every state in the US. John Henry was a steel driver, hammering holes to place the explosives as tunnels cut through. He won a race against an automatic steam hammer, but his heart gave out and he died. In fact, Guy B. Johnson, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, investigated the legend in the late 1920s; he concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked on and died at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s Big Bend Tunnel, near Talcott, West Virginia, in the early 1870s. There’s a statue and plaque commemorating John Henry in Talcott today.

You can almost smell and taste the steam and the diesel as Billy and Joe trace a line through American railroading history and the incredible pioneering spirit that forged the US into a powerful nation. Here’s to the endless track – whoo-whoo!


OCTOBER 2016


VICKI SWAN & JONNY DYER

Paper Of Pins

vicki-swan-jonny-dyer-paper-of-pins

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WetFootMusic WFM160530

I truly love Vicki and Jonny’s relaxed, wonderful sound; the vocal harmonies and the inspiring musical programme blend in and gel to a superb degree, and Jonny’s rippling guitar and accordion just enhance Vicki’s array of bagpipes, her lovely, stunning nyckelharpa and the small army of glandolas, spinets, cowhorns, Scottish smallpipes, harmoniums and other instruments which fill their vehicle whenever they play a well-received concert. I count them as among my favourite folk duos – and it’s one of my favourite producers, Doug Bailey of WildGoose Studios, who has a hand in this album, too.

For those of you who do not know the story: Vicki is half-Swedish by her mother, and she flew to Sweden to collect her first brand-new nyckelharpa, which is basically a beautiful mechanical keyed violin, played with a bow. The nyckelharpa has a long history; the oldest representation is a statue dating from 1350 in Källunge Church in Sweden, and earliest surviving instruments date from the 1600s. However, interest in the nyckelharpa waned in the 1950s, and only a few players remained; but today’s enthusiasts can thank maker Eric Sahlström, who developed the modern instrument which quickly gained in popularity. Vicki has acquired a few nyckelharpas, and it’s very easy to appreciate and fall in love with their unique, gorgeous and simply thrilling sound. She runs The Nyckelharpa Project, which strives to educate the British public about the instrument; there are something in the region of 80 nyckelharpa players today in the UK today, and more than 40 nyckelharpists were pictured in a Halsway Manor teaching weekend. By the way, it’s pronounced: “nook-uhl-hahr-puh”…

This album is an absolute delight. First off is ‘The Golden Glove’, a traditional ballad fired up by Jonny’s melody-making, about a lady who falls for a farmer, leaving a rich squire who gets jilted at the altar; Vicki’s nyckelharpa weaves around Jonny’s fine guitar work in a most appealing manner. Vicki employs a octave nyckelharpa in ‘The Blantyre Explosion’, first recorded in A. L. Lloyd’s book Coaldust Ballads in 1951; the ‘cello-like tone of the oktavharpa tells the story of this 1877 South Lanarkshire disaster, which resulted in 240 deaths, including a boy of 11. There were two more explosions in 1878 and, a year later, in 1879; these pointed an accusing finger at the incompetent coal mine owners, who were too uncaring to bring about safety procedures.

Vicki composed ‘The Halsway Parade’ and ‘The Quantock Reel’ for the aforementioned nyckelharpa teaching weekend; Jonny wrote the affectionate ‘Friends’, dedicated to true companions whose shoulders you can lean on, and ‘The Bold Fisherman’, a brand-new concept for a traditional song. Vicki devised ‘Hunt The Hog’, the sparkling hornpipe used as a coda to ‘The Bold Fisherman’ – and I still wake up from my bed in the wee small hours, humming the infuriating round for Jonny’s ‘Canon’, a magnificent piece which has Vicki and Jonny building up as many instruments as they could, without trying to sound like an orchestra.

‘Daddy Fox’ is a bit of fun, and Jonny gets his cow-horn out for three unpronounceable tunes, the first one translating as ‘Horn-tune For The Lost Mobile Phone’. Vicki employs her Swedish bagpipes for the two tunes remaining, and the album’s title song is a fetching traditional proposal courtship from Kent. Vicki and Jonny live in the Essex town of Braintree, which hit the headlines in 2015 when a quick-thinking bus driver saved a naked resident from a fiery doom. He was in the bathroom when his house caught fire, and he escaped wearing nothing but his birthday suit. Jonny wrote ‘All Hail’, a song with a story that was too good to miss.

‘The Wedding Suite’, Vicki and Jonny’s triumphant trio of celebration music, just about tops the lot. They composed the three pieces on the occasion of two dear friends getting married, and it’s an absolute joy to hear; if fact, the whole album is brimful of fine things, with the sound of Vicki’s nyckelharpa the icing on the cake. May they prosper greatly!


BEL BLUE

Our Places

bel-blue-our-places

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Dog Rose Records DRRCD 001

www.belblue.co.uk

Bel Blue was born in Belfast, but she’s settled in Cardiff for most of her life; she’s an appealing songwriter, creating mysterious and gentle paths for the listener to explore. Our Places is Bel’s tribute to the wonders of South Wales, and she discovers little-known spots and delights which take her fancy; the front cover shows her balancing in a precarious position, on a rope swing by a river. The song ‘Our Places’ flows dreamily onward, Bel’s gentle-strummed solo guitar and butterfly-fragile voice imitating sparkling, rippling Welsh rivers as they flow to the sea: “These are our places, our sacred spaces, our hidden places where we belong…” ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Nant Ddu’ just add the finishing touches to the quiet, pastoral picture.

Our Places sprang out of Bel’s idea to record an EP for songs in the spots where they were composed; so she and Kevs Ford, producer and owner of Dog Rose Studios, set up a couple of microphones in Cardiff, close to the River Ely and – barring interruptions from noise from the busy railway and thundering traffic – recorded the original ‘Our Places’, emerging gradually as the title track for an album. Kevs, who founded the experimental Blaenau Ffestiniog-based Welsh-language ska-funk band Llwybr Llaethog with fellow musician John Griffiths in 1985, was instrumental in producing and playing guitar and harmonium on Bel’s CD, resulting in an echoey, blissful and peaceful feeling. Llwybr Llaethog is Milky Way in the Welsh language, and their 1986 debut release was Dull Di Drais, an EP for Anhrefn Records, which combined the band’s left-wing political messages with a trademark sound of turntable scratching, audio sampling, hip-hop and cut-and-paste production. The Radio-1 DJ John Peel was one of their fans, and he heavily promoted them by playing their tracks.

Bel’s accompanying musicians are Welsh Celtic Fiddle winner, physics researcher and university lecturer Jamie Nemeth, from Pontardawe, who adds edgy violin to her soundscape, mandolinist and guitarist Ben Steer and Andy Constable, who contributes percussion. The Welsh climate and weather systems could be described as ‘Atlantic’, which limited Bel’s dream of open-air recording; and the shelter of Kev’s studio meant that all tracks on the album were recorded in one take, to simulate completely natural sound – and it works successfully. The opening track is Bel’s lament to a faded love affair that has lost its way, ‘Longings Gone’; she simply says: “Every story needs a villain; I never meant you to be mine.”

Bel’s debut collaboration with Kevs is highly promising; lets hope that a future album grows wings and flies.


GEORGIA RUTH

Fossil Scale

georgia-ruth-fossil-scale

4 Stars (4 / 5)

NAVIGATOR099

www.georgiaruthmusic.co.uk

It’s all change for Georgia Ruth; the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has just swapped Caernarfon for Cardiff and her Bryn Derwen Studio for a new, ambient sound, and she’s turning out brilliant, burning songs of desolate lost love. Georgia is out on her own with her new image, and she’s venturing across the borderline that separates folk from pop; but now and then, she revisits that old familiar ground – for instance, she pays respect to icon and songsmith Meic Stevens with his well-known Welsh-language ‘Sylvia’, but she ventures into new territory with her amazing ‘Supermoon’… it’s a well-known folklore superstition that staring at a full moon could send viewers slightly crazy, and her voice just layers up again and again with a myriad of spooky electronic sounds to enhance it.

Georgia Ruth was planning to use Bryn Derwen, but the sudden sale of the premises in five days encouraged her to record tracks in London and friends and collaborators The Manic Street Preachers’ Faster Studios in Cardiff. The album was finally pieced together in Mwnci Studios, co-produced with Italian producer Marta Salogni and long-time collaborator David Wrench some 11 months after those initial sessions began.

The three brothers from Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, guitarist and vocalist Iwan, bassist Aled and percussionist Dafydd, are the mainstay of Georgia’s session band, with Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi and Meilyr Jones on vocals and percussion. The opening track, ‘The Doldrums’, is reminiscent of the land of Arfon, a magnificent landscape where, no matter how beautiful the scenery is, you just might want to move on. ‘Cloudbroke’ marks the final break-up: “Here I go again; hearing your name in strange places; they told me that time can do so much, but it just seems that time defaces…” It doesn’t matter what instrument that Georgia wants to employ, but it’s an undisputed fact that she’s a helluva songwriter, too. Her harp might give way to the piano and the other keyboard family, but it still stands alone, one of the proud celtic (and West African and Latin American) family.

‘Grand Tour’, the stark and beautiful ‘When I Was Blue’ and the desperately sad ‘The Bodies’ mark her peaks, but it’s the last two tracks – ‘Good Milk’ and ‘China’ – that really test her mettle in the songwriting stakes. She concludes the album in the story of the parting of the ways: “I will let the good milk go sour, and the good geese go south, and a good girl gone wild is hardly worth the broken mouth…” and: “You never come round anymore… you built your Jacob’s Ladder in the garden on top of the building where you left the scene, leaving all your photographs from China…” Fossil Scale marks a watershed in her artistic life, a turning point where she must decide whether to abandon her heritage and forge ahead down the pop road. It’s good to know that Georgia Ruth Williams can stand proudly with her feet in the Welsh Roots and the ambient, spacey camps.


THE GENTLE GOOD

Ruins / Adfeilion

the-gentle-good-ruins-adfeilion

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Bubblewrap Records BWR027CD

http://thegentlegood.com/

The Gentle Good is Cardiff singer-songwriter Gareth Bonello’s stage name, roughly translated in both Welsh and Italian. Ruins/Adfeilion is a treasure chest of Gareth’s captivating showers of guitar accompaniments and his deeply penetrating and utterly precious songs, in Welsh and in English, compositions that gently creep up on you and caress your consciousness. It’s Gareth’s fourth album, after his 2008 debut While You Slept I Went Out Walking, his promising 2011 Tethered For The Storm and and 2013’s Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard), both the recent albums nominated for the Welsh Music Prize. Y Bardd Anfarwol, which tells the story of the famous Chinese poet Li Bai, was written during Gareth’s residency with the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts in Southern China; it was awarded the Welsh language album of the year award in 2014 and was the inspiration behind an award-winning play, Rhith Gan, which was staged by Theatr Genedlaethol at the National Eisteddfod in 2016.

Ruins/Adfeilion, recorded in five days at Dylan Fowler’s excellent Stwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny by producer Llion Robertson, with Dylan engineering and contributing mandocello, explores themes of identity and social justice in the harsh environment that is the British state today. Georgia Ruth lends her voice and harp, while Callum Duggan is empathetic on double-bass and Jake Ecclestone skilfully blends percussion. Solo harmonium heralds the opening folk song ‘Gwen Lliw’r Lili’ (Gwen The Colour Of Lily), from the 1844 collection Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg  which was entered by collector Maria Jane Williams, a friend of Lady Llanofer, in the Abergavenny National Eisteddfod and was awarded first prize; it’s a statement on the influence that Welsh folk music has on his performance. The tumbling guitar instrumental ‘Un I Sain Ffagan’ (One For Saint Fagans), which creates a rainbow of notes, is Gareth’s own testament to Saint Fagans National History Museum, his former workplace where he first discovered traditional Welsh music; In May 2016, he began studying for a PhD with the University of South Wales and Y Coleg Cymraeg, looking into the music of the Khasi Hills in North-east India and the shared history with Wales as Welsh Methodist missionaries started arriving in the 1840s.

‘Pen Draw’r Byd’ (The Far Side Of The World) is a song, inspired by a common theme in Welsh folk music, about a young woman awaiting her love’s return from the cruel sea – but she breaks from tradition, abandons her sailor and vows that should he return from the dead, complete with a crown of seaweed and sand, she would turn her back and let the moon drag the sea and everything in it to the far side of the world. ‘Rivers Of Gold’ is the ultimate put-down, demonstrating Gareth’s barbed and incisive writing on the callous grab-it-all attitude encouraged by The Establishment today: “There’s some with more money than they’ll ever need; we bow to their wealth and kow-tow to their greed…” He observes “the people who stand in the rain and stare at the water as it pours down the drain; They pray to their gilded idols for more and lay all the blame at the feet of the poor…” and the memorable chorus: “Rivers of gold, that’s what everyone’s told, as bright as the mid-winter sun; rivers of gold, what a sight to behold – it’s a river that never will run…” It’s a lesson in superb song mastery, and Seb Goldfinch’s shimmering arrangements, beautifully executed by the Mavron Quartet, are just the icing on the extremely satisfying cake.

The piano instrumental ‘Ruins/Adfeilion’ gives the meaning that the human race can draw inspiration from ancient traces, such as traditional music, but had better beware of the hidden danger that lurks within. ‘Y Gwyfyn’ (The Moth) and ‘Suffer The Small Birds’ is memorable and haunting; and ‘Bound For Lampedusa’ addresses the plight of refugees, who look on embarking on a dangerous Mediterranean voyage, packed into one small boat, as their one single hope. Seb’s brass scoring and Gareth’s dreamy lyrics serve to pinpoint the daily nightmares the exiles undergo; it’s true to say that Gareth stands with Martyn Joseph, Lisa Jen Brown and all the other significant Welsh songwriters who have a burning need to influence their audiences into realising that crafting songs is a work of art and that something is rotten in global society which must be eradicated. I could listen and revel in Gareth’s fabulous musicianship and wonderful writing for ever and ever; this must be the time, surely, when the listening public gets on its feet and applauds this guy for creating a work of real significance.


MICK McAULEY

Highs & Bellows

mick-mcauley-highs-bellows

5 Stars (5 / 5)

(No catalogue number)

Mick is a Kilkenny button accordion master and a member of the Irish-American band Solas, who sprung from the city of Philadelphia. In 2005, he recorded Serenade, a highly-acclaimed duet album with Solas member and ex-Cherish The Ladies fiddler, New York City-born Winifred Horan; Highs & Bellows sees him with another Kilkenny musician, the wonderful guitarist Colm O Caoimh, who has paid his dues touring internationally as part of Waterford-based Caladh Nua. All 13 tracks on this album are a joy to experience and to savour.

The opening track, ‘Mayor Harrison’s Fedora’, explodes with a joyous shower of notes, with Mick’s fingers just a blur and Colm’s empathetic strings giving playful support and feeding energy into the traditional and the Matt Peoples-composed reels. Mick wrote the first and the third tunes in ‘The Constellation Slide Set’, ‘Star Of Slieveamon’ and ‘The Plough And The Stars’ cradling the traditional ‘Star Above The Garter’; his portfolio of written tunes help to bolster the incredibly-strong Irish music culture. The third track is the well-known traditional piece ‘As I Roved Out’; Mick sings only two songs, but his soft, warm voice is rich and measured, and you can’t help but look forward to ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’. As expected, it turns out to be a beautiful blinder.

Mick and Colm saunter effortlessly through the mind-boggling notes of the famous ‘Indiffèrence’, written in 1942 by the Italian musette accordionist Tony Muréna and Josef Colombo, and they make an excellent job of ‘Domino’ as well. Mick composes the sparkling ‘Ballycotton Jigs’ and delicate, lovely ‘Doireann’s Waltz’, and the whole set goes out with an bang with ‘An Nead Scamalach’, the traditional reels ‘The Bird’s Nest’ and ‘The Moving Cloud’, Mick and Colm firing on all cylinders. Highs & Bellows is a rip-roaring smacker of an album, and it thoroughly deserves five stars.


LOUISE JORDAN

No Petticoats Here

louise-jordan-no-petticoats-here

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Azania Records AZA04CD

This is a really remarkable songwriting project at the hands and beautiful voice of Louise, who was born in Winchester, grew up in Salisbury and now lives in The New Forest. She moved to Birmingham University, trained as a teacher and worked in schools in East London, where Havering Folk Club was based right opposite her house. She finally quit teaching and has made her living as a full-time musician; No Petticoats Here was devised after a trip to Ringwood Brewery brought a local heroine, Lovey Warne, to Louise’s attention. She says: “A song and two tours later, I was taken by the idea of sharing the real life stories of  remarkable women through song. Finding out about Dorothy Lawrence’s courageous journey to the Western Front coincided with my frustration that women’s stories were somewhat lacking from the centenary commemorations of the Great War.”

The album title is taken from the words of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Sloggett, rejecting Dr Elsie Inglis’s offer to take a medical team to support the British Army: “My good lady, go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here.” Louise calls on several fine musicians and a spectacular female chorus as her tribute to the women who helped win the First World War: Ada Yorke, a trainee nurse who worked her way up to be Matron-in-Chief of the Army’s Southern Command; Vera Brittain, a writer, feminist and pacifist who delayed her Oxford University studies to serve as a nurse in Malta and France and wrote ‘Perhaps’, set to music by Louise, as a loving memorial to her 20-year-old fiancé, killed by a sniper; Elsie Knocker and Maisi Chisholm, both keen motorcyclists were ambulance drivers at Veurne, Pervijze and Diksmuide; and the remarkable story of Dorothy Lawrence, just 17 when War was declared, who travelled to the Western Front on a bicycle she bought for £2 and impersonated a male soldier.

There are many tales about brave women; Louise de Bettignies, about whom Louise wrote ‘Queen Of Spies’, was employed by the British Army to gather information about the Germans who overran her home town of Lille, but was arrested and interrogated by the same officer who was responsible for Edith Cavell’s execution, and died in prison. Louise wrote ‘Toil, Women, Toil’ about the army of women who did dirty, dangerous work in the munitions factories; French Field Marshall Joffre said in 1916: “If the women in the factories stopped work for 20 minutes, the Allies would lose The War.” Sarah Ayrton was a brilliant engineer who was denied a degree because Cambridge University only issued certificates to women, and supported her family from selling embroidery to teaching – however, she was the first woman to be elected a member at the Royal Institute of Engineers. She invented the Ayrton Fan to clear gas from the trenches, and 104,000 were issued to troops on the Western Front; Louise wrote ‘Ripple And Flow’ for her.

Louise, who includes guitar and piano in her performance, fashions her songs with bright originality and compassion, and her quality soprano voice admirably gilds her material. No Petticoats Here is touring the UK, stopping off at St Thomas’s Church in the village of Redwick, near Newport.


NICK DOW

On Track

nick-dow-on-track

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Old House Music OHM809

I first encountered Nick Dow and his admirable performance in the 1970s, and he was one of the vanguard of guests booked when the fledgling Llantrisant Folk Club was just finding its feet. Alone with his strident, melodious guitar, Nick cut an imposing figure; it was as if he took on the dogged spirit and exquisite technique of Nic Jones. However, he quit the folk scene; he and his wife Mally disappeared to the fells of Lancashire, where he spent time building up his sign-writing and gypsy wagon restoring business. Now he is back playing again, and he has released 13 of his most requested songs which he has recorded over the past six years – ranging from ‘Through Bushes And Briars’ (recorded in 2013), ‘The Nightingale’, from the singing of Old Mr Grantham the Surrey carter (2013), which Nick describes as “a gem of a song”, the stage song ‘The Rosebud In June’ (2015) to the lovely ‘Ye Lovers All’, which Nick learned from the Irish ballad singer Len Graham 20 years ago.

This album, just Nick and his guitar, is a treasure chest of English, Irish and Traveller tradition – American, as well, as Nick presents for his final song Judge Fred Keller’s inspiring chorus ‘Blue Mountain’, a true story about the remote Mormon town in Utah called Monticello, a hundred miles from the nearest railhead, the mesa Horse Head Mountain and the life of the cattle drovers and cowboys, many of them running from the law. ‘The Faithful Horse’ is another true tale, told by a traveller, about a police raid on a traveller camp which resulted in the death of an old horse; “The muskras stormed the tan” means the police stormed the camp, frightening the horse, which bolted and which was knocked down. Nick heard ‘The Blackmith’ around a camp fire at Stow horse fair; he says in the notes: “Hearing the horses purring and seeing the firelight gleaming on the wagons and trailers round the field, and watching my wife Mally nursing a little Gipsy child as he fell asleep with the tune of ‘The Blacksmith’ ringing out clear is a memory I will take to the grave.” Nick offers the collection for your pleasure – he is a musician of such good taste and burning love of his folk songs that, rest assured, you will enjoy and appreciate the album as much as I have.


SEPTEMBER 2016


ALLAN YN Y FAN

Newid

ALLAN YN Y FAN Newid

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Steam Pie Records SPCD1018S

The album’s Welsh title translates as Change; two years have gone since the departure of the lovely Meryl, and Allan Yn Y Fan have recruited in her considerable gap the sparkling silver voice of Catrin O’Neill and veteran fiddler Alan Cooper, an inspiring musician who has gathered many admiring compliments under his belt. This album, enclosed in the wonderful artist Chris Neale’s painting of the spectacular Brecon Beacons, is a total joy; both Catrin and Alan have contributed new ideas, new songs and new tunes, and the band are ready and willing to show their exciting revitalised mettle.

Newid comes after the band’s 20-year musical odyssey, with four albums, one EP and Cool, Calm And Collected, a 2014 compilation; Allan Yn Y Fan’s portfolio is a heady mixture of well-known songs, dressed up with strong and proud arrangements, and traditional and written tunes from the rich, overflowing welsh folk scene. Catrin takes the lead on ‘Marwnad Yr Ehedydd’ (Elegy for the Lark), her beautiful voice just brimful with emotion, female harmonies and the instruments just taking off; the song is generally attributed to Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welsh person to hold the title Prince Of Wales. The track segues into Kate Strudwick’s ‘Tune For A New Bought Accordion’, her writing blossoming and maturing on a wondrous, dancing jig. ‘Sbaen Wendydd’ offers two gems from the Welsh Folk Dance Society collection Blodau’r Grug marking Welsh and Spanish tune connections, and a macaronic ‘Can Merthyr’ bemoans a demanding wife from hell. Chis Jones’ ‘O’Connell’s Extension’ celebrates supermarket wars in Brideswell, County Roscommon; between them, they offer anything from bars to burials in this tiny hamlet. ‘Cooper’s Bow’, by the aforesaid Alan, is brilliant fiddle mastery and a workshop for fiddle scholars everywhere.

‘Dafydd Y Garreg Wen’ is one of Wales’ most famous airs, composed by the 18th-century harper David Owen with lyrics added nearly 100 years later by John Ceiriog Hughes; Catrin copes admirably with a whole regiment of classical divas, who had claimed this song as their own. The band thank the amazing Robin Huw Bowen for pointing out the slip-jigs ‘Jig Pultague’ and ‘Taflwn Yr Hosan’ to them; and Catrin interprets the unusual and utterly lovely ‘Y Gaseg Felen’, collected by Merêd Evans, as the high point in Allan Yn Y Fan’s repertoire on this album.

The songs and the enticing tunes keep flowing until the end of the album; Kate composed the serene ‘Tune For Lillian’, as the result of a very unexpected legacy from her landlady who she hadn’t seen for 35 years, and the haunting ‘Dwr Glan’ – a custom of the New Year’s Water, which Calennig singers would sprinkle on the doors of the houses for good luck in the coming year. ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwr’, a song of Beaufort in the Gwent Valleys, tells about the oppression of workers and warnings what will happen to the masters come Judgment Day. Chris composes ‘Bishop Of Llandaff’s’ and the band pays respect to ‘Frank Hennessy’s Kairdiff Quicksteps’. The whole album goes out on a high in ‘Ym Mhontypridd Mae’n Nghariad’; Linda Simmonds keeps the energy flowing, and Geoff Cripps solidly anchors the whole shebang with his guitar and bass. All in all, it’s a very positive album, overflowing with confidence and sheer vitality – for God’s sake, buy it!


AUGUST 2016


PLU

Tir A Golau

PLU Tir A Golau

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Sprigyn Ymborth SY 022

http://www.pluband.com/

GWILYM RHYS BOWEN

O Groth Y Ddaear

GWILYM RHYS BOWEN O Groth Y Ddaear

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Fflach Trad CD358H

www.fflach.co.uk

Two significant Snowdonia-based albums have just been released, and 23-year-old singer/musician Gwilym Rhys Bowen is instrumental – no pun intended – in taking Gwynedd music out to the masses. Gwilym is brother to the sibling alt-folk trio Plu, which translated from the Welsh language means Feathers; they have recorded an impressive CD Tir A Golau (Land And Light). He is also prominent in the Welsh-language rock band Bandana and a significant artist in the all-Wales folk development organisation trac. Gwilym was picked to join the high-profile 10 Mewn Bus, instigated by trac project officer Angharad Jenkins, in which ten musicians toured Wales in a bus, meeting and learning from the song carriers – traditional singers – and collaborating with each other to create new music, leading on to a concert tour. The glorious sound of Gwilym’s Welsh bagpipes – heralding the first of the Songchain shows in the St David’s Hall Lefel 3 lounge – burns in the memory; Songchain , a joint production between trac and Theatr Mwldan, toured theatres and arts centres around Wales, and was judged to be such a success that it generated a second Songchain a year later. Gwilym’s debut solo CD, O Groth Y Ddaear (From The Earth’s Womb) is just out now, and he promoted it with an hour-long show in trac’s Tŷ Gwerin yurt at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod in August.

Plu are Gwilym and his sisters Elan and Marged; in the album Tir A Golau, the sisters conjure ethereal and angelic harmonies which swoop and soar and which are absolutely gorgeous and so spot-on. Gwilym empathetically uses the banjo and the acoustic fingerstyle guitar to enhance and shape the lovely, unique essence which captures their beautiful home territory of Eryri to perfection. The delicately-chimed glockenspiel fills out the tracks; the cloud-like voices drift and float in a dreamy way, relaxing and soothing. The critics and the media say that Plu have a country-flavoured sixties sound, but my opinion is that Gwilym, Elan and Marged create an inspirational aura in the alt-folk field, something that has not been attempted before. They are really out on their own.

Aled Hughes of Cowbois Rhos Bottwnog engineers some expert production – bar ‘Arthur’, which was produced by Robin Llwyd Jones and which features Mari Morgan on fiddle – with Aled’s brother Dafydd on percussion and the Cowbois’ colleague Euron Jones on pedal steel guitar. The seven songs on the CD were written by Plu, except for ‘Dwynwen’ (written by Endaf Emlyn and Colin Keilloh), ‘Hedfan’, (Hovering, the work of Endaf Emlyn and Hywel Gwynfryn, recorded live at Y Llofft in the Tafarn Y Fic pub in the Llŷn village of Llithfaen) and the traditional ‘Ambell i Gân’ (An Occasional Song). Highlights include ‘Byd O Wydr’ (World of Glass) ‘Gollwng Gafael’ (Letting Go The Grasp), ‘Arthur’ and ‘Simsan’ (Unsteady). Plu have really elevated themselves into the top flight with this sparse, understated little jewel of an album; for myself, I cannot wait to hear and see them live.

Gwilym, however, is touring solo with his album O Groth Y Ddaear , which is bound to delight, amaze, move and convert anyone who hears it. Gwilym’s roots are in his milltir sgwar, or home patch; he was born in the village of Bethel, in the imposing area of Arfon, the land between Snowdonia and the Menai Straits, and writes prolifically and lovingly about the area’s history; in the opening track, ‘Cwch Dafydd ‘Rabar’ (Dafydd ‘Rabar’s Boat), Gwilym writes about his nearest town, Caernarfon, the slate quay where North Wales slate was shipped to the four corners of the globe for roofing protection, the busy livestock market on the Maes and the old pub that is still going strong. He sings a capella, accompanied by the voices of Calan member Patrick Rimes and Robin Llwyd Jones. He repects and loves the traditions of Wales, too; Patrick plays his beautiful fiddle in ‘Canu’n Iach I Arfon’ (To Bid Farewell To Arfon), by nineteenth-century poet Llew Tegid, in which Gwilym sings of resisting the temptations of the city, concluding that he would rather stay in the land he loves. He revisits the folk song ‘Bachgen Ifanc Ydwyf I’ (I Am A Young Lad), collected and sung by the much-loved and respected Merêd Evans, language activist, head of BBC Wales Light entertainment, editor, historian and notable performer of Welsh-language folk music who was born in 1919 and died, aged 96, in 2015. ‘Bachen Bach Ydwyf I’ was the opener in the 10 Mewn Bws original CD, with Gwilym singing it; here, his strong, seasoned voice is both utterly convincing and totally impassioned.

Gwilym does not play the Welsh bagpipes on this album, but he accompanies the 13 tracks with guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and harmonica. Patrick does a sterling job on fiddle and whistle, and Scottish/Welsh harper Gwen Màiri Yorke adds a shimmering, delicate touch. Gwilym deliciously mixes his beloved Welsh tradition and his created songs; ‘Owain Lawcoch’ (Owain the Redhanded) salutes an unsung hero, Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, the last heir to the throne of Aberffraw and the Welsh kingdoms and the great nephew of Llewelyn ‘Ein Llyw Olaf’. He fought on the side of the French in the 100-Year War; his lifelong goal was to return to his homeland to claim his rightful throne from the English overlords. After many failed attempts to return, he was assassinated on the order of King Edward III, destroying the dream of an independent Wales – in Gwilym’s words: “For the time being.”

The lovely Gwyneth Glyn duets with Gwilym in the finely-crafted poem ‘Galargan’ (Lament), which goes back over 250 years; Gwilym plays the part of a man grieving the loss of someone dear to him, while the other tries to console him. ‘Gwen Lliw’r Lili’ (Gwen The Colour Of Lily) is an unusual and haunting melody, taken from The Ancient National Airs Of Gwent And Morgannwg, the collection which won first prize in the 1844 Abergavenny  Eisteddfod for Maria Jane Williams, friend of Lady Llanover; Maria published one verse, for which Iolo Morgannwg added a second and Gwilym wrote a third. He adds two verses to Bugail Hafod-y-Cwm (The Shepherd Of Hafod-y-Cwm), which he says he learned from Merêd Evans’ wonderful singing, and he wrote ‘Can O Fawl I’r Cwrw’ (A Song For Praise Of The Beer) under the influence – not of beer, but of 18th Century folk poetry, which he has tried to replicate their internal rhyming in this ode to the strong stuff. I first heard Tomi Jenkins and his Swansea band Cromlech singing the triban ‘Llanerch-y-Medd’, a village in the centre of Ynys Môn, Anglesey. The old song had but one verse, but Gwilym dresses it up by writing an extra three verses and enhancing it with his stylish flair.

Gwilym and the late musician Simon Owen, who died at the young age of 50 in 2006, write three uplifting tunes which have blended into the very healthy session tradition; Gwilym’s two compositions, ‘Moel Rhiwen’ (named after a local hill with breath-taking views) and ‘Cam Deiniolen’ (Dieniolen’s Injustice) precede Simon’s ‘Morgawr’ (Sea Monster), a popular tune that Gwilym picked up from pub sessions around Wales. ‘Ben Rhys’, written by Gwilym and Sian Arianwen Harris, is a striking tribute to Gwilym’s great-great-great-grandfather, who was one of 114 colliers who perished in an explosion in the Cymmer colliery in the Rhondda Valleys on July 15, 1856. The colliery was owned by George Insole, who built Insole Court in Llandaff, Cardiff. The mine managers were responsible for providing the miners with Davy safety lamps, but had failed to do this; trapped gas coming into contact with naked flames from the workers’ candles had suddenly ignited. The official enquiry that followed found that inadequate ventilation had caused a build-up of gas, and the jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter. However, no compensation was paid to the families of the miners concerned. Five of the mine managers went on trial at the spring assizes in 1857; the case against two was dismissed, and the judge directed the jury to discharge one of the others and advised them to acquit the remaining two. The Cymmer villagers seethed with anger and the bitter feelings lasted for many years. Gwilym says: “This kind of injustice crops up throughout Welsh history; we must remember the suffering our forefathers faced as we look to the future.”

O Groth Y Ddaear wraps up with the stunning, sparse ‘Y Gwydr Glas’, a Llŷn peninsula song in which the girl leaves a message from her love, telling him that if he comes knocking on the blue glass, some lad from the next parish has taken her away. I have listened to and revelled in Gwilym’s artistry many times, and I intend to listen intently over and over again and not tire of it. The album was produced for Stiwdio Sain by Aled Wyn Hughes; Gwilym simply went into the studio and recorded the tracks in a one-off situation, which he reckons is that the album is more direct, more intense, more immediate. My reckoning is that O Groth Y Ddaear is just spectacularly jaw-dropping – and the Fflach Tradd label deserves to be lauded and congratulated. It’s that good.


GRANNY’S ATTIC

Off The Land

GRANNY'S ATTIC Off The Land

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS416CD

www.grannysattic.org.uk

Granny’s Attic are three young lads from the city of Worcester, exceptional musicians and very fine harmony singers who play traditional music with punch, boundless vitality and with loads of attitude. They were nominated in the 2014 Young Musician Of The Year competition, and Jon Boden of the late lamented Bellowhead has acclaimed them as having “great tunes, great arrangement and great energy.” Meet Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, melodeon and anglo-concertina, George Sansome, guitar and Lewis Wood, fiddle and mandolin; apart from the trio’s dazzling welter of age-old songs and ballads, Lewis composes some exquisite schottisches, hornpipes, jigs, reels and beautiful airs which are peppered throughout this album.

The opener is celebrated shantyman and author Stan Hugill’s rip-roaring sea-song ‘Away To The South’ard’, quite a rarity in that nobody has picked it up – expect a rush of covers when everyone realises what a good job Granny’s Attic have made of it. ‘Lacy House’ and ‘Right Under The Bridge’ proves that Lewis can proudly hold his head above the Cuttings, the Sweeneys and the tune-writers of this world, while the trio has created the well-known pot-boiler ‘Horkstow Grange’ into a stately work of beauty. Lewis, Cohen and George have moulded this album into a shimmering cascade of sparkling runs, with the instruments tumbling after each other – it’s a fantastic and very exciting sound.

All the tracks – especially ‘The False Lady’, ‘The Death Of Nelson’, ‘Rod’s’ and ‘After The Floods’ – have much to commend them. The closing opus, ‘Two Brothers’, tells a ghastly tale of sibling rivalry which leads to a most horrible murder; Lewis contributes two tunes which brings the whole shebang to a close. One small niggle: there’s a strong South Midlands voice which does seem a tad forceful and pub-folkish when it’s exposed alone. However, it blends in superbly in harmony – and that’s what Granny’s Attic are about, creating a unique, wonderful noise. Let’s hope that we hear much more of them; these guys are very special indeed.


CROWS

Time To Rise!

CROWS Time To Rise!

5 Stars (5 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS 415 CD

http://www.wildgoose.co.uk

Crows were formed in 1977, made two LPs and stopped working in 1987. The heady mix of four strong voices melded in startling harmony combined with a cascade of acoustic instruments generated immense pleasure and amazement from their fans everywhere. This is a selection of six tracks from their debut album Crows, issued on the Dingle’s label in 1981, two tracks from the 1986 Dragon Records LP No Bones Or Grease , and an incredible eight tracks which were recorded for radio broadcast and never released.

The quartet was born from a meeting in the Benfleet folk club in Essex. Flyers advertised a concert by folk supergroup Bandoggs; the guests that night were a young Swindon duo, Mick Ryan and Jon Burge, and there to see them were an up-and-coming London-based duo Silas, James Patterson and Ralph Jordan. “We could be a supergroup”, one of the four suggested – “and be called Crows”, said Mick. Their debut public appearance was supporting Kitsyke Will in Pately Bridge, north of Harrogate, in 1978, and this CD represents the cream of Crows’ well-planned repertoire in those 10 years before the four members went their separate ways.

New recruits were drafted in to fill the gaps left by the departing founder members; multi-instrumentalist Dave Bordewey, Jim Younger, violin and keyboard player Steve Faux and – a year before the break-up – Nick Passmore. The CD is also dedicated to the late Ralph, whose premature death in hospital shocked everyone. His mighty input to the band is very prominent from these recordings, and it’s thanks to this very accomplished sound engineer that the first album and the BBC radio tracks were saved. Ralph was also a great arranger of classical pieces for his duet concertina; Ralph and Dave’s ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’, by Johann Sebastian Bach, is an exquisite two-minute example of mastery of the instrument.

Time To Rise! positively explodes from the speakers with the opening track, ‘Bold Wolfe’; smouldering instruments suddenly give way to a capella voices, building up to high, brilliant harmony. ‘The Antelope’, the title track, ‘Time To Rise’, and ‘Sidmouth Days’ celebrate Mick’s long and wonderful art of song-making. From the 1981 Crows album to his collaboration nowadays with fabulous guitarist Paul Downes and his folk opera A Day’s Work, he does not disappoint one jot. He hones and shapes the song to a subtle, smooth finish which bolsters the tradition and gives it strength, but always stamps it as one of his portfolio. ‘The Antelope’ and ‘Sidmouth Days’ were collaborations with James.

‘Napoleon’s Farewell To Paris’ presents a fascinating story; The Irish sea captain Tommy Flynn sang his heavily-truncated ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ in a session at a Bangor pub in Gwynedd, North Wales, and the song spread like wildfire all around these islands – in fact, the song was so well-known that it spawned a parody entitled ‘Napoleon Goes Boozing’. However, Crows display a longer version, sung to a different tune, and the ballad explains some of Tommy’s obscure references. James found it while researching in the Cecil Sharp House library, and this radio broadcast displays stunning harmonic arrangements.

All the songs, from Ian Campbell’s ‘Coast Of Peru’, though Chris Foster’s ‘When This Old Hat Was New’ and the wonderful shape-note hymn ‘Northfields’, to the lovely Sandy Denny piece ‘Long Long Time’ and Laura Nero’s ‘And When I Die’ are really inspiring; not a track is wasted. This album is a vivid flashback that shows just how significant and spellbinding Crows really were.


JULY 2016


ROSS AINSLIE & ALI HUTTON

Symbiosis

ROSS AINSLIE & ALI HUTTON Symbiosis

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Great White Records GWR004CD

http://www.rossandali.co.uk

What a truly splendiferous, totally cracking album! Ross and Ali, founder members of the Scottish super-group Treacherous Orchestra and musicians of many leading bands including Old Blind Dogs, Capercaillie, Shooglenifty, Salsa Celtica and Dougie Maclean, have created a brilliant, sparkling gem with elegant mastery as the exciting watchword. Ross and Ali met in the Vale Of Atholl Pipe Band when they were 12 years old, and the boys were guided by one of the most influential pipers for years, the late Gordon Duncan, who passed away in 2005 – and it is Gordon’s legacy and excellent teaching that has fashioned a really fine package of incredible, switchback runs and shimmering, lovely tunes.

The great fiddler and composer Duncan Chisholm, who plays with the Julie Fowlis Band and is a founder member of the folk-rock band Wolfstone, talks of connection, the passing and sharing of emotions that drives all the world to create: “You have two musical minds, connected first and foremost as lifelong friends. They are connected by the same ingenious teacher, connected in their outlook on life, their shared passion for pipes, for Scotland and Scottish music. They are connected in their zest for travel, the inspiration they take from other cultures and in turn how they inspire all those who hear them, wherever in the world that might be. They represent the best of what their generation is bringing to the bright, sparkling, colourful music that emits from our shores in the 21st Century… the tunes are great, the playing is fantastic and the connection between them is undeniable – a glorious album.”

And a glorious album it is, too. Treacherous Orchestra colleague Duncan Lyall accompanies Ross and Ali on double bass, electric bass and Moog, while Martin O’Neill executes some very tasty bodhran and Gus Sicard deputises with pipe band snare drum on only one of the nine tracks, ‘Grans’ – two tunes composed by Ali, ‘Mrs Jane Kennedy of St Anne’s, Methven’ and ‘India’s’. As far as composing goes, Ali has the lion’s share while Ross collaborates with him to produce some stunning fingerwork, for example ‘Sam I Am’ – and Ross writes some pretty heady stuff on his own, for instance ‘Chris Grace’s Joy’ and ‘Love At The Loch’. Both are excellent on cittern, banjo, guitar and harmonium, but their greatest love are the whistles, Ali’s Highland pipes and Ross’s Border pipes – they pay tribute to Gordon Duncan with his ‘Fourth Floor’, to Tom Gibbs (‘Gibbo’s No 1’), to Martyn Bennett with ‘Ud The Doudouk’ and to the fiery, super-strong Scottish culture with the last tune, the traditional ‘Hug Oiridh Hiridh Hairidh’.

Producer Andrea Gobbi at Carrier Waves Studio is given a salute with ‘Gobbi Wan’, written by Ali; Andrea has created a simple, spectacularly-clear sound in which the pipes, the whistles and the bodrhan can roam and play and are given their head. The Scottish folk scene should be very proud of these tracks and should celebrate both loud and long. Ross and Ali – good on you!


JIM CAUSLEY

Forgotten Kingdom

JIM CAUSLEY Forgotten Kingdom

5 Stars (5 / 5)

HMCD41

I truly love the many exciting musical projects and the brilliant West Country-spiced songwriting inspiration which Jim engenders; this outstanding album is the well-respected Devon folk singer and accordion player’s fifth solo CD and the first for Hands On Music, the label started by fellow Devon residents, Show Of Hands creators and jolly nice chaps Phil Beer and Steve Knightley. WildGoose Studios director and producer Doug Bailey released four impressive albums of Jim’s artistry: Fruits Of The Earth, Lost Love Found and Dumnonia, plus The Devil’s Interval’s Blood And Honey, on which Jim sang with Lauren McCormick and Emily Portman. Jim is a relative of the late Cornish poet Charles Causley; the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival have commissioned him to set to music verses of fellow Cornish poet and Charles Causley’s friend Jack Clemo, marking 2016 as the centenary of Clemo’s birth. Jim has recorded a number of Clemo’s poems with Cornish musicians, and the Jack Clemo Project album is out on July 29 – he launched the CD on May 29 at the fifth Poetry Festival in the Sterts Theatre, Liskeard in Cornwall.

The Forgotten Kingdom title refers to the Brythonic Celtic Kingdom of Dumnonia, which covered the western fringe of modern-day Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and which was lost to the invading Saxons. Ancient Celtic names lie buried in the lost kingdom; Jim grew up in Whimple, nine miles to the east of Exeter, and he told an excellent night at Llantrisant Folk Club that the name comes from Gwyn Pwll, the White Pool. (In fact the Somerset coastal resort and harbour town of Minehead, which lies across the Severn Sea in full view of the Welsh coast, comes from Y Mynydd, the “mountain” or steep hill which ancient sailors used as a landmark to guide them home.)

The main image shows Jim in kingly robes, surrounded by small nation emblems, including the banner of Brittany and the white-cross-on-green-background Devon flag; the county name is derived from Dumnonia. The opening track ‘Gabbro Bowl/The Peninsula Prayer’ hammers home the message of sturdy and defiant independence, and emphasises the brotherly bond that links Devon and Cornwall with the Tamar’s live-giving river. Steve and Phil join in Jim’s stellar massed accompaniment, which includes Steve Tyler on hurdy-gurdy, Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere of Ninebarrow, Katy Marchant and Steve Hoban. Barry Lister and Sean O’Shea (of the former Isca Fayre) Tom Addison (the Songwainers) and Dave Lowry provide a mighty choir, and all the songs are peppered with top-notch guest musicians: Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, Miranda Sykes, Rex Preston, James Dumbleton, Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll (who arranged the strings), Seth Lakeman and the celebrated Rees Wesson, melodeon magician/merchant from Welshpool. Kathryn Roberts sings a stunning harmony to Jim’s chocolate-brown voice in the beautiful ‘Reigning Men’, and Jackie Oates and Lukas Drinkwater provide fiddle, guitar and double bass in the desperately sad ‘Summer’s End’ – written by Jim but first recorded by Jackie on her 2007 album The Violet Hour, the song refers to the shortened days and the end of a relationship.

Jim has this enviable reputation of constantly championing Devon and Cornish culture by his prolific and very crafted songwriting; it’s hard to choose between the 15 songs packed into this album, and it emphasises the difference between vibrant and stagnant traditions. Songs, melodies and ideas are constantly reinvented, revitalised and spiced up in healthy cultures which have much more to say about their own identity. Jim, who enthusiastically mines the bones of traditional songs and builds them up to construct what could arguably be called his work, is the instigator whose compositions provide food, drink and sustennance to West Country life. For instance, take ‘Rewind’; Doug Bailey first recorded Jim singing his song for his debut WildGoose album, and now Jim revisits and reinterprets his love of Devon’s wild nature, coupled with the folklore with which he has grown up and has been immersed by his folk-singing parents: “A history rich as it is long / for it’s written in the songs / and tales of old and new live on eternally; / To me it all goes in hand / the music and the land / now who could fail to understand such simplicity…”

This is an album that is overflowing with goodness, joy, love and warmth, a little reminiscent of the delicious real cider that comes from the plentiful apple orchards that abound in his county. The good news is that Jim is young and writing all the way, and he is contributing massively to Dumnonia’s emerging profile. More power to his elbows!


AMY GODDARD

Secret Garden

AMY GODDARD Secret Garden

3 Stars (3 / 5)

AGSG42016

http://www.amygoddardmusic.co.uk

Amy is a prolific singer-songwriter based in Hampshire, but she’s Merthyr Tydfil born and bred. Her quiet voice is as light as a feather, but her inventive songs speak loudly and carry the message home. Her debut album, Burn And Glow, was but a taster for this delightful CD, her second; she shapes and moulds the 14 tracks, stamping each one with her own individual personality with her special, rare gift.

Amy has released two singles, ‘Gladdie’ and ‘Near The Sea’, as a foretaste of this album. The opening track, ‘Words Of Sweet Music’, is a life-affirming gem, and ‘Alright Again’ is a comment on her encounters with The Black Dog; one of the most positive products is her desire to publicise and raise money for institutes that campaign and fight against depression, the debilitating scourge that affects millions all over the world. The title track finds Amy in her favourite place, the peace, quiet and tranquility of a secret garden. She uses her poetical nous to convey just what she loves about these special, hidden bowers that dot the Hampshire countryside.

Amy wrote ‘Gladdie’ in memory of her late grandmother, whose boyfriend was killed in the Great War; she kept all his letters until she died. Amy’s song is beautifully poignant, and demonstrates the futility of war; in this centenary year of The Battle Of The Somme, it is specially relevant. One poet who was debarred from the horrors of World War 1 by his defective eyesight was Alfred Noyes, born on September 16, 1880 and died on June 25, 1958; he was a pacifist who hated war, but he did his military service on attachment to the Foreign Office, where he worked with John Buchan on propaganda. Amy interprets Noyes’ most famous poem, ‘The Highwayman’; the last track, number 14, is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, and between the two songs, Amy fashions them into her own identifiable work.

She carefully crafts her written songs, too; ‘New Day’, ‘Jessie’s Song’, ‘Rhythm Of The Road’, ‘Miner’s Lullaby’ and ‘Stargazing’ all deserve to win epithets. All in all, a thoroughly nice album, studded with hummable melodies. Mark Frank Hennessy’s enthusiastic comments: definitely one to watch.

MAY 2016


TONY HAZZARD

The Hallicombe Sessions

TONY HAZZARD The Hallicombe Sessions

5 Stars (5 / 5)

(No catalogue number)

Remember ‘Ha Ha Said The Clown’, by Mike d’Abo and Manfred Mann? The Top Ten smash was written by Tony Hazzard, who graduated from university in the 1960s and went straight into the music business, recording albums and penning hits for The Hollies, Lulu, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes, Herman’s Hermits and many names you could shake a stick at. In 1981, Tony took a 25-year sabbatical from songwriting. He moved to North Hill in North Cornwall, on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and wrote articles and short stories, managed a drug and alcohol rehab, acted, and sang in choirs and an acapella group. However, his brain was overflowing with songs that just had to be written.

Later, Tony was contacted by Juan Soroeta Liceras, Professor of International Law at The University Of The Basque Country in San Sebastian. He had been listening Tony’s albums for 40 years, and asked him if he would be willing to play to a small music club that the professor was organising. Tony readily agreed, flew to Northern Spain and was met with brilliant hospitality. While he was there, he met American Matt Harding, a singer-songwriter from Utah who had been in San Sebastian for several years. Tony hankered after someone to produce his latest album, and broached Matt. Matt was about to return to Utah and had 10 days free; it transpired that Tony drove to Plymouth and met Matt off the Santander ferry, and Matt loved Tony’s homely studio, especially the birdsong that crept in. The recording had cracks in it; however, Matt quoted Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

The result is that The Hallicombe Sessions is a wonderful, tip-top album with memorable, articulate songs that the listener just plays again and again. Cat Leonard provides voice on the opening song ‘The Spice Trader’, and Matt quietly adds acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass and percussion; but it’s Tony all the way with his ukelele and his acoustic guitar. He has reached the big seven-oh and is way past three score years and ten, and his quiet, lovely lyrics reflect years of experience and wisdom; ‘Journey’s End’ conjures up a picture of Tony sailing serenely towards the end of his long life. That loving, super song ‘Angela Finkleman’s Eyes’, Tony’s tribute to his wife, mirrors the ingenious Cynghanedd Welsh verse form: “Angela Finkleman twinkled her eyes at me, I was surprised but it soon became clear; I was eleven and I was in heaven when Angela F. kissed me on my ear…”

‘Shipping Lanes’ tells the sad story of the marriage between a truck-driving wife and a seaman slowly falling apart; and the wry, defiant ‘Seventy Not Out’ pictures Tony batting valiantly until the ultimate umpire lifts his finger: “You scored 85 and you’re out.” Great, joyous sentiments, too – and I love the solo ukelele. Tony really crafts his words, and Matt makes sure that his singing is crystal clear and the messages are driven home. This album is a must-buy oracle which aspiring songwriters, young and old, should take a leaf out of Tony’s book.


ELINOR EVANS

Reflections EP

ELINOR EVANS Reflections EP

5 Stars (5 / 5)

(No catalogue number)

This scintillating harper, singer and thrilling fiddler was born in Aberdeen to Welsh parents but completed her primary school education in Aberystwyth. She started playing the harp at the age of 12, studying with Meinir Heulyn, one of the principal harp soloists in Wales; her harp playing can be heard on Bryn Terfel’s and Charlotte Church’s Voice Of An Angel albums. Elinor moved to Edinburgh and continued her studies with Isobel Mieras, who inspired her love of the clarsach and traditional music and was her teacher throughout her time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has just completed her degree in Scottish Traditional Music at the RCS in Glasgow, and now regards herself as a hybrid of two Celtic cultures; in fact, Elinor performed with her clarsach in the Calan Mai celebrations at the Glanfa stage in The Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay. She has won many accolades for her clarsach playing and her inspirational composing, including the prestigious Trophée Harpe Camac at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, where she won a brand-new Camac harp. Elinor has been awarded a Clarsach Society Scholarship, and she will use this money to fund lessons with various teachers in order to explore different styles of music and further her skills as a performer.

Her last album was called Kaleidoscope, and the five tracks of Reflections are a promising and sizzling taster of Elinor’s blazing progress. She interprets the Victorian fiddler James Scott Skinner’s composition ‘The Cradle Song’ with empathetic reverence, and trips lightly across the traditional Scottish tune ‘Drummond Castle’ and Pipe Major Donald McLeod’s ‘Crossing The Minch’. Elinor’s clarsach commands a brilliant bagpipe interpretation in the traditional ‘Tree of Strings’, and the beautiful Welsh air ‘Can y Lleisoniaid’ shimmers like pearls; but she tops the lot with the marvellous nine-and-a-half-minute ‘The Lorient Set’, when she won the Camac harp. The set includes four traditional pieces, two Breton airs, a proud and tuneful Welsh reel and a memorable minor Manx tune, but a reel by the late Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson is the icing on the cake; Elinor’s exquisite art is just my cup of tea.


MARCH 2016


CHRIS FLEGG

The Road To The Rainbow’s End

CHRIS FLEGG The road to Rainbow's End

4 Stars (4 / 5)

FLEGGCD010

Chris is a St. Albans-based guitarist and songwriter, and this is his 10th album; his inspired songmaking is a blurred line between melodic folk, poetry and jazz, with creative and delightful chord progressions that keep on popping up and surfacing. Three session musicians, flautist Paul Chapman, double-bassist Harvey Weston and percussionist Rod Brown, engender an atmosphere that’s reminiscent of smoky night-club days of yore, and what musicians they are; instrumentals come to the fore on the last track, ‘I’ll Guess I’ll Have To Call It A Day’. Chris steers the whole album with his relaxed solo voice, and the CD draws the listener in and nets him.

Favourite tracks are ‘Somebody Or Nobody’, the instrumental ‘Dancing Girl’, ‘The Train To Dreamland’ (which focuses on the same subject as The Seekers’ hit ‘Morningtown Ride’) and, of course, the album’s title ‘The Road To The Rainbow’s End’


FFYNNON

Llongau

Ffynnon Longau

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Taith Records TRCD00018

This is a really beautiful, stark collection; West Wales-based Ffynnon have stripped down from a four-piece, who recorded their latest 2007 album, Adar Gwylltion, to just two members; vocalist Lynne Denman and harper, accordion player and pianist Stacey Blythe, who shares delicious harmony lines and inspiring arrangements with Lynne. They went into Stwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny to lay down the production, and the studio’s owner, master musician Dylan Fowler, adds ethereal and shivery lap steel guitar and chime bars to contribute to the unique effect.

The whole album is strongly reminiscent of the new pastoral West Wales culture that is boldly asserting itself these days; Ffynnon, Ceri Owen Jones and Elsa Davies, Jess Ward, Rheged (of which Lynne is also a member), Estron and of course the wonderful Fernhill all have that magical tranquillity and quality that carries the proud West Wales stamp. Llongau is a really entrancing, refreshing  repertoire; soft, with appetising traces of ambient jazzy sounds, confident voices swathed in harmony, solitary harp or accordion goading and coaxing the narrative on; and it plants the Welsh flag firmly on this proud, green and rocky land.

Five of the Welsh songs are included in the Pembrokeshire Repertoire Project, which worked to reintroduce and implant songs originally collected in the 1960s and 1970s by Dr Roy Saer. ‘Dyma Flwyddyn Newydd Eto’ marks a new year celebration, while Ffynnon tell the artful tale of ‘Y Cadno Ar Ladi Fawr Benfelen’ (The Foxy Thief And The Big Blond Woman) ,The children’s song ‘Mari Mari’ is utterly delightful and has air of the simple country life about it, while ‘Fwynlan O Serch’ is a proposal of marriage. The last song is a Pembrokeshire sailor’s thankful homecoming: ‘Dacw ‘nghartref yn y golwg’ (Here’s Home In Sight.)

‘Morforwyn’ (The mermaid) and ‘Merch Y Llyn’ (Lady Of The Lake) are two of Lynne’s compositions in Welsh; the latter song refers to the story of Llyn Y Fan Fach, high up on The Black Mountain of Carmarthenshire and the maid who rose from the lake, the mother of the physicians of Myddfai. Lynne is adept in Welsh and even in French, which for some reason she makes the King speak his lines en francais – and the song ‘La Bas Dans La Prairie’ stays firmly rooted in the French-speaking part of Brittany.

‘Llongau Caernarfon’ (Caernarfon Ships) is one of the Professor John Glyn Davies’ prolific compositions, set to a Norwegian tune, of a young man longing to go sailing to Ireland or France on any one of the three ships that are being loaded in Caernarfon Harbour. Davies, who was a friend of shantyman and author Stan Hugill, was born to Welsh-speaking parents in Sefton Park, Liverpool and worked for Liverpool sailing ship companies, but he had a strong connection with the Llŷn Peninsula. He vividly described the sea’s salty influence on Llŷn, and Lynne and Stacey have successfully captured the essence that Davies, who retired as head of department in Liverpool University library in 1936, would have wanted.

‘Parapet’ and ‘No Language’ are two of Lynne’s self-written gems, and the lyrics and melody implant themselves firmly in the mind; ‘No Language’ is Lynne’s coming to terms with dealing with and loving a schizophrenic mother. Llongau is a magnificent work of art which deserves to get listened to and celebrated for ever and always


JANUARY 2016


NUALA KENNEDY

Behave The Bravest

NUALA KENNEDY Behave the Bravest

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Under The Arch UTA003

This imaginative, adventurous flute and whistle musician and hauntingly beautiful singer was brought up in Dundalk, County Louth, bounded by The Irish Sea and nestling up to the Ulster border. County Louth is very much influenced by Scotland’s culture and tradition, and Nuala moved to Inverness to undertake a year-long comprehensive study in Scottish Gaelic; she now lives in Edinburgh, and she’s a member of the Irish band Oirialla, performing the music and song of her native South-East Ulster, which features music legends Gerry O’Connor on fiddle, accordionist Martin Quinn and the well-loved and highly-acclaimed Breton guitarist Gilles le Bigot. She has now completed an Master’s Degree in Music Performance and Composition and has recorded eight albums in different collaborations, including Enthralled with the late lamented Canadian fiddler, composer and cutting-edge music producer Oliver Schroer. Nuala has released three solo albums on Nashville-based Compass Records, but this is her first solo outing on production company Under The Arch.

Her love of Irish and Scottish music, plus a huge devouring of fantastic music from all over the world, is a potent cocktail for this album; Nuala’s ingenuity constantly reinvents folk tradition to the highest degree. Fiddler Shona Mooney, guitarist Michael Bryan and percussionist Donald Hay head a phalanx of fine musicians, who plunge in with ‘Lovely Armoy’, an emigration song lamenting an Antrim village. ‘His Bonnet So Blue’ is a mixture of Scottish and Donegal quality, while the Scottish waulking song ‘Mo Bhuachall Dubh Dhonn’ is sheer magic. Nuala hungrily absorbs acoustic music from every direction, and ‘Le Funambule’ (The Tightrope Walker) is one of Gilles’ marvellous compositions; ‘Fair Annie Of Lochryan’ is a spellbinding eight-and-a-half minute ballad, and Nuala is the magnetic storyteller. ‘Úrchnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte’ (The Fair Hill of Killen) is a local classic from Nuala’s home area, and the Sussex traditional singer Shirley Collins gets a mention in the mysterious English song ‘Death And The Lady’.

Above all, it is Nuala’s fabulous wooden flute which rises above all the musicians in this album; the simply organic, woody notes dance, weave and twirl with the sound knowledge and sixth-sense awareness which moulds her into the inspiring artist that she is. She is steeped in her own local Irish tradition while she deliciously bathes in Scotland’s neighbouring culture and a plethora of world sounds, without ever abandoning her own strong musical identity. She instils a zesty, fresh brilliance for all her dazzling performances, which are enticingly enhanced by all her imaginative compositions. This album is just a complete winner all the way.


GRETCHEN PETERS

The Essential Gretchen Peters

The Essential Gretchen Peters

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Proper LC23498 (double CD)

My good friend Geoff Cripps, former Rhondda Cynon Tâf arts director before the dark and sombre days of ‘austerity’ killed our county borough’s jealously-guarded and much-loved music, raved about Gretchen Peters. Why? Take a good listen to this exquisite double-album, a full-blown 20-year history of one of Americana’s greatest singer-songwriters of all time, and you will see where he was coming from. Gretchen combines an ability to move mountains with a few incisive, well-chosen words and a magnetic, must-see live performance when she pours her heart and soul into her songs, wringing the last few drops of passion and leaving her audience open-mouthed with wonder. She was opening her British tour with two concerts at Glasgow’s prestigious Celtic Connections festival in the Macintosh Church on January 30 and 31; Welsh audiences can take a short across-the-border trip to see her in the Walker Theatre, Shrewsbury (February 6) and Hellens Manor, Much Marcle (February 7), and Gretchen says farewell to North Wales when she plays in the Pavilion Theatre, Rhyl (February 9.)

She was born in Bronxville in Westchester County, New York, and raised in Boulder, Colorado, but she relocated to Nashville in 1987 and quickly established herself as an important songwriting force. She wrote hit songs for a number of country singers, and won the Country Music Association Song Of The Year Award for Martina McBride’s successful ‘Independence Day’; Gretchen has recorded this acoustic version on the second disc, and it is totally exquisite. She has been nominated for three UK-America awards, and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame in October, 2014.

This double album is not just a compilation; for the first time, new and rare recordings have been unearthed, including the well-loved and totally beautiful ‘On A Bus To St Cloud’ and the gorgeous ‘Ring Around The Moon’, which she sings harmony with her husband and co-producer, Barry Walsh, who plays piano to Getchen’s acoustic guitar. The chord progression in ‘Hello Cruel World’ and ‘Pretty Things’ is jaw-dropping, and the arrangements just cannot be beaten. The Essential Gretchen Peters is absolutely overflowing with stunning tracks; she deserves to be at the peak of the top contemporary songwriters and performers, and Gretchen embraces and transcends all genres of composition, from Nashville across the Atlantic to Britain – five stars.

Mick Tems


DIANA JONES

Live In Concert

Diana Jones live in concert

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Proper PRPCD135P

Diana Jones is based in Nashville and is pure Americana, an incisive contemporary songwriter strongly influenced by the Appalachian mountain tradition. She was raised in New York State, an adopted daughter of a chemical engineer, but when all her contemporaries were getting into Prince and Michael Jackson, she sought out the country sounds of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. After graduation at 23, she was reunited with her birth family in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, and discovered that her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, was a singer in the old-time tradition and had sung in a band with Chet Atkins. Grandfather Robert helped Diana make sense of her own distinctive voice, and the circle was now complete. She performs under the stage name Diana Jones; her real name is not widely known, as a precaution against showing preference between her adopted and birth families.

Diana played the Roots Unearthed series in the Lefel 3 lounge at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, a couple of years ago. This mesmerising album was recorded at her debut performance in the 2007 Blues Highways Festival in the Dutch city of Utrecht, and includes the most requested of her songs: ‘Willow Tree’, ‘My Beloved’, Cold Grey Ground’, ‘The Day I Die’, ‘Appalachia’, ‘Drug For This,’ Lay Me Down’, ‘Don’t Forget Me’, ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words’ and, of course, ‘Pony’, which won the songwriting award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. Also included are three previously unreleased songs: ‘Happiness’, ‘Prayer For My Brother’ and the breathtaking ‘My Last Call’, which closes the show.

Beau Stapleton, on mandolin and tenor guitar, is Diana’s only accompanist and sings some fine harmony vocals; however, Diana goes it alone, and her stark guitar and lonesome, low voice are quite stunning.


 

DECEMBER 2015


BILLY MITCHELL, BOB FOX, BENNY GRAHAM, JEZ LOWE

The Pitmen  Poets

Pitmen Poets CD

No catalogue number

4 Stars (4 / 5)

The early morning news on BBC Radio Wales announced that this day was the 25th anniversary of the closing of Mardy, the last pit in the Rhondda Valley; hard on its heels came the closure of the Kellingley mine, the North Yorkshire pit which was sunk in 1959, promising energy for 100 years, but it heralded the end of deep coal mining in Britain. King Coal fuelled power stations, the steelworks, the railways, the Navy’s warships, and a million miners worked at the seams; slag heaps scarred the landscape in South Wales, Scotland, Kent, Lancashire and many coalfields. The Pitmen Poets is the name of a highly entertaining and thoroughly absorbing show which Billy, Bob, Benny and Jez put together as a tribute to the mining industry and the miners who helped it to prosper in their particular area, the north-east of England.

The Pitmen Poets is touring Britain and is coming to South Wales in four theatres in January; Blackwood Miners’ Institute (Friday 8), Ammanford Miners Theatre (Tuesday 12), Porthcawl Grand Pavilion (Wednesday 13) and Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon (Thursday 14). All four are champions of the north-east’s musical heritage; Billy was singer and songwriter with Lindisfarne, Bob has just finished a sell-out three years as the War Horse Song Man, Benny is a leading exponent of Tyneside song and Jez is absolutely stupendous as a prolific songsmith. The show was recorded live, which adds to the intensity; it’s just like being transported right into your seats. The musicians’ strong sympathies lie with the miners from the kick-off, and it’s the well-loved Jez song ‘These Coal Town Days’; from the very first track, the bitter chorus is directed at the Thatcher Government and the Hobart House coal bosses. Billy swiftly follows up by scoring knock-out blows with a pair of his songs, ‘The Devil’s Ground’ and ‘Shiftin’ To The Toon’, a lament which former miners knew only too well when many mines faced closure.

The Victorian miner Tommy Armstrong wrote many fine songs and industrial ballads; ‘Stanley Market’, ‘The Row Between The Cages’, ‘The South Medomsley Strike’, ‘The Sheel Raw Flood’ and the stand-out pinnacle of north-eastern music-hall culture, ‘Wor Nanny’s A Maizor’, are all familiar and well-loved material of his, and the musicians deliver them with great gusto and not a little affection. The most enjoyable thing about The Pitmen Poets is how the mood see-saws between the miner’s dirty, dangerous work and the whimsical, funny Jez song about ‘The Ex-Pitmens’ Potholing Pub Quiz Team’ – coupled with the desperate, despairing hopelessness of the 1984 strike, when blackleg miners were getting on ‘The Judas Bus’ to sell their souls for silver (another stunning Lowe composition).

Other north-eastern writers add to the performance, such as the late Jock Purdon (‘Blackleg Mining Man’) and Ed Pickford (‘Farewell Johnny Miner’). A bonus of a live recording is the sound of the delighted audience yelling for more, and the four oblige with the knockout ‘The Miner’s Lifeguard’ (usually believed to be a north-eastern anthem these days, but Welsh miners were singing it to the hymn tune ‘Calon Lan’ in the days of the South Wales Sliding Scale strike – the chorus exhortation, “Keep your hands upon your wages and your eyes upon the scale” takes on a whole new meaning.) The whole show is a marvellous cameo of miners and the pitch-black, wet places where they used to dig for black gold – an exhilarating experience and a top-notch album.


FRANKIE ARMSTRONG

“What’s She Got To Smile At?”

Frankie Armstrong Whats she got to smile about

4 Stars (4 / 5)

No catalogue number

The title of this fascinating album comes from the lyrics from ‘Pirate Jenny’, the stunning and enthralling song which Bavarian playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and Austrian composer Kurt Weill incorporated in The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), which opened in Berlin’s theatreland in 1928. Frankie and accomplished Cardiff musician Mikey Price have been touring a show featuring the theatre material of Brecht and Weill and later Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. Now Frankie – born in Workington, enchanting folk singer and voice teacher, member of Ewan McColl’s Critics Group and a Cardiff resident for many years – has recorded 12 of Brecht’s songs, set to music by Weill and Eisler and tinged with the turmoil that two World Wars and the rise of the Nazi Party brought to the 20th Century. During the Weimar Republic, Nazis would interrupt many of Brecht’s productions by blowing whistles and hurling stink bombs at the actors.

Brecht was born in Augsburg in 1898. The First World War was declared when he was 16, and although he was enthusiastic at first, he soon changed his mind when he saw his classmates “swallowed by the Army.” Brecht avoided the draft by enrolling on a medical course; there he studied drama with Arthur Kutscher, who inspired in him an admiration for the iconoclastic dramatist and cabaret-star Frank Wedekind. Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, he was schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch, teachings which influenced him greatly in theory and theatrical practise. He wrote plays and poems with Weill, whose family was Jewish; he left Germany, fearing persecution, after Hitler took power and lived in Denmark, Switzerland, Prague, Paris, London and New York. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the ‘Red Scare’ in 1947, and immediately returned to East Germany. He died of a heart attack in August 1956 in East Berlin at 58.

Mikey accompanies Frankie on guitar and the Latin-American cuatro in a really pleasing partnership; Frankie is simply flying on his expert empathetic playing. There can be nobody who doesn’t know the hit song ‘Mack The Knife’, the Brecht/Weill composition referring to Captain MacHeath from The Threepenny Opera, adapted from the 18th-Century ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, written by John Gay; Frankie and Mikey bring it right back to the 1928 spirit. The delicate ‘The Song Of The Little Wind’ comes from the Brecht/Eisler Schweyk In The Second World War, written in the war years but first produced in 1957. ‘Surabaya Johnny’ is a beautiful, intricate but angry piece from Happy End, a hastily-put-together Brecht/Weill show following the success of The Threepenny Opera, which subsequently bombed.  ‘What Did The Soldiers’ Wife Receive?’ is a cleverly-scripted lament about the devastation of European war; ‘The Ballad Of Marie Sanders’ is from the Brecht/Eisler production The Master Race.

Above all, it is the desperate, devil-may-care attitude of ‘Alabama Song’ which brings the album to a magnificent end. Brecht and Weill wrote The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, which opened in 1930, and Californian rock stars The Doors popularised it as a 1970s album track, with ‘bad boy’ Jim Morrison singing it. Frankie and Mikey, however, surpass The Doors by a country mile by interpreting the song’s infuriating and complicated rhythm changes and biting lyrical references with ease, as do all of the songs. Brecht lived for and strongly defended German theatre, and his lyrics jump down the years and present themselves as being wholly relevant today; Frankie is the perfect messenger, and her dramatic voice paints a vivid picture of the man and the anxious, troubled times in which he lived.


NOVEMBER 2015


HILARY JAMES

You Don’t Know

HILARY JAMES You Don't Know

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Acoustics Records CDACS 070

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Hilary James and her partner Simon Mayor have built up a really impressive portfolio of inspiring music, a large part of it mandolin-influenced. Those with long memories will recall the duo going out on the road as Spredthick, with Hilary giving vent to her beautiful soprano voice and playing the double-bass (The Bear in Llantrisant Bullring – I know, ‘cos I was there!) As well as her double-bass, she sports a startlingly visual mandobass, which is a cross between a double-bass and a mandolin. In addition to that, Hilary and Simon go out as the trio Slim Panatella And The Mellow Virginians and the fun-filled and simply amazing quartet The Mandolinquents. Do see them, if you can; you won’t regret it.

This album is Hilary on her own, and she takes the listener on a wonderful tour which encompasses  blues, jazz, American and folk writers, including one that she has written for herself – ‘Last Show Tonight’ is heart-achingly fetching and sad, with Provence-based Janet Giraudo (who sings with Hilary as The Two Sisters) blending in her harmonies. In contrast, Hilary salutes the Rev. Gary Davis with ‘Say No To The Devil’ – I could listen to her innocent-but-poutingly-sexy “No!” many, many times. She rises above Mertis John Jnr’s  slow blues ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ and the Carmichael-Mercer composition ‘Skylark’ with a seasoned experience that speaks volumes. Simon plays alongside Hilary’s double-bass, mandobass and bass guitar for all of the 13 tracks, but it’s on the second Carmichael-Mercer outing ‘The Old Music Master’ that the mandolin shows its versatility; stunning instrumental harmonies herald the introduction.

Drummer Dave Mattacks, harmonica player Brendan Power and guitarist Frank Kilkelly are among the session credits, but they only appear on one or two tracks for the whole album. In fact, Simon and Hilary keep the number of session musicians very sparingly, painting the impression of a small coterie of musos – but boy, can they play. All the arrangements are brimful of ideas, including the desperate and lonely ‘The House Is Haunted By The Echo Of Your Last Goodbye’, Utah Phillips’ ‘Rock, Salt And Nails’ and George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘They All Laughed’, which is an ultimate tour de force on creative scoring – it’s that good.

But it is Hilary who shines brightly above all for her excellent musicianship, her incredible soulful voice and her impish sparkling smile. Her album is playing, and suddenly the world has got a lot brighter – that’s the effect that Hilary’s presence has on you!


MAIREARAD & ANNA

Best Day

MAIREARAD & ANNA Best Day

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Shouty Records SHOUTYCD03

There was I, with an extremely wet and windy Storm Barney ruining my St David’s Hall free-drinks album launch and doing its utmost to rain on my parade, when the postman dropped this glittering little package through my letterbox. Best Day? It’s a wonderful day!

Mairearad Green and Anna Massie have been playing together for 12 years, and Best Day is their third album; however, this is their first to include songs. They salute Dougie MacLean’s beautiful composition ‘She Loves Me (When I Try)’ and Anna’s favourite is Nancy Griffiths’ ‘Always Will’, which she learned from the second series of the magnificent Transatlantic Sessions.

Anna was the winner of the Radio Scotland Young Musician Of The Year award and a stupendous guitarist; she also plays an exquisite fiddle, mandolin and tenor banjo with many well-known musicians, including Bella Hardy, Karen Mathieson, Julie Fowlis, Kate Rusby, Blazin’ Fiddles and Eddi Reader. Mairearad grew up in the remote Coigach Peninsula of the Scottish Highlands’ West Coast, north of Ullapool, an area renowned for its strong traditional music, and became well-known for her supple, flowing accordion style and her expert bagpiping. Both Mairearad and Anna are members of Scotland’s most famous celtic big band, The Unusual Suspects.

This album is an utter delight from start to finish – in fact, it’s a rip-roaring stonker. Musician Angus Lyon recorded the 11 tracks in Gran’s House studio, the peaceful converted farmhouse in Lamington, South Lanarkshire, with stunning views of the Scottish Lowlands across to the River Clyde. In 12 years of gigging together, Mairearad and Anna have a finely-honed and quite remarkable sixth sense, and they recorded Best Day entirely by themselves. It’s just joyful, fantastic music, from a shower of dancing reel notes on ‘The Red Poppy’, through a trio of tripping fiddle tunes written by the late lamented Cape Breton Islander Jerry Holland and luthier and composer Otis Tomas (‘Jerry And Otis’) to ‘Bottle Island’, a beautiful Mairearad strathspey which segues into a striking, original Mike Vass jig, ending in a glorious Aidan O’Rourke banjo-led jig which is bound to confuse the timid with its switchback time signatures. Aidan called the time ‘Best Day Of My Life’, which Mairearad and Anna adopted for the title of the album. (Mike named his composition ‘Elizabeth’s Plymsolls’, which, thank goodness, the two female musicians didn’t take up.)

The cascade of marvellous music doesn’t end there. Mairearad displays her excellent piping with ‘PSR’; she learned the first march from Pipe Major Iain MacFadyen at the wonderful Plockton Music School on Scotland’s West Coast, and the tempo moves up a notch for Allan McDonald’s ‘Fasgadhdail’. The grand traditional tunes vie with enterprising contemporary writers, Mairearad and Anna leading the vanguard with ‘A Lovely Bottle Of Botanist’ and the pair of wedding tunes ‘Peter and Jaclyn’s Wedding’ and ‘Julia and Simon’s’. As an afterthought, the flowing and lovely ‘Musical Flowers’ waltz blends splendidly with a Swedish polska – all of it awesome and inspiring stuff indeed. My greatest wish would be to see Mairearad and Anna playing in my folk club; that would surely be the scoop of the year.


OCTOBER 2015


VARIOUS SCOTTISH ARTISTS

The Ultimate Guide To Scottish Folk

The Ultimate Guide to Scottish Music

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Arc Music EUCD 2606

How do you squeeze in the mind-boggling variety and the barnstorming musicianship that measures Scottish culture today? From the northern norselands of Shetland to the refined architecture of Edinburgh, from the Western lands of Gaeldom to the faraway Scottish diaspora that is Cape Breton Island, Arc Music have successfully accomplished it in a double-CD, with two hours and 32 minutes of exquisite celtic music,  packed into 36 tracks Knowledgeable liner notes, by respected musician Mary Ann Kennedy, add to the delicious and exciting prospect.

Aidan O’Rourke’s fabulous fiddle heralds Lau’s switchback ‘Intro To Hinba’ for starters; then the golden-voiced Karen Matheson leads Capercaillie in the beautiful ‘Sienneam Cliù Fear Ùr’, while maverick piper Fred Morrison, born into a formidable family of South Uist pipers, plays ‘Kansas City Hornpipe’ to perfection. Dougie MacLean, Ceòlbeg, Micha MacPherson, Mick West with the lovely a capella group Muldoon’s Picnic, Heather Heywood and Blazin’ Fiddles all contribute to the atmosphere, and Cape Breton Islander Ashley MacIsaac conjures a hip, danceable ‘Sleepy Maggie’ while the late lamented Michael Marra sings a stunning ‘Happed In Mist’. The accordion grandmaster Jimmy Shand plays a historic and definitive ‘Bluebell Polka’, and Dick Gaughan is at his vituperative best in Brian MacNeill’s ‘No Gods And Precious Few Heroes’, written at a time when the national parties ruled Scotland and before the SNP achieved their overwhelming and super-proud victory.

The wonderful Archie Fisher should be included in any such compendium, but his ‘Reynardine’ goes back over 47 years to 1968; finely executed, but twanging sitars shows the production is a little outdated. Well-known fiddler Alasdair Fraser lives in California and is gigging with ‘cellist Natalie Haas, but he recorded the inspiring ‘Nighean Donn a’Chuailein Riomhaich’ with American pianist Paul Machlis. Isla St Clair is well known as a game-show hostess, but the legendary folk-collector Hamish Henderson first recorded her when she was 12 – and she was still a teenager when her first album was released. Her mother, Zetta, was a founder of Aberdeen Folk Club.) ‘Scots Wha Hae’ shows her brilliant interpretation. ‘The Day Dawn’, by veteran fiddler Aly Bain, is just breathtaking.

There just isn’t the space to list all these grand tracks: The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Karine Polwart, Arthur Cormack and Blair Douglas, Ossian, Braebach, Runrig – the queue goes on and on. I would have liked one track from the exquisite Gaelic singer Joy Dunlop, wild accordion from Sandy Brechin or the Stewarts of Blairgowrie, but that’s just nit-picking. Verdict: thumbs up, with brass knobs on!


HARPETH RISING

Shifted

Harpeth Rising - Shifted

5 Stars (5 / 5)

(No catalogue number)

This startling, ice-cold, beautiful album isn’t just any old album; Shifted is an eyes-wide-open life-changing experience. It is crafted by a Louisville, Kentucky-based women’s trio of a Canadian violinist who doubles as a singer/writer, an astute Californian banjo player and a New York City ‘cello player and teacher. All three draw on a classical music university education, armed with a brilliant awareness and an incisive, intuitive knowledge of their instruments; original, intelligent songs mess the minds of their audience with a play on words which nearly borders on poetry.

Ontario-born lead singer and prolific songwriter Jordana Greenberg started as an eight-year-old violin student in Indiana University. As a 17-year-old solo violinist, she toured the US, Canada, South and Central America, France and Japan with the University’s symphony orchestra; and it was this, mixed with many bluegrass sessions in rural Indiana, have moulded her playing into a unique style. Rebecca Reed-Lunn grew up listening to Mahler, Edith Piaf and Bob Dylan in her home town of Davis, California, and taught herself banjo from Pete Seeger videos while studying viola in graduate school in Indiana University. A little-known fact about Rebecca: she was Miss February in the 2012 Women Of Banjo calendar. ‘Cello teacher Maria Di Meglio, who comes from the Italian community of Brooklyn, performs folk, classical and contemporary music from Eastern Europe and the Americas, and has recently completed her master’s degree at Indiana University. All three have super-high educational profiles, but it was the bluegrass sessions that sparked the meeting of the minds and encouraged Harpeth Rising to go on the road.

Shifted is Harpeth Rising’s sixth album, after the debut CD Harpeth Rising, the follow-up Dead Man’s Hand, The End Of The World (with David Greenberg, farmer, singer, master wordsmith and Jordana’s father), Tales From Jackson Bridge and the last one, Live At The Dreaming Tree. It’s my introduction to the fabulous, inspiring music of the women, but I’m kicking myself (not an easy task) for not noticing the talents and the deliciously complex ideas that have been bubbling away for all these years. Jordana is the principal songwriter, and the trio get the whip out with ‘I Am Eve (I Am The Reason)’, the words pouring out like razor blades. Harpeth Rising fuse indie-folk with soaring, swooping neo-classical melodies, a hint of bluegrass, a touch of jazz, a soupçon of rock and those eye-popping harmonies that turns grown men’s knees to jelly. The women are in the top rung of a new folk movement of spectacular creativity, and who knows where the journey will take them.

Jordana takes the lion’s share of the songwriting, with ‘Fortune’, ‘Good Ideas’, ‘Proof’, ‘Rolling For You,’ ‘The Borderline,’ ‘Providence’ and the title song all racing neck-and-neck to win the championship. However, Harpeth Rising pay tribute to the much-respected artist Leonard Cohen with ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, David Greenberg with the wonderful ‘The Raid’, about railroad hobos caught in a police heist, and ‘Seven Thunders’, which Jordana and David collaborated. Shifted has earned itself a very special place in my CD shelf.


SEPTEMBER 2015


HUNGRYTOWN

Further West

Hungrytown Further West

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Listen Here! Records LH503

Dave Chamberlain, presenter of Dapper FM, reviews: One thing about folk music is that it can draw in just about anyone one. Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson are a case in point. Coming together in New York City, Hall from a Jazz background while Anderson was a drummer in various garage bands, their introduction to Folk Music came when a close friend, who died young due to a tragic misdiagnosis, entrusted to them her collection of 1960s folk albums and her guitar, which has since featured on all the duo’s albums.

For just over a decade now, Hall and Anderson have been writing and performing under the name Hungrytown, with Rebecca as the main songwriter and producer/instrumentalist/husband Ken responsible for the sound. Further West is Hungrytown’s third album and in it, the duo have produced a collection of songs that both original yet familiar and spring from both the British and American folk traditions.

Travelling is a recurring theme, although the destination is not always a physical one and a happy ending is not guaranteed. There is a certain edge to Rebecca’s songwriting that is present right from the start. The album opener ‘Further West’ leaves the story open to interpretation but, to your reviewer, this particular journey may well involve a ferryman and a pair of coins. ‘Hard Way To Learn’ tells the story of a young mother who leaves her young child in search of a better life, only to find that things don’t always go to plan.

Two songs that anybody who has done night driving will identify with are ‘Highway Song’, which comments on how the world looks when viewed through the rear window of a car, and ‘Static’, a song of a dark lonely road with the radio signal fading in and out.

Not all the songs on Further West are written by Hall though, migration comes to the fore again in an a capella version of Woody Guthrie’s tale of Okies leaving the dust bowl, ‘Fields Of Plenty’. Fellow Vermont resident Gene Morrison is also featured with his song inspired by the Blake Family and their 1821 journey on the Kelley Stand Trail. When the song is called ‘Don’t Cross The Mountain’, you just know that the story isn’t going to end well.

Hall and Anderson are joined on Further West by two guest musicians, renowned Vermont fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger, whose driving fiddle playing can be heard to great effect on ‘Hard Way To Learn’, and Cellist Suzanne Mueller. Mueller also contributes one song to the album, the poignant ‘Ramparts And Bridges’. This song reflects on the ability of music to build both bridges and barriers between people and is inspired by the sonnet On Hearing A Symphony Of Beethoven by Edna St Vincent Millay.

The final track on this album, ‘Troubles In Between’, is a song about alienation and escaping your problems by going to sleep and, perhaps surprisingly, means that Hungrytown have something in common with Metallica. The Thrash Metal band’s 1991 single about unnamed fears and things that go bump in the night, ‘Enter Sandman’, starts with a version of ‘A Child’s Bedtime Prayer’, as does ‘Troubles In Between’.

All in all, Further West is an album well worth investigating. If you’re looking for songs about rainbows and fluffy bunnies, then you won’t find them here. What you will find is a collection of songs with a certain amount of grit and a bit of an edge that I am sure will pass into the tradition in the future – in fact, my partner is already eying a couple up to sing at future folk club singers’ nights.


JESS VINCENT

Shine

JESS VINCENT Shine

4 Stars (4 / 5)

HAT008

The first time that I heard Jess Vincent and her wonderful songwriting, it instantly reminded me of Kate Bush OD’d on helium – but, like the very special artist and musician that she is, her exhilarating performance has a habit of netting the appreciative listeners like there was no tomorrow. This is the Wiltshire singer and acoustic guitarist’s  third album, and it’s a fabulous, life-affirming collection of her penetrating viewpoint and her mature look on the world. Her maddenly-memorable and catchy craft battens down the door and demands to be noticed – and the good news is that she opened for The Spooky Men’s Chorale in their summer concert hall and festivals tour around Britain, which is praise indeed.

Shine and Jess’s unique soaring, swooping sound has got me deliciously hooked; I can’t stop playing it, the CD is constantly loud on in the car and what I laughingly call my office, and I wake up in the dead of night humming one of her compulsive melodies – whoever coined the buzz-word “earworm” must be thinking of her.

Reg Meuross, Jess’s partner and the album’s producer, himself a stunning songwriter and renowned folk musician in his own right, describes her as: “one of the most exciting singer songwriters I’ve heard in years, with a magical voice and exceptional and truly innovative songwriting talent” – firm plaudits indeed from the god of song-making. And Reg, who releases Shine on his own label, must take the credit for skillfully blending an array of empathetic musicians, including himself on vocals and a quartet of instruments; his familiar banjo is there, lending light and shade to Jess’s lucious work. Special mention must go to Beth Porter on ‘cello and multi-instrumentalist Mike Cosgrave, whose accordion was made to soothe all troubles.

Reg and Jess penned five of the songs, including the good-time singalong opener ‘Shine’, which is being released as a single, and the closing ‘Billy Tipton’s Waltz’; Billy, born biologically as a female, was a 1950s jazz pianist who lived his life as a man, jamming with Duke Ellington, drinking with Frank Sinatra and becoming a well-known musician – ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ was one of his successes. Jess composes the melody to ‘Wind On The Downs’, based on a tragically beautiful poem by Marian Allen, written after her fiancé, a World War One fighter pilot, was shot down in 1917. Jess homes in on the real-life stories; she wrote ‘Charley’s Song’ as a morale booster and as a respectful tribute to her army officer friend and for her enduring bravery. In ‘New Amsterdam’, Jess explores the fascinating tale of Hollywood silent movie actress Olive Thomas who was mysteriously poisoned by a glass of wine; her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam theatre in New York to this day. In contrast, Jess bares her vulnerable soul with the painfully frank ‘Shackles And Chains’, and duets with herself in startling sky-high spot-on harmonies that cuts the mustard to a brilliant degree. Shine is Jess’s equivalent of satisfying, nourishing mental soul food – and she’s got me lining up for more and more. Bon appetit!


ROBIN HUW BOWEN

Iaith Enaid / The Language Of The Soul

Robin Huw Bowen Iaith Enaid

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Sain SCD2723

Cwlwm Celtaidd, Wales’ springtime interceltic festival at Porthcawl, is always known for flashes of joyful brilliance; but one of the most endearing and memorable moments in this entrancing weekend came when Robin Huw Bowen held the hushed audience in the palm of his hand and played to the vast hall with his beloved triple harp. Sheer magic, musicianship and mastery – I could listen to his seemingly infinite repertoire, his vast knowledge and his gleeful, intelligent lectures time and time again.

Robin has recorded 16 interesting and uplifting albums during his long career, collaborating with Mabsant, Cusan Tân, Crasdant, Rhes Ganol and many solo outings and compilations, but this outstanding album just takes the cake. The old triple-harpers possessed a strong Welsh culture of shaping and refining traditional material, showing their musical worth by devising an absolute plethora of variations. Robin’s influences were the two triple-harpers from Ar Log, Dafydd and Gwyndaf Roberts, who themselves were taught by Telynores Maldwyn, Nansi Richards; and Eldra Jarman, great-granddaughter of the gipsy John Roberts, who led his family of triple-harpers to Queen Victoria’s Royal approval. The result is Robin’s rich and varied concoction of 18th-century airs and marches, some believed to be as old as the druids, 19th-century gipsy hornpipes and contemporary compositions which he has made himself; the triple-harp tradition, and Robin’s CD, is an exciting and simply fabulous melange of pure folk, tinged with classical spices.

The CD booklet reveals striking quotes from some eminent triple-harp supporters and players, including the Rev. Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc), Lady Llanover (Gwenynen Gwent), John Roberts (Telynor Cymru) and John Parry (Bardd Alaw). One of the most poetic comes from Dewi Wyn O Einion, who lived from 1784 to 1841; he says, in translation: “The parliament of all dissonance, the two sides of joyous unions; all passion there weaving the language of the soul and her strings.”

Iaith Enaid  smokes, sizzles and bubbles like a cheerful little volcano, with Robin launching into ‘Helfa De Penfro’, a strong, prancing jig which he composed for the warm-hearted welcome from a woman who organised a party for South Pembrokeshire Hunt members. ‘Caniad Clych ym Morgannwg’ (The Bells of Glamorgan) is next, the triple-harp mirroring the ringing chimes. ‘Ymadawiad Y Brenin’ (The King’s Departure) echoes the solemn sadness; and ‘Y Pural Fesur’ (The Perfect Measure) is breathtakingly beautiful. Robin interprets the unique style of the Welsh gipsies for ‘Two Gipsy Hornpipes’, the first taken from the collection of Llewelyn Alaw of Aberdare and the second from the Locks, gipsy fiddlers from the English border area who were related to the Welsh Woods and the Robertses.

Every track is a shining winner – ‘Y Ferch O’r Sgêr’ (The Maid of Sker), ‘Y Fwyalchen’ (The Blackbird), ‘Telynor Ar Y Traeth’ (The Bard On The Beach, three tunes including the often-played ‘The Portheinon Whim’, and thereby hangs a story), ‘Dychweliad Y Milwr’ (The Soldier’s Return, three composed tunes marking the UK pull-out of Afghanistan), ‘Walts Yr Heulwen’ (The Subscribe Waltz, composed in the Welsh gipsy harp style) and, finally, ‘Bodlondeb’ (Contentment – after a long tour, the warm feeling that Robin gets in coming home to Wales.) Robin deserves five stars for this national treasure – and an MBE for services to Welsh folk music and our national instrument.


SILLE ILVES

Kannel

SILLE ILVES Kannel

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Libanundix CD0215

Sille Ilves is the inspiring musician of Wales-Estonian husband-and-wife duo Sild; in addition to her scintillating hurdy-gurdy, she plays hiiu-kannel (Swedish bowed lyre) and kannel (Estonian plucked zither), and she’s a member of The Bethlehem Village Band, Corelw and The Gower All Stars. The Estonian kannel is one of the family of Baltic psalteries which includes the Finnish kantele, the Russian gusli, the Latvian kokle and the Lithuanian kanklės, and has a variety of traditional tunings. In Sille’s artistic hands, the chiming sound of the kannel takes on a new meaning which is even more mysterious and magical.

Sille says that her grandfather used to play the kannel: “I remember that hypnotic, shimmering sound clearly. When I emigrated to Great Britain 12 years ago, I became removed from my beloved familiar sound world – the sound of my mother tongue and the sound of kannel.” Sille found a solution to her recurring homesickness; she started learning kannel. She says: “The new instrument worked wonderfully; it opened new doors artistically… Kannel brought back old memories of good times and people and old songs from my family and friends.”

Sille recorded this album in the famous Dreamworld studios, in a farmhouse just a mile from Fishguard, with Jens Schroeder producing. Martin Leamon, Sille’s husband and Sild musical partner, accompanies her occasionally on guitar (which has been aptly described as “magisterial”); however, Sille strikes out on her own to create a wonderful cameo of Estonian tradition and folksongs, mixed with mixed with strong influences of Welsh culture The plucked kannel takes on the beautiful melody of the instrumental ‘Ajakola’, with the hiiu-kannel developing a soothing, warm sound. Jens has really mixed down both Martin’s guitar and the hiiu-kannel to a minimal degree, which creates an unobtrusive, delightful atmosphere and a peaceful, warm feeling. Sille uses the kannel and her astonishing voice to a very high degree as she takes the listener on a cultural trip through her beloved Eesti, from the Swedish-influenced Western Islands to what is now Western Russia and the closely-related Votian language. She even shows her language versatility with a Welsh rendition of Carol Hâf, from 18th-century poet John Howells, and composer Ceri Rhys Matthews has a hand in it, too – the last track, ‘Comri Rood’, closely resembles the ‘Mopsi Don’ jig in a minor key.

Sille skilfully interprets other-worldly folksongs, from the pretty ‘Kolm Sõsorat’ through the faster ‘Vaeslapse Laul’ to the stately ‘Lina Elulugu’, all through the arresting sound of the kannel. This is a breath of Estonian fresh air from a musician who constantly keeps the listening public on their toes – and more power to her artistic elbows.


KATE DOUBLEDAY

Flutter

Kate Doubleday Flutter

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Copper Records CRCD004

www.katedoubleday.com

Kate lives on the Cardigan Bay coast in the village of Borth, Ceredigion; she was born in 1969 to a Irish mother and a father from Lancashire, and she grew up listening to the travelling songs of her late Irish grandfather, Kelso, which inspired her become both a gardener and singer-songwriter. This is a brilliant, beautiful little gem of an album, and it digs deep to display Kate’s love of a peaceful Welsh landscape and its rich variety of teeming natural life which is both stunning, raw and wild. Her complicated, entrancing songs paint vivid pictures of an fragile environment which is both ageless and everlasting, but which is all too easily swept away by the incoming tide or ruthless ‘progress’ – songs which are reminiscent of the Kate Bush repertoire, but all the same very different as well.

Kate recorded the 10 songs for Flutter in the award-winning Red Kite Studio, within sight of the Brecon Beacons National Park, studio owner Martin Levan co-producing, mixing and mastering, with albums by artists including June Tabor, John Martyn and Ralph McTell under his belt. The musicians included guitarist and kora player Dan Wilkins, bassist, tenor guitarist and ukulele player Trevor Lines and ‘cellist Marie Smith, featuring ubiquitous master accordionist Jamie Smith, arranger Sid Peacock and The Froe string quartet: Ruth Angell and Charlie Hayes on violins, Helen Lancaster on viola and Emma Capp on ‘cello. However, the instrumental arrangement is stark, sparing and deliciously soothing, allowing Kate to take charge with her writing. ‘Orchard’ captures the full reminiscences of childhood, while ‘Fifty Years’ describes inevitable changes, not for the best, in a coastal community. Kate travelled to West Africa exploring the rich and vibrant musical culture, and the kora picks up some influences in ‘Lion’s Lullaby’. She duets with her own voice, creating staggeringly impossible harmonies; ‘Spring’ is one pleasing example, with the flitting, swooping vocals creating warm images of the new year.

I do hope Kate comes my way on her musical tours and brings Flutter with her; it really is a most remarkable album, crafted in an astonishingly original and appealing way, which deserves to be played always and often.


CALAN

Dinas

Calan Dinas

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Sain SCD2715
www.calan-band.com

Beware, all you Calan enthusiasts; this brilliant little album is piping hot! The ambassadors of Cool Cymru blast back with a breathtaking 13-track package, plus Bethan Williams-Jones’ Welsh-language portrayal of their ‘Tale Of Two Dragons’ foray into the singles chart, ‘Chwedl Y Ddwy Ddraig’. Dinas Mind you, “piping hot” is totally appropriate: I just love Patrick Rimes’ amazing and masterful sachpib work. Produced by ex-Fairport member Maartin Allcock at Stwdio Sain in the Llŷn village of Llandwrog and engineered by Siôn Alun Jones, the five musicians gleefully pounce upon and playfully pummel the stuffing out of the proud and rich Welsh tradition. Searing drums, blazing fiddles, crazy guitar, magical harp and glittering accordion herald a new, confident age which pounds at your door and demands to be noticed. Bethan’s commanding voice is very versatile; it rises above the glorious mayhem, but rings clear and sweet over the beautiful splendour of a gracious air.

Dinas comes from Dinas Emrys, a mountain in Gwynedd. An ancient tale says that during the fifth century two dragons once slept within the mountain, hidden in the depths of a secret lake. During the night the dragons would awake and fight, making the ground shake and tremor. When the Celtic king Vortigern attempted to build a castle on the hill, the stones and walls were repeatedly shaken to the ground. The problem was solved by a nine-year-old boy gifted with magic. His name was Merlin – and Wales had found a great magician and the emblem for its flag.

The site was excavated by archaeologists in 1945, who discovered a lake and the ruins of a fortress dating to Vortigern’s time. The walls showed signs of having been rebuilt several times – and the Snowdonia range is well known for occasional earth tremors…

I love Calan for the way in which they enthusiastically seize upon age-old tunes and songs and shape them to suit a new generation – ‘Dŵr Glan’ and the Pat Shaw composition ‘Goleg y Prifysgol Abertawe’, the lovely ‘Adar Mân Y Mynydd’ and ‘Y Fwyalchen’, ‘Roxy’s Birthday Jigs’ and ‘Set Stephen’ are cases in point. However, the band have struck lucky by dressing up the South Wales rallying cry ‘The Miner’s Life’ with a new tune; this tells the story of coal magnate Lewis Williams, later created Baron Merthyr, and his battle with the South Wales miners (nick-named “Wil Dwmi” by the colliers) over the unfair Sliding Scale rule. The 1898 strike quickly deteriorated into a disastrous six-month lock-out – anyway, you can read the full account of ‘The Miner’s Life’ in this magazine.

Calan manager, champion clog-dancer, ace songwriter and Bethan’s father, Huw Williams, makes a great contribution to the repertoire with two wonderful creations, ‘Giggly’ and ‘I’ve Seen You Shine’. I could travel a thousand miles just to see Angharad, Bethan, Sam, Patrick and Llinos strut their stuff, not to mention the gob-smacking clogs – Ymlaen!


SIMPSON • CUTTING • KERR

Murmurs

Simpson-Cutting-Kerr Murmers

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Topic TSCD591

You can count Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting Drand Nancy Kerr as among my favourite musicians and interpreters of the folk tradition: Martin for his brilliant, exquisite guitar and banjo virtuosity and passionate voice, Andy for his masterful, flowing diatonic accordion touch and Nancy for her beautiful, dancing fiddle and viola and her alluring singing. All three contribute greatly with some inspiring compositions which nestle snugly with a few powerful traditional songs – on this very listenable debut album, ‘The Plains Of Waterloo’, collected from Ottawa, Canada with its extraordinary tune which shifts from the major key to minor, is a high point.

I saw Martin, Andy and Nancy at the inspiring Roots Unearthed series in the Lefel 3 Lounge at St David’s Hall, where the three musicians treated the large audience to the most magical, exquisite and stunning performance of all time. Martin observed that Andy and Nancy were a joy to play with – and this precious album constitutes a meeting of like minds and a triumphant mixture of inspiring new writing and well-loved, exciting tradition.

Martin certainly has matured as an excellent composer, and ‘Dark Swift And Bright Swallow’ (about the peaceful beauty of the Devon coast and the wartime disaster which occurred near this very spot) sets the exacting standard. ‘Richmond Cotillion’ is an instrumental extravaganza, and ‘Dark Honey’ composed by Nancy, tells the fascinating but true story of wild bees attracted to the sticky sweetness of abandoned Coke cans. Martin interprets the Appalachian ballad ‘Fair Rosamund’ in the style of fondly-remembered Hedy West, while Andy is playing an 18-bass, two-and-a-half row diatonic accordion that he made in France under the expert guidance of Emmanuel Pariselle. Andy’s familar style of French-influenced writing crops up again in ‘Seven Years’, and it’s a positive gas to listen to.

Not a track is wasted, with each offering bringing new delights. It’s an outrageously great album, with each musician bouncing off the other and two having a real ball. But that’s the way it should be!


NA-MARA

Navajos & Pirates

NA-MARA Navajos & Pirates

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Rightback Records RBRP015

www.na-mara.com
The duo na-mara – Rob Garcia, whose Basque parents arrived in Britain as child refugees fleeing Bilbao in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and Middlesbrough-born Paul McNamara – were playing in Newport Folk Club in the Fugitives Athletic Club in Rogerstone recently; how I wish I could have been there. Based in the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, Rob and Paul summon up five self-written songs, a lovely parcel of French and Breton folklore and fabulous muiñeira and danza tunes from Galicia and Asturias, both Celtic nations in Northern Spain. Both Rob and Paul translate the French and the Breton songs into English, which helps a lot into making these traditional riches available. The na-mara sound is simple, solid and sparse, with guitar spiced with mandolin and octave mandola; Paul’s solitary voice often takes the lead with Rob occasionally joining in the harmonies.

Rob and Paul’s written music is influenced by their reaction to the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco who, aided by Hitler’s deadly bombers and Mussolini’s Italy, stamped out Spain’s freedom of expression for 36 years. The Republican faction was supported by communists and anarchists, and by Basques, Galicians and Catalans; the Civil War left half a million dead, including Welsh, Scottish and English union workers who fought in The International Brigade. ‘Navajos & Pirates’ and ‘The Silver Duro’ are two factual stories which outline the fascist rise of the 1930s. The Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweiβpiraten) and The Navajos were young people who defied Nazism, which led to 13 public executions in Cologne in 1944, and the latter song tells what happened to Rob’s father and the 4,000 Basque children in the Bilbao evacuation in May 1937. In contrast, but still the same, ‘The Garden Of England’ warns that the age-old evil forces of slavery are never far away in these modern times (in fact, the recent South Wales slavery trial made headline news and is still in the memory of the Welsh nation.)

The na-mara repertoire is enriched by the beautiful and stunning folksongs from across the Channel. Rob and Paul learned ‘The Lover From Nantes’ (L’Amant de Nantes), a traditional song from the Loire Valley, from Berry musicians La Chavannée and La Bergère; but the album peaks with the entrancing and mysterious ‘When I Took My Horse To Water’ (Quand Je Menai Mes Chevaux Boire, from the folk maestro Gabriel Yacoub and his wonderful band Malicorne.) Jean Baron, bombarde player from the Breton quartet La Godinette, sang a Breton version of ‘The Girl Who Lived In The Woods’ (La Fille De Parmi Ces Bois) and Paul and Rob go out with a bang with the rollicking Breton sea shanty ‘Three Bonny Ships’ (A Bordeaux Vient d’Arriver). Two tracks, incorporating five tunes, are worth a mention – the slow air ‘Gwerziou’ (the ancient Breton ballads) segues into ‘Ton Bale’ and ‘J’ai Vu Le Loup’, and Rob composes a brace written in the traditional style of a French schottische and a Galician muiñeira.


PAUL LLOYD NICHOLAS

Hold The Line

PAUL LLOYD NICHOLAS Hold The Line

3 Stars (3 / 5)

CDPLN1501

paullloydnicholas@gmail.com
Paul is an entertaining storyteller and composer who digs deep into the subject of his songs, and a great and flexible guitarist, too. He cut his teeth polishing his performance  on the South Wales folk scene, before he moved to Suffolk in the 1980s. He’s now returned to his land of fathers where he’s based in Tredegar, teaching guitar and playing across the UK. I count him as one of my favourite ‘floor singers’, the typical enthusiast who can really spice up a folk club by delivering a punchy five minutes, or hold an audience transfixed with a beautiful song – a stalwart who boldly enriches the burgeoning folk scene and makes sure that live music will never die.

Paul’s songs are written at a lop-sided, unusual angle – probably influenced by his days in as a sub-editor in the London daily tabloid industry. The opening track, ‘Ernest and Adeline’, was inspired by news of cheering Lottery winners, contrasted with a quiet, dignified couple who lost their only son in Afghanistan. ‘Hold The Line’ marks the centenary of The Great War and the millions who never came home, and ‘My Grandmother Loved An Astronaut’ was written after the death of Paul’s loved relative. He found in her keepsakes box a press cutting on Michael Collins, who piloted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon, but never landed himself; why on earth had she kept it? ‘The Legend Of Jonny Racine’ tells a very tall tale of a teenager who built a time machine; he wanted to go back to Elvis’s Memphis, but landed up in the Memphis of the pharaohs. And all that from a seed of a rhyme, linking ‘alabaster’ with ‘Stratocaster’! ‘Think Of Me’ is based on a letter sent from a thirst-parched World War l soldier in North Africa. He had written: ‘Think of me when you turn on the tap’, which constitutes a great chorus.

‘Blue Blood’ doesn’t mean landed gentry, but coal miners displaying the first symptoms of pneumoconiosis; ‘Silk From Samarkand’ comes from a school talk given a feisty ‘old girl’, who travelled to the exotic Far East as a teenager but was weighed down by marriage and responsibility; ‘School Reunion Dinner And Dance’ harks back to memories of classrooms and his first crush. ‘Serenade’ is Paul’s tribute to his saxophonist father and how he met his mother – all couched in the finest precision.

However, there are times when Paul’s subtle lyrics and his handsome guitar are drowned by too much production and over-enthusiastic use of the synthesiser; one of the joys of hearing him live is just his gravelly voice and his effortless solo guitar. His echoed vocals seems a tad unnecessary and the arrangements give the impression of being a little outdated – a great pity, when all you want to experience is just stripped-down Paul. Shabbey Road Studios, please note…


DEREK GIFFORD

Songs From The Past… Into The Future

DEREK GIFFORD Songs from the past into the future

3 Stars (3 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS412CD

www.derekgifford.co.uk/

This is the seventh album from the popular folk club and festival singer and member of the shanty group Three Sheets To The Wind, who has been performing for 35 years. A former teacher now retired, Derek spends his time performing and conducting workshops, where he cajoles audiences into singing in glorious harmony.

Derek first came across folk music in the vibrant Birmingham scene in the late 1960s. He moved to Lancashire in 1970, and in 1987 he started composing melodies to poems written by Keith Scowcroft, culminating in the well-known countrywide folk movement anthem ‘When All Men Sing’. The title is illustrated by a painting of an ancient rustic windmill, where a modern wind turbine looms on the horizon; He allows himself to be a mirror, reflecting the topical songs created by writers of the day, and the traditional ballads ‘Dives And Lazarus’ and ‘The Bold Fisherman’ shows his love for folk song. The tracks are augmented by Keith Kendrick on concertinas and vocals, the lovely Gill Redmond on ‘cello, Paul Sartin on fiddle and oboe and Anna Shannon on shruti box and vocals; Tom and Barbara Brown, Derek’s wife Janet Hale and producer/owner of Wildgoose Studios Doug Bailey provided the chorus. Janet also took the photograph on the cover sleeve.

Derek is a keen conservationist, and he selects an array of writers’ fare from Richard Grainger’s environmental ‘Land And Sea’; Brendan Graham’s immigrant story, ‘Ellis Island’; the late Rod Shearman’s save-the-planet warning, ‘Do You Remember?; Alan Bell’s account of the 2007 Chinese labourers’ disaster in Morecambe Bay, ‘The Cocklers’ Song’; to an early Pete Coe composition about his home town of Northwich, ‘Farewell To The Brine’; a Steve Ritchie of the lamented Canadian band Tanglefoot song, ‘For The Day’; the prolific writer Bob Watson’s fine account about the North-eastern Atlantic whalers, ‘Nantucket Sleighride’; and ‘Early One Evening’, Miles Wooton’s hoary but hilarious parody about the demise of the traditional pub – and, as Derek says, there are still a few horrendous trendy establishments like that around. He ends with ‘Coming In Further’, Southampton’s Fo’c’sle Folk Club resident Brian Hooper’s wry, funny message about increased global warming.


BELLOWHEAD

Pandemonium

Bellowhead Pandemonium

5 Stars (5 / 5)

NAVIGATOR093P

Wipe away a tear, for soon they will be gone. That fantastic juggernaut Bellowhead, with singer/fiddler Jon Boden leading the 10 musicians on a sheer heady romp of glorious careering folk music, the sold-out standing-room-only gigs, the mind-boggling arrangements, the artful creativity, the ultimate power and energy – and by way of thanking the hordes of admiring fans, the band have released this compilation album. It was John’s decision to step down as lead singer that led Bellowhead to think about disbanding; however, there are a couple of lengthy tours and a shedload excitement to go until the band calls it a day.

The follow-up title is “The Essential Bellowhead”, and it gathers together the cream of five albums and one EP. The album comprises a solid package of five raucous shanties and a trio of maritime-influenced songs, but the band refuse to conform to labels; more’s to the point, they transform into a brilliant genre-defying 11-piece orchestra. ‘Roll Alabama’ is a classic example of breathtaking ingenuity and ‘Whiskey Is The Life Of Man’ is one holy hell of a salty worksong, while ‘Fakenham Fair’ wins hands down in the shimmering beauty stakes and ‘London Town’ is a swaggering, sassy riot with stomping banjo, melodeon, ‘cello, fiddles, horns and Pete Flood’s adventurous percussion all queuing up for more. All those tracks to treasure… Bellowhead have certainly gone out on an amazing high.


JOHN ROBERTS & DEBRA COWAN

Ballads Long & Short

JOHN ROBERTS & DEBRA COWAN Ballads Long & short

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Golden Hind Music GHM-111CD

This is a really delightful little album, and the reviewers are already singing John and Deb’s praises on their first recording. If you aren’t familiar with US-based performers, here’s the low-down: British expatriate John, who plays anglo-concertina and banjo, emigrated to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State, to study graduate level psychology. He now lives in Schenectady in the same state, where he owns the Golden Hind label. John teamed up with another Englishman, Dr Tony Barrand, retired Professor Emeritus of Anthropology who lectured at Boston University; they formed a folk duo as Cornell University students, and – as well John’s solo work – have been singing ever since. Deb left her job as a California middle-school maths teacher to pursue a career as a folk singer; she moved to Edinburgh for six months, where she held the Monday night residency at Sandy Bell’s, the mecca of folk music. She is now based in the Massachusetts town of Shrewsbury, and has recorded five albums to her credit. A debate over car-sharing to Chicago led to John and Deb joining forces and touring many times all over the US, with one successful trip to the United Kingdom.

Both John and Deb share an endearing and lasting love of folk music, especially those songs that have amazing and inspiring choruses behind them. They offer a tempting 14-track basket of traditional and written songs and ballads – mainly from England, where John used to live and where Deb bases her tours, but spiced with Scottish, Canadian, Australian and Appalachian material as well. They sail through the classic Scottish border ballad ‘Twa Corbies’, the rare The Prince Edward Island carouser ‘Drive Dull Care Away’, the hunt-supper favourite ‘The Cornstalk’, which John first heard from the singing of  Derek Elliott of Barnsley, and the enigmatic and stirring shanty ‘Bold Riley’, which Bert Lloyd claimed to have collected from Bristol seamen. Debra’s strong, alluring voice comes into its own on the beautiful Norfolk ballad ‘Fair Annie’, learned from the late Peter Bellamy and which exists in many versions scattered far and wide, including Scotland, Sweden and Denmark – in fact, Marie de France retold the Fair Annie story in her Lai de Fresne, probably written around 1194. All eyes are on Deb as she recounts the tale in this fine track, which lasts for more than eight minutes; Californian Bill Cooley, the “guitarists’ guitarist” who has been a member of Kathy Mattea’s Nashville band for 20 years, adds his solo acoustic instrument for a real touch of quality accompaniment.

Two written songs from this side of the Atlantic must be worth a mention: John Conolly (who wrote ‘Fiddler’s Green’) and Bill Meek composed ‘The Broadside Man’, which gave John and Deb the title for this album as well as a fine chorus – and Chris Sugden, alias Sid Kipper, thought up the artful ‘Combing The Mane,’ an unlikely pirates’ tale coupled with a visit to the barber’s shop. The Tennessee ballad ‘Gypsum Davy’, which tells of a lady absconding with a gypsy, is a variant of many tales on both sides of the Atlantic. John and Deb sing the fine Northumberland masterpiece ‘Fortune Turns The Wheel’ in loving memory of Louis/Louisa Jo Killen, with whom they shared many years of friendship and who learned it from Alan Rogerson in the Cheviot Hills. There are so many great songs, passed on by a vast generation of singers, which are all packed together on this fertile hunting ground. Drink deep!


 JANUARY to AUGUST 2015


BARRULE

Mannanan’s Cloak

Barrule Mannanan's Cloak

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Wardfell Records EOTR04

Barrule OK! This rip-roaring second album is dedicated to Mannanan MacLir, celtic sea god and protector of The Isle Of Man, whose fortress is the Barrule mountain. Legends tell that if he spies invaders, he will draw his cloak of mist about the island to conceal it – but if any ships reach the shore, he will transform into a wheel of fire and come hurtling down South Barrule to send them packing. The Manx-based trio consists of accordion super-meister Jamie Smith, South Wales-born but with a passionate love for Manx music; bouzouki-mandolin player Adam Rhodes, brought up in England, emigrated to the Isle Of Man at the age of eight and now living in Glasgow; and outstanding fiddler Tomàs Callister, who is only 19 but is establishing himself as one of the best Manx musicians there is.

Jamie is also the powerful engine and the writing inspiration behind Jamie Smith’s Mabon, and a member of the scintillating South Wales trio Alaw, while Adam plays with Mabon and Manx band King Chiaullee. Tom is a familiar face in Manx circles; one of the Manx group The Reeling Stones, he has spent the past year in Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides studying traditional music. With such impeccable pedigrees, something just had to ignite; their debut album smacked of all good things to come, but Mannanan’s Cloak really is the business, the veritable couilles du chien. Barrule charge into the six-minute opening track of ecstatic virtuoso jigs-and-reels playing, dubbed ‘The Wheel Of Fire’ – remember the legend? They take no prisoners as they join with singer Paul McKenna in ‘The King Of The Sea’, which celebrates the Manx herring fishermen; ‘Kinnoull’, composed by Manx flautist Peddyr Cubberley, is starkly beautiful in its magnificence.

Recorded in December in the historic St. Bridget’s Chapel in the Nunnery grounds in Douglas, with producer Andy Seward at the helm, the album takes Barrule’s emphatic sound to the next level, with great playing from a support cast that boasts Calum Stewart on uilleann pipes, Dylan Fowler on lap steel, Tad Sargent on bodhrán, and regular collaborator David Kilgallon on piano.

The harsh, lovely voice of Gregory Joughin (artist designer of the Barrule logo and father of Grainne Joughin, Jamie’s fiddle-playing wife and fabulous Manx dancer) rings out clearly in ‘Yn Ven-Ainshter Dewil’ (The Cruel Mistress), ‘Fir-Hammag Yioogh’ (The High-Net Individuals’, a protest about the new greedy rich lording it over the islanders), and ‘Iilliam Boght’, about a murderous casanova, shown his come-uppance by his seventh would-be victim. Gregory is the unofficial ‘fourth Barrule’; I’m wearing one of his Cwlwm Celtaidd design t-shirts as I write!

‘The Laxey Reels’, dedicated to the famous Laxey Wheel, largest in the world, is a glittering showcase for Tom’s and Jamie’s prolific composing, and it brings the album to a perfect end. The distinctive sound flits to Ireland (‘To Dingle With Love’) but the whole basis is proud and powerful Manx tradition. Mannanan must be dancing with joy…


THE FOXGLOVE TRIO

These Gathered Branches

Foxglove Trio These Gathered Branches

5 Stars (5 / 5)
FGXCD02
The Hertfordshire-based Foxglove Trio are currently one of my favourite bands; I love them for their sheer enterprising musicianship, their daring, audacious arrangements, their fabulous harmonies and their stunning Welsh repertoire, which raises the profile of this rich celtic tradition considerably. Ffion Mair, who comes from Mid-Wales, is the lead voice, and she carries the switchback melodies impeccably; Swansea-born ‘cellist and guitarist Cathy Mason is employed as Assistant Musical Director at Lord Wandsworth College; and melodeonist/’cello player Patrick Dean comes from Wakefield, Yorkshire, plays for several ceilidh bands and also accompanies Kerry Fletcher’s Eurodance workshops. The Foxgloves mix a tantalising programme of English and Welsh tunes and songs into this, their debut album; they released a five-track EP, Like Diamond Glances, on March 1, 2013, which garnered some ecstatic compliments, but These Gathered Branches really are the full-blown bees’ knees.
The Foxgloves offer up 12 fine tracks from Welsh and English tradition, zinged up with a battery of contemporary writers. Mid-Wales fiddler, composer and singer Anna Esslemont, of the late lamented band Uiscedwr, hits the nail on the head with the opening track ‘Mr And Mrs’, about the emotional reunion of a child with her family after a long period of estrangement; and Patrick and Foxgloves make a deft job of arranging ‘The Jolly Pinder Of Wakefield’ – a pinder was a medieval gamekeeper who met his match with Robin Hood at a site where, The Foxgloves say, is Pinderfields Hospital in Patrick’s home city. But my favourite song is ‘Selar Hill’, written by Huw Pudner (organiser of the Valley Folk Club) and Chris Hastings, which laments the loss of acres of beauty near Cwmgwrach in the Neath Valley, destroyed by opencast mining. The Trio have added onto the Pudner/Hastings lyrics translated fragments from the R Williams Parry poem, ‘Y Llwynog’ (The Fox); together, it makes a very poignant and hard-hitting statement.
Ffion wraps a melody from Meredydd Evans, who died earlier this year, around a Harri Webb poem and three additional verses she wrote to create ‘Colli Llanwddyn’, a damning protest against the British Government’s policy of drowning Welsh villages, with their vital Welsh, culture, tradition and language, to provide water for English cities. Llanwddyn was drowned at the end of the 19th century by the rising waters of Llyn Efyrnwy reservoir; this terrible policy was committed in the 1960s, when Liverpool Corporation obtained an Act Of Parliament to drown the Tryweryn valley and the last Welsh monoglot village, Capel Celyn. Of the 36 Welsh MPs, 35 voted against it; but the Act was passed and Capel Celyn was drowned. Patrick and Cathy provide superb ‘cello accompaniment to enhance the anger and sorrow conveyed in the lyrics; it really is an eye-opener.

In contrast, Cathy and The Foxgloves make a beautiful arrangement of ‘Stars And Bells’, a shimmering melange of ‘Oh How Lovely Is The Evening’ and ‘Star Star’,  written by Glen Hansard (of the smash-hit made-in-Dublin film Once). I urge you to buy These Gathered Branches; you won’t be disappointed!


OLION BYW

Mudo / Migrating

Olion-Byw

4 Stars (4 / 5)

OBCD02

www.olionbyw.com

No sooner had Olion Byw’s promising debut CD stopped generating admiring compliments than the duo announced that their second album is about to be released; and for anyone who thought that Dan Lawrence and Lucy Rivers had made a pretty impressive start, this one even tops Hen Bethau Newydd. Dan and Lucy still maintain their repertoire of tried and trusted songs and tunes from the Welsh tradition, but this time they throw into the melting pot several experimental, mouth-watering morsels to savour. Olion Byw translates as Living Traces, and this couple are actually mining the history, the motherlode of Welsh culture. With Lucy on soulful, fine fiddle and Dan on adventurous, questing guitar and bright mandolin, those traces are healthily blossoming.

The sleeve notes say that migration is a recurring theme in the folk songs of many cultures, and it’s also true of Wales; whether it’s a move for love, heartbreak, money, war or merely to see the world, these songs hold a resonance. Dylan Fowler expertly produces the album from his delightful wooden Stwdio Felin Fach and plays some sparse, stunning pedal steel on the opening track, ‘Llongau Caernarfon’, and Lucy’s clear voice rings out appealingly through the echoes. Calan’s Beth Williams-Jones clog-steps smartly through the well-known ‘Tŷ Coch Caerdydd’, but Lucy rings the changes with her own memorable tune ‘Y Mynydd Du’, which takes The Black Mountain as its inspiration and deserves to be played loud and often.

Dylan (tabwrdd) and Mark O’Connor (cajon and percussion) skillfully augment the background, but Lucy and Dan shine through with a highly original ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ mixed with the Iolo Jones tune ‘Jigolo’, the graceful Breton An Dro, the 11/8 brilliance of Pete Stacey’s ‘Taith Madog’ and the haunting beauty of ‘Gwêl Yr Adeilad’ – definitely a CD to keep and treasure.


OYSTERBAND

Diamonds On The Water

oysterband_diamonds

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Navigator 087P

You’ve got to hand it to Oysterband! John Jones and his other magnificent musicians have been churning out album after cracking album for nigh on 40 years and constantly playing, incessantly touring, always picking up new audiences and ideas. This is their first ‘solo’ album for seven years; the departure of Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper to pursue a solo career meant slight adjustments to the line-up, with long-time producer Al Scott filling in on bass and mandolin. But it did require a brand-new CD, and Diamonds is an absolute corker.

All those decades of gigging have honed the band to a razor-sharp edge, just sheer, solid power. Members contribute to the band’s material with a clutch of highly memorable tunes and dazzling words that stick like limpets. They set the scene with the gorgeous opener ‘A Clown’s Heart’, with its anthemic come-all-ye chorus and pinpoint lyrics that every hard-bitten musician with a travelling band will hit home: “All I do is just sing and play; I troubadoured my life away…” He doesn’t take lead vocal, but John’s fine voice rings out above the exquisite harmony that has become the Oysterband trademark, a proud pinnacle to which all rock bands should aspire.

Hardly have we caught our breath than the Oysters are on to the next track, ‘A River Runs’, which packs an impressive punch, the pounding bass, drums and chiming guitar providing the backdrop for the life-affirming strong love between a man and a woman.  ‘Lay Your Dreams Down Gently’, ‘Spirit Of Dust’, Every track is worth its weight in gold.

But while The Oysters put one foot firmly in the rock scene, the other is standing proudly on the rock of folk. You can hear the references time and time again, and it just makes us thankful; for instance, the folkie ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ is a real blues shouter, with John’s John’s anguished voice complimenting searing guitar, and ‘Like A Swimmer In The Ocean’ rounds off perfectly and aptly with the coda: “I leave these songs with you.” Absolute heaven.


CARREG LAFAR

Y Cadno (EP)

Carreg-Lafer-Y-Cadno

4 Stars (4 / 5)

No catalogue number

Carreg Lafar have released this impressive EP, recorded by Dylan Fowler in Stwdio Felin Fach, but it’s not on general release; however, you can listen to the three tracks online (https://www.soundcloud.com/carreg-lafar). Paul Cecil captures a beautiful photo of a wild fox on the CD sleeve. If you go to a rare Carreg Lafar gig, maybe one of the band will sell you one – and believe me, it’s quite a bargain.

The band explode into the traditional song ‘Y Cadno A’r Cardis’ (The Fox And The Cardis); Danny Kilbride’s urgent guitar drives the narrative and rhythm along, and the band’s sound captures the thrilling essence of the influential and revered Breton sonneur Erik Marchand, leading the great Gwerz – more than a quarter of a century have separated the two bands, but Carreg Lafar and Gwerz are linked by the love, knowledge and enthusiasm of proud celtic music. The wonderful, strong voice of Linda Owen Jones sets the narrative, and the swelling instruments of flautist James Rourke, fiddler Rhian Evan Jones and the pibgorn and pipes of Anton Owen Hicks draw this track to its exciting climax.

The second song, ‘Glan Mor Heli’ (The Salt Sea Shore) is dreamy and delightful, with Linda harmonising with the instruments; and ‘Bwthyn Fy Nain’ (My Grandmother’s Cottage) is a stark and beautiful Welsh traditional work of art, Danny’s solo guitar keeping close empathy with Linda’s voice. Please, please see, hear and experience this enterprising band, who are like a breath of fresh air – you won’t be disappointed!


BRAGOD

Llatai

Bragod-llatai1

3 Stars (3 / 5)

BRA003

Llatai  translates as a messenger of love, usually as a bird which brings news or encouraging hope to a girl or boy. Bragod are the vivid, startling voice of Mary-Anne Roberts and the hypnotising crwth of Robert Evans; Mary is a vocal artist, storyteller, actress, dancer, founder of the calypso string band Domestic Violins and “a revivalist of Trinidad Carnival archetypes”, and Robert teaches crwth, fiddle and medieval music theory and performs and lectures internationally. Robert has studied the impenetrable manuscript of Robert ap Huw, which dates from 1613; both he and Mary-Anne have been touring a presentation called Birds/Adar, and Llatai, which marks the 400th anniversary of Ap Huw’s work, is a recording of three tracks from the shows.

Ap Huw’s manuscript contains music from the 14th to 17th centuries which is totally different from folk or classical music. The 14th century poet Dafydd Am Gwilym wrote ‘Yr Wylan’ (‘The Seagull’, which Robert tunes his crwth to Kras Gowair, “the hoarse tuning”) (and ‘Offeren y Llwyn’ (‘The Woodland Mass’, where the crwth is tuned to Bragod Gowair, “the mingled tuning”), but the anonymous literary poem ‘Ymddiddan Arthur A’r Eryr’ (‘Arthur’s Talk With The Eagle’) takes up more than a half-hour; the crwth is tuned to Go Gowair, “the sharp tuning”. To the modern listener, Ap Huw’s manuscript is alien and unnerving; medieval music, in fact crwth music which has come down for 400 years, was entirely different to a vertiginous degree. Mary-Anne, as the eagle, breaks out into a mocking, cackling laugh which makes Arthur the butt of running jokes.

It’s a challenging trio of poems and melodies, and it wouldn’t be advisable to give it to Grandma for a birthday gift – but Robert’s interpretation of crwth tuning and Mary-Anne’s rasping, dreamlike voice (which, Bragod say, models crwth-playing) draws the listener into playing Llatai again and again.


DAN AMOR

Rainhill Trials

Dan-Amor-Rainbow-Trials

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Recordiau Cae Gwyn

www.recordiaucaegwyn.com

Dan is a bilingual singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who lives in the village of Penmachno, four miles from Betws-y-Coed in the Snowdonia National Park, and it’s his opening track (‘Sister Anne’) that’s attracting all the interest lately.  Frank Hennessy has aired the song, which smacks heavily of Paul McCartney at his most whimsical, accompanied by Lennonesque piano and some killer chord sequence. Dan sets the scene for the whole album by having his voice multi-tracked over and over to produce amazing harmonies. He says ‘Sister Anne’ is “about a nunnery, an alcoholic nun, cats and the seaside” – he writes songs of psychedelic wide-eyed innocence, just like the well-loved Syd Barrett, with traces of Donovan and Harry Nilsson combined, not wallowing in the sixties but writing for the 21st century. He skips from Welsh to English, quiet folk songs to stomping indie-rock, and he takes his influences from the land and as well as from the sea – ‘Brenhines Y Tonnau’ (‘Queen Of The Waves’), ‘Springtide’ and the excellent ‘Landlubber’ come to prominence. Mind you, Dan has successfully implanted snatches of sea shanties and frenetic fuzz guitar of ‘Dusk Bird’ all together; that’s just the kind of enigmatic musician he is.

All too soon it’s the last track, and Dan reverts to acoustic guitar for ‘Y Ci’ (‘The Dog’). Dan’s dreamy voices wash over each other like endless waves, making it a perfect end to the album – but hold on. There’s a mystery ‘hidden’ song, which I think is ‘Grey Truth’ – and a very fine song it is. But there’s no information about it, just as Dan keeps any information about himself tightly wrapped. But that’s the kind of guy he is…


THE JAKE LEG JUG BAND

Next Stop!

Jake-Jug-Band-Next-Stop

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Fellside LACD330

Shades of Bonnie and Clyde, prohibition, the dustbowl, speakeasies, the Roaring Twenties – welcome to middle America! The band was formed in February, 2012, by double-bass player and vocalist Duncan Wilcox, who conceived an entire project of creating country blues, ragtime, gospel and vaudeville songs of the 1920s and 1930s, using instruments and recording equipment true to this period. The album is stuffed with 15 much-loved classics, including the thinly-disguised innuendo of ‘Caught Us Doing It’, ‘Champagne Charlie’, ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’, Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘My Pencil Won’t Write No More’ and ‘He’s In The Jailhouse Now’.

The Fellside company has hatched the Lake label, specialising in jazz, and producer and owner Paul Adams writes a comprehensive account of creating a 1930s ‘warm’ sound by using a modern microphone built to the same specification of the famous RCA R44 and employing a Universal Audio 610 pre-amp. All in all, it’s a totally convincing recording which captures the cutting-edge essence of the young wild America of 90 years ago.

Apart from Duncan, the band consists of Esther Brennan (vocals, washboard and ukulele), Neil Hulse (vocals, guitar and mandolin), Andy Anderson (vocals and banjo) and Purcy Harmonica (vocals, harmonica, saw and percussion). Esther comes into her own on the magnificent Sophie Tucker offering ‘One Of These Days’ and Memphis Minnie’s ‘Frisco Town’ and the great Bessie Smith’s ‘Sugar In My Bowl’ – how that woman can sing! She pours out her very soul into these songs, wringing the last drops of emotion out of the lyrics, and her performance is truly amazing. The band dig up vivid memories of The Hokum Boys, Big Bill Broonzy, Fats Waller, the great Bo Carter and The Memphis Sheiks, whose choice of ‘Jailhouse’ lyrics caused quite a stir at that time.

 


 A.L. LLOYD

Turtle Dove

A-L-LLOYD-Turtle-Dove

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Fellside FECD260

I first witnessed the mesmerising Bert Lloyd in The Valley Folk Club, Pontardawe more than 40 years ago; he created a permanent impression that seared upon my memory, his high tenor vibrato captivated the crowded upstairs room, his lively hands forever gesticulating as he sat backwards on a pub chair. Albert Lancaster Lloyd was born in Wandsworth, London, in 1908 and died a few miles away in Greenwich in 1982; he was sent to Australia as an assisted migrant, worked on various sheep stations in New South Wales where he wrote down the first folk songs he learned, returned in Britain during the Depression of the 1930s, signed up on a Antarctic factory whaling ship, joined the Communist Party, wrote an article called The People’s Own Poetry for The Daily Worker in 1937, collaborated with Ralph Vaughan Williams in The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs collection and was a director of Topic Records from 1950 until his death. He recorded 14 solo albums, nine with Ewan McColl, and contributed to many compilations, pamphlets, books and articles.

Subtitled England And Her Traditional Songs Volume 2, this album is the fifth of the Lloyd collection; it centres on the recordings Lloyd made for American Professor Kenneth Goldstein, who was on a mission to “make available to scholars, lecturers and instructors in the fields of folklore, balladry and English literature recordings of the great traditional ballads appropriate in classroom and lecture work.” A deal was set up, whereby the Workers’ Music Association (of which Topic was still a part) provided the recordings – and the Fellside selection of 17 folk songs, from ‘Whistle, Daughter, Whistle’ and ‘The Seven Gypsies’ through ‘Reynardine’ to ‘Do Me Ama’ and ‘Greenland Bound’, represents the best of them.

Lloyd always provided interesting observations in the song notes, but Fellside owner Paul Adams says: “He gives no indication as to the sources or any reworking he has done on them.” Shades of Iolo Morgannwg and the rewriting of folk tradition…  but considering his lifelong work which some will say has enhanced folk music, we can salute a veritable giant of folk music, both literary and oral – and Paul deserves a medal.

 


AMY GODDARD

Burn & Glow

Amy-Goddard-Burn-Glow

3 Stars (3 / 5)

(No catalogue number)

Amy was born in the South Wales valleys, in the Treharris area; she’s now happily married and her base is Portsmouth, where she writes songs, plays guitar, sings at local folk clubs, teaches music theory and recorded her debut solo CD, which raises funds for the Sane and Black Dog charities. She played a Llantrisant Folk Club Showcase last summer, and the extra bonus was cracking guitarist Jonathan Lewis, who expertly accompanied her. It’s encouraging to see another writer singing songs on the scene – she had a pretty decent crowd at the Hampshire album launch, who warmed to her and applauded with genuine affection. When the audience likes you, you’re halfway there.

Amy has been influenced by country music and in particular the late Californian songwriter and singer John Stewart, contributor to the sixties American folk scene and former member of The Cumberland Three and The Kingston Trio, who wrote The Monkees’ number one hit ‘Daydream Believer’ and his own hit ‘Gold’.  Amy’s penetrating insight and intelligent lyrics forges interesting verses and haunting melodies. ‘I Will See’ and ‘Suzie’ are two of her memorable songs; the countrified ‘Morning Train’ (about her numerous cross-country trips from Cardiff to Portsmouth to see her future husband), and the one she wrote as a tribute to Stewart after his death, ‘Lonesome Picker’s Last Hurrah’, are all crowd-pleasers. However, she could learn to use her light-as-a-feather delicate voice; vocal projection is the all-important skill which musicians like actress Lucy Rivers of Olion Byw and singer-teacher Frankie Armstrong possess and pass on. Lucy, in particular, has the pleasing habit of lobbing her beautiful velvet voice so it lands smack in the laps of the audience.

The production is a little suspect, too; Amy’s voice is reverbed to the point where the words become masked and the meaning is lost, which is a shame for such a rewarding writer. I do hope that we’ll be hearing Amy again on her second solo album; no doubt a few technical glitches will have been ironed out.


LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III

Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet)

Louden-Wainright-III

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Proper Music PRPCD 122P

Good old Loudon; here he is, reaching the age of 67, a Grammy Award-winning American songwriter, folk singer, humorist and actor, and he still messes the minds of his fans by jumping into the opening track, called ‘Brand New Dance’ – a super-loud rock number with screaming guitars, honking horns, boogie-woogie piano and absolutely manic percussion laced with heavily-reverbed razor-sharp vocals. Loudon has released 25 albums in his long career, but he still comes up with this audacious package, which is an all-time corker.

Loudon is the father of singer-musicians Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. He has been divorced twice (once to the late French-Canadian folk musician Kate McGarrigle.) His strained relationship with Rufus and Martha led to a bunch of hard-hitting songs; in fact, Martha even recorded a barbed missive to her father entitled ‘Bloody Mother F*cking Asshole’ – not a demure lass to mince her words, is Martha.

Loudon shows his roots in the electrifying and quite magnificent ‘Harlan County’, the banjo and fiddle-led bluegrass coda slowly fading away. All 14 tracks on this album are absolute killers, but there just isn’t the room to list them. Personal favourites are ‘Harmless’, about the heartbreak of the invisible generation; ‘I Knew Your Mother’, Loudon’s penetrating dedication to Rufus and Martha; the biting wit of ‘Depression Blues’; the country-flavoured and the switchblade lyrics in ‘Man And Dog’; and the ultra-black humour of ‘I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas’ and ‘The Morgue’. The amazing fact is Loudon’s profligacy with his brilliant material; he really is a one-man songwriting industry. He did go through a wave of deep depression when his mother died in 1997, fearing he could never write another song; very thankfully, that has not happened, and his repertoire is graced with events from that period.


LYNNE HERAUD & PAT TURNER    

Far Distant Stars

Lynne-Heraud-Pat-Turner

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS404CD

I could listen to Lynne and Pat’s shimmering, fabulous harmonies, their ear-bending repertoire and their lovely smutty humour at any time. They’re usually lumped into the traditional-womens’-duo pigeonhole, but of the 15 tracks on this album, only four songs are of the same category; interesting little-known versions of two trad chestnuts, ‘Bold Grenadier’ and ‘Sheep Crook And Black Dog’, and the 19th-century ballad ‘Poor Murdered Woman’ is suddenly and amazingly brought to life by multi-tracked four-part voices – the feeling is like being knocked out by a velvet glove.

Lynne writes topical, straight-to-the-point, funny songs, with a whiff of music-hall. She bares her tortured soul with ‘Stress Incontinence’, the recurring problem which affects women of a certain age, and mocks the lace-curtain brigade with ‘Secrets’. Meanwhile, Pat zooms in on supermarket sex with ‘Trolley Dating’ and composes a touching tribute in ‘Song For Tom’, in memory of Lynne’s youngest son. They both salute contemporaneous writers with a trio of strong songs; the late Graeme Miles’ ‘How The Cold Winds Do Blow’, based on a true story, the 1970s rock band Rare Bird’s ‘Sympathy’, which is still as relevant for its message today, and ‘Iron Angels’, Paul Davenport’s haunting lullaby, inspired by Anthony Gormley’s Angel Of The North.

Pat’s startling and deliciously complicated alto harmony really complements Lynne’s soprano; it really is a very rare, unique sound. The highlight is the duo’s interpretation of Anne Lister’s desolate, gossamer-winged and extremely beautiful song ‘Moth’; Anne, who lives with her actor husband Steve in the outskirts of Abergavenny, writes and sings exquisite story-songs which, in an ideal world, should put her in the Beyond The Border permanent guestlist. Her stunning composition, ‘Icarus’, had artists great and small queuing up to record it after Martin Simpson championed it – ‘Moth’ languished in its shadows, but it’s still a brilliant song, and it’s just a thing to top this cracking album.


 SIMON MAYOR

The Art Of Mandolin

Simon-Mayor-the-Art-of-Mandolin

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Acoustics Records CDACS 065

Absolutely wonderful! Simon charts the fascinating history of the mandolin family, which originated in the Mediterranean and in North Africa, and goes on to show what an incredibly versatile instrument the tiny plucked eight-stringer is. He is accompanied by long-time partner Hilary James, who plays guitar, mandobass (which has to be seen to be believed) and double bass; this album transcends from finest folk to pure shivery-tingly  classical, and you can just imagine that impish grin on Hilary’s face.

The listener is taken on a whirlwind ride, from the first shower of notes cascading from Simon’s little instrument in ‘Bolero’, past Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’ to Simon’s ‘Fantasia On The Yorkshire Anthem’ (‘On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At’ has a fascinating history; it was originally composed, under the name ‘Cranbrook’, for the Christmas carol  ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’, but the carol tune has been lost and only the Yorkshire music-hall song remains.)

The Provencal children’s song ‘Brezairola’ is breathtakingly beautiful. There is something exquisitely magical about Simon’s mandolin and Hilary’s angelic soprano voice; I could listen to this satisfying combination all day long. Alluring pieces of Chopin, Reinhardt, Irish traditional, Purcell and large chunks of Simon’s work abound. I play this constantly, but I don’t get tired of it; there is so much more to discover.

 


CHARLIE DORE

Milk Roulette

CHARLIE-DORE-Milk-roulette

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Black Ink Music BICD8

This is Charlie’s eighth album, and what a lovely, beautiful corker it is; the home-grown project was recorded on two microphones with her writer, collaborator and school-friend Julian Littman, and it radiates the peaceful, welcoming warmth that greets visitors with a smile and invites them to stay for a while. It’s Charlie’s most personal outing for a long time, and the album is chock-full of incisive and intelligent thought-provoking lyrics, with flashes of razor-sharp humour and uplifting melodies to die for. She remembers her ever-optimistic dad, who, when someone thought the milk had gone off, would knock back a bottle to test it, some without success – and he adopted the same cavalier attitude for his women, hence the song and the title track.

Charlie was born in Pinner, Middlesex and followed a successful career as a film, TV and radio actress, a performing singer-songwriter and a producer as well. She’s one of Radio Wales Celtic Heartbeat presenter Frank Hennessy’s favourites. This CD really is home-grown; Julian is playing guitar, mandolin, dobro, piano and percussion, conjured from a suitcase and housekeys, and Charlie is on Indian harmonium, piano, ukulele and autoharp. Her soft, soulful voice is ever-so-slightly muffly, like wrapping it in a cosy blanket; but that adds to the effect. Reg Meuross and Jess Vincent called in on their way back from a booking to sing fabulous harmonies on ‘Best Man For The Job’; and Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow blend their voices on ‘Three A Penny’, which laments the way in which free digital downloading has become all the rage and ruined the music business. Charlie, playing the couldn’t-care-less computer industry, mocks struggling artists as “knuckle-dragging luddites” in the New World Order, and she drives the message right home with devastating effect. The opening track, ‘All These Things’, outlines the heartbreak and hope of IVF; ‘Firewater’ is about falling for a handsome drunk “and not being able to keep up the pace”; ‘Stare You Down’ is the continuing war between her and the predatory cold-calling salesman; and ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Promoted’ highlights polite euphemisms for sudden death.

Since I decided to review this album, I can’t stop playing it over and over again – it’s that heartwarmingly good.


REG MEUROSS

England Green & England Grey

Reg-Meuross-England-Green-and-England-Grey

4 Stars (4 / 5)

HAT007

Reg is without a doubt one of my favourite songwriters; he elates and moves me, he crafts such perfect songs and composes a plethora of maddening melodies that, try as you might, you can’t get them out of your head. Beware earworms! He’s also a thoroughly nice and modest guy as well, and his live set is entrancing. Do go and see Reg, and I bet you a pound to a penny that he will sell you this, his newest and best album – I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

He has opted for a full band sound this time, and the musicians (who include drummer Roy Dodds, bassist Simon Edwards, keyboards and accordion player Mike Cosgrave and backing vocalist Jess Vincent) explode into ‘What Would William Morris Say’. Reg uses persuasive and intelligent words to pit himself against the juggernaut of powerful  capitalism; Morris was an Victorian artist, designer and socialist pioneer, and his most famous scence fiction novel, News From Nowhere, told of a socialist who awakes to find himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. There is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no monetary system, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems; this society is able to function because the people find pleasure in nature and pleasure in their work. Morris published News From Nowhere as a direct answer to Looking Backward, a book that warned against the kind of state socialism that Morris hated.

This album is a strong and eloquent protest which studies the fag-end of the bullying, arrogant Government which seized power after the last broken and discredited election, and the emergence of extremist and shadowy right-wing factions, such as UKIP. The title track is an affirmation of Reg’s love for his country, which is slowly being eroded away by greed, selfishness and intolerance – and, just for the record, there can be no doubt that people in Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland are experiencing the same dank smell of injustice, too. Reg highlights the tragedy of dementia in ‘Counting My Footsteps To You’, scores a knockout chorus punch with ‘River, Rail And Road’ (which, in an ideal world, would be a Nashville smash-hit), enlists five-star harmony singer Jess in another gob-smacking chorus on ‘They Changed Her Mind’ and salutes his folk roots in ‘Lovesick Johnny’, the wonderful Jess well to the fore.

Ever the riveting storyteller, Reg recounts the tale of the Titanic disaster and the lost violin in ‘The Band Played Sweet Marie’, and marks the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War with ‘The Ballad Of Flora Sandes’, the only woman, daughter of an Cork Anglican vicar, to fight in “the war to end all wars” – this time in as captain in the Serbian Army. Reg has got the magical knack of researching rare vignettes and bringing them to prominence by crafting a scintillating, memorable song with a champion hook-line to wrap it up. Long may he flourish!


JESS VINCENT

Seesaw Dreams

Jess-Vincent-Seesaw-Dreams

4 Stars (4 / 5)

HAT006

Seems to be a Reg and Jess family industry here! Jess featured as guest vocalist on Reg Meuross’s new album, and they both guested as a harmony backing duo on Charlie Dore’s latest offering. This one is Jess’s solo CD, and she absolutely shines as a lead singer/songwriter; her unique soprano voice contains little-girl-lost traces, and there are brilliant flashes of Kate Bush in there as well. It’s soulful, strong and utterly engrossing, and Jess is her own mistress when it comes to song programming. She writes and arranges all her songs, with the exception of the traditional ‘Silver Dagger’ and three which she co-wrote with Reg – and he not only produces her album and contributes backing vocals and a load of instruments, but releases it on his label as well.

Jess stamps her feel-good personality from the joyous ‘Sail Away’, the opening track which deserves to be a stonking smash hit, to the last, bleakly beautiful ‘I Will Look For You’, written with Reg and which brings the album to a perfect end. Acoustic instruments abound, from the gentle plucking of Reg’s banjo, past the scintillating sound of Beth Porter’s ‘cello to Marcel Rose’s mandolin and fiddle. Jess duets with herself in a battery of gorgeous, breathtaking high harmonies, and she turns the whole thing into a carnival of the cool, with startling traditional influences spicing it up.

This is a rare, entrancing collection of fine songs which all CD buffs should treasure to the ends of the earth. 


JESS WARD

The Mermaid’s Lament

Jess-Ward-Mermaids-Lament

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Own label

http://www.jessward.bandcamp.com

Jess fascinates me. She comes from Pembrokeshire, that remote and beautiful corner of Dyfed, where her life was influenced by, as she puts it: “crashing waves, rugged cliffs, mirrored pools, twisting oaks, windswept thorn and peeping primrose.” After a good few years performing and writing songs with her guitar, she found what she calls “my dream instrument” – the Celtic lever harp. She plays a cherrywood Telor model, made at Telynau Teifi, The Harp Centre of Wales, based in Llandysul; her voice is pure as the Pembrokeshire spring, wild and sparkling, utterly free and untrained, and she fashions beautiful compositions as well.

Recorded by Jens Shroeder at the Dreamworld Studios in Pembrokeshire and produced by the inestimable Ceri Rhys Matthews of scintillating West Wales quartet Fernhill, the album is heavily spiced with that elusive celtic magic. Completely alone with her harp, Jess spins a web of fascinating storytelling, such as ‘The Giddy Girl’, ‘Three Leaves’ or the title track; her instrument shimmers alluringly on ‘Schottische’, ‘Tommy Bhetty’s Waltz’ and ‘Tŷ Bach Twt’. In short, it’s a lovely little set, redolent of the western sea that shapes the land. Jess: may the horned god Cernunnas smile upon you!


9BACH

Tincian

9Bach-Tincian

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Real World Records CDRW202

It was Ali Byworth, 9bach drummer and London cabbie, who picked up rock star Peter Gabriel in his taxi and played him a track which the North Wales-based band had just recorded. Gabriel was immediately attracted to the band; and the rest is history. This is 9bach’s debut on Peter’s Real World label, and entrancing, magnetic vocalist and actress Lisa Jen comes into her own with inspiring writing, spiced with influences of rich Welsh tradition. 9bach generate an immediate, unique sound which is completely unlike no other band – it’s stark, it’s darkly brooding and it’s totally magnificent.

Tician  is an old Welsh verb for ‘to tinkle’ or ‘to chink’; the cover shows Lisa Jen, expressionless, with the album’s title hung around her neck, like a Welsh Not punishment. Tincian – like the Welsh Not, like quarrymans’ terms such as Talcan Mawr and Braich Cafn, words that are just not used any more – conjures up an album’s-worth of gaudy, cheap trinkets; on the contrary, 9bach deliver 10 stunning, minimal songs, all played with the utmost verve and hypnotic precision. The opening track, ‘Lliwiau’ (‘Colours’), is Lisa’s dreamy, motherlike description of childbirth; her husband, Martin Hoyland, cuts through the chords on his ice guitar, and the whole song comes alive and vibrantly tingling. Harper Carys Swain, her bassist brother Dan, drummer Aly and Mirain Haf Roberts (vocals) contribute bare but highly original musical decorations which enhance Lisa’s songs, ranging from the cunning mountain fox, a ruin in Llanddewi Brefi which is crowded with the spirits of passed generations, snatches of Welsh folksong and her researches into Welsh poetry and songs. ‘Ffarwel’, a striking combination of Lisa’s melody and a song by nationally-acclaimed Bethesda bard Ieuan Wyn, about a quarryman leaving the slate industry for the last time, has the massed voices of Côr Penrhyn chanting the title of the track over and over again.

Lisa’s compositions focus on her love and fascination of the Welsh tradition, coupled with an urge to write about subjects of vital importance to her. ‘Plentyn’ (Child) was written during her time in Australia, travelling with The Black Arm Band Company and hearing the terrible stories about the Australian government’s policy of separating Aboriginal parents from their children. The Black Arm Band’s Lou Bennett and Shellie Morris accompany her, their chirping harmonies masking the sheer horror of the situation which drew Lisa, as a young mother, to tears.

9bach are a highly individual band who are quite capable of striking out on their own road. May they reap recognition in spadefuls.


GREG ROWLANDS

Rollin’ The Covers

Greg-Rowlands

3 Stars (3 / 5)

(Own label: no catalogue number)

 One of the dearest delights I cherish about our folk club is the wonderful range of talents which our members generously share their songs. Many are the times when I have sat in this warm, welcoming lounge, with a pint of delicious, satisfying ale just waiting to tantalise my tastebuds, anticipating how many goodies are in store for us and calculating if I can get to the tŷ bach before I miss out on a revered and well-loved musician. Greg is one of those floor singers; as he says in the CD notes: “I absolutely enjoy singing and being with others who sing and who make music.” So it should be; one of the enduring strengths of this world-wide home-made organic alternative music industry is its constant desire to learn, session and collaborate with others of a like-minded persuasion. Greg is just one of the crusaders – he doesn’t want to be a folk star, but he just wants to sing in the company of other folkies, for charity events and for the cherished social life which it has afforded him and his wife, Lindsay.

Greg is a bit of a sponge when it comes to hearing and remembering songs, and he decided to venture into Shabbey Road Studios in Caerphilly to record this CD because so many people requested one. He conveys the songwriters’ art with empathetic understanding and a certain amount of love and respect, from Ewan McColl’s lorry drivers’ ditty (‘Champion At Keeping Them Rolling’), Kevin Boyle (‘The Road To Camden Town’), Don Bilston (‘The Fireman’s Song’) and South Wales duo BarlowCree (‘Mallt Y Nos’). He even advertises the club’s future programme splendidly by doing his version of the Sean Cooney (of the wonderful Young’uns) song ‘Love In A Northern Town’ and Pete Morton’s rousing anthem ‘When We Sing Together’.

 He interprets one solitary traditional song, the breathtakingly beautiful 19th-century American piece ‘Lakes Of Pontchartrain’; but Greg celebrates the songwriting craftsmen, including Colum Sands’ ‘Rest For A While’, Christy Moore’s ‘The Voyage’ and the John Tams masterpiece, ‘Snow Falls’. Greg even flies in the face of the critics by recording three hit songs – one Nashville, one John Denver and one Elton John/Bernie Taupin. But his philosophy is: “If it’s good, then sing it” – and we have been listening to that reasoning and appreciating him for it.


HECTOR GILCHRIST

Days O’ Grace

HECTOR-GILCHRIST-Days-O-Grace

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WildGoose WGS 409 CD

This is a little gem of a recording, and I really urge you to buy it. Christmas is coming (or, in view of the delays involved in publishing FolkWales Online Magazine, how about a nice Easter present?) Hector emigrated from Scotland to England in 1961 to work in further education; in the family farm-holding in Ayrshire in the post-war years, he regularly performed when his parents hosted the weekend break from Glasgow for family and friends, and he sang and played guitar with partner Liz Thompson in the duo Selkie. On this album, Hector expertly fashions a Robert Burns song (‘The Gowden Locks O’ Anna’) and two border ballads ‘Lay The Bent Tae The Bonny Broom’ and ‘The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow’); but he salutes the sheer brilliance of folk songwriting, such as master fiddler Bryan MacNeil’s ‘The Trysting Fair At Falkirk’, also the spot where ‘feeing’ took place for farm workers seeking new employment, ‘Glassmaker’s Hand’ by the incomparable Colum Sands, or ‘The Shian Road’ by Ian McCalman, written as a tribute to his father, which Hector first heard from the beautiful singing of Isla St Clair.

Hector’s assured, totally controlled voice is just the icing on the cake. An added bonus is the lovely accompaniment of Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer, while Moira Graig lends her amazing vocals for a plethora of luscious harmonies. Bryan’s long-serving ex-partner in Battlefield, Alan Reid, contributes ‘Just A Boy’; he says it’s about growing old, but Hector says in the notes that it’s probably the realisation that women are in control all the time. The CD includes two self-made songs: ‘Strong And Faithful’, written by Hector and Liz for a special gathering of Clan Maclachlan, of which the Gilchrists are a important part, and ‘Lang Road Hame’, the lyrics of which the album title takes its name. It’s absolutely tremendous, and I guarantee that once you get it home, you’ll not be able to take it off again.


ALUN PARRY

Live At 81 Renshaw Street

ALUN-PARRY-Live-At-81-Renshaw-Street

4 Stars (4 / 5)

PARRY004CD

This Liverpudlian singer-songwriter, guitarist, ex-busker, activist and graduate of Liverpool University has just campaigned against Black Friday, the latest ugly form of greedy capitalism adopted from the champagne millionaires who control Wall Street; as an alternative, he wants to do away with this awful selfishness and create Red Friday, which promotes the values of love, community and togetherness, instead. As his favourite hero, Tony Benn, said: “Music is the international language of the human race.”

If you weren’t aware of Alun, he is celebrated in his own city; The Liverpool Echo named him as one of 30 personalities that make Liverpool so great, and nominated his latest CD, When The Sunlight Shines, as album of the year. Local media named him as Merseyside’s number one busker, and the BBC’s Radio 4 picked him to introduce the grassroots music programme to introduce Liverpool’s European Capital Of Culture celebrations.

This album places Alun absolutely solo in one of the Liverpool hotbeds of live music, and it’s a brilliant showcase for his must-hear performances. His act is mesmeric and very appealing, and his heartwarming lyrics and maddeningly singable choruses just overflow. Hear the audience sing on the opening track, ‘1,200 Miles’, growing to an absolute tidal wave on ‘The Limerick Soviet’ and ‘I Want Rosa To Stay’, the tale of fascist horror and massed genocide by the Chilean army commanded by General Pinochet, a murderer so admired by Margaret Thatcher. Alun has been carrying Woody Guthrie’s torch for some time, and he turns ‘Woody’s Song’ into an inspiring and proud anthem. Live At 81 Renshaw Street is a triumph for Alun; let’s hope it proudly promotes his name so more audiences can revel in the belting gigs which he generates.


ANNA SHANNON

A Celebration Of Old England

ANNA-SHANNON-A-Celebration-Of-Old-England

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WildGoose WGS 408 CD

I first encountered Anna last year at Whitby Folk Week, where she performed an absolute pearler of a set; the crowd warmed to her winning smile, her stunning voice and her striking songwriting craft, while her imaginative guitar style just rippled through her repertoire. Full marks to Doug Bailey for letting her run loose on this latest batch of extremely pleasing material; hailing from the North Yorkshire National Park, Anna weaves homespun and organic compositions that vividly colour the country culture. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, she also plays fiddle, oboe, soprano sax, recorders, chanter, shruti, bowed psaltry and percussion. Her discography brings to light several albums filled with her projects that must take some listening.

She draws the listener in with her well-chosen songs; ‘Birthing The Plough’ is about the travelling stallion business, where mares would be brought for servicing and the handler housed in a cottage or a barn before moving on to the next town; ‘Hereandgonagen’ paints the austere Cromwell era when song, dance and music was punishable by gaol or death; ‘The Ways Of The Hunting’ describes the yawning gap between the country culture and Anna’s horror at blood sports in general; and ‘The Travellers’ Ways’, where the gorgios’ myths and lies about gypsies stealing children proved exactly the opposite.

Anna writes prolifically, intensely and so lovingly about the North York moors and the rural way of life that you can’t help to be transported among the windswept hills and dales.


ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL/VARIOUS ARTISTS

Still The King

ASLEEP-AT-THE-WHEEL-VARIOUS-ARTISTS-Still-The-King

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Bismeaux Records

Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys performed that delightful hybrid of jazz and country music called Western Swing for thousands of shows across the USA for six decades, including the late 1930s and the early 1940s; widely considered “The King Of Western Swing”, he became the first man to be inducted into The Country Music Hall Of Fame and The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame as well. Other Hall Of Fames to honour his name included The Nashville Writers and The National Fiddler. 

Nine-times Grammy Award winners Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel salute Wills, who was born in 1905 and died in 1975. They gathered together many star names and play with them on these 22 tracks, and each one is a gem. Former Texas Playboys Leon Rausch, aged 86, and 92-year-old Billy Briggs have a track each, and this time Leon sings The Texas Playboy Theme, while Billy partners guitar ace Tommy Emmanuel. Artists like Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Pokey LaFarge and Carrie Rodriguez queue up to sing and play; all the old favourites are there, and musicians young and old make the familiar, well-loved tunes really stand out. 

Every one’s a winner. One of the highest points is The Avett Brothers’ brilliant interpretation of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, which countless musicians know on this side of The Pond as a barn dance tune; but The Brothers apply their incomparable magic to make it really rock. Magnificent!


STEVE ASHLEY

This Little Game

STEVE-ASHLEY-This-Little-Game

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Market Square MSMCD168

Could it be at least seven years since Steve Ashley, leading songwriter and significant role-player in the development of British folk-rock, recorded his last album? Seven years is a very long time in British politics; now we have an uncaring right-wing regime, which squeezes the poor and vulnerable, gets into bed with big-business corporations and tightens surveillance on its own citizens, ruling the roost. As he says in the sleeve notes: “Much has changed since then. I’m a pensioner now and times are harder than they were.”

Steve won many admirers in reshaping contemporary folk in the 1970s, going on to be lead singer in Ashley Hutchings’ first Albion Country Band and recording in his own right the seminal Stroll On and its follow-up Speedy Return. He released a string of albums with the late and lamented arranger Robert Kirby, ending with Time and Tide for the Topic label; but now he has down-sized to his beloved Guild guitar and struck out alone. This stripped-back set, with the sharply-honed lyrics and the catchy, hypnotic melodies laid completely bare, is surely his best work yet.

Steve’s incisive, no-holds-barred poetic writing and mesmerising performing can be compared to an artist who paints a brilliant portrait, using words and rhyming phrases instead of brushes and oils. All the songs are new, apart from ‘Rainsong’, the rewritten B-side of an unissued 1968 single by Tinderbox, another of Steve’s short-lived collaborations, this time with Dave Menday. On ‘Rainsong’, Steve creates a vivid, imaginative image of glistening city streets during a heavy shower and the desolation of two lovers’ parting of the ways.

Just now, he concentrates on growing older and the unsure paths, the desperate loneliness, the endless questioning which death, with its totally random unfair lottery, will bring. ‘Here’s To All The Babies’ is an upbeat, positive statement, and ‘Playground Days’ explores the memories of childhood; even so, the theme of mortality is never far away. ‘Just Like The Leaves’ is Steve at his strongest, reporting on a bewildering and unexplained funeral for a friend who had passed on too early; Steve’s comment on life – “We play this little game to lose or win” – is the title of this album. ‘The Last Deeds Of Love’ is heart-breaking and agonising; and I want the closing track, ‘All Will Be Clear’, to be played at my funeral – it puts this little game in a precise, intelligent nutshell.

This is a lovely, startling, rewarding album; ‘People In Love’ campaigns for ordinary folk to live together, be they man and man, woman and woman, black and white, in the sort of gentle tone that makes Nigel Farage spit furious blood. ‘That’s Why’ is the definitive anti-war song; and ‘Be True To You’ is a spirited message of hope to all jaded musicians. I have total respect for Steve; long may his pen and his personality continue to flourish.


A FANFARE OF STRUMPETS

Truly Strumptious

A-FANFARE-OF-STRUMPETS-Truly-Strumptious

5 Stars (5 / 5)

No catalogue number

When one of A Fanfare Of Strumpets shimmies up and presents me with this sizzling, smoking debut of an album – well, I might have known that this was going to be a fabulous night! Helen Vincent, Celia Webb, Blanche Rowen and Sue Ansell – from left to right on the cover – are four stunning red-dressed Cardiff-based acapella singers, trading in absolutely fabulous harmonies, who vertiginously jump from Andy Warhol New York pop and North-Eastern mining tradition to medieval French, Basque dance, African song, The Watersons, Oysterband and Eliza Carthy. Enter at your peril – audiences of a complacent easy-listening disposition had better beware!

The Strumpets’ taste and their sharp ears are nothing short of meticulous. They choose a programme that triumphs all the time and challenges the listeners’ grey matter. For starters, Mo Tucker from The Velvet Underground pens ‘I’m Sticking With You’, a deceptively simple waltzing love song and one of Helen’s six delightfully complicated arrangements on the album. ‘Spoiled Chef’ Matt Farley contributes an audacious ‘A Chef’s Love Song’, where the lover declares his (or her) passion by constantly shoving food down her (or his) throat. ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ sends fond memories back to the Thirties and the Mamas and Papas revival. Mick Ryan’s ‘The Widow’s Promise’ is an audacious story and a good old belly-laugh.

In contrast, ‘Sorry The Day I Was Married’ contains absolute shedfuls of four-part punch, ‘Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie’ is magnificently, starkly beautiful and ‘Rise Above The Tide Of Life’ bubbles over with happy, smiling optimism. If I had to choose which six CDs I would take on a long road trip, this would win hands down!


NATH TREVETT

Cariad Neu Ddicter

NATH-TREVETT-Cariad-Neu-Ddicter

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Tryfan CD492

Nath won the musician of the year competition at last year’s National Eisteddfod in Llanelli; right now, the public is just waking up to what a significant guitarist they have in their midst. But Nath pulls no punches; record buyers will have to work hard to savour this emerging artist and his debut solo album on the Tryfan label, part of the Sain family, the title of which translates as Love Or Anger. Frank Hennessy, presenter of Radio Wales’ folk show Celtic Heartbeat, is a fan of his, and he describes Nath’s arrangements as ‘dangerous’ – and so they should be.

Nath is a lutenist and a Quaker as well; he arranges Welsh folk songs, religious songs, songs in other languages and sometimes instrumentals. He is a fluent Welsh-speaker, which is all the more remarkable for someone who was born in 1986 in England – the city of Bristol, to be precise. When he was four years old, his parents moved to Llantrisant; he began to learn the guitar when he was seven, and his interest in folk music started to grow when he was a teenager.

He studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, where he also learned to play the lute alongside his principal study, the classical guitar. Before he graduated, he submitted a portfolio of his own folk arrangements of tunes, which ranged from Welsh, Scottish and Irish, in place of a dissertation. Master guitarists  such as Martin Simpson, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson, Dick Gaughan, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch are his greatest influences; since his college days, Nath has been arranging different styles of folk music, but he has focussed mainly on Welsh material as well as Gaelic and German songs. His voice has the potential to develop; all he needs is the confidence which constant performing can bring.

A melange of John Dowland’s stately ‘Preludium’, a 15-minute ‘Stori’ and ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ herald the album; the sad story of Wil Hopcyn and Ann Thomas is embellished by Nath’s imaginative arrangements. ‘Y March Glas’ trips gaily along, and ‘Marwnad Yr Ehedydd’ – Elegy for the Skylark – is beautiful in its starkness. A successful recording of the hymn tune ‘Aberystwyth’ and the Irish song ‘Mo Ghile Mear’ only go to show Nath’s versatility; he sings the song in Irish Gaelic, too. ‘Nyth Y Gwcw’ is a joy to listen to; the same repetitive, hypnotic melody keeps repeating, with the angry guitar licks in the foreground. ‘Cân Felan Pryder’ matches Nath’s snarling voice and his razor-sharp blues instrument.

Nath speaks openly about his Asperger Syndrome; a portion of the profit from the sale of the CD will be donated to the Asperger Syndrome Foundation (Registered Charity Number 1090785), www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk.


JOE STEAD

World Peace Through Song

Joe Stead World Peace

3 Stars (3 / 5)
(No catalogue Number)
You’ve got to admire Joe Stead for his sheer pluck, showmanship and brilliant ingenuity by putting himself as the only World Peace Through Song candidate in the Calder Valley constituency in the May General Election, labelling himself The Singing Politician – and here is the 11-track CD to prove it. The logistics of actually recording and releasing a CD when the PM decides to go to the people are pretty demanding, albeit nigh on impossible; therefore, the album is a compilation of Joe’s past albums – Miles From Halifax (1998), Extravagant Schemes (1996) and Hearts On Fire (1993), with snatches from the latest KM album, Kimber’s Men In Port. Formerly a staunch Labour man, Joe registered his outrage and disgust at the unholy Bush/Blair alliance which led to the invasion of Iraq, calling it in his election leaflet “an abominable war crime manufactured by both Bush and Blair that has unleashed the understandable hatred of the west by many people of the Muslim faith. Blair should be tried as a war criminal, Bush should be sent to an asylum.” The only way forward, says Joe, is to communicate friendship and understanding, not by trying to kill people who want to die.

It’s a highly original philosophy which deserves commendation, if not elevation to the dizzy heights of MP-hood. Nestled in the album are some of Joe’s gems, such as ‘Darkest Before The Dawn’, ‘Where Millionaires And Paupers Are Drinking Side By Side’, ‘My Rainbow Race’, ‘Planet For Sale’ and ‘Paul’s Song’ – adapted from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Never mind the ringing echo, which does get a bit wearing; how about Joe for Prime Minister?


MICK’S QUICKS

Allan Yn Y Fan

Gwent Valleys band Allan Yn Y Fan welcome two new but very experienced members, Catrin O’Neill from Southern Snowdonia as lead singer and folk fiddler Alan Cooper; singer and fiddler Meriel Field has departed, and the band mark 10 years and five albums with the compilation Cool Calm And Collected (Steam Pie SPCD 075). From the early band’s first steps at recording a CD to the assured performance of the Mari Lwyd ritual, this compendium pulls no punches; well excellent!

Mr H 

Mr H wields his electric axe and whips up the crowd with his cigars-and-whisky voice the rousing and quite fabulous anthem ‘Wales’. The limited edition three-track EP, which also  includes ‘Helpless’ and ‘Drove All Night’, doesn’t have a catalogue number; but H-ophiles can google the website: www.themusicofmrh.com .

James Keelaghan

Canada’s James Keelaghan celebrates a quarter-century of album recording, song-writing and fabulous performing with a CD and DVD entitled History: The First 25 Years (Borealis BCD222) and it’s brim-full of his 18 well-known and well-loved hits such as ‘Fires Of Calais’, ‘Somewhere Ahead’, ‘Kiri’s’ Piano’ and ‘Cold Missouri Waters’ – a celebration indeed.

Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith

Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith are a breath of fresh air, packing 12 well-loved folk harmony songs from all corners of Britain and the USA into Let The Wind Blow High or Low (Fellside FECD 266.) From ‘Gaol Song’ through Jean Ritchie’s ‘L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ to the Frank Mansell and Chris Wood composition ‘The Cottager’s Reply’, banjoist Jimmy and guitarist Sid are ringing the changes on the folk scene’s favourites, and full marks to Paul and Adams for giving them the chance to do it.

Moulettes

Brighton alt-folk indie band Moulettes magic up 10 absolutely stunning arrangements on their third album Constellations (NAVIGATOR 090P) with a whirlwind of tumbling female voices, cellos, guitars, bassoons, autoharp and everything that pleases. Vocalists and founder members Hannah Miller and Ruth Skipper (who is interrupting a medical career to promote the record) sing up a storm.

Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell

Loch Lomond songwriters and musicians Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell have released a beautiful gem of an album called Kith And Kin (Bridgegate Music BM006) which includes Linsey’s favourite 18th-century ‘cello, Lowden guitar, northumbrian pipes and laud. Ken and Linsey’s compositions complement the traditional material, with melodeons, fiddle and bouzouki joining in. Definitely a duo to watch.

Adam Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s son, Adam Cohen, is a songwriter and singer of great note – of course, when he has that towering legend’s genes coursing through him. Sit, relax and be mesmerised by 11 of the muse’s intelligent and fetchingly singable lyrics in We Go Home (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD 594W).

The National Youth Folklore Troupe of England

Stupendous fiddler/hurdy-gurdy player Dylan Cairns-Howarth and melodeon wizard Sam Mabbett (from Infinite Cherries, well-known to Tredegar House Folk Festival fans) are members of The National Youth Folklore Troupe of England (WildGoose WGS 405CD), who power into 13 morris tunes, shanties, folk harmonies, hornpipes and dance melodies with gay rumbustious abandon – and go on to prove that folk tradition is pretty cool stuff.

Vicky Swan and Jonny Dyer

Forget tinselly, greedy commercial Christmas; Vicky Swan and Jonny Dyer have been singing traditional carols for a long time, and A Sound Of Christmas Past (Wetfoot Music WFM 140501) is 14 of their favourites, from ‘I Saw Three Ships’ through the rare and beautiful ‘Essex Wassail’ to the 160-year-old ‘Jingle Bells’, composed by the American James Pierpoint. ‘Down In Yon Forest’ is medievally, mysteriously symbolic, and the whole package, enhanced by Vicki’s luscious nyckelharpa and Johnny’s rippling guitar and accordion, is very worthy of a thoughtful gift to the one you love.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker

Scintillating, rippling acoustic guitar, absolutely beautiful songs, pure, fragile voice – these are the hallmarks of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who mix inspiring written material with proud traditional ware in Fire And Fortune (NAVIGATOR 082). Josienne and Ben set a high standard with the opening track, ‘After Me’, following up with ‘The Month Of January’, the Burns song ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’ the well-known ‘Green Grow The Laurels’ to a not-so-well-known tune, and the knockout title track. Four stars!

Police Dog Hogan

The absolutely lovely Police Dog Hogan blaze out of the West Country with a corker of cod country songs with a strong whiff of cajun, combined with a stonking, gobsmacking melee of breathtaking harmonies, fiddle, banjo and accordion, and a rocking rhythm section in Westward Ho!  (Major Tom Records). James Studholme leads six superb musicians, plus guest Emily Norris on trumpet; ‘Thunderheads’ and ‘West Country Boy’ (rhymed with ‘Fowey’!) stand out, and ‘A Man Needs A Shed’ drives home the male angst.

George Spicer and Mark T

The Old Roads (COS329 CD) were the scales by which Eastern Mediterranean tunes were constucted, the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela or the wanderings of minstrels and balladeers. George Spicer and Mark T sing and play smallpipes, cor anglais, bouzouki and darabuka, and their very tasty programme consists of a welter of medieval tunes and songs written by Richard the Lionheart, and nineteenth-century folksongs. Recommended.

The National Youth Folklore Troupe of England

Fiddler/hurdy-gurdyist Dylan Cairns-Howarth and melodeon player Sam Mabbett (from Infinite Cherries) are just two of the singers, dancers and musicians who make up The National Youth Folklore Troupe of England; spot the surnames which prove that a sibling must have been influenced by a famous folk parent. NYFTE (Wildgoose Studios WGS405 CD) is 13 shanties, Morris material, dance tunes and folk songs performed with rumbustious enthusiasm and verve – well done, school!

Arooj Aftab

Arooj Aftab was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music. She’s now based in New York, and her written-and-produced debut album, Bird Under Water (no label or catalogue number) is majestic, timeless and breathtakingly beautiful; her assured voice envelopes boundlessly-rich Asian culture, and American and Asian musicians create shimmering blends of contra-bass, acoustic and electric guitars, accordion and sitar. Highly recommended.

Bruce and Walker

The two songwriting Ians, Bruce and Walker, celebrate their latest partnership with a 12-track CD and a 15-song DVD that captures the exciting essence of banjo, guitar, autoharp and gruff Scottish vocals raised in harmony – great value indeed. Born To Rottenrow (Greentrax CVTRAX 2023) includes a Bruce brother (Fraser) and a Walker wife (Moe) plus several musicians to enhance the arrangements on their crowd-pleasing material.


BEFORE JANUARY 2015


DYLAN FOWLER

A Passionate Landscape

Dylan Fowler

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Acoustic Music Records 319.1506.2

http://www.acoustic-music.de

A Passionate Landscape, it is… the cover of this album fairly jumps out, the Brecon Beacons providing a stark and beautiful backdrop to the scintillating music created by one of the most inspiring acoustic Welsh guitarists to walk this earth. Dylan is one of the three musicians who make up Alaw; he forms a solid anchor so that the dipping, darting fiddle of Oli Wilson-Dickson and Jamie Smith’s swooping accordion can really stretch out and fly. Dylan’s questing, probing jazz chords are the stuff of legends, and he’s not averse to breaking out in those giddy showers of amazing runs; for example, the breathtaking self-written jig ‘Inish Ni’, recorded for this CD, is a sheer delight.

This session promises to be one of the best; the musicians are the Tunisian master oud player Moufadhel Adhoum and Morroccan percussionist Azzedine Jazzouli, both members of Hijaz, based in Belgium; Dylan’s partner, the composer and writer Gillian Stevens, who plays tenor viol and ‘cello; Italian classical guitarist Giorgio Mirto; Helsinki-based trio, kantele player Timo Väänänen, 27-year-old drummer Tuomas Timonen, and Sibelius Academy teacher and bassist Nathan Thompson, and violinist Sovra Wilson-Dickson. ‘Three Snake Leaves’, which Dylan co-wrote with Gillian for a Company Of Storytellers production, is alluringly assertive, ‘Dawns Timo’ darts about delicately and ‘Y Nawfed Don’ (The Ninth Wave) is spectacularly serene. Dylan runs Taith Records, from Abergavenny, and produces many CDs in his wooden Stwdio Felin Fach, “an eco-studio where music can breathe”; however, Dylan recorded, mixed and mastered the album at his own studio for a German distributor.

Dylan’s lap-steel rings out in the imposing eight-minute-long ‘Gwanwyn’, based on the Maria Jane Williams collection; ‘Ysbryd’, ‘Seren’ and the 11-minute ‘Tear’ emphasise him as a composer and a brilliant musician to be celebrated and to be reckoned with.

 


O’HOOLEY & TIDOW

The Hum

O'Hooley and Tidow

4 Stars (4 / 5)

No Masters NMCD41

http://ohooleyandtidow.com/

Dark, doomy, magnificent. In a Tory-engineered British state of cold, calculating profit, when the yawning gap between the super-rich haves and millions of newly-poor have-nots is getting wider and wider, Belinda and Heidi have turned their third album into an angry clenched-fist show of defiance, a tirade of protest to show that poetry and art can still make a difference. Their second album,The Fragile, explored the vulnerable in society; but The Humreveals the pulse of Northern town life – especially Huddersfield, where these two live – the gritty optimism that flies in the face of adversity, in fact anything that right-wing prejudice and intolerance can throw at it.

Belinda’s familiar piano introduced the title track, a true tale of Belinda and Heidi’s neighbour, whose sale of a house had just fallen through because the buyers became aware of the humming noise which came from a local factory. Her response was: “The sound of the factory gives me comfort, as it’s the sound of people working.” O’Hooley and Tidow write about the hum of the factory, the hum of urban existence, their startling bold voices cutting through their inspiring and unusual songs in unconventional harmony. ‘Coil And Spring’ marks Pussy Riot’s infamous protest against Putin; ‘Two Mothers’ tells of a child sent away to Australia as part of Britain’s controversial migration scheme; Ewan McColl’s ‘Just A Note’ and their own ‘Come Down From The Moor’ salutes Ireland’s forced economic diaspora; and the punky ‘Summat’s Brewin’’ celebrates their real ale town’s fight against greedy corporate takeover.

It’s a bleak and beautiful album, produced by Mercury-nominated multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver, whose vivid imagination adds a whole bunch of goodies including swooping strings, ethereal guitars, inventive percussion, pedal steel and occasional dashes of electronica. However, his creations do tend to mask vital lyrics, which deserve to stand out.

 


GWENAN GIBBARD

Cerdd Dannau

Gwenan Gibbard

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Sain SCD2702

www.gwenangibbard.com

Of all the wondrous highlights in Cerys Matthews’ spectacular Land Of Song opening WOMEX showcase on October 23, Gwenan Gibbard simply sparkled and shone with her confident and proud cerdd dant tradition. The well-loved and much-missed comedian Ryan Davies did a hilarious mock opening lecture on “tooth music”, but cerdd dant translates simply as “string music” – which is essentially the unique and ancient art of singing poetry to harp accompaniment, as Gwenan will tell you. She says: “Its origins date back to the earliest centuries, when the harper would declaim his poetry to his own accompaniment, in praise of his chief or prince.”

Gwenan says that in Wales there has always been a special relationship between music and poetry. She pinpoints the many references to singing poetry to harp accompaniment in Welsh manuscripts from the middle ages onwards, a tradition that continues to today. Three different elements come together in cerdd dant: the chosen harp melody; the poetry being sung (which can be strict metre verse, based on the age-old cynghanedd, where alliteration and rhyme play an integral part), free poetry or prose; and the counter-melody to which the words are sung.

Gwenan uses cerdd dant to interpret sea songs by J. Glyn Davies (including delightful duets with Cerys and Meinir Gwilym), verses by master songwriter Dafydd Iwan and local poet Jôs Giatgoch, who paints a crazily different view of the Llŷn peninsula – and all her songs are delicate, peaceful works of art which draw the listener in. Former Fairport member Maartin Allcock co-produces with Gwenan and plays various instruments, including guitar, banjo and bass. Steven Rees and Huw Roberts add the odd fiddle, and Dafydd Roberts, Sain’s chief executive, is there on flute. Gwenan imposes a quiet authority throughout the long history of this totally Welsh culture – a superb achievement.

 


RUSTY SHACKLE

The Bones

Rusty Shackle

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Get Folked! Records GFR0002

www.rustyshackle.com

The young band One String Loose sprung from the Newport Irish Club’s Comhaltas sessions, and I booked them for Tredegar House Folk Festival; they endured an atrocious sound system to emerge with flying colours, and went on to play at several prestigious European festivals. Impressive fiddler and banjoist Scott McKeon, bassist and mandola player Baz Barwick and drummer Owen Emmanuel morphed into Rusty Shackle, with guitarist and vocalist Liam Collins and Scott’s brother, James, doing guitar and vocals; and The Bones will catapult them into the Premier League of must-see star acts. It’s already been played on Frank Hennessy’s Radio Wales show Celtic Heartbeat and a shedload of national and regional radio stations – a discerning and tasteful host is our Frank, and long may he rule. Rusty Shackle have also won over Cwlwm Celtaidd, Cambridge Folk Festival and other major events, and this month they fly to Saudi Arabia to play for the British Embassy in Jeddah. This young band is going places fast.

Rusty Shackle light the blue touchpaper and explode with their starter title track, which is already being touted as a single; great voices, uproarious instrumentation and a brilliant chorus which attaches itself in the audience’s minds like a big, fat grinning earworm. All together now: Na-na-NA-na-na-na-na-na-NA-NA…

Liam, assisted on two tracks by James, writes gorgeous, gaudy pop songs with a strong folk bent, with some furious fiddle and headbanging banjo all poured into the cauldron. ‘Tall Tales’ is reminiscent of rural anger, or it could be the Rebecca Riots; ‘King Creole’ smacks of Elvis and Danny Fisher; ‘All At Sea’ boasts a chorus: “So heave ho, heave ho, we’re all at sea…” ‘Glorious May’ hints at pagan carols; ‘Tommy’s Letter’ tells a heart-rending tale of a young soldier preparing for war. It’s a cracking album!

 


THE TWO SISTERS

Songs & Chansons

The Two Sisters

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Acoustic Records CDACS 064

www.twosisters.eu

There’s a long and fascinating history to this absolutely gorgeous debut album; Hilary James (of The Mandolinquents and Slim Panatella and the Mellow Virginians) and Janet Giraudo were born in Stoke-on-Trent, and, as teenagers 30 years ago, used to pass the time singing harmonies to each other. Their first party piece was The Everly Brothers’ ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ – track 10 here – before Janet disappeared off to live in Provence.

As the years passed, Hilary and Janet kept in touch – and the idea that they should record together was hatched. Janet was a true Provencale by now, and she contributed a clutch of classic French songs; and the CD is a magic pot-pourri of folk songs, chansons, opera, poems, 1930s jazz and pop from yesterday, spiced with stunning, beautiful angel voices in heart-stopping harmony. Hilary’s long-term partner, Simon Mayor, produced the whole project and overdubbed guitar, violin, mandolin and several other instruments, while Hilary contributed guitar, double-bass and mandobass – an impressive cross-bred bass mandolin. The only musician is Simon Price on percussion.

All the songs are sources of wonderment, enhanced by Simon’s arrangements. Hilary and Janet’s ethereal sopranos add a touch of brilliance to John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’, the tango ‘L’Auberge Au Crépuscule’ and the evergreen ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me,’ while Vivaldi’s ‘Laudamus Te’ just can’t be beat for Simon’s inspiring mandolin scoring. The Provencal childrens’ carol ‘Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle’, the baroque ‘Que Ne Suis-Je La Fougère’, Rina Kerry’s ‘Plaisir D’Amour’ and the graceful ‘Tout S’Efface’ add to the appetising French flavour, while ‘I Live Not Where I Love’ and the lovely Scottish song ‘My Faithful Johnny’ restore the balance. Although Janet and Hilary live almost 1,000 miles apart, let’s hope that this album isn’t a one-off.

 


LOWRI EVANS

Corner Of My Eye

Lowri Evans

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Shimi Records CD00006/OSMOCD 059

www.lowrievans.co.uk

Lowri writes and sings with quiet confidence, and I’m glad that I stuck with this album; it’s gorgeous and it’s growing on me pleasantly. The Pembrokeshire songwriter focuses on simple man/woman relationships, love songs and anti-love songs, focused just on each other; you would think that nothing, not even an earthquake, wind and fire, could distract the lovers’ attention. She has a warm, velvet voice with a hidden strength. Her guitar is quiet and soothing, and her playing and singing partner Lee Mason blends in with empathy.

Some well-known musicians, such as the smokey slide and dobro guitar of Martin Simpson, the wonderful accordion of Andy Cutting and the elegant fiddle of Angharad Jenkins, grace the album; this is music to relax to, armed with two large glasses of wine and a special person to snuggle up to and lock the doors from the cold winter’s night.

The title track, also the opener, has a chorus which clings onto your memory like a limpet, with the second track, ‘Because Of You’, is a multi-tracked Lowri in full harmony. Martin leads the way on ‘Treacherous Heart’, while Andy introduces the accordion to the fiddle and ‘cello on ‘Can’t Say For Sure’. The track list tends to blur into an amalgam of ‘Deep Inside’, ‘Hello Love’, ‘Talk To Me’ and ‘Easy And Slow’, but what the heck – Lowri is so laid back that she’s nearly horizontal, and I’m really loving it. Ahhh, what bliss!

The penultimate track is ‘Love Hate’, a slow, lazy, waltz-time composition which has Lowri playing the passionate jazz singer, her voice just dripping with soul. Yes, this CD will grow on you.

 


CHRIS NEWMAN & MÁIRE NÍ CHATHASAIGH

Christmas Lights

Chris Newman

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Old Bridge Music OBMCD20

www.oldbridgemusic.com

Here we go again with the seasonal Christmassy CD rush – and whereas the commercial scene is urging you to part with your hard-earned money for whatever festive tat they can offload, be very thankful for the wonderful world of folk, which promises gifts of the highest quality. Chris, who fRoots praised as: “One of the UK’s most staggering and influential acoustic guitarists”, and Máire (“The doyenne of Irish harpers”, according to Scotland On Sunday) invite Máire’s sister, the impressive fiddler Nollaig Casey, flautist Maggie Boyle and drummer Roy Whyle to Old Bridge Music to record the clutch of Christmas carols; and they substitute the voices and verses for dizzying instrumental runs and really masterful playing.

Chris and Máire interpret some well-known carols with not-so-well-known arrangements, such as ‘The Holly And The Ivy’, ‘Three Ships From Sussex’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, while Maggie’s flute is positively dancing in ‘Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and Nollaig contributes some beautiful fiddle as well. However, they choose several unfamiliar and rarely-heard peices, such as the Spanish carol ‘Campana Sobre Campana’, ‘Past Three O’Clock’, ‘Il est Né Le Divin Enfant’, the entrancing and delicate Irish Gaelic carol ‘Do’n Oiche Úd I mBeithil’ (To That Night In Bethlehem) and ‘Infant Holy’. The album ends with the wildly celebratory ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’; this carol borrows from the smouldering and sexy French dance tune ‘Bransle De L’Officiel’, and Chris and Maire have an absolute ball playing it. This is one Christmas present to be treasured!

 


BRENIG

The Caron Trail

Brenig

3 Stars (3 / 5)

BrenigCD1

www.brenigfolk.co.uk

Brenig are Tregaron-born songwriter and guitarist Daniel Laws, Mandy Martin (guitar and mandolin) and Mary Moylett (violin and viola.) Daniel and Mandy had been friends for years and occasionally played as a duo; Mandy came from Staffordshire, where her parents ran a folk club and whose mother was a professional folk singer. Daniel only started writing his own material in 2010, and they started going to the Gwerin Aber Folk nights in Y Cwps – the Coopers Arms in Northgate Street, Aberystwyth. It was there that they met violinist Mary, and the trio was complete.

Brenig are Aberystwyth-based, and they named the group after the small river that flows in Daniel’s childhood farm, owned by his grandparents. His father was in the Army, and he spent years in Germany and then in Dorset before he returned to Wales. Like many young musicians growing up in the 70s and 80s, rock and blues were his favourites; and he says that composing his own music allowed him to express his passion for the Welsh landscape.

Brenig’s repertoire differs from the standard Welsh tradition; in fact, the trio could be mistaken for a band from the other side of The Pond. Daniel and Mandy sing in unison to simple country-influenced themes and melodies, and the violin provides an extra voice. Daniel writes about Welsh events that has influenced him – The Enid Eleanor, the last Aberystwyth-built ship; the Rebecca riots, sparked by tollgate taxes imposed by the English owners; the Six Bells colliery disaster; the farmhouse that appears to rise up out of the gigantic Llyn Brianne reservoir; Jemima Fawr and her Welsh-hatted women putting to rout the last French ‘invasion’ near Fishguard; and the story of his grandfather’s life before and after the First World War.

 


JOHN JAMES

Cafe Vienna

John James

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Stoptime Recordings STOP 106

www.johnjamesguitarist.com

I’m embarrassed to say that this CD didn’t get reviewed – because we couldn’t bear to take it out of the car. What a great ‘road’ album, guaranteed to make the hours at the wheel disappear. Bendigedig, John!

It seems like yesterday when I was a reporter at the Swansea Evening Post, and John filled the university folk club with his incredible strutting fingerstyle acoustic guitar and his Dylan Thomas-influenced ‘One Long Happy Night’. ‘One Long Happy Night’ is still sparkling and dancing on this CD, and it was still full to bursting upstairs at The Angel folk club in Llandeilo this year, where John was playing with guitarist Pete Berryman, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Sky In My Pie album – they queued up in hordes in see two great musicians and John’s off-the-wall humour, and it was a marvellous, exhilarating night.

Cafe Vienna is peppered with cameos of playing as a teenage pop musician at all the village hall dances, then and cheering audiences in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles in “the Transatlantic years”. John composed guitar music, and he was first musician to transcribe the scores of the famous ragtime piano player Scott Joplin, as well as being the first to give guitar lessons on video, thanks to Virgin. ‘Walking To Chelsea’ was London 1967, where he lived next to a diner where Davy Graham played; that same happy, carefree, striding bass-string thump grew to be John’s trademark. Other artists surround themselves with fine musicians, but not John; there may be some careful double-tracking, but it’s John alone that you will hear.

The title track refers to a imaginary meeting point, but – as John says – it’s yours to make music in – but only John could marry the Aberystwyth to Fishguard local into the ‘Bluegrass Train’! On a more reflective note, his ‘Auld Acquaintance’ tributed “absent friends, far too many.”


TIM EDEY

Sailing Over The 7th String

Tim Edy

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Gnatbite Records GB20

www.timedey.co.uk

Beautiful, just beautiful! Tim salutes his two great influences, the nylon string Yahama guitar and musician extraordinaire Steve Cooney, born in Australia and now resident in Ireland. In fact, he lights the blue touchpaper with the opening ‘Cooney’s Polcas’, his guitar and the Saltarelle melodeon busily asserting themselves with the multi-tracked Cooney sessioning on basses, banjo and a multitude of nylon, steel and electric guitars.

This awesome Kentish musician rings the changes between tunes with perfect taste and precision. The melodeon and his nylon string guitar skip and dart like two butterflies in ‘Rumba Negra’, composed by Rafael Hernandez, and ‘Crossing To The Cape!’ is a twin guitar delight, a syncopated swirl of mouthwatering fret runs, both Tims (Edey and Taylor) bouncing off one another as if there was no tomorrow.

And that dainty Jon Sanders piece, ‘Jenny’s Tune’, with Tim on nylon strung guitar and Breabach fiddler Patsy Reid’s string arrangement, is delicately classical. The fabulous ‘Swanee River’ arrangement works spectacularly well; originally the Stephen Foster ‘Old Folks At Home’ composition, Tim has zapped it up with quickfire Eastman jazz guitar and turns it into a sparkling reel with his sizzling Saltarelle. He calls upon Patsy again for ‘Ava’s Dance!’ (the light-as-a-feather ‘Donal De Barra’s Jig’ and an unnamed reel), for the stunning Elmer Brand air ‘Beautiful Lake Ainslie’ and ‘Iain Chlinn Chuaich/Contae Mhuigheo’, Scottish and Irish slow airs touched by the Patsy magic. The final coda, the wonderful and timeless Cooney composition ‘My Prayer,’ is a lesson in the faultless blend of acoustic instruments.

Tim invariably turns up trumps with some more of his excellent – no, inspirational – offerings, and I always look forward to yet another of his recorded gems of brilliance to really spice up my life. Dear Santa…


 

FRESHLY GROUND

The Good Red Earth

Freshly Ground

4 Stars (4 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS 395 CD

The West Country, which is where Freshly Ground come from, and South Wales have one familiar link in common – Silurian old red sandstone, which is very prominent in the cuttings of the A4232 dual carriageway on the outskirts of Cardiff and across Glamorgan,  and the strata ends in the high mountains of the Brecon Beacons. Issy Emeny has been busy arranging folk songs and those she has written for 15 years, both with her husband David and the Cheddar-based folk-community choir, of which she is the conductor and which comprises the honed talents of David, Graham and Sandy Ball, Tim Brine and Sue Franklin, Sue Cook, Bernard Coulter, Gaynor Hughes, Linda Van Eyken and Vicky Wiggins.

This debut CD represents the concentrated essence of the joy of harmony singing. Issy can hold her head high on a project which is absolutely bubbling with innovative ideas, imaginative scoring and absolutely spot-on voices; it’s a really likeable, friendly album which doesn’t leave you disappointed and which is chock-full of surprises. The album gets off to a flying start with ‘John Ball’, a belter of a chorus song, written by Sydney Carter to commemorate 600 years since the Peasants’ Revolt; Ball was a priest and leader in the rebellion, and was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Issy writes five of the 13 songs, and ‘The Reddleman’ is the first. Reddlemen dug the red ochre from the redding pits, and sold it to the farmers for marking sheep; the ochre would stain them a striking red, and the reddlemen were sometimes known as ‘The devil on the moor’. Then there’s the enthralling story of ‘Princess Caraboo’, an exotic young woman who turned up in the West Country in 1817 and fooled the Bristol gentry, who believed her to be a princess; her real name was Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge in Devon. Buy it!


MICK WEST & MULDOON’S PICNIC

A Scots Chorus

Mick West

4 Stars (4 / 5)

CLCD1301

Glaswegian Mick West is a much-respected and well-loved traditional singer, and this beautiful and serene CD is the culmination of his explorations of harmony singing with five choral singers, Muldoon’s Picnic – Katy Cooper (soprano), Harry Campbell (tenor), Daisy Abbott and Sheena Templeton (altos) and David Templeton (baritone). Mick has selected a fine quartet of musicians; fiddler Stewart Hardy leads fellow conspirators Frank McLaughlin (guitar) and Penny Callow (‘cello), and Bella Hardy’s Midnight Watch member Angus Lyon, who plays piano and accordion.

Katy, Stewart and Frank are responsible for the bulk of the arrangements of the 16 promising and proud songs. The opening track, ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’, has Mick singing two verses of this Scots ballad to Frank’s solo guitar, setting up the story; then Muldoon’s Picnic break in with their ever-changing voices, and finally it’s the turn of those big, fat bass chords of Angus’s piano. It’s a bold statement which will make the listener sit bolt upright and leaves him/her wanting more.

In a tremendous programme, Mick learned the 19th century song ‘Time Wears Awa’ from Sylvia Barnes, the beautiful ‘The Broom O The Cowdenknowes’ from Archie Fisher, ‘Aye Waukin O’ from a Burns rewrite of an older song and ‘Bonnie Glenshee’ from a Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger Travellers’ Songs From England And Scotland book. ‘I’ll Lay Ye Doon Love’ came from the late ballad singer Jeanie Robertson, the popular ‘Mary Mack’ from Jake Mitchell of Peterhead. But he saves the best song for last with the anthemic and inspiring ‘(A’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns Are) Coming Home’, by Steven Clarke, a songwriter from Springburn, Glasgow. The five backing voices are startlingly original with their spot-on harmonies and the instrumentation is just out of this world. Go on, buy it!


EMILY SMITH

Echoes

Emily Smith

4 Stars (4 / 5)

White Fall Records WFRCD008

Emily celebrates 10 years as one of Scottish music’s most distinctively sublime voices with her fifth solo album; and this time the emphasis is purely Scottish, but with a whiff of Americana thrown in. Joining husband Jamie McClennan and Matheu Watson, bassist Ross Hamilton and percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir are none other than awesome steel guitarist Jerry Douglas of Alison Krauss’s band Union Station, Aoife O’Donovan, Lau guitarist and Orcadian Kris Drever, the amazing Tim Edey, gorgeous cellist Natalie Haas and Rory Butler. Together they have created an album with one foot planted firmly in Emily’s home of Dumfries and Galloway and the other in the country music heartland of Nashville.

Emily stirs the musical melting pot with proud Scottish tradition and wonderful contemporaneous writing. First-off is Emily’s interpretation of the beautiful Scottish ballad ‘Rere’s Hill’, where a young rake plies a maid with whisky to seduce her; The arrangement is just spectacular, which says a lot with an absolutely stellar cast of musicians playing away. ‘The Sower’s Song’ is executed gracefully, while ‘King Orfeo’ is receiving a lot of attention for an ancient Shetland ballad which corresponds to the Greek fable of Orpheus. Emily’s tantalising version has a joyous, clattering drumkit and slide guitars to really enhance it; this venerable song is allured and caressed into the world of today by Emily’s impish sound and smile.

She pays a respectful bow to Archie Fisher’s grand eulogy ‘The Final Trawl’ and Darrell Scott’s magnificent song ‘The Open Door’, which in an ideal world would have been a huge hit. Her reading of the ballad ‘Clerk Saunders’ is assured, and the whole set is brought to a perfect end by Bill Caddick’s well-known and much-loved ‘John O’Dreams’ which has been recorded by many, many folk artists and has earned Bill a crust or two. Verdict: Perfect heaven!


DIANA JONES

Museum Of Appalachia Recordings

Diana Jones

5 Stars (5 / 5)

Proper Music

www.dianajonesmusic.com

The Museum Of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee has, within its confines, a lovingly restored and reconstructed log cabin known as The Peters Homestead Cabin. It was in this cabin on December 3 and 4, 2012 that Diana Jones (vocals and guitar), Matt Combs (fiddle, mandolin, mandola, banjo and viola), Shad Cob (fiddle, Mandola and guitar) and Joe DeJarnette (producer and bassist) set up their equipment, lit the log fire and set about playing and recording the eleven songs that make up this superb album.

Those songs, which vividly portray the hardships and struggles of rural living, sound as though they’ve been kicking around for decades, if not centuries, despite the fact that each and every one of them is a contemporary composition from the pen of Jones, whose skill as a storyteller has never been so brilliantly realised.

Song titles such as ‘Song For A Worker’, ‘Orphan’s Home’, ‘Satan’ and ‘The Other Side’ speak for themselves as Jones vividly brings into focus lives that revolve around hard toil, little reward and a religious fervour that’s by turns fearful and comforting.

From the album opener ‘O Sinner’ to the closer ‘The Other Side’ this is an album of exceptional writing and performance with Jones’ distinctive vocals counterpointed by the sympathetic, understated playing of her accompanying musicians who seem to be linked by some musical telepathy. That’s particularly evident on songs such as ‘Drunkard’s Daughter’ where Combs’ banjo gently drives the music and Cob’s fiddle adds drama and emotional punch to proceedings.

There’s nothing flashy here – just good, honest writing, exceptional musicianship and an understanding of, and respect for, traditional old-time mountain music that’s manifest in this wonderful album.

Dave Haslam

Diana Jones will be at the Level Three Lounge, St David’s Hall, Cardiff on Wednesday, March 26 as part of the Roots Unearthed series – Ed.

 


VICKI SWAN & JONNY DYER

Red House

Vikki Swan and Jonny Dyer

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Wetfoot Music Publishing 130801

www.swan-dyer.co.uk

Vicki and Jonny come from Essex and are guaranteed to deliver superb, warm, friendly  performances of the highest value wherever they go, in festivals, folk clubs and concerts. Vicki has relatives in Sweden, and apart from being a sparkling player of the smallpipes of the Scottish, English border and Swedish variety, her most prized possession is a Swedish nyckelharpa, a type of keyed fiddle. Jonny composes tunes to researched material on his guitar, accordion, piano and bouzouki. Their vocals are clean, sharp and melodious, and their entrancing repertoire skips between England, Northumbria, Ireland, Sweden and Australia too. The only session player is the impressive fiddler Tom Kitchen.

The title track, taken from Playford’s Dancing Master, published in 1651, is absolutely beautiful and moving; The sleeve notes are not sure the red house’s location, but here’s a strong clue: the popular ‘Tŷ Coch Caerdydd’, or the Cardiff Red House, is very similar in its measure and corresponding tune. It’s in a major key, whereas ‘Red House’ is in a minor key. A rumour that the tune was named after a popular Cardiff pub is incorrect (it was named The Railway Tavern, and only renamed The Red House in the nineteenth century); while all the evidence points towards the fairytale Castell Coch (The Red Castle), high above Tongwynlais. What’s more, another Welsh tune follows the minor-key similarity of ‘The Red House’ and becomes ‘Yr Hen Tŷ Coch’ – The Old Red House.

The nyckelharpa really comes into its own on ‘Skomakaren’, three tunes attributed to Tomas Karlsson, who was Vicki’s grandfather. The deliciously complicated ‘Stumpie’, learned by Vicki and Jonny from Matt Seattle’s Border Bagpipe Book, is a version of the English tune ‘Butter’d Peas’ – a mishearing of the triple-harp-playing Welsh gypsies’ (and Nansi Richards’) tune ‘Pwt Ar Y Bys’, which translates as A Vamp On The Finger. ‘The Proposal (Keys Of My Heart)’ is kept up-to-the-minute and fresh by some loving tinkering with words and a fabulous Dyer melody. Verdict: A repertoire to stir the heart and mind.


MEGSON

Megson Live

Megson

3 Stars (3 / 5)

EDJ Records EDJ018

www.megsonmusic.co.uk

Megson celebrate a decade of music-making with this superb 16-track no-holds-barred live CD – but beware. Megson Live is a limited release, and fans are bound to snap up any remaining copies. It’s true what The Guardian said about them; Stu and Debbie Hanna are the most original duo in the UK. A guitar-playing punk and a classically-trained soprano met up at the Cleveland Youth Choir; Debbie later moved to London to study music and opera, and Stu followed her down south, taking jobs to survive. “Working in an office, book-keeping for a prog rock producer while doing gigs and trying to do deals”, he said in an interview with Robin Denslow. Stu put away his electric guitar and brought an acoustic one, and Debbie had no dealings with the folk scene; but the two sang brilliant harmonies to each other, a legacy from their choir days. The pair had a clutch of brand-new and traditional songs, which they unearthed from their home in Teesside, and they went out to enthusiastic London audiences in the folk clubs. And so Megson was born.

They released their first CD on their own label, On The Side, and attracted the attention of Bob Harris and rising star Seth Lakeman, who produced their follow-up album, Smoke Of Home. From that day to this, they haven’t looked back.

For Megson Live, Stu and Debbie have chosen both their and the audience’s favourites; but what makes this special is that the two of them generate a unique and joyous juggernaut of sound. From the rallying cries of ‘Working Town’ to ‘All The Shops Have Fallen Down’, the aching beauty of ‘Follow It On’, the desperate hope of despondent football fans in ‘The Longshot’, every track is a gem, filled out by those amazing harmonies.

 


10 MEWN BWS

10 Mewn Bws

10 Mewn Bus

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Sain SCD2696

www.trac-cymru.org/index.php/en/projects/10-mewn-bws

10 Mewn Bws was one of the inspiring ideas created by trac’s project officer, Angharad Jenkins on fiddle; ten Wales-based musicians from different backgrounds boarded a bus to research Welsh tradition, met tradition bearers and spent a week at Tŷ Newydd in Llŷn interpreting and writing music, before boarding the bus again to play at October concerts in Y Galeri in Caernarfon, The National Library Of Wales in Aberystwyth, Llangammarch and Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, where they took part in the Sŵn Festival.

The musicians are Gareth Bowen Rhys, at 20 the youngest of the group and a member of the rock band Y Bandana and alternative folk trio Plu; singer/songwriter and award winner Lleuwen Steffan; circus artist Francesca Simmons, playing violin and musical saw; classically-trained harpist Gwen Mari Yorke; university-trained pop musician Craig Chapman, who plays trumpet, guitar and keyboards; Mari Morgan, a 23-year-old fiddler with a strong traditional background, studying classical violin and playing with a pop band, Them Lovely Boys; Ellen Jordan, a music graduate and cellist who has worked as a composer, sound designer, performer and director in theatre, chamber opera, visual arts and contemporary dance; singer, flautist and composer Huw Evans, studying voice, flute and viola at Trinity College of Music in London, performing classical music until his early 20s, then developed an interest in Welsh folk music; Catrin O’Neill, passionate about her folk tradition and taking it to new audiences; and Leon Ruscitto, percussionist and music college graduate who has drummed in big bands, the National Youth Welsh Jazz Orchestra and pop-rock groups. With such a formidable reputation, the onus is on 10 Mewn Bws to deliver – and deliver they do, with a shower of brilliantly-arranged traditional and written songs.

Respected folk singer and collector Merêd Evans opens with ‘Wel Bachgen Ifanc Ydwyf’, with a modern interpretation from Gwilym. From then on, the musicians keep the audience guessing and on their feet with ‘Calennig’, ‘Abram Wood’, ‘Alawon Fy Ngwlad’ and ‘Y Gaseg Ddu’, a proud tradition beautifully injected with innovatory ideas and shimmering harmonies (although there is a brief ohnosecond when the voices go sadly awry.) Groundbreaking stuff!

 


MARTYN JOSEPH

Tires Rushing By In The Rain

Martyn Joseph

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Pipe Records

ww.martynjoseph.net/

Bruce Springsteen dropped in on Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium last summer and delighted his hordes of followers by playing for several hours; Martyn Joseph is a formidable songwriter, and his tribute album of the 17 songs that Bruce penned shows The Boss’s magnetic influence and inspiration on his career. It might be over 3,000 miles from Bruce’s native New Jersey across the wide Atlantic to Penarth, but they didn’t nickname Martyn “The Welsh Springsteen” for nothing. He has the power, the presence and a clutch of brilliant songs to impress and entertain audiences, and long may it continue.

Of course, Martyn has the nous and the talent not to record Bruce’s material as just another covers version. He mines 17 popular and not-so-well-known songs from 12 of Bruce’s albums, and sets out to interpret them for himself and his acoustic guitar. Martyn lets himself be the messenger to let the mighty songs speak for themselves; to do this takes great courage and a strong confidence, and a loving respect for a fellow songwriter.

Martyn hits the nail exactly on the head: “I have always found a reference point in Bruce’s material that I was able to connect with and always carry that honesty and integrity to the stage.” Rather than take the easy option of choosing purely acoustic material, Martyn has drawn on the full gamut from the Springsteen portfolio, from the appropriate set-opening 1970s hit ‘Growin’ Up’ right up to ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’. The title of the album is taken from one of Bruce’s more obscure tracks, ‘The Promise’ (and it is the American spelling of ‘Tires’!)

And just in case you should write an angry missive implying that: “Springsteen is not Folk!”, I watched an astounding BBC-4 show from a London chapel a couple of years ago when Bruce explored his roots, acoustic guitars, fiddles, accordions, banjos and the rest, culminating in joyous, raucous traditional gospel and folk songs – his band enjoying themselves as much as The Boss himself. Martyn and Bruce are two marvellous musicians and artists, and I heartily applaud Martyn for being the first to record Springsteen’s album history.


GWIBDAITH HEN FRÂN

Yn Ôl Ar Y Ffordd

Gwibdaith Hen Fran

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Rasal CD035

This raucous Blaenau Ffestiniog-based band got together in 2006, played festivals including Gŵyl Car Gwyllt, Tân y Ddraig  and Sesiwn Fawr Dolgellau and recorded three albums. The driving influence was the amazing American bluegrass combo The Old Crow Medicine Show – the name translates as The Old Crow Trip, although the modern band have wandered far beyond the style of the masters of bluegrass. Gwibdaith Hen Frân nearly ground to a halt in 2010, when members Paul Thomas and Robi Buckley announced they would be leaving; however, Ieuan Williamson, Gary Richardson and Justin Allen Davies stepped into the breach, and the band have released Yn Ôl Ar Y Ffordd – Back On The Road.

Original member Phillip Lee Jones, who was left with guitarist and banjo player Gethin Thomas when Paul and Robi departed, said: “We were very keen to make a new album to keep the momentum going, and to prove that our unique style is alive and well”. Gwibdaith Hen Frân have certainly gone for the younger, much more boisterous audiences; the playing style of the banjos, bass guitar, harmonica and mandolin are all pretty basic, such as the cod Irish pub bands that seem to be two-a-penny, and the harsh, out-of-tune voices just hurt my ears. I found myself searching for those brilliant instrumental breaks that are the hallmarks of bluegrass music, but sadly they were absent – and, apart from the banjos and the name, Gwibdaith seems to have consigned bluegrass to Room 101.

Sorry to be such an old curmudgeon, but Gwibdaith’s rough-and-ready repertoire and sound just doesn’t float my boat.


BLOWZABELLA

Strange News

Blowzabella

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Blowzabella3

www.blowzabella.co.uk

Blowzabella blow my mind. This is a unique band with both feet planted firmly in the thrilling, thriving traditions of France, with inspiring writing forging a new, exciting dance culture; but their love of simple English folksong is something special, with heart-stopping hurdy-gurdy, fiddle, diatonic accordion, saxophone and bagpipes creating some beautiful arrangements. Listen to Jo Freya’s wondrous voice singing ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’, ‘Searching For Lambs’ or ‘Strange News’ (the album’s title track, moulded out of ‘The Blacksmith’) – and the artful scoring of ‘Nelly Was A Milkmaid’, with the instruments urging the narrative on.

The blockbuster line-up cannot be beaten, too. Master diatonic button accordion musician Andy Cutting is in the vanguard, with Jo on clarinets, saxophones and whistle and Paul James on border bagpipes, saxophones and whistle. Frenchman Gregory Jolivet comes from the town of Bourges, and he plays this breathtaking spaceship of a hurdy-gurdy; there’s a pretty impressive You-tube video of him playing to some gurdy electronica as well. Barn Stradling is on exhilarating bass guitar, with well-known and well-loved Blowzabella members Dave Shepherd (on violins) and Jon Swayne, on border bagpipes and saxophones. Guest musician Patrick Bouffard can be heard on Paul’s rondeau ‘The Diggers/Cotillon’. With such a stellar list on board, the audience instinctively anticipates a welter of mighty musicianship; Blowzabella have this unique gift of sheer acoustic power, a fabulous juggernaut which could blow any rock band into oblivion.

Primarily a dance band, Blowzabella come into their own with Andy’s gloriously chugging ‘Le Petit Chien’, while Gregory makes his gurdy sit up and beg for the bourèe ‘Malique’. The ultimate track is Jon’s ‘Shed Number 9’, segueing into ‘Le Vicaire’, a traditional schottishe from the Auvergne, France – although Beau Temps ’ ‘L’Aviatrice’ is maddeningly familiar.


HUGHIE JONES

Maritime Miscellany

Hughie Jones

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Fellside FECD258

www.fellside.com

Hughie Jones can look back on The Spinners’ successful careers with proud satisfaction and achievement. Hughie, Cliff, Mick and Tony popularised folk music by recording 40 albums on major labels, as well as appearing on many TV series; and while the Folk Police sniffed at their wide markets, they always had a policy of always singing traditional material for at least half of the programme. Hughie, in particular, was a friend of the respected traveller Jeannie Robertson, and he had a vast store of ballads and folksongs; in fact, maritime folk fans can think themselves very fortunate that this human library of sea songs and folksongs is still churning out the albums.

Hughie and his wife, Chris, had a worrying scare when he fell seriously ill. Hughie survived, but he came out minus one lung; however, he’s in powerful voice for the album, the 16 tracks (plus a bonus) telling absorbing stories of ocean racers, sea fights, whaling and other cracking yarns. His ‘crew’ include the in-demand and very busy Brian Peters, on melodeon and concertina; Hughie’s friend of more than 40 years, bass player John McCormick; New Yorker Bob Conroy on guitar and banjo; and Hughie’s son Dan Jones, his qualification in sound technology providing the passport to helping out on the production side of his dad’s work in Fellside.

Hughie guides you through the history of maritime songs, from ‘The Aerial And Taeping’ to ‘Blow The Man Down’, from ‘The Liverpool Packet’ to ‘Captain Kidd’. He even transforms Dave Robinson of the Swansea shanty group Baggyrinkle’s ditty ‘A Pound And A Pint’, fashioning it into a rip-roaring tale.


SARA GREY WITH KIERON MEANS

Down In Old Dolores

Sara Grey & Kieron Means

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Fellside FECD259

www.saragrey.net

New Hampshire native Sara Grey gives us one of her delightful workshops on the exciting history of America, peppered with bright cameos of soldiers, heroes, outlaws, prospectors and pioneers that only folksong can generate. She’s assisted by her son Keiron, one of the most mighty guitarists and charismatic singers to have walked this earth; and there was a time when Sara was so taken with South Wales and Llantrisant, the folk club and the friendly, vibrant atmosphere that she moved to the town, with eight-year-old Keiron, whose father was Melody Maker journalist Andrew Means, in tow. Sara and Keiron now live thousands of miles away, where they constantly gig across the whole of the States and across the Atlantic too, in a joyful celebration of the American tradition.

With just Ben Paley on fiddle, Sara’s strong, rhythmical voice and her uplifting banjo serve up stirring tales of the lonely Western plains, the Mormon Army which marched from Iowa to Mexico and California during the Spanish-American War, the Civil War songs, the runaway slaves and cowboy ballads – ‘Bury Me Not In The Lonesome Prairie’ is a reworking of an old song ‘The Ocean Burial’. The title track – “this sweetheart of a song” -refers to a New Mexico ghost town, or it could be in southern Colorado. Sara is a spellbinding storyteller and a truly revered singer, and she has the magical knack of making the formal concert go away and welcoming you as friends to her kitchen session.

I would travel many miles to hear Kieron’s beautifully sparse, commanding guitar and unique, soulful voice, oozing with passion, and his accompaniment really compliments Sara’s extensive song repertoire. One gem is Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle’s reading of ‘The Merry Willow Tree’, which voyaged across the Atlantic as ‘The Golden Vanity’ or ‘The Lowlands Low’.


ALUN PARRY

When The Sunlight Shines

Alun Parry

3 Stars (3 / 5)

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Fiddler and mandolinist extraordinaire Gina Le Faux, herself a Liverpudlian, joins Liverpool-born songwriter Alun, Liverpool Socialist Singers’ musical director Vinny Spencer, young folk musician Emma Runswick and several promising band members in a rip-roaring, Tory-bashing delight of an album. In these darkest of days, Britain is crushed under the expensive boots of a bunch of arrogant, bullying millionaires whose political spin is: “We’re all in this together” – before Osborne awarded tax breaks for the very rich, obscene bonuses for the directors and a nice fat rise for MPs. Our local libraries, community centres and care homes face threats of closure, the old and vulnerable are consigned to eating cold meals-on-wheels at weekends, the sick wait many hours in ambulances because the NHS is at breaking point and they’ve closed the drop-in health centres. And Yes, I’ve only just started – but Alun’s incisive and penetrating songwriting is a source of comfort and a lifeline for the millions of new-poor and oppressed.

Alun’s slogan is: “Carrying the spirit of Woody Guthrie into the 21st century”, and he tells vivid tales of workers fighting back against the oppressors, mixed with family love. ‘My Name Is Dessie Warren’, killed in prison. ‘Julio From Chile’ is the Valparaiso Restaurant’s owner in Liverpool, fleeing from Pinochet’s murderous fascist regime, which Thatcher supported; The British authorities wanted to send him back to Chile, until Liverpool dockers stepped in. ‘On The Train From Barcelona’ is Alun’s tale of his father in Franco’s Spain, standing up to bullying officialdom to protect his young bride. The hilarious parody ‘Oh Mr Cameron’ is Alun’s mum’s songwriting debut, while ‘Over The Water’ is Liverpool’s proud anthem, Alun telling of this Irish and Welsh-influenced city standing proud against all adversity. Fine album, but pity about the out-of-tune backing voices, which regrettably mark it down.


BLACKBEARD’S TEA PARTY

Whip Jamboree

Blackbeard's Tea Party

4 Stars (4 / 5)

BTP003

www.blackbeardsteaparty.com/

Great musicians, even greater music! Blackbeard’s Tea Party came together in 2009 as a busking, function and ceilidh band in their home city of York; but they quickly earned a reputation as a formidable live act, chalking up a load of major festivals, including Cambridge, Shrewsbury and Sidmouth. Whip Jamboree is their second full-length album, and the six members power into well-loved songs and tunes with the full force of a St Jude’s October hurricane. Lead singer Stuart Giddens plays energetic melodeon; Laura Barber is absolutely breathtaking on fiddle; Liam ‘Yom’ Hardy and Dave Boston drum up a frenzy; guitarist Martin Coumbe and bassist Tim Yates are stunning – brilliant, liquid runs and growling, prowling low notes. Blackbeard’s have got attitude by the shedful.

What’s more, they draw droves of the younger audience who predictably dismiss folk as boring old-fart fare and opened their eyes to the hidden treasures that just lie waiting. And the band aren’t patronising about their fans, either; The opener, ‘The Valiant Turpin’, sounds made for Franz Ferdinand while the late, great Peter Bellamy composed the tune to Rudyard Kipling’s true story, ‘Ford O’ Kabul River’, about the ill-fated 10th Hussars in the 1878-1880 Afghan War, 20 of whom drowned. ‘Lankin’ is a bloody ballad of a wronged builder who, with the False Nurse, plots his revenge on the son and the mother, and ‘Rackabella’ was learned from Martin Carthy. The band take on the master Jake Thackray’s audacious and complicated ‘The Lodger’, but there’s so much going on that the lyrics tend to become lost; a pity.

The title song (and the last, a hoary old chestnut which innumerable lungalonga-shanty groups have done to death) is a wild, swaggering romp, chock-full of the exuberance that is Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s hallmark; good show, chaps!


WILL POUND

A Cut Above

Will Pound

4 Stars (4 / 5)

Lulubug Records

www.willpound.com/

Will sets out to elevate the humble harmonica into an instrument of sheer quality and variety and on this very enjoyable debut album – in fact, it’s a barnstormer. Nominated for the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician Of The Year title, the Warwickshire canal-boat dwelling harp ace already plays some impressive melodeon in the duo Haddo, aided and abetted by the deep-brown tone of his viola-playing wife, Nicky; he’s formed The Will Pound Band, and he’s drawing comparisons to that other harmonica wizard, the magnificent Brendan Power. However, Brendan’s playing style and repertoire is vastly different to Will’s, although they can both work mighty wonders. In an ideal world, I would like to book both of them in an improvisational set; the duelling harmonicas would be guaranteed to generate spectacular fireworks.

Other folk luminaries, such as the showstopping set of Martin Simpson, Kris Drever, Damien O’Kane, Andy Cutting and Tim Edey, really enhance Will’s eloquent playing, but never overshadow the harmonica. Will is absolutely breathtaking on that fast and furious opener, ‘Soldier’s Joy/Floating Candle/The Duchess’; he easily takes charge of the shower of complicated notes and passes this difficult test with flying colours, and he plays diatonic and chromatic instruments with equally consummate ease.

And Will’s repertoire is excitingly reminiscent of the rich Welsh tune culture; the Morris tune ‘White Jock’ is very similar to ‘Gwyn Galch Morgannwg’ (‘The White Lime Of Glamorgan’) and ‘Morgan Rattler’ exactly mirrors ‘Morgan Ratlar’, the 48-bar jig published by the famous triple-harper John Parry Ddall, Rhiwabon, who was born in the Llŷn Peninsula in 1710 and died in 1786.

All in all, Will reaches the parts that other harmonica players don’t with this sizzling album, which stirs into the musical melting pot a plethora of styles such as bluegrass and jazz to blues, rock and even Mozart. There’s a smoky, slinky version of ‘Amazing Grace’, the mischievous title track, written by Will and Nicky, and a splendid reading of Ralph Stanley’s ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’, which Will says he learned from the Carrivick Sisters. The album of 2013!


ANDY CLARKE & STEVE TYLER

Wreck Off Scilly

Andy Clarke & Steve Tyler

3 Stars (3 / 5)

WildGoose Studios WGS 399 CD

www.wildgoose.co.uk

An unusual and uplifting mix of citterne, guitar, hurdy-gurdy and Baring-Gould/West Country songs, with several geographical exceptions; I saw Andy and Steve at last year’s Fishguard Folk Festival, and they were very prominent in the high spots of the weekend. Andy’s roots go back to the 1960s, as a youngster in his native Devon, he visited many folk clubs with his musician-and-singer father. He cut his teeth as a performer on the overseas folk club circuit, and upon returning to Britain, he played in many bands all over the country; now he helps to run Totnes Folk Club. Steve plays a mesmerising hurdy-gurdy; he founded the medieval music duo Misericordia with Anne Marie Summers, and in 1996 they linked with stunning melodeon player Julian Sutton (of Kate Rusby’s band) to form The Wendigo, playing the traditional dance music of central France.

It’s a sound mix of 13 rare tunes and earnestly-sung songs, such as ‘Midnatspolska/Morgenpolska’, ‘Half Hannikin’, ‘Rosemary Fair’, ‘Childe The Hunter’ and ‘Bell Ringing’; one of the great bonuses of advancing technology is that thousands of songs and tunes from the traditional culture have been digitally recorded, to be treasured and passed on by future generations. Wild Goose Studios is just one small company who are carrying on with the tradition, and for that I salute and thank them.


 

OLION BYW

Mudo / Migrating

Olion Byw

4 Stars (4 / 5)

OBCD02

www.olionbyw.com/

No sooner had Olion Byw’s promising debut CD stopped generating admiring compliments than the duo announced that their second album is about to be released; and for anyone who thought that Dan Lawrence and Lucy Rivers had made a pretty impressive start, this one even tops Hen Bethau Newydd. Dan and Lucy still maintain their repertoire of tried and trusted songs and tunes from the Welsh tradition, but this time they throw into the melting pot several experimental, mouth-watering morsels to savour. Olion Byw translates as Living Traces, and this couple are actually mining the history, the motherlode of Welsh culture. With Lucy on soulful, fine fiddle and Dan on adventurous, questing guitar and bright mandolin, those traces are healthily blossoming.

The sleeve notes say that migration is a recurring theme in the folk songs of many cultures, and it’s also true of Wales; whether it’s a move for love, heartbreak, money, war or merely to see the world, these songs hold a resonance. Dylan Fowler expertly produces the album from his delightful wooden Stwdio Felin Fach and plays some sparse, stunning pedal steel on the opening track, ‘Llongau Caernarfon’, and Lucy’s clear voice rings out appealingly through the echoes. Calan’s Beth Williams-Jones clog-steps smartly through the well-known ‘Tŷ Coch Caerdydd’, but Lucy rings the changes with her own memorable tune ‘Y Mynydd Du’, which takes The Black Mountain as its inspiration and deserves to be played loud and often.

Dylan (tabwrdd) and Mark O’Connor (cajon and percussion) skillfully augment the background, but Lucy and Dan shine through with a highly original ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ mixed with the Iolo Jones tune ‘Jigolo’, the graceful Breton An Dro, the 11/8 brilliance of Pete Stacey’s ‘Taith Madog’ and the haunting beauty of ‘Gwêl Yr Adeilad’ – definitely a CD to keep and treasure.


THUMBS UP

Suzy Bogguss

Illinois-born Suzy Bogguss, who is one of country music’s most pristine and evocative vocalists, interprets the Merle Haggard catalogue from a female point of view on Lucky (Proper PRPCD121P); the award-winning line-up of musicians includes Matraca Berg, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Gretchen Peters, well-known to all Rhondda Cynon Tâf Arts audiences. Classics are ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’, ‘Let’s Chase Each Other Round The Room’ and ‘I’ll Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’.

Brighton-based Indie-folk band House Of Hats possess a shimmering, startling harmony self-composed sound, and This Love (no catalogue number) brings the male and female vocals to the fore; but their suspect diction and pop production inevitably drowns out the meaning, which is a shame. Shades of acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and ukulele abound, and the same glorious voices rise and fall like waves crashing on the shore; these are the ones to watch.

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