Live | 2007

Jim Page | The Rock, Maltby | 19.01.07

Tonight saw the preview of what might very well become the replacement for the Rock.  The Rockingham Arms Folk Club has been running for over thirty years in the village of Wentworth near Rotherham and during that time has gained the reputation of being the premier acoustic music venue in the area.  This has certainly been the case for me, for in all the time I’ve been involved on the scene, The Rock has provided the best nights.  Even though I’ve helped run some good clubs in and around my own town, none of them have managed to create the same sort of atmosphere you get at the Rock.  This has been largely due to Rob Shaw’s commitment to the music, his consistently eclectic taste and his ear for the good sound quality.  If ever there’s someone visiting the area that you want to see and experience at their best, then you can trust Rob to get it right.  Tonight was a special one-off concert prior to the re-opening in March of the club at the new venue, The Wesley Centre in Maltby near Rotherham.  Jim Page is a Seattle based songwriter, who was due to play at The Rock as part of his British tour, so after the Rockingham Arms club closed due to the brewery insisting the club pay for room rental after over thirty years of allowing the club to run free of charge, Rob had to find a new venue quickly to allow ‘the show to go on’.  There was a wonderful turn out to support the new venue, pretty much a full house.  Familiar faces on the local folk scene gathered to lend their support, Roy Bailey, Ray Hearne, Mike Miller, Lou Marriott, Paul Pearson, George Hill and one John Law, who literally supported Jim by kicking off the night with a selection of classics such as “Dead Flowers” and “Back in the High Life Again”.  Rob Shaw seemed to be relaxed, pleased and eager to start this new phase in his endeavours to provide good quality concerts in the area, which have become such an enormous contribution to the local acoustic scene.  The new venue is more like a school assembly hall than the familiar barn setting of the Rock, but I thought it worked well.  Once the lights are down and the music starts, it doesn’t really matter where you are as long as it has that Rob Shaw sound as a basis.  Jim Page is a story teller of exceptional flair and virtuosity.  I hate to make comparisons but I would advise purely as illustration, to think along the lines of both Arlo and Woody Guthrie rolled into one, with a sprinkling of Loudon Wainwright III, Guy Clark and Rambling Jack Elliott and a pinch of early Dylan, obviously.  His opening number “Mr Ondo” was so reminiscent of “Simple Twist of Fate” that the Dylan comparison would be foolish to ignore.  But this takes nothing away from Jim, who manages to roll it all up in a brand new package, and present it afresh.  He played two long sets during the course of the night yet it was all over too quickly.  Songs of such intensity and intelligence can just keep coming as far as I’m concerned, whether they be overtly political “Petroleum Bonaparte” and “Headful of Pictures”, heartfelt tributes to absent friends “Bobby Cortez” or just plain fun “Everything is Round” and “The Clone Song”, they all come over as desperately well-crafted songs, that you find yourself hanging on to each and every word.  Despite being slightly jetlagged, having left a snowbound Seattle on Wednesday only to arrive and fight against gale force winds in the UK, Jim settled into his performance with surprising ease and composure and I would imagine the good turn-out did nothing but enhance an already promising night.  Certainly a night befitting a new start, a new future.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | Camelots, Doncaster | 21.03.07

I think the last time I entered the confines of Camelots in Doncaster, the building was still resting upon hallowed ground.  Coincidentally, the last time I attended a Rachel Unthank and the Winterset gig, it was also in a converted church in historic York.  Perfectly fitting in my opinion, as this music has been my religion for the best part of the last four decades and in the specific case of this band, the best part of the last couple of years and tonight I was privileged once again to receive communion in the form of wine from the bar and the sliced bread from what is currently my favourite band.  Well, they are certainly the best thing since, at any rate.  I was first of all saddened upon arriving at the gig, to hear of the departure of Jackie Oates from the band, but was fortunately spared the details, as I fear it may have been an awkward departure.  I choose not to burden myself with the reasons why such a perfectly formed entity should fragment, but trust that the correct decisions have been made by people who know better than I.  Becky Unthank has once again forced me to refill my ink well and pluck another quill from this patient bird in order to write a few choice words in an attempt to describe her voice.  Before we get onto the actual voice itself, let’s just for a second consider her stance.  Like her elder sister, Becky is small framed and by both sisters’ own admission, instigated by Belinda O’Hooley’s dry observation, they are indeed hobbit-like.  To me though, Becky reminds me of a much more important predecessor in the shape of Anne Briggs.  Unfortunately, I was just a little too late to witness first hand the youthful Anne Briggs in her heyday, one arm carefully folded behind her back, hooked securely into her other hand, head held high, delicate face flanked by locks of dark brooding hair, as she delighted stunned audiences in the Singers’ Clubs of the Sixties, all encapsulated in a fleeting yet glorious monochrome memory for the likes of those of us who missed it.  What we have in Becky Unthank, is the same vulnerability of fresh-faced youth, bearing an almost defiant gaze reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia, the unconscious use of her hands, holding her torso as if to force out every ounce of energy from deep within.  It’s all in vivid and vibrant colour this time around for our delight.  Such rhetoric may be considered slightly forced by some, but it is worthy once you experience the sound of the unique and ethereal voice that somehow projects from that little hobbit.  Becky Unthank is the perfect hybrid of Anne Briggs and Nick Drake.  Beautifully phrased traditional passages delivered in otherworldly tones and I simply cannot get enough of it.  Singling out Becky Unthank for such praise is unkind to the rest of the band, but I feel this is old news to them.  The music is obviously arranged to place each voice in its most effective niche, and on such songs as Cyril Tawney’s “On a Monday Morning” for example, Becky’s voice comes in at exactly the right time.  Rachel sets the mood with her rich and clear Northumbrian vernacular, an accent you could probably pinpoint to a specific street, augmented by Belinda’s sensitive and moody piano motifs and just as you are settling into exactly what we all think about Monday mornings, Becky breathes in a new and exciting angle.  The song is instantly transformed from the mundane dirge of a miserable Monday morning to something quite beautiful.  The words are basically Tawney’s but the mood conveyed here is deliberately fashioned for maximum effect and is one of the high points of the entire set and works perfectly upon each performance.  This carefully planned sonic distribution appears throughout a Winterset performance and can be found in other established songs such as “John Dead”, “Twenty Long Weeks” and “Troubled Waters”, all of which were performed tonight.  Belinda O’Hooley never fails to astound me with her mixture of technical ability, restrained sensitivity and bold experimentation.  On “I Wish” for instance, Belinda plays some of the most adventurous discordant tonal poems ‘over’ a purposefully droning fiddle and ‘under’ two of the most compatible, yet completely different voices on the music scene today.  Belinda’s other two notable major contributions tonight were on her own composition “Cold and Stiff” with its instantly recognisable piano hook and its ‘let’s get to the point’ lyric, and her fantastic duet with Becky on Antony and the Johnsons’ “For Today I am a Boy”, with its force to be reckoned with no nonsense vocal delivery from both women, whether Amazonian or Hobbit.  Although there is a rich tapestry of harmony singing to behold at a Winterset gig, I prefer to think of the style in the ‘part singing’ tradition of Robin and Barry Dransfield.  It’s not strictly harmony singing, but two voices, and sometimes up to four voices, weaving different melodies in and out of the song in an intriguing and pleasing fashion.  “The Cutter Medley” (think of a set of fiddle tunes but replace it with songs) could easily fall into disarray in the hands of an inferior group of people, but the Winterset manage to keep its complex arrangement in order. I was particularly enchanted by the bands’ reading of “Farewell Regality” for various reasons, not least the frequent mention of Hexhamshire, which to a Geordie descendant, sounds like home.  There’s nothing absolutely polished to perfection about this band.  Where some contemporaries have suffered at the hands of clinically correct production, the Winterset have allowed us the pleasure of some rough edges, which puts them up there with the likes of Nic Jones and The Watersons and keeping up with the Jones’s and the Watersons is no mean feat by any standards.  I like music to have rough edges; they keep the safe and smooth safely and smoothly at bay. 

Martha Tilston | The Regent, Doncaster | 30.04.07

If this is Steve’s daughter, then perhaps it’s all in the genes.  Martha tells of a childhood listening to the likes of Joni Mitchell on an old Hi-Fidelity record player, with dad and step mum (Maggie Boyle) gently providing a pretty bog standard folkie-based family background that is materialising in many cases these days, Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, the Lakemans etc.  Most of my contemporaries can say with a certain amount of pride that this is what we have subjected our kids to since the Seventies, Joni on the turntable.  But how many of us can claim to have invited Bert Jansch and John Renbourn over on a regular basis to jam in the front room whilst little Martha played with her My Little Pony?  That sort of ‘osmosis’ is priceless.   Yes, growing up in the Tilston houshold has reaped its own rewards and Martha provides one of the most beautiful voices on the folk/acoustic scene at the moment, and most of us are unjustifiably unaware of it.  Four frequently played albums (Rolling, Bimbling, Ropeswing and Of Milkmaids and Architects) cry out to be heard in the same manner as her gigs cry out to be attended.  Tonight Martha played something of a sublime gig at the Monday Music Club at The Regent.  Accompanied by fiddle player Matt Kelly, who also provided some delicate nylon strung classical guitar noodling, the pair selected a couple of sets worth of songs from the aforementioned albums.  Martha’s songs are often seemingly whimsical, but I can’t help but believe these to be sincere reflections of her life; if you close your eyes, you are listening to a flower child wandering around the broken down perimeter fence of either Woodstock or the Isle of Wight festivals.  There is something of a Melanie or a Bert Sommers in her delivery, very delicate, yet driving the message home loud and clear.  The strange thing is that if you open your eyes, Martha looks like a carbon copy of any young chick from that generation.  “Night Rambling” from her first CD, remains my favourite Martha Tilston song and one that I hum constantly, much to the annoyance to those on the bus next to me.  I make no apology for being moved to hum.  Little Red Riding Hood makes an appearance in the lovely “Red” from the Bimbling collection, which takes us deeper into the woods and probably up a tree or two.  It’s a good place to be these days.  Martha frequently pours her soul out in her songs especially when revealing her episodic love life.  “The Numbness” carries not so much a heart breaking ache throughout, but actually a numbness.  How personal does a song need to get in order to share an emotion?  Martha delivers the numbness of lost love from the comfort of her toilet seat, from the bathtub, talking to Jesus.  This is Martha’s world.  “Songs that Make Sophie Fizz” is delightfully sweet.  We are taken back to Mr Tilston’s front room in Bristol with little Martha and sister Sophie, both slow readers but having the good sense to cut the lawn with scissors.  A whimsical memoir, but absolutely to the core crucial to those of us who enjoy a bit of nostalgia.  Martha and Matt left the stage for the encore, in order to sing in the old traditional way, totally acoustic that is.  The traditional “Silver Dagger” would be as easy as breathing to Martha, who delivered the song as exquisitely as her step mum did on the Of Moor and Mesa album a few years previously.  I like to think of a Martha Tilston gig as a very special, by invitation only, guided tour of a world akin to the Cottingley fairies; delightful if you allow your imagination to go with it.

Wath Festival 2007 | Montgomery Hall, Wath upon Dearne | 05.05.07

The Wath Festival has been going for more years than I care to mention and has always maintained that balance of great concerts and great pub sing arounds whilst keeping to the local traditions without anyone treading on each other’s toes (apart from those clumsy Morris men that is.)   Jon Strong, whose songs are well crafted and mature, can throw in a most unexpected cover every now and then and in the case of this particular performance, Little Feat’s “Sailing Shoes” and Rod Stewart’s timeless “Mandolin Wind”.  Chris Difford’s performance on the other hand was underwhelming, despite the fact that I’m keen on the repertoire of Squeeze.  I love their songs, but these songs need a Glenn Tilbrook.  “Up The Junction”, “Tempted”, “Labelled with Love”, “Pulling Mussels from a Shell”, they were all there but they sounded dull and lifeless.  I don’t normally like to talk so disdainfully about a performer, especially one who actually co-wrote some of the best pop songs of all time, but I was just given the distinct impression that he was simply going through the motions.  Skyhook played a set of mainly fiddle tunes with a few Scottish and Irish ballads thrown in, whilst John Tams, one of the nicest blokes on the folk scene with an engaging stage presence, joined keyboard player and singer Barry Coope on stage.  The duo transformed a handful of well-known songs into something completely different, Ewan MacColl’s “Manchester Rambler” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice its Alright” for example.  But it’s the richness of songs such as “Amelia” and “Steelos” that marks a new territory that belongs well and truly to John Tams.  Ruth and Gary Wells kicked off the evening’s session and hand on heart I have never heard them play so well, especially with their rendition of Natalie Merchant’s “Motherland”.  Pete Coe is an unusual performer who tends to use his entire body when performing.  Whether it be banjo, bouzouki or dulcimer, he has to dance on the spot as well.  Dougie Maclean was today’s headliner and perhaps stole the show, if not the entire weekend.  He’s such an assured performer, something he proved when he got together with the country singer Kathy Mattea a few years ago for the Nashville to Dunkeld documentary, two more different worlds could not have collided.  Songs such as “Caledonia”, “Broken Wings” and “This Love Will Carry” are priceless jewels for any repertoire and to have written them must be immensely satisfying. 


Johnny Dickinson | The Regent, Doncaster | 15.05.07

Johnny has one of the strongest Northumberland accents and therefore cannot come within a light year of fooling anyone of his roots.  He creates his own take on the blues by reconstructing everything he plays in his own distinctive style; it’s almost like listening to Paul Rogers playing in the style of Ry Cooder with a Martin Simpson sense of clarity thrown in for good measure.  Johnny Dickinson appears to have come a long way since his support spot at the Lonsdale here in Doncaster, with a main stage appearance at the 2005 Cambridge Folk Festival under his belt, albeit a Sunday lunchtime slot which to any self-respecting bluesman is an unthinkable time of day.  This is night time music and the later the better.  His crystal clear bottleneck playing together with a soothing unaffected vocal delivery makes for all that is good about the blues.  His treatment of traditional ballads and tunes from nearer to home is where Johnny differs from the rest.  “She Moves through the Fair” has never been played with so much eloquence.  “Beach Road” from his Castles and Old Kings album set the standard of emotive playing for the night and paved the way for beautiful readings of such songs as “Black Jack Davy”, “Jock O Hazeldene” and “The Rowan Tree”.  Towards the end of his second set, Johnny by his own admission, collapsed into a busking approach and the over-long and amnesia drenched “Werewolves of London” could’ve done with a silver bullet, not least to stop Warren Zevon spinning in his grave, but it was fun nevertheless.  His encore of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” played as a tango was a treat, despite the impromptu duet between him and a member of the audience on jew’s harp at Johnny’s request.  Could things be more surreal?  

Max’s Birthday Bash | The Red Shed, Wakefield | 19.05.07

As I drove to Wakefield on this fine May evening, with not a hint of cloud in the sky and the sun beating heavily on the windscreen, I wondered what sort of night was in store.  It’s not every day you are asked to play a song for your friend at a very special birthday party.  Nor is it everyday you are asked to play a song in front of a handful of your favourite singers.  One thought was most definitely in my mind, that I would not be doing a review of this gig.  It is a private affair and should remain so, but the last thing Max said to me tonight before leaving was “I want my write up!”  So, here it is.  Adrian McNally, Max’s son (and incidentally, Rachel Unthank’s partner), invited me to the surprise party to help celebrate his dad’s 60th birthday.  It’s not the sort of request that requires a second thought and true to my nature, as well as my unshakable disdain for fashion, I intended not to be fashionably late, in fact I was the very first person there.  Hot on my tail were Adrian and Rachel, who had hot-footed it over from the Shepley Spring Festival, where the Winterset had played an afternoon gig.  I offered a helping hand and found myself organising the seating, blowing up balloons and fiddling with a slide projector in no time flat.  Half way through the room preparations, Max appeared in the carpark with various family members and the other members of the Winterset and therefore ways of diverting his attention were quickly contrived.  He basically was ushered into the bar at the other side of the Red Shed, the venue for this evenings’ soiree.  After the surprise was sprung, Max was treated to a memorable evening of great music, fun and surprises and was also subjected to an abundance of warm tributes from his family and friends.  The first performers of the night were Rachel and Becky Unthank.  One of the other reasons for not wanting to ‘write up’ tonight’s gig was that my thesaurus has been stripped bare of all its superlatives that I have spent on these two singers to date.  Megan Barber is one of Max’s favourite singers and he makes no bones about this fact at all.  Fronting the band Fawn, Megan has all the flair and confidence of a true performer and with a voice to match.  Her manditory flamboyant outfits were put aside tonight for a low key, yet heartfelt tribute to her friend and supporter.  “What do you want to hear Max?” she asked. “Anything” came the predictable reply.  During the night Megan sang one or two of her own songs, of which Max is all too familiar with, as well as singing an utterly beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”.  Sometimes, in the right hands, an old established song can breathe afresh, as if it were an infant song once again, and tonight Megan did just that.  I was asked to follow Megan and was ever ‘a hard act to follow’ coined for a better reason?  I’d rehearsed Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” for the occasion, simply because I knew Max liked the song, but I soon realised what company I was in and at the last minute decided upon the more suitable “Northern Sky” as a good alternative.  I can imagine only too well what it feels like to have your own son get up on stage and sing to you.  In the case of Adrian, the wizard behind the mixing desk with his backside firmly on the producer’s seat, getting up and performing in front of an audience was until now alien territory.  Fear not though, for his couple of songs were one of the highlights of the night.  I for one would love to hear more.  Being relatively new to Max’s circle of friends, I can be forgiven for not knowing some of the people in the room, but it was a pleasure getting to know them a little better as the night wore on.  Even a stranger like myself would have to be asleep not to recognise the importance of a friend called Chris Price, who got up to sing next.  Chris sang a couple of covers including Radiohead’s “Creep”.  By contrast, it was great to hear some jazz as well as all the folk and rock stuff, and some rather tasty tenor sax, in the manner of Sonny Rollins, came courtesy of another friend called Jez.  He clearly knows his instrument backwards and although I imagine he is probably more comfortable with a band or a small quintet maybe, his solo tonight was quite inspiring.  To a failed saxophonist, this was defnitely music to my ears.  A very special surprise for Max during the second half was the arrival of Rosie Doonan to the party.  Another amazingly good and totally confident singer, Rosie sang one of the outstanding songs from her sublime Mill Lane album, which she made with erstwhile parter Ben Murray, “Need You Around”.  Three quarters of the Winterset were present at the gig and between Rachel, Becky and Belinda, the trio treated their audience and Max in particular, to some of his favourite songs from their repertoir, which included one or two from the new as yet unreleased album.  Becky sang Antony and the Johnsons’ “For Today I am a Boy” better than ever in my opinion.  She later told me that it’s because it’s the first gig she’s done in ages where she was allowed to have a few drinks.  Alcohol does wonderful things to a voice that was essentially made to sing a little later at night.  As the night drew to a close, there was really no point in looking any further than Belinda O’Hooley to start rounding things up.  Belinda had already appeared a couple of times during the evening, first with Heidi Tidow, her partner and member of Belinda’s own band and secondly with the Winterset.  On her own however, Belinda is a different entity altogether and transforms herself from the sensitive musical maestro – ever with a careful ear for detail, watching every move of her fellow singers and musicians, finding and identifying every nuance of sound and placing it precisely where it should go – into an entertainer who knows her audience.  Bel has a way with these things and songs such as The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” and Abba’s “Money Money Money” are just the thing to get everybody in the room singing (and dancing, at least in the case of two generations of Max’s family).  The room divider at the back of the room was drawn closed to give us more intimacy and it felt just like what you imagine sitting around the piano used to feel at home, ya know, in the good ol’ days.  I came as a relative stranger to this family gathering, but left feeling very much a part of Max’s extended family.  A really, truly joyous affair.  Happy birthday Max.

Lyra Celtica | The Regent, Doncaster | 21.05.07

In case you were wondering, Lyra Celtica is not a brand of indigenous Scottish sportswear, but a vehicle for the virtuoso accordion playing of one time BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, Lynn Tocker.  Accompanied by Frankie McGuire on a variety of percussion and whistles and Mark Canning on guitar, Lynn showed her credentials as a brilliant piano accordion player throughout two superb sets tonight at the Monday Music Club.  As something of a wannabe guitar player myself, I could just about see what Mark was doing, albeit that bit faster than I can manage, and as a child, equipped with mums knitting needles and the arm of the sofa, I had a good idea what drumming was all about, but the piano accordion to me is a total enigma.  I had no idea tonight what Lynn was doing, but it sounded good.  Lynn cut her teeth on the instrument from the tender age of nine and worked with a whole bunch of extraordinary musicians in her home of Northumberland.  Being exposed to the likes of Willie Taylor, Joe Hutton and Will Atkinson, as well as being a member of Kathryn Tickell’s band did no harm for the young musician, nor did her triumph in 1987 when she won her prestigious BBC award.  Tonight the trio were on good form and played two excellent sets to a small and quiet but appreciative audience.  Bare footed, Lynn switched from dazzlingly raucous jigs and reels (Scottish, Irish and French Canadian or somewhere closer to home) to emotive and tender ballads, during which she lovingly laid her head upon her instrument, in a gesture of complete tenderness.  “Floating from Skerry”, a beautiful composition with a beautiful title, comes from the less than beautiful experience of a fifteen year old’s boat trip to Shetland with a stinking hangover, such is the manner in which tunes come to the head of Lynn Tocker.  Frankie McGuire drives the sound along alternating between bodhran, bongos and jembe, as well as providing sensitive low whistle and penny whistle accompaniment.  I was looking at all the strange percussion instruments at Frankie’s feet and noticed one that looked remarkably like a screwdriver.  I was looking forward to hearing what sound it made, only to discover later, that it was indeed just a screwdriver, presumably for tweaking the drums!  Frankie is also a fine singer of ballads and The Queen of Argyle was one of the highlights of the set.  The band also premiered a new song called “When I Go”, with its potent Native American imagery.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this band as much as I did.  The years of listening to instrumental Celtic music from the Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts, Clannad, Capercaillie and an endless list of pretenders may have taken its toll on my sensibilities, but up close and very definitely live, who could not enjoy it, really?

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | The Bairns Album Launch, Cambridge | 29.07.07

There is something otherworldly about Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, something I just can’t seem to put my finger on.  I don’t know exactly why I get this all too familiar shiver skidaddling purposefully down my spine each time I hear those delicious voices, but I’ll attempt some feeble analysis on this ponderous question right now, whilst I reflect on the band’s second album, and their prestigious launch at the 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival.  The material they choose has a lot to do with it for sure, but there’s more to it than that.  Belinda O’Hooley’s piano arrangements provide a rich canvas to set the scene, complete with intricate sketches which serve as an outline to guide the vivid colours that are to follow.  Setting up such a basis for a work in progress is no mean feat by any standards and Belinda is triumphant in her endeavours here.  In those irritating ‘meme’ surveys that question the things we should like to do before we die, that are frequently topped with ‘swim with dolphins’ incidentally, provides me with an opportunity to confess that ‘arrange a tune like Belinda O’Hooley’ is a much more preferred goal.  But since this ain’t going to happen, pass me my snorkel and flippers and let’s get on down to Florida Keys.  If it’s with Belinda that we entrust the canvas, it is with the Unthank siblings that we entrust the palette.  The polish that normally marks a good voice is thankfully absent in the singing of Rachel and Becky.  Polish is effortlessly replaced by sheer human emotion.  My fear in life is that these two women will wake up one morning and have the ability to sing in perfect pitch, delivering arias and airs of exquisite clarity, which would at that precise moment, erase all the magic for me and my world would be dull once again.  The occasional wobbles and quavers are what is essential about these beautiful voices, and are the single reason I keep returning for more.  Those voices remind me that great music is a very human endeavour, and human frailty is for me what separates the dull from the exciting.  The grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge was as good a place as any to launch the new collection of songs, although I’d been prepared for some of the songs by attending one or two gigs leading up to the launch.  The very presence of the Winterset on any stage lends itself to this ‘otherworldly’ quality I speak of.  There’s more than a slight bit of the Cottingley Fairies about these two sisters that is difficult to shake off.  Perhaps dipping ones toes tentatively within the parameters of their enchanting circle might have given me clues to who exactly these darlings are, but the enigma is still there, even after several encounters.  I’ve decided that I quite like this enigma and therefore further sycophantic grovelling may no longer be on the cards, lest I find out that it really isn’t magic, but cunning slight of hand.  Once your eyes become accustomed to the youthful presence on stage, you tend to let your ears take it from there.  Much of the performance relies heavily on cleverly unifying the overall sound, and may I add, with not a guitar in sight.  The unique sound of the Winterset is most definitely piano driven, embellished with a violin that sounds like a violin, an occasional cello courtesy of Unthank R, a bit of percussive high-heeled footwork, courtesy of Unthank’s R & B and most importantly four sublime voices.  On stage, the Winterset are a proven entity, no question about it.  On record, the Winterset have a fifth member, producer Adrian McNally.  The moment you hit the play button for the start of The Bairns, you are reminded of who you are listening to, by the familiar piano motif that kicks off their debut album.  In this case Cyril Tawney’s “On a Monday Morning” is replaced by “Felton Lonnin”, an atmospheric reading of an old traditional Northumberland folk song.  Rachel’s rich vernacular is ever present in all the songs she sings, which is one of the delights of any of the recorded or live songs I have heard her sing.  If you put Rachel Unthank under a black sheet and line her up against a million other hobbits, and ask each of them to say ‘beguiled’, I’d pick her out immediately.  We are reminded so often in musical families of sibling harmonies, that is, voices so similar through genetic connection that harmony singing is as easy as making toast.  The delightful thing about Rachel and Becky is that their voices are light years apart, polarised in almost every way, but have this extraordinary connection that makes them inseparable.  If Rachel’s is a voice of the daytime, then Becky’s is a voice of the night.  On the debut album Becky chose a Nick Drake song to breath new life into, a choice that quite possibly is the reason I became a convert to the world of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset in the first place.  It could have all gone horribly wrong had the arrangement been a direct attempt at copying Nick Drake’s “Riverman”, but of course it was anything but.  It was re-assessed, re-addressed and re-worked to enable it to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of early Seventies bed-sit folk pop and be transformed into something quite astonishingly new.  Once again on The Bairns, Becky chooses wisely and her rendering of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” is simply magnificent, the high point of both album and album launch.  Belinda plays sensitively yet with an assurance unequalled in my opinion on any previous song.  Robert Wyatt’s strange lyrics are delivered by a voice that was probably destined to sing it, and if the recording reaches the great bearded one, I’m sure he would approve whole heartedly, but who knows? Becky might even consider an entire albums-worth of Wyatt covers; “God’s Song” perhaps?  “Gharbzadigi” maybe?  “Alifib”?  Oh I can hear it now… “not nit not nit no not, nit nit folly bololy, burlybunch, the water mole, hellyplop and fingerhole, not a wossit bundy, see for jangle and bojangle, trip trip, pip pippy pippy pip pip landerim, Alifi my larder…”  Oh Becky, bring it on!  Niopha Keegan provides delightfully underplayed accordion accompaniment, which is both an inspired piece of judgement and arrangement.  The opus of triads that bring the performance to a close may quite possibly become known as the Winterset’s defining moment.  Just because we identify a potential classic on the bands’ second recorded outing, we must not overlook some of the other goodies on the album at any cost.  “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” is a belter of a song, which brings out the raucousness of the feisty siblings.  You can’t help but wonder whether the demon alcohol wasn’t entirely banished from the studio during the session.  Belinda O’Hooley’s “Blackbird” is the song on the album that resonates around my head more than any other, a melody that any self respecting tunesmith would be proud of, and with what is fast becoming a trademark Becky vocal performance.  “Whitethorn” is a heartbreaking song of loss.  Songs of such raw emotive power would normally come with obligatory shrink-wrapped razor blade attached to the CD sleeve, but in the case of Belinda’s passionate writing, Rachel’s expressive conveyance of emotion and Niopha’s weeping violin, we become not revellers at the wake, nor solemn mourners at the funeral, but bystanders witnessing the grief.  Closing the Cambridge main stage set and almost concluding a beautiful second album, “Farewell Regality” serves as a well chosen anthem to send us on our way.  As the closing song to the bands’ third and final appearance at this year’s Cambridge Festival, it was enough to make me retire to the bar afterwards.  Unfortunately, even Nanci Griffith provided nothing that could improve on what I had witnessed mid evening on the Radio 2 stage.  The song, according to Rachel, “makes us tingle”.  Well it makes me, and no doubt anyone who comes into contact with it, tingle too.

Chris and Kellie While | The Rock, Maltby | 01.06.07

When I went to the first night of the new Rock back in January, I quite liked the new venue and promised myself to make as many Friday night shows as I could.  Strange how you make these promises to yourself only to break them almost immediately.  It’s taken me until June to return.  Perhaps I don’t like the new venue as much as I first thought, it certainly isn’t a patch on the last one.  Chris and Kellie While was one (or should I say two) of the reasons for returning to the Rock.  I asked Kellie how she felt about having her mum on stage with her and if there are any drawbacks.  None she told me, she loves it.   Chris and Kellie have that familiar kindred connection, especially in their voices and their harmony singing, something that just seems to crop up again and again in family performers.  For obvious reasons I was looking beyond the songs and the music on this occasion and treated the evening as a sort of anthropological study of how relatives interact on stage.  Chris While has been on the scene for a good while and I’ve been familiar with her work with Julie Matthews and the Albion Band over the years.  But it was an inspired decision to team up with her equally talented daughter and with a repertoire of finely crafted songs, as well as a whole bunch of covers, which the duo make no apology for “we love so many songs, it’s a shame to just do our own” we can experience a wonderful evening of songs by the likes of Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan and Ron Sexsmith, as well as some lovely originals at the same time.

Rod Clements | The Regent, Doncaster | 04.06.07

I recall a youth dominated by LP records advertised and reviewed in such delightful rags as Melody Maker, Sounds, New Musical Express and my own particular favourite, Disc and Music Echo (well it was in colour after all).  My paper round wasn’t long, but it did take me a lifetime to get around due to my frequent stops behind the allotments, where I would read about all these obscure and fascinating bands and dream of one day being allowed to grow my hair out of the crew-cut mother insisted upon and embarking on a lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock n roll.  I ended up dabbling in each of those with varying degrees of success and failure, but alas, the road ignored me and therefore I’m still here to tell the tale.  The problem with the late Sixties and early Seventies for a twelve year old music fanatic was that it was difficult to distinguish between musical genres and during that time, anything that sounded reasonable cool went under the label ‘Progressive Rock’, whether it was a bog-standard blues band (Groundhogs, Canned Heat, Ten Years After), a jazz fusion band (Soft Machine, Matching Mole – which I only discovered later was Soft Machine in French), classical music disguised as rock (ELP, Curved Air), or any number of weird and wonderful bands that defy categorisation other than Prog Rock (Third Ear Band, King Crimson etc etc..)  What defined the music in those days was the label the bands were signed to.  You knew immediately upon picking up an album on the Harvest label, you were in for a real treat (Pink Floyd, Edgar Broughton Band, Third Ear Band), or the Island label (Free, Amazing Blondel, Traffic).  Charisma was one such label and the band that rose to the top loud and clear, yet nicely out of tune, was Lindisfarne.  I believed Lindisfarne to be very much Prog Rock Gods in 1970 by virtue of the fact that they rubbed shoulders with label mates Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator, and I delighted in telling my school mates this, but of course they were nothing more than a fun loving north eastern folkie outfit who just looked great in Disc and Music Echo (in colour).  These guys looked seriously weird and I wanted nothing more than to look exactly like them.  One of my favourite records in the charts at the time, and one frequently played on the radio as well as on my Dansette was “Meet Me on the Corner”, with its instantly accessible Dylanesque harmonica, jingle jangle acoustic guitar and bass line to remember forever.  That bassline was played by the man who wrote the song, which subsequently went on to reach the dizzy heights of the pop charts of the day.  A top five single by a progressive rock band?  I began to have my doubts about Lindisfarne being Prog after all.  Rod Clements appeared at the Monday Music Club at the Regent tonight to a large gathering of folks who remember the heady days of 1972 and were presumably glad to hear “Meet Me on the Corner” in its rawest state.  It’s a great pop song and if you are going to hear it by anybody, then why not by its composer?  Rod has pretty much returned to his roots these days, playing to small audiences in hotels and bars, the music he grew up on, which is essentially country blues with a Woody Guthrie flavour.  He describes it as ‘coming full circle’.  Gone are the days of touring the concert halls of the world with the likes of Lindisfarne and Jack the Lad, his spin off band, but he sure looks like he still enjoys the road nevertheless.  It’s been a while since I last saw Rod.  I was pleased to see him with Lindisfarne in 1995 at the Cambridge Folk Festival, being one of Alan Hull’s last appearances on stage, anywhere.  By November of that year, he had gone to play the great gig in the sky after submitting to heart thrombosis.  A few years before this, I caught Rod on tour with Bert Jansch promoting the album Leather Laundrette and it was during that tour that I discovered Rod’s command over the slide guitar.  Alternating between a resonator dobro type guitar, a bog-standard electric guitar and an acoustic box with a headstock so unfeasibly large, it qualifies as the only other thing beside the Great Wall of China that is visible from the moon, Rod brought back to life early Lindisfarne songs such as the aforementioned “Meet Me on the Corner”, a revamped “Train in G Major” (now in E Major due to voice age), Bert Jansch’s “Rambling’s Going to be the Death Of Me” (from the Bert tribute album People on the Highway) and Rod’s second ‘hit’, “Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong”, a hit for Erin Rocha a couple of years ago.  Rod forgot to mention that he has a third hit under his belt, being the bass player on the much lauded “Streets of London” by one Ralphie McTell.  One outstanding song from tonight’s gig was Rod’s “Existentially Yours”, a scathing observation on organised religion and consumer culture, chiefly aimed at a North East car dealership.  The support came courtesy of Roger Davies, a West Yorkshire songsmith with a delicate touch.  I only caught the end of his set but I was instantly taken by his cool delivery and easy going relaxed stage presence.  “Going Solo” and “James Dean” are songs I know I am going to remember for a long time.  Roger’s namesake Ray Davies proved once and for all that you can write a song about places with British names and make them just as cool as the Americans, “Waterloo Sunset” being the definitive example.  “Huddersfield Town” captures that essence in the same manner and it once again makes me proud to be Northern Trash.  I need to check this guy out again sooner rather than later.

Michael Berk | The Regent, Doncaster | 11.06.07

Bearing this in mind, I wasn’t entirely looking forward to tonight’s feast of guitar tunes with its notable absense of songs, courtesy of a young chap called Michael Berk.  But from the moment he hit the first note to the very last a couple of hours later, I realised something extraordinary; that this man did in fact sing to me, but in the voice of his guitar.  When introducing each piece of music, Michael referred to them as his songs, never tunes or compositions, just songs.  The variety of different approaches he used during his two outstanding sets at the Monday Music Club at the Regent captured the imagination of those with just a passing interest in guitar music as well as the serious guitar students amongst the audience.  Whilst his own ‘songs’ such as Satellite and The Return show a mature approach to composition, it is in his choice of covers that reveal a mastery of arrangement, whether it be with traditional Irish tunes of Turlough O’Carolan; “Si Beag Si Mhor” (cleverly disguised as “Bells”) and “Planxty Irwin”, or classical pieces; “Two Guitars” with it’s curious Woody Woodpecker theme, to modern classics such as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”.  Each arrangement shows extraordinary musicianship and dexterity of playing.  You have to wonder why he makes it so difficult for himself.  But it is with Michael Berk’s reworking of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that we truly witness a genius at work.  It’s one of those rare moments where you have before you a young man on stage, who you don’t really know from Adam, but whose entire life you think you can trace by virtue of the fact that there’s only so many hours in a life, and most of them were spend learning this.  It’s a Derren Brown moment; you know what he’s doing and with great predictability, you know what’s coming, but you have no idea how he does it.  Every nuance, key change, fragment, harmonic progression administered in the original is encapsulated here on one single acoustic guitar, a Martin 00028 Eric Clapton signature (for anoraks), and Rock’s most embarrassingly extravagant moment is captured, and for once, sounds reasonably cool.  Michael Berk probably deserves an ovation a) for patience b) for proving that anything’s possible.

Steve Tilston | The Rock, Maltby | 13.07.07

Fresh from his three week tour of American festivals, Steve Tilston was playing at The Rock tonight, so I popped over to catch his set.  Free Reed have finally got around to compiling Steve’s box set, in the manner of the Carthy Chronicles (Martin Carthy), Swarb (Dave Swarbrick), RT (Richard Thompson) and A Boxful of Treasures (Sandy). Steve’s collection is called Reaching Back and as the title suggests, we have, packed away in an attractive rectangular box, no less than five cds, containing an overview of his long career, reaching back to the early Seventies, following one of this countries’ master song writers.  Bearing this in mind, I went along to see if he was going to plunder the depths of his repertoire and resurrect some old songs featured in the box set.  Steve showed me the box and I was pleased to discover I only have 38 of the 85 recordings on there, quite a few of the songs have been either re-recorded, or the compiler has chosen live recordings, demos or alternative takes as well as a few of Steve’s songs performed by others, such as Robin Williamson, Ralph McTell and Wizz Jones.  Tonight Steve was in a playful mood and swapped and changed a few of his arrangements around, even coming up with new lyrics for “And So It Goes”, replacing “You could be a General sat upon your horse” for “’you could be a President in you White House”.  Perhaps three weeks in the States has served to feed Steve’s political consciousness, and who could blame him?  As well as the familiar Tilston fare, “Here Comes the Night”, “Slip Jigs and Reels” and “Living with the Blues”, Steve threw in a couple of standards such as Irvin Berlin’s “Blue Skies”, cleverly segueing into “Tsetse Fly Shuffle” and as an encore “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” of all things.  I like it when a performer introduces something as ‘one of the best love songs ever written’ followed by a standard such as this; it makes you re-evaluate the song as a song and not as a classic Fifties pop tune.  One or two new songs emerged tonight such as the delightful “Goodbye Madame Muse”, a song about the painful difficulties of writer’s block or maybe just the simple lack of inspiration, it happens to the best of us.  Sadly, I didn’t have the forty quid for the box set tonight, but I’ll be dropping hints around the house nearer to Christmas. 

Emily Druce | The Regent, Doncaster | 16.07.07

British female blues singers are very few and far between; good ones are as rare as a decent song on a Snow Patrol album. Emily Druce has come along to reminded us – whilst we think only in terms of hairy arsed blokes in plaid shirts wielding Strats and Gibson Les Pauls, yelling Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker songs into their Vintage FAT Shure Model 55 Microphones – that there is a definite lineage of women blues singers of equal standard to consider.  If Jo Ann Kelly carried an air of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith around with her, Emily leans a little more towards Peggy Lee in a way, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  Yes, Emily can raunch it up like the best of them, especially on something like Tommy George’s “Long John Blues” popularised by Dinah Washington with that classic double-entendre: ‘He took out his trusted drill and he told me to open wide, He said he wouldn’t hurt me but he’d fill my hole inside, Long John, Long John, you’ve got that golden touch, you thrill me when you drill me and I need you very much’.  I should perhaps remind you it’s about a dentist.  But there is also a sweetness about Emily’s delivery, something more along the lines of the classic jazz singers. I found her voice as clear as, let’s say Eddy Reader, every syllable crystal clear and decisively audiable, yet with a rough edge of all the women blues singers she’s so obviously been studying for more than a few years.  Emily writes songs in the spirit of the blues singers she admires but also pays tribute to her own personal heroes such as Big Bill Broonzy, Skip James, Odetta and Robert Johnson.  The influence of American folk music is also very much a part of Emily’s make up and the country blues standards that she performed tonight at Monday Night Music Club at the Regent, rubbed shoulders very well with the likes of Dylan’s “I Want You” and “Down in the Flood”, Woody Guthrie’s “Going Down This Road” and Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, a song I can’t possibly listen to these days without being reminded of Kurt Cobain’s painfully heart wrenching swansong on the Nirvana Unplugged session.  Towards the end of the night, Emily led us into Country territory with a final song by Stacey Earle, “Must Be Love” from her delightful Dancin’ with Them That Brung Me album and then as an encore Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues”, which pretty much wrapped things up nice and neat.  When I was Seventeen I was convinced that if I ever heard a girl sing a Big Bill Broonzy song I would surely marry her.  I’m now just content to limit that urge to an affair of sorts, as long as there’s plenty of wine, a lot of late nights and a pledge to sing me to sleep every night with The Staples Singers’ “Slow Train”.  Ah, I ask too much!

Doncaster Live 2007 | Market Place, Doncaster | 22.07.07

The weather was good to us this weekend, with only the slightest drizzle on Saturday evening for The Wedding Present and a perfect summer’ day today for all the local bands. Doncaster can put on a good show when it wants to and once again they managed to stage yet another brilliant, value for money (ie free), musical event. My only niggle and I suppose this goes out to the organisers, is that they don’t really go out of their way to publicise these events. There’s hardly anything online save for a few random comments on some of the bands’ own websites and blogs, and no printed programme to speak of at all, just a poster advertising the headlining bands. I appreciate that this would incur costs, but it does mean I have no idea of the names of half of the bands that played. I tried to catch the introductions, but as we all know, introductions at outdoor festivals come over as nothing more than a muffled grunt by some surviving Seventies roadie who once killed a man with Ozzy Osbourne’s shoe. I don’t even have to mention the fact that no one would really have a clue who was up next, unless you stopped the woman in a dayglo yellow top, who was running around everywhere with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie, frantically rounding up the next act due to play. An unenviable task as most of the musicians looked identical. Strange that isn’t it? That all these kids want to be unique and individual, yet they all have the same designer cropped asymetrical hairstyles. Shit, I’m getting old! Tiny Dancers, featuring the enigmatic Bowie-esque David Kay, brought some glam to the stage on Saturday night immediately before The Wedding Presents’ set and to be honest, I think they stole the show. The band invited half of the audience on stage with them in much the same manner as Iggy Pop did at this year’s Glastonbury Festival a month or so ago. I had my doubts whether the small Donny stage could take the strain, but fortunately the audience and band escaped unscathed by the end of the set. The Wedding Present were pretty much on form although I thought their set was criminally short. Today was gorgeous and turned out to be a perfectly sunny day, yet it brought out a fantastically sparse audience. Alyscamps is a local band well known in the area for having among its numbers, Eric Clapton’s sprog Ruth. I’ve previously taken this as not very much to write home about, figuring that ol’ Slowhand probably has a sprog in every port, and this one just happens to be Ruth. Of course I could be mistaken. Over the years, there have been numerous sightings of Clapton on Doncaster Railway Station, probably visiting said sprog and said sprog’s mum. Now said sprog is ‘of age’ and with a view to following in Dad’s footsteps, we have her name plastered in all the local newspapers almost every week. Alas, Ruth Clapton has in fact left Alyscamps after an acrimonious split and now the band, fronted by Ross Cameron, is trying it’s hand at success with no ‘name’ to rely upon. I really enjoyed their set and was pleased to see that my mate Ben Trott has joined the ranks on lead guitar. Silverfall, formerly Laconic, did a brilliant set this afternoon, featuring the unmistakable voice of Jenny Bailey. I always enjoyed Laconic and this band seemed pretty much the same except for the absence of their lead guitarist. Jenny commands a definite lead and her songs stand up besides the rest of them with no trouble. I left after Silverfall, although I’m pretty sure there was more goodies to come before the 7pm curfew. I’m glad I went along, and hopefully, with a little more effort, we can get the rest of Doncaster on our side next year…even the pubs. A couple of other bands I didn’t quite catch the name of, but enjoyed their antics.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2007 | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | 04.08.07

Once we arrived at the festival, set up camp, had a few beers, got acquainted with the neighbours, downed a pot noodle or two and had a kip, the heavens decided, quite un-prompted by anyone in the vicinity, to unceremoniously open.  I can’t remember rain like it.  By early evening on the Thursday we arrived, it was like Woodstock; well okay, a tiny corner of Woodstock, you know, up there in the corner by the hamburger guy who had his stall burned down last night, as Wavy Gravy would put it.  We had a good first night after the rain stopped, but the ground was unsuitable for doing anything on, and in particular, sitting on.  Okay granted, Woodstock was ‘a sea of mud’ so this by comparison was just a ‘puddle of mud’ but still unfit for human habitation all the same.  We went over to the relatively dry club tent and caught the opening act of the festival Emily Maguire.  Seasick Steve attracted a bigger crowd than was necessary on the Radio 2 stage, but there again he was exposed on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny last December, never does you any harm that, coupled with the horrible mud in the open fields.  I think that did the trick.  I don’t think Alabama 3 performed their theme song to The Sopranos, but I may be wrong.  There’s a couple of ways you can do festivals, one way is to flitter around the site catching bits of this and that, peering over large bulky shoulders at the back and listening to what comes through the extended surround-sound speakers scattered randomly around the site.  The other way is to get hot and sweaty and barge your way down to the front, even if this means trampling over the seated hoards who still insist on the insane idea of taking fold-up chairs into the packed arena, creating senseless obstacles for others and generally making life uncomfortable, except for those in the chairs, whose life is fantastically comfortable thank you very much.  The organisers make announcements at the beginning of each set, even threatening to have stewards come down and help them make their minds up to remove their deck chairs, tarpaulins or Persian carpets in order for the rest of us to stand shoulder to shoulder and get a fair chance of looking up Kate Rusby’s nostrils.  When I can be bothered with the hassle, I opt for the latter.  I had in mind exactly the artists I wanted to see during the weekend and with the possible exeption of Joan Baez, whose popularity made it impossible to get anywhere near the front, I managed to get in to see most of them.  The first event I wanted to attend on Friday was the Mojo Interview. This started as a regular feature three years ago with Loudon Wainwright III and I’ve attended each one since, taking in Jimmy Webb and Richard Thompson along the way.  Steve Earle was this year’s chosen interviewee and unlike all previous Mojo interviews, he made sure it was just that, an interview, refusing to appear with a guitar or perform any songs at all.  It was really a Q&A with some predictable questions from the audience, which gave Steve the ideal opportunity to tell us all what’s currently wrong the world and in particular America and the Bush Administration, and who would expect anything different?  The reason Steve appeared like a reincarnation of Allen Ginsberg was apparently due to the fact that he’s currently appearing in an American tv drama called The Wire, where he plays a recovering drug addict called Walon where he ‘pawned my bike, my pickup truck, a national steel guitar, lost a good wife, a bad girlfriend, and the respect of anyone who ever lent me money’ – typecast again eh Steve?  As I have pointed out, much of Friday was taken up queueing outside the club tent in order to sign up to play later in the evening and so I only caught the rhythms and beats and vague leakage from the distant sound system of Le Vent Du Nord, Allison Moorer, Sharon Shannon and Oysterband, none of whom appeared on my ‘must see’ list.  The only performances I was interested in seeing on Friday was Show of Hands and Steve Earle who were appearing on the main stage later in the evening.  Show of Hands are the quintessential English duo whose pedigree is unquestionable.  Rising up from the smoking ashes of the Arizona Smoke Revue (hardly a quintessential English name granted), Steve Knightley and Phil Beer have undertaken the role of spokespersons for our generation of English folkies, with a clear determined voice and with hardly an ambiguous message and nowhere better said than in Roots.  On Saturday, the two main acts that were floating my boat and flicking my switch were Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, but enough said already, and Martha Tilston and the Woods.  I’m a big fan of Martha’s and although I’ve seen her on numerous occasions, either alone or with one or two of her sidekicks, this is the first time I’ve seen her with her full band and never have I seen her quite so animated.  She was up for it with the Cambridge audience and she captivated us all with her charm.  Performing songs from her latest album Of Milkmaids and Architects, she managed to bring the Radio 2 stage alive with her presence and all eyes were most definitely upon her.  Songs like “Artificial” and “Good World” remind us exactly of our own life experiences but unlike Martha, we didn’t think to articulate it first.  The highlight song for me was “Corporations” from the free download album Rope Swing, with the euphoric feelgood chorus that had both Martha and the rest of us dancing on the spot.  Kate Rusby had her audience swooning at her feet once again.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Kate in various incarnations over the years but believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve made a conscious effort to get up close to see her entire set at Cambridge and it was delightful to hear songs from her new as yet unreleased album Awkward Annie.  She was joined onstage by her regular band with the nice additional accompanament of strings and brass.  Interesting how the strings were provided by delicate little things with good table manners and correctly poised seating positions learned from the best etiquette manuals, whilst the brass section were fresh from the rugby scrum.  Oh you have to love good old brass bands.  On Sunday, after a full English at The Unicorn, we decided to do all our toiletries early and hydrate ourselves enough to see out a full six hour stint in front of main stage one to see five consecutive performances, three of which were at the top of our ‘must see’ list, one that was on our ‘might see if we have time’ list and one which was on our ‘avoid at all costs’ list, which was short, sweet and full of fiddles.  ‘Im sorry, but even though I’m a folkie through and through, bands like Solas bore me to tears.  I just cannot tell one fiddle tune from another unless that fiddle is in the hands of Dave Swarbrick who manages to make it do something different.  Before our appointment with the main stage, we went to see Martin Simpson’s guitar workshop in the club tent.  This was basically ninety minutes of handy tips, which ranged from: how to tune a guitar in weird and wonderful open tunings, to: how to look after your fingers and sit up straight.  Budding guitarists ranging from all age groups were all ears as Martin answered questions on best ways to hold down a chord (for the novices) to just exactly how wide in centimetres is the width of your strap Martin? (for out and out anoraks).  You always come away with some useful tips though, but having listened to some of Martin’s examples, you really only come away with the absolute tunnel-visioned notion of burning your guitar on a Cambridge pyre and taking up the mouth organ.  Getting to the main stage for the first act of the day is relatively easy.  On Saturday, we were first there at 11am for Rachel Unthank, in fact we could’ve arrived 45 minutes later and still been touching the front barrier.  So on Sunday, we had a leisurely stroll down to the front just before the first performance commenced.  The Danish duo Haugaard & Hoirup were first up and were probably the nicest couple of lads at the festival.  Very charming and pleasant but again, it’s fiddle tunes innit?  Martin Simpson’s main festival appearance was next up and he thrilled us all by inviting the legendary bassist Danny Thompson up on stage for the entire set.  Andy Cutting from Kate Rusby’s band made up the trio, who together performed a few songs from Martin’s new album Prodigal Son.  A couple of guest singers were invited onstage during the performance too, both gifted singers and both incredibly attractive to look at and I care not a jot how sexist that may sound, I speak it how it is.  Kate Rusby and Kellie While sang back up on the respective songs they contributed towards on the album.  I was so happy that Martin performed Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”, it’s been literally years since I’ve heard him sing that song and it took me right back to the Rockingham Arms days, green snotocaster guitar and all.  The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was the unexpected surprise of the entire festival.  I suspect that the crowd who gathered, no doubt in anticipation of Solas who were next up, were slightly puzzled when the orchestra came on stage.  Dressed in black tie, the generally middle-aged ukulele weilding band struck up with a couple of entertaining ditties that set off a few murmers circulating the arena, but no great response yet.  It was only when they performed David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, with it’s tongue in cheek ‘every song ever written can be sung to this tune’ theme, that the audience were hooked.  I’d previously seen this performance on YouTube so I knew what was coming, but the astonished reaction of some in the audience was a joy to witness.  They went from strength to strength with their very special versions of “Theme from Shaft”, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, all on six ukes and a bass!  I don’t have much to say about Solas apart from the guy next to me was convinced they are the best band in the world.  I considered taking his address and sending him some cds via recorded delivery as a matter of great urgency out of pity, but deciided against it.  I think he’s a lost cause.  So, straight onto Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.  I converted to Ricky Skaggs years ago even though I’ve always been fully aware of his schizophrenic straddling of great music and CMT type country.  His bluegrass work with Tony Rice is probably as good as it gets, and now that he has returned to his bluegrass roots, he has come up with a band that deliver the goods.  The band played a storming set to conclude the Sunday afternoon main stage slot, performing much of what is now considered the benchmark of bluegrass music including Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” amongst so many others.  So, inevitably we return to the Winterset. The final performance for me at this years’ Cambridge Folk Festival was Rachel and Co’s Radio 2 Stage performance on Sunday night.  Once again, like some sychophantic dork, I wended my way to the front, camera in hand, ears at the ready, eyes a goggled and heart a beating.  I was first in line to buy their second album as soon as their Producer arrived with the goods on Thursday afternoon.  I had the thing played on my car stereo before close of play Thursday and could now witness their rendering of it live once again.  The band’s third and final appearance at the festival was much more relaxed than their debut on the main stage on Saturday.  They didn’t have the string quartet and the bass player to worry about I suppose and could just get into their regular set.  Antony and the Johnson’s “For Today I am a Boy” is always a hit with the crowd and Belinda’s humour was, as expected, on top form.  With a bit of high heeled dancing and a set that any performer, no matter who it is, would be proud of, the music festival came to an end (for me) on “Fareweel Regality” and my thirst for Guinness evaporated under the tree next to the Guinness Tent and my senses became unashamedly wobbly.  Whatever the reason I got into this music in the first place, it’s the feeling that this evokes that keeps me here. Roll on next year.

Roger Davies | The Regent, Doncaster | 04.09.07

Roger Davies is a West Yorkshire song smith with a delicate touch.  You are more than likely to be instantly taken by his cool delivery and easy going relaxed stage presence.  This is because there’s a certain unpatronising warmth about a performer who refers to his audience as his ‘gang’ and consequently, you seem to enfold yourself within his circle, not kicking, not screaming.  Roger takes his birthright seriously, and there is an abundance of affectionate songs centred round his hometown of Brighouse and surrounding area.  Roger’s namesake Ray Davies proved once and for all that you can write a song about places with British names and make them just as cool as the Americans; “Waterloo Sunset” being the definitive example.  Roger’s “Huddersfield Town” captures this essence in the same manner but manages to avoid it being just a pastiche of that particular style of writing.  “Northern Trash”, despite its confrontational title (to a Donny lad that is), still maintains the affectionate aspect of his writing about home.  “Raynor Road”, “Bradford Girl” and “Little Town” all fit neatly into the canon that is Roger’s tribute to his Northern roots.  There’s nothing long and drawn out or with any excessive multi chorus’s in Roger Davies’ songs, they’re all pretty short and sweet and to the point.  During his two club length sets at the Monday Music Club at The Regent, he managed to pack in a total of twenty-three songs of which there were only two covers, Bernard Wrigley’s tribute to Dame Nellie Melba “Knocking Nellie” and a Hugh Moffat song made popular by the late Johnny Cash, “Rose of My Heart”.  The rest were all his.  Harvey Andrews apparently said of Davies “The best thing I’ve seen in 20 years. That lad has everything” pretty much my opinion really it has to be said.  Of course there are similarities in the singing of these two song writers; both have a clear delivery and a sweetness of style and an ability to tell a good story.  But I don’t particularly see Roger Davies as the new Harvey Andrews, he’s clearly his own man.  I suspect Roger has a wry sense of humour, evident in songs such as “Beer Belly Blues” where he name checks literally dozens of pubs, possibly a Guinness Book of World Records amount of pubs, and all in one song, as he tells of how he gained his beer belly.  I went along to see Roger after catching part of a support spot some weeks previous at the same venue and hoped he would sing a couple from his Northern Trash CD.  He actually sang every song from that album and pretty much everything from his earlier offering “Little Town” as well.

Patsy Matheson & Becky Mills | The Regent, Doncaster | 11.09.07

It would probably be impolite to describe here just how scared Crosby Stills and Nash were when they took to the Woodstock stage way back in ‘69 for their supposed second gig ever but last night for their third gig ever, Becky Mills and Patsy Matheson seemed relatively relaxed when they appeared at the Monday Music Club at the Regent as a duo.  This could possibly have something to do with the slight difference in numbers, granted, but in both cases, cutting your teeth in high profile bands appears to bring out an assured confidence in an artist or in this case, two artists.  On this occasion, Becky and Patsy have temporarily strayed from fellow bandmates Rachel Goodwin and Jools Parker to bring to this small Doncaster audience the essence of Waking the Witch in a stripped down version.  What Waking the Witch do share with the aformentioned Sixties ‘supergroup’ is a flare for vocal dexterity that is best captured live.  Fortunately, very little is lost in the singing of Becky and Patsy, both of whom possess distinctly different voices that somehow work together incredibly well.  From the outset, I wondered whether the ‘missing’ voices would be so noticable as to signify a gaping hole, but pleasantly surprised was I.  Taking selections from each of the bands’ three albums, the duo managed to deliver each song without losing any of the power of the four piece on songs such as “Only Human” with some sweet slide guitar, the outstanding “Jenny Thornton & The Boys from the Abattoir” with it’s cute whistled coda filling in for the brass section used on the recorded version, “There for Me” the usual Waking The Witch opener and “Spring Song” with its creative use of a South American rainstick.  And then, as if this wasn’t enough, along comes the touching “Man of Moon”, Becky Mills’ achingly personal song which invites us all to witness first hand emotional turmoil in song.  The haunting coda of “rewind, pause, play” seems to stay with you.  Once heard, never forgotten.   The three cover versions of the night could not have been culled from more diverse sources; “Gold Watch Blues”, a Donovan cover written by Mick Softley with its interesting jews harp accompaniament, tells the all too familiar tale of signing away ones being to a life of work; the traditional power ballad that is and always will be “Matty Groves” with all the ‘umph’ of, let’s say your common or garden British folk rock outfit; and of all things, Gary Numan’s “Cars”.  I guess you really had to be there to witness it, but if this isn’t too much of a stretch, imagine “Cars” as appearing on Joni Mitchell’s first album and fitting seamlessly between “Night in the City” and “Marcie” – I know, difficult to imagine but true.  Musical trinkets such as the Bolivian rainstick, an assortment of shakers and rattlers, the odd jews harp, a couple of nice guitars and a mandolin are all delightfully utilised in this duos’ set, but when it comes down to it, it’s those voices that matter, that’s what it’s all about.  Becky Mills and Patsy Matheson make it all seem as easy as breathing and I suspect to them, this is precisely what it is.

Guy Clark | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | 12.09.07

Whenever you get the chance to see someone of the stature of Guy Clark in one of our towns or cities, you approach that city thinking to yourself, Guy Clark’s in town.  There’s a presence.  When you get to the bar of the venue you become increasingly aware that you are surrounded by a bunch of people who have one thing in common, they share an insatiable appetite for good songs and you know instinctively, they are just about to have a feast.  Sheffield’s Memorial Hall is sneakily tucked away behind the imposing City Hall, which provides a smaller intimate three hundred seater venue, a much more conducive setting for a Guy Clark gig.  Guy was joined by long time sideman Verlon Thompson on guitar who has been with Guy more or less since the Old Friends album back in 1988.  Guy Clark is a writer of songs, or to put it in his own words, a ‘songbuilder’.  Many songbuilders are fortunate to have one or two gems in their repertoire, songs that just make you go weak at the knees.  In some rare cases, the more prolific writers amongst us manage to come up with probably more than their fair share of classics, indeed you have to take your socks off to count them.  Guy Clark on the other hand, appears to have shed-loads, and one after the other they came out tonight.  Opening with “The Cape”, Guy exposed an uncommonly frail voice, which may just be down to tour exhaustion, but fortunately it did strengthen during the course of the set.  The Texan doesn’t come over as someone who visits the gym all too frequently and therefore a weaker than normal voice fits well into the overall laid back approach to life that we have all come to love about Guy Clark.  He doesn’t seem to struggle with nerves, in fact it’s almost as if he’s playing in his own front room.  The informality of a Guy Clark gig can be summed up in his tongue-in-cheek introductory statement ‘we have no set list, we have no clue, we have no fear’.  Classics such as “LA Freeway”, “Texas 1947” and “Home Grown Tomatoes” (a love song, according to Guy) were instant crowd pleasers, as was the only new song “Magdalene” from Clark’s most recent album Workbench Songs.  Predictably, having seen Guy Clark personally a handful of times previously, he allowed his set to be something of a request show, and as long as he could remember the song, he would sing it.  The requests poured in and were immediately answered with no argument.  “Dublin Blues”, “Stuff That Works”, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”, “Ramblin’ Jack and Mahan” and “Boats to Build” were all water off a duck’s back.  Guy also peppered his set with anecdotal memoirs of how some of his songs came to be written, most notably “LA Freeway” where we learn exactly what kind of man the infamous landlord was, before bidding him farewell and hitting the road.  One of the most poignant moments during the evening was when Guy performed “The Randall Knife”, a moving tribute to his late father, which he unexpectedly abandoned the PA for, in favour of singing acoustically to a room that wouldn’t really qualify for borderline acoustic status.  I think Guy wanted us to pay attention, and so we did.  Guy left the stage temporarily to allow Verlon Thompson the space to showcase one or two of his own songs “Joe Walker’s Mare”, “Everywhere Yet” and a song that pulled at the heart strings “He Left the Road”, a song that initially sounded like a tribute to John Fogerty with its familiar opening lick, but transpired to be a story of a young man’s fatal drive whilst listening to “Proud Mary” just before leaving the road for the last time.  After Verlon’s short set of solo songs, Guy returned to the stage to round off the evening with Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is to Fly”, a fitting tribute to his old friend and a final encore of “Let it Roll” which prompted an unexpected yet thoroughly deserved standing ovation.

Bob Fox | The Rock, Maltby | 14.09.07

I dare not even hazard a guess at exactly how long Bob Fox has been singing songs from the North East in the folk clubs, but when I first ventured into folk club land, and that’s pretty much a long time ago (and a bit), he was a fixture in all the local and national gig guides, together with his old mate Stu Luckley.  Now, stacked along several shelves at my feet, are antiquities known as LPs, and amongst them I have a couple of vinyl gramophone records by Bob Fox and Stu Luckley.  Their first LP, Nowt So Good’ll Pass, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary next year and on it, Bob sings songs which have subsequently become pretty much standard folk club fare, songs like “Sally Wheatley” and “The Bonnie Gateshead Lass” both of which he performed to a relatively small gathering at The Rock in Maltby tonight.  I can reveal that the distinctive voice on the record and the voice I heard tonight has changed very little, if at all.  If you want some sparkling bright new folk whizz kid you’ve come to the wrong place tonight.  Ditto if you’re looking for some experimental cross-over boundary-pushing folk genius.  If however your taste buds are craving a little of what is generally accepted as a benchmark for the North East singing tradition, you needn’t look any further than Bob Fox.  He is considered one of this countries’ best folk singers and he could quite easily have walked away with the 2003 Best Singer Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards had Eliza Carthy not also been nominated that particular year.  As well as being a highly competent singer, Bob can also find his way along the fretboard with relative ease, sticking in the odd jig or reel at the end of one of his songs.  The song selections he chose for the Rock were split pretty much evenly between songs from his own back catalogue, one or two traditional songs and a few from friends along the way, including Chris Leslie’s “My Love is in America”, Jez Lowe’s “Greek Lightning” and “Taking on Men”, Johnny Handle’s “Guard Yer Man Weel”, Ewan MacColl’s “Champion at Keeping ‘em Rolling” and even (of all things) Jimmy Nail’s “Big River”, tagged onto the end of the gorgeous “Waters Of Tyne”.  It’s always great to hear such confidence in an experienced singer of songs that you grew up with and it’s even better when they still sound as good as they did on those records from your past.  For those amongst us who have saved those dusty old records on dusty old shelves, or those of us who can remember the folk scene of the Seventies and early Eighties, there may be good news around the corner.  Bob indicated that he might very well be getting back together with Stu for some gigs next year, in order to celebrate thirty rather swell years since the release of that remarkable LP.  I think I’d like some of that. 

Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2007 | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | 16.09.07

There is at the moment a strange exotic Baroque construction right in the heart of Rotherham town centre, standing in the shadow of the imposing Minster.  The sight of this strange pavilion has been attracting curious onlookers, both young and old alike throughout the week, and this evening there are sublime sounds coming from within.  Sitting on one of the benches in All Saints Square, whilst munching away on a rather tasty Subway sandwich and inadvertently attracting a couple of local pigeons, I feel like I am the only person on earth who has the pleasure of hearing these perfectly harmonious voices, coming not from the Minster itself, as part of a Sunday evenings’ service, but from within this strange temporary construction before me.  “What is it?” enquire the pigeons.  Why it’s the Idolize Spiegeltent I reply. “And what’s that sound?”  Ah, now that would be messers Coope, Boyes and Simpson, sound checking for what could turn out to be one of the highlights of this years folk calendar.  For this part of the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, Martin Simpson was asked to come up with an exciting programme entitled ‘Local Heroes’ requesting the pleasure of the company of some of his favourite local singers and musicians on the current folk scene.  The programme consists of two nights of folk music and tonight Simpson has chosen wisely methinks.  Bringing together one of the countries finest singers in John Tams, together with Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson, who clearly have three of the most compatible voices on the planet, specifically to share the stage with one of the most extraordinary virtuoso guitarists in the country, left me wondering why it took so long to happen.  Upon entering the Spiegeltent, you feel a very distinct otherworldly ambience.  Ornate cherubs play seriously disconcerting games upon the constructions’ main supports, whilst plush upholstered seating in decadent crimson and gold give the impression of a turn of the century Parisian boudoir that Louis XVI would’ve been proud of.  If Nicole Kidman was to swing above your head whilst Ewan Macgregor warbled “Your Song” you wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.  The evening concert consisted of two sets featuring Martin Simpson (solo), John Tams and Barry Coope (duo), Coope, Boyes and Simpson (trio) and finally a quintet that must’ve been made, if not smack bang in the middle of, then surely not far from Heaven.  Martin opened the show with a couple of guitar pieces entitled “She Slips Away” and “Mother Love” before segueing into “Little Musgrave” from his new and much talked about album Prodigal Son.  Twenty albums on from the time when the young son of Scunthorpe used to travel up and down the country, green guitar in hand and cheeky grin on his face, dazzling folks from all around with his unique and highly polished guitar style, I can confirm that after witnessing his new album launch at this years’ Cambridge Folk Festival, sharing the stage with Danny Thompson, Kate Rusby, Kellie While and Andy Cutting, he is still very much ‘The Man’.  Martin is also a generous musician who can stand back from the spotlight in order to allow others to take centre stage.  This is all about respect.  In the case of tonight, he let John Tams, one of our most enigmatic performers, take over the stage.  With Barry Coope at his side, John delighted the Rotherham audience with songs new and old including “Lay Me Low”, “Amelia” and “Will I See Thee More”.  There is a warmth to John Tams that cannot be contrived.  He is a passionate performer with a very English, very northern sense of dignity. You simply cannot leave his presence without being touched by it.  He also has a unique way of making you giggle without any seemingly planned stage patter.  His observations on life just come naturally.  Coope, Boyes and Simpson came on next to raise the roof with, curiously enough, “Raising the Rafters”, which tested the audience’s communal singing credentials.  Barry Coope in all fairness was suffering from the sniffles and I suspect he probably felt he wasn’t on top form, but we the audience couldn’t tell.  He probably just worked harder than anyone tonight to cover it up.  The trio finished the first part of the concert with “Horkstow Grange”, the song that features a character called ‘Steeleye Span’ from which a very well known folk rock outfit took their name.  The second part of the evening was a fine collaborative effort for all concerned when all five musicians came together to form, for the sake of argument, Coope, Boyes, Simpsons and Tams.  Songs from both sides of the Atlantic were chosen to represent this second half, with Hedy West’s “Pans of Biscuits”, one of the most common choices of funeral songs “Didn’t He Ramble”, Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and a couple from John Tams’ current repertoire “Remembrance Day” and “Harry Stone”.  Martin Simpson led with a Cyril Tawny song from his Bramble Briar album “Sammy’s Bar” before allowing John Tams to finish the set with a rousing airing of “Vulcan and Lucifer” and “Steelos” from the Radio Ballads series, and incidentally, from the Radio Ballad that is closest to our hearts, particularly in this neck of the woods, The Song of Steel.  The first of these two ‘Local Heroes’ concerts was brought to a close with the help of the enthusiastic audience.  As the sleepy All Saints Square pigeons nestled into the nooks and niches of Rotherham Minster, peering in through the green and blue tinted skylights of the Spiegeltent, the final chorus of “Rolling Home” could be heard down the streets of Rotherham on what turned out to be a fine warm summers’ evening.  As part of the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, a group of talented local musicians congregated for the first of two afternooon concerts, under the banner of the ‘Real Music Bar’, run by Pete Thornton-Smith (MC).  The first of these concerts in all fairness should have attracted a capacity crowd, not just for the standard of musicianship on show, but certainly for the entry fee.  There must have been something desperately good on the telly is all I can say.  Laura-Anne Collins was the first special guest kicking off the proceedings in the Spiegeltent, which has been erected in the heart of Rotherham town centre, just beside the Minster. Laura-Anne is an Irish singer/songwriter currently based in the North of England.  To label Laura-Anne simply a singer/songwriter is really slightly unfair for she has so much more about her than just a bunch of songs.  Her impressive musical credentials, as shown on her CV (which quite possibly runs into several pages), shows that she is a highly competent composer and arranger who has worked in both film and theatre and who is amongst a handful of artists currently experimenting in live looping; KT Tunstall and Nick Harper spring to mind as good examples. Proficient in both guitar and piano, Laura-Anne played a couple of delightful sets this afternoon to an audience of musicians, folk music fans and curious onlookers, dropping in to see what it’s all about.  Leeds based guitarist Troy Faid’s reputation is steadily growing at the moment and there is really little wonder.  Once you see Troy live there is no doubting his command of the guitar.  His easy going laid back approach to country blues and his understated vocal delivery puts him right up there with the leaders in the field.  His influences read like a who’s who of important exponents of this style of playing, including Lonnie Johnson, Skip James and Robert Johnson as well as more recent ‘keepers of the faith’ Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb and Martin Simpson, who incidentally will be sharing this very same stage later today.  South Yorkshire based couple Ruth and Gary Wells need no introduction, at least within a fifty miles radius of the little town of Wath-upon-Dearne at any rate.  When Ruth isn’t singing her own compositions, she delights in bringing to her audience songs from her own particular favourite female songwriters such as Eleanor McEvoy “Only a Woman’s Heart” and Natalie Merchant “Motherland” as well as a few good blokes as well, Richard Thompson “The Sun Never Shines on the Poor” and Martyn Joseph “Strange Way”.  Gary introduces most of the songs and plays six string bass and tries to behave himself, but often can’t.  I keep bumping into Roger Davies for some strange reason and that’s not a bad thing at all.  Davies is a wonderful songwriter with a distinctive, immediately recognisable singing voice.  He sings in his West Yorkshire vernacular and perhaps does for Brighouse what Kate Rusby does for Barnsley.  “Huddersfield Town”, “Northern Trash” and “Old Fashioned Man” are melodic songs that resonate long after the guitars popped back in its box.  The stand out song, especially for a warm South Yorkshire afternoon, is “Beer Belly Blues” where he name checks about fifty pubs, real or imaginary.

Harvey Andrews |The Regent, Doncaster | 17.09.07

There should be a government health warning printed on each ticket to a Harvey Andrews gig that reads: Warning, drink coffee or eat chocolate at your peril and as for not turning off your mobile phone.  Harvey is from the ‘old headmasters’ school of entertainers, where you feel you have to sit up straight, keep your mouth shut, speak when you’re spoken to and put your hands up when asked to do so.  His fans love it.  His overtly ‘grumpy old man’ persona is forgivable simply because he has a warm nature and a big smile.  He can also write some good songs and often does.  His sell-out appearance at the Monday Music Club at The Regent tonight brought together a capacity crowd of fans, most of whom probably remember him from his earlier days.  They came along to hear songs like “Gift of a Brand New Day” and “Boothferry Bridge”, and in all fairness, they heard those songs as if it was indeed the Seventies, for Harvey has changed little over the years.  His voice is still as clear and sweet as ever and his easy on the ear alternating bass finger picking style of guitar accompaniment remains the same as it’s always been.  A highly prolific songwriter, Harvey has been singing in clubs all over the world for the best part of 43 years and much of his current repertoire centres around approaching his twilight years, with songs of a simpler time; elderly siblings reunited in “Grain of Sand” or pure nostalgia in songs like “When I Was a Boy” and “Cheeky Young Lad”.  It’s not all wine and roses though, as he touches upon unhappier moments like broken marriages for instance in “I Didn’t Get the House”.  Having once been a writer of what could be described as ‘protest songs’ Harvey now appears to be more concerned with the process of growing old.  The introduction of a brand new song “Moon Over Callow” seems to be a touching meditation on ordinary suburban life, afternoon tea and a chat with the neighbours over the garden fence, and how well the shrubs and trees are looking at the moment.  Not only a ‘writer of songs’ but now also a writer of books it seems, as he read out an amusing passage from his autobiography “Gold Star to the Ozarks”.  Harvey stopped singing songs like “Soldier” and “Targets” presumably because they don’t seem to be relevant anymore.  Even after a song like “Living in an Ugly World”, to which a brilliantly timed police siren sounded off midway, Harvey confesses that on the contrary, he believes we live in a beautiful world.  “The problem though, is human beings”.

Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2007 | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | 19.09.07

The second of the ‘Local Heroes’ concerts devised by Martin Simpson for the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, showcased two sides of the current Martin Simpson phenomenon, that of a solo artist in his own right and that of a band leader at the helm of a stunning new band featuring Andy Cutting on accordion, Andy Seward on double bass and Kellie While providing backing vocals.  The first half was Martin Simpson as we’re used to seeing him, full of confidence and musical flair as he alternated between two Stefan Sobell guitars, covering anything from traditional Irish ballads, self-penned originals, Dylan songs and of course The Blues.  His version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Just Can’t Keep from Crying” filled the already atmospheric Spiegeltent with tastefully executed ambient music that immediately silenced the audience; you could hear a pin drop.  There’s something about the way Martin Simpson applies the neck of a bottle to a newly strung guitar that makes you pay attention.  Because the Spiegeltent stands in the shadow of Rotherham Minster, the choice of “A Blacksmith Courted Me”, which is basically the self same melody as “To be a Pilgrim”, led us all kicking and screaming back to the Sunday School room, although we were soon brought back to reality by Martin’s astute confession that he feels he has to abandon God for the simple reason that he doesn’t like the way he talks to George W Bush.  Amen to that.  It was nice to hear the new arrangement of “The Granemore Hare”, formerly performed as a solo guitar piece.  Now, for his Prodigal Son album, Martin brings us both the song as well as the air; two pieces of beauty for the price of one, bargain!  Also from the new album, Martin repeated a song from the first ‘Local Heroes’ concert on Sunday night, “Little Musgrave”, which has subsequently become much more famous to folk rockers as “Matty Groves”.  More contemporary choices of borrowed songs came in the form of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, and Lowell George’s “Long Distance Love”.  Anyone who covers Little Feat songs remain forever on my Christmas card list.  Martin’s eclecticism has always been the single most important reason I have revisited his concerts (and recorded work) time and time again.  His choices are always intelligent and carefully selected using something that can only be described remarkable taste.  It’s almost because of this that he can be forgiven for not being a prolific songwriter himself, but then for his Righteousness and Humidity album he astonishes us all with “Love Never Dies”, which he finished the first half of the concert with.  Not only does he write a song, but a humdinger of a song to boot.  You cannot help but follow this man’s well travelled heels all the way.  For the second half of the concert, Martin was joined on stage by what is essentially the band he put together to record Prodigal Son.  Although Alistair Anderson, Barry Phillips, Kate Rusby and Jackson Browne were absent, the essentials of the band were present.  Andy Seward does a remarkable job of filling Danny Thompson’s shoes on double bass, and Kellie While and Andy Cutting make up the quartet that first played together at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival, where the album was launched.  Most of the new album came out to play for the second half.  “Lakes of Champlain”, possibly better known as “Lakes of Shilin”, a Nic Jones classic, “Never Any Good”, another remarkably good song from Martin’s pen and “Duncan & Brady” with it’s memorable refrain ‘Been on the job too long’, which had all the bluesmen amongst us tapping our feet.  For “Andrew Lammie” Martin temporarily ditched the Sobell’s for a strange ‘Weissenbown’ slide guitar, which made a perfect partner for Andy Cutting’s trademark accordion accompaniment.  Normally I am of the opinion that once a song is recorded by an artist, there it shall stay, a statement made and filed for posterity.  However, I was so pleased when Martin re-recorded Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”, which appeared on his very first LP Golden Vanity.  Martin told me that he decided to re-record the song for the new album and put it back on his set list for no other reason than to pay homage to the city he loves, New Orleans.  It remains one of Martin’s most important songs, which is sadly much more poignant now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  One of the highlights of tonight’s concert was Martin’s duet with Kellie While on Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair”.  Up to this point, I thought Kellie was probably a little too far back in the mix and I was longing to hear her fabulous voice.  For “Strange Affair” it appeared in full swing and probably provided for all intents and purposes, the cherry on top of what turned out to be not just a great gig, but a great festival.

Jonathan Kelly | The Rock, Maltby | 21.09.07

For most of my generation of music fans, Jonathan Kelly was playing clubs up and down the country when we were too young to even be in pubs.  We all had the Twice Around the Houses album, with it’s enigmatic glossy sleeve depicting a heavily bearded hippie, complete with plaid scarf, black overcoat and Daily Telegraph stuffed in its pocket, which resided in any self respecting bed-sit, normally in a cardboard box next to the Dansette, but actually seeing him play live was not on the cards just yet.  Four years later, when we had managed to grow our hair and could plausibly pass for adults, we were finally ready for upstairs pub rooms and hippie troubadours but of course by then we’d missed the boat.  Jonathan had inexplicably fallen off the edge of the planet and was nowhere to be seen.  Still, ever present in the record collection, both Twice Around the Houses and the follow up Wait Till They Change the Backdrop frequently leapt off the shelf for an airing over the ensuing years, and any thought of ever seeing Jonathan Kelly live was well off the radar.  That was until April 2005 when Bob Chiswick and Gerald Sables put together a charity concert featuring Jonathan at the Sprotbrough Country Club in Doncaster and this time I was present.  Jonathan can be forgiven for not having the same vocal delivery he once had in youth.  These songs were written for a younger voice.  I do however feel it is important that Jonathan make every attempt to sing them in the same manner, despite the occasional quaver.  It would be a shame to hear a Jonathan Kelly song performed by an ageing rocker who has deliberately changed his vocal style to suit an older voice, Dylan springs to mind, or worse, Leonard Cohen’s inclination to talk a song.  This is fine for them, but not for Jonathan Kelly.  The one thing that remains precisely the same now as back then is Jonathan’s warmth and self depreciating wit, which is quite endearing.  He seems to be completely bewildered that anyone would want to come out to listen to him.  Those who have been touched by Jonathan and his songs know different.  By his own admission, Jonathan still writes prolifically even after all this time.  He is of the opinion that ‘songs come to visit, and if I’m quick and copy them down before they leave, then I can play them to someone else’.  It’s almost as if he claims no ownership of the songs that come to visit him, ‘many times they just come and slip out of the back door never to be heard of again.  It doesn’t worry me; it was just nice to have them around for a while’.  Although Jonathan is keen to get some of these newer songs out before they slip out of the back door (“Eileen” being a good example), he is under no illusion that his hardcore fans come to hear familiar songs from their (and his) youth, and on this score Jonathan never disappoints.  Twice Around the Houses’ is always well represented at his gigs and if every song from that album is not played, then it’s surely only the omission of a couple.  Tonight was no exception as Jonathan kicked off the concert at The Rock with the anthemic “We Are the People”, insisting from the get go that the audience become his backing band.  Bang things, tap glasses, stamp your feet but most importantly sing.  “Rainy Town”, “Madeleine”, “We’re Alright ‘till Then”, “Leave Them Go” and the timeless “Sligo Fair” followed to an enthusiastic response from the packed house.  Wait Till They Change the Backdrop however, was less well represented with only “Down on Me” being performed.  “Mother Moon”, one of the songs from the ‘Backdrop’ sessions, which didn’t quite make the album, was played to a delighted response.  I’m sure the imbalance all comes down to time really, for had it been up to Jonathan, who had a request list a mile long at his feet, he would’ve been only too pleased to play until dawn.  During the second half, Jonathan invited a couple of friends on stage to help him out on a few new songs.  Slide guitarist Mike Miller told me they had only just worked out the arrangements prior to the gig, which confirms Jonathan’s ‘instant’ approach to music making.  Jonathan and Mike assisted Alexis in a country-tinged song called “Come and Rescue Me”, before they performed the quickly rehearsed new songs including “The Loneliness of John South”.  As Rob glanced at his watch, reluctantly having to draw the night to a close, Jonathan performed a stunning “Ballad of Cursed Anna” and the beautiful “I Used to Know You”, bringing the night almost to an end.  I say almost because it’s difficult to bring a Jonathan Kelly night to an end.  With a bit of an off-the-cuff rock n roll number presumably entitled “Rocking at the Rockingham Arms”, even the normally stoic figure of Rob Shaw was moved to get on his feet to dance, jiving with two women no less.  Jonathan Kelly remains an approachable, affable, pleasant sort of character, whose ability to excite an audience even after such a long period of time ‘off the scene’ seems to come naturally. Although he is still considered to have cult status on the British music scene, he really should be a household name.

The Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2007 | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | 23.09.07

The final night of this years’ Rotherham Open Arts Festival went out on something of a blue note.  John Doe: A Story of the Blues, is a fascinating stage show incorporating song, dance and poetry, which celebrates the story of the blues and most importantly how it was influenced by African music.  King Rollo first performed a similar show in 2001, which was especially commissioned for the Humber Mouth Literature Festival of that year, and tonight he presented an updated version with his ‘Band of Brothers’, a tight full blown blues band with a rhythm section that includes Nick Evans on bass, Ian Croft on drums and regular ‘Two Old Gits’ partner Dr A on keyboards. Rollo was joined tonight by Best Blues Harmonica Player of 2005, according to ‘Digital Blues Matters on PhoenixFM’, Laurent Moulier and two African djembe players Godfrey Pambalipe and Limukani Nyoni, or to his friends ‘Limsa’ both from Zimbabwe.  I managed to speak to King Rollo immediately before the show and he handed me a full script of the proceedings, which I was able to follow throughout the two part performance at The Spiegeltent in Rotherham Town Centre.  The show is an uncompromising ‘tell it how it is’ documentary in words and music commemorating the roots of slavery and how we have come to understand the power of freedom.  The inclusion of this production in the 2007 Rotherham Open Arts Festival is significant as it falls in the bicentenary year of Wilberforce’s abolition of the slave trade and the shows’ main purpose is to highlight the ongoing struggle against all forms of modern slavery.  The show could easily have been a blues jam with any number of blues standards thrown in, but King Rollo and his Band of Brothers, with the help of a couple of delightfully exotic ‘sisters’, brought to life the story of the Blues from it’s beginnings in the early 1900’s, through years of change and it’s connections to the Swing era of the Twenties and Thirties and the R&B period of the Sixties, almost right up to the present day, with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of blues styles and settings.  Interspersed throughout the performance were oratories by Rollo and other members of the band, taken from the writings of prominent figures in African-American literature (Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar), statesman and abolitionist (Frederick Douglass) and first-hand accounts from African slaves including Elaudah Equiano, William Wells Brown and Harriet Jacobs.  From the early days of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith with songs such as “Basin Street Blues” and “St Louis Blues”, King Rollo and the band circumnavigated their way through the history of the Blues with relative ease, changing styles and periods with seamless precision.  One minute we have a relatively faithful version of Bessie Smith’s “St Louis Blues”, with the memorable ‘rock in the sea’ theme, the next we are tackling the ragtime and country blues period of Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller on, respectively “Diddy Wa Diddy” and the brilliant “Trucking Those Blues Away” featuring an incredible harp solo by Moulier.  “Toady Toady”, a King Rollo original, was to all intents and purposes a nod to the New Orleans lineage of bluesmen from Professor Longhair to Dr John and anything inbetween.  King Rollo’s songs are essentially what holds this entire piece together, and because the styles and narrative changes so much along the way, they are a remarkable achievement in themselves.  Fun nights just wouldn’t be fun if there wasn’t at least a tiny bit of audience participation and King Rollo wasn’t going to let such an opportunity slip by tonight.  With band members holding up cue cards, the audience was divided into three groups and they were encouraged to sing three spirituals “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “I Wanna Sing”, in unison!  Lest we forget, blues music is for dancing to as well and Caz and Sophia provided some visual treats to remind us of the juke joints of the Deep South and the big city clubs of Chicago and New York in the North.  It is probably asking too much to bring The Cotton Club to The Spiegeltent in Rotherham, but there is no arguing with the fact that we were given a flavour of it tonight.  King Rollo knows his stuff.  He reminds me a little of John Mayall, if that’s not being too obvious, both in his handling of the material and in his band leader qualities.  He is obviously a fountain of blues knowledge and has educated himself far beyond the odd Paul Oliver book and a subscription to Blues Unlimited Magazine.  Putting a show together like this, with so much scope and having such a big story to tell is certainly no mean feat.  The thing that works best for me though and I dare say for everyone else who came along to witness this extraordinary spectacle, is that King Rollo and his Band of Brothers (and Sisters), manage to tell such an appallingly shameful story, highlighting man’s continuing inhumanity towards his own brother, yet making it uplifting and fun at the same time.  That’s the real essence of The Blues I guess.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | The Drill Hall, Lincoln | 26.09.07

With so many great singer songwriters about these days, especially in light of the fact that MySpace creates one per minute, it’s becoming rare for me to want to dwell on just the one for more than is absolutely necessary.  Tonight however, as soon as Devon Sproule played the last note on her prized ES125 1954 Gibson, I wanted to rewind and start over again, and I dare say once again even after that.  Playing a solo support spot to Rachel Unthank and the Winterset at the Drill Hall in Lincoln, Devon captivated the audience with a handful of memorable songs, delivered in her offbeat and delightful quirky fashion.  I am reminded of a pre-MacColl Peggy Seeger, the way Ewan MacColl once described her, as a young American college girl on foreign shores with worn out plimsolls and filthy neck that hasn’t been washed in weeks.  The waif-like Sproule is neither American nor does she possess a filthy neck, but she certainly has that youthful charisma and a stage presence that immediately captivates you, as Seeger must have had in the Fifties.  Almost totally obscured by her guitar, Devon sang a handful of what I like to refer to as ‘story songs’, songs that have a tale to tell.  Like Gillian Welch before her, Devon comes across as something of a throw back to simpler times.  Her Virginia roots come over much clearer than her actual Canadian roots, where she was born.  Opening with “Plea for a Good Night’s Rest” from her Upstate Songs album, lightly brushing her fingers against the strings of her vintage guitar, the ‘love of her life after her husband’ she tells us, the audience is hushed to complete silence.  It has been a long time since I have been instantly drawn in, usually it takes three of four songs, but tonight it was instant.  “Julie”, a song from the Found Magazine project, could quite easily have been written by Nanci Griffith and wouldn’t have been out of place on the Last of the True Believers album.  It is that sort of story telling that we were presented with in the wake of the ‘New Country’ giants of the late Eighties, but with an updated ‘Kooky’ edge. (‘Kooky’ is Becky Unthank’s description I hasten to add.)  With a nod to fellow Canadian Neil Young (to include a tribute to either Mitchell, Cohen, Young or a McGarrigle or two appears to be practically a national duty according to Sproule) “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is given the inimitable Sproule treatment.  Finishing with “Old Virginia Block”, from her second and much praised album Keep Your Silver Shined, the song should probably have fallen flat on it’s face without the support of the full band, and in particular the double bass slapping of Randall Pharr and the flirty fiddling of Morwenna Lasko, but it once again comes down to the jewel that is the stripped down basic song.  In the hands of such an inspiring performer as Devon Sproule, it works equally as well without all the trimmings.  The fact that Devon will be back stateside this weekend is particularly frustrating as I would have been keen to catch her once again.  Ah well, maybe next year.  Are you awake Cambridge?  Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are currently enjoying widespread approval from music fans young and old and not just from the world of folk music.  Their critically acclaimed second album The Bairns has received a resounding thumbs up from most who have heard it and their appearances on both local and national radio have forced people to take note.  The band are currently on their first tour of major UK venues and tonight saw their first visit to Lincoln, where they played to an almost full house at the Drill Hall in the city.  After their nail-biting album launch at this summers’ Cambridge Folk Festival and the subsequent handful of dates since they embarked on this current tour, kicking off in Edinburgh, Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, fiddler Niopha Keegan and supremo pianist Belinda O’Hooley have settled into performing their new album in front of live audiences with relative ease.  Tonight, most of the songs were from The Bairns with the exception of “On a Monday Morning” and “Fair Rosamund” from the first album Cruel Sister, together with a staggeringly beautiful rendition of Antony and the Johnson’s sublime “For Today I am a Boy” and one of Belinda’s songs “Cold n Stiff”, a popular live favourite from her new EP Chinese Whispers.  The rest of the concert was a feast for those of us who love The Bairns.  In the first set Rachel and Becky shared vocal duties on “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”, a roaring arrangement of a song about domestic abuse, which is possessed of bleezin’ blind fury, both from Rachel’s venomous vocal delivery and Belinda’s burlesque and bluesy piano accompaniment.  Rachel’s almost reluctant performance of Belinda O’Hooley’s heartbreaking “Whitethorn” remains as tense in live performance as it does on record.  This has all the melancholy of a Thomas Hardy novel rolled into one song.  Rachel needs our sympathy for the agony of going through the process of revealing this story, but my sympathy goes out to Belinda too, who had to write it.  Niopha’s weeping violin accompaniment could not have been better played.  Bridging the gap between the funereal atmosphere of “Whitethorn” and the ‘spring in your step’ joyous affair that is “Blackbird”, Rachel delivers the pulsating “Lull I”, whilst her band mates harmoniously hum in the background (if you know what I mean!)  By the end of the first set, closing with Becky and Belinda’s vocal ‘duel at dawn’ that is “For Today I am a Boy”, the audience needs a break from the turbulent emotional roller coaster ride, yet fully aware of and prepared for more to come.  “Felton Lonnin” opens the second half with the identical piano motif that opened the first one.  If Belinda puts the band on their marks with the aid of a Steinway Grand, then Becky sets the pace with her extraordinary heels, tapping out the heartbeat that runs throughout the song.  Songs from Northumberland that utilise Rachel’s inimitable rich vernacular are fast becoming her trademark, and none as clear and concise as this Johnny Handle arrangement of a traditional song from the North East.  When I first saw the band perform “Blue’s Gaen out o’the Fashion”, with its intricate arrangement and sudden tempo changes, I likened it to an erratic set of jigs and reels but with voices and clogs.  My mind has not changed on this, but after a number of subsequent re-visits, it all sounds so much more polished now and invites an irresistible audience response with the chorus of ‘when the tide comes in’.  When I saw the band in York last year, it was encouraging to see Nic Jones in the audience.  Having artists of that stature taking an interest must be enormously encouraging for the band.  I cannot imagine how Rachel Unthank and the Winterset must have felt tonight, once the whisper went around the room that Robert Wyatt, composer of “Sea Song”, which appears on the new album, was in the audience.  Hearing that song once again but with the knowledge that its author was in the room, sent goose bumps to where goose bumps ain’t been before.  Although it is easy to single out each individual member of the band for their own unique contribution to the band’s current repertoire, such as the delightful “Lull IV: Can’t Stop It Raining” featuring Rachel on ukulele (apparently, all the Unthank family got one each for Christmas), or Becky’s reading of “My Donald”, it is in the unity of the group where the richness comes flooding out either vocally on “Ma Bonny Lad” or instrumentally, once again on “My Donald”, where classical influences would be impossible to ignore.  A better finisher than “Fareweel Regality” doesn’t exist.  The band has claimed this as their own anthem, which is impossible to shake off long after the show finishes.  I personally don’t think there is a better example of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset as a completely unified band as when they perform this song.  The perfect finisher.  I had a few words with Robert Wyatt after the show and I asked him one predictable question, although I could probably have asked him several hundred and that was what he thought of the band’s treatment of his song, to which he replied “I never came here to see them do my song, I came here because they’re wonderful.  They are like the morning dew that hasn’t steamed off yet, they are new and fresh and I really don’t think they know how good they are”.  I tend not to argue with a genius.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | RNCM, Manchester | 29.09.07

Another excellent Winterset concert tonight, this time at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where the Unthanks managed to coerce a string quartet and a double bassist from the college into the act.  That’s the thing about classical musicians, plonk some dots in front of them and they’re off, no egos, no painfully emotive soloing, it’s just good old fashioned musical arrangement.  I wanted a night off from all the note taking, so I just relaxed, took a seat at the back, behind Adrian (you can’t really choose a better place to see a gig than right there near the sound desk), put my feet up and enjoyed.  I didn’t bother taking my camera, although luckily, I had the good sense to keep in my pocket my old faithful digicam, which came in handy for a couple of after show shots in the bar.  The real reason I chose to swap Leeds (tomorrow) for Manchester (tonight), was specifically to catch Devon Sproule once again before she returns to the States on Tuesday.  This was a fortunate decision because I also got to see her with her husband Paul Curreri, who duetted with her at the end of her set, which was one of the most touching moments I have witnessed on stage.

Claire Hamill | The Regent, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.10.07

At the tender age of thirteen, I had plenty of distractions to take my mind off algebra.  One was reading Melody Maker from cover to cover, as well as The New Musical Express, Disc (and Music Echo) and Sounds.  Another was Emma Peel, for obvious reasons that I won’t go into here.  But also at thirteen, I was in love with the mystery woman on the front cover of an LP called One House Left Standing, which featured an atmospheric black and white shot of a wide-eyed fresh-faced Pre-Raphaelite beauty with windswept hair, perched upon what appeared to be the axle of some abandoned railway carriage wheels along a dockside wasteland, which I later would discover to be a town called Middlesbrough.  It could’ve been Timbuktu for all I cared, for my eyes were inescapably and exclusively drawn to those staring right back at me.  To a schoolboy with a vivid imagination and a sense of adventure, Claire Hamill was inviting me to come play some illicit game by the river, but shhhh, don’t tell the teacher.  The two and a half weeks wages from my paper round went towards buying this LP from Foxes Records in Doncaster, for the princely sum of £2.49 in the recently decimalised Britain, but it was worth every single 6am alarm call.  That record languished in my painfully pedantic – yet necessary – alphabetically filed record collection for thirty-six years, sandwiched right there in-between Hackensack and Hawkwind, until tonight, when it came out to play for the first time in ages, only to return to its rightful place four hours later but with the added inscription, ‘To Alan with love, Claire Hamill x’.  It’s not difficult to fall in love with Claire Hamill twice in thirty-seven years, for she has such an infectious personality.  With several albums behind her and a chaotic career that has seen her recording classic bed-sit singer-songwriter albums, providing the UK with our very own Carole King, our very own Joni, as well as stints with Wishbone Ash and collaborations with such prog rock/experimental luminaries as Steve Howe and Vangelis and even some forays into jazz, she now returns to the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar, an enduring smile and a bag full of memorable songs.  Tonight at the Monday Music Club at the Regent, Claire performed several of those songs that have spanned her thirty-seven year career.  I could wax lyrical about how apt the metaphorical opener “Phoenix” was to a so called ‘fan’ who managed to miss out on an earlier incarnation of Claire Hamill in the early Seventies, due to algebra and distance.  But I was making up for lost time, rising up from the ashes in an almost embarrassingly flirtatious manner.  “The Man Who Couldn’t See Tomorrow’s Sunshine” again from the first album, has lost nothing in the intervening years and still sounds as fresh today as it did when I first encountered it in 1971.  She confessed to me before the show that the young woman on the front of the first album that had impressed me so, was in fact a girl who was at that time still at school.  So, the little I did learn in the Maths class enabled me to figure out we were more contemporary than I had first thought.  “Japanese Lullaby” and “Glastonbury”, both from 1988’s Love in the Afternoon album are songs from quite a different era than those of the One House Left Standing period.  ‘New Age’ is probably the choice term for those recordings, yet as solo songs, with just a single acoustic guitar, they are comfortable bedfellows to the earlier ‘bed-sit’ songs.  No better example of this is in “The Moon is a Powerful Lover” from the Touchpaper album.  The heavy power ballad treatment on the recorded version was completely replaced with a sensitive touch tonight.  Playfully, Claire segued into “Bésame Mucho”, which I have to confess, I had all on refraining from demonstrating my own peculiar version of the Rumba, right there in front of the stage.  You cannot escape the tangible grasp on romance that Claire Hamill possesses, her songs are so tightly packed with it, the seams cannot possibly contain the strain and the waves of emotion tend to flood out like a veritable tsunami.  Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Claire provides an extraordinarily candid flip side to love and romance with “I’d Rather Have Sex with a Stranger”, effectively giving up on love in favour of casual sex, ensuring he’s gone by dawn.  Confessional songs such as this are what we all love about Joni Mitchell and there is little wonder Claire has been used in the same sentence as Joni for decades, in fact tonight, in paying tribute to Mitchell, Claire tagged “Both Sides Now” onto the end of “Singer”.  Returning to the first album with “Where Are Your Smiles At” was for me, one of the highlights of the night.  Singers tend to rarely improve with age and much of the youthful sparkle often gets lost somewhere along the way.  Claire however, manages to hold onto that youthful spirit and her voice tonight was remarkably fresh.  After a stunning “You Take My Breath Away”, Claire returned to the stage for her regular finisher, ironically the song that started it all off in the first place, the jaunty “Baseball Blues” proving once again that time alters nothing really.  The fact that I missed all of Claire’s early Seventies concert appearances was finally compensated for tonight at The Regent, and probably in that one song alone.  During an unfortunate career lull in more recent years, Claire Hamill was astonished to discover that her reputation as a fine song writer was being rescued by chance, when the beautiful “You Take My Breath Away” was recorded by Eva Cassidy and released posthumously on her number one selling album American Tune.  The music industry is littered with these quirks of fate and we have to be thankful for them, but I can’t help but wonder, why do we allow our rich heritage of talented performers to slip into obscurity?  Is it because our tastes change?  Is it to make room for the bright young things?  I’d like to think there’s plenty of room for Claire Hamill, for in all honesty, she takes up so little space.  It’s great to have her back.

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan | The Rock, Maltby | 05.10.07

Believe it or not, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan have been working together as a duo on the folk scene for twelve years now and in that time they have managed to make several albums, walk away with the Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2003, tour extensively throughout the world and make plenty of friends along the way.  And if that wasn’t enough, they have found time to make what we all believed to be a ‘marriage made in heaven’ become a reality by tying the knot to become hubby and wife for real and as they say, ‘jobs a good ‘un’.  Tonight at The Rock, armed with a couple of fiddles and an eight string Stefan Sobell guitar shaped bouzouki, the duo performed several of their finely arranged songs and tunes to a delighted audience in Maltby, near Rotherham.  Playing two sets to a healthy sized audience, Nancy and James performed several songs, some traditional, some contemporary, some old, some new, some borrowed and some blue; and so ends any further reference to marriage from this point on.  Nancy and James appear to live and breathe their craft.  They talk fluently about all aspects of traditional folk music and seem to absorb sponge-like all the influences made available to them.  This is in no small part due to their celebrated lineage; Nancy’s parents being the much loved singer Sandra Kerr and Northumbrian piper Ron Elliott and James hailing from the popular Australian family folk band that is ‘The Fagans’.  In the past twelve years, the couple have absorbed each others culture and traditions and in particular, the indigenous songs and ballads from both sides of the planet.  Somewhere along the way, Nancy has developed an antipodean vernacular in much the same way Cath Mundy ‘rubbed off’ on Jay Turner.  This isn’t a bad thing, this is evolution.  The songs that evolve from such partnerships are an important part of traditional music, and I suppose in some small way, part of the make up of World Music in general.  Taking parts of old English ballads and transforming them into something new, with a more Anglo/Australian emphasis, can only be a good thing.  There is something of the gypsy about Nancy Kerr, both in her appearance and in her fluid fiddle playing.  Opening tonight with a gypsy-style fiddle tune, together with one of the many traditional songs on the theme of the “American Stranger”, Nancy plucked and scraped in such a fashion as would have you swear there were two fiddles involved.  Having cleverly detected that her second fiddle was still in its case and that James was standing stage-right with nothing but a bouzouki in his hands, I could only assume she was doing it all by herself.  Adding to the delightfully enigmatic background that Nancy and James come from, it is without any surprise that the couple have been known to allow a film crew into their home – a narrow boat on the Kennet and Avon canal near Bath no less – to talk about anything from the evolution of fiddles and bouzoukis in traditional music, to the DNA of folk songs.  It is with such a passion for this music that the couple live their lives, that it is impossible not to be informed by it, or equally touched by it at the same time.  In “Barbara Allen”, one of the most popular of all ballads, Nancy adds her own composition “April Friend” not just as a song tagged onto the end, but interwoven, like inextricably clasped hands, and in doing so, breathes new life into an old song.  The same was attempted with Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” and Joe Hill’s “Pie in the Sky” but possibly not with such a great impact as the first coupling.  When you hear artists of the calibre of Nancy and James perform songs by Alistair Hulett and Jez Lowe, you are reminded once again of the remarkable contribution that these two writers have given to folk music.  Their songs are obviously contemporary but have a quality that is timeless.  Hulett’s “The Sons of Liberty” from Nancy and James’ latest CD Strands of Gold and Jez Lowe’s “The Bergen” are typical of this style of song writing and give the impression both in lyric and in melody, of being much older than they actually are, yet still remain fresh and accessible.  The epic “Jack Orion” has lost nothing of its raw power since its first appearance on the couple’s 1998 CD Starry Gazy Pie.  With a nod to those whose efforts of keeping this song alive, most notably Bert Jansch, the couple launched into an exciting, table thumping, foot stomping version of the old Child ballad like there was no tomorrow.  Level pegging on the string count thus far, Nancy strove ahead of the race by producing an autoharp (presumably Australian, due to the sound hole being in the shape of that country) for their arrangement of “Allan Tyne of Harrow”.  There is something endearing about a musical instrument that has to be cuddled whilst being played and which lends itself to sensitive arrangements of beautiful songs.  How ever hard you try, you just can’t imagine “Pretty Vacant” being played on one.  With two songs from both sides of the world completing the set, a Gerry Hallom arrangement of a poem by the Australian poet Henry Lawson in “The Outside Track” and finally a well known song from Nancy’s neck of the woods “Dance to Your Daddy”, with probably more fishy references than is really necessary in a song, the duo rounded off a really great night, being coaxed back onstage for a final set of tunes in the form of “Meggy’s Foot/Coates Hall”.

Kirsty McGee and Mat Martin | The Regent, Doncaster | 08.10.07

When Kirsty McGee and Mat Martin are on tour, they mean business.  The pile of assorted instrument cases by the stage at the Monday Music Club at the Regent in Doncaster tonight resembled that famous ‘pile of suitcases’ sculpture on Hope Street in Liverpool.  With a variety of stringed instruments from the banjo, ukulele and mandolin families, all stacked neatly on their respective racks, the duo were ready to play gig sixteen of their current twenty-five date UK tour.  The duo fully intended to play two sets tonight, presumably utilising each and every one of these weird and wonderful instruments and armed with a set list that covered the best songs from all of Kirsty’s recorded output, which now runs to three full albums no less and a couple of EPs.  Sadly this wasn’t to be.  Kirsty has been suffering from a dreaded cold recently and tonight in Doncaster, her voice finally disappeared towards the end of the duo’s first set, despite vigorous efforts to fight it off.  It was not only pointless to go on, it had the potential of causing unnecessary damage to Kirsty’s voice.  Despite the premature end to the duo’s concert tonight, the nine-song set they did manage to get through was certainly worthy of a few words.  It was just long enough to be considered ‘festival-length’ after all.  In keeping with the vaudevillian theme of their current tour posters and hand bills, the duo appeared on stage looking very much the part.  You get the distinct impression of either American vaudeville or Old English music hall.  I loved the quote in Maverick magazine who described them as the Tim Burton version of Simon and Garfunkel.  Whatever period in history the duo choose to adopt in order to feel comfortable on stage, one thing cannot be changed or contrived and that is the sound of Kirsty’s voice and the manner in which the duo arrange their songs.  They have an instantly recognisable sound and their delicate arrangements and multi-instrumental accompaniment forms a perfect backdrop to Kirsty’s unique voice.  Even though the concert was reduced to just the one set, the duo managed to perform material from each of their three albums and a couple from the new Hobopop EP, which they are promoting on this tour.  Opening with “Lamb” a new song with a distinctively Appalachian feel, courtesy of Mat Martin’s frailing banjo accompaniment, revealed to anyone used to Kirsty’s voice some sign of frailty.  Anyone who was in the audience experiencing Kirsty for the first time wouldn’t have noticed I’ll bet.  “The Profit Song” and “Killer Wasps” provided some jaunty rhythms which are fast becoming the duo’s trademark, the latter reminiscent of the Hot Club of France, with its Djangoesque guitar accompaniment played beautifully by Mat Martin.  Of the older songs, “Bliss” from Kirsty’s 2002 debut Honeysuckle has been resurrected after requests from the audiences they’ve been playing to this year and the popular “Coffee Coloured Strings” and “Plane Vapours” from the second album Frost.  Kirsty performed three songs from her latest album Two Birds, “One Star”, “Thank You” and “Freshwater”, with it’s desperately bleak chorus of ‘the body knows nothing till the soul cries out, the soul knows nothing till the body burns’, before realising that her soul was crying out for her to stop singing and rest up before it indeed burned out!  Kirsty and Mat gave each member of the audience a copy of the Hobopop EP as a gesture of goodwill and as compensation for the shortened set, although in reality, the evening was still very much a success.  With a bit of re-shuffling, Bob Chiswick opted for the traditional ‘show must go on’ avenue by inviting some friends to step in.  So with an impromptu set from regular support John Law and another set by the visiting support duo James Meadows and Steve Lacey, who had incidentally kicked off the night, the audience hopefully went away having had another good night at the Regent.

Rab Noakes | The Regent, Doncaster | 15.10.07

Rab Noakes’ contribution to music over the last four decades has been remarkable to say the least.  Mention of Leiber and Stoller, Terry Melcher, Ringo Starr, Lindisfarne, Stealers Wheel, Barbara Dickson and Gerry Rafferty from the past and more recently Karine Polwart from the present, you start to picture a very colourful and interesting musical background indeed.  Who Rab has worked alongside, either as a contemporary musician, a fellow band mate or a record producer, becomes secondary to the real value of having someone like Rab Noakes around, that of a wonderful and inspiring song writer.  Highly prolific and of a consistently good standard, Rab Noakes writes melodic songs that seem to have that special quality of being perceived on at least two levels; the self absorbed singer songwriter material that typifies most aspiring songsmiths who started out in the early Seventies, but at the same time great and memorable pop songs.  Tonight Rab Noakes brought some of those songs to Doncaster and shared them with a decent sized audience at the Monday Music Club at the Regent.  Much of the set was centred round Rab’s new album Unlimited Mileage which he recorded with his band The Varaflames.  Once again, songs such as “When You’re Not Here” become instantly memorable as in the case of most good pop songs.  When I talk about good pop songs I am of course using as a yard stick the likes of David’s Byrne or Bowie, not “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” you understand.  “What Are You Doing Here” could easily have been a David Byrne song; the sense of melody and structure is identical but yet it has a freshness that is pure Rab Noakes.  Sonically “Light in my Heart” could not escape the notice of someone who has for years lived and breathed all that Rafferty/Humblebakerwheel stuff, but lyrically, the song becomes distinctly Rab’s own: “There’s a record I’d like to hear, I’ll have to flick the dust off the needle first, but it still won’t be all that clear this time”.  I was going to say they don’t write ‘em like that anymore, but they obviously do, thank God.  Understandably disdainful of the term ‘covers’ to describe songs by other writers in his set (homage’s might be a better term),  Rab played homage to some of his fellow writers but rather than presenting his ‘personalised’ take on some familiar songs, Rab gets down to the essentials and strips away all the fuss.  On the new album we find a pretty faithful adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, which invites even the most afflicted two-left-footed amongst us to grab a partner immediately.  At the Regent tonight, there was at least a fair amount of shuffling rhythmically in seats.  Rab doesn’t live in the past.  He treats Cohen or Talking Heads or Radiohead with equal respect.  “High and Dry” is a wonderfully constructed song that lends itself remarkably well to any genre of music, whether it is performed by a popular indie band, jazzed up by the likes of Jamie Cullum, or just sung at full throttle with an acoustic guitar, it remains a damn good song.  Leaping back into the depths of his highly respectable back catalogue, Rab could have plucked any number of familiar songs from the days of knocking around with the likes of Lindisfarne, we’ve sat on benches and ‘turned again’ lots of times to dozens of floor singers over the years, but tonight Rab chose instead to select wisely from the best of his dozen or so albums.  “Kill or Cure” from Lights Back On, “Lonely Boy Tonight” from Restless and a few from the recently re-released classic Standing Up “I’ve Hardly Started Yet”, “Gently Does It” and “Open All Night”, all showed a marked versatility in the craft of song writing.  Rab finished the night off with a song that appeared on the album he made with harmonica player Fraser Speirs, Lights Back On back in 2000.  The Leiber/Stoller/Spector classic “Spanish Harlem”, like the Leonard Cohen and Radiohead songs before it, become not merely hit ‘covers’, but ‘songs’ once again.  Hearing “Spanish Harlem” without the big production number treatment or even Aretha Franklin’s gorgeous warbling, makes you instantly re-evaluate the song as something we should have all been singing in clubs for years.  I’m just happy to let Rab do that for us.  Rab’s albums from the early Seventies are reminiscent of Steve Tilston’s.  Two young songwriters with youthful voices and things to say, each with one ear on Bert Jansch and the other on pop radio, and both now fully developed songwriters and national treasures to those of us who appreciate a good song.  Will either of them ever be a household name?  Well in mine, they already are.

Steve Tilston | The Regent, Doncaster | 29.10.07

Although it was essentially a Steve Tilston gig at the Monday Music Club tonight, I couldn’t help feeling like I had attended a double bill.  Even with just a five song contribution as tonight’s support, Liz Ryder captivated the audience, the organisers, this reviewer, and I dare say Steve himself with her gentle and delicate songs.  Opening with “Skyline”, a song familiar to those who have either visited her MySpace page or picked up the EP of the same name, Liz went on to play a short set of songs designed to allow us that brief glimpse into her life.  Songs like “44th Street” from Liz’s second album On the Neon Highway show a maturity of style for someone so young.  You almost struggle to connect what you hear with what you see.  Born in Los Angeles in 1981, Liz grew up here in the UK and began writing and performing from an early age.  Although she is a multi-instrumentalist, she accompanied herself tonight on just guitar and showed an accomplished flair with both open and standard tunings.  Note to self: why do female guitar players who use open tunings never sound flash?  Perhaps they don’t show off like their male contemporaries!  I was interested to find out what Liz might have heard around the house whilst in either LA or Kidderminster; what her folks had on the Dansette, hoping to reveal an insatiable appetite for Joan Baez, whose voice Liz immediately brings to mind.  I was pleasantly surprised when she told me it was more like Cat Stevens and The Beach Boys.  Sounds like our house.  Steve Tilston is no stranger to these parts and should, in a perfect world, fill large concert halls.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see the current acoustic music scene), Steve remains slightly cultish amongst those of us who love songs.  There is no better song writer in the UK in my opinion; he just rubs shoulders with a bunch of equals.  This year Steve has been added to the prestigious list of artists to have a Free Reed box set released, joining Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy and Swarb (amongst others) to have their career encased in one of those familiar oblong boxes.  This has not only been a good move in terms of bringing out previously unreleased material, but also in making Steve return to some of those songs for live performance.  Tonight Steve abandoned some of the songs that have been consistently in his set for years, such as “Here Comes the Night”, “Here’s to Tom Paine” and even “Slip Jigs and Reels” to make way for some older material such as “In the Light Tonight”, more recent songs like “Tottedown” and “Rare Thing” and brand new off the page songs like “Goodbye Madame Muse”.  Steve Tilston, like Bert Jansch and Wizz Jones, comes from that very British tradition of folk singer whose beginnings are definitely rooted in the blues.  Tonight Steve once again demonstrated those influences in “I Need a Cup of Coffee” and “Big Bill’s Been Here and Gone”, with more than just a nod towards one of his musical heroes Big Bill Broonzy.  Some of the usual Tilston fare came out once again tonight, although slightly altered since our last exposure to it, “And So It Goes” for instance, with its tongue-in-cheek swipe at our American allies and casually slipping in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in the middle of “Tsetse Fly Shuffle”.  Who’da thought?  Up to now, one of Erik Satie’s three “Gymnopedie” pieces was always a prelude to “Here Comes the Night”, but tonight Steve decided just to play the piece in it’s entirety, proving once again that if Satie was a ‘phonometrician’, one who measures and writes down sounds, the Steve is a musician; he just gets on and plays it, however complex.  The song that particularly pricked up my ears tonight was “Over the Next Hill”, familiar to Fairport Convention fans as the title song from their 2004 album release.  It’s always a treat when you hear a familiar song, performed by its author, even if it’s sometimes not quite as good as the cover versions you hear. Townes Van Zandt springs to mind.  In Steve Tilston’s case though, the author version is always infinitely more superior.

Megson | The Regent, Doncaster | 05.11.07

Bob Chiswick continues to bring both new (or should that be ‘nu’?) as well as more established acoustic acts to the Regent and tonight was an especially inspired choice.  Megsons’ reputation has been steadily growing over the last couple of years, with help coming from the likes of Seth Lakeman, Bob Fox and Karine Polwart, for whom they have provided support on their respective tours and appearances.  In all fairness though, establishing that reputation really comes down to the fact that they are so thoroughly brilliant.  Stu Hanna and Debbie Palmer took their Northern roots and temporarily re-planted them a little further south to establish a base in London where their reputation was given time to flourish.  A few years and a couple of highly recommended albums later, that move has proved to be highly successful and their fan base grows stronger daily.  Tonight at the Monday Music Club, Megson came along to perform songs exclusively from their two albums On the Side and Smoke of Home and in doing so, picked up a few more friends from the Doncaster area.  If your thing is anthemic power ballads and thrashing guitars then you would have come to the wrong place tonight as Megson deal almost exclusively in gentle understatement.  A Megson song normally begins with an almost inaudible brush of strings, on either guitar or mandola, which Stu alternates between throughout the set and steadily builds to a favourable climax once their two voices are added, and maybe the addition of a penny whistle every now and again.  They each share singing duties, which is perfectly fine, but it’s when those two voices meet that the fireworks start, and believe me those fireworks were far more entertaining than those fizzling and splurting outside tonight.  Harmonies as good as this are normally reserved for siblings but of course Debbie is shortly to become Mrs Hanna, so unless that sort of thing has started to happen in Teesside, we can take it as read that such harmonies can be found outside the family unit as well as in it.  Megson kind of remind me of a younger version of Gregson and Collister, during the days when Richard Thompson advised the duo to ‘do the folk clubs’ during a break from the band.  They have the same sort of freshness and tightness that Clive and Christine once possessed.  Megson excel in the specific area where many tend to fail, in the gentle tip-toeing songs that require the audience’s complete attention.  They would probably struggle with songs like “Follow it on” or “Just Stay” in a noisy pub.  They have the ability to bring the volume of their voices down to absolute minimum where you could literally hear a pin drop.  Should the future Mr and Mrs Hanna become mum and dad, they would find no difficulty in providing feasible lullabies for the little Megsons.  Take the coda for “Every Night When the Sun Goes In” for example.  Could harmony humming ever be more beautiful?  It’s not all emotive gentleness with Megson though, and occasionally the up-tempo foot-tappers break through spectacularly well.  “Smoke of Home” is an exuberant celebration of ‘upping sticks’ and leaving home, to which you can’t help but shuffle in your seat.  Likewise “Freefall”, another Hanna led song, makes good use of the percussive qualities of both guitar and mandola in the hands of one who knows his instrument well.  The traditional songs sit well beside the self-penned material, so much so that the difference between the two is difficult to distinguish.  There is a unity of style that seems to make everything Megson touch flow evenly throughout the set, whether it be the traditional themes of “Butternut Hill” or “Lambkin”, the blues-inflected “Flood Water”, the jaunty confessional of “I Lied” or just great story telling such as “Grace Darling”, the overall performance consistently maintains a unified sound.  Megson finished the night with the only song that doesn’t appear on either of their albums, the traditional “The Sheffield Grinder”, which invited the normally reserved Regent crowd to sing their little hearts out.  I think this was simply down to the fact that tonight the audience was universally pleased with themselves for having the good sense to come to this gig.

Roy Machin & Friends | The Regent, Doncaster | 12.11.07

Standing in for Dave Burland at short notice at The Regent tonight was a bunch of friends who were only too willing to help out under the sad circumstances.  I’m sure that everyone associated with the club would like to wish Dave all the very best through this difficult time.  Roy Machin is one of South Yorkshire’s best kept secrets.  I think he probably sees himself as a consistently reliable support artist to anyone of any merit visiting town, but we all know differently don’t we?  Roy has one of the most distinctive voices in the country and an eclectic taste that could rival that of Ry Cooder and should in all fairness be selling out concert halls.  There’s nothing awkward about Roy Machin and his regular partner Mike Miller (guitar and dobro) when they get up and play.  Once they settle into their set, you cannot help but fall back into your seat and relax for an hour, whatever kind of day you’ve had.  Tonight at the Regent, Roy and Mike cherry picked songs from such diverse sources as Townes Van Zandt “Poncho and Lefty”, Danny O’Keefe “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”, The Andrews Sisters “Wing and a Prayer” and Bob Dylan “Living the Blues”, to name but a few.  Roy has always demonstrated his ability to transport his audience back in time and evoke the atmosphere of a different era entirely, whether it be post war American blues, Fifties country music or the pop tunes of the Sixties and Seventies.  Where he differs from most of his contemporaries though, is when he allows his eclecticism to wander into the realms of almost forgotten territory.  Tonight the duo were in the mood for making whoopee, which featured not only in Gus Kahn’s original “Making Whoopee”, but also in Jimmy Rodgers and Clayton McMichen’s “Peach Pickin Time in Georgia” and also in the brilliant “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes”, a curious song from the repertoires of just about everybody from Debroy Summers and Sophie Tucker to the late George Melly, via Al Bowlly and The Waldorfians along the way.  It wouldn’t be right to conclude this review without mentioning the support for tonight’s gig, although in truth, the entire evening was a collaborative effort by friends of Dave Burland.  Bob Chiswick opened the night with a couple of his own songs including the excellent “Mystified” before handing the stage over to regular Regent ‘performer and surrealist raconteur’ John Law who was accompanied tonight by Paul on dobro.  John’s lived-in voice and uncomplicated guitar style make it easy for him to pick and choose from a wealth of Whistle Test-era songs from the likes of Tom Waits “Heart Attack and Vine” and Steve Winwood “Back in the High Life Again” to classic Leadbelly fare “Bourgeois Blues”.  Rounding off what turned out to be an excellent night at The Regent, Ray Banks brought to life a few old timey fiddle tunes on his trusty banjo accompanied by Mike Miller on guitar.

Peter Rowan | The Rock, Maltby | 23.11.07

If Peter Rowan seemed a little subdued at the Rock tonight, the blame could be directed towards one or either of the following; it had something to do with him being in the middle of a UK tour during the current British November chill, or more likely, it quite possibly had something to do with the almost comatose audience.  Normally a Peter Rowan gig throws the entire room into a frenzy of rowdy choruses of “Panama Red” or “Free Mexican Airforce”, but tonight, it wasn’t to be, even though it was a full house.  Kicking off with a couple of songs from the classic Dust Bowl Children album, the title song first with it’s high lonesome yodelling, swiftly followed by the haunting “Tumbleweed”, the room soon filled with the sound of one of the most recognisable voices in the world of bluegrass music.  In terms of hero status, I place Peter Rowan right up there with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, although whereas these two artists forged a landscape of imagery through poetic words and music over the last four decades, Rowan is the ‘voice’ that very much belongs to that landscape and which has captivated audiences of Bluegrass music for the past three or four decades.  After two of his repertoire classics to whet the Rock’s appetite, he chose to entice the audience out of their shells with “Panama Red” throughout which I swear I saw through the corner of my eye one solitary foot tapping to the beat.  I put it down to the cold.  When all chorus-rousing attempts fail and the communal euphoria remains decidedly front parlour calm, then there’s only one thing to do, switch to laid back mode.  Rowan did this admirably with “Walls of Time”, which brought the essence of what we know as Bluegrass music to the Maltby audience, and not surprisingly, as it was after all co-written by Rowan and Bill Monroe, the creator of the genre.  Having settled into a relaxed mood onstage, Rowan introduced a handful of new songs which left me puzzling over whether they were astonishingly good or strangely eccentric.  The Jury is definitely out on this one at the moment.  “Skyscraper”, “My Cage” and “Chopping Down Trees For Jesus” were at best full of ironic humour or at worst ‘worryingly quirky’ but enjoyable nevertheless.  Of the newer songs, “She Knows” stood out as a potential classic Rowan song and one which I have been scouring for online since but alas to no avail.  I always place a lot of importance on the covers a song writer chooses for his set, not least to provide an insight as to what or whom the artist is listening to.  Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is to Fly”, the Carter Family’s “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer” show precisely where his allegiances lie, with that of first rate American folk giants.  For someone who has been around for so long, Peter Rowan has maintained a unique vocal delivery as well as a competent guitar picking style, and none of that has suffered as a result of the ensuing years on the road.  “Land of the Navajo” has always been an audience favourite and features some of Rowan’s Native American vocal pyrotechnics, and tonight he didn’t disappoint.  It’s also always nice to hear the re-telling of the “Free Mexican Airforce” preamble, but I couldn’t help feeling it was all pretty much delivered in a ‘going through the motions’ manner, which I can’t really blame him for.  I wouldn’t like to have to go through that night after night either.  It’s almost as bad as Arlo Guthrie having to yawn through “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” every night, year in year out.  After closing with “Midnite Moonlite” Rowan took a bow to some healthy applause.  I’m certain that the audience were appreciative and attentive and I dare say most of them thoroughly enjoyed the performance, but the gig simply lacked atmosphere.  Perhaps I expect too much.

Emily Smith | The Regent, Doncaster | 26.11.07

It’s not often I get to start a review with the sentence ‘fresh from Songs of Praise’, but Emily Smith and Jamie McLennan’s last public appearance before setting out for Walthamstowe Folk Club last night, was indeed on the long running Sunday evening God-slot prog, singing “Jesus Draw Me” in a church, with full band, especially for St Andrew’s Day.  Tonight, the duo came to Doncaster on a cold November evening to play a couple of delightful sets at the equally celestial Monday Music Club at The Regent.  Emily is one of those song writers whose songs are hardly distinguishable from those already in the tradition.  They are written in a style that takes in all the crucial elements of a good folk song, and her endeavours in song writing have not gone unnoticed nor unrewarded at home or further afield.  Picking up the BBC Radio Scotland Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2002 at the Celtic Connections Festival, it’s hardly surprising that she can also play her instruments well (Accordion and Piano).  The Dumfriesshire born singer went on to win the folk song category award in the USA Song Writing Competition in 2005 with “Edward of Morton”, one of the songs she performed tonight, and to top it all, she is a gifted singer with a clear and vibrant vocal style.  Joined by her New Zealand born husband Jamie McClennan on guitar, fiddle and whistle, the duo played some fine jigs and reels as well as songs both new and old.  Jamie claims to be Emily’s agent, PA, chef and bin-man, but he’s also her entire rhythm section rolled into one.  He’s a busy lad.  Emily announced at the beginning of the show that much of the set would be centred around her latest album A Different Life, but apart from “Always A Smile”, “Edward of Morton” and the jaunty “Go to Town”, much of the material was from elsewhere, proving that Emily has a broad scope to choose from.  The one notable contemporary song not from her own pen was Iris Dement’s “Sweet is the Melody”, which fitted in with the plausible Celtic/country crossover, which Emily is more than capable of pulling off.  If I was to compare Emily’s overall sound to anyone it would be that of the Rankin Family, who are a proven force in this area.

Rosie Doonan | The Regent, Doncaster | 03.12.07

What Rosie Doonan did in 45 minutes at the Music Club tonight was something that many performers curiously avoid and that is to fill the room with space.  It wasn’t only what she put into the performance; it was what she left out that made all the difference.  There was no pointless strumming in 4/4 time, no obtrusive piano chords and not one unnecessary syllable uttered.  It was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect gig.  Yes, we would have liked longer, but isn’t this what makes us want to come back for more?  Isn’t this why we buy the CD to take home?  These are rhetorical questions by the way.  With the standard of skill and musicianship found in young professionals in the folk and acoustic clubs nowadays, it is not uncommon to experience moments of complete bliss every now and then, moments when you not only shut up and pay attention, but almost hold your breath to fully benefit from what you are hearing from the stage.  Tonight I was holding my breath so long that I almost required paramedics to administer shock treatment.  Rosie Doonan is indeed this good, no question.  Edge of the seat stuff.  I recently caught Rosie at a gig in Wakefield with her full band that consisted of drums, bass and guitar as well as trumpet and tenor sax and having heard the new album, I anticipated one or two frills that might be noticeably missing in tonight’s solo performance.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Rosie can pull off a solo gig, but the new album is so full of sound that I was having difficulty imagining what “That Boy” or “Moving On” would sound like without the full band treatment.  Of course Rosie second guessed this and avoided those songs, choosing to concentrate on the sensitive stuff instead.  “Time” is without question the best original song I have heard this year, in fact if it hadn’t been for Becky Unthank getting her tonsils around Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” this summer, I would have no difficulty in promoting it to best recording of anything this year.  Both songs are performed equally well live or on record and both most definitely bring out the goose bumps.  Rosie tried out a new and as yet untitled song as well as a couple of covers from two diverse sources, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Ashley Hutchings’ “Brief Encounters”.  It’s always nice to hear something recognisable in a live performance, whoever the singer might be, but in Rosie’s case, her own songs stand up on their own merit.  In a fair world Rosie Doonan would be reaping the same rewards as Kate Rusby on the folk scene or at the very least the likes of KT’s Melua or Tunstall with songs as accessible as “Only One” or as moving as “Hold On” but we all know this is not a fair world. Rosie was the girl who needed time; I think her time has come, and about time too.  For Bob’s 100th presentation since starting this club in September 2004, it is entirely fitting that, for this reviewer’s money, it was the best 45 minutes so far and by far.  Stunning. 

Tom McConville | The Regent, Doncaster | 10.12.07

One of the busiest musicians on the British folk scene today, Tom McConville was back in Doncaster tonight for the last of this year’s gigs at the Monday Music Club at The Regent.  Tom has not only been a huge influence on many fiddle players over the last few decades, most notably Seth Lakeman who appears to have taken up the mantle of fiddle whiz-kid for this generation, but he’s also built up a reputation for being an all round good bloke with an enduring smile and pleasing stage presence.  You feel that presence well before he actually gets up to play, as he is one of the few musicians who sticks around for the support to give ‘support’.  That’s a quality that should never be overlooked by performers in this field.  Tom’s regular partner Pauline Cato is currently taking a break from touring for a while whilst she and her husband spend time with their newly arrived baby.  In the meantime, Tom has been on the road with the young guitarist Dave Wood, who’s been providing the rhythm on which to set a rich selection of fiddle tunes, jigs and reels, as well as a bunch of songs from the North.  As his nickname plainly suggests, the Newcastle Fiddler has his roots deeply seated in Geordie tradition but manages to express himself with songs from all over the place.  Chorus singing is still encouraged in folk clubs but never so enthusiastically as when Tom McConville is at the helm.  Each song performed tonight began with several runs through before the song got underway proper, and in some cases the audience let themselves go.  I think when it comes down to it, Tom, like most people I’ve met from the North East, is proud of his birth right and nowhere is it better expressed than in Mark Knopfler’s song “Why Aye Man”.  Sounds like we have a theme song for the next series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet if nothing else!