Live | 2008

Jez Lowe | The Regent, Doncaster | 14.01.08

The Peter Pan of the British folk scene was back at the Monday Music Club at The Regent once again tonight, making his fourth appearance at one of these soirees in as many years.  Jez Lowe looks no different today than when he was making appearances in Doncaster a couple of decades ago, armed with guitar and cittern, as he and his Hurdy Gurdy Man came singing songs of love (whatever happened to Jake Walton?)  Tall, dark, handsome, striped shirt; it’s all still there, but most importantly, the distinctive voice, fabulous guitar and (aforementioned) cittern handling and skilful song writing ability is unchanged in its quality.  Great songs, great performances and a good deal of warmth from a Geordie who knows his audience and who knows how to get the best out of them.  Familiar songs from his repertoire such as “Latchkey Lover”, “Spitting Cousins” and “Another Man’s Wife”, rubbed shoulders with newer material such as “Will of the People”, “Famous Working Man” and “The Sea and the Deep Blue Devil”, all from his latest CD ‘Jack Common’s Anthem.  It has been said many times, not least by this reviewer, that Jez has the ability to write songs that address current issues, but with melodies that sound as though they could have been written years ago and yet, sound accessible to new and old ears alike.  Little wonder Jez was one of the chosen performers to be included in the 2006 Radio Ballads with the insightful “Taking on Men”.   Tonight Jez played mostly solo but was joined towards the end of the night by fellow Bad Penny Kate Bramley on fiddle, for a nice ‘Sonny & Cher’ duet on “Greek Lightning” as well as the Bad Pennies’ “There’s No Fun Without Fools” and a rousing “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go” before Jez got up to finish off the night with “Tenterhooks”, a word that describes the absolute opposite communal feeling amongst the audience tonight; certainly not on tenterhooks, but quite possibly on cloud nine.  The support for tonight’s gig was a fine duo comprising of Kate Green and Patrick Walker, who opened with an unaccompanied “Cuckoo Song” (also known as “Heffle Cuckoo Fair”, proving once again that Kipling makes exceedingly good songs) and went on to charm the Regent audience with a selection of finely chosen delights from such diverse sources as Lal and Mike Waterson “Fine Horseman” and “A Stitch in Time” respectively, Scullion’s “I am Stretched on Your Grave” (covered by everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Kate Rusby), Robert Burns’ “Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, a good way to get the audience feeling good for the remainder of the night.

Bernard Wrigley | The Regent, Doncaster | 21.01.08

There was always an injustice brought upon folk entertainers in the Eighties when Southern Rag became Folk Roots and those who sought to change what we expect to see in folk clubs throughout the land poured scorn on the likes of Derek Brimstone, Stanley Accrington, Tony Capstick and the like.  Like those who welcomed Punk and who chose to rubbish Progressive Rock in the process, the chroniclers of the ever changing folk scene temporarily suffered chronic memory loss and failed to acknowledge that it was precisely these artists who kept the clubs open for so many years and bridged a gap between the old vanguard and the new wave.  Bernard Wrigley is one of those entertainers whose audience couldn’t care one jot about what is and what isn’t folk music.  They know that they have come along for a giggle and they know without a shadow of a doubt that they’ll get one, or two, or a belly full.  Straddling the unlikely boundaries of Northern seaside postcard humour and American country blues, Bernard invites us into his world of Uncle Joe’s Balls, Fisherman’s Friends, a nice works outing to Blackpool and what exactly you would do if the bin man’s been and been and missed your bin!  Anyone with an aversion to poetry readings in folk clubs would have to eat their own words in the company of Bernard Wrigley.  His one-verse poems are as funny as it gets; little wonder that his book “Shorts for all Occasions” seemed to be selling better than the CDs tonight.  Topping off a night of good humour and gentle songs including Fats Waller’s “Feets Too Big”, Jake Thackray’s hilarious “On Again, On Again”, with still the best opening line of any song and Dominic Behan’s “Liverpool Lou”, Bernard treated us to a few blues impressions from the likes of Patrick Moore, Gabby Hayes and the right honourable Baron Hattersley of Sparkbrook.. stand well back!  Excellent night.

Teddy Thompson | Fibbers, York | 22.01.08

It seems to have come round full circle now for Teddy Thompson, having returned to his original passion, Country Music.  It’s hard to imagine a young English kid of famed parentage living in a Sufi commune listening to George Jones, but that is apparently what happened.  Teddy actually says he hadn’t heard anything recorded after 1959 until he was 16 and I am struggling to imagine that.  If only I hadn’t been exposed to The Monkees when I was ten, things could’ve been so much better now.  Teddy Thompson played a predominantly country set at Fibbers tonight with his small but highly competent band featuring New Yorker David Mansfield on pedal steel, dobro, lead guitar and fiddle (but not all at once), well respected Graham Hawthorne on drums and Brad Albetta on both double and electric bass.  Opening with a short set of new and old acoustic numbers, including the only song of the night from his critically acclaimed second album Separate Ways, “Everybody Move It”, Teddy went on to play almost all of the new album, the country-covers CD Up Front and Down Low, which features an entire album’s worth of country standards and one Thompson original “Down Low”.  Teddy admits that the idea of a country covers album at this stage of his career might have been ill-advised but it was precisely this fact that made him determined to do it.  Despite it working well a couple of decades ago for Elvis Costello when he recorded the Almost Blue album, it does come across as a strange choice in light of the fact that Teddy’s song writing ability is showing increased maturity.  Although Teddy’s set tonight was assured and tight, it was not dissimilar to any number of bands you can catch at Layla’s in Nashville.  This is not a negative statement by any means, as most of the bands who get to play on the Broadway bar circuit are particularly good.  Where the album worked best though, was in the stunning arrangements by Robert Kirby, famed arranger on Nick Drake’s first couple of albums, which couldn’t possibly be transferred to the intimate setting of Fibbers.  Perhaps I’m just pouting because I wanted more Separate Ways.  There’s a melancholy air about Teddy Thompson which lends itself perfectly to good country music.  Throughout his set, he maintained a stoic presence with occasional flirtatious interaction with the younger female members of the audience.  I was unfortunately at the end of the line of females he was addressing, safely attached to the safety barrier, and to whom he apologised “sorry, I only talk to women, but how are you anyway?”  He didn’t wait for a reply.  What was touching about Teddy tonight was the sincerity he expressed when speaking of his peers and in particular with working with Iris DeMent.  “My Heart Echoes” is just one of several accomplished covers that Teddy tackles with relative ease both as a duet on the new album and pretty much solo live.  There’s a nod to Ernest Tubb, George Jones and Dolly Parton, to name but a few of the major leaguers Teddy was listening to back in the old days whilst his dad was doing his Rasul and mum was doing the ironing.  A thoroughly enjoyable evening despite the absence of “I Wish it was Over” and “I Should Get Up”, with excellent support from New York based Jaymay and Glaswegian songsmith Brendan Campbell.  Teddy’s encore of Bob Luman’s “Let’s Think About Living” provided the audience with a memorably catchy tune to whistle their way back to the car parks of York.

Martin Carthy | The Regent, Doncaster | 28.01.08

The one sure way of filling a back pub room, or in this case a hotel function room, where local enthusiasts work hard to stage music nights, sometimes at their own expense, is to every now and then invite someone of the stature of Martin Carthy to help put bums on seats.  This wasn’t the best night at this club by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the fullest it’s ever been for the Monday Music Club, and that in itself is a good thing.  Martin Carthy is a leading figure on the folk scene and in many respects he has ‘paid his dues’ and the letters that appear after his name (on envelopes, if not on billboards) have been truly earned.  As a musician and singer he has been involved in dozens of projects over the years, but he still has time to come along to these smaller venue clubs to perform and little has changed over the ensuing years.  He’s still the man on the pallet being hoisted up into the sky with his faithful Martin on his lap, even forty-odd years on.  Kicking off with “Heather Down the Moor” Martin settled into a set of songs and tunes familiar to anyone with even the vaguest passing interest in the folk revival.  “Limbo”, a song about the debtor’s prison in his native London, which has been recorded by Carthy Snr with Brass Monkey and also Carthy Jnr on her Anglicana album, can also currently be heard on Ruth Notman’s debut Threads as indeed can “Heather Down the Moor”.  Tonight, Carthy sang this and an array of other songs with his usual flair and passion.  I have two minor irritations these days with Martin Carthy which I will impart to the masses fully aware that I may be shot at dawn by the folk police.  Firstly the excessive tuning up.  Bizarrely, the longest tuning festival in tonight’s performance, which went on for a good two or three minutes, preceded “Invitation to the Funeral”, an unaccompanied song!  Secondly, and this may be contentious, is Martin’s current trend of abandoning strict tempo rhythm for what I hesitate to describe as freeform droning.  I noticed this trend began some years ago, but it has now enveloped almost every song.  “Bonny Woodhall” falls very much into this category of highly stylised phrasing.  “Seven Yellow Gypsies” returned to standard timing and I was able to tap my foot once again, instead of stuttering with it.  Still, these are minor niggles.  Where his sense of rhythm shines these days is in his treatment of instrumentals.  A masterful guitarist with an instantly recognisable sound, Martin excelled in his delivery of Morris tunes such as “Princess Royal” and “The Quaker/Banbury Bill” where he doesn’t miss a beat.  But there again you wouldn’t dare with a Morris team depending on you.  Carthy described “Company Policy” as fifty per cent of his song writing output, proving you don’t necessarily have to be prolific to come up with a good song.  This protest over the Falklands episode resonates still with audiences today, due in no small part to the fact that we are still doing wars.  “Bill Norrie” from the same period shows Carthy as a masterful story teller, although I didn’t really see the need to introduce this song in so much detail as it employs a pretty self-explanatory narrative.  It’s not all death and doom with Carthy as he treated his audience to lighter moments with a couple of regular songs in his set “A Stitch in Time” and “The Devil and the Feathery Wife”, both of which bring out the smiles, even after many hearings.  Martin finished the night off with “Green Broom” from his family band Waterson-Carthy’s Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand album, leaving Doncaster once again with little doubt that a national treasure had just popped by.

Johnny Dickinson & John Renbourn | The Rock, Maltby | 08.02.08

The new Rock at Maltby was full to the rafters tonight as people came from far and wide to see a true legend of the British folk scene.  Along with Davy Graham and Bert Jansch in the Sixties, John Renbourn was one of the true pioneers of the acoustic guitar in this country and helped to formulate the template for what is now considered the standard for finger picking style guitar.  If Graham and Jansch sparred over whose was the best version of “Anji”, Renbourn was just to the side, busy creating a hybrid of American blues with early English classical music, dabbling nonchalantly with Medieval era styles to boot.  Not to mention coming up with something called The Pentangle along the way.  A young man who would no doubt have come into contact with Renbourn during the ensuing years, or certainly some of the same American influences, would be Northumbrian musician Johnny Dickinson, who by his own admission, listened to virtually nothing post 1950 throughout his apprenticeship as a major league bottleneck guitar player.  Steeped in the country blues tradition, Dickinson plays the blues with an assured confidence and yet is never showy.  Tonight Johnny played steel guitar exclusively, utilising both standard finger picking and bottleneck styles. “Beach Road” from his debut album Castles and Old Kings brought the room to an absolute silence, no mean feat for a concert hall with a bar.  There is no question that Dickinson is a great guitar player, but one should not overlook his clear and engaging vocal delivery reminiscent, in my opinion, of a young Paul Rogers.  If the spirit of Davy Graham was present at the Rock tonight, it probably manifested itself most clearly in the way each of these guitar players tackled complex guitar styles from unlikely sources.  Dickinson borrowing from Hawaiian and even Japanese rhythms, applying the same intensity to those styles as he does to his familiar twelve bar fare.  Adapting “Courting is a Pleasure” as a Peggy Lee jazz standard is nothing short of inspired.  Renbourn was just as eclectic in his choice of songs and tunes covering the Archie Fisher inspired “The Snows They Melt the Soonest”, Joseph Spence’s strange Bahaman rhythms in “Great Dreams of Heaven” and Mose Allison’s sardonic humour in “Getting There”.  Renbourn invited Johnny to join him back on the stage towards the end of the night for the last few songs.  Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Kokomo Blues” was given some of that now familiar Renbourn blues picking treatment, whilst Dickinson’s finger slide imitated McDowell’s trademark bottleneck style, finally bringing together two of this countries’ best players.  It’s not all American music though by any means and Dickinson treats traditional Irish folk songs as fairly as his apparent first love, the Blues.  His treatment of “She Moved Through the Fair” was beautifully rendered with tastefully underplayed guitar accompaniment.  ‘Atmospheric’ is the word I’m looking for.  So irresistible is Fred McDowell to these two guitarists that they chose to close with another one of his songs, a pretty faithful reading of “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down” with each guitarist weaving his own particular magic through this blues foot tapper with ease.  It doesn’t get more laid back than this in the Rotherham Delta.  With a full house reminiscent of the old Rock days – I think it’s probably time to refer to the Wesley Centre in Maltby as ‘The Rock’, without the ‘New’ and any reference to the barn in Wentworth as the ‘Old Rock’ – one year on, the venue has come of age and with an encore of “Summertime” incorporating some exceptionally gorgeous bottleneck guitar playing, Renbourn and Dickinson brought the evening, if not quite the Winter, to a close.

Ruth Notman | The Regent, Doncaster | 11.02.08

At just nineteen, Ruth Notman brings something to the stage that probably ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of folk singers would love to bring to their stage; that is, fresh faced youth.  She speaks of A levels and examinations with youthful candour, not as if it were just yesterday, but as if she was still in the middle of them.  Ruth’s scatterbrain affectations could come across as giddiness, were it not for her bright and breezy personality.  It actually comes across as unbridled charm.  You would have to be made of ice not to love this Nottingham lass.  This highly anticipated appearance at the Monday Music Club at the Regent, was Ruth’s first club outing this year and she brought with it just about every song from her debut album Threads.  The anticipation of this gig incidentally came about due to Max (the sound man), whose persistent playing of Threads through the PA as regulars took to their seats on previous guest nights, made it completely irresistible to attend.  The liner notes of this album site such inspirations as Nic Jones, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Richard Thompson and Dougie Maclean, credits that could not fail to help the CD find its way into my virtual shopping basket.  Alternating between guitar and piano, with the odd unaccompanied song thrown in, Ruth delighted her audience with her unmistakable voice and faultless song choices.  Opening with her own take on Nic Jones’ “Billy Don’t You Weep For Me”, Ruth’s set displayed a lightness of touch on both guitar and piano.  Had there been room in the car, she confesses, she would have probably brought along the harp as well.  Name-dropping the likes of Cara Dillon, Sandy Denny and Eliza Carthy throughout her set, Ruth demonstrated an insatiable appetite for the cream of British female singers.  Ruth also joked about Westlife, especially when tackling power ballad key changes as illustrated in “Lonely Day Dies”, which she admits is there simply to ‘meet the criteria of the examination board’ in her Music A Level!  Ruth proclaims from the get-go that women write the best songs; ‘they don’t dilly-dally’ she declares.  She does however make an exception when Dougie MacLean springs to mind and her treatment of “Caledonia” is one of the highlights of the set.  Other highlights include “Limbo” recently heard at the club by Martin Carthy, which in the hands of Ruth Notman adopts a jaunty piano motif that becomes equally accessible and memorable.  “Farewell Farewell”, the classic Richard Thompson song, definitively performed by the late Sandy Denny on the celebrated Fairport Convention Liege and Lief album, is approached with both maturity and assured confidence.  Songwriters often tell of the circumstances surrounding how they came to write a particular song, which informs the listener and fills in any gaps that the rhetoric cannot afford.  Confessions of having written a lyric on a freight train or whilst dipping one’s toes in the Mississippi may have a certain romance, but it’s not often you hear a line like “I wrote this in English Lit class instead of doing an essay on Othello!”  Such is the introduction to one of Ruth’s own compositions “Hideaway”, a song that comfortably straddles the folk/pop boundary.   There’s almost an apologetic air to her song introductions, especially when addressing almost sacrosanct figures such as Nic Jones and Sandy Denny, but I personally think this is a nonsense that the old guard foists upon young people.  Ruth, along with any newcomer to folk music has every right, if not more right, to trawl these back catalogues and breathe new life into these old songs.  Ruth is one of the new breed of folk singers, along with Bella Hardy, Lisa Knapp, Jackie Oates and Rachel Unthank, to name but a few, who are not only keeping this music fresh and alive, but are making it exciting once again.

Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri | The Boardwalk, Sheffield | 13.02.08

There was a brief moment during Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri’s appearance at the Boardwalk in Sheffield tonight, just after Paul was asked to re-join his wife on stage at the end of her set, when the couple settled themselves adjacent to one another in their respective chairs and just for a moment, began a conversation made up entirely of giggles.  It’s almost as if the realisation had suddenly and quite unexpectedly hit them, that they had found themselves in an alien environment, thousands of miles from home, sharing a stage and a spotlight yet finding themselves doing something that just comes so naturally to them, and doing it so well I might add.  Their ‘duets’ have that sort of down-home quality and we the audience are privileged to bear witness.  Then, just to throw us, they quite unexpectedly burst into the most sublime version of Black Uhuru’s “Sponji Reggae” imaginable.  Earlier in the evening, Paul casually introduced himself as Devon’s ‘roommate’ before kicking off the night with a handful of songs, accompanying himself on his faithful Martin guitar, presumably the ‘old Martin’ that he apparently loves so much, as chronicled in Devon’s “Don’t Hurry for Heaven”.  He went on to inform the audience, for those as yet unfamiliar with Americana’s own version of Romeo and Juliet, that they ‘split all the utilities’ and that Devon is ‘also my wife’.  They actually remind me more of the living-breathing embodiment of the main protagonists in David Bowie’s “Kooks”, and that is part of their appeal.  Paul Curreri is a highly competent guitar player and storyteller with a voice and song writing ability to match.  If forced to make a comparison, I would think in terms of Ryan Adams, but thankfully with his finger nowhere near as close to the self-destruct button.  When in playful mood, Paul Curreri has the ability to keep his audience transfixed with his stories.  In “Long Gone John from Tennessee” for instance, we are treated to a hilarious ramble on Paul’s admiration for John’s shoes, you know, the cool ones with two stripes rather than the standard three.  You sense that the couple probably tossed a coin to determine who would get up first tonight, for their appeal could quite easily be split equally.  Paul in fact joked about a conversation the couple once had when things began to happen for them, where he asked his wife if she was prepared for his career to move faster than hers (and visa versa) only to reveal tonight that Devon is soon to record a session for the prestigious Jools Holland programme.  He confesses that he’s doing fine “thank you for asking”.  Paul Curreri’s songs are well constructed and maturely presented, covering the entire range of his recorded output from his 2002 debut From Long Gones to Hawkmoth to last year’s The Velvet Rut.  “California”, “Letting Us Be” and “The Wasp” are all instantly accessible with a fluent fingerpicked guitar style and relaxed laid back vocal.  The jazz tinged “Azalea” tips a hat to the swing era and brings Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington right up to date.  Speaking of jazz, Devon Sproule has been compared to Norah Jones I’ve heard it said, although I completely missed this comparison upon my first encounter with her last year.  In Devon we have the absence of polish that appears to dull the senses with much of the Grammy award winning jazz newbies on offer today.  Perhaps it’s because I came to Devon via the stage rather than the back catalogue.  I see her Western Swing and Country Folk sensibilities and strong narrative songs as an antidote to the clinically pristine and tightly marketed crooners we are served up on a daily basis via TV ads between Soaps.  Choosing a selection of songs from Upstate Songs including Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and Devon’s own “Come Comet or Dove” and a couple from her recent Keep Your Silver Shined album, “1340 Chesapeake Street” and the excellent “Old Virginia Block” as well as the superb title track, Devon went on to perform a couple of new as yet unreleased songs “A Picture of us in the Garden” and “Date Drive to Food Lion”, during her set, proving that her fluency in offbeat themes and song structures is almost limitless.   Devon appears completely at ease with her surroundings and stands bolt upright behind her vintage 1954 ES125 Gibson – “as old as my dad” she quips – as she conveys her emotive songs to this Sheffield audience.  There’s a moment towards the end of “A Picture of us in the Garden” where Devon stares into the spotlights above, completely immersed in song, humming the final coda, where she is completely in that place, totally unaware of her current environment.  Devon’s relaxed approach to singing, which comes over as uncomplicated, unpretentious and completely natural, makes you the audience equally relaxed.  Although Paul and Devon’s respective solo sets were delivered with assurance, with not a single throw-away song in either set, it was as a duo that they excelled on stage.  It’s not just in the songs, the harmonies and the musical connection they both convey on stage that makes this couple so appealing, but the closeness they have in heaps that engages the audience.  They are quite openly in love with one another and they don’t mind you knowing about it.  For every one of those who may be irritated with this notion of wearing your heart on your sleeve, there’s plenty of us who find this a thoroughly endearing quality.  Quite fitting for the eve of St. Valentine’s Day.   The ‘duet’ set that concluded tonight’s Boardwalk appearance included Megan Huddleston’s uncompromising “The Things You Do”, Jeff Romano’s “Lucinda” and a pretty impressive instrumental guitar duet celebrating the couple’s visit to Liverpool earlier in the day with The Beatles’ “The Night Before” as well as a couple of Paul and Devon’s celebrated and timely Valentine Duets, Dave van Ronk’s arrangement of “Green Rocky Road” and the Hank Williams classic “Honky Tonkin’”, available for all as free downloads on their websites, crucial listening for those who have yet to discover Devon and Paul.  All in all, spectacularly good.

Jackie Leven | The Rock, Maltby | 29.02.08

Jackie Leven abandoned the conventional approach to showbiz by refusing to go through the ‘ridiculous’ process of doing an encore at The Rock in Maltby tonight, announcing instead that this was going to be his last song, pointing out that we had all “done a good job” and then thanked the audience for their part in what was essentially a ‘good ritual’.  “Sure it’s about entertainment” he added, “but it’s also a good ritual”.  I know what he means.  As an audience member, my personal opinion is that if we have to go through the tiresome encore ritual, then we should only demand one if it is truly deserved.  Judging by tonight’s performance, we should really be demanding encores from Jackie Leven until a week next Thursday at least.  I buy Jackie Leven.  I get it.  When I first encountered him a few years ago, wearing a pair of brown brogue shoes, ankle socks, khaki shorts, a duffel coat and a thick scarf at the Beverley Festival, I knew we were dealing with someone slightly more eccentric than your usual visitor from the Kingdom of Fife.  I’d heard his records and had become a fan long before I discovered the man himself.  Those records continue to be filed under the autonomous category of ‘Jackie Leven’, quite simply because there is no other category for this particular collection of songs to find themselves in.  As a raconteur, I believe everything he tells me from the stage, whether it’s a simple mundane tale of being inspired to write songs whilst watching Columbo on TV with his dogs Basil and Ronnie by his side, to the highly implausible tale of drinking Lord Olivier under the table with a ‘Scottish-style cognac’, whilst collaborating on the lyrics of a potential blues song.  Once you are aware of Jackie’s colourful past, which includes near death experiences from a random attacker and drug addiction to the fact that a former girlfriend ran off with the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, then anything is possible.  As a performer, Leven has the ability to fill any room he plays with sound.  His only requirement as a solo performer is a straight backed chair, together with a couple of direct inputs for his guitar, a microphone for singing into and another one to hover somewhere above his left foot, for the metronome he creates to beat away throughout each song.  His larger than life personality is matched measure for measure by his large frame.  You wouldn’t want to mess with this man.  Opening tonight with a couple of songs from his last album Elegy for Johnny Cash, “Museum of Childhood” and the title song, with its droning guitar and unambiguous lyrics, Leven’s statement of intent was to tell it like it is.  The rockier aspect of Leven’s recorded output somehow makes the transition to acoustic performance rather well and loses none of its power.  “Kings of Infinite Space” from Jackie’s latest studio offering Oh What a Blow That Phantom Dealt Me reveals a more soulful Leven.  The Billy Paul “Me and Mrs Jones” coda was begging to be crooned, even before Jackie started to.  You feel that if Leven’s hand was forced and that he had to settle into a distinctive style, then it wouldn’t be too far removed from sweet soul music.  Jackie’s contribution to the Kevin Coyne tribute album Whispers from the Offing was a self-penned tribute song called “Here Come the Urban Ravens”, which also appears on the Phantom album.  The notion of Coyne returning as the collective soul of Ravens appeals enormously to an avid Coyne fan.  Even though Leven’s song was crucial to the album, I couldn’t help pondering upon which of Coyne’s songs Jackie would have covered, had they not allowed him to provide an original song.  “Dog Latin” perhaps?  “Eastbourne Ladies”?  Surely not “Good Boy”?   Although it’s always a pleasure to hear new material by any artist, it’s important to be reminded of the songs that brought you here in the first place.  “Single Father” from the Defending Ancient Springs era, tells of the relationship between father and son, unpretentiously washing away all the sentimentality found in other songs on the subject.  “Father and Son” and “The Cat’s in the Cradle” spring to mind.  Here we have an outpouring of rhetoric, which serves to point out some of the latent anguish of losing the custody of a child.  He doesn’t like to talk about such personal matters but confesses that it’s good to share these small and important things in the form of a good song and a true song, especially when he feels safe.  Jackie Leven felt safe tonight.  Another older song, this time from the excellent Forbidden Songs from the Dying West album, was probably the most poignant moment of the evening.  Needing no introduction, “Men in Prison” became both lament and lullaby at the same time with its melancholy air and which managed to bring the Rock audience to silence.  “Are these songs okay?” asked Leven.  The room nodded in unison.  So prolific as a songwriter and recording artist, Leven often has too much material for his record company to logistically deal with.  This does not faze Leven too much, who instead of bottling it, opts to record under a pseudonym.  Two albums exist under the guise of Sir Vincent Lone, “Songs for Lonely Americans” and “When the Bridegroom Comes (Songs for Women)” from which Leven’s cover of an old and obscure Donovan song comes.  “Ballad of Geraldine” continues to bear the hallmark of early Dylan, even in the hands of Jackie Leven, but becomes distinctively Jackie’s own.  So as we drew to the close of the performance, with that last song “A Little Voice in Space” and with no encore, Jackie left his audience aching for more (always a good thing) and disappeared into the night.  “When shall we meet again?” he enquired.  Soon I hope.

Dan Arborise | The Regent, Doncaster | 04.03.08

First impressions can often be blighted by either a certain bias or chronic suspicion when the publicity material declares that an artist is apparently ‘John Martyn meets Nick Drake for the 21st Century’.  You tend to be on the lookout for signs and similarities even before the man has struck a single note.  Once that note has been struck though, along with several others in this case, the John Martyn influence is more than just apparent.  Arborise appears to have devoured and digested a veritable feast of Martyn, from the delicious starter course of “Bless the Weather”, through the main course of “Solid Air” and ending up with a dessert of “Sunday’s Child”.  Thankfully he stopped there and didn’t bother with the wafer thin mint, which would no doubt have taken him on a similar tangent of saxophone-heavy post One World period mush that may have blighted Martyn’s reputation in the Eighties.  For those of us who anchor after the Inside Out period Martyn and who would willingly trade an arm or a leg to have been at the Live in Leeds gig in the mid-Seventies, then we have the young Dan Arborise to deliver something similar and with significant talent and immeasurable flair.  There is an extraordinarily familiar slurred and breathy vocal delivery, a soulful quality to the songs, an effect pedal driven guitar style reminiscent of Martyn’s echoplex-drenched shenanigans of the Seventies, all of which create a problem for this reviewer, in that the comparison is impossible to overlook.  It is effectively ‘Zzzolid Air’ for this generation.  The Nick Drake influence however, is much less apparent.  Most sensitive guitar players with a fragile voice are compared to Drake these days but thankfully we are spared a straight copy.  I can’t think of anything more cringe-worthy than a Nick Drake tribute act, you know, those musicians who choose to carefully absorb each digit from the tablature book and go to great lengths to produce a carbon replica of “Fruit Tree”, complete with ‘tortured artist’ tattoo’d across the furrows of his (or her) brow.  What’s the point?  Thankfully, what Arborise does is bring to his music the ethereal spirit of Drake without seemingly replicating his style or sound.  Dan Arborise appeared relaxed on stage at the Regent tonight.  You imagine none of these songs are played quite the same on any two nights.  It was difficult to tell exactly where one song ended and another one started, but this was in no way uncomfortable for the listener.  For all intents and purposes, each song of the set could have segued into each other and I wouldn’t have batted a closed eyelid.  It was music to drift off to.  I guess the inconvenience of changing tunings, having a sip of water or just basically drawing breath were good enough reasons for breaks between some of the songs in the performance, but essentially it was all part of the same organic flow of sound.  Improvisational at their core, the songs lent themselves to the creation of an ambient soundscape rather than a distinct set of individual songs.  Even the irritating emergency service vehicle sirens from the streets outside spookily blended in with the overall sound without too much disruption.  Now you couldn’t say that if it happened half way through a tin whistle tune at a Vin Garbutt convention!  Half of the material tonight was relatively new, with a handful of songs from the debut Around in Circles album.  “Let Me Be”, “Take Heart in Your Hope” and the instrumental interlude “Paths” were presented together as an uninterrupted suite, which incorporated various swirling tempo changes and the clever use of foot-operated sampling devices ensuring the performance maintained a coherent thread that held our interest.  “Everything You’ve Been Taught to Love sis a Lie” is one of Dan’s outstanding songs both on record and in live performance.  The heavily echo-laden guitar solo, which takes up the second half of the song, had an almost spiritual quality in its mantra-like pulsating rhythm.  If there was any doubt about the extent of Dan’s love affair with the music of John Martyn, it was all pretty much confirmed by the time the encore came around, where “tonight Matthew, Dan Arborise is going to be..” as he closed the night with a pretty faithful version of “Don’t Want to Know”.  Despite the comparisons, Dan Arborise is an artist in his own right who can hold an audience’s attention throughout a performance with little chit-chat and with exclusive emphasis on emotive and dexterous handling of original songs.  A memorable night.

Wizz Jones | The Regent, Doncaster | 10.03.08

Occasionally I have these overwhelming flights of fancy whilst attending concerts, especially gigs that feature musicians I heard about in my youth, the kind of musicians you read about in the back pages of Melody Maker or whose name you would hear being casually dropped by God-like guitar heroes of the Sixties.  There’s always this lurking romantic vision of the mysterious man with a guitar who steps in from the cold windy night, plays a little, then heads off back into that dimly lit street and back into oblivion.  This is what happens when you watch too many old films featuring the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, seductively entertaining a handful of highly dubious female beatniks in some smoky subterranean Belgian jazz club back in the Fifties.  That image of Broonzy would have been iconic to the young Wizz Jones in post war London and would be partly responsible for many a young novice of the day picking up a guitar for the first time and starting his own skiffle group.  I missed this period by a matter of only a handful of years, but this romantic notion was subsequently handed down to my generation and has resulted in a lifetime appreciation of the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davy Graham, Al Stewart and Ralph McTell, essentially, the cream of British folk blues troubadours.  In all fairness, Wizz Jones never quite achieved the same level of popularity as his contemporaries, but has instead found his name in the indexes of biographies of some of the big names in the history of popular music, simply because he is a musician’s musician.  With an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of blues styles from the likes of Broonzy, Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and Blind Willie Johnson, to name but a few, Wizz Jones has spent a lifetime travelling and playing guitar and not a lot has changed in the ensuing years.  He’s the real deal.  A bone fide British folk blues troubadour.  Tonight at the Monday Music Club at the Regent, Wizz Jones took command of his slightly weatherworn Epiphone and treated us to some songs from another era.  I can’t imagine tonight’s performance being any different from those heady days of Les Cousins in London’s Soho district way back in the Sixties.  Wizz still has the hair too!  Starting with Big Bill’s “Guitar Shuffle” and revisiting several blues standards along the way, including “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, Doc Watson’s “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Corrine’s Blues”, from his very first LP, Wizz performed with the kind of assurance that can only come from experience, which in his case is as plentiful as hydrogen.  As a songwriter, Wizz admits that he is far from prolific, “I don’t like doing it” he confesses.  This is clearly a shame as his songs are really quite good.  “The Burma Star” and “Lucky the Man” address two generations of the Jones family, his father and his daughter respectively, whilst “Happiness Was Free” takes a closer look at relationships, and at the same time, in tentative nostalgic terms, alludes to the ideology of the ‘beatnik’ generation.  There is no question that Wizz knows his instrument well and can tackle with relative ease the cream of the blues giants as well as bringing to the table songs by Jesse Winchester “Black Dog”, Bob Dylan “Song to Woody”, Jackson C Frank “Blues Run the Game” and even Clive James “Touch Has Memory”.  Wizz also is a darn good banjo player as he frailed majestically through Ewan MacColl’s “Father Song”.   So, just as Big Bill had done in that old film, as he placed his guitar back in its battered case and left that dark and seedy Belgian night club all those years ago, unaware he was inspiring a generation of musicians including the young Wizz Jones, I watched an older Wizz Jones leave the Regent on this cold and rainy windy night, guitar in hand and banjo over his shoulder and felt equally inspired.

Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby | The Regent, Doncaster | 14.04.08

I was pleased to finally catch one of Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby’s gigs tonight after many a missed opportunity.  Their names have emblazoned many a folk club or festival flyer over the years but I’ve never managed to find myself in the same room at the same time.  This was rectified tonight when I finally got to see them at the Regent in Doncaster.  Whilst Brian’s background is that of seasoned guitar accompanist with the likes of Mary Hopkin, Joe Brown and Nanci Griffith as well as lead guitarist with The Strawbs, Cathryn’s background is steeped in the traditional music of the Appalachians.  Their musical partnership is therefore unique and draws from a wealth of different styles, where it has been described as ‘Anglicised Americana’.  From the opening song “Old Guitar” which demonstrates Cathryn’s beautiful voice, reminiscent of Eddi Reader it has to be said and Brian’s generous guitar accompaniment, we are drawn into song after song of outstanding quality.  Throughout the performance various themes were eloquently addressed both in word and in song.  During the first half, each song was preceded with informative rather than portentous introductions by Cathryn whilst in the second, much of the between song introductions were reduced in order to let the songs speak for themselves.  Such themes as the Boxing Day Tsunami “Surrender” and Autism “Alice’s Song” were addressed with heartfelt compassion, completely devoid of mawkish sentimentality.  “Alice’s Song” was in fact written for Brian’s niece, which was subsequently released as a single by The Strawbs, for The National Autistic Society’s Year of Awareness and Cathryn and Brian’s treatment of it tonight was one of the high points of the performance.  I should imagine anyone who gets up in an English folk club to sing “Dixie” would be hard pushed not to segue into “All My Trials” and go all Glory Glory Hallelujah on us, to a rolling blanket of swaying cigarette lighters.  Cathryn Craig can sing “Dixie” and push aside all that nonsense; bypassing The King by at least a century and have us all back in the American Civil War with no strain on the imagination whatsoever.  “Mr Jefferson” reminds us all that even a President of Thomas Jefferson’s historical stature, of one who to this day still rubs shoulders with Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt (see Wikipedia under ‘Mount Rushmore’) could also have pretty diabolical views on slavery.  Like the infamous wolf/ears analogy, “you don’t want to hold on to it, but you don’t want to let it go”.  The outstanding performance of the night was Cathryn’s powerful song for Matoaka (Pocahontas), the inspirational “Accanoe” which matched Peter Rowan’s “Land of the Navajo” for sheer heart stopping drama.  The additional percussive rattle (cleverly attached to Cathryn’s wrist) and haunting vocables added authenticity to the Native American chant which brought the song to its powerful climax and which ultimately became one of the most memorable moments in this club’s history, period.  The song ended the first half as there was nowhere to go but the bar after such a performance.  Other remarkable songs of the night were “This Night, These Dreams and You” with Brian’s beautiful guitar accompaniment, Cathryn’s bold supportive comment on her niece’s wanderlust “I Will” and the soulful “Walk Slowly through this Life”, which pretty much sums up my code of living.  A triumphant night.

Wath Festival 2008 | Wath upon Dearne | 05.05.08

There’s an extraordinary sense of a community spirit that you couldn’t fail to absorb on arriving in the Montgomery Square area of Wath-upon-Dearne on a May bank holiday weekend.  You may choose to join the festivities right at the very beginning, attending one of the Eric Sampson Schools Concerts, which take place sometime during the midweek period leading up to the bank holiday weekend.  You may on the other hand choose to come along early on Friday evening, plying for one of the best seats in the house for the first of the five concert sessions, which would no doubt feature one of your favourite names on the folk and acoustic scene.  You may even decide to skip all that and just come along with guitar in hand to attend the final informal session at the Sandygate on bank holiday Monday afternoon.  Either way, you would be guaranteed a community atmosphere and a friendly face to meet and greet you.  So carefully planned is the running order at the Wath Festival these days that satisfaction is almost guaranteed for all.  The festival, which is organised by several passionate souls who collectively share one single vision, which is to bring this tangible sense of community to a wider audience, celebrates thirty-five years of its existence and its popularity grows year upon year.  Centred round Montgomery Hall, the festival has grown over the years to the extent of including a large marquee for various children’s events, tucked away nicely behind Montgomery Hall, the main venue for all the festival concerts, and just a short distance away from yet another concert venue up on Sandygate Hill.  The Sandygate Hotel, would be the ideal place to grab a bite to eat whilst taking in performances from additional invited artists such as up and coming acts like Jamie Roberts and Katriona Gilmore, Charlie Barker, the Jon Chapman Trio, Tim Eveleigh and Kayla Kavanagh.  There’s every chance you might also get to see one of the main acts up close and personal, who will be appearing on the main stage at some point during the weekend.  This year for instance, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan made such an appearance on Saturday afternoon.  Between the town centre and the Parish church, where bread buns would be traditionally hurled from the tower at precisely twelve noon, you are likely to witness a variety of traditional dances, street performances and workshops, appealing to spectators of all ages, whether they be visitors to the festival, local townsfolk or just curious passers by.  If you’re at a loose end on May bank holiday weekend, where better than at the Wath Festival to be?  I wasn’t at a loose end over the weekend.  On the contrary, I’d been looking very much forward to this year’s festival for a good twelve months since attending the last one and so becoming an instant convert.  Upon arriving, I did what most festival goers do, that is to carefully scan the programme to see exactly who I might see and who I might miss due to scheduling cross-overs.  Suffice to say, this festival is geared towards ensuring a ticket holder doesn’t miss much at all. The first of the five concert sessions during the weekend got underway on Friday night with appearances by Ray Hearne, Bob Fox and the popular duo John Tams and Barry Coope, which turned out to be quite an inspired bit of programming.  Ray Hearne has always been a popular voice in South Yorkshire and easily fits the dual role of both consummate entertainer and festival champion, a good figurehead who believes in this festival and the good it brings.  John Tams later referred to Ray as a great poet and a personal hero, which coming from an artist of John’s stature is no mean accolade indeed.  If Ray’s job was to warm up the audience, then by the time Bob Fox was ready to take over, that audience was sizzling in anticipation.  Now this year, Bob Fox and Stu Luckley will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the release of their first LP, Nowt So Good’ll Pass, which features many of the songs that Bob is still singing today; songs which have subsequently become pretty much standard folk club fare, songs like “Sally Wheatley” and “The Bonnie Gateshead Lass” both of which Bob performed in his Friday night set.  The distinctive voice on the record and the voice heard at the Wath Festival has changed very little in the subsequent years, if at all.  Considered one of this countries’ best folk singers, Bob Fox 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. Still, as John Tams was to remind us later in the evening, Bob Fox possesses the greatest voice in the English folk movement, and a voice we shall not hear again.  A voice that comes from ‘hard graft’.  Ray Hearne compared the job of introducing John Tams and Barry Coope with that of introducing members of his own family.  He went on to point out that the current political climate has brought about a consensus of opinion that if nothing else “we’ll get some good songs out of it – and who better to write ‘em but John Tams and who better to play ‘em but Barry Coope”.  A perfect set-up for the perfect set that followed.  Anyone who has witnessed a John Tams and Barry Coope performance knows full well that nothing unites a room full of people better.  The songs weave through themes of hardship, love and loss with no small measure of astute observation and social commentary.  Whilst “Amelia”, “Harry Stone” and “Lay Me Low” tug at the heartstrings and settle us deep into our seats, “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, increases the speed of the heartbeat and beckons us all to unite in communal singing.  It’s good for the soul. On Saturday afternoon, the Real Music Bar sessions held at The Sandygate got underway, showcasing the talents of young musicians Jamie Roberts and Katriona Gilmore, whose dexterous playing ability on guitar and fiddle respectively, drew a decent sized audience despite competing with the major concert appearances of Cara Dillon, Roger Davies and Jon Strong on stage at the Montgomery Hall at the same time.  In his introduction to the Saturday evening concert, all round thoroughly decent chap Tony Dargan pointed out that the Wath Festival should be represented by its finest, and as Ruth and Gary Wells took to the stage, it most certainly was.  Kicking off with “Over the Lancashire Hills”, Ruth and Gary played an eclectic mix of concert favourites including Steve Knightley’s “Exile”, Johnny Mulhern’s “Magdalene Laundry”, and XTC’s “Dear Madame Barnum”.  Ruth and Gary play a crucial part in the running of this festival and their absence would be like parents missing from a kid’s party, if ever they ever chose to have a year off.  Nancy Kerr and James Fagan’s second appearance of the weekend, having already performed a set during the afternoon at the Sandygate, was received by an enthusiastic audience who instantly warmed to the duo’s charms.  Songs such as “Farewell to the Gold”, “Allan Tyne of Harrow” and “Leaving Old England” couldn’t fail to bring out the best in this Wath audience.  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.  They 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’.  The songs that evolve from such partnerships are an important part of traditional music and I suppose in some small way are 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.  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.  Rounding off Saturday night, Martyn Joseph was in Elvis mood.  Twenty-nine albums on from the days when this young Cardiff songsmith was being launched as the new kid on the block, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and we now have our own version of Bruce Springsteen to dish out song after song of sheer brilliance.  Highly prolific, Joseph tackles a multitude of themes and topics with the assurance of a seasoned rock star.  He had ‘a plan’ for this performance, which he would not allow himself to divert from however much the man in the audience pleaded for a Joan Osborne song “One of Us” was performed at Joseph’s last appearance at the festival in 2003.  He was on a mission.  Songs from his new album Vegas loomed large with “Weight of the World”, “Things We Have Carried Here”, “Fading of Light” and “Invisible Angel” seamlessly rubbing shoulders with more familiar fare “Proud Valley Boy”, “Turn Me Tender” and the heart breaking and personal “Can’t Breath” from his 2005 Deep Blue album.  One or two older songs were also revisited. It’s not unusual to see the festival organisers at Wath Festival mingle freely with artists, the press and the public alike.  There is a green room far away without a single occupant.  This festival is made for mingling, and mingle everyone does with relish.  Martin Nesbit opened the Sunday afternoon concert with some original Teesside humour, which perfectly set the audience at ease.  Songs about uncontrollable dogs from Hell, ASBOs and just for the ladies, a real mechanical guy, complete with sex appeal, twiddly bits and sexy eyes that bounce about on wires.  Completely bizarre stuff to get the final day of the Festival off to a good start.  At just nineteen, Ruth Notman brings something to the stage that most experienced folk singers would trade an arm or a leg for, that is, fresh faced youth.  She speaks of A levels and examinations with youthful candour, not as if it were just yesterday, but as if she was still in the middle of doing them.  She has a bright and breezy personality, which comes across as unbridled charm and you would have to be made of ice not to love this Nottingham lass.  Alternating between guitar and piano, and joined by Saul Rose on melodeon, Ruth delighted her audience with her unmistakable voice and faultless song choices.  Opening with her own take on Nic Jones’ “Billy Don’t You Weep For Me”, which Mr Jones has already nodded his approval to using superlatives such as ‘super’ and ‘terrific’, Ruth’s set displayed a lightness of touch on both guitar and piano.  Ruth was in her usual playful mood and joked about Westlife, especially when tackling power ballad key changes as illustrated in “Lonely Day Dies”, which she admits is there simply to “meet the criteria of the examination board” in her Music A Level, as well as surprising the audience with her tongue-in-cheek revelation that the next artist up, Kris Drever, is in fact her future husband “but he doesn’t know it yet!”  Ruth’s jaunty version of “Limbo” was one of the highlights of a predictably superb set, which confirmed to this Wath audience that she is one to watch out for in the foreseeable future.  Closing with “Farewell Farewell”, the classic Richard Thompson song is approached with both maturity and assured confidence, despite her guitar having just lost battery power after her penultimate song and having to make do with Saul’s mic.  A minor glitch to bring an excellent set to a close.  Kris Drever performed songs from his album Black Water with a confidence and flair rarely displayed by one so young.  Whilst “Steel and Stone (Black Water)”, “Beads and Feathers” and “Harvest Gypsies” proved what a fine and tasteful selector of contemporary songs he is, following his own rule of choosing songs for the album written by personal friends only, “otherwise the album would be full of Randy Newman songs” he admits, “Shady Grove” reminded us once again of his command over the interpretation of traditional material.  The instrumental preface to “Green Grows the Laurel” was nothing short of stunning, not because it was complex, flash or bewilderingly difficult, but because it was simply beautiful.  The Gladedale concert on Sunday evening brought us to the last leg of the festival.  Determined to make it a night to remember, the festival brought together two of the hottest bands on the scene, one relatively new, the other, unquestioned giants of the folk scene.  After winning the best live act category at the 2008 BBC Folk Awards, Lau’s set on Sunday night was eagerly anticipated.  Their appearance at the festival brought their gruelling six weeks tour to an end with a storming set that had the entire audience on the edges of their seats.  One sensed some fatigue in the faces of this trio but nevertheless, this understandable exhaustion didn’t manifest itself in their playing one bit.  Kicking off with “Frank and Flo’s”, Lau demonstrated perfectly how three musicians can be completely on the same page with exciting interplay between accordion and fiddle and the driving guitar of Kris Drever.  Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddle playing follows a traditional template and is so good as to have been heard on over sixty albums already, both as a session musician and member of such outfits as Blazing Fiddles and Tabache.  Martin Green on the other hand, has managed to reinvent the accordion completely as a crucially exciting instrument, not so much in the speed and dexterity of his playing but in the actual physical handling the instrument.  If Martin had appeared at the Monterey Festival in ‘67 then he would surely have set it alight.  He dismisses comparisons to Jimi Hendrix with his sardonic wit “I’m more like the Jimmy Cricket of the accordion”.  Kris Drever provided one or two songs during the set, such as Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man” and a couple of traditional songs, “Butcher Boy” and “Unquiet Grave”.  For one who loves songs so much and usually taps his fingers patiently upon the table throughout the instrumentals until the next song comes along, I must confess that with Lau, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for something like “Hinba” to come along again.  It almost feels like the folk scene in general has been itching for something like this to come along.  Who better to take us out on a high than the Battlefield Band?  The current line-up, which consists of founding member Alan Reid, Alasdair White, Mike Katz and most recent addition guitar player Sean O’Donnell, brought not only just a taste of Scottish traditional music to the festival, but the very heart of it.  Formed in the 1970s the band have evolved through many changes but have always maintained a distinctive Scottish sound by always including at least one piper.  Mike Katz’s playing of the Highland Bagpipes is almost as impressive as his beard and the finale to this year’s festival couldn’t have been better planned.  Alternating between songs of startling quality and sets of traditional tunes, the band won over the audience with ease.  Songs about immigration “The Green and the Blue”, “The Immigrant”, forgiveness “I’m Going to Set You Free” and love “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” were beautifully delivered by either Alan or Sean, whilst Alasdair and Mike contributed their most fitting accompaniments.  The audience took over the singing during “Nancy Whisky”, which was a fitting way to bring the 2008 Wath Festival concerts to an end.  I bumped into Ray Hearne towards the end of the set and we shared a moment of reflection.  As the room swayed to the last refrain of “Nancy Whisky”, we considered how much had been squeezed into such a short space of time.  Was it really only just two nights ago that he kicked this thing off?  Amazingly enough…

Clive Gregson | The Regent, Doncaster | 12.05.08

It’s a good twenty years ago since Richard Thompson suggested to Clive Gregson that he and Christine Collister should spend some time working as a duo in the folk clubs up and down the country, whilst the band was having a break.  It was a wise decision, as the pair provided the folk scene with a bunch of memorable songs that had already been tried and tested in the Eighties cult band Any Trouble, but with a new emphasis on splendid harmonies and sex appeal.  I reserve judgement on exactly how sexy Clive Gregson was in fedora and shades, but Christine Collister’s soulful voice and girly giggle did the trick for me.  I was pleased to have been around during that time to catch Gregson and Collister on many occasions, as an excellent duo and of course as part of one of the classic Richard Thompson Band line-ups.  Tonight at The Regent, gone was the hat and shades, gone also was the female sidekick, but what remained intact was the fine and accomplished songs.  The first set of the night was taken up with newish songs, either from more recent solo albums, or songs that he’s been writing for others, including one of which had its very first outing tonight, “Back Where I Belong”, which the audience agreed should be a ‘keeper’.  Currently living in Nashville, Gregson has found himself in very good company, working with the likes of Nanci Griffith and Buddy Holly’s old band The Crickets.  “I Think I’m Falling in Love” is Gregson’s attempt at writing a love song in the old Buddy Holly style and it would be easy to imagine the bespectacled Strat-wielding Texan singing it, had he still been around.  Gregson has a very matter-of-fact approach to between-song patter, with stories of travelling the world and name-dropping without actually coming over as boastful or arrogant.  I’m still shocked at how casually he informed us all that his former wife was recently abducted in Ecuador and murdered, or was I hearing things?  It makes sense that Gregson should team up with fellow songwriter Boo Hewerdine as they are so similar in their sense of melody.  Listening to Clive Gregson these days is not unlike listening to Hewerdine, especially on songs like “All My Stories” and obviously “Footstep’s Fall”, which they wrote together. Both share that distinctly melodic style of song writing.  “Fingerless Glove” closed the first set with some astonishingly versatile guitar playing, which looks so easy in the hands of Gregson.  You tend to forget just how experienced Gregson is as a guitarist whilst concentrating on the songs.  The second set got off to a good start with three songs lifted from the first Gregson Collister album Home and Away, “It’s All Just Talk”, “When My Ship Comes In” and the evocative “Northern Soul”, still one of Gregson’s finest songs, which was also part of the Any Trouble repertoire.  Last year saw the long awaited reunion of Any Trouble, giving those who missed out on the band another opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about.  There are no short memories in the Regent audience and “Trouble with Love” from the Wheels in Motion period was requested and performed on the spot.  Other highlights of the set was audience favourite “Fred Astaire”, memorably recorded by Norma Waterson, and believe it or not, fellow Mancs’ Barlow, Donald, Orange and Owen’s “Wooden Boats” from Take That’s last album.  It’s a good song, and when stripped down to one man and his guitar, it comes across as a perfectly reasonable choice for a Gregson set.  Gregson finished off with a tribute to the first Any Trouble singer Tom Jackson, who unexpectedly died last week, with one of his favourite songs, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, which he chose to sing front of stage and unplugged.  It sort of required that sort of intimacy.  Twenty-one songs were performed by Gregson tonight and each one was special in its own way.  Testament to one of this countries’ finest writers and one whose songs should be celebrated.

Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies | The Rock, Maltby | 16.05.08

Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies these days bear little resemblance to the band of the same name I saw on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1997, apart from the bloke in the striped shirt that is, who sang most of the songs and wrote just about all of them.  He hasn’t changed one bit over the years and I’m seriously considering whether or not he might be descended from Peter Pan.  The current Bad Pennies consist of Kate Bramley (Fiddle/Mandolin), Andy May (Northumbrian Small Pipes/Accordion/Piano/Whistle) and Dave de la Haye (Bass), and like all other incarnations before, the band provide more than just embellishment to Jez Lowe’s fine songs, but help create a much fatter sound for all his fine arrangements.  Jez sings traditional songs from the North East but with a difference, the difference being that he writes them all himself.  There’s no reason to doubt that songs like “Durham Jail”, “A Hard Life for a Rover” and “Honest Working Way” will be sung by folk singers in fifty years’ time in exactly the same way as they sing “When the Boat Comes In” today.  Why not?  Bob Fox already does a great job with “Greek Lightning”, so that process has really already started.  Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies appeared in cheerful mood at the Rock in Maltby tonight and although the room wasn’t full to the rafters, there was certainly enough of an audience to get a pretty vibrant atmosphere going.  Starting with “Call for the North Country”, the band played a selection of Lowe favourites such as “Cursed be the Caller”, “Another Man’s Wife” and “Latch Key Lover” with Kate Bramley chipping in a couple of songs from her current solo CD Little Canaan with Jez Lowe’s “The Waltzer” and her own “Carter’s Fair”.  Apart from a set of tunes on the Northumbrian pipes, which Andy May both played and in fact made, the rest of the performance was pretty much a selection of Jez Lowe songs old and new, played in the band’s own inimitable style.  “Taking on Men”, one of the songs Jez contributed to the 2006 Radio Ballad series has become one of the stand out songs in Jez Lowe’s repertoire, both as a Bad Penny and a solo performer.

Brooks Williams | The Regent, Doncaster | 19.05.08

Brooks Williams brought his own brand of real folk blues to the Regent tonight with a couple of impressive solo sets, which included much of his current album The Time I Spend with You.  Pleasantly chatty, the Georgia born guitarist, now resident in Boston, Massachusetts, alternated between standard guitar and National Estralita, with a repertoire made up of his own songs including “Rich Tonight” and “Same Ol’ Me” and blues standards such as “Statesboro Blues” and traditional folk fare, such as “Shady Grove”.   Highly approachable and conversational, Williams made it easy on the Regent regulars and those who had travelled to see the guitarist tonight and a rapport soon developed between artist and audience from different sides of the globe.  Williams is equally at home playing flat-pick, finger-pick and bottleneck guitar styles and has a good knowledge of that particular music specifically from his neck of the woods as well as demonstrating some of the most interesting and bizarre Bahaman finger style picking, courtesy of Joseph Spence’s “Out on the Rolling Sea”.  On Doc Watson’s “Beaumont Rag”, Williams demonstrated some highly competent guitar playing without coming across as too flash or showy.  What he played was just right.  On Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “”61 Highway”, he brought an authentic taste of country blues seldom heard around these parts.  If anyone is going to perform “Statesboro Blues” it might as well be someone from that very city, which indeed Brooks Williams is.  Although Williams is steeped in the rural and urban blues traditions of the Southern States, he has developed a good relationship with musicians on this side of the Atlantic with both Dave Mattacks and Karen Tweed contributing to his new album, which appeared to be selling like hot cakes at the Regent tonight.

Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts | King George IV Sheffield | 05.06.08

There’s a stark contrast between the facial expressions of both Jamie Roberts and Katriona Gilmore when you see them playing together; Jamie’s intense concentration is evened out by Katriona’s apparent stoicism as each of these young musicians tackle some pretty complex arrangements in often hideously difficult time signatures.  Perhaps Jamie’s more pained expression is due to the fact that he is doing the job of two people.  In Jamie we have a guitar player and percussionist all rolled into one, two hands doing the work of four.  If only The Who had thought of this, they could’ve saved themselves a fortune in hotel damage bills, courtesy of the Moon’s antics.  Seriously, Jamie Roberts has something special going on here.  Positioning his guitar flat on his lap, not unlike the late blues guitarist Jeff Healey, Jamie never misses a beat whilst keeping the rhythmic flow of the guitar intact, beating and tapping the top and edges in order to provide a highly percussive sound.  Although there is a potential for all this to become awkwardly laboured, and one false move could turn the whole thing on its head, Jamie manages to keep it all together perfectly well, hence the high level of concentration I assume.  Katriona’s fluid fiddle playing has a richness and sweetness that complements Jamie’s playing superbly well.  Each note is played with the confident authority of a seasoned player, a remarkable feat for one so young.  Its little wonder Katriona provides violin lessons when she’s not entertaining audiences such as the one that had gathered in Sheffield tonight.  Starting with “Middle of May/Big Nige” with the former’s driving rhythm and the latter’s quirky start/stop groove, the duo brought to the evening a variety of complex fiddle tunes and original songs, one or two of which feature on the duos Live EP, which serves to put us on in the interim until the release of their debut album later this year, which is currently in production.  Katriona writes fiddle tunes that step outside the usual format with unconventional time signatures that she refers to as “not dancer friendly”, which in turn provide something interesting to get your head around.  “Running with Scissors”, with its analogy of being something risky or dangerous (or foolish, according to the more health and safety conscious amongst you), has an Eastern European feel which is difficult to tap your feet to, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless.  “Skip and Jump” is more dancer friendly and lends itself more to the country dance tradition, whilst “Heroes and Sidekicks” is filled with unexpected musical tangents.  Jamie’s songs include “So Long”, “White Lie” and “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye”, all of which demonstrate the song writing credentials of a musician born into a musical family.  His sister Kathryn has already made a name for herself on the British folk scene with a highly respectable duo album with Kate Rusby and as front person with the Equation.  With songs of this standard, there is no reason on Earth why Jamie shouldn’t make a similar mark on the folk scene, and with Katriona by his side, it all becomes pretty much a certainty.  Tony Dargan is a fine interpreter of good songs, having been blessed with enquiring ears and impeccable taste.  Tony tipped his cap to Toms’ Waits, Paxton and Bliss with “San Diego Serenade”, “Forest Lawns” and “Violin” respectively, John Tams’ “Amelia” and Jerry Garcia’s “Black Muddy River” during his two sets, all of which he performed in his own inimitable style, whilst throwing in the odd smiler such as Jake Thackray’s “The Hair of the Widow of Brid”.  There was also one or two unexpected surprises in Tony’s set, particularly “Black Water”, a song that is serving Kris Drever well at the moment and the Joe Jackson classic “Is She Really Going Out With Him”, which is a treat to hear once again. 

Robin Williamson | Wass Village Hall | 11.06.08

The Village Hall in Wass, a few miles northwest of York, deep in the sprawling landscape of North Yorkshire, was the ideal venue for such an intimate audience with one of the most enigmatic figures on the story telling circuit today.  Story telling is just one of the many facets to Robin Williamson; internationally known as the founding member of seminal folk outfit the Incredible String Band, with dozens of albums to his name both with the band and on solo projects as well as various collaborations, most notably with John Renbourn, we have in our presence tonight, a musician with a diverse musical career and a very colourful past.  Once you get into these stories however, you tend to forget songs of mad hatters, cousin caterpillars or indeed half remarkable questions and you get drawn into another world altogether.  Those who took the risk of putting together this concert in such a small and unassuming venue, must have been pleased with the turn out.  I was fashionably late and missed probably the first five minutes, due to a twisted road sign that pointed us in the wrong direction altogether and took us along one of the many winding roads that meandered past not only verdant meadows and sleepy tree-lined pastures, but the unexpected white chalk horse embedded into a hillside and the imposing ruins of a once majestic Cistercian Abbey.  Creeping quietly into the old wooden Village Hall, our man was already seated in the centre of the room, surrounded by his audience rather than taking up the usual position of being placed on an impersonal stage at one end.  With a Celtic harp between his legs and a variety of ancient instruments gathered to his side, Williamson had already embarked on his first tale and my initial urge was to ask someone seated nearest to me the story so far.  My guess is that the audience was made up of two halves; those in the local storytelling circle whose enthusiasm made it possible for Wass Village Hall to appear on tour flyers, sandwiched between Manchester’s Royal College of Music and Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, and those nostalgic ISB fans who had come along specifically to hear that most distinctive voice close up and possibly get their copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter LP signed at last.  In either camp, I’ll wager that the only person in Wass tonight who had played Woodstock was Robin, in fact I’ll go so far as to say that he was probably the only person there tonight who remembers Woodstock.  But you know what they say about those who remember the Sixties.  With the ruins of Byland Abbey a short walk away and a single pub down the lane, Robin brought to this sleepy hamlet the ancient spoken literature of Britain and Ireland, regaling us all with Celtic stories of beauty and violence, the magic lore of our ancient ancestors, in a bardic style he appears to have made his own.  Stories gathered from the Western Highlands of Scotland, which after a bit of ‘jiggery-pokery’ in Robin Williamson’s head, merge seamlessly into the Celtic heritages of Ireland and Wales, are told with both humour and authority.  So engaging are the stories, which Robin delivers in his own unmistakable voice, with its rich Edinburgh inflection, and accompanied effortlessly with the sound of the Celtic harp, that you tend to almost believe he had actually been there to witness these strange events personally.  I believe he probably had.  Backing up his ability to tell a good story, Robin reassures his audience that ‘whether it’s a long story, a short story, a good story, a bad story, or no story at all’, that he would try to ‘make it a better one than it will be when you tell it on another night’.  That, I can certainly guarantee.

Beverley Folk Festival 2008 | Beverley Leisure Centre | 22.06.08

To a full festival ticket holder, the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival offers both comfort and convenience with the thoughtful provision of car parking right next to your tent, hot showers and ample amenities a mere stone’s throw away, early morning wake up calls courtesy of the Minster bells, which is not a cheer leader troupe but celestial chimes of course, and the centre of a beautiful market town lined with pubs, cafes and shops just a short walk away.  The festival has grown during its twenty-five year existence but it’s still possible to find a decent camping spot and see just about everything on the bill with relative ease.  Yes, one or two concerts clash and you have to make that all important decision about which venue you would most like to visit, but Beverley makes this easy by applying logic to their diverse programming. Mike McGoldrick and Buzzcocks for example.  By providing such a contrasting Friday evening programme, Beverley managed to please just about everybody.  Those who wanted to kick their weekend off with a taste of Celtic music courtesy of Mike McGoldrick and Friends had to take a short walk over to the Memorial Hall, where they would also have been entertained by upcoming Wheeler Street and established songsmith Eleanor McEvoy.  Those who had a taste for the louder end of Manchester’s music scene congregated en masse for a hot and sweaty shoulder-to-shoulder belter of a night, as the volume grew steadily and climaxed with the much-anticipated Buzzcocks set.  Isn’t it nice when a festival team doesn’t automatically assume that all folkies are musically tunnel-visioned?  Bravely kicking off the festival was Like a Thief’s Holly Jazz Lowe, who provided a handful of songs accompanying herself on piano and guitar.  She seemed to be relaxed but one guesses she might have been bricking it all the same, as this very contemporary songwriter faced what could have been a traditional folk audience with furrowed brows.  Starting with “Dilemma Dilemma” and culminating in a pretty faithful reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, Scarborough based Lowe did a grand job of getting the audience warmed up for the fun and games that followed.  Hull-based band The Favours successfully bridged the sonic gap between Holly’s lightness of touch and the Buzzcocks’ unbridled rampage that followed.  Fronted by the Debbie Harry-esque Sara Sanchez, The Favours provided the festival’s Silver Anniversary celebrations with its first taste of rock n roll of the weekend.  During the short interval between The Favours and Buzzcocks, someone cheekily fiddled with the dial and boosted the volume up to eleven, which soon sorted the Minster’s bells out and indeed the wind in the trees.  I dare say even Mike McGoldrick’s gentler numbers may possibly have been hindered by Steve Diggle’s guitar licks as he leaped around the stage whilst a bemused Pete Shelley looked on from centre stage.  If there was any confusion on Friday evening as to whether this was a folk festival or not, the half attempted act of crowd surfing probably provided the pinnacle of that doubt.  After the main sets on both stages at the Leisure Complex and the Memorial Hall across town, things began to liven up in the Wold Top Marquee, presided over by Miles Cain, who ushered artists on and off stage at frequent intervals, providing an eclectic mixture of both established names and newcomers alike.  Roy Bailey popped along to support the sessions, as did Wheeler Street, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and many more during the weekend. There’s not much in the way of hanging around too much at this festival as things get off to an early start on Saturday morning with various workshops and special events on offer.  I meandered in and out of various venues during the morning starting with the Wold Top Marquee, where Tasmin Little was providing handy tips, hints and guidance to our young budding violinists of the future.  As indicated in a recent South Bank Show special, the acclaimed concert violinist is indeed campaigning to bring classical music to the masses, and where better to start than with our youth.  If scraping the horse’s hair over the cat’s gut is a bit un-vegan friendly around the festival village, then a lesson in the wonderful art of song writing might easily have been up your street instead.  Eleanor McEvoy equipped herself with ghetto blaster and flip chart in order to explain the ins and outs of putting your ditties together with favourable results.  Using Dylan, Springsteen and Marshall Bruce Mathers III of all people as examples, to name but a few, Eleanor attempted to simplify the various forms of song writing technique and enlightened her audience of budding song writers on how to break the rules ‘as long as you know why you are breaking them’.  My final workshop of the morning was over in one of the two Priory rooms, adjacent to the Minster, where Zak Borden was going through the rudiments of bluegrass mandolin.  With the help of his musical partner Rachel Harrington, Zak demonstrated how just eight short strings helped to change the course of country folk music and subsequently opened the doors to clever pickers worldwide, courtesy of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.  The Saturday afternoon ‘A Northern Gathering’ concert in the Main Hall got underway with local singer songwriter Edwina Hayes, whose country inflected songs and thoughtful covers brought a taste of Americana to the afternoon.  She opened the show with the aptly titled “Open the Show for You” and brought to new ears some older songs as well as brand new ones from her latest album Pour Me a Drink.   The Hut People are the unusual combination of Sam Pirt on accordion and Gary Hammond on various assorted percussion including pots and pans from the scullery.  In a broad Johnny Vegas-esque brogue, Sam Pirt delighted the audience with everything from jigs, reels and schottisches to French Canadian romper stompers.  Over at the Memorial Hall, Eleanor McEvoy was headlining an afternoon concert under the banner of ‘From the West of the Pennines’, where each of the acts were indeed from that side of the world with varying degrees of distance.  Bernard Wrigley probably felt comfortably at home (being a Bolton boy), McEvoy from slightly further over the rainy moors and an entire Irish sea and then there’s Oregon based Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden feeling positively homesick.  Rachel’s much anticipated set coincided with the delivery of her second album City of Refuge fresh from the press, which was made available to buy at the festival, a couple of months prior to its general release.  Headlining the Saturday afternoon Main Stage concert was the ever-delightful Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Performing lots of goodies from their much admired second album The Bairns as well as “On a Monday Morning” from their first offering and opening with the traditional “Sandgate Dandling Song”.  Their first appearance of the weekend culminated in the exquisite “Unst Boat Song”, the only song that could possibly follow their regular finisher “Fareweel Regality”.  After their recent tour took them half way around the world with various appearances at festivals and clubs both folk and non-folk related, the quartet have now settled into some tight arrangements and their experience is showing in the clarity of their harmony singing and general performance.  Becky Unthank’s sublime reading of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” was once again a high point of their set.  Saturday evening saw the 25th Anniversary Concert kick off in style with the ever-tight Chumbawamba, making a welcome return to the festival and opening with “Jacob’s Ladder” with its timeless nod to those who went before.  They manage to dominate the stage with their presence, all of which helps to kick their message home with no trace of ambiguity.  Their ironic take on the modern world with references to Ebay and social networking websites, makes us stop to ponder upon the banality of modern life.  Martin Simpson is no stranger to Beverley Folk Festival.  The teaming up with BBC Folk Award Musician of the Year Andy Cutting was no accident.  Festival organiser Chris Wade had more than a hand in it by suggesting that Simpson choose a musician to tour with, a musician whom he had not previously worked with and ‘the more unlikely the better’.  The pairing has proved to be astonishingly successful and some of the magic of that relationship came across on Saturday evening.  In a smoky atmosphere, caused by a steadily bellowing smoke machine rather than the now outlawed demon ciggies, Simpson emerged triumphantly to present much of his Prodigal Son set with Andy Cutting by his side.  Unfortunately Simpson fell victim to stage gadgetry, not by emerging Cliff Richard-like through a vista of smoke, but by having the Leisure Complex fire alarm add its metronomic chimes to the coda of “Never Any Good”, which should’ve been the high point of the set.  Simpson may have been irritated by the unfortunate climax, but the audience loved it nevertheless.  To all intents and purposes, there was hardly another act who could’ve celebrated the 25th Anniversary Concert more aptly than the family band known as The Watersons who were there at the very first festival.  Under the guise of Waterson:Carthy with Mike Waterson, we were really witnessing The Watersons, with Eliza making up for the absence of Lally, and anyone with a pair of ears noted instantly that the voice of their youngest member has matured so much as to blend in perfectly well with mum Norma, Uncle Mike and dad Martin Carthy, which in turn brought back to life the wall of sound that was created in the Sixties.  Beverley’s Silver Anniversary would have been incomplete without this family to help revive everything that was good and honest about the Folk Revival. Beverley was buzzing with activity around town during Sunday lunchtime. Whilst dance teams drenched the market square with colour and vibrancy and Rachel Harrington provided advice and inspiration to young songwriters over at the Priory, the other Rachel of the Unthank variety was conducting a Q&A in the Club Room over in the Leisure Complex, where the room had filled with festival goers curious to know a little more about the Northumbrian siblings and their Southern chums.  They answered questions candidly and succinctly and performed requests at the drop of a hat.  Although Waterson:Carthy returned to the Main Stage for their second set of the weekend during which they performed probably the highlight of the festival so far with Lal Waterson’s “Some Old Salty”, Sunday really belonged to four musicians who have worked extensively in various guises over the years, appearing in such outfits as Fairport Convention, Hedgehog Pie and Dando Shaft as well as with the likes of Bert Jansch, to name but a few. It was in the guise of Whippersnapper that these musicians gelled and excelled and subsequently became one of the tightest acoustic combos in folk music history.  Whippersnapper made two outstanding appearances at the festival, during the afternoon on the Main Stage and later in the evening just after a surprise appearance by Zimbabwe’s Black Umfolosi, who made a welcome return to Beverley.  I had personally given up any hope of seeing the original line up of Whippersnapper ever again after Swarb left the band in the Nineties.  A certain obituary in the telegraph made it almost a certainty that this quartet would go down in the annals of folk history as a footnote of good memories.  Major surgery and fixed differences as well as a miraculous resurrection from the dead, with no small measure of determination from the organisers of this festival, saw the re-emergence of Whippersnapper in all the band’s former glory.  I was almost ready to comment predictably on how the ensuing time span has manifested itself in chronic hair loss but in the case of Chris Leslie, the years have apparently been favourable with his Rapunzel-like locks.  Much of the repertoire has been preserved in a handful of albums, but it is in their live performance where Whippersnapper excel.  No one musician takes the lead, rather they divvy out the songs democratically and each takes his turn to allow the focus to be turned on them.  Dempsey brings a plaintive air to beautiful songs such as “The Maid of Coolmore”, “Pride of Kildare” and Sandy Denny’s beautiful “One Way Donkey Ride”; whilst Jenkins provides a much more contemporary feel to “Romanitza” and “Downtown Rodeo”.  Leslie and Swarb come into their own not as much as singers but as consummate musicians with a pair of fiddles that were just made to play together like veritable siblings.  Their two sets were completely different save for a repeat of “No More” as a final encore, which may suggest they were trying to tell us something.  I hope not, but we’ll have to wait and see.  So called ‘novelty’ acts can only really survive with folk audiences if they combine tasteful humour with astonishing musical virtuosity.  The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain excel equally in both areas and performed a superb closing set on Sunday night.  Nothing is safe from their virtuoso lampooning, whether it be the soul of Otis Redding’s “Too Hard to Handle”, the wild and windy warbling of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” or the king of the four stringed plank himself George Formby, whose “Leaning on a Lamp Post” is given an itinerant Klezmorim sort of treatment, all important ingredients to help bring this delightful little festival to a successful climax.

Pentangle | Royal Festival Hall | 29.06.08

When I was but a wee slip of a lad, fresh out of three cornered trousers, I distinctly recall putting aside my Monkees singles in favour of something much more meaningful and enlightening.  It was after being given an LP called Basket of Light by a folk group called The Pentangle.  I’d heard “Light Flight” on the radio, which was both mysterious and hypnotic and was a world away from “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, which was beginning to irritate me.  I was thirteen.  Sitting cross-legged in my suburban bedroom, imagining it to be my very own bohemian bedsit, whilst our dad and our mam sat downstairs watching The Man in a Suitcase, I found the images on this LP cover enchanting.  The spotlights from what appeared to be the Royal Albert Hall illuminating a small gathering of five people on stage, two guitarists hunched over their instruments, a rhythm section of double bass and drums to the rear, and a seated blonde in a mini skirt sitting centre stage all went towards what attracted me to the LP; this and the two line italicised inscription printed on the inside – ‘all the instruments played on this album are acoustic’.  Acoustic – that was a good word to discover in 1969, when my little ears had been treated to at least a decade of electric guitars courtesy of Hank to Hendrix.  I was still too young to be hitching down to that there London to see stuff like this, but the desire was there nevertheless.  There’s been one or two incarnations of The Pentangle, later shortened to just Pentangle, over the subsequent years, but I have to confess my heart was always set on seeing the five musicians who appeared in black and white on the inside of that LP sleeve.  As the years went by, the opportunities of seeing the original line up of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox together on one stage grew slimmer and my chances of ever seeing them increasingly doubtful.  A glimmer of hope came along in 2007 when the band reformed for a special appearance at that year’s BBC Folk Awards where they picked up a lifetime achievement award.  I attached my ears to the radio on the night they broadcast the awards and even though the performance was slightly dodgy I was once again excited at the prospect of a proper reunion.  Unfortunately, that performance sank without trace and once again I saw my chances of seeing Pentangle live swirl down the drain in a clockwise direction.   Coincidentally, I met John Renbourn backstage at a gig in February, where I desperately wanted to ask him the big question and was both surprised and delighted to hear that he was due to be rehearsing with Bert Jansch the following week for a planned concert with the original five members at the Royal Festival Hall in London.  I was eager to find out who I had to kill to get a ticket and found that the concert was already sold out.  Unbeknownst to me, my son had already acquired a couple of tickets for the concert and he was waiting for the right time to tell me, knowing how impatiently I wait patiently.  The fidgeting began almost immediately.  That fidgeting ended tonight on the South Bank of the Thames after an afternoon spent basking in the sun.  The South Bank was buzzing with accordion/sax duets, grown men making sand sculptures, one of which was in the shape of a frying pan containing a full English breakfast, several street performers ranging from a concert violinist playing Vivaldi to a guy doing bird impressions and hip hop dancing on the beach (yes the South Bank of the Thames has more beach than Cleethorpes).  With the Waterloo sunset fast approaching, I was drawn eagerly to the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall whereupon I met with Pentangle fans new and old, one or two contemporary musicians eager to hear this legendary band play once again and those curious to know what all the fuss was about.  At one point I spied a black fedora under which the unmistakable profile of Danny Thompson loomed, signing ancient LP gramophone records next to the artists’ entrance.  I spoke to Wiz Jones in the foyer, who was concealing his excitement as only a legend can.  A bestubbled Ian Anderson of fRoots editorial famage was milling around front stage chatting to photographers with apparent eager anticipation.  It had all the hallmarks of one of those folk royalty evenings waiting to happen.  Upon flicking through the handsome programme I pondered upon the fact that although these five musicians are now forty years older, time has been considerably kind and we have been spared the grief of having to attend a ‘Square’ concert or worse, one in the shape of a ‘triangle’, but can instead relish in the excitement of a completely intact and magnificently well-proportioned Pentangle.  Walking out onto the Festival Hall stage tonight to rapturous applause, these five familiar faces, most of whom have conducted themselves rather well over the years, making impressive contributions to music both as solo artists or as major collaborative figures, on the rock, jazz, folk and world music stages, as well as in one case, the Iberian culinary world, seemed quite at ease with the prospect of remembering the twenty-odd songs that haven’t really been out to play for forty years.  Starting with “The Time Has Come”, Pentangle soon fell into their trademark groove, with their very distinct sound, which sounded just as fresh today as it did back in the Sixties.  Refusing to stand on ceremony the band then launched into their one and only ‘hit’ “Light Flight” with its complicated time signature ala Dave Brubeck, delighting the audience who had gathered at this sell-out event.  The audience were silent during each performance and ecstatic during the applause and as usual I copped for the seat directly behind the guy who felt it necessary to whoop and holler in between every song once the majority of the audience had once again settled down.  Even the mention of the name ‘Cyril Tawny’ got a loud ‘whoa’, followed by the nervous titter of a steadily growing impatient stalls audience.  Bless his cotton socks, he was just a Pentangle fan having fun.  Towards the end of the first set, which had already seen the resurrection of “Market Song”, “”Once I Had a Sweetheart” and “Hunting Song”, John Renbourn challenged himself to a sort of half lotus position on the floor in order to play the Sitar on “House Carpenter”, whilst Bert tuned up his banjo.  It could’ve all gone horribly wrong at that point but it didn’t.  On the contrary, it was magnificent.  Bert could be forgiven for one or two short bouts of amnesia, forgetting just two lines throughout the entire two-hour programme.  It’s been a long time since these songs came out to play and no one in the building to my knowledge minded in the least.  The second hour-long set featured more familiar songs from each of their albums including “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”, “Bruton Town” and the band’s signature tune “Pentangling”, before rounding everything off with the gorgeous “Willy O’Winsbury” and a final encore of “Will the Circle be Unbroken”.  Not normally nostalgic, I have to say that my heart fluttered occasionally during each of the bands songs, when I realised that the boxes above the side stalls resembled those on the cover of that album I bought in the Sixties, and the five people up on stage sitting in exactly the same positions, with the exception of Jacqui, who now chooses to stand, were those same five people who I had longed to see back together for so long.  I realised that I did eventually get the opportunity to be one of those lucky people on the cover, albeit forty years on.  I guess we’re all forty years older but the enchanting sound of Pentangle has aged very little indeed.

Doncaster Cultural Festival 2008 | The Arts Park, Doncaster | 14.07.08

The Doncaster Cultural Festival, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, was a most pleasant way of spending a Sunday afternoon here in my home town.  Held in The Arts Park, which is sandwiched between the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery and The Point, Doncaster’s cultural centre for the arts, the festival brings together diverse aspects of the arts including film, photography, theatre, crafts, music and dance from all around the world. Organised by Doncaster Voluntary Arts Network, the festival presents an ideal opportunity for local voluntary art and cultural groups to perform, display and demonstrate their craft and for Doncaster people to enjoy.  The Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra, coincidentally celebrating their own special 35 year anniversary this year, was asked to kick off proceedings on the main stage in the Arts Park, on what turned out to be a much appreciated sunny afternoon.  The standard of musicianship within the ranks of both the jazz and swing orchestras never fails to impress.  Several spaces were given over to the festival, which includes rooms and galleries within the Museum and Art Gallery and spaces within the Point complex, as well as out in the open in both the Arts Park and the Museum garden.  Whilst John Ellis’s Orchestra filled the Arts Park with the sound of jazz on a summer’s day, the Chinese Elders were warming up for their performance of traditional Chinese music and song in the Museum Garden.  Traditional food was available from the Doncaster Chinese Elders Interactive Centre, whilst Caribbean cuisine was being served by the Doncaster Ujima Collective at their sampling table, offering something hot and spicy.  The Hindu Society of Doncaster also had some Asian food on offer, so there was no need to go hungry during this five hour festival and I most certainly didn’t.  The Cusworth Singers performed a tribute to Vaughan Williams in the Gallery at The Point, which is just a short walk across the park and through a wrought iron gate leading to small peaceful outer yard, which is essentially the rear entrance to the main building on South Parade. The Cusworth Singers have 12 singing members and perform a wide repertoire from early music to the twentieth century; including madrigals, folk, traditional, sacred and ‘pop’.  Today they concentrated on the folk songs of Vaughan Williams.  The Point was originally two listed Georgian terraced town houses but has now been converted into one building with an additional steel and glass extension to the rear.  As I entered through the Arts Park, I was greeted by a series of galleries and exhibition spaces, with the unmistakable smell of fresh coffee, which I treated myself to more than once during the afternoon.  Whilst “Linden Lea” echoed throughout the Point, the main stage in the Arts Park was preparing for some contemporary rap and reggae with the Doncaster Ujima Collective.  Today the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery served as the central focus for the festival with dance events being performed throughout the day in the Museum Garden, which is right in front of the main entrance.  The entrance canopy provided some shelter from the sun and under which crafts such as wood carving and Chinese brush painting were being demonstrated and displayed.  Inside the museum, visual exhibitions were on display in the form of films by CSV and BBC Radio Sheffield whose film ‘Region on Film’ included archive footage of Doncaster and South Yorkshire as well as an interactive display provided by Doncaster Movie Makers Camcorder Club.  Outside, the familiar sound of an accordion being squeezed and sticks being cracked together came courtesy of the Hilltop Morris Dancers of Edlington who were performing some traditional English dances.  In stark contrast to the Doncaster Ujima Collective and the young Morris teams of England, audiences were gathering in the upper galleries of the Museum and Art Gallery, where the Doncaster Choral Society performed a programme under the title ‘Gems of the Renaissance and Baroque’.  It wasn’t strictly black tie but there was certainly a more refined sense of occasion up in those galleries, where the Choral Society singers were flanked by some of the more imposing Victorian portraits, sculptures and paintings of the museum’s permanent collection.  Folk songs were also represented by the Doncaster Folk Club during the afternoon.  The Doncaster Little Theatre opened their production of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Absent Friends at the Little Theatre in Doncaster last week and today the cast came along to the festival to perform a couple of scenes in the Studio at The Point.  Already used to performing in a small theatre that usually seats up to 104 people, the theatre group were challenged to perform in an even tighter space at the Point, but quite successfully nonetheless.  Meanwhile downstairs in the Gallery, Janet Wood was leading the Quirky Choir, who specialise in various styles of communal singing.  They do it for fun and they look like they’re having fun doing it.  I spoke to Janet during the afternoon and she told me the choir is doing very well but they could do with a few more men in the group.  I took this as a thinly disguised hint and I’m tempted.  I particularly liked their treatment of the traditional African songs of Zimbabwe, a sound that just simply sends a shiver down the spine.  The Xpressions Youth Theatre and the Hall Cross School demonstrated some of the different forms of modern dance from the street and from Bollywood as well as some Irish dancing courtesy of the Josephine Brady School of Irish Dance.  There was also some freestyle disco dancing under the heading of ‘Reach for the Stars’, all taking place on the main stage in the Arts Park.  The Rainbow Connection Singers performed a vibrant collection of songs, which put a smile on the faces of everybody there present to witness.  Delightful.  The Hallgate Chamber Orchestra performed a programme of music by Handel, featuring the soprano Elen Wyn Evans and baritone Carey Williams, bringing a very Welsh feel to the festival, as well as a special piece on two recorders played by brothers Ben and Matthew Latham.  Closing the festival for this year was award winning dance troupe Optimum Limit, who attracted a younger gathering in front of the main stage in the Arts Park.  Before the climax of what turned out to be a successful festival, especially in view of the fact that it is the festivals 10th anniversary, we heard the African drums of Upbeat filling the Arts Park with a memorable beat. Looking forward to next year already.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2008 | Cherry Hinton Hall | 07.08.08

The self-appointed Cambridge Folk Festival weather forecasting team periodically stick their heads out of the festival meteorological office, namely the media caravan, in order to determine which of the two distinct atmospheric phenomenon would be the most likely to manifest itself today.  Whilst straining their necks to face skywards, they in turn squint as they catch each tiny droplet of rain right between the eyes.  It’s generally a two horse race, sun or rain with equal quantities of both.  The weather spoils nothing at Cambridge really, you get wet and you dry off.  As long as everyone pulls together and affords a little courtesy, by gathering their blankets up close and literally doing away with high backed chairs, there’s really no problem and everyone remains relatively dry and happy.  There were one or two firsts for me at this years’ festival.  Normally I manage to obtain a festival programme within an hour of arriving in Cherry Hinton and with the help of a cold Guinness, I would also have the entire weekend planned out military style before the bar beckoned me along for pint number two.  This year however, I didn’t pick up a programme until day two and didn’t touch a drop of the black stuff until well into the evening after volunteering my services in the restricted areas on Thursday afternoon, helping to decorate the VIP bar with a gallery of large photographs featuring some of the familiar faces of previous festival artists, all beautifully photographed by several of the regular festival photographers.  I was momentarily disorientated.  I usually know my place, which is on the other side of the barrier, where I eventually found myself for much of the next four days.  Curiously, whilst attaching pieces of string to the aforementioned gallery photograph boards, I met with the one artist I was most looking forward to seeing.  The last time I bumped into Devon Sproule was in Manchester I think, when I suggested that she come over to play Cambridge at her earliest convenience, to which she replied “I just need an invite and I’ll be there for sure”.  She finally got the invite then from those who do the proper inviting. After hobnobbing with the waif-like festival virgin-ian, I popped over to the Radio 2 Stage to give my ears a workout.  A healthy gathering had assembled before the second largest stage on site for a relative newcomer, Frank Turner.  Turner opened the festival with songs from Love, Ire and Song kicking off with “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” filling the stage and surrounding area with the sound of new and to some, unfamiliar songs.  In recent years Cambridge has played host to the likes of Nizlopi and Turner falls comfortably into this category, if we have to have categories that is.  In stark contrast, the family band Cherryholmes lit up the stage with sequined Nudie suits and cowboy hats, which in all fairness have probably never slapped a horse exactly, but may have been tipped towards many an audience over the past few years in Nashville.  No single musician in this family takes the lead but instead democratically awaits his or her turn to impress the audience with their respective solos.  I have to confess that the banjo has never looked quite so glamorous as when attached to Cia Leigh, who along with siblings Molly Kate, Skip and BJ, together with mum Sandy Lee and Pop Jere, made an impressive debut and have been ceremoniously added to the long list of bluegrass musicians to play at the festival.  The big surprise of the evening was the delightfully potty Tunng whose singer Becky Jacobs comes across as an uncompromising Bjork-like imp.  I would wager that if you were to refer to Becky as an ‘imp’ in a random airport terminal, you would almost certainly be challenged to a pillow fight rather than the celebrated assault of fisticuffs provided time and again by the volatile Reykjavik imp, but I may be wrong.  Combining ‘folky acoustics and busy electronica’ Tunng demonstrated a delightfully quirky sense of musicianship reminiscent of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, whose Cambridge appearance is still fondly remembered by some.  It’s also probably the one and only time in the history of the festival that we have witnessed a duet featuring a clockwork cuckoo.  So that’s why the caged bird sings – he’s at Cambridge!  The much discussed Mercury Prize nominated Laura Marling brought the first night to a close with a short but sweet set.  On stage for barely thirty minutes, Marling squeezed in most of the memorable songs from her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim to an enthusiastic audience eager to let the young singer know they were there in support.  There’s a delicate fragility to this teenage song writer and it has to be said that her songs are both mature and well-crafted for one so young. If great things are about to happen for Laura Marling, and I dare say they are, Cambridge can pride itself on being there to lend a hand, as it has to so many in the past. The term ‘Workshop’ is probably incorrect for the morning Club Tent sessions these days at Cambridge.  As budding fiddle and mandolin players arrived for Tim O’Brien’s workshop with instruments under their arms, they were probably slightly dismayed to find them still securely tucked away in their cases ninety minutes later.  It must be said that Tim’s workshop served more as a Q&A on technique, than an actual hands on workshop.  No matter though, Tim O’Brien’s experience as a fiddler and mandolin player provided the audience with more than an insight into what goes into the craft of musicianship and I’m pretty certain those instruments were out shortly afterwards, banging out variants on the theme of Sandy River Belle.  Shortly after Tim O’Brien’s fiddle and mandolin workshop, the fifth consecutive Mojo Interview took place, which is becoming as much of an institution as The Archers omnibus radio broadcast on Sunday mornings.  This year it was fortunate that we had four chatterboxes in the form of Simon Emmerson, Martin Carthy, Chris Wood and Billy Bragg of The Imagined Village, as the new Mojo interviewer seemed a little monosyllabic, but there again, could he get a word in?  Previous interviewees include Loudon Wainwright III, Jimmy Webb, Richard Thompson and Steve Earle and The Imagined Village was an equally good choice this year.  The subject matter of Englishness had the potential to fuel a ticking bomb of a discussion with so many Celts knocking about, but in the hands of these four passionate Englishmen, things remained relatively composed and those who attended came away with a clearer understanding of what The Imagined Village might be about.  Whilst one Carthy reminisced about old head teachers, Ravi Shankar and the English way, daughter Eliza was preparing for her afternoon appearance on the Main Stage.  Bearing in mind that her family elders, The Watersons, appeared at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival way back in the Sixties, it’s fitting that a new generation of the Carthy dynasty made a debut on these hallowed stages.  The latest addition to the Waterson Carthy clan was very clearly on show on Friday, albeit tucked away in mum’s tummy, whilst she strutted across the stage, once again making that entire space her very own, performing much of her new self-penned album Dreams of Breathing Underwater.  Five years ago The Waifs were the undisputed festival sweethearts as they stormed through three sets at the 2003 festival and clearly out-sold all other artists in the concessions tent.  Their long-awaited and much anticipated return this year proved to be just as exciting as they played the Main Stage for their one and only appearance on Friday evening.  Revisiting “Fisherman’s Daughter” and “Lighthouse” as well as promoting the current SunDirtWater album, The Waifs once again became one of the highlights of the festival.  The collaborative efforts of Jim Causley and four piece Essex band Mawkin drew a large crowd in the sweaty Club Tent by mid evening, where the audience was politely asked to stand to allow more people in, in order to get a glimpse of this extraordinary collective.  I had a few concerns about guitarist David Delarre’s stress level as the gremlins attacked his guitar pick-ups and I almost suggested he join me outside to hug a tree.  Seriously though, when you only have a short amount of time to do your bit, especially in a showcase slot, the gremlins are the last thing you want. Walking through the festival arena during the morning, after a hearty breakfast at the nearby Unicorn pub, there’s a sense of peace and tranquillity as the days’ first pints of Guinness are poured for those who mean to live the festival to the full.  The sweet chorus of unison singing filtered across the field as Karine Polwart gathered those capable of singing in the club tent for her workshop.  I chickened out of joining that one as I know Karine is very much into exercising the body properly prior to a good sing, and I have a definite aversion to exercise at that time in the morning.  I took my out of condition body down to the safety barrier in front of the main stage and joined a handful of other people determined to have a good vantage point for some of the most exciting artists appearing at the festival this year.  The Orkney based eight-piece collective The Chair got proceedings off to a good start with some rip roaring fiddle tunes before Chris Wood treated us all to a master class of song writing.  Introducing his first song as ‘some church bells music’, which contrasted starkly with the stomping energetic first set of the day, “A Cornish Young Man” encompassed everything that I find good and honest about folk song.  I’m not sure whether the official festival programme had quite nailed it with Wood’s comparison to ‘Richard Thompson at his best’.  I’d go as far as to say we could possibly be dealing with the new Ray Davies here.  Songs such as “Albion” and “Hard” have a fresh perspective on English song writing that seems to strike the same quintessential English chords only previously managed by The Kinks front man.  Karine Polwart joined Chris for a couple of songs towards the end of his set; Sydney Carter’s “John Ball” and Wood’s own ‘atheist’s spiritual’ the gorgeous “Come Down Jehovah”.  The whimsical pottiness of Devon Sproule made a welcome change to the usual main stage reserve, with some light relief and unique song writing.  With a band that includes veteran pedal steel maestro BJ Cole, Devon Sproule delivered snippets of her catalogue so far including “Plea For a Good Night’s Rest” from her Upstate Songs album as well as a couple from her last offering Keep Your Silver Shined.  Tipping her multi-coloured psychedelic flower hat to fellow countrymen Neil Young and Joni Mitchell respectively with “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” and “Blonde in the Bleachers”, the Canadian by birth won over most of the audience, and left those who didn’t quite get it, scratching their heads.  Completing the Main Stage afternoon session was Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba whose masterful command over the ancient Ngoni, a sort of cricket bat shaped forerunner to the banjo, was mesmerizing.  The sound of Mali in the middle of such an English city as Cambridge seemed perfectly logical for some reason.  Featuring the wonderful Amy Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba held the audience transfixed throughout their set and proved once again that World Music has a very special place at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  Eric Bibb seems to belong to Cambridge Folk Festival; after all he has played here three times previously, bringing his own particular brand of blues and spirituals to a steadily growing fan base.  “Still Livin’ on” from his last album Diamond Days resonated around the main stage and out into the open fields of Cherry Hinton as we all reminisced about the lovely Mississippi John Hurt, with his felt hat on of course. Joining Eric Bibb was supremo bassist Danny Thompson and regular drummer Larry Crockett.  The decision to wheel the BBC cameras in at this point of the proceedings was predictable. Popularity over credibility is always a driving force in TV land’s festival demographic.  Radioland’s Mark Radcliffe did a grand job in his dual role as MC and BBC camera warm up guy, despite the playful audience’s initial attempt to cock up the grand TV coverage introduction by booing in unison when specifically requested to cheer.  You could see it coming.  That introduction was for Martha Wainwright, whose over-the-top performance mirrored her brother’s cabaret shenanigans rather than reflecting the brilliantly underplayed maturity of her celebrated mother and aunt’s heyday.    I must confess my anticipation of k.d. lang’s set was lukewarm five minutes before her appearance on the Main Stage, and I already had visions of using upper and lower case in my inevitable review out of sheer mischief.  An hour later my jaw was still on the floor as I considered what exactly I had just witnessed and as a result I demonstrated respect and stuck to lower case after all.  The quality of k.d. lang’s voice is utterly compelling and beautiful and her professionalism and command over an enthralled audience is something to be applauded.  After camping at the front of the main stage for twelve hours solid, an unprecedented feat, the climax of what turned out to be a rich and varied programme was worth the wait.  The seventeen-piece conceptual collective known as The Imagined Village took to the stage with mixed media yet united response.  Bringing together a diverse gathering of musicians, Afro Celts’ Simon Emmerson describes the project as ‘the final frontier of world music – Englishness’.  With contributions from the likes of Billy Bragg, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood, Sjeila Chandra, Johnny Kalsi and Benjamin Zephaniah, who incidentally made a special appearance in order to pick up a Talkawhile award on stage for best track “Tam Lin” where the Rastafarian writer and dub poet outed himself as the ‘natty dreadlocks rasta folkie’. Sunday morning arrived with the now familiar mixture of sun and showers as I made my way around to the Club Tent.  There was a noticeable absence of the traditional mountain of plastic beakers due to Cambridge’s endeavours to reduce their carbon footprint.  Festival punters now have to pay a £2 deposit for each glass which can either be returned for refunding or taken home as a festival souvenir.  Eric Bibb’s blues guitar workshop in the Club Tent once again saw many an unopened guitar case as musicians filtered in to collect handy tips on anything from blues scales, tunings, string gauges, picks and pickups to the best Australian Akubra hats and nail manicure parlours.  The sound of the rain belting down on the Club Tent roof only added to the bluesy atmosphere created by a master of modern blues.  Securing herself a main stage spot after winning over the festival in the Club Tent last year, Lisa Knapp’s reputation as a leading interpreter of traditional song has grown from strength to strength.  Her ethereal presence and instantly recognisable voice was very much suited to this, the opening Sunday afternoon Main Stage spot.  Accompanying herself on either fiddle or autoharp and surrounding herself with four fine musicians sensitive to her unique sound, Lisa played songs from her startling debut album Wild and Undaunted whilst being quite literally undaunted by her surroundings.  First time at the festival for County Antrim based quintet Beoga, which is incidentally the Irish word for ‘lively’.  True to their name, the band won the hearts of the Main Stage audience with a feast of Irish jigs, reels and jokes.  Their enthusiasm was infectious and their playing was tight.  All Ireland bodhran champion Eamon Murray’s solo towards the end of the set probably justified why he has been champion no less than four times already.   Tim O’Brien was certainly one of the busiest musicians at this year’s festival popping up all over the place, either on his own or in collaboration with other musicians.  No stranger to Cambridge, the West Virginian multi-instrumentalist opened his set with “Where’s Love Come From” which appears on his latest album Chameleon, an album he refers to as a ‘song writer’s album’.  Joined by John McCusker on fiddle and Altan’s Dermot Byrne on accordion, Tim O’Brien brought a taste of pure Americana to Cambridge once again.  Tim O’Brien hot-footed it over to the Club Tent to appear with Heidi Talbot in her much anticipated showcase set, which also featured guest appearances by John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine, all involved in the production of Heidi’s superb In Love and Light album.  All eight songs that made up the set were from that album including Tim’s “Music Tree”, Tom Waits’ brilliant “Time” and “The Blackest Crow” with Tim O’Brien replacing Kris Drever who appeared on the recorded version.  The Cherish the Ladies singer told her audience that this was in fact her very first time at the festival to which I leaned over to the little chap next to me and whispered into his ear “Well I don’t reckon it’ll be her last”.  I didn’t get a reply, but I’m sure the familiar bespectacled little chap will be gushing about the performance on his folk show on Wednesday night – and rightly so.  Also showcasing her considerable talents in the Club Tent as the dusk fell upon Cambridge for another day and another year, Ruth Notman’s infectious personality and unique voice filled the room.  Judy Collins was on the Main Stage reminding us of the voice that introduced a great many people to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny before they had a chance to do so themselves, and the delightfully quirky Devon Sproule was strutting her stuff on the Radio 2 Stage, bewildering and delighting her audience in equal measure, but I was content to be in a much smaller and more intimate space, where a young Nottinghamshire lass was busy proving to a large gathering (by Club Tent standards), that she too has a bright future.  Her version of “Limbo” resonates around my head still, even after a few days of festival recuperation.  My most surreal moment of the entire festival was when I inadvertently found myself in the company of fRoots editor Ian Anderson and writer and author Colin Irwin in the wings as Seth Lakeman sang his little heart out on the Main Stage.  It was almost like hiding your cheap Martin copy whilst in the company of Martin Simpson, as I quickly concealed my scrappy notebook within the safety of my bag and returned my pen to the top pocket of my shirt.  A relative novice by comparison it has to be said.

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick | Westgate Junior School, Lincoln | 20.09.08

Westgate Junior School is but a short walk away from the imposing Lincoln Cathedral within whose shadow two other towering figures from our English heritage could be heard sound checking in the main assembly hall tonight. Soon afterwards, the hall was packed to standing room only, with music fans of most ages, a couple of other musicians who came along to lend their support and last but certainly not least, a handful of people who continue to work hard in order to bring this sort of music to Lincoln, the organisers.  The Lincoln Folk Festival has been running for quite a few years and this is certainly not the first time Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick have appeared here.  Sadly these days, funding and financial assistance is not as much in abundance as, let’s say spirit and enthusiasm, shown by those who continue to put events of this nature on in the name of the now defunct festival.  Not only does this particular bunch of friends recognise the well-established musicians on the folk scene, but they pride themselves on providing a platform for up and coming young artists, and tonight was no exception.  Opening the night was a young 18-year-old from Lincolnshire whose guitar wizardry belongs in the same pigeonhole, if we must have pigeon holes that is, as Eric Roche, Jon Gomm and John Butler, to name but three.  Elliott Morris is a stunning young player whose energetic style of highly percussive playing captivated the audience tonight and begged two questions; how do you do that and more importantly, how do you do that being so young?  Performing songs from his new EP, Alone in the Dark, Elliott dazzled the audience with his playing on songs such as his own composition “Half a Guy”, the traditional British sea shanty “Leaving Her Johnny” and the instrumental “Spin”, written by the aforementioned Roche, who Elliott credits as being his main influence and responsible for the way he plays today.  Elliott was recently seen at Cambridge Folk Festival as part of the Hub Project, a youth orchestra organised by the festival specifically to help and encourage young musicians from all over the country.  Tonight’s performance did nothing to hinder his growing reputation as a guitar player and song writer and it certainly won’t be the last we hear of him.  The second set tonight was provided by someone equally as young and equally as talented as Elliott.  Dave Gray, not to be confused with the chart topping head wobbling folk pop troubadour of White Ladder fame, appeared on the eve of his imminent departure to Newcastle, whereupon he will be working even harder to refine his understanding of music as he embarks upon his traditional music degree.  With a style reminiscent of award winning melodeon player Andy Cutting, Dave appears to be ahead of his game already and handles traditional tunes and contemporary arrangements with equal flair and assurance.  Performing tunes written by some of the world’s most renowned players such as Markku Lepisto on “Bridge” and Julian Sutton on “The Old House” as well as “Suspended Slip Jig”, which incorporated Andy Cutting’s “To the Edges”, the former winner of the Lincolnshire Young Folk Performers competition demonstrated both understanding of and sensitivity towards his chosen instrument.  As MC Andy Watkins pointed out in his introduction, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick are indeed legends in their own lifetime, no doubting that, and despite bouts of ill health, Royal appointments and at one point even death, as testified by the infamously ill-timed obituary in the Telegraph, nothing seems to stop this enduring duo.    Tonight, they appeared in fine fettle as they took to the stage in Lincoln, with a couple of sets of songs and tunes from a repertoire that spans over four decades.  Opening with “Sovay”, Carthy and Swarb demonstrated their almost natural ability to play off each other with seemingly faultless intuition.   Democratically weaving through a set list that included both songs and tunes from their most recent album Straws in the Wind, as well as revisiting material from their earlier repertoire, the duo gave the distinct impression that they had never been away, and their return to Lincoln was welcomed by an enthusiastic reception.  Whilst Carthy took up his usual stance commanding centre stage, delivering song after song from a now very familiar and prolific repertoire, a seated Swarbrick proved to be just as versatile on the fiddle as ever he was and with that old sense of humour still intact.  Towards the end of the first set, he was momentarily surprised when Carthy informed him that the first set was coming to a close, presumably thinking they were just doing the one set.  “It’s okay” Swarb quipped, “I’ll take a pill”.  Despite Carthy’s reputation as one of the leading guitar stylists of the folk revival, I was once again taken at just how generous a musician he is when in the company of his fellow musicians.  His guitar accompaniment during Swarbrick’s fiddle tunes “The Bride’s March From Unst/True Lover’s Lament/Lord Inchiquin” and his O’Carolan set, “No 178/Blind Mary”, was beautifully underplayed, allowing Swarb the freedom to deliver his distinctive and unmistakable playing without too much fuss.  Finishing with the timeless “Byker Hill” with its intricate time signature and a final encore of “My Heart’s in New South Wales”, the duo brought to a close what turned out to be an excellent night of outstanding musicianship.

Chris and Kellie While | House Concert, Wombwell | 27.09.08

The first thing that crossed my mind once mum and daughter duo Chris and Kellie While took to the stage tonight was why on earth this doesn’t happen more often.  The times I’ve caught them together you can count on one finger; well to be perfectly accurate, two fingers now.  Tonight Chris and Kellie were invited to play a couple of sets at a private function in the garden of the Jones family in the small town of Wombwell, near Barnsley, where an invited audience gathered to see two of the most gifted singers in the South Yorkshire area, and whose voices have over the past few years rippled outwards to each of the four corners of the globe, and justly so.  Chris While seems equally at home in Hedley’s back garden as on a concert hall stage, or for that matter, in front of thousands, as in the most recent case when she was part of the original Liege and Lief line up of Fairport Convention on stage at Cropredy last year, where she took on the unenviable task of standing in for the late Sandy Denny; no mean feat, in fact, I imagine the very thought of that would be positively frightening.  Not only did she do a splendid job, she was actually accepted by the league of Sandy Denny fans whose memory of her is almost sacrosanct.  Such is the standard of Chris’s singing.  2007 was also a good year for Kellie, who was seen on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, helping Martin Simpson launch his highly acclaimed Prodigal Son album, on which Kellie contributes.  Kellie is a chip off the not-so-old block, so to speak.  Possessed of a much softer, warmer voice than mum, Kellie provides that all essential counterpoint to Chris’s melodic lines and vice versa.  Their individual voices are really quite enough for any performance, but it is those harmonious choruses that inevitably bring on the goose bumps, you know, the head to toe type; chicken skin music.  Not only do these two women have song writing skills in abundance, they share an impeccable taste for great songs from a variety of diverse sources and select them wisely and intuitively.  The body of work provided by Chris While and regular partner Julie Matthews is a good place to start and it must be said, forms the bedrock of Chris and Kellie’s set.  “Love is an Abandoned Car” is a song that could quite easily have fitted snugly into the Gregson/Collister repertoire without a single raised eyebrow, in their initial Home and Away/Mischief period.  The harmony singing is of that same quality, but with the added bonus of genetics.  What works for Richard and Teddy Thompson, works equally well for a mother and daughter and the excellent “Persuasion” was one of tonight’s highlights.  Aside from the songs, Chris and Kellie have a delightful stage manner, especially when amongst friends.  Kellie cheerfully berates her own song writing and insists that there are too many good songs already out there to sing.  Whilst Chris tells of encounters with Tim and Mollie O’Brien in the introduction to “Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger” and hearing songs by little known writers from all over the globe such as David Francey “Green Fields” and Michael Kennedy “Lately”, Kellie is happy to reveal, saving her mum the trouble, that as a child she once wrote to Jimmy Saville to see if he could ‘fix it’ for her to sing with Culture Club and confessed that the biggest dilemma before leaving the house tonight was whether it was possible or not to record Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor at the same time.  It’s difficult for a family duo not to bring something of their home life to the stage and it’s because of these little anecdotes that we warm to them even more.  Introducing a Paul Metsers song as coming from an ‘old family friend’ and recollections of frequently having Mike Silver around at the house, referring to him as a ‘great undiscovered talent’, Chris and Kellie went on to perform Metsers’ “When Lady Music Holds, You Sway” and Silver’s “Let it be so” as if they were their own, so close are they to the song sources.  Towards the end of the set, Chris and Kellie abandoned the PA to bring us even closer to the spirit of home, playing a fabulous version of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman” whilst fireworks from a neighbouring party lit up the night sky above the marquee.  I had a particularly good vantage point sitting on some decking at the back of the garden where I could see both fireworks and performers simultaneously.  Chris and Kellie concluded the evening with a heartfelt alfresco and au natural (unplugged if you please) performance of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” which was a thoroughly delightful climax to a great and memorable night.

Rosie Doonan and Tiny Tin Lady | The Drill Hall, Lincoln | 30.09.08

Rosie Doonan opened for Tiny Tin Lady for the final night of their current tour, at the Drill Hall in Lincoln tonight. Spirits were high and in no short supply and there was a distinctly cheerful party atmosphere both on stage, backstage and around the building in general.  Tiny Tin Lady’s infectious personalities brought to the city some of the famous ‘talent, charm and chutzpah’ that Fairport Convention speak of, and whilst Rosie performed a handful of songs with her usual emotive gracefulness, you could feel the bands’ colourful presence awaiting in the wings, ready to party. It was the final night after all, and a good excuse for a good ol’ knees up.  Joining Rosie on stage for the first set was Tiny Tin Lady’s fiddler Kat Gilmore, who helped kick things off with Rosie’s regular opener “Need You Around” which by no coincidence appears as the opening song on her excellent debut solo album Moving On.  Accompanying herself on guitar, Rosie sang just a couple of songs from that album, but mainly concentrated on new songs.  “These Things” has been around for a while and indicates perfectly well what Rosie is all about.  If there was ever a starting point for new ears to Rosie’s music it might as well be this.  Self-probing, constantly questioning, forever searching for answers to the big questions on the ever present topics of love, relationships and where to go next, and essentially, always moving on.  I discovered something new tonight about Rosie, something she and I have in common, in that we both have sisters living in Spain.  “Unborn Child” is a song about having to keep quiet about the news of her sisters’ forthcoming baby, ‘until three months have passed’.  This is wonderfully personal stuff, which is both touching and thought-provoking.  There’s the underlying brooding of a younger sister who wonders when it will be her turn, her turn to yearn.  But of course for the moment, Rosie instead gives birth to another new song.  It’s always good to hear new songs for the first time, and even better when they are sung to you live.  Towards the end of Rosie’s all too short set, all the members of Tiny Tin Lady appeared by her side on stage to join her for “The Journey”, making a smooth and seamless transition from the sparse arrangements of some of Rosie’s most beautiful songs, to the party time that followed.  Tiny Tin Lady are uncompromising in their colourful and wayward stage presence.  Whatever we are served up on a weekly basis courtesy of TV talent shows, it’s always reassuring to know that there are young people out there willing to put in the effort, without having a celebrity mentor work on their behalf.  Fairport Convention invited these musicians to join them on the road and at their annual bash at Cropredy, not because they were a novelty act to be exploited, but because they possibly reminded them of the band they once were in the Sixties, the kind of band that pile into a transit van to live and breathe the road in all its brutality, yet these are teenage girls, or at least they all were when they first started out as a band.  Un-fazed by the big stage at the Drill Hall, having already played such notable festivals as Glastonbury, Cropredy and the Wickerman Festival, as well as touring with Fairport Convention on their 40th anniversary tour last year, the band have a youthful confidence on display for all to see.  They speak to their audience with an irreverence that only the young can get away with.  When asked by a woman at the concessions stand where the name Tiny Tin Lady came from, Danni joked that the band were named after a ‘sexual position’, to which the woman fell back slightly, clearly not expecting that reply.  I don’t know what amused me more, Danni’s cheekiness, or the woman’s contorted expression as she tried in vain to recollect such a thing as the ‘Tiny Tin Lady’.  Tonight, the entire Ridiculous Bohemia album was performed with additional material from the band’s first album Sound of Requiem, with the inclusion of just the one cover, “Rhythm is a Dancer”.  Opening with “Pretty Eyes” the band refuse to stand on ceremony and go straight for the power harmonies, immediately, kicking off with a chorus from “Pretty Eyes” before launching into the song. Although the band take up so little space in the general scheme of things, their sound fills every crevice of the hall.  The band suffered from just the one short bout of sound trouble during their set, something that unfortunately comes with acoustic territory, it’s just a shame it happened during the klezmer inspired “Seven Days of Strip Poker”, one of the outstanding songs on the album.  No matter though, the song was rescued by self-determination, dramatic tempo changes and a soaring fiddle, which all go towards demonstrating a remarkable maturity in arrangement and just may point to the direction the band will take.  On “Blank Literature”, which finished the first set, the Gibbins siblings belted out what could be described as a sonic frenzy that could only previously be imagined if Bjork ever met up with The Smiths.  Once again we are presented with a band that is difficult to categorise.  Inde at the core with certainly a nod towards folk music, highlighted by the inclusion of Kat Gilmore, whose assured fiddle playing has added a new dimension to the overall sound, Tiny Tin Lady explore rhythm and texture with a fearless conviction.  Together since 2004, the youthful experimentation has developed into early enough to and, in just three short years, have become one of the most talked about bands on the acoustic scene, stunning audiences everywhere with their blend of brilliant, original songs, superb musicianship and spine-tingling harmonies.

Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2008 | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | 05.10.08

Last week the Spiegeltent returned to All Saint’s Square in the centre of Rotherham for another week of cultural events, courtesy of the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, and once again we got the opportunity to see and hear some live folk music in this unique setting.  As we seem to have skipped Autumn and gone straight to Winter this year, before the leaves have even dropped, there was an unexpected chill inside the mirror-lined boudoir, but those of us who huddled inside were well wrapped up for the music provided, and the artists performing endeavoured to keep us warm with some healthy bouts of applause after each song.  This year the festival went for a more localised programme, the emphasis clearly being on home-grown talent.  On Sunday, the main guests played host to what turned out to be a showcase evening of not only local folk quartet Toein’ in the Dark, whose eclectic mix of folk standards and contemporary songs soon warmed the cockles of our hearts, whilst our toes were busy been nipped by frost, but also a couple of local singers, on the cusp of something special.  Toein’ in the Dark comprises four local musicians, Jenny Fox, Andy Hoult, Carmel O’Toole and Bob Meakin who have all been part of the folk scene locally for more years than they care to mention.  Andy Hoult seems to have something of a bottomless pit of a song repertoire upon which he draws with relish, everything from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly to Beth Nielson Chapman and Nanci Griffith are all in there somewhere.  In all fairness, Nanci Griffith was probably over-subscribed tonight, with no less than three and almost four songs represented during the evening.  Though I tend to usually feel that more than a couple of songs by a particular absent artist borders on ‘tribute’, in Nanci’s case it’s forgivable, as her songs are generally beautifully written, and suitable for most occasions.  “Gulf Coast Highway” for example, was a fine duet shared between Carmel and Andy during the band’s first set and the impressive “Love at the Five and Dime”, was beautifully retold by the first of the showcase performances, sixteen-year-old Catherine Binden.  Catherine was not only the youngest person onstage last Sunday, but probably the youngest person in the room.  Her voice captures all the youthful vibrancy of a sixteen-year-old who has been amongst people who know what good music is all about.  The daughter of Toein’ in the Darks’ Andy Hoult, Catherine has picked up some of her dads’ taste in good songs, which include here, Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Space” and Karine Polwart’s “Sun Coming Over the Hill” as well as a delightful reading of the standard “Blue Moon” which she cleverly attached to KTB’s “Bluebird” with interesting results.  Toein’ in the Dark’s eclecticism was explored in full for this occasion with a programme that included Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi”, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Deeper Still”, The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” which had Ray Hearne and myself providing a rowdy chorus from the bar, and even at one point, Abba, with their take on the Swedish bands’ instrumental “Arrival”, which when you think about it, could easily have been especially written for an accordion/whistle/fiddle combination.  Jenny’s arrangement of Billy Taylor’s jazz standard “I Wish I Knew What It Feels Like To Be Free” had us all swaying gospel-like as if we were right there in the church next door.  And why not, as Barry Norman would say!   The second showcase performance came from young Barnsley singer Steph Shaw who manages to take songs from diverse sources and make them her own.  Whether it’s a standard like “You Belong to Me”, a classic pop song such as “First Cut is the Deepest” or something contemporary like Nizlopi’s “JCB Song”, Steph applies the same attention to detail and puts a new slant on it.  Towards the end of Toein’ in the Dark’s second set, everyone returned to the stage for a lively take on “Midnight Special” before a final encore of Andy Hoult’s own “I Used to be a Blues Singer” bringing the evening to a close, and really, on a high.  The second part of the folk section of the festival came almost a week later with Ray Hearne taking to the stage on Saturday.  Ray handles topical songs with a casual flair and delivers them in his own inimitable style and with that all too familiar accent; familiar around these parts at any rate.  Whether writing about social injustice, the local steel industry, the recent floods or the story of a man with an ice cream van and the lolly pop lady, Ray manages to tug at the heartstrings, bring out our communal frustrations and anger or just make us giggle.  He likes to sing about ‘Us’ with a capital ‘U’, making him, dare I say, a real bone fide folk singer.  One of the most difficult things a folk singer of Rays’ stature has to face at an event like this is the Saturday afternoon shoppers of Rotherham, whose curiosity brought them in, popping their heads in and out of the Spiegeltent during his performance just to check up on where the songs were coming from.  With some interesting heckling from the adults and some minor disturbances from a bunch of giddy kids, Ray displayed true professionalism and took command of his stage, a stage that really did belong to him.  A song like “I’ve Got Things to Say” lays Ray’s cards on the table in no uncertain terms.  Ray had already appeared at the festival earlier in the week leading poetry and song writing workshops and it is in his song writing that Ray excels.  He can be playful with words as demonstrated in his opening song about playing on a Saturday afternoon to the people of Rotherham, which you imagine had only just been written moments before the show, or as a considered lyricist as exemplified in “It’s Time to Point the Finger at the Emperor” and “Manvers Island”.

Rod Picott and Amanda Shires | Basement Bar, York | 10.10.08

With the release of Rod Picott and Amanda Shires’ first collaborative effort Sew Your Heart With Wires, the duo arrived here to perform at a handful of smaller venues across the country, bringing their own distinct flavour of Americana and country roots music to the UK.  The Basement Bar, which is situated beneath the City Screen Cinema in York’s City Centre, is an ideal setting for NxNY to hold their acoustic music nights and in turn, an ideal setting for a night of not only Rod and Amanda’s authentic roots music, but also some home grown Americana as well.  With four acts on the bill, starting with local singer-songwriter Holly Taymar, whose infectious personality put everyone at ease from the moment she took to the stage, the night was bound to be full and interesting.  Opening with “The Bush Song”, Holly proved that you can make good songs out of the most mundane subjects, in this case gardening, but with a classic metaphor thrown in for good measure.  You instantly warm to Holly’s good-natured wistfulness and bubbly personality and well before her short set was over, we already knew quite a lot about her; that she is twenty-two, a York resident, partial to a drop of real ale who drives around in a used car she named Winston, which in turn is presumably covered by Churchill insurance.  Ah, but now I’m speculating wildly.  Holly’s guitar style and song writing ability show a distinct maturity and her stage presence is both confident and relaxed. Sometimes, it’s the overall sound of a song that becomes more important than the subject matter and “Anywhere But Here” is just one of those songs you seem to drift off to, and the theme you tend to ignore, if only temporarily.  There’s something endearing about a song writer whose songs include titles like “Toes” and “Home”.  All the big themes and life experiences are compacted microcosm-like in these little vignettes.  There’s nothing forced or laboured about her singing and playing, which probably comes from being perfectly at home in this environment.  Having said that, I imagine Holly is at ease wherever she plays.  Referring to Carole King as a ‘right legend’, Holly finished her set with a beautiful rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and in doing so, proved that she is equally at home with memorable classic pop songs as she is with her own introspective material.  If you are going to have two female singer-songwriters on stage in quick succession, then why not have two performers with completely different approaches to their music.  Jess Morgan hails from Norwich and returns to York with a bunch of astonishingly good songs delivered in an unmistakable and one would imagine, inimitable style.  From the start, songs such as the country blues influenced “Due Grace Coming”, which made this reviewer sit up and listen immediately, have a certain uniqueness.  What Jess really excels in though, is a mixture of frailty and strength that is provided here in equal measure, with a confident approach to singing and performing, whilst at the same time looking somewhat vulnerable and alone.  Having had the good fortune to be based in York whilst at University a couple of years ago, Jess was given the opportunity to open for various visiting artists, always good practice for a budding performer.  In all fairness though, Jess should be headlining her own shows.  She has her own distinct voice and the ability to write memorable songs and even now, after a few days of hearing her for the first time, the songs are still going around up there somewhere.  “Onyx” and “Crosses” are two outstanding songs from the pen of a potential rival to the likes of Laura Marling, Kate Nash and a whole bunch of other exceptionally talented young female song-writers we have today.  I await the release of what could potentially be a brilliant debut album.  Like Holly before her, Jess included just the one cover song during her set.  “Unwed Fathers”, a Gail Davies song famously recorded by John Prine, shows that Jess has the ability to shift the emphasis from inde/pop to classic country roots, with relative ease.  The boys turn next.  The stripped down three-piece Leeds-based Roseville Grand played what looked and felt like an archetypal ‘unplugged’ session, in the spirit of which the series initially intended; an intimate performance of accessible and memorable songs.  With influences ranging from Gram Parsons through to Ryan Adams, Neil McLarty and Phil Greenwood, together with the fine pedal steel player Ed Hicken showcased what the local alternative country scene has to offer.  Scottish singer/guitarist McLarty sites Van Morrison as an early influence and I can hear shades of Tupelo Honey period Morrison coming through loud and clear.  The regular band consists of drums and bass, but for tonight, we have a stripped down version of Roseville Grand, but the power of the songs is not lost at all.  On “First Day”, the beautifully played pedal steel guitar provided that all important ingredient that transfers a good song to a great song; a crucial embellishment that would have BJ Cole nodding his head in approval.  Phil Greenwood’s “No Trouble at All”, which can also be heard by his own band The Swifts, allowed us to hear another good singer-songwriter from the same band; two good singers, song-writers, guitarists and harmonica players in the same band is just plain greedy.  Concluding with “Whose Gonna Meet You Tonight”, Roseville Grand presented Rod and Amanda with the third of a trio of difficult acts to follow.  It’s actually a rewarding thing to admit that you have already had your money’s worth before the main headlining act comes on, but that just allows the likes of Rod Picott and Amanda Shires to become the proverbial cherry on top.  It was an inspired idea for these two remarkable musicians to get together to record a duo album and embark on a European tour, as they both complement each other considerably well.  Rod is a soulful singer whose songs belong very much in the Americana pigeon hole, but with five solo albums under his belt, and one under hers, the song well is a deep one to draw upon, and simple categorisation would be foolish.  Coming from South Berwick, Maine, the former sheetrock hanger has spent the past few years in Nashville carving out a niche for himself in a vastly populated musical genre.  With so many good songs under his belt, that niche was easy to fill.  Kicking off with “Getting to Me”, Rod and Amanda soon found their cohesive musical telepathy and with their blend of guitar and fiddle, together with rich harmonious voices, they soon had all ears to the front.  Up tempo rockers such as “Stray Dogs” and “Bird Won’t Fly” sit comfortably alongside the slower ballads such as “Something in Spanish” and “Baby Blue” and bluesier numbers like “Mean Little Girl (Ruby)”.  Amanda reluctantly agreed to perform her new song “You Can’t Call Me Baby” after at least two members of the audience requested the song.  Her reluctance was probably due to it being brand new and that it hadn’t been performed in public before tonight.  Some of the songs on the new album have an immediacy about them simply because they were recorded on the day they were written and have not yet been aired in public.  No worries though, for the song was one of the highlights of their set.  Amanda’s vocal delivery is very much steeped in a tradition of highly stylised country singing, but with its own distinct character and whether that voice is used in harmony or up front as on “Salida” or “I Kept Watch Like Doves”, a scary song according to Amanda, the voice retains its own unique identity. No better example of Amanda’s singing style could be found than in Picott’s song “Mercury”, the penultimate song of the night.  Closing the set and the night with an encore of “Girl from Arkansas”, the title song from Rod’s 2004 album, and incidentally a request from the audience, Rod and Amanda rounded off a highly entertaining night packed with great music and I feel that I’ve become a convert to the music of four relatively new acts and also one heck of a delightful new venue, which I intend to return to soon.

Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart | House Concert, Wombwell | 11.10.08

Hedley Jones introduced his special guests tonight with a story of some random email exchanges between himself and agent Bob Paterson, whereupon they found a free night between two gigs on the couple’s current tour.  If Stacey Earle and husband/musical partner Mark Stuart were in Edinburgh one night and Leeds a couple of nights later, then surely Mr and Mrs Jones’ hospitality would be much more appealing than a night watching Strictly Come Dancing in some Edinburgh hotel room.  Stacey pointed out that before leaving the States at this crucial moment of political excitement, the couple had filled out their absentee ballot papers before they left and secretly deposited them in tightly sealed envelopes in order not to give away who they’d be voting for.  So, with the name Obama emblazoned across her chest, a pair of denim jeans and a pair of Converse sneakers, without laces I might add, Steve Earle’s kid sister and guitarist/brother-in-law, brought to Wombwell an absolute gift of a night in Hedley’s garden.  Raised in San Antonio, Texas, Stacey followed in her brothers’ footsteps, actually picking up one of his abandoned guitars and leaving home to try her hand at what has proved to be good for Steve.  After the birth of her first child and a failed marriage, which had temporarily postponed her dreams of making music and hitting the road, she picked up the guitar once again, met Mark Stuart at Jack’s Guitar Bar in Nashville and the rest as they say is history.  Mark says the best thing you can do if you are a budding songwriter suffering from writer’s block, is to steal other peoples’ songs. Stacey and Mark both admit to stealing from one another down in Jack’s Bar and some of the resulting songs were performed exquisitely well tonight.  Opening with “Are You Ready” with its Western Swing lilt and brilliant guitar fills courtesy of Mark’s vintage Gibson, Stacey brought a flavour of Nashville to this little street in Wombwell, and rather than the prospect of complaints from the neighbours, you imagine them all out on their back porches, gently rocking in their chairs, with a glass of wine as the duo serenade them with the beautiful “I Don’t Wanna Have to Run”.   Stacey and Mark complement each other remarkably well, both in their harmonies and their guitar playing technique.  Mark’s voice reminds me so much of Happy Traum, one of the true unsung heroes of American folk music, and that voice rings out true and clear in songs such as “Ragged Suitcase” and “Lorraine”.  The duo can flit from contemporary sounding modern song writing efforts such as “Makes Me Happy”, “Looking for Fool’s Gold” and the Bobbie Gentry inspired “Wedding Night” whilst at the same time turning on an authentic 1950s feel to songs such as “Spread Your Wings”, where you could easily imagine these songs being juke box hits in another era.  Mark claims there are two kinds of songs in the world, the Blues and Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  Stacey’s “It Must Be Love” falls under the latter category and the couple had fun singing it tonight, with the audience fighting off the urge to sway along and it must be said, failing miserably.  How could you not tap your foot to this stuff?  During the set each of the musicians took a ‘union break’ allowing each other to spread their wings in a couple of solo sets. Mark sang songs from his new album Left of Nashville, starting with “Gladden”, followed by the title track from the album and concluding with one of Paul McCartney’s rare country songs “Sally G”.  Stacey Earle is a fine singer who knows exactly how to put over a story.  During the performance she told a story of mothers’ intuition, which was certainly the most compelling portion of the show tonight.  In a monologue telling of what it feels like to lose a child, even though in this case it resulted from a piece of misinformation, for fifty minutes there was the belief that our singer lost a child to an accident.  Such storytelling puts Stacey right up there in a lineage of great Texan storytellers such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.  Mark and Stacey played tribute to the quiet Beatle in a heartfelt rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with an outstanding coda of “Within You Without You”, once again showcasing a remarkable guitar player at work.  Once you hear these two musicians together you tend to find it difficult to imagine them without each other.  Like how would it be if Gillian Welch didn’t have Dave Rawlings?  Same thing here.  Before Stacey and Mark took to the stage, their current tour guide, roadie, companion and friend, the American singer-songwriter Kathleen Haskard sang a few songs to kick off the evening.  With a voice not only reminiscent of k.d. lang, but judging by tonight’s performance, just as good, Kathleen sang three songs from her latest album, the Chuck Prophet produced Don’t Tell.  Dividing her time between her native California and adopted home of London, Kathleen seems to have been taken under the wing of the UK country scene and is currently receiving good reviews across the country.  Kathleen started with “Play Me”, followed by the title track from the album Don’t Tell and finally “Leave to Remain”, a song inspired by the ‘permanent residency’ note on her passport, which actually reads ‘indefinite leave to remain’, which in turn means she’s welcome here, for now anyway.  I’m sure she would be welcome to a permanent residency in Hedley’s back garden with a voice like that.  Rounding off the night with a rousing version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, Stacey and Mark brought another stunning and most memorable night in South Yorkshire to a close.

Stephen Stills | Sheffield City Hall | 18.10.08

If Stephen Stills’ voice isn’t as strong as it was in 1970, it’s more than forgivable, not only in terms of times’ slipping sand or indeed the thirty-eight years that have passed between then and now, but it also might be down to the fact that he probably didn’t have the strength or inclination to blow out the sixty-three candles on his birthday cake earlier this year, whilst undergoing surgery for prostate cancer that very same day.  Who would’ve thought eight months later our man would be touring again?  That’s what is so forgivable; that we don’t get the exact precise same vocal delivery on songs such as “Rock and Roll Woman”, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “Change Partners”, but boy, do we get the same guitar playing and the same intensity of performance.   Stephen Stills has done it all.  The first artist to be inducted twice on the same night into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, for his work with both Buffalo Springfield and CSN; the young man who almost got a gig as a Monkee, had his teeth been better or had he not sported such a premature receding hairline; the guitarist who was so good as to get to play regularly with his mate Jimi Hendrix; the angry young man who was unfortunately caught on camera having fisticuffs with a fellow hippie during the late summer of love in the celebrated festival film Celebration; but also the man who has enjoyed a very healthy solo career, producing several class albums over a period spanning nearly five decades, and still, he has the slowest receding hairline.  He looks no different from the guy serenading a toy giraffe in the snow on the cover of his eponymously titled debut album of 1970.  Tonight Stephen Stills calmly wandered onstage at the Sheffield City Hall fresh from his appearance on Later with Jools a couple of nights earlier, to play two outstanding sets covering almost every aspect of his career so far, with firstly an acoustic set, followed by a much rockier set with a small band consisting of Joe Vitale (drums), Kenny Pasarelli (Bass) and Todd Caldwell (keyboards).  Opening with a song that would no doubt have pleased the Crosby Stills Nash fans amongst us, “Helplessly Hoping” reminded us not just of the close harmony singing that this trio were famous for, but that Stills could write good songs every now and then, and songs that stand up on their own merit without having to be allied to the ‘supergroup’ tag.  Somewhere during the first three songs, Stephen suffered a minor injury to one of his fingers, which clearly plagued him throughout the rest of the show.  No matter though, it wasn’t noticeable in his playing, only in his pained expression each time he forgot about it, then was sharply reminded of it moments later.  Even though Stephen’s vocal delivery is not as it used to be, “Treetop Flyer” was performed with that old assurance and command, equalling the studio version found on his Stills Alone album.  There were one or two moments when the voice threatened to let him down, “Change Partners” for instance, but songs like “4+20” brought some of that old magic back way before he could be accused of losing it.  It’s been a while since I attended a concert where each song was applauded during the opening few bars rather than just at the end of the song.  Referring to Ringo Starr as ‘a drummer friend’ when introducing “Johnny’s Garden”, Stills reminded us of Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, which he revealed was a thinly disguised portrayal of the gardener they each shared respectively in a Surrey House that was passed between the three of them in the 1970s.  Stills introduced the closing song of the acoustic set by saying “with your permission I shall step into the Abyss”, going on to perform the masterpiece that is “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in its entirety.  The band that was to play throughout the second set, returned to the stage to join in on the memorable broken Spanish vocal coda, which had the entire City Hall audience singing along enthusiastically.  Although the first set was largely acoustic, the second set was a much rockier affair and you get the feeling this is where Stills’ comfort zone most definitely resides.  Opening with the Manassas classic “Isn’t it About Time”, Stills easily found his groove and we were set for an outstanding set of Stills’ classics from Buffalo Springfield through to the present day, with the inclusion of a cover of Tom Petty’s recent “The Wrong Thing to Do” and the Stills/Nash collaborative blues “Wounded World” from the Man Alive album, with its clear anti-Bush message.  Stills is no stranger of political commentary in his songs and in fact made a successful hit record out of one particular incident that has subsequently been thought to be about the infamous Kent State shootings (it isn’t), and we were fortunate to have a sneak preview of Stills Performing a solo version of the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What it’s Worth” accompanying himself on piano on Later with Jools the night before this gig.  Tonight though, Stills returned to his trusty guitar, and with the help of his tight band, the song was performed to close the show.  With an encore of the Sixties anthem “Love the One You’re With”, Stills faced a standing ovation at the Sheffield City Hall.

Roy Bailey and Friends | Sheffield City Hall | 19.10.08

After tonight’s ‘Rolling Home’ show, celebrating ‘50 years of dissent’, James Fagan said to me that it felt like we’d all been invited to a big house party around at Roy’s house.  I felt somewhat privileged to be a part of it, albeit sat amongst the couple of hundred or so friends and admirers in the audience, beneath the imposing City Hall in Sheffield, in the impressive Ballroom, which for tonight only, turned out to be an ideal extension of Roy’s house just down the road, where this many people just wouldn’t quite fit.  A few guests had gathered in the wings, each awaiting a call from the stage in order to join Roy for this very special celebration of fifty years of singing songs that matter, and of course, to assist in helping to celebrate fifty years of a life well spent, not least on a variety of worthwhile socialist causes.  With an introduction that included the quote “I attribute the fall of Mrs Thatcher to Roy Bailey”, Roy’s friend of the past thirty or so years Tony Benn, led a round of thunderous applause, welcoming the singer onstage to get proceedings underway with Si Kahn’s anthemic “What You Do with What You’ve Got”.  The first guest Roy invited onstage was John Kirkpatrick who joined him on his trademark accordion, to play Tom Paxton’s “How Beautiful upon the Mountain”, a song with a hymn-like quality and an uplifting chorus that had the hall filled with communal singing in no time.  The last time I saw Seattle-based songwriter Jim Page around these parts, Roy Bailey was in the audience, no doubt taking note.  A couple of Jim’s songs were performed tonight, tribute to Page’s excellent song writing, “Anna Mae Aquash” was sung and played by Roy and John and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, which had none other than son-in-law Martin Simpson on guitar.  Roy introduced Martin with a reminder of something he said at his daughter’s wedding, that he didn’t feel he was losing a daughter as such; rather he was ‘gaining an accompanist’.  Each of the guests Roy invited up on stage tonight was given the opportunity to perform a song of their own choice. John Kirkpatrick chose his own song “In the Dreamtime”, sharing each of the lines of the song with Roy, with an Aboriginal-influenced droning accordion accompaniment, and Simpson chose the brilliant “Come down Jehovah”, one of many stunning songs to come from the pen of Chris Wood.  Martin Simpson could be seen variously during the evening, either side-stage watching intently as his father-in-law celebrated with his friends or alternatively up and down the hall with his daughter attached to his shoulders.  This was a family gathering after all, with each of its generations represented in one form or another.  Tony Benn’s contribution to the evening came in a short extract from The Writing on the Wall, a collaboration he did with Roy, which resulted in the two friends winning the Best Live Act Award in the 2003 BBC Folk Awards. In eloquent prose, Tony Benn addressed the room with factual accounts of the struggles against war and violence, in the words of those most affected.  Both moving and with some good humour thrown in, Benn’s gift for delivering speeches with honesty and integrity as well as with great personal conviction, managed to bring the audience to silence for a few moments, in order to reflect on the real reasons we are here.  The second half of the celebrations started with a few children’s songs such as “Skin” and “Busy Bee”, somewhat justifying why the children had been dragged out to sit in the company of a lot of ‘old people’ of a Sunday night with school in the morning.  I’m sure Roy’s celebrations would have an integral part of his life missing had the kids not been there too.  From the Elias Quartet, violinist Donald Grant joined the celebrations with some beautiful violin playing on Ian Campbell’s “Old Man’s Song”, which Roy has resurrected after a rare recording was discovered recently of him singing the song at the Bothy Folk Club in Southport.  Introducing the Scottish/American David Ferrard with the words “his father gave him his home, his mother gave him his accent”, Roy invited the Edinburgh-based songwriter up onstage to accompany him on “Visions of our Youth” before he was left to sing “Hills of Virginia” with some extraordinary violin playing by Donald Grant.   Roy Bailey has known Nancy Kerr all his life and together with husband James Fagan, the couple represented Australia with their performance of Alistair Hulett’s “Sons of Liberty”, which has been a popular song in the duos’ repertoire since it appeared on their 2006 album Strands of Gold.  The duo stayed on stage to help Roy out on Graham Moore’s “Captain Swing”, one of the songs from Moore’s musical Play The Tolpuddle Man.  Chumbawamba joined Roy onstage in order to perform a couple of songs from their current album The Boy Bands Have Won, starting with the gorgeous “Word Bomber”, which Roy was himself invited to sing on the album version.  That was followed by one of the most talked about songs on the album that is getting much airplay since the albums’ release; the cringingly accurate “Add Me”, that potentially has all of us MySpace folk sinking in our seats.  For this special occasion, Chumbawamba added a new verse especially for Roy, which alludes to Tony Benn stalking Mr Bailey, our national treasure.  With everyone gathered onstage for a finale of “Rolling Home”, Roy Bailey would not only have one heck of a memorable 50th jubilee to store in his memory, but also one of the best birthday parties to boot.  The final song of the night was one in which everyone joined in, and in perfect harmony too.  Happy Birthday Roy.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | NCEM, York | 20.10.08

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset have been doing a bit of global trotting in recent months; earlier in the year they toured Australia and more recently the United States, with a handful of shows in Europe as well.  Seeing them back in Yorkshire is always a pleasure.  The last time we saw the band here at the National Centre for Early Music in York, the band was very different indeed. Since then we’ve seen the departure of two remarkable musicians Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley and some thought that this just might see our Unthank siblings back as a family duo once again.  Not so.  Firstly Niopha Keegan arrived on the scene, fresh from Newcastle’s prestigious folk music degree course, which seems to be turfing out talent quicker than Simon Cowell turfs out dross, and who to my knowledge has never attempted to replace Jackie, but rather add another dimension to the group, which she has done supremely well.  Just as we were getting up from the blow of losing Jackie, we long-term fans of the band watched from the wings as Belinda departed, with outstretched arms and a communal pleading for her not to go.  Once again, the band has proved to be bigger than its component parts and from out of nowhere, along came the amazing Steph Connor, who has once again turned the sound of the band on its head, introducing the Haynes manual of how to play piano without touching a single key.  Pretty exciting for those of us who don’t mind a bit of musical exploration.  Kicking off tonight with “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” followed by “Felton Lonnin”, two songs from the outstanding album The Bairns, the band soon got into their familiar stride at this sell out concert, and held the attention of the audience for the next hour or so.  These two songs have been seen on TV or heard on the wireless recently as the two musical contributions to both the BBC Folk Awards, where the band picked up the Horizon Award, and also the song they performed at the Mercury Prize Awards Ceremony.  The highlight for me tonight came next, when the band performed their newly re-vamped, re-shaped and re-modified “I Wish/Lull I” couplet, which would presumably have Steve Lawrence scratching his head thinking “is that the one I gave ‘em?”  With some ingeniously discordant sounds emitting from beneath the grand piano lid, which almost saw Steph actually climbing into the piano, not unlike you imagine Tori Amos would, after accidentally swallowing the Philip Glass songbook, the song cycle took on a different identity altogether, and highlighted Steph’s adventurous spirit clearly.  If all this sounds weird or ridiculous, then my advice would be to close your eyes and just listen to the results, which appears to have transformed the two songs into a tonal poem of pure beauty.  I was pleased to hear Niopha Keegan sing unaccompanied tonight.  In “I’m Weary from Lying Alone” we bear witness to the fact that Niopha has a wonderful voice, a voice that appears to have no problem in holding the listeners’ attention throughout.  Sung in both Gaelic and English, Niopha showcases another side to her considerable talents and once again confirms that she is very much an integral part of the Winterset collective.  The constant whining of the folk police on the ever tedious and completely redundant notion of what is and what is not folk music, in all probability affects these women like H2o affects a duck’s back.  With this group, it will always be about exploring the boundaries of either traditional or contemporary song, both of which all four of these musicians and singers treat with equal respect, as well as exploring their musicianship and their tireless search for new sounds. Strange things sometimes happen in music.  Whenever I think of “With a Little Help from My Friends” I can only think in terms of Joe Cocker, not the Fabs.  Same thing happens these days with Robert Wyatt’s timeless “Sea Song”, which Becky Unthank has claimed as her own, without actually knowing it.  So good is this version that I doubt Mr Wyatt would have any compunction in handing it over forthwith.  If anyone is still in any doubt as to the musical cohesion of this quartet, look no further than to their outstanding arrangement of Owen Hands. “My Donald”, which is to all intents and purposes a contemporary whaling song incorporating a Classical arrangement.  It certainly served as one of the outstanding performances in tonight’s show.  Concluding with their regular finisher “Fareweel Regality”, Rachel, Becky, Niopha and Steph once again raised the roof with a finisher that still sends a shiver.  It would be nice to hear another song enter their repertoire with an equally uplifting theme, but in all honesty, this song is a very hard act to follow.  Jonny Kearney is a young singer-songwriter from Hexham in Northumberland who was recently awarded a bursary after winning the inaugural Alan Hull singer-songwriter award.  Upon winning this award, whose panel of judges included the likes of Kathryn Tickell, Ray Jackson and Alan’s widow Pat, Jonny has had the good sense to set out and do as many gigs as possible before recording any material.  In a world of instant success and self-produced records, it’s encouraging to see a musician doing what is most important in the development of a creative mind, that of playing live as much as possible in order to truly discover his own personal direction and style.  Tonight Jonny opened for Rachel Unthank and the Winterset for the second time in succession (the previous night being in Durham) and was joined by fellow Newcastle Uni Folk Degree student Lucy Farrell on fiddle and musical saw and Dan Rogers on double bass who has just recently left Leeds College of Music.  With a repertoire comprising all his own songs, Jonny faced a more formal gathering at the NCEM than he is probably used to and performed a handful of songs starting with “Dixon Street”, a song about a street in Gateshead with alleged ‘dogs the size of ponies’ and ‘paranoid people’.  On “Bad Man”, Jonny is joined by Lucy Farrell on the saw, an instrument that is beginning to make its return as a perfectly cool accompanying instrument, with interesting results.  Based on a true story, “Ticket Man” considers the wishful fate of one of our beloved traffic wardens, who gets his just desserts in the end.  Having landed myself on the wrong side of a ticket in recent months, the song brought out in me a vengeful side I didn’t know I was capable of.  Concluding with what Jonny likes to refer to as a ‘little ditty’ called “Stand Up Show”, Jonny and Lucy sparred vocally whilst Dan provided a driving bass line throughout.  Proof that Newcastle continues to produce new and exciting singers and musicians, all of whom seem to be getting that much younger.

Chris Wood and Ruth Notman | Drill Hall, Lincoln | 23.10.08

I arrived at the Drill Hall in Lincoln earlier than expected, having negotiated a traffic-free A57, just about all the way.  Sitting in the Armoury Cafe Bar, waiting to grab a coffee, still seething after having to pay twice in the 24 hour car park next door due to a mixture of bad eyesight and poor lighting (note to self: press the yellow button first for night parking you fool), I was privileged to hear some sweet piano tunes filtering through from the main hall.  Ah, I thought, that would be young Ruth Notman in there, giving the soundman an easy job tonight no doubt.  If you’ve ever had the good sense to buy a ticket for a Ruth Notman gig, you will notice it comes with a guarantee that you will get two very definite things for your money.  Firstly you will encounter a chirpy Nottinghamshire lass with a beaming smile and an infectious sense of fun; you feel that much of what she says has just popped into her head a microsecond before.  Secondly, you will hear one of the most distinctive voices on this or any other music scene for that matter.  Her debut album Threads made everyone sit up and listen from the likes of Kate Rusby, Kate Rusby’s number one fan Mike Harding, Bob Harris, Colin Irwin and John Tams, whose recommendations should never be taken lightly.  Accompanying herself on guitar and piano, Ruth played a few of the songs from the album in a faultless performance tonight at the Drill Hall.  Opening with the unaccompanied and timely seasonal song “The Holland Handkerchief”, learned from the singing of another great Northern voice, Norma Waterson, Ruth was in no hurry to get through this set.  Composed and seemingly relaxed, taking a few seconds to gather herself before each song, Ruth went on to sing some of the most memorable songs from her debut, “Billy Don’t You Weep for Me”, “Fause Fause”, “Cruel Sister” and the quirky yet brilliant “Limbo”, which Ruth still sort of apologises to Eliza Carthy for.  No need, Ruth’s version is a folk classic in its own right.  What makes Ruth so special is that she has the ability to take a song like Dougie Maclean’s “Caledonia”, already a much loved and definitive statement, then make it her own.  The side of Ruth Notman that has only been marginally tapped into is her writing ability.  The album contains three of her own compositions, one of which was written for a school project.  “Lonely Day Dies” is a beautiful song with or without the Westlife key change (without tonight), and the recorded version has one of the defining moments on the album, courtesy of Saul Rose’s beautifully underplayed melodeon.  Ruth is hoping to take some time out soon to deliver an eagerly anticipated Threads II, and this reviewer is hoping for some new originals, as well as rewarding some established songs with a Ruth Notman makeover.  Tonight, the audience was having none of it.  There was no way Ruth was going to be allowed to leave the stage after her allotted spot was up and she returned to sing the aptly titled Richard Thompson song “Farewell, Farewell”, which I’m sure would have Sandy Denny raising a pint of beer to, wherever she is.  I suspect that if you stick two leads into a Martin guitar, you get a much better sound.  I’m not up on the technicalities, but tonight I noticed that after doing just this, the guitar in question sounded absolutely amazing.  It might also have something to do with open tunings, good wood from good trees or just that on this occasion it was in the hands of Chris Wood.  For an intimate performance in the company of Chris Wood, you need the guitar to sound good, and he was at pains to point out that he’d driven all the way up from Kent and the least he could do was put the guitar in tune and make it sound good for us.  This Summer, getting up on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, directly after an enthusiastic Orkney fiddle band, Chris was determined to bring some “church bells music” to the fields of Cherry Hinton.  I knew exactly what he meant, and tonight, I had returned specifically to hear some more church bells music, delivered by one of England’s finest singer-songwriters.  From the start, Wood wanted to get a feel for exactly who his audience was; what could he get away with and who would he upset?  Uncompromising in his attitude and conviction to his beliefs, Chris Wood cares not one jot about whose toes he might or might not tread on.  This is one of Wood’s great strengths; that he can fearlessly speak his mind as he enlightens those of us who hadn’t noticed, that there’s a lot more to our history than ‘they’ let on.  Chris Wood is involved in a number of projects and appears to be a very busy man.  One of those projects that he’s involved in is the Imagined Village, the 17-piece multi-cultural ‘revue’ which has been making its appearance at festivals and concert halls throughout the year, attempts to explore what Englishness is all about.  Describing “Cold Haily Windy Night” as a “very sexy little song”, Chris performed a stripped down version of the song in the manner it was first intended, with a gentle touch, but at the same time losing none of its power.  Wood speaks about our hidden heritage with an air of authority, but you’re always under the distinct impression that he’s still uncovering little treasures of English history on an almost daily basis and is in turn fascinated by each newly upturned stone.  Referring to John Ball as a sort of cross between Winston Churchill and Ian Dury, the Lollard priest friend of Watt Tyler, who was a thorn in the side of the authorities, came to a sticky end, which was graphically described by Wood through almost gritted teeth.  Sydney Carter’s beautiful song “John Ball” brings home some of the history we in this country are sometimes afraid to face, accompanied by one of Woods’ most inspired guitar accompaniments with some chords that haven’t been invented yet.    Claiming that the subject matter of “One in a Million” is essentially a true story, albeit with an unknown origin, Wood re-told the story of Billy Smith and Peggy Sue, which held this silent audience transfixed throughout.  Chris and storyteller Hugh Lupton, who wrote the lyrics to this compelling story, picked up the BBC Folk Awards Best Song Award in 2006 for the song that never fails to tug at the heartstrings.  Known to play two fiddles at the same time, Wood saved his party piece for another day and played “Princess Royal” using the conventional method instead.  A tasteful fiddle player, Wood plays gently and sensitively, whether on an instrumental Morris tune or accompanying himself on a song such as “True North”, a song from a new project about Parliamentary enclosures entitled On Common Ground again with Hugh Lupton.  Inspired by watching Jonathan Miller’s A Brief History of Disbelief, “Come Down Jehovah” describes Wood’s stance on religion in a song he refers to as an “atheist spiritual, which basically points out to those who tend to forget, that we already have Paradise here on Earth, and we’d better start enjoying it whilst we can”.  Amen to that.  Abandoning the ritual encore, Chris introduced his last song of the evening as a song about everything; a song that for him, puts everything into context.  “Summerfield Avenue” is the opening song on Chris Wood’s outstanding current album Trespasser, which I imagine ten minutes after this performance was out of stock at the concessions stand, and rightly so.

Ralph McTell | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | 26.10.08

Traditionally, on the last Sunday before Halloween, Sheffield City Centre plays host to the UK’s largest Halloween party, which attracts somewhere in the region of 30,000 visitors, most of whom come suitably dressed for the occasion.  Pushing my way through more Gouls than the House of Lords and more Goths than Whitby seafront, I made my way towards the City Hall, and at one point, being so totally disorientated with all the goings on, I found myself walking in completely the wrong direction.  I had to ask Frankenstein the way, as you do.  As the “Time Warp”, courtesy of the sing-along-a-rocky-horror-show taking place inside the City Hall, filtered through the front gates, where a ludicrously colourful 12-seater fairground ride swung majestically through the air, missing the hall’s imposing Doric columns by less than a metre, Ralph McTell was taking the last of his three guitars out of its case ready for his appearance at the venue tonight.  You almost feel sorry for a songwriter who is forever plagued with requests for that one hit, that one song that everyone remembers, even though there’s almost a thousand others to choose from.  As a member of the ever increasing bunch of people who’s had a crack at writing songs, I personally wouldn’t mind a “Streets of London” under my belt.  Truth is, Ralph is no one trick pony at all and he has dozens of great songs in his repertoire, a handful of which came out tonight.  Dipping into a back catalogue that stretches back to the late Sixties, Ralph sang a variety of songs including “The Mermaid and the Seagull” from his very first LP Eight Frames a Second, the sleeve of which credits one Henry VIII on jug and a Whispering Mick on washboard.  Besides all the kitchen utensils, the guitar has always featured pretty high up on any Ralph McTell recording and he claimed tonight that he has now lost count of exactly how many guitars he owns.  Less than Keef though, he admits.  As a guitar player, McTell still holds his own, whether it’s on blues standards such as Blind Blake’s “Georgia Bound” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Guitar Shuffle”, both of which were played tonight on a National Steel guitar, or as fine accompaniments to contemporary ballads such as “Maginot Waltz” and “Lunar Lullaby”, all of which benefit from his fine and assured touch.  The very name the singer goes by indicates precisely where his musical loyalties lie; half folk (the Ralph coming from Vaughan Williams) and half country blues (his surname borrowed from Blind Willie McTell, the wonderful 12-string blues guitar player from Georgia) and throughout his long career that spans four decades at least, McTell has maintained his love for this sort of music and has never lost sight of his debt to the great blues guitarists who went before.  Performing songs from much of his back catalogue of albums, McTell remained on form throughout the performance.  When it did eventually come round to the inevitable “Streets of London”, McTell admitted that “it’s hard to get past this one” but still lives in the hope that he didn’t actually peak at around twenty-two when he wrote it, or indeed just thirty when he had the big Top of the Pops hit with it.  Finishing with “Michael in the Garden” and a final encore of “Lost Boys”, Ralph McTell rounded off an evening of good well-crafted songs, written by a writer who settles for nothing less than songs of outstanding quality and timeless beauty.

Seth Lakeman | Leadmill, Sheffield | 05.11.08

As Seth Lakeman laboured his four strings relentlessly, on both fiddle and tenor guitar, and as sweat poured from his beaten brow, a certain fRootsy magazine editor whispered in my ear “what’s wrong with this crowd, why are they so subdued?”  Perhaps it’s because a predominantly middle-aged Cambridge Folk Festival audience just wouldn’t allow themselves the pleasure of getting too excited this summer even though it must be said, the thumping rhythms that pounded upon Cherry Hinton’s freedom fields that afternoon had even the Sunday Telegraph brigade on their feet at last.  A different story within the confines of the much smaller, darker, sweatier blacked-out rock stage of The Leadmill tonight, where the people of Sheffield were certainly up for excitement; nothing subdued about this crowd.  Playing for around ninety minutes, Seth Lakeman’s band, consisting of brother Sean on guitar, Ben Nicholls on bass and Andy Tween on drums, brought to Sheffield a few selections from all four of Seth’s solo albums; yes even one from the largely forgotten The Punch Bowl of 2002, with “How Much” coming out to play.  It’s easy to forget with such driving rhythms, almost every song a thumper, that this is still an acoustic band.  The almost frenzied style which Lakeman has developed over the past few years has become his trademark and there’s now this niggling thought, that there’s a danger he might be stuck with it forever.  This is what the people want and what his fans want.  Kicking off with “The Hurlers” with its tribal drum opening, always highly functional, not least to get the crowds’ collective heartbeat aligned and going at a purposefully increased rate, the band appeared tight and ready to rock, albeit in a folksy rootsy way.  Through all the highly stylised playing, Seth maintains a faithful allegiance to both the myths and legends of his homeland of Devon and Cornwall and the West Country in general, as well as more contemporary local themes, such as the tragic Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981, chronicled suitably well in “Solomon Browne” from his current Poor Man’s Heaven album.  “Have you all got Poor Man’s?” Seth enquired from the stage.  The response informed him that the concessions stand had probably been busy during the support act.  There was a large contingency of young teenage girls at the Leadmill tonight that was noticeably absent at, let’s say, the Roy Bailey gig I attended in the same city a month ago.  Despite their loyal presence, Seth refuses to be groomed into the ‘folk poster boy’ that the industry would love to embrace, and continues to be a deliberately dedicated jeans and t shirt sort of bloke.  No frills, no pop pretence, just your regular Devon lad having fun and making a difference.  I first encountered the young Seth Lakeman when he, along with his brothers Sean and Sam together with Luke Daniels, became the sweethearts of the 1995 Cambridge Folk Festival as The Equation, where Kate Rusby had just departed before the band really got off the ground and with whom Cara Dillon made a memorable guest appearance.  Most of this went largely unnoticed as my attention was drawn to a young Kathryn Roberts in a little black number as I recall, and I make no excuses in remembering little of Seth, whom I only vaguely recall as a nose sticking out of a pair of curtains.  The boys and girls grew up and the hairstyles changed but I think those present at that gig realised there was something special about this young band and probably more in its component parts than the collective equation, and it’s come as no surprise that a decade or so later, Seth is trailing a blaze in the cross over folk/acoustic/inde music world.  As with most popular artists and bands, not just now, but throughout the history of popular music, it’s the hits that bring out the most excitement and even though they can hardly be described as ‘hits’, the most familiar songs in Seth’s repertoire, “Kitty Jay” and “The Lady of the Sea” created a sea of bouncing heads, a great atmosphere and a damn good night.  Well worth missing all the fireworks outside for.

Ben Parker | Basement Bar, York | 06.11.08

Once again The Basement Bar in the centre of York, just tucked beneath the City Screen Cinema, became the place to be tonight, with four more delightful sets hosted by Rudie and Ian of NxNY, whose collective good sense and impeccable taste once again provided us all with a full evening of outstanding music from both local singers as well as musicians from further afield, Wales for example.  Whilst feet shuffled above our heads, as the mass exodus from the cafe bar to the theatre seats took place, deep beneath all this cinematic activity, a bunch of musicians congregated and moved amongst ordinary audience members made up of York locals and visitors alike, all here with the one objective, to enjoy some good well-crafted songs.  Starting off the night was local singer-songwriter Lizzie Vince, who opened with a short set of her own self-penned songs dealing with themes of love, loss and introspection, accompanying herself on the piano.  Keeping the between-song patter to a minimum, Lizzie’s Lionheart-era Kate Bush inspired vocal and clear and precise piano treatment gave us a brief peep into her world through the songs alone.  Holly Taymar on the other hand, gleefully fills her set with lots to say and lots to sing about; an open diary for those of us intrigued with her infectious personality.  Joined on guitar by Carl Hetherington, Holly brought us up to date with songs and stories from her neck of the woods, which is coincidentally, just down the road.  “Toes” could quite easily be a journal entry for just another ordinary and uneventful day, but as in the case of most of the best songs around, the delicate arrangement and exquisite playing together with an assured vocal delivery, turn those whimsical fleeting thoughts into engaging poetry.  Bringing us up to speed in Holly’s world, we learn that she buys chocolate by the boxful, is clumsy with cardboard (cutting herself in the rush to get at the goodies), owns a couple of lesbian pet guinea pigs (Jonathan and Ray!) and is possibly attracted to the new President elect.  Holly’s world is a hoot, that’s for sure.  “Bush Song” has absolutely nothing to do with George Dubya, but once again details the everyday commonplace aspects of life in general, in this case, tidying up the overgrown garden, with pleasing results even to the non-green fingered amongst us.  Alun Tan Lan is a Welsh singer-songwriter and former member of the band Seain, who sings exclusively in his native tongue.  Accompanying himself on 12-string guitar, standard guitar and banjo, the multi-instrumentalist brought to York a taste of the Welsh language, with a handful of songs including “Gwaed ar yr Eira Gwyn” and “Plant y Tonnau”, with the one English language exception thrown in, albeit with a German title ironically enough, the standard “Fraulein”, famously recorded by the late Townes Van Zandt.  Fortunately, the introductions were in English, so we had some understanding of what the songs were about.  Ben Parker was one half of the duo Ben & Jason (with song writing partner Jason Hazeley, now writing comedy scripts) whose heights were neither lofty nor dizzy, but unfortunately in the hands of a handful of faceless radio executives, who decided the fate of such acts around a table littered with releases by the likes of Puff Daddy and Michael Jackson.  Such was the lot of most artists in the days before the music world decided to return to DIY, with social networking, downloading and the Ipod generation suddenly realising there’s more to life than the Hit Parade.  At least Ben & Jason experienced a 3000-strong crowd at Glastonbury in 2000, “one of the best days in my life” says Ben, before the duo decided enough was enough.  With a vocal range reminiscent of Jeff Buckley and a plethora of brooding singers who have emerged in the wake of Grace, Parker takes command of the stage with no shortage of self-confidence and determination.  Songs such as “Emoticons” and “Air Guitar”, both previously residing with no small measure of pride in the Ben & Jason repertoire, come back to us like they’ve never been away.  Both relaxed and assured, Parker brought to the Basement Bar songs both old and new which awakened memories of vague familiarity, such as “A Star in Nobody’s Picture”, songs that really shouldn’t have slipped off the radar in the first place.  One of the outstanding songs of the night was “Dream Painted Gold”, which stands up alongside the best of any bedsitter troubadour songs you care to mention.  Kate Aumonier joined Ben for the final few numbers of the night, showcasing songs from a collaborative project the pair are currently working on.  Taking up electric guitar for the remainder of the set, Ben returned to the duo format accompanied by a voice that compliments his perfectly well and between the two of them, delivered a memorable debut with passionate performances of a handful of new and exciting songs.

Tim O’Brien | NCEM, York | 15.11.08

Some musicians like to make it all look so easy, whether it be in the way they jump from one instrument to the other, demonstrating an excellence of playing and dexterity in each of the instruments they pick up, or in the relaxed approach they have to singing, especially in some of the most challenging songs.  Tim O’Brien is such a singer and musician who made his solo debut in York tonight at the National Centre for Early Music, performing much of his current Chameleon album to a packed and enthusiastic house.  Born and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, a place where you couldn’t really create an equivalent of CSI due to “everyone having the same DNA and no dental records” he joked, O’Brien is steeped in traditional country and bluegrass music and has been a major player in this field for some three or four decades.  Having cut his teeth in the bluegrass band Hot Rize throughout the 1980s, culminating in the band picking up the International Bluegrass Music Association’s first ever Entertainer of the Year award in 1990, and taking the Male Vocalist of the Year award himself three years later, Tim has settled into a solo career of some considerable merit and is a much sought after musical collaborator; you sense that he never stops.  He would be meeting up with LAU after tonight’s show, who are playing at nearby Thorganby and tomorrow he’ll be hanging out with the Rusbys, catching Kate’s show at the York Opera House.  Tim was relaxed tonight, though in all fairness it’s hard to imagine him being anything other than relaxed; I should imagine he’s pretty cool by nature.  Starting with “Kelly Joe’s Shoes”, Tim alternated between guitar, fiddle, banjo and guitar shaped bouzouki – “I had it built in the shape of a guitar to avoid telling airport officials I have a bouzouki in my case”, performing a first set that probably went over the hour mark.  Tim may have been waiting for the ‘one more’ signal, but everyone including Chris Euesden, our MC for the gig, was enjoying the first set too much to bring it to a close.  A good deal of the performance was centred around Tim’s current album Chameleon including the bluesy “World of Trouble”, the minor key troubadour love song “The Garden”, and the dance friendly “Get Out There and Dance”, during which Tim did the old side step and shimmied as he played.  Tim’s sense of humour was evident not only in his between-song stories but also in songs such as “Running out of Memory for You”, from his Cornbread Nation album, bringing us bang up to date lyrically but maintaining the old bluegrass sensibility.  Joining the Grammy Award winning O’Brien for a couple of songs from the record voted Best Traditional Folk Album of 2005, Fiddler’s Green, was the British multi-instrumentalist Jason Titley, whose work on the British bluegrass scene, most notably in bands such as Natural Hazard and The Daily Planet, had not gone unnoticed by his American peers.  With Titley providing the rhythm on either guitar or tarabuka, O’Brien was free to dazzle the audience with his fiddle and banjo playing respectively on “Sandy River Belle” and O’Brien’s take on Ola Belle Reed’s soulful “I’ve Endured”.  Returning to the bouzouki (“Greek for out-of-tune”), O’Brien concluded with “Walk Beside Me” featuring some stunning guitar licks courtesy of Titsley, before returning to the stage for an encore of the anthemic “A Mountaineer is Always Free” from his acclaimed album The Crossing, rounding off an excellent evening with one of the true giants of Americana.

Boo Hewerdine | The Basement Bar, York | 21.11.08

To me, Holly Taymar is just as much a part of these NxNY events at the City Screen Basement Bar as the floor, walls and ceiling.  Each time I’ve been there, so has she, and on each occasion Holly has provided precisely what is expected of her; some good songs and an equal helping of fun and whimsical banter.  Just the thing to warm the place up at the beginning of the evening, especially on such a cold night as this.  Tonight Holly started with a couple of songs from her current CD Before I Know, “Home” and the jazz inflected “Fairground” sandwiched between two other, presumably newer songs, “Waking Up is Hard to Do” and “Keeping Time”, a song originally written for a university project, hopelessly labouring under the notion that it was Stravinsky-inspired.  But we know different don’t we Holly?  Roscoe La Belle, a local four-piece band consisting of singer/guitar player Chris Ryan together with Jo Griffin (guitar), James Chisholm (drums) and Simon Bolley (bass), played a short set of sensitive songs reminiscent of Damien Rice.  Opening with “Soldier”, Chris and Jo eased us into their set before being joined by the rest of the band for the more up tempo “Beside Your Shadow”, which had toes tapping throughout the bar.  Dedicating “Always You” to his wife, Chris rounded off the band’s short set with a tender ballad culled from a much darker place.  Kicking off his set with an unplugged “Dangerousdays”, Manchester-based Dave Hulston quietened the Basement Bar audience with a selection of finely crafted songs, some of which have been around for a surprisingly long time.  It’s difficult to put an age to Dave Hulston, but a 1980s version can be googled to reveal a fresh-faced Steve Howe/Hunky Dory-period David Bowie lookalike.  Not much has changed as the fashion conscious songwriter found his way to the Basement Bar stage, complete with David Lynch style shirt (buttoned up to the neck of course), after being feverishly sought out by Rudie who apparently rediscovered the singer songwriter after a box of goodies turned up unexpectedly, containing an old tape of Hulston from earlier in his career.  One of the songs on that tape, “Julie”, was dutifully resurrected especially for our host tonight.  “Forward” reveals a performer comfortable with a distinctly cool jazz approach; a song probably more suited to a summer’s day than a cold winter night, but welcome nonetheless.  I’m reminded of fellow Mancunian Roy Harper in songs such as “The Knife” and the quirky “Dogs”, in terms of both delivery and lyrical content.  ‘You should’ve chained your dog to a tree’ is right down Harper’s street I should imagine.  There’s a couple of different cover designs knocking about for Boo Hewerdine’s A Live One album.  On the version available for sale tonight, we see a tall bearded songwriter sitting in a laundrette, tentatively fingering his guitar, the square-tiled emptiness being a suitable metaphor for loneliness, solitude and autonomy.  The City Screen Basement Bar in York could almost be seen as the same, with our troubadour hidden away backstage as Holly, Dave and Roscoe La Belle warm up the audience for what could potentially be a night to remember.  I had a chat with him up in the bar, where he sat on a high stool, making him look even taller, thumbing through a local newspaper, half listening to my routine enquiries and half listening to what was going on downstairs.  Boo seemed completely relaxed, having spent the day in York, part of which was in the studios of BBC Radio York, where he played one of his songs, “White Lillies” live on air.  The song was repeated tonight along with several other classic Hewerdine songs, including “Muddy Water”, “Please Don’t Ask Me to Dance” and “Patience of Angels”, songs written for Eddi Reader.  “Harvest Gypsies”, a ‘folk song’ written for Kris Drever, was also performed and so too was “Bell, Book and Candle”, not written especially for, but featured in an episode of Emmerdale, thus providing the song with the reputation of being the most used Hewerdine song for pegging out to.  One by one, each of Hewerdine’s songs, from his impressively prolific repertoire, is revealed as a complete statement; you feel there’s nothing missing in terms of musical structure, lyrical content, or indeed in the performance of these familiar songs.  They’re all neat and tidy, yet soulful and expressive at the same time.  Recently Boo has taken to releasing finely packaged mini-albums; a little too long to be considered EPs and not quite chunky enough to be considered full albums.  Toy Box No 1 and No 2 respectively, contain songs destined to sit comfortably beside the best of Hewerdine’s repertoire, adding to an already impressive body of work.  For “Stone in Your Shoe”, Hewerdine was joined by James, Roscoe La Belle’s drummer, who provided a little snare back beat, presumably an enjoyable chore, repeated on “59 Yards” and the final song of the night “Footsteps Fall”.  Sadly, even the offer of a free CD for anyone in the audience willing to get up and dance failed to attract a single soul.  I was almost tempted…almost.

Emily Smith | The NCEM, York | 25.11.08

It’s exactly one year since I first encountered Emily Smith in a small music club in Doncaster, where she played a couple of sets with her husband Jamie McClennan, providing us with what I always thought to be a complete unit, with guitar, accordion, fiddle and piano, as well as one astonishingly good voice and a perfectly complimentary harmony voice to go with it.  Tonight at the NCEM, Emily and Jamie expanded upon that complete unit with the inclusion of Kevin McGuire on double bass and Russ Milligan on guitar and banjo and now I’m convinced we have a perfectly rounded, new and improved, complete unit.  Last November I opened my review with “fresh from Songs of Praise”, the couple having just returned from appearing on the BBC’s prestigious God-slot prog, but this time I could equally say “fresh from extensive touring in Europe”, adding “with a critically acclaimed new album out and with a Scots Singer of the Year nomination under her belt”.  It would appear that during the last twelve months, Emily has been very busy indeed.  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”, and to top it all, she is a gifted singer with a clear and vibrant vocal style.  Tonight Emily intended playing all of the songs bar one from her latest release Too Long Away, but a request for the one song she didn’t intend on singing, “Old Mortality”, kiboshed this plan, and Emily ended up playing the lot!  Emily’s “Sunset Hymn” shows an astonishing command over arrangement, with the interplay between Jamie’s fiddle and Russ and Kevin’s mature rhythm section, all topped by Emily’s beautiful delivery.  The same can be said for the band’s treatment of traditional material such as the engaging “May Colven”, which resounded around the stone walls of the NCEM tonight.  It’s with the sensitive ballads that Emily excels.  “Robert Tannahill’s “Fly Me to Some Desert Isle” held the audience spellbound; little wonder Emily’s nomination for Scots Singer of the Year came in such a hurry.  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.  I have no doubt that Emily won new friends in York tonight.  A treasure.  Supporting Emily Smith tonight was the Scottish/American singer songwriter David Ferrard, a musician who spent much of his early life straddling the Atlantic between Edinburgh and Western Pennsylvania drawing upon two distinct cultures to provide a hybrid of gentle ballads and meaningful songs.  I first saw David in Sheffield at Roy Bailey’s 50th anniversary concert a few weeks ago, where he was invited along to contribute a couple of songs to the proceedings.  Introducing him with the words “his father gave him his home, his mother gave him his accent”, Roy brought to the capacity City Hall audience a taster of what David Ferrard is capable of and tonight at the NCEM, we got a little more.  Performing songs from his debut album Broken Sky, David managed to coax some chorus singing out of the audience with songs such as “Take Me Out Waltzing Tonight” and “Childhood Days”, before turning to the more serious stuff including Robert Burns2’ “The Slaves Lament” and his own anti-war song “Hills Of Virginia”.  With a seemingly good natured attitude towards life in general and a warm approachable personality, David demonstrated an ability to deliver songs in a clear, strong, yet sometimes fragile vibrato, which left you in no doubt that he meant “ every word of it.

Karine Polwart | The Drill Hall, Lincoln | 27.11.08

Once again, Lincoln’s Drill Hall played host to a class act tonight.  On a stage where just about anybody would look and sound good, with specific attention to detail afforded to both sound and lighting equally, the Karine Polwart Trio were presented by Old Bakery Promotions in a manner befitting such a quality combo.  The plaudits poured upon Karine since the release of her debut solo album Faultlines in 2003, have been numerous and I doubt there is much room left on the mantelpiece for the awards she could possibly pick up in the forthcoming months, particularly at the BBC Folk Awards in February, where she has been nominated for the Best Folk Singer award as well as having her current album This Earthly Spell nominated in the best album category.  There seems to be no stopping her.  For their Lincoln debut, the trio opened with “River’s Run”, a song specifically written for Karine’s “wee boy” Arlo.  Performing much of the current album, with a few well-chosen songs from her two previous albums Faultlines “The Sun’s Coming over the Hill” and Scribbled in Chalk “Daisy”, “Hole in the Heart” and “I’m Gonna Do it All”, the trio demonstrated how tightly-honed their arrangements have become in preparation for this short winter tour.  Joining Karine on stage were brother Steve on guitar and Inge Thomson on just about everything else.  The contribution of these two musicians should not be underestimated both in terms of their musical integrity and vocal dexterity.  Their combined harmony singing on “The Good Years” for instance, brings an almost celestial beauty to the arrangement, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Angel Choir of the imposing Cathedral just up the lane.  Alternating between standard guitar and tenor guitar, and interspersed with Steve and Inge’s name guessing game, prompted by Inge’s use of the house lectern to rest yet another interesting new instrument upon; “it’s like a thumb piano with its own wah wah pedal” we were informed, Karine brought to Lincoln some of her most beautiful songs such as “Waterlily” and “The Good Years”.   “Sorry” with its discordant tenor guitar motif, reflecting the songs’ discordant subject matter, of whom Karine refers to as “the most important man in the world”, reminded me once again of the quality of song making that Karine is capable of.  Aside from writing and recording songs for her own solo albums, Karine has always found time to engage in valuable side projects, which are treated with just as much focus and attention as her own projects.  “Well for Zoë” is the opening song from a new CD in aid of the Irish-Malawian rural water development organisation of the same name, which Karine wrote especially for the project, collaborating specifically with Tim O’Brien and sharing contribution credits with the likes of Heidi Talbot, Michael McGoldrick and Beth Nielsen Chapman.  Choosing such songs as this to play tonight, together with “Firethief”, one of the songs written for the 2006 Radio Ballad series, shows just how important these songs are to Karine, and just how important it is to keep singing them.  Towards the end of the night, Karine turned to a droning musical laptop, presumably from the ancient family of harmoniflutes, and invited the audience to join her on an infectious lullaby, the chorus of which was made up of two words ‘beo beo’ meaning ‘life, life’ in Gaelic.  If this is generally the last sound little Arlo hears before nodding off at night, then I dare say the wee little chap is in a very privileged position indeed, and with regard to much of his mum’s recent output, proves once again that his namesake wasn’t the only fellah to have a brilliant wordsmith for a parent.

Patsy Matheson | The Winning Post, York | 29.11.08

My introduction to Patsy Matheson came much later than it should have, when the late lamented Lonsdale Live club in Doncaster booked the late lamented Waking the Witch in what might be considered their heyday.  Sadly Waking the Witch hung up their brooms earlier this year and nodded off again and Patsy returned to what she did before she hooked up with Rachel, Becky and Jools, and that is to return to being a solo performer.  With a new album out, which is receiving favourable reviews, a new set of songs to draw from and one of the best smiles in the business, Patsy topped the bill tonight, at an intimate singer songwriter showcase at The Winning Post in York, along with Miles Cain and Gina Dootson, who were out to lend their support.  Taking to the stage and tuning up her guitar to the sound of Robert Johnson singing “Dust My Broom” (there we go again with the Witch references), coming through the PA loud and beautifully clear, Patsy segued into “Ulverston Gypsy” and then immediately into the Waking the Witch era gem “Through and Through”, providing us with a first rate opening to any solo set you care to mention.  Any song written by a female writer who references King Crimson in the lyric is a winner with me to start with.  The songs from A Little Piece of England transfer well to live performance as they are already pretty much stripped down on the album.  These songs were written for intimacy, and “Sunday Morning Song” with its homely charm and the Neil Young influenced “This New Song” take you elsewhere; such is the power of the imagery in Patsy’s songs.  On “Sunday Morning Song” it’s almost like the Edward Hopper painting, depicting a row of shops drenched in early morning sunlight; you instantly know its Sunday morning without anyone telling you.  Referring to the whole paparazzi thing surrounding Amy Winehouse as “unfortunate”, Patsy introduced her moving “Lamb to Slaughter” with as much sensitivity as the song lyrics themselves.  I was taken by Patsy’s optimistic viewpoint that there might be light at the end of the tunnel, with a comparison to Slowhand’s emergence from drug induced hell in the Seventies, that she may, if we leave her alone, ‘rise like a beautiful butterfly’.  Jokingly berating her own first album as “dreadful”, Patsy did in fact resurrect “One Like Her”, from the earlier With My Boots On album, accompanied by egg shaker.  Offers were out for anyone willing to join the band on various rattles and shakers, but sadly no takers.  Everyone was playing it cool tonight, but not cool enough to prevent us from joining in on the whistling chorus of “Row Down to Wroxham”, one of Patsy’s most infectious songs and one of the highlights of the night.  Finishing with a touch of West Coast pop/rock, Patsy was joined by Gina Dootson for what could possibly be Gina’s last UK performance for a while as she embarks upon a new life and career in Germany this month.  Coupling Steve Miller’s “The Joker” together with a chorus of “Free Falling”, Patsy and Gina brought this delightfully intimate and hugely enjoyable evening to a close.

Jo Freya’s Lal Waterson Project | The NCEM, York | 02.12.08

Sometimes it takes either a younger audience with fresh ears to songs, or older artists paying tribute to their own contemporary heroes, to help uncover English song writing gems that have been there for some time.  We’ve had younger artists getting together with their mentors and peers alike to unite in celebrations of songs by Ray Davies This is Where I Belong, Nick Drake Poor Boy and Brittle Days, Richard Thompson Beat the Retreat and more recently, the likes of James Yorkston, Alasdair Roberts and Charlotte Greig have contributed to a celebration of Lal Waterson’s songs Migrating Bird: The Songs of Lal Waterson.  None of this is coincidental; the songs that Lal Waterson wrote, whilst being not so much overshadowed, but obscured for so long by the veil of traditional songs her family band The Watersons were in so much demand for, are now revealed as hidden treasures of English contemporary song writing.  Although I am fortunate to have seen Lal in full swing with her family band on more than one occasion, and can confirm there ain’t no sound quite like it, Blowzabella’s Jo Freya was fortunate enough to have known Lal personally and worked on two of her later albums.  The Lal Waterson Project was born out of respect for Lal’s work and a hunger to arrange and perform a selection of some of Lal’s lesser known songs as well as to apply a fresh approach to some of her better known songs such as “Some Old Salty” and “Midnight Feast”.  “They don’t get enough airing” says Jo, who fell in love with these songs a long time ago.  Joining Jo at the National Centre for Early Music tonight were Jo’s sister Fi (The Fraser Sisters – Jo having changed her name to Freya, presumably to avoid constantly being mistaken for a heavyweight boxing champion), Jim Boyes (Coope, Boyes and Simpson), Mary Macmaster (The Poozies) and three current or former members of Chumbawamba, Jude Abbott, Neil Ferguson and Harry Hamer.  Transforming the NCEM’s stage into a music shop window display, with various brass instruments, Mary’s harp, Harry’s tablas and Cahon, as well as a few guitars of the acoustic and electric variety, the Lal Waterson Project got underway with “Stumbling On” an up tempo, almost pop/gospel version of a song Jo originally sang with Lal on the Once in a Blue Moon album.  Throughout the performance Jo encourages the audience to go out and listen to Lal Waterson, to seek her out on YouTube and get to know the material better and states that the idea behind the project is to rekindle the love of the songs for those who already know them and to create a new love for those who don’t.  Some of the songs are very personal to Lal, “Song for Thirza” for instance, a lament for a family member sadly missed.  Focusing on Lal’s later work rather than the earlier Bright Phoebus period songs, the musicians on stage swapped and changed instruments in order to present a different sound and feel to each of the songs.  Sometimes fiddle led, but often with a predominant brass section including trumpet, alto and tenor saxophone, the songs were treated as if they were all a favourite child. Jo clearly couldn’t make up her mind which was her favourite Lal Waterson song, there seems to be just so many.  For the recording of “Some Old Salty”, Lal Waterson asked Jo to play the piano even though she doesn’t consider herself in any way to be a piano player.  Tonight the song closed the first set and once again we were reminded of the originality of some of Lal’s lyrics with particular emphasis on the use of imaginative language.  Jo pointed out that although a line such as “He had a head like a toy shop” is unusual, we somehow know exactly what it means.  The Fraser Sisters reunited for a duet on “Young Billy Brown” to kick start the second set before the rest of the band re-joined them for more of Lal’s repertoire touching upon themes such as depression “The Bird”, politics “Party Games” and family love and kids “Bathtime”, before bringing the performance to an end with the beautiful lullaby “Migrating Bird”, with Jude Abbott’s dreamy cornet solo; confirmation of Lal’s poetic song writing, and for now, my particular favourite.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | 07.12.08

Sitting in a bar directly opposite the steps leading up to the imposing City Hall in Sheffield, on a particularly cold December evening, half listening to goodness-knows-what over the in-house sound system and sipping a cold Guinness, I idled away half an hour, having arrived in the city earlier than expected.  I could quite easily have passed for a down-and-out vagabond, with a scarf twisted around his neck and the collar on his great coat standing upright against his ears.  Settling deeper into my cosy seat, I took out a notebook and began to scribble.  You would have thought such winter warmery would have sufficiently disguised me, even from my own mother, but my anonymity was soon foiled by three familiar faces peering in through one of the large windows, silhouetted by the amber street lights outside.  They began waving manically in order to get my attention.  Rachel Unthank, her little sister Becky and Niopha Keegan, were just passing by, no doubt killing time before their gig and obviously recognised my receding hairline, forehead shining bright pink from the centre of the pub, a beacon to behold from the darkened Sheffield streets outside, wet with the continual overspill from nearby decorative fountains, which quickly turned to ice.  I waved back in a similarly excited fashion.  A few moments later, the three of them were sitting next to me in the pub, Rachel munching on a chocolate bar, the apparent Holy Grail of their quest which led them to leave the relative comfort and warmth of the Memorial Hall in the first place.  They declined to join me in a Guinness, saying “we have to run and get our frocks on”.  It was only a polite half-hearted offer on my part as I was familiar with their strict rules concerning drinking before a performance.  We did however have a few moments to catch up on things such as the bands’ current tour and in particular, their recent concert appearances supporting Ben Folds, together with their telly debut on Inside Out, a local North East magazine programme, which shows the Unthank siblings at home, around the kitchen table discussing song sources, the ‘whole name thing’ and what it’s like to be ‘thrust into the world of celebrity’.  “It took about nine days of filming to come up with that little piece” Rachel said, taking another bite from her chocolate bar “but it was so nice to have mum in it with us” she added.  Becky apologised to me.  “You’re going to hear all the same songs again tonight” she said, as if it bothered me in the least, quickly followed by “we’re working so hard on new material, I promise”.  This new material, presumably destined for the eagerly awaited third Rachel Unthank and the Winterset album, seems to be coming together and will no doubt make its appearance sometime in the New Year.  For now though, songs like “Felton Lonnin”, “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk” and “Fareweel Regality” continue to be an integral part of their set, and I have to say, I never tire of hearing them.  Delighted to be back in Sheffield once again, a city that holds particularly fond memories for Becky Unthank, who was accidentally punched in the face one night at The Leadmill, by a fist obviously destined for another, presumably more deserving face.  Each of the band members mingled with the audience in their usual approachable manner; there’s never the slightest hint that these girls have been touched by the red carpet nonsense at award ceremonies, or of hiding away in darkened green rooms backstage; they always seem to relish in the company of others.  Rachel told me they were going to play exceptionally well tonight as they felt they owed it to their audience, who may have been let down by some unfortunate tour date re-shuffling, due to the unexpected opportunity to tour with Ben Folds, an opportunity not to be missed.  The rescheduled date at the Memorial Hall tonight suffered very little from the changes as just about every seat in the house was taken.  At this stage in the band’s career, invitations to play with higher profile artists at some of the bigger and more established venues is not only good for each of the individual members of the band, who get to rub shoulders with their heroes, but also good for the bands’ reputation on the general music scene.  The invitation to support fellow Mercury Prize nominee Adele at her Roundhouse concert later this month, is of particular interest.  It makes perfect sense to me that a brilliant singer such as Adele, whose influences are equally shared between Etta James and The Spice Girls, would also love Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.  After a set from fellow North East based duo Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, who were invited by the band to join them on some of their current tour dates, the Winterset took their now familiar places on stage; Steph Connor seated to the left before her grand piano, Niopha Keegan dominating the right side of the stage with fiddle and accordion in tow, and the Unthank siblings centre stage for what felt like a potentially exciting performance before even a single note was struck, plucked or bowed.  The first note was eventually struck by Steph for the intriguing opening of Cyril Tawney’s “On a Monday Morning”, which features the voices of the three women who earlier in the evening were waving at me from outside a pub, each providing a verse and introducing three distinctly different voices.  There’s nothing rushed about the songs, in fact I would go as far to say they are deliberately paced at a slower tempo than you would expect.  This more recent development, especially in some of Becky’s delivery, adds that all important space to the songs, which in turn gives them depth.  “Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion” remains an audience favourite as it incorporates an infectious refrain that is easy to sing along to, as well as showcasing Rachel and Becky’s clog dancing credentials.  Niopha is the only member of the band who has yet to introduce dance steps to the mix, since newest member Steph Connor demonstrated her ‘crab dance’, which should be available on YouTube before too long.  And everyone thought she was a quiet girl.  Other highlights in the crescent-shaped Memorial Hall tonight included “My Donald”, which is one of the band’s most accomplished pieces in terms of arrangement, verging on classical composition, punctuated by Becky Unthank’s atmospheric retelling of Owen Hand’s classic song; the spooky “I Wish I Wish/Lull I”, which wouldn’t be out of place on a M. Night Shyamalan soundtrack and of course Robert Wyatt’s much discussed and widely loved “Sea Song”, respectfully performed by a band whose intuitive playing allows you to momentarily forget you are hearing just one piano, an accordion and metronomic high heels… and of course, a stunningly original voice.  With an encore of the beautiful “Unst Boat Song”, which like the opening song of the evening, incorporates shared responsibility in singing duties for the verses, we see the four members of the Winterset united in some harmony singing that could not be bettered.

Lucy Kaplansky | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | 14.12.08

It takes a consummate professional to respond positively to requests from the audience; not to whinge and refuse on the grounds that the singer can’t remember the song, but to just play it, almost as if it had been planned that way.  This happened not once, but several times tonight.  That same professionalism can be found in a performer who deals with a bad throat, again, not by moaning and cancelling the show, but by re-assessing each song, dropping the key down a notch or two and coming up with an alternative melody whilst all the while, sucking on cough drops.  Only those intimately familiar with Lucy Kaplansky’s repertoire would have noticed a difference tonight at the Memorial Hall in Sheffield, but even so, not a single dodgy moment to be heard anywhere.  On the contrary, Lucy’s last performance in the country before returning home was in a class of its own and for the first time in a long while, by the end of the show, Lucy made me want to turn back the clock by an hour or so to listen to it all over again.  Opening with a sensitive reading of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “one of the greatest songs ever written” we were informed, Lucy went on to alternate pretty much between her own self-penned material and songs she has picked up along the way.  Originally from Chicago, now resident in New York, this troubadour, songsmith, psychologist and mother appears to have it all.  Choosing material from the last five of her six solo albums, Lucy presented an evening of finely crafted songs, interspersed with intelligent and engaging conversation.  Lucy speaks of motherhood with a pure delight. Missing her five-year-old daughter, but excited to be seeing her on her return to the States tomorrow, Lucy radiated warmth as an old friend would, and to some, that’s exactly what she is.  The Memorial Hall in Sheffield provided a suitably intimate setting for some of Lucy’s better known songs such as “Ten Year Night”, “Amelia” and “Five in the Morning”, which earned some praiseworthy comments from the stage; “this is one of the best venues I get to play anywhere”, Lucy pointed out, going on to admit that she doesn’t say this every night. Citing her influences as firstly The Beatles, then Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and finally Steve Earle, Lucy performed a handful of covers during the course of her two sets including Earle’s “Somewhere Out There”, Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, Richard Thompson’s “A Heart Needs a Home” and the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire”.  The most poignant tribute tonight though came when Lucy took to the piano to perform “Let it be”; “I’m so moved by this song, I can’t stop playing it, and it’s the first time I’ve gotten to play it in a place where The Beatles actually played, you know that right?”  Although Lucy produces faithful adaptations of familiar songs written by arguably the best writers in the business, it’s with her own songs that our attention is held.  “Brooklyn Train” brings to this Sheffield audience a tangible essence of New York, you can almost smell the pretzels.  A couple of new songs were introduced tonight, “Mother’s Day”, a song Lucy reckons “isn’t quite done” but invites the audience to be the judge, and then two back to back, “Sleep Well” and “When You Love Someone”.  Finishing the set with the requested “For Once in Your Life”, a tribute to her 85-year-old mom, Lucy was pleased to have got through the night with her voice still intact.  Returning to the stage to rapturous applause, Lucy Kaplansky left us with a seasonal rendition of “White Christmas”, reminding us of what a beautiful song it actually is, before a final encore of “This is Home”.