Live | 2009

Arlo Guthrie | The Duchess, York | 01.02.09

Arlo Guthrie admits that the one question he is frequently asked wherever he goes and wherever he plays is ‘what was it like at Woodstock?’ to which he often has to reply with a series of half remembered memoirs and half elaborated upon mythologies.  It probably doesn’t surprise him that this is so often brought up in conversation, having been captured on film delivering somewhat embarrassing, yet highly quotable, Sixties oratories from the stage at Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969.  “Man there’s supposed to be a million and a half people here by tonight, can you dig that?  New York State Thruway is closed.. man”.  Arlo may have been out by a million souls, but as is often said, if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.  The Duchess in York tonight saw a gathering of people of all ages, some of whom may not remember the Sixties, but who were very definitely there, to those who were probably not even born a clear twenty years after Jimi Hendrix brought that particular historic festival (and the decade) to its conclusion.  Some came along carrying their prized LP records under their arms in order for their hero to sign them, if they got a chance to meet him that is, and some of the younger punters came along, curious to see how this young hippie, who took to that stage at arguably the most legendary pop festival in history almost forty years ago, is getting along.  Of course Arlo Guthrie is also famous for being a direct descendent of the most important American folk singer in history.  I think it would be twee to pour importance on that fact, just in terms of his genetic relationship to Woody, but having been a kid growing up in that environment, that would also include the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Rambling Jack Elliott to name but a few, is difficult to overlook and I imagine it would have had a considerable impact on a young impressionable 1950s schoolboy at the time.  Tonight the folk troubadour appeared as part of his Arlo Guthrie Solo Reunion Tour (Together at Last!), armed with both 12 string and 6 string guitars as well as the customary harmonica rack, and performed songs from a repertoire spanning over four decades.  Kicking off with a song from his very first and most celebrated album Alice’s Restaurant from 1967, which inspired Bonnie and Clyde film director Arthur Penn to make a feature film out of this true story of the young Guthrie dodging the draft, living the hippie lifestyle and getting into a skirmish with the Law for littering.  “Chilling of the Evening” brought back memories of that time and surprisingly little has changed over the years.  Guthrie has the sort of youthful voice that doesn’t seem to age and it has to be said that all the older songs were pretty much as fresh as they were when he first put them down on record in the Sixties.  Arlo Guthrie could quite easily have been just another Dylan clone to emerge from the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene of the mid Sixties, had he not developed his own unique raconteur spirit.  Many of his songs are either prefaced with hilarious introductions, or he may randomly insert stories right in the middle of a song.  Arlo still tends to be slightly embarrassed by the popularity of “Motorcycle Song”, a song he admits time and again that it was ‘not the best song I ever wrote’.  He joked that he was ashamed for the sake of the ‘family history and all that’, nevertheless, this offbeat tale of riding a motorbike whilst playing a guitar with tragic results for, of all things, a police car, remains an audience favourite.  What is generally overlooked whilst taking in Guthrie’s irreverent humour, his hippie musings and offbeat tales, is his informed guitar playing.  On blues standards such as “St James Infirmary Blues”, “Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses” and “Key to the Highway” we see a guitarist who has done his homework.  Not only does he tackle various blues styles with impressive authenticity, he also gives us a taste of some pretty tasty slack key Hawaiian guitar playing, reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s forays into this particular style during the Seventies.  Highlights of the set tonight included Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”, Arlo’s own controversial “Coming in From Los Angeles” and a rather faithful reading of “Pretty Boy Floyd”, paying homage to his dad whilst observing that “the more laws you make, the more criminals you produce”, one of Woody’s more astute observations.  All in all, a worthwhile reunion, man.

Drever, McCusker and Woomble | The Drill Hall, Lincoln | 08.02.09

On each of the several occasions I’ve arrived at the Drill Hall in Lincoln, I’ve habitually taken up my regular seat by the bar in the Armoury Cafe, taken out my notepad and jotted down a few preliminary notes in the deserted confines of the foyer, before anyone else gets there, whilst the box office clerk answers a few random telephone queries and the bar staff open the shutters in order to prepare the bar for the interval drinks.  There’s usually the customary leakage of a formal sound check filtering through from the main hall, giving me a taste of what’s to come.  These are usually pleasant contemplative moments for me and are very much a part of the experience of attending gigs these days.  No such privileges tonight though.  As I approached the venue, it was already obvious that things were buzzing along nicely, and the Armoury Cafe Bar was already full of eager music fans, enthusiastically congregated for what promised to be a landmark concert.  Alan Ritson’s endeavours to put Lincoln on the folk and acoustic music map appears to be paying off, and this is largely due to his impeccable taste and enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit.  There’s little wonder tonight’s concert was sold out in advance and that bums were occupying all the seats so early, even on a dreadfully cold night that threatened snow, and lots of it.  Three of Scotland’s brightest young musicians had finally arrived in Lincoln as part of their much anticipated tour following the release of their acclaimed collaborative album Before the Ruin last year, which has pretty much been sizzling away constantly on my car stereo as the heater hovered on eleven continually throughout this awful winter.  John McCusker and Kris Drever are no strangers to the British folk scene after fruitful apprenticeships in both the Battlefield Band and Lau respectively, each gaining widespread accolades along the way.  There’s a tendency to expect little other than consumate quality in anything McCusker touches and Drever just happens to have a knack of making things look much easier than they actually are.  He’s one of those blokes that you imagine would have been just as good as a footballer or an astronaut had he answered those particular callings.  Fortunately for us, he chose folk music to feverishly pursue instead. Idlewild’s charismatic front person Roddy Woomble adds a bunch of incredibly good songs together with a distinctive voice and a little bit of that rock n roll sensibility and together we are presented with a unique combination.  Billed in some places as ‘support’, Heidi Talbot and Boo Hewerdine infiltrate this Scottish stronghold with exceptional grace and represent both Ireland and England respectively, with first of all, one of the most delightful female voices on the folk music scene today and secondly, a gifted and much loved singer songwriter from Cambridge.  You tend not to think of Heidi and Boo as support, but more or less as part of the band, taking equal place amongst the boys from North of the border.  The Cherish the Ladies singer sang a handful of songs from her second and most recent album, the Boo Hewerdine produced In Love and Life, proving that she is equally at home on stage as she is in the studio.  Opening with Jay Clifford’s “Cathedrals” we see Heidi and Boo for the first and last time as a duo before John McCusker and Kris Drever join them for pretty much the remainder of the set, which included performances of “Bedlam Boys”, the Tom Waits song “Time” and a couple of up tempo numbers, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “Music Tree” and Boo Hewerdine’s “Everything” all of which appear on Heidi’s current album.  Boo Hewerdine managed to squeeze in a couple of songs from his latest release during the set including “Amen” and “White Lillies”, both of which he pointed out with his usual sardonic wit, come from the better of his two Toy Box mini CDs.  Although the show was divided into two distinct halves, the first being dominated by Boo and Heidi and the second by the Drever, McCusker, Woomble trio, there’s the sense of a good old fashioned ‘session’ going on, with each of the artists wandering on and off stage when they feel surplus to requirements.  With the addition of double bassist Kevin McGuire, much of the second set was centred around the Drever, McCusker, Woomble collaboration album Before The Ruin, including the driving title song as well as “Silver and Gold”, “Into The Blue” and “All Along The Way”, peppered with some of the songs from Woomble and Drever’s respective solo albums My Secret Is My Silence and Black Water.  Though the evening almost completely concentrated on a song based performance, the biggest applause ironically followed a show stopping stomper of a set of tunes courtesy of McCusker and Drever, who together as a duo brought the essence of the music of the Battlefield Band and Lau, yet losing none of the raw power and energy of the larger combos.  You got the feeling that the audience could’ve done with a little more of that to warm them up on such a cold night.  Concluding with “Stuck in Time” which seamlessly segued into Kris Drever’s “Poor Man’s Son”, the concert reached its climax as the snows outside transformed the sleepy spires of Lincoln Cathedral and surrounding city into a picturesque seasonal greetings card, under which I think I left my car somewhere.

Drever, McCusker and Woomble | The Duchess, York | 11.02.09

The Duchess in York is fast becoming one of my favourite venues, not just for the standard of gigs they put on, but for the relaxed and easy going atmosphere.  The venue itself is both dark and cavernous, but at the same time comfortable and comforting.  Tonight, the steady flow of silhouetted figures filed in at regular intervals and seemed to threaten to put the venue in danger of bursting.  But that’s the other thing about The Duchess – it’s Tardis-like.  There’s little wonder so many people turned up for tonight’s gig.  Three of Scotland’s brightest young musicians had finally arrived in York as part of their much anticipated tour following the release of their acclaimed collaborative album Before the Ruin in 2008.  John McCusker and Kris Drever are no strangers to the British folk scene after fruitful apprenticeships in both the Battlefield Band and Lau respectively, each gaining widespread accolades along the way.  There’s a tendency to expect little other than consummate quality in anything McCusker touches and Drever just happens to have a knack of making things look much easier than they actually are.  He’s one of those blokes that you imagine would have been just as good as a footballer or an astronaut had he answered those particular callings.  Fortunately for us, he chose folk music to feverishly pursue instead.  Idlewild’s charismatic front person Roddy Woomble adds a bunch of incredibly good songs together with a distinctive voice and a little bit of that rock ‘n’ roll sensibility and together we are presented with a unique combination.  Billed in some places as ‘support’, Heidi Talbot and Boo Hewerdine infiltrate this Scottish stronghold with exceptional grace and represent both Ireland and England respectively, with first of all, one of the most delightful female voices on the folk music scene today and secondly, a gifted and much loved singer songwriter from Cambridge.  You tend not to think of Heidi and Boo as support, but more or less as part of the band, taking equal place amongst the boys from North of the border.   Opening with Jay Clifford’s “Cathedrals” we see Heidi and Boo for the first and last time as a duo before John McCusker and Kris Drever join them for pretty much the remainder of the set, which included performances of “Bedlam Boys”, the Tom Waits song “Time” and a couple of up tempo numbers, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “Music Tree” and Boo Hewerdine’s “Everything” all of which appear on Heidi’s current album.  Boo Hewerdine managed to squeeze in a couple of songs from his latest release during the set including “Amen” and “White Lillies”, both of which he pointed out with his usual sardonic wit, come from the better of his two Toy Box mini CDs.  Roddy Woomble joined the other musicians for the final number in the first set, a song that originated in the Appalachians “The Blackest Crow” which featured verses sung by Talbot, Woomble and Drever.  Although the show was divided into two distinct halves, the first being dominated by Boo and Heidi and the second by the Drever, McCusker, Woomble trio, there’s the sense of a good old fashioned ‘session’ going on, with each of the artists wandering on and off stage when they feel surplus to requirements.  Much of the second set was centred around the Drever, McCusker, Woomble collaboration album Before The Ruin, including the driving title song as well as “Silver and Gold”, “Into The Blue” and “Moments Last Forever”, peppered with some of the songs from Woomble and Drever’s respective solo albums My Secret Is My Silence and Black Water, including Woomble’s “Waverley Steps” and Drever’s interpretation of Boo Hewerdine’s “Harvest Gypsies”.  Though the evening almost completely concentrated on a song based performance, the biggest applause ironically followed a show stopping stomper of a set of tunes courtesy of McCusker and Drever, who together as a duo brought the essence of the music of the Battlefield Band and Lau, yet losing none of the raw power and energy of the larger combos.  You got the feeling that the audience could’ve done with a little more of that to warm them up on such a cold night.  The concert was seasoned with some friendly banter concerning Kris Drever’s most recent win at the BBC Folk Awards, his band Lau picking up the award in the Best Group category, whilst McCusker playfully sulked at receiving no such award in the category of Best Musician, which he was rightly nominated for.   Towards the end of the gig Kris Drever sang a faultless and beautiful rendition of “The Poorest Company” before the entire ensemble concluded with “Stuck in Time” which seamlessly segued into Kris Drever’s “Poor Man’s Son”.  Another memorable concert at The Duchess.

Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Chris Parkinson | The NCEM, York | 10.03.09

Widely considered the mum and dad of the English folk revival, Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy have recently reached that momentous and delightful Rite of Passage, that of becoming grandparents.  I spoke to Martin in the interval this evening who promptly drew a circle with his index finger over the general area of his left pec and confessed that he had ‘a very special place right here’ for little Florence Daisy.  I don’t really know Carthy personally at all, even though I did kick young Liam out of his bed one night in order to make way for a 1980s version of Martin Carthy, after a gig in Doncaster, who kept me up half the night to watch his favourite film ‘Blade Runner’.  Can you imagine that, Martin Carthy and Harrison Ford in the same room?  I digress.  For the first of the larger scale Black Swan concerts of the year, as opposed to the smaller club gigs that started in January with an appearance by Grace Notes, the National Centre for Early Music provided the ideal platform for another visit by two of the most enduring singers on the British folk scene.  Norma and Martin were joined by Chris Parkinson on accordions (both piano and button) for a couple of sets of songs and tunes culled from one of the largest repertoires in British folk music.  Starting with “Bright Shiny Morning”, one of the oldest story tales the couple have, about ‘the ever popular venereal disease’, which inadvertently caused more than a ripple of giggles throughout the audience tonight, especially when Norma explained that ‘she had no idea why it was so popular all over the world … the song of course, not the disease!’  When Norma giggles, there’s an infectious ripple that reverberates around the room, not unlike the proverbial Mexican wave.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve seen Norma Waterson, either with her husband or with the larger family band Waterson:Carthy, or in the days of the yet even larger family band The Watersons, I still see that young feisty gypsy lass in the old black and white film Travelling For A Living, who captivated my attention back then with the sort of adrenalin I wish I could bottle and save for rainy days.  The variety of songs showcased tonight were diverse in both style and mood.  From “Bay of Biscay”, which recalls a pre-mobile phone era, when if your man went out to sea, you’d ideally like him back in one piece, rather than seven years later as a ghost, to the jaunty “My Flower, My Companion and Me”, which showed a more animated Norma, whose outstretched arms almost pleaded with us all to join in, which we were only too pleased to do.  Martin was given the opportunity to sing some of his own repertoire with the pleading “Georgie”, the hilarious “Six Jovial Welshmen”, which apparently receives a jovial audience response wherever he sings it, and the sprawling “Clyde Water” a song more familiar to some as “The Drowned Lovers” in the hands of Nic Jones or Kate Rusby depending on your age.  I can’t recall a Carthy performance since the early Eighties that doesn’t include “The Devil and the Feathery Wife” which to this day still brings out the giggles and I never tire of hearing it.  The second set got off to a rousing start with the old music hall song “Don’t Go In The Lion’s Cage Tonight”, which must be the only song in this couple’s repertoire that has been recorded by both Julie Andrews and Nic Cave.  It don’t get more diverse than that.  The poignant “Coal Not Dole” from the pen of Kay Sutcliffe, was presented as the first in a suite of three songs to mark the 25th anniversary of the miner’s strike, when our communities were divided into two distinct sides of the fence, signified by two helmets, one with a light attached and one of darkest blue, which ultimately led to the destruction of those communities.  The two other songs making a respectful nod to those days were Jed Foley’s “Pit Stands Idle”, courtesy of Chris Parkinson and “Trimdon Grange” from Carthy’s classic Sweet Wivelsfield period.  By contrast, Jerry Garcia’s “Black Muddy River” and Fred Fisher’s “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth The Salt Of My Tears”, show a more contemporary feel to Norma’s singing, despite the latter hailing from the Twenties, both of which appeared on Norma’s Mercury nominated eponymously titled album of 1996.  Chris Parkinson is much more than an accompanist and provided some excellent songs and tunes in his own right.  “Mr Isaac’s Maggot”, which incidentally has nothing to do with fishing, was coupled with a tune I always knew as “Bridge Over the River Ash”, but was introduced as something completely different.  Such is the confusing world of folk tunes.  With a final encore of “Bold Doherty”, the trio completed a well-rounded and highly entertaining night, providing a good enough yardstick for others to follow at the NCEM in the months to come.

Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 11.04.09

The Barnsley Wheelhouse Concerts are as informal as it gets.  The Jones family (Hedley, Lynn and Rory the King Charles Spaniel) are your hosts for the evening and at the bottom of their garden is a wooden cabin, which seats 35 comfortably.  The guest artists have to be carefully considered for these occasions as the venue is purpose built for a solo performer.  A duo would be more than comfortable, a trio manageable – if they don’t turn up with a grand piano or a double bass that is, and it must be said, an orchestra probably goes very much against HSE guidelines, even if the instruments only consist of ukuleles.  Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden fall under the ‘comfortable’ category and played a superb couple of sets without the aid of either a safety net nor or PA.  The Wheelhouse is one of those special venues that doesn’t require any form of amplification whatsoever and we were privileged to be given the opportunity to hear these musicians in their raw form.  The venue was described variously throughout the inaugural evening as a log cabin, a garden shed and a summerhouse, to specifically ‘The Wheelhouse’ or ‘The Club House’.  Zak Borden summed it up simply as ‘insanely cute’, which is just about right.  The Seattle based duo performed songs from both The Bootlegger’s Daughter and the more recent follow up album City of Refuge as well as a couple from Zak’s solo album The Remedy Sessions.  Kicking off with “Sunshine Girl” the couple soon found their natural volume and were both pleased to find they didn’t have to project their voices to any significant discomfort level.  Rachel’s guitar and Zak’s tasteful mandolin accompaniment dovetailed together perfectly well, mirroring these freshly refurbished wooden surroundings.  The duo are travelling ‘light’ around Europe for the next three months, with just one guitar and a mandolin, therefore Hedley’s wall-mounted Gibson came in handy for a few of Zak’s own songs including “Greener Side” and “Tennessee Heart” as well as his interpretation of the traditional “Saro Jane”.  Rachel chose her songs wisely and included alongside her own compositions such as “Shoeless Joe”, “Walk To You” and the more recent “Under The Big Top”, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Jo”, Bobbie Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, as well as the haunting “Up The River”, which is a faithful reading of the Laura Veirs song and therefore just as spellbinding.  There was even a Patsy Cline song in there for good measure.  For this, the first of what promises to be a good season of house concerts, we saw two of Americana’s rising stars set a remarkably good standard for those to follow.  In such surroundings, those who have yet to make an appearance at the Wheelhouse, can be assured that they are half way there already.  Finishing off with “Goodbye”, a Steve Earle song, we were reminded once again that it was Steve’s sister Stacey who was the last guest to appear in this garden back in October, and proves that the standard of musicianship is being maintained here in Wombwell. 

Nick Harper | The Duchess, York | 13.04.09

Nick Harper has a space all his own and those who attend his gigs enter that space at their peril.  Harperspace is after all, despite its intergalactic connotations and new hippie sensibility, the charismatic ether surrounding a vibrant musician who simply allows music to take over his entire being.  A great singer with an astonishing vocal range as well as virtuoso guitar player, who has clearly explored all possibilities, not only in between the frets but also around the headstock area as well.  There’s more peg activity going on up there than at a gypsy convention and there appears to be no dusty end to Harper’s Lowden.  Although famed for his use of the sampling and looping box of tricks, Nick kept his toys to a minimum tonight as he trawled through his back catalogue with songs from most of his albums including “Crazy Boy” from Seed, “Blood Song” and “Imaginary Friend” from Blood Songs, a couple from Smithereens “Two Way Thing” and “In Our Time” and a whole bunch from his fifth and arguably his best album Harperspace including the frantic “Karmageddon”, the autobiographical “Aeroplane”, a song about how Roy would swing the lad around by the ankles in earlier days and the soulful “She Rules My World”, which almost evokes the vocal range of another famous rock-sprog of the Buckley variety.  Unlike Jeff Buckley though, who clearly had contempt for the father who abandoned him, Nick Harper has maintained a close relationship with his dad and it’s actually encouraging to hear him speak so reverently about him.  He has a great appreciation of Roy both as a dad and as a musician, as well as the source of all his genetic weirdness it has to be said.  If you listen to some of Roy’s early albums then you will know it was unavoidable.  Coincidentally, Buckley’s “Grace” was part of a lively medley, which also included the old Led Zeppelin stomper “Four Sticks”, both popping up in the middle of “Love Is Music”, Harper’s regular string-breaking showpiece, which once again was rewarded by frantic applause from an appreciating audience of Harperspace cadets.  Of the newer material, “Blue Sky Thinking” stands out as a Harper masterpiece with its trance-like fluid guitar motif that wouldn’t be out of place on any Wyndam Hill collection.  The gig seemed to run over as often is the case with Harper.  Once you get into that kind of a groove it’s hard to know exactly when to stop and although you always come away with well over your money’s worth of entertainment and Harperspaced-out experience, there’s always the slight disappointment of not having heard your particular favourites.  Tonight it was “The Verse That Time Forgot” and “100 Things” that could’ve easily substituted ten minutes of “Love Is Music” or the awfully bawdy Zappa toon “Titties and Beer”.  But there’s always a next time eh?

Robin Williamson and John Renbourn | NCEM, York | 15.04.09

I don’t know about you, but I often feel quite privileged to have lived through the last few decades knowing we’ve had such contemporaries as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Miles Davis in our time, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Tonight at the National Centre for Early Music, we were once again in the company of two of the most revered musicians to have sprung up in the Sixties and who have continued to inspire and influence musicians to this day.  To some, the Incredible String Band were a bit too weird to fully appreciate, and there was always that hesitation before popping The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter on the Dansette, if your folks were in that is.  Those records to this day remain an absolutely essential part of my record collection and I no longer worry who hears the songs, however ‘very cellular’ they are.  Once having described himself as the ‘genius of this parish’, our ISB founder has progressed through decades of activity, mastering a particularly unique and eccentric vocal style, creating astonishingly inventive song writing structures, developing a daring guitar playing technique, beating the unchartered paths of world music (before the term was even coined), only to then re-invent himself as some sort of mystical Celtic bard.  I’ve always been suspicious of any musical instrument that could equally be considered a piece of furniture, but in the hands of Robin Williamson, the harp becomes much more than the incidental instrument in an orchestra, but a point of absolute focus.  As an accompaniment for traditional and contemporary songs and tunes, the harp does the job particularly well and gives us a break from the much more commonly used guitar.  As a backdrop to some of Robin’s lengthy Celtic stories, the harp comes into its own and creates a vast landscape of possibilities.  There was no storytelling tonight though, other than the stories we find in songs.  I dare say John Renbourn might nod off if he had to sit through “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal” night after night, so this evening at the NCEM, Robin and John delivered a bunch of carefully chosen songs and pieces that have meant something to both musicians throughout their respective careers, and more importantly, as Robin reminds us, “things that we both happen to know”.  Starting with a nod to perhaps the definitive guitar innovator of the folk revival, Davy Graham, who we sadly lost earlier this year, the duo launched into his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”, indicating right from the start how beautifully aligned the Celtic harp and the guitar can be in the hands of such experienced musicians.  In addition to this, Robin keeps time with the aid of a metronomic bass drum, which is at his feet throughout.  As one of the five prongs of Pentangle, John Renbourn was always a much less heavy handed guitarist than his mate Bert Jansch and often Renbourn provided the lightness of touch that underpinned Jansch’s claw hammered attacks.  No one bends a note quite like Renbourn, a sound that is very distinctly his own, and fortunately, we got plenty of those tonight.  The duo alternated between traditional songs and tunes such as “The Snows They Melt The Soonest”, “South Wind/The Blarney Pilgrim” and “Sir Patrick Spens” and also included a couple of more contemporary songs with David Allen Coe’s “I Stay Stoned on Your Love” together with a couple of Dylan covers; “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Buckets of Rain”.  Renbourn also wandered into Bahaman slack-key territory delivering a remarkable take on Joseph Spence’s “Great Dreams From Heaven”, previously explored by Ry Cooder during his ‘Jazz’ period.  Rounding off things nicely with a re-visit to the duo’s collaboration album Wheel of Fortune, Robin and John concluded with “Lights of Sweet St Annes”, which was well received by the sell-out audience in York tonight.  The performance was less about the meeting of two experienced borderline rock star folkies, and more about two mates having a bit of fun, doing what they like best.  Excellent.  Providing the support tonight was a new incarnation of Beneath The Oak, an established name but with a fresh line up.  The trio now consists of mandolin and Cuatro player Paul Wale, singer songwriter Aimie J Ryan on guitar and Mark Waters on bass.  Standing huddled together on stage, carefully avoiding Robin Williamson’s music shop window display, the trio played a selection of self-penned material including “My Eyes Close” and “Grave of Autumn”.

Eliza Carthy | The Duchess, York | 21.04.09

Eliza Carthy is now in her 34th year, which is making me feel rather old.  I was getting on for ‘old’ when I first encountered the little impish tomboy at the Cambridge Festival sometime in the Nineties, when her natural ebullience and youthful zest was encapsulated, setting a precedence for the hoards who followed in her footsteps; all endowed with a new vision of how this folk music should progress, all with buckets full of talent and rather less importantly, all blessed with extraordinary biblical names such as Seth, Ruth and Saul.  Tonight, as we patiently queued up outside The Duchess, on a relatively gorgeous spring evening, as the sun set over the silhouetted York Minster up the road, a familiar couple to folk audiences throughout the land strolled past, presumably making themselves scarce for a while as their daughter sound checked in the darkened basement below.  It’s nice that Martin and Norma come along to support Eliza, you get the feeling of real family cohesion in a time when speaking openly about family values seems to border on a criminal offence.  Eliza has developed into a force to be reckoned with.  She once was bewildered at the reaction of the old guard, who marvelled at her youthful vigour on stage.  “But that’s what 17-year olds do!” she responded with astonishment.  Well she’s still doing it, even months after becoming a mum, and still doing it extremely well.  I particularly like this current phase of Eliza’s development as a songwriter and musician.  The use of an electric tenor guitar, the melodeon and the customary fiddle, all offer fitting accompaniment to her songs.  The band tonight featured drums, double bass, cello and accordion, and even at one point, during “Oranges and Seasalts”, a trombone popped up from out of nowhere, played from the sound desk at the back of the room.  I was just at the bar right next to the desk and initially thought it was an over-enthusiastic fan, but alas not.  The band had spilt over from the stage and enveloped the entire room with sound.  Tonight was by and large given over to the new album Dreams of Breathing Underwater, but the performance also included older and more established material such as “Train Song” and “Poor Little Me” from the Angels and Cigarettes period as well as the beautiful “Mohair” from her Rough Music album, showcasing some of the best and most heartfelt singing of the night.  Whilst mum and dad watched from the back, Eliza sang with an unequalled assurance.  Her humour, often verging on Spike Milligan, has a playful irreverence that helps the anecdotal family tales weave in and out between songs and leaves you with an infectious sense of fun.  One of the highlights of the night was a version of Rory McLeod’s “Hug You Like A Mountain”, which Eliza unexpectedly manages to breathe new life into after we were first introduced to the song back in 1986 on Rory’s Kicking The Sawdust release.  What Eliza manages to capture is the sheer passion found in the original.  I imagine Rory is brimming.

Shepley Spring Festival 2009 | Shepley Village | 19.05.09

There’s a couple of young musicians who live down the lane in the self-contained village of Shepley, almost hidden amongst the rolling meadows of the Pennine fringe just to the south of Huddersfield.  You imagine Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble would be delighted to have the opportunity to develop their craft each spring without travelling much further than their own doorsteps.  These two young multi-instrumentalists are but two of a handful of musicians fortunate enough to share a stage with some of the best known names on the national and international folk scene, and still be home in time for tea.  For three consecutive years now Shepley has played host to one of the most talked about festivals on the folk music calendar and its reputation grows each year as one of the friendliest, most exciting and vibrant musical events in the country.  Word of mouth brought me to Shepley this year and I was pleased that those words – from very reliable mouths I might add – turned out to be true.  An impressive cast had been assembled for the weekend, with one or two special events thrown in for good measure, and I was keen to see why so many people would brave the elements at this time of year to camp out in what could potentially be a hostile environment in terms of the mid-May climate.  For those who are fond of the smell of rain, me included here, Shepley is a veritable boudoir of seasonal delights, and it soon became clear to me that no one seemed to care one single jot whether it rained or shined. Young Jack and Lydia are probably used to it.  The temporary festival village works in tandem with the permanent village just down the lane, whose streets are filled with colour and music throughout the weekend.  Outside the Farmer’s Boy pub, you are more than likely to find a bunch of Beefeaters, resplendent in their red and black tunics, stopping off for a beer or two on their way to the next pub down the lane.  The Frumptarn Guggenband’s brass instruments would no doubt be taking temporary shelter from a shower, whilst a strange bowler-hatted troupe – La Goulee D’Ev – march down the lane, proudly carrying their flag on high like Liberty herself in one of those Neo-Classical paintings hanging in the Louvre.  A long way from Shepley methinks.  Even the distant drums of the Mighty Zulu Nation, presumably coming from the Black Bull, don’t seem out of place here at all.  The short walk from the festival site at the top of the hill down through the attractive village, would be accompanied by the sound of several pairs of clogs hitting the ground, a host of wooden sticks colliding in mid-air and the clattering of swords and the sight of several dance teams only distinguishable by their contrasting colourful costumes, and all accompanied by the ever present fiddle or melodeon, or both.  The festival got off to a good start on Friday evening with a performance by a young emerging singer songwriter with a familiar name.  Ella Edmondson made her second appearance at the festival with her own small trio performing songs from her new album Hold Your Horses including the haunting “Fold” and the potential radio hit “Hunger”.  For sheer musical dexterity, Belshazzar’s Feast provided their first set of the weekend, incorporating classical baroque influences with traditional folk tunes as Bellowhead’s Paul Sartin alternated between fiddle and oboe, whilst at one point emptying the contents of his briefcase out on stage, whilst playmate Paul Hutchinson provided ample pyrotechnics on his accordion, all peppered with lashings of sardonic wit and banter-a-plenty.  Martin Simpson’s name has become synonymous with quality and class, specifically within the realms of handful of truly great guitar players to have emerged over the last couple of decades or so.  Joined by Andy Cutting and Andy Seward on melodeon and double bass respectively, the trio performed a set of well-chosen and eclectic songs such as Chris Wood’s “Come Down Jehovah” and Roly Salley’s touching “Killing The Blues” recently revived by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for their Mercury nominated collaboration album Raising Sand.  Whilst Welsh band Mabon performed a lively set to bring the Friday night concert to a close on the main stage, the newly reformed Edward II delighted a packed dance tent with some familiar favourites from their back catalogue. A perfect end to the opening night of the festival.  On Saturday lunchtime, Mick Ryan presented a special event in the church hall, re-named ‘The Acoustic Cafe’ just for the weekend, where you could pick up some good old homemade cake and sandwiches and a cup of coffee or a beer, whilst enjoying some of the fringe events in the comfort of possibly the warmest place in Shepley.  The Navvy’s Wife chronicles the hardships and triumphs of the ordinary people who helped carve out our roads, canals and railways from the time of the industrial revolution, performed in a seamless organic flow of words and music by an impressive cast assembled by Mick Ryan himself, including singers Heather Bradford, Judy Dunlop and Jackie Oates, and musicians Paul Downes and Roger Watson.  The two hour production held the audience spellbound, as the stories unfolded with both humour and heart-wrenching sadness in equal measure.  When I asked Mick how long it took him to write the piece, he casually replied ‘oh about four days’.  I imagine the research took a good deal longer.  The big surprise for me was the hidden talents of one Paul Downes.  If ever he tires of his music career, he wouldn’t half make a great character actor.  One waits in anticipation for the next BBC Dickens adaptation.  Local singer songwriter Belinda O’Hooley together with partner Heidi Tidow had the unenviable task of finishing off the Saturday afternoon concert on the main stage only to return a couple of hours later to kick off the evening concert, which would feature one of the headlining acts of the festival, Show of Hands.  Belinda is a rare figure on the current folk scene, being the only self-confessed Bonnie Tyler fan I can think of at the moment, whose songs can be heard amongst other pop tunes during her day job, that of entertaining the elderly in care homes.  Whilst the achingly painful “Whitethorn” sent shivers, the contrasting medley of Abba’s “Money Money Money” coupled with Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” was a complete hoot, a perfect start to the evening concert.  With the disbandment of one of the most exciting live acts to have emerged over the last decade or so, two former Last Night’s Fun members made a welcome return to form, with a set filled with great songs and tunes, sung in crystal clear fashion by the gentle Denny Bartley, whilst being teased relentlessly by his buddy, the charismatic English concertina wizard Chris Sherburn.  Bridging the gap between two outstanding acts from this side of the pond, were the popular traditional Québécois trio Genticorum, whose energetic rhythms resounded around the main concert marquee as the seated fiddler Pascal Gemme kept an almost constant beat with his feet, whilst guitarist Yann Falquet showed us how a Jew’s harp should really be played and Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand fluently lipped his flute and provided the bottom end on electric bass, all topped off with delicious French Canadian harmonies.  Consummate professionals Show of Hands, now joined by double bassist Miranda Sykes, provided precisely what was expected of them; an outstanding Saturday night set of well-crafted songs from one of England’s most enduring musical partnerships, Steve Knightley and Phil Beer.  On Sunday morning I felt rather privileged to have spent an hour or so in the company of Jackie Oates, one of the busiest musicians on the folk scene today.  Jackie’s fiddle workshop was attended by just the one fiddle player who was treated to what turned out to be essentially a free hour-long master class lesson, where the young Devon fiddler went through a few Cornish tunes in the much more tranquil surroundings of Cliffe House, a short walk from the festival site.  A joy to watch.  One of the most important things on the Shepley Festival agenda is the provision of a platform to showcase young emerging performers.  The Shepley Springboard provides such a platform and as the name suggests, helps launch younger artists such as the aforementioned Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble as well as the likes of Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, which potentially gives each of the young performers a well-deserved helping hand in their respective endeavours.  Young folk quartet Jiggawatt could be seen on most of the festival stages during the weekend showcasing the outstanding talents of fiddler Sarah who appears equally at home with the traditional “Lark in the Morning” as well as the challenging cool jazz groove of Brubeck’s “Take Five”.  Sunday evening got underway in the main concert marquee with the young unaccompanied traditional singer Maz O’Connor, whose command over traditional song was both assured and confident as well as touching and compelling.  At just 18, the Cumbria-based singer has already received accolades such as winning the Fred Jordan Memorial Singing Competition at the Bromyard Folk Festival in 2007 and being a finalist in this year’s BBC Young Folk Awards.  Two fine musicians from the ranks of the Demon Barbers, fiddler Bryony Griffith and melodeon player Will Hampson stormed through one of the most exciting sets of the weekend.  At no other point during the three days was there a more tangible family connection, as family and friends gathered to witness the infectious personalities of Bryony and Will as they took to the Shepley main stage for the first time as a duo.  Normally backed up and supported by the mighty Demon Barbers, the duo played with the same intensity and appeared to lose none of the power associated with the rightful winners of this year’s BBC Folk Award for best live act.  Bryony’s vocal prowess is reminiscent of a young Norma Waterson, you know the one we remember in black and white, together with a touch of Margaret Barry’s assertive projection.  Bryony is a singer whose singing means business.  Bringing a touch of class to Shepley this year was Bob Fox whose voice has become one of the best loved on the folk scene.  His song choices are now as familiar to us through his interpretation as they originally were by their authors, Jez Lowe’s “Taking On Men” for instance.  Bob took command of the Shepley main stage and soon had the audience in the palm of his hand.  Rounding off Sunday night’s main stage programme was the Michael McGoldrick Band, whose adventurous Celtic fusion served as just the thing to round off a brilliantly successful third festival.  Whilst the band were busily sound checking in the main marquee, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers were preparing to provide the rhythms for the final highland fling in the dance tent, I took a moment to reflect in the surprisingly calm spring evening air as the pink sky reflected off the imposing Emley Moor mast in the distance.  I thought once more of young Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble, who would soon be bidding farewell to all their newfound buddies, before heading off down the lane to their respective homes.  I have a feeling they’ll all be back to reunite next spring, and so will I.

Wombwell Mad-Fest 2009 | Wombwell | 25.05.09

It’s been a while since the last Wombwell Mad-Fest, the last one being about five years ago, but it came back to us with a resounding thumbs up over the bank holiday weekend and brought with it the first flurry of good weather of the festival season.  The programme for the 7th Wombwell Mad-Fest was probably it’s most diverse to date, taking in music from all around the world; from Canada to Sweden, Ireland to Africa and Nashville to Barnsley.  A little corner of WOMAD was introduced to the small South Yorkshire town in the form of Baka Beyond on Friday night, whose rich musical textures from around the world, were received with no small measure of enthusiasm and a good deal of audience participation on the small but functional dance floor.  Although the little South Yorkshire town of Wombwell appears to be a world away from the rainforests of South-East Cameroon, Martin Cradick and Su Hart’s original intention to capture the sounds and the traditional music of the Baka Pygmies and bring those sounds to a wider audience worked well here in the heart of the Dearne Valley.  The multicultural tour-de-force that began as a group of predominantly British musicians, but which has now evolved to include within its ranks musicians from Brittany, Cameroon, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana, performed a couple of sets filled with the authentic sounds of the rainforests that could not fail to bring the festival alive with their memorable and exciting stage show.  An inspired choice of acts to really get this little festival off the ground.  Earlier in the evening the festival got underway with singer songwriter activist and self-confessed ‘Enemy of the State’ Guy Maile, opening the festival with a selection of songs from his own pen as well as throwing in a couple of well-known covers such as Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” for instance, which was preceded by some Prog rock guitar pyrotechnics.  Guy Maile soon became a familiar face around the festival and also stuck around to run one of the two singers and musicians sessions in the neighbouring Conservative Club on Saturday afternoon.  Sandwiched in the middle of the evening between Guy Maile and Baka Beyond was Nashville songstress, Kim Richey.  Originally from Zanesville, Ohio, Kim brought a taste of Nashville to Wombwell, with a set filled with superbly crafted yet accessible songs.  Kicking off with “Those Words We Said”, a song recorded by country star Trisha Yearwood, Kim played with the assurance of an artist steeped in American music, providing song after song of excellence and maturity.  Joining Kim on stage towards the end of her set, which culminated in “A Place Called Home”, which incidentally featured in an episode of the hit TV series Angel, was fiddler Katriona Gilmore, whose five minute backstage rehearsal proved to be all that was necessary to come up with a finale that was as polished as one would expect from months of practice.  The setting for the Wombwell Mad-Fest was the Church Hall tucked around the back of St Michael’s Church on the main road through Wombwell.  The secluded car park was filled with camper vans, the only real method of camping over the weekend, unless you wanted to bend your tent pegs in the car park concrete. Just over the road is the Wombwell Conservative Club, which played host to the two sing-around sessions of the weekend, bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening concerts in the main hall.  All pretty close together and not too far from the main town amenities.  Saturday provided the first full day of music which included sets in the afternoon by artists as diverse as Holly Taymar, The Carrivick Sisters, Sarah McDougall and Elbow Jane, whilst the evening concert featured Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Kieran Halpin, Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden and Los Pistoleros.  Hedley Jones, the festival organiser, almost insists there are no headliners nor support slots in the programme, but that each act is treated equally and takes their place as an integral part of the carefully selected programme.  It also doesn’t go unnoticed that at a bargain price of just £30 for a weekend ticket, each act costs under £1.50 each. So presumably that’s why they call it Wombwell MAD-Fest?  Opening the Saturday afternoon concert with a delightful set of self-penned songs was York-based singer songwriter Holly Taymar, who appears to be just as comfortable opening an afternoon festival concert as closing late night basement bars in York.  There’s a tangible warmth to a Holly Taymar performance wherever she plays; who appears to be at ease with both folk and jazz audiences alike and who draws from the influences of James Taylor and Carole King.  With relative ease, Holly matches her peers’ measure for measure and the only reason I can think of as to why Holly is still doing opening and support spots around York, is that she is still going through the tiresome process of waiting for people to catch up.  Guitar player Carl Hetherington caught up some time ago and the pair make a formidable team as they revealed some of Holly’s finest gems such as “Toes”, “Home” and “7am”.  South Devon siblings Laura and Charlotte Carrivick brought an astonishing level of musicianship to the Wombwell stage on Saturday afternoon with a set of predominantly bluegrass based songs and tunes.  When the Dobro was added to their fiddle, mandolin and guitar based repertoire, their musical tastes changed and they have subsequently gone on to capture the musical dexterity of bluegrass but place it within the context of their English roots. “The Dartmoor Witches” and “The Flowers She Picked For Jamie” are specifically localised songs from their Devon home, but have a distinct Kentucky bluegrass feel to them.  The standard of playing is staggeringly complex for musicians so young, but they deliver the goods as seasoned professionals.  Swedish/Canadian songwriter, Sarah MacDougall was given a rapturous welcome as she took to the Wombwell stage on Saturday afternoon.  Accompanied by guitar/dobro player Tim Tweedale, Sarah opened with a set of country-tinged songs starting with “Headed For the Hills” and at one point encouraged the audience to imitate a pack of wolves as a preface to “Cry Wolf”.  The audience was in the mood to oblige, which may have had the rest of Wombwell wondering what on earth was going on in their local community hall.  The mixture of country tales with a folk sensibility, seasoned with a Scandinavian sense of melancholy and kitted out in a distinctly Woody Guthrie wardrobe, Sarah proved to be every bit the folk troubadour we initially anticipated.  Merseyside’s Elbow Jane may well have the look of a re-formed boy band, and their music could very easily lean more towards the pop side of folk, but as a tight acoustic band with infectious melodies and an abundance of warmth in the personality stakes, this band come in very definitely at second to none.  Playing a selection of songs from their 3 Side Island album, preceded by an explanation that their stomping ground of Ellesmere Port (a peninsula – therefore an island with just three sides), the band launched into the anthemic “Long May You Stand” with its new country CMT feel good delivery and continued with a string of timeless classics such as Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, George Harrison’s “Something” and an encore of the enduring McGuinness Flint number, “When I’m Dead and Gone”.  The music continued over the road at the Conservative Club, where Guy Maile ran the first of two afternoon sing-around sessions for those who were not ready to take a break from the music, and which also offered a place for those without a ticket to go and participate in the festival. One or two festival guests joined in including Kip Winter and Dave Wilson, whose beautiful songs raised the game in the pub lounge as chips were bought in by pub staff; another sign of fine Wombwell hospitality.  Local duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have pretty much established themselves as one of the most outstanding duos in the area, with Kat’s fiddle and mandolin playing and Jamie’s unique guitar technique. The couple opened the evening concert with a selection from their new album Shadows and Half Light, including the infectious instrumental “Middle of May/Big Nige”, Jamie’s touching “So Long” and Katriona’s mysterious “Hunter Man”.  Kieran Halpin played a selection from a seemingly bottomless well of songs, hand-picked from a 35 year career and nineteen album back catalogue.  Many of his songs are familiar in both folk clubs and at festivals having been sung by the likes of Vin Garbutt, Dolores Keane, Tom McConville and The Battlefield Band but it is rewarding to hear them sung in their original form.  His impassioned tribute to his friend, the late John Wright in the song “So Long John” is testament to his song writing credentials and his set was well received by the enthusiastic Wombwell audience.  Seattle-based duo Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden returned to South Yorkshire for the third time in just about as many months, once again delivering their own blend of back woods Americana.  Rachel was back on form after having been knocked back earlier in their current tour with a particularly bad cold, singing better than ever with songs from each of her two albums The Bootlegger’s Daughter and City of Refuge including “Sunshine Girl”, “Carver” and “Under the Big Top” as well as throwing in a couple of Zak Borden originals which included “The Greener Side” and the odd cover such as Laura Veirs’ haunting “Up The River”.  Once again Katriona Gilmore was asked to come up and infiltrate the duo’s music with some tasty fiddle, which once again proved to be the cherry on top of the set with the old gospel standard “I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted To This World”.  Finishing the first full day of music was a lively performance by Bobby Valentino, the self-styled Clark Gable of western swing, leading his band Los Pistoleros in an exciting and energetic final set for Saturday.  Opening with “Rose of San Antone”, the veteran fiddler delivered a set filled with the best of country ballads and rockabilly dance tunes, effectively transforming this little corner of South Yorkshire into a dusty Southern honky tonk, where it would be quite easy to imagine rolling tumbleweed and an old battered station wagon parked outside.  Although regular pedal steel maestro BJ Cole was absent through illness, guitarist Martin Belmont kept things pretty much together with the rest of the band, providing an outstanding set, which broke the late night curfew by a good margin.  Their unique blend of original Rhythm and Blues, Tex-Mex, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Swing, seemed to encompass all the musical styles not yet covered by other artists at the festival, and therefore became a completist’s dream finisher for Saturday night.  Bobby is still remembered as the fiddle player who provided the infectious riff that runs throughout The Bluebell’s No 1 hit “Young At Heart”, but his roots are much deeper grounded.  No stranger to the world’s biggest stages, Valentino has worked with a who’s who catalogue of giants such as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Shania Twain and Mark Knopfler and although we hesitate to use the term ‘headliner’, Los Pistoleros was the obvious choice to finish off such a great day of music.  The sun was out in force on Sunday lunchtime and potentially threatened audience attendance in the Wombwell Church Hall during the afternoon.  No one could be blamed for choosing a day in the sun over an afternoon indoors but surprisingly, the audience were enjoying the continual stream of quality acts at the festival so much, they showed up in force.  Sunday’s impressive line-up included the song writing talents of Reg Meuross, Winter Wilson and Emily Slade, the musical dexterity of Uiscedwr, Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley and Phil Beer and topped off with some good old British Folk Rock courtesy of Little Johnny England.  Winter Wilson opened both the Sunday afternoon and evening concerts with a couple of sets filled with well written and thought provoking songs, each featuring great melodies and delicious harmonies before Emily Slade made a welcome return to Wombwell with a set of intelligent songs from one of the most captivating performers in the country.  Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley returned to their original duo form for an outstanding set of songs and tunes peppered with Sherburn’s ever-present charismatic wit.  Last Night’s Fun may have called it a day but this duo can still deliver some of the onstage magic of one of the best live bands of the last couple of decades, not least in their beautiful rendition of “Roseville Fair”.  Closing Sunday afternoon’s concert was the outstanding Uiscedwr.  Fiddler Anna Esslemont and percussionist Cormac Byrne were joined for the first time by guitarist James Hickman for a set of songs and tunes by arguably one of the most engaging of contemporary folk bands in Britain today.  Equally at home with jazz, Latin, blues and klezmer tunes as they are with traditional folk music, Uiscedwr brought their own distinct taste of world Music to Wombwell, which was well received by a very appreciative audience.  Once again bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening concerts, Lou Marriott led a sing-around in the bar of the Conservative Club, where a small gathering of musicians and song writers had gathered to share songs or play favourites from the likes of Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Steve Tilston, whilst a portrait of The Queen looked down, wondering the same thing as me, what catastrophe in politics would have led to folkies entering a Conservative Club?  What do you reckon Mr Brown?  These thoughts were evaporated as soon as the sandwiches arrived, once again courtesy of the staff.  During the session, Reg Meuross and Karen Tweed walked in for a quick listen.  Meuross cut his musical teeth as one half of the popular duo The Panic Brothers with Richard Morton in the mid-Eighties but has more recently established himself as one of the foremost singer songwriters in the UK today.  Described by Hank Wangford as having ‘The best high tenor voice this side of the Atlantic’, Meuross kicked off his Sunday evening appearance at the festival with a series of beautiful songs from a couple of his most recent albums Dragonfly and Still, including “Lizzie Loved A Highwayman”, “William Brewster Dreams Of America” and the thoroughly engaging “And Jesus Wept” before being joined on stage by Phil Beer and Karen Tweed for more of the same.  Phil Beer’s own set, which followed soon after, was made up of an eclectic mix of songs from some of the Devon musician’s many influences from Little Feat “Willin”, Robbie Robertson “Acadian Driftwood” and surprisingly The Hollies, with his superb take on the classic hit “Bus Stop”, proving once again that a stripped down acoustic version of a familiar hit record always brings out the essence of the song.  Finishing Sunday night and the 2009 festival was the all-out no stops barred folk rock of Little Johnny England.  Referred to by Phil Beer as ‘the only real folk rock band in the world’, P.J. Wright and his band of folk rockers, culled from such notable outfits as the Steve Gibbons Band, The Dylan Project, The Albion Band, Clarion, The Vikki Clayton Band, Dansaul and Tickled Pink, played one of the loudest and most energetic sets of the festival, once again encompassing genres from around the world including Cajun, Celtic and Eastern European influences.  On the national festival circuit, Wombwell Mad-Fest is a relatively small family affair, organised by Hedley Jones and his immediate family, with a handful of good friends willing to help out in any way possible; even the bar staff are volunteers whose weekend takings are ploughed directly back into the festival. As a weekend of pure entertainment and quality, Wombwell Mad-Fest is up there with its peers.  No question.

Lipstick and Guitars | The Maze, Nottingham | 27.05.09

The Lipstick and Guitars tour, originally advertised as featuring four exceptionally gifted female singer songwriters, those being specifically Nell Bryden, Kat Flint, Lana and Lizzyspit, arrived in Nottingham tonight with one of those main ingredients missing.  Lizzyspit was replaced at short notice by Gabby Young, who immediately won the hearts of those present with her infectious personality and a hell of an amazing voice to match.  Appearing at The Maze, the small cavernous music venue located to the rear of the Forest Tavern along Mansfield Road near Nottingham city centre, the red headed songstress provided an excellent opening spot accompanied by her regular guitar player Stephen Ellis who she had brought along from her regular eight-piece band Other Animals.  Classically trained, but picking up a broad musical taste along the way, that includes rock, pop, folk, jazz, funk and experimental music, the seated Gabby refrained from sharing with the audience the details of her unfortunate knocks over the years, most notably the fact that she beat thyroid cancer at the age of 22, but instead cheerfully delivered a spellbinding opening set, which attracted a respectful silence from the audience throughout, interspersed with enthusiastic applause in all the right places.  Kicking off with “Um”, Gabby presented a set of remarkable and memorable self-penned songs, each one with its own authentic sound utilising acoustic guitars and at one point the banjo, but it was Gabby’s voice that caught the attention of the audience from the start.  Citing Jeff Buckley as a major influence, it has to be said that Gabby’s use of vocal pyrotechnics bears an astonishing resemblance to that of her late hero, whose real legacy was of an artist who used his voice to maximum effect.  During “Ladies of the Lake”, Gabby hit an unfeasibly high note reminiscent of the highest pitch you might squeeze out of a musical saw, which had more than one jaw on the floor tonight.  Aberdeen singer songwriter Kat Flint’s debut album has been out for a little while now and I was pleased to hear some of the songs from the album performed live at last.  The former Gingergreen singer, who was born in Barbados and raised in Aberdeen, has now found London to be a conducive place to write songs, some of which have materialised on this remarkable Dirty Birds CD, which she says relates to the dirty birds of many forms including ‘pigeons and prostitutes, black crows and bomber jets’.  Appearing on the same bill as three flamboyant performers, each with their own autonomous character, whether it be the Amy Winehouse style theatrics of Lana, the ethereal flame headed beauty of Gabby Young or the uncompromising confidence of Nell Bryden, who incidentally referred to me as ‘dear’ when dedicating (quite unexpectedly) “Helen’s Requiem” to me from the stage, Kat Flint came over even more shyly-spoken and studious than ever before.  Kat is imbued with an unassuming presence and a calm demeanour on and off stage, which is both comforting and rewarding at the same time.  Should a fire have suddenly broken out during the evening, I would probably have gone directly to her for instructions of what to do.  During “Go Faster Stripes” Kat utilised a kazoo for the instrumental break, which had been concealed somewhere about her person for easy access.  After the instrumental break, the kazoo was discarded with one blow, the insipid little metal object hitting the stage with a resounding clunk.  “It took me a while to figure out an elegant way of producing the kazoo” Kat explained, “I’ve yet to work out an elegant way of disposing of it”.  With an impressive musical background that includes spells with the Bluefoot Project, Doctor Octopus, Kabin Fever, the drum and bass outfit Virtigo and jazz/hip hop collective Thelonious, to name but a few, Lana was the only singer who appeared tonight with a band.  With the addition of double bass and drums, together with her own semi-acoustic guitar, Lana’s uptempo set successfully bridged the gap between Kat Flint’s cool, calm and collected set of acoustic songs and what was to be the climax of the night, Nell Bryden’s headlining set.  Playing gigs mainly in London, but also spreading herself around the globe, taking in some of the abundance of Summer festivals, Lana joined the Lipstick and Guitars tour, and in doing so, brought with her some of the originality of her charismatic stage presence together with a bunch of infectious songs including “Don’t Call Me Baby” and “Trippy Kind of Love”.  I spoke to Nell Bryden before she took to the stage tonight, about her new album What Does It Take and about her recent tour of army bases in Iraq.  We chatted casually and pleasantly for a few moments and later it struck me that nowhere during our conversation did I detect for a single moment, the sheer power that resided somewhere within her, that went towards delivering one of the most outstanding sets I’ve seen on a British stage in quite some time.  On “Not Like Loving You”, which is every bit as good as any of the Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin classics you might have on your jukebox, Nell Bryden used her entire body to convey the message, whilst pounding her vintage semi-acoustic guitar to within an inch of its life.  The song provides the basis for optimal soulful outpouring, which Nell handles with expert confidence and once again you find that you have to remind yourself that this is a Nell Bryden original and not a Stax classic.  Based in New York, Nell is currently touring the UK and Ireland and tonight saw her headlining the Lipstick and Guitar show in Nottingham.  During the other sets of the evening, Nell stayed pretty much front of stage all night, offering support to her fellow songwriters as they performed and then mingled freely with the Nottingham audience.  After some well-intentioned heckling by a young male member of the audience, Nell simply responded with “I think you’re very cute, but I can’t understand a word”.   Nell currently has her feet in several camps and tackles each genre with the justice it deserves, whether pouring her soul out on the aforementioned “Not Like Loving You” and “Helen’s Requiem” or going for the more country-tinged ballads such as “Only Life I Know” or even venturing into the uptempo rockabilly of “That’s Alright Mama” and “Second Time Around”. With the distinctly vintage design of the new album sleeve, Nell Bryden could almost be seen as a throwback to the 1950s, which she encapsulates with remarkable ease both on record and in live performance.

Ezio | The Duchess, York | 12.06.09

Even though Ezio cross many musical boundaries with their adrenaline infused acoustic rock, the duo still maintain they are just a ‘folk music band from Cambridge’.  Together since 1990, singer songwriter Ezio Lunedei and guitarist Mark ‘Booga’ Fowell, have steadily built up a strong fan base both as a duo or together with a larger band consisting of Lidia Cascarino on bass, ‘The Reverend’ Lee Russell on a variety of instruments including steel guitar and percussion and finally Alex Reeves on drums.  Tonight at the Duchess, it was just the two original members who came along to play some new songs as well as the obligatory handful of crowd pleasers.  The Duchess had been prepared in advance and was well equipped to handle the potential deluge of admiring fans who were about to flood the front stage area, but on a fine warm Friday night in the city of York, who could possibly know how many would show up?  Before the show, whilst Booga took care of the concessions stand, I had a few words backstage with Ezio who said ‘this is the point, they haven’t arrived yet so I’ve no idea how many will come or how many tickets have been sold, this is my panic moment, will anyone show up?  However, he went on to say rather reassuringly, ‘whoever is there, we will play for them’.  Ezio was relaxed backstage, slumped in a chair with his hands stretched out on the table before him.  Support artist Aimie J Ryan, appeared slightly more on edge in the corner, awaiting her turn in the spotlight, which was coming shortly.  I asked Ezio whether he prefers to be onstage with the full band or just with the original duo?  “it’s really nice to improvise a lot.  When you’re working on new material it’s really nice as a duo because you’re freer and there’s a lot less chance of it going wrong.  We’ve worked that long together that it’s second nature”.  “I’ve known Booga a long time, twenty-odd years.  I’m considerably older than he is and I remember him as a larger than life fifteen year-old with a big afro, who used to come to my gigs.  I was playing in a rock band at the time, playing lead guitar and he came to watch that, he was a very precocious and talented guitar player”.  Ezio have a loyal following who appear to know every lyric to every song.  On songs like “Deeper”, it sometimes becomes easier for Ezio to just stop singing and let the crowd take over.  I asked Ezio if he felt that having such a strong, almost cult following, was rewarding or not?  “We’re just not trendy enough or good looking enough to have casual fans, it’s a bit of a commitment, they have to struggle a bit to see us they’re either not interested or completely rabid.  When we go to another country or perhaps a town we’ve never been to before and they sing all the words it is rewarding, it really is”.  Ezio appeared to have no set list to speak of when the duo took to the stage, relying instead on fans’ suggested songs, not by shouting them out, but by texting messages using the mobile phone number blue-tacked to the pillars around the venue.  Occasionally during the set, Ezio would reach for his mobile phone and check new messages.  “Steal Away? … could do; Cinderella please? … maybe; Deeper? …”  I asked Ezio whether he felt it was more difficult to introduce new songs into the live repertoire, and how different the reaction is compared with the more familiar material?   “You don’t get the same reaction, but it’s important to keep doing it, otherwise you start turning into your own tribute band, just trotting out the same thing as we’re all getting older.  I think it’s important and vital to try and present new things.  It’s what I’m trying to do now, I’m trying to ease things into the set and because it’s not as slick and not as played-in and perhaps a bit more clumsy in some ways, it doesn’t get that euphoric thing, but sometimes you mean it so much that they end up being the best ever versions”.  There’s a remarkable synergy that goes on between these two musicians, with each knowing instinctively his part in the musical relationship.  The two guitarists cooperate advantageously, with neither stealing the limelight for one single second.  Booga’s extraordinary dexterity on both electric and acoustic guitars provides the colour to Ezio’s rhythmic base.  Familiar songs such as “Steal Away” and “Saxon Street” provided the audience with the reward they came for, whilst some of the newer songs provided the audience with what they may be singing along to very soon.  On that subject, I finally asked Ezio when the band is likely to release a follow up to their 2006 album Ten Thousand Bars.  “I need to, it’s time now.  I’ve got a back log of new material and there’s a couple already recorded… I’m in good shape to now”.  For the encore, Ezio gave the audience the choice of three possibilities.  “You can have a vote here, democracy at work, you can have “59 Yards”, to which a female voice called out from the back of the room… “I like that one”; “The Further We Stretch” … or “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” it’s up to you…”.

The Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival 2009 | Beverley | 21.06.09

It doesn’t take long to acclimatise yourself to the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival once you’ve got yourself suitably accustomed to the handful of minor changes from the previous year.  This year for instance, a new Concert Marquee was to be found on the Festival Village site, which replaces the usual Memorial Hall across town, currently closed for refurbishment.  All the main concerts could therefore be accessed within a short walking distance, making those of us suffering from chronic idleness grin like a kindle of Cheshire kittens.  The parking therefore had to be separated from the camp site, in order to make extra room on the festival site itself.  This was really no hardship at all as the car park was located just over the road from the main site gates.  Despite the blustery wind that blew across the camping field on Friday afternoon, the weather was fine when most of the festival goers arrived and the sun was out, which helped to create a good festival atmosphere before a single note had been plucked or a box had been squeezed.  The staff were friendly, helpful and on hand to assist those struggling with their tents.  My little helper arrived just at the point when I thought the wind was about to scoop up my old tent and wrap it unceremoniously around the Minster tower.  Thank you that steward.  Notable in this years’ handsome programme was the inclusion of a handful of American visitors going under the ‘Americana’ banner.  Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp were there promptly at 7.30pm to perform the first concert of their very first UK visit and the organisers decided it might just as well be a good place to start proceedings for this years’ festival.  After a short introduction by David Elvidge the Mayor of Beverley, resplendent in his official regalia, Jeni and Billy, by their own account ‘the smiliest Americans in the world’ smiled their way through a fine opening set of songs from the Appalachians including the a cappella “Miner’s Reward” and the title track from their new album “Jewel Ridge Coal”, opening with their own endearing introductions reaffirming to all that they are each other’s true love.  Over in the Club Room, which is part of the main Leisure Complex, singer songwriter and guitarist, Steve Tilston was busy sound checking in preparation for his appearance on Friday night.  Steve told me that he was ‘a last minute bolt on, a late addition to the line-up’.  Playing an intimate set of songs that span an almost 40 year career, which will be celebrated next year with an appearance at the Purcell Room in February, Steve appeared relaxed and cheerful whilst performing familiar songs such as “The Road When I Was Young”, “Weeping Willow Blues” and finally “Slip Jigs And Reels” preceded by a beautiful tune that I still can’t remember the name of, if indeed I ever knew the name of it in the first place.  Whilst Billy Bragg was preparing to headline on the Main Stage in the nearby Leisure Complex, following opening support spots by Paul Liddell and Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, former Long Ryders front man Sid Griffin was at the helm of The Coal Porters, who headlined the Americana Concert in the Concert Marquee.  Smartly suited, the band played a storming set of bluegrass songs and tunes including “Like a Hurricane”, “Road Kill Breakdown” and “Mr Guthrie”.  Billy Bragg appearances often carry with them the air of a political rally, with a clear emphasis on his own personal commitment to current political issues.  At times like these, it’s particularly easy to get an audience on your side, and the room was frequently filled with feverish applause.  Songs like “Hard Times in Old England” and “All You Fascists are bound to lose” soon had fists in the air in solidarity.  The most surreal moment of the set however, was when the Barking Bard had the Beverley audience crooning in unison (communal singing at the same pitch, not the trade union), to The Carpenters’ “Superstar”, before launching into Dylan’s anthemic “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”.  One of the most delightful aspects of the Beverley Festival is the late night sessions held in the Wold Top Marquee, where after hours revellers congregate for some impromptu performances by some of the main headlining guests, who pop onto the stage between lesser known acts, bringing a real sense of community amongst the singers and musicians who attend the festival.  Presided over by compere Miles Cain, the carpeted boudoir has become a popular place for all late night festival goers, who just don’t want the music to end.  Billy Bragg could be found on this stage in the early hours of Saturday morning, joining the likes of Henry Priestman and Peter Donegan as well as a handful of singers and musicians not to be found anywhere else in the programme.  On Saturday morning I spoke at length to Sid Griffin of the Coal Porters, about such things as Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and Habitat for Humanity, a re-housing project in New Orleans, which his sister is heavily involved in.  As the author of Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, I asked him what the man’s legacy means to him in 2009 and how relevant his music is today.  “It doesn’t mean a lot to me personally, I mean I’ve played it, done it, been there, bought the t shirt.  I play bluegrass now but I notice he’s a big hero for alt country and alternative young acts of the day.  He wasn’t twenty-five years ago.  When I was a youngster playing alt country and alternative indie music, no one knew who he was, particularly in the UK.  We’d come over here and be interviewed by Sounds and Melody Maker and the NME and you’d say ‘Gram Parsons’ and they had no idea who you meant, they’d always say Graham Parker.. no, no!  He’s certainly a name to drop now in the way Alex Chilton was a few years ago.  I don’t think you can throw a rock and hit an alt country or indie band that didn’t kowtow to the great force that was Gram Parsons”.  Sid’s other passion is the work of Bob Dylan and he was at the festival for the dual purpose of playing some slick bluegrass with the Coal Porters on Friday but also to present an informative talk centered around his book Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band and The Basement Tapes in the Concert Marquee on Saturday morning.  The talk, which was both informative and enlightening, was illustrated by a few verses from a handful of Basement Tapes period Dylan songs, sung and played by Sid with the aid of his handy twelve string guitar. Backstage Sid chatted candidly about the subject of his book.  “We’ve never had an artist of Dylan’s stature or commercial success, voluntarily withdraw from the limelight as he did back then, so it’s hard to believe when you look at Dylan’s career and all the weird things he’s done that here’s a guy at the top of his game in late ‘66 that voluntarily withdraws from the scene for about fifteen months, and while we think he’s doing nothing, we years later find out he was actually recording all the time albeit informally with his friends, and that he was having a bit of a purple patch, turning out things like “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, “Nothing Was Delivered” and so on and so forth”.  After being all Dylan’d out by lunchtime, I wandered over to the Club Room to catch Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow’s second set of the festival, having already played their first set, opening for Billy Bragg on Friday night.  Their Saturday lunchtime set was probably a much more relaxed and intimate affair, with the two women performing a handful of familiar songs, peppered with good humour.  With songs as diverse as Belinda’s “Moon Over Water”, “Blackbird” and the achingly sad “Whitethorn”, together with T’Pau’s “China in Your Hand” coupled seamlessly with Richard Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border”, the couple maintained a great rapport with their audience throughout their hour long set.  I spoke to Belinda and Heidi after the gig and asked them about opening for Mr Bragg.  “It was great; we weren’t sure how it was going to be, we were quite nervous about it, we knew it would be packed because people were coming to see Billy Bragg but we didn’t know how it would go, but the audience was very warm and we felt it went very very well”.  I thought enough time had lapsed to ask slightly awkward questions about Belinda’s work with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, a band I was pleased to see in the very same room exactly one year before.  I was particularly interested in asking how Belinda felt about the Mercury nomination for The Bairns and her crucial contribution to that acclaimed album.  “There was a combination of feelings for me on that day, I celebrated that night with Heidi and we watched the programme together and we had a bottle of Champaign ready, we still drank it, we both hoped that it would win.  I felt both sadness and pride; it would’ve been nice to have been there to share in that celebration with the rest of the Winterset, but I’ve also been on a journey myself with the album and with the whole process of being with the band and I’ve come out.. I don’t know if I’ve fully come out the other side yet, but I am very very proud of what we all did on that album, and I do listen to it, it’s on my ipod and when it comes on I always turn it up and listen to it and think, wow, it’s pretty good that”.  Saturday afternoon was pretty much taken up entirely with the concert billed as the ‘American Party’ in the Concert Marquee, one of the highlights being the impressive Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, one of the surprises of the festival who provided the unsuspecting audience with a set filled with their own unique blend of rock infused Americana.  Speaking backstage with the self-styled ‘Hillbilly Pink Floyd’ front man Joziah Longo, who also revealed that someone had addressed the band as ‘David Bowie made Hunky Dory with The Band in the Basement of Big Pink’, and guitarist Sharkey McEwen, I had to ask them about their curious name.  “You know it was just like a revelation.  We live right near Sleepy Hollow right along the Hudson (River) and I used to walk in the woods there and this name popped into my head.  We were a little afraid of it at first but we stuck with it and it’s been very good for us.. gets us a lot of press”.  There was a curious presence at this years’ festival that couldn’t be missed.  Wherever you found yourself on the site, you would soon be aware of the presence of a tall, slim, mustachioed minstrel, with baggy pin-striped trousers, held up by comic braces, hidden beneath a white vest, complete with a cluster of daisies pinned to his waistcoat, providing the only spot of colour to this otherwise black and white silent movie yodelling banjo player from New York.  Curtis Eller was due to play just about everywhere throughout the weekend and our first glimpse of him was during the American Party on Saturday afternoon.  Performing songs from his two albums Taking Up Serpents Again and Wirewalkers and Assassins, the unique entertainer brought a sense of the burlesque to Beverley.  I spoke to Curtis backstage just before his show and asked him how he would describe himself.  “Well, it’s hard to describe but easy to understand; it’s just that old show business thing, it’s like a song and dance routine more or less.  I think so many modern performers have got a little lazy with their presentation, nobody knows how to dance like Al Jolson anymore”.  Curtis Eller’s songwriting draws on many historical characters and events, from key silent movie stars, assassins, boxing giants and circus people, but manages to maintain a contemporary feel.  His high kicking antics, frequent smooching with his beloved banjo and penchant for balancing awkwardly on the front row chairs, whilst the audience maintained a safe distance near the bar, Eller could be credited as the single most engaging act of the entire festival.  There was lots going on around the festival village throughout Saturday afternoon with The Transatlantic Connection Concert in the Main Hall of the Leisure Complex with Bruce Molsky and Lunasa, an afternoon concert in the Club Room featuring Jess Bannister, Farino, The Hall Brothers and John Carey, as well as a final appearance by Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow.  Skavolution were providing their blend of Jamaican rhythms out in the sunshine, whilst various other community events were taking place in all the marquees scattered around the village, all helped along by the inviting smells of the ample food stall concession stands.  Rounding off the American Party concert was the family band known as The Alley Cats, bringing to its climax a memorable afternoon of fun and music with their own blend of old timey bluegrass and roots music featuring dad Pete on guitar, mum Janey on double bass and daughter Polly on some very tasty mandolin.  Another new feature for this years’ Beverley Festival was the Acoustic Marquee on the Festival Village site.  The marquee was added to provide a platform for drop-in musicians not billed on the main festival line up or in the festival programme, as well as providing comedy and literature events.  Holly Taymar was in the marquee on Saturday evening, just as the heavens opened.  Her infectious personality once again drew a crowd into the marquee, where she sang a handful of self-penned songs such as “Toes”, “7am” and “Home” as well as a beautiful rendition of the classic Neil Young song “Birds”, to both admiring fans and refugees from the rain alike.  One of the festival favourites this year was the old time fiddler Bruce Molsky who could be seen on the Main Stage of the Leisure Complex on Saturday afternoon as part of the Transatlantic Connections Concert and who also gave an ‘old time fiddling from Appalachia’ workshop in the Club Room earlier in the morning.  Reg Meuross and Karen Tweed both referred to him as ‘the real deal’ and I caught him on Saturday night in the bar at Hodgson’s pub as part of a session entitled ‘Not the White Horse Folk Club’ where he played to a packed standing room only audience, playing both guitar and fiddle tunes of exceptional quality.  Saturday evening brought with it the Midsummer Party and Dance Night Concert in the Main Hall of the Leisure Complex featuring Skavolution, The Lonnie Donegan Band featuring Lonnie’s son Peter, looking and sounding spookily like his dad, with an outstanding set featuring some of Lonnie’s most loved songs including “Rock Island Line” and an entire back catalogue of crowd pleasing classics from a bygone skiffle era.  Finally on Saturday evening, an entirely instrumental set by the vibrant Scottish outfit Peatbog Faeries, whilst in the Concert Marquee, the Subterranean Homesick Yorkshire Blues band, Rory Motion and the irrepressible John Hegley, presented an outstanding night of comedy.  Other sessions were taking place in the Acoustic Marquee and Hodgson’s Pub, and Miriam Backhouse, Farino and Tanglefoot were in the Club Room providing plenty of activity throughout the festival village.  With so much going on, it was impossible to see everything, but with a little help from the team in the Wold Top Marquee, most of the festival artists would once again come along well into the early hours to perform impromptu sets in the aforementioned carpeted boudoir, presided over once again by Miles Cain.  Saturday night, early Sunday morning, Skavolution and members of the Peatbog Faeries played late night sets, as well as an a cappella performance by the Canadian band Tanglefoot whose delicious harmonies resounded around the marquee and more than likely filtered out to those sleeping in the nearby tents on the camp site.  John Hegley also made an appearance fresh from his hilarious performance in the Concert Marquee with songs accompanied on mandolin such as “Trainspotting”, “Guillemot” and “Jesus Isn’t Just For Christmas”.  Sunday morning in Beverley has an unmistakable Englishness about it. I walked over to the car park to check on things when at one strategic point, I found myself surrounded by the almost quadraphonic sound of at least three sets of church bells sounding off from three steeples in the vicinity.  The sun was shining once again after a day of rain and Curtis Eller was over at The Friary, high kicking off the day with his song writing workshop.  The Dominican Friary is one of the most beautiful old buildings in Beverley, situated nearby the Minster, in a quiet and serene corner of the town.  Now part of the Youth Hostel Association, The Friary offers a suitable venue in two of its upstairs reading rooms for some of the quieter events such as Jeni and Billy’s ‘Writing and Accompanying the Contemporary Appalachian Ballad’ workshop, ‘Harmony Singing from Around The World’ with the Beverley Community Choir, ‘Discovering American Stories’ with the Human Compass Theatre Company, and Cassandra Wye’s ‘Story Club’.  On Sunday Morning though, Curtis Eller was slightly perplexed at the ungodly hour in which his workshop covering ‘Subject Matter in Your Songwriting’ was scheduled to take place.  Over the hour though, the enigmatic songwriter covered some of the many aspects of song writing, delivering an up close and personal talk accompanied by some of his unique songs such as “Buster Keaton” as well as a look at how to adapt traditional songs such as “Mole in the Ground”.  Back in the Festival Village, writer Peter Robinson read The Ferryman’s Beautiful Daughter a short story from a new forthcoming collection entitled The Price Of Love, whilst Eliza Carthy played the fiddle, effectively providing additional drama to the story.  Towards the end of this special literature event, Eliza sang a couple of relevant songs such as “Worcester City” and “The Baby Farmer”.  During the afternoon, whilst Curtis Eller, The Anna Massie Band and Eric Bogle and John Munro featured in the ‘Around The World and Back’ concert in the Main Hall, ‘The Richard Wastling Memorial Concert’ took place in the Concert Marquee featuring the likes of Jez Lowe and Kate Bramley, Miriam Backhouse, Tom Napper, Grace Notes and Damien Barber and Mike Wilson, who brought their own brand of traditional song to Beverley.  Damien from the award winning Demon Barbers and Mike from the Teesside family band The Wilson Family, joined forces for a set of songs that included “Onboard a Ninety-Eight” and “The Santa Fe Trail”, which soon had the audience participating in full throttle.  During the afternoon Eric Bogle and John Munro could be seen on both the Concert Marquee stage and the Main Stage in the Leisure Complex, bringing a touch of class to their Beverley audiences.  The two Scots both now resident in Australia performed a selection of much loved songs, known throughout the world for their intelligent lyrics and memorable melodies.  One name that appeared nowhere in the programme or on the publicity posters was singer songwriter Reg Meuross who made an appearance as little more than a visitor to the festival.  With a growing reputation as a major league British songwriter, Reg wandered into the café area of the Leisure Complex on Sunday afternoon whilst festival goers enjoyed a bite to eat between concerts and together with Karen Tweed, they played an impromptu set of songs and tunes, seated right there in the lounge area of the café drawing a curious crowd who presumably recognized this unmistakable voice from the previous weeks’ Mike Harding show.  Reg and Karen announced that they would be playing later in the afternoon over at The Friary, which ensured a well-attended audience for an un-billed act.  “Fool’s Gold”, “Lizzie Loved a Highwayman”, “And Jesus Wept” as well as a few tunes from Karen Tweed were all enthusiastically received by those fortunate enough to attend the concert and would I imagine, warrant a full and proper booking for next year’s festival.  Speaking to Reg in the garden outside The Friary on a very pleasant Sunday evening in the shadow of Beverley Minster, I asked him how he had found himself performing unannounced at the festival.  “I found that me and Karen were going to be in the area, I was doing some rural touring up in Cumbria doing some village halls solo and Karen was going to be around anyway.  We’d done some recording on Friday with Bruce Molsky, the three of us.  Karen’s doing a solo album and Bruce was over to do the festival and Karen had booked a church in Blyth in Nottinghamshire where we did some recording and we decided to come up to the festival having called Chris Wade asking if it was okay to maybe do some stuff whilst we were here, basically as late additions”.  Reg is genuinely pleasant to chat to and in such surroundings it was easy to chat away without actually realising the Friary room above our heads had filled with his awaiting audience.  Reg spoke of his work with his musical peers such as Bruce Molsky and Karen Tweed but also the young fiddler Jackie Oates “I heard her in a folk club pretty much before anybody knew who she was probably, a few years ago now, and I just thought she had a sound, a really authentic sound; I love what Jackie does, it’s so pure, her voice, her playing, there’s no artifice about it, you know, there’s no attitude to what she does, she just does it and I thought I would love to work with her one day but I always thought how does someone like me with that whole background in pop music, rock music, singer songwriter, American folk music, how do we bridge that gap and it was really Phil Beer who achieved that”.  Reg and Karen finished their set with the title song to his current album the acclaimed “Dragonfly”, which features Jackie Oates on the recording.  As the sun settled over the imposing Minster and Beverley festival drew to a close and as the concessions stands began closing up for another year, most of the festival goers congregated in the Main Hall for the finale concert featuring Seth Lakeman, The Anna Massie Band and former Christians song writer, the Hull Born now resident of Liverpool, Henry Priestman, who was also celebrating his birthday, blowing out an undisclosed number of candles on the cake he was presented with up onstage.  Henry performed songs from his debut solo album The Chronicles of Modern Life such as “Don’t You Love Me No More” and “Old” as well as throwing in one of the big hits from his erstwhile pop bands’ glory days with “Ideal World”.  Outside the main festival site, the roads appeared almost grid locked as excited fans from across the county diverged on the festival village for a performance by the current poster boy of the folk world Seth Lakeman and his band, who delivered their trademark energetic and crowd pleasing set featuring selections from all four of Seth’s solo albums, including the songs “Soloman Brown”, “The Hurlers” and kicking off with “The Storm”.  For a little picturesque town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Beverley sure knows how to put on a heck of a show, and one that has lasted twenty-six years and is still going strong.  I was curious to know how Beverley has managed to change with the times but maintain its appeal and I finally spoke to broadcaster Henry Ayrton, who has been coming to the festival from the start.  “You’ve got to take your cue from people who are perceived to be on the front line of this sort of thing, people who are attracting the audiences.  You would say what are they doing what we aren’t doing and that’s when I think people who are running festivals had to decide that what we’ve always thought of as being folk music is not quite the same as what the public – that we must attract – thinks of what folk music is; it’s a compromise that’s worth making and for survival it’s essential to make”.

Village Voices by Liam Wilkinson

Community spirit is alive and well at the Beverley Folk Festival.  Once you’ve arrived in town, passed the majestic Minster, crossed the railway line and entered the grounds of the Leisure Complex, you find yourself in what has been dubbed the ‘Festival Village’.  It’s not far removed from the village of Midsomer, but instead of the quiet rows of cottages, there are tents and marquees buzzing to the sound of guitars, squeezeboxes and fiddles, or full to the brim with the aroma of spicy festival food.  And in place of Midsomer’s periodic bouts of quaint English murder, there are plenty of folk incidents, episodes of verse and spells of comedy.  This year the village has been extended to include a cosy Acoustic Marquee and an impressively spacious Concert Marquee.  It becomes apparent, as I stand in the middle of the village with my official programme and pint of Festival Ale, that I probably won’t be spending as much time in the Leisure Complex as I have in previous years.  Scanning the schedule, I note the smart planning that has been put in place to ensure that all wrist-banded festival goers get exactly what they want out of this, the twenty-sixth Beverley Folk Festival.  How easy it would be, I think, to get from Friday to Sunday without even hearing a fiddle.  For those of us who are looking for a bit of spoken word in our 2009 fest, it’s a delight to open the programme and find the likes of Chris Brooker, Mike Wilkinson, Dan Antopolski, Cassandra Wye and Miles Cain lurking on the first page of the schedule – all highly respectable wordsmiths and chatterboxes who, even before the sun sets on the first day of the festival, provide several hours of quality entertainment without the need for a guitar tuner. I note the appearance of big names such as Billy Bragg, Steve Tilston, Seth Lakeman and Peatbog Faeries, all of whom are due to perform in the Leisure Complex this weekend, but can’t help but be tempted away from the main stage by the Village poets.  Saturday night presents a real treat for all of us wordaholics with the Concert Marquee’s Comedy Night.  Kicking off the show are Yorkshire-based poets and musicians Helen Burke, Miles Cain, Paul Coleman, Dave Gough and Oz Hardwick – collectively known as Department Bob.  Their show, Subterranean Homesick Yorkshire Blues has already been successfully performed at various folk festivals and the occasional theatre stage, but seems somehow at home in front of this appreciative Beverley crowd.  The format is simple – five writers, five microphones and five decades of pure genius from a man named Zimmerman.  And yet, in mingling poetry and songs inspired by Bob Dylan, the show seems to offer much more than a celebration of Dylan’s unwavering influence – it’s more an example of how our many forms of artistic expression can intertwine to create a fine tapestry.  When Paul Coleman’s finger-picked blues guitar is fused with the evocative poetry of Oz Hardwick, a perfect picture of Bob and early-sixties New York emerges from the weave.  “Sleek and knowing, hanging cool, the cats of Greenwich Village chill…” opens Oz, and soon the sidewalk of Bleaker and the neon Café Wah sign flicker into view.  Dave Gough’s deadpan poetic parodies of Dylan songs bring a subtle humour to the show that has the crowd giggling and groaning in equal measure; and, though his compositions often lean towards the northern wit of Les Barker,  Dave can be more suitably described as the Yorkshire folk scene’s answer to US poet, Billy Collins.  Helen Burke is rooted in the same poetic soil as Dave Gough, but where Dave’s poems are delivered with a restrained, pensive yet comical voice, Helen’s are uninhibited word-paintings that hit the crowd like Pollock’s oils.  Her parody of Bob’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, that charges through the mayhem of modern British society, complete with Dylan-style cue-cards strewn across the stage, is worthy of the appreciative applause it receives, as is her biting satire of our celebrity-obsessed culture – the brilliant Bob Dylan’s Toenail.  The backbone of the show, however, is provided by Miles Cain, whose seemingly interminable energy is in abundance throughout the entire weekend, running his popular late-night sessions in the Wold Top Marquee on all three nights of the festival.  Tonight, however, he’s bringing it all back home with fine interpretations of Dylan’s best songs. The show closes with Miles’s rendition of All Along the Watchtower, a powerfully performed version that brings this unique and enjoyable ensemble piece to a close.  As the five microphones are carried into the darkness, a tall bespectacled figure emerges from the back of the stage.  It’s Rory Motion – a man described as a singer-songwriter, poet and tree-impressionist – who has been performing on the folk and comedy scene for the last two decades.  Despite looking like a bored headmaster who has come along to give another dreadfully dull assembly, Rory sits in the spotlight, crosses his legs and embarks on a surreal trundle along the B-roads of his mind, taking us happily with him.  “I come from York” he begins, “so crap they named it once!”  Soon, he’s up on his feet, demonstrating the subtle difference between a Sikkim Spruce and a Norway Spruce – just two of his hilarious, though remarkably accurate, tree impressions.  His short, blissfully wacky poems manage to delight adults and children alike, as do his meandering monologues and comedy songs.  But it’s perhaps his stories and songs about his dad, the kind of Yorkshireman who would smoke coal and believed that Geoffrey Boycott “came out of the sea off Bridlington on a golden chariot, pulled by seven golden whippets”, that leave the sides of this Beverley audience well and truly split.  With only a few minutes gap, there’s hardly time to recover before John Hegley appears on stage with his trademark glasses and mandolin.  For those who are familiar with Britain’s foremost performance poet, it’s no surprise that Hegley seems somewhat miffed to be here.  He delivers his poems and songs like a cantankerous postman, unsure why he’s even doing this job at all.  He treats the audience, photographers and hecklers like annoying kids at a birthday party, and yet the audience is spellbound, often too busy guffawing at the last quip to catch the next.  You’re never clear as to whether the poems and songs are meant for children, adults or the child inside every adult, but it soon seems entirely reasonable to be laughing at poems about blancmange, octopuses who visit doctorpuses and Pancake Man.  Indeed, after an hour of John Hegley, you emerge from the muggy marquee unnerved at the fact that you might just have to return to the pest that is the real world.  Luckily, the buzz of the Beverley Festival Village ensures that the return trip is a comfortable and enjoyable one.  On Sunday, the crime writer Peter Robinson appears in the Concert Marquee to read a recently published short story.  He’s backed by Eliza Carthy, whose haunting fiddle tunes and murder ballads perfectly complement Robinson’s fiction.  It’s becoming something of a trend for folk musicians and novelists to come together on stage for a mutual performance – Ian Rankin and Jackie Leven have been delighting audiences with their shared shows for some time.  If someone were to drop a pin in the marquee this afternoon, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the Beverley Minster bell, striking the hour as a couple of hundred people are completely absorbed by this superb exhibition of two art forms colliding.  What better way to spend the last afternoon of the festival than in the company of Robinson/Carthy and a grizzly little story of murder and the sea?  It’s a credit to the festival organisers, and to John Godber, playwright and patron of the festival, that I leave Beverley this year having enjoyed a heady mixture of words and music, complete with the excitement that next year may bring more of the same.

Doncaster Rocks 2009 | The Dome, Doncaster | 25.07.09

When you’re pretty much used to hopping in the car and driving at least twenty miles, more often fifty or so these days, to see anything remotely interesting, it comes as a pleasant surprise to have something both exciting and familiar, to those of us of a certain generation that is, right here on our doorstep.  On Saturday the bands came in force, and not unlike the buses, you know, you wait for one for ages and then they all come together, to take part in an eight-hour mini festival of timeless folk rock, staged at The Dome in Doncaster.  Some of the bands who appeared today, at an event tagged ‘Doncaster Rocks’, were precisely the bands I was following around in my youth, right at the time when I was being unceremoniously kicked out of school at the age of fifteen with no prospects, no future and no chance.  I’ve often thought that if it wasn’t for the music, the prospect would’ve been pretty bleak, what with the three day week, high unemployment and worse of all, Donny and Marie Osmond dominating the airwaves.  Ironically, it did get worse, much worse; Little Jimmy Osmond followed shortly afterwards.  Whilst Alice Cooper’s teen anthem “School’s Out” resonated around the playground, I finally found myself free to abandon regular visits to the barber’s shop, bought a shabby second hand overcoat and frequented the Silver Link pub on Bradford Row every Friday night, which featured a jukebox containing singles by the likes of Jethro Tull and The Strawbs.  Even though these outfits were essentially album bands, they did manage to release the odd single and save jukeboxes countrywide from the indignity of being infiltrated by teeny bop mush.  The like-minded freaks I associated myself with, all of whom were united in their disdain for current chart music, congregated at one or two of the local venues to see the likes of Pink Floyd, Curved Air, Edgar Broughton Band and Budgie, all of whom made regular visits to the area, often experimenting with the famous revolving stage at the late lamented Doncaster Top Rank.  For your Led Zeppelins and Deep Purples, you had to risk a long walk home from the Sheffield City Hall, should you miss the last bus.  But it has to be said, Doncaster did once boast quite a healthy Prog Rock and Folk Rock music scene.  Who for instance can remember the occasion when three strange bands appeared together at the Rank, their collective names using up a total of eight letters?  If you remember Yes, If and Egg, then you were probably one of my mates.  Today I tried not to wallow in nostalgia as Doncaster reunited itself with the heyday of Folk Rock, but I found it difficult as I sat in the Dome earlier this afternoon, listening to Ian Anderson sound check, lipping his flute during an impromptu acoustic rehearsal of “Mother Goose”.  The concert hall was alive with various sound and stage crew members, milling about the place, each with his or her specific duty to perform, with just as much activity going on backstage.  I chatted to both Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span and Dave Cousins of The Strawbs respectively, and shared a few jokes with The Strawbs’ Dave Lambert and Steeleye’s formidable drummer Liam Genockey, as an amazing 71 year old Julie Felix, wandered around in a vivid red cowboy shirt and hat.  Midway through the afternoon, the Dome filled with hundreds of enthusiastic fans, some who may well harbour similar memories of early Seventies folk rock as I.  Our opening act however, goes even further back.  Although Julie Felix has matured from the young Sixties folk protest poster girl, she appears not to have abandoned the causes that she and so many of her contemporaries embraced during a period of global change in terms of the Civil Rights Movement and political activism; when just about everybody who owned a guitar and harmonica rack had a dedicated and unswerving devotion to delivering the message of peace.  Opening the Doncaster Rocks concert, presumably standing in at short notice for Curved Air who had to pull out due to the ill health of violin maestro Darryl Way, the singer trod a familiar path through the peace movement’s formative years with renditions of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowing in the Wind”, to which she craftily adds a poignant verse to remind us of some of the many wrongs of the Bush and Blair years.  The singer also included one or two of her own compositions, such as “Children of Abraham”, with its nod to “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”.  The highlight of the set however was her tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen, as she reminded us of songs like “Bird on a Wire” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, a song that she was famously seen singing on a Sixties TV show, accompanied by a very young Cohen himself.  The Popes, formerly fronted by Shane MacGowan, proved that they can hold their own as a formidable live act with or without the former Pogues frontman’s help.  Paul (Mad Dog) McGuinness is an energetic showman, in whose hands the legacy of The Pogues resides, both as a live performer and also at the helm of an experienced recording outfit such as The Popes, with albums like Holloway Boulevard and Outlaw Heaven, both of which were showcased today, with performances of such songs as “Angels” and “Let the Bells Ring Out”.  The novelty act known as The Lancashire Hotpots bravely took to the stage right at the end of the eight-hour musical treat, after some re-shuffling of the schedule, due to Jethro Tull’s desire to be off and away by ten.  It takes a brave outfit to go on after the main act, but this appeared not to faze our intrepid Hotpots, who were in a mood for fun. With songs like “Bitter, Lager, Cider, Ale and Stout” and “I Met A Girl On Myspace”, their infectious knees-up type finale rounded off the day nicely, and those who chose not to hit the road directly after Tull’s performance, were thoroughly entertained with a good helping of humour from t’other side of the Pennines.  The Strawbs were blessed with one of the most recognisable sounds of the early Seventies Prog Rock era, mainly due to Dave Cousins’ distinctive voice.  Opening their set with “Benedictus” from their classic Grave New World album, which segued seamlessly into “Simple Visions”, the trio consisting of Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk, managed to create a full blown orchestral sound with just the three instruments and some pretty powerful vocal dexterity.  With a variety of songs from various stages of their long career, The Strawbs held court during their outstanding set, which took some of us back to those early days sitting around the Silver Link jukebox, particularly during their finale of their popular single “Lay Down”.  Speaking to Dave Cousins backstage just after their set, I asked him how three members of what is essentially an acoustic outfit, can make such a full and engaging sound.  “People get very surprised, they see us walk on with three acoustic guitars and they’re always astonished at the level of noise that comes out of them.  I think it’s because we make sure that we never ever play the same chord in the same positions, so I’m quite often in a tuning on my guitar, a D modal tuning or an open C, Dave (Lambert) will play up the top and Chas (Cronk) will play down the bottom or we’ll swap it all around, so the guitars will ring out and jangle”.  Dave’s memories of regular appearances on Top of the Pops are particularly vivid as he recalls the period with great fondness.  Speaking of old band mates such as Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman, Dave continued; “We did the first ever album spot on Top of the Pops and performed “The Hangman and the Papist” and I’m not sure what on Earth they made of it”.  “One of the memories I have of it was the fact that in the middle of probably my most serious song at the time, Rick Wakeman started to play his organ with a paint roller, and I nearly strangled him”.  Half of the acts on today’s bill were celebrating around forty-odd years on the scene.  Steeleye Span have in those four decades gone through many changes, but probably not as many as their contemporaries Fairport Convention.  The current line-up of Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Liam Genockey and Ken Nicol is in fact the longest serving of any of the combinations throughout their forty year existence.  I spoke to Maddy Prior just before the band took to the stage.  “It’s our fortieth anniversary this year and we’re having a year-long celebration, we had a tour earlier this year and we’re going out to America and Australia and we’re touring again at the back end in November/December”.  With Doncaster Rocks, the emphasis is very much on the rock side of folk music and I asked Steeleye’s singer how she felt the band fitted in with this.  “That’s what Steeleye does, that’s what we set out to do, to make folk music electric and we hoped to make it more accessible, and in some ways it is for some people, it’s become a genre of its own”.  The band played a set of mainly traditional songs, each infused with a distinctly rock arrangement such as “Tam Lin”, the bawdy “Bonny Black Hare” and their big hit “All Around My Hat”.  There was only one original member of Jethro Tull playing at The Dome tonight, but in all fairness, that’s all it takes.  Ian Anderson has been there since the start as main song writer, flute maestro and essentially the voice of Jethro Tull.  Guitarist Martin Barre was unfortunately tied up in Germany, performing at a one-night world premiere showing of Excalibur staged as a rock opera in Kaltenberg.  No matter, if Germany can borrow Barre, we can borrow the astonishingly talented 26 year-old Bavarian guitarist Florian Ophale, who made up more than adequately tonight, with an impressive performance that I dare say could rival that of his mentor.  My memories of the early Seventies was of the confusion labelled as Progressive Rock, when any band of musicians with hair longer than Jimmy Saville’s was considered ‘Prog’, even if they were just a common or garden folk band.  Jethro Tull had already appeared in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus film and the infamous chaos that was the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, captured on film much to the embarrassment of those who allowed it to fall apart.  Ian Anderson at the time was always top of the Sounds, New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Disc and Music Echo rags’ annual polls in the category of ‘other instrumentalist’, a category that was free from Clapton, Bruce or Baker, who won in just about every other category year upon year.  Tonight, Jethro Tull played a two-hour set of classics from the early days of their recording career with albums such as This Was “Beggar’s Farm”, “Dharma for One” and Stand Up “Bouree”, through the popular Aqualung period, with the memorable title track, “Cross Eyed Mary”, “Mother Goose” and “My God”.  There was also the slightly embarrassed introduction by Anderson of Tull’s foray into Prog Rock, with their now classic album “Thick as a Brick”, from which a handful of highlights were culled tonight.  The set also featured a handful of tracks from subsequent albums with performances of songs such as “Heavy Horses” and “Farm on the Freeway”, just to even out the balance so to speak.  With an encore of the timeless “Locomotive Breath”, Jethro Tull left their mark on an excited Doncaster audience, mainly those who proudly wore t shirts from Tull’s previous tours and who would no doubt go off with infamous opening riff of “Aqualung” resounding around their heads for hours, if not days, afterwards.

Corinne West and Doug Cox | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 30.08.09

Corinne West appeared in Wombwell tonight as part of the Barnsley House Concerts series, together with Canadian Dobro and slide guitarist Doug Cox, co-producer of Corinne’s current album The Promise.  The flags were out for our visitors from across the pond, with stars, stripes and maple leafs fluttering above the Wheelhouse as everyone settled down for what promised to be another special night at the Jones’s.  The intimate environment seemed to suit both musicians as they eased into a couple of impressive sets, where at times you could hear a pin drop and at others, nothing but loud and enthusiastic applause.  In between all that, there was a beer flowing bar, a lovely pie and peas supper, Rory the dog wondering why so many people were in his kennel (again) and seventeen songs of outstanding quality to behold.  At most any other venue, Corinne would normally utilise every bit of the stage with her impassioned and animated performance, but was understandably restrained at the Wheelhouse, where space is at a minimum.  No matter, the singer gravitated to a small patch of stage and what was spared in her restricted movement was made up for in her soulful singing and playing.  With her engaging eyes shadowed by the peak of her fisherman’s cap for most of the performance, Corinne chose a selection of songs from all three of her albums together with a few additional treats, all with a little help from her audience, whose requests poured in throughout the evening.  Joined by Doug Cox on Dobro throughout, Corinne brought her own blend of country infused blues, Americana and what she describes as ‘Progressive Folk’, to yet another packed Wheelhouse audience.  Once again, there was absolutely no need to enhance the sound electronically, as the small venue prompts just the one possible consideration, that of getting the acoustic balance right, which is left very much up to the players.  If Doug’s only concern was that the Dobro might be drowning out Corinne’s voice, the audience responded with a resounding ‘no’, to which a single voice from the back added ‘in fact it’s a bit quiet actually’.  We later discovered he was a Dobro player himself!  The balance was perfect and Corinne’s guitar and Doug’s Dobro played off one another with seamless precision.  Added to that, Corinne’s soulful and bluesy vocal delivery made the fact that there was no PA even more rewarding.  Starting with “It’s Your Time”, originally from Corinne’s debut album Bound for the Living, both guitar and Dobro found a comfortable volume at which to rest as Corinne delivered a gorgeous vocal performance on one of her most engaging songs.  The new album The Promise, which was recorded in the idyllic setting of Harrison Hot Springs in British Columbia, was showcased tonight with a selected four songs from it; “Pollen”, “Lily Ann”, “Whisky Poet” and “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the former being three of Corinne’s most accomplished songs on the new album and the latter being the very same Fred Neil song as featured on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, albeit warbled by the late Harry Nilsson.  Doug swaps Dobro for guitar for the one and only time during the night, on Corinne’s smoothed out and slowed down version of the song, which captures its essence and transforms what is essentially a radio friendly pop tune to a beautiful and soulful ballad.  Much of the set though was revisiting some of Corinne’s best known songs from both Bound for the Living “Amelia” and “Angel” and Second Sight “Roses to Rust”, “Cabin Door” and “Hand Full of Dust”, her two excellent previous albums.  On “Deep Elem Blues”, Corinne gave a convincingly gritty performance, which combined the ballsiness of Memphis Minnie with the grace of Bessie Smith.  With the blues, Doug Cox finds his comfort zone, with some suitably emotive notes that you’ll never find in Classical music however hard you search.  Before the show I had a few words with both Corinne and Doug as they sat on the edge of the small stage, now incidentally decorated with colourful stud lighting, keeping very much with the tradition of having at least one thing new upon each visit to the Wheelhouse.  Corinne spoke candidly about her early adventures, of leaving home at a very young age destined for a life on the road.  Literally in her case; having hopped onto a converted yellow school bus with a bunch of free spirited artists and activists in the tradition of Kesey and Kerouac before her.  “We had a full pot-bellied cast iron stove in there, with a pipe that went out the side and we cooked on it and had a fire going”.  Corinne was quick to confess that they didn’t have the fire going whilst they were driving of course, but with a hammock in there, it all seemed the right thing to do and the right way to live.  “I had a kick in my step” she added with a grin.  Doug Cox is an outstanding and innovative Dobro player who has experimented with the instrument for a good deal of his professional career.  Equally at home with standard bluegrass playing and fine accompaniment, such as with Corinne tonight, he is also interested in discovering hybrids of musical styles, working with Eastern musicians Salil Bhatt with Ramkumar Mishra for instance.  Doug is keen to point out that anything is possible with an instrument that is essentially still in its infancy: “One of the most interesting things about the Dobro is that it’s not completely discovered; it’s really fine to take it outside of its traditional places”.  Concluding with the driving Gandy Dancer, incorporating Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, and a final encore of “Writing on the Wall”, again from the Second Sight album, Corinne and Doug left their indelible mark on an especially pleased audience, all of whom showed their gratitude with a particularly healthy final applause as well as a definite promise to return.  Let’s hope they are not the only folks there tonight to pledge a return visit soon.

Henry Priestman and Amy Wadge | The Duchess, York | 22.09.09

Sharing the bill on a relatively quiet night at the Duchess in York, fellow singer-songwriters Henry Priestman and Amy Wadge brightened up an otherwise gloomy prospect at one of the best live venues in the city.  I’ve stopped asking myself where everybody disappears to midweek.  I know there are people in the world, I see them in traffic jams when I try to negotiate York city centre on a weekend.  I also see them in supermarket queues when I’m trying to buy a single bottle of milk, or scurrying along the Shambles like mice in a cosmetics lab on market day.  Why then, do we seem to mislay a vast amount of the population when some of our best performers come to town?  I squarely put the blame on ‘X Factor’.  No matter, this audience made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers and both Henry Priestman and Amy Wadge received a first rate welcome.  Good friends, collaborators, travelling partners and playmates, Amy and Henry shared the night equally and even shared guitarist Pete Riley, whose work was cut out for him during the evening, providing some tasteful and intuitive guitar playing during both sets.  Amy Wadge is in the process of preparing her fourth full length album due to be released in the spring but is on the cusp of releasing her new download-only single “Hold Me” on 2nd November, with versions in both English and Welsh.  The version Amy performed tonight was the English version, the video of which can be seen on her website in glorious black and white, shot on location on Hampstead Heath.  The Welsh version of the song, translated as “Dal Fi”, has the added attraction of being treated as a fund raiser for her daughter’s Ysgol Feithrin (Welsh nursery school) with 20p from the sale download being donated to the Welsh Nursery Schools Movement.  Tonight, alternating between guitar, piano and at one point ukulele, Amy was aware that every single member of the audience was on her side as she played essentially her greatest hits including “These Are the Songs” with its reference to some of our most cherished song writers, USA?  “We’ll Wait and See” from the Henry Priestman produced No Sudden Moves album and utilising the ukulele for a sweet performance of Nashville, a song preceded by a tale of how both Amy and Henry almost died in a log cabin fire in the heart of Tennessee a few years ago.  Speaking to Amy backstage, the singer-songwriter told me that the friends were in Nashville together, staying at a log cabin, where the room in which Henry was sleeping caught fire.  Henry told me later that he nearly died in that fire, but revealed also that that specific visit to Nashville was ‘the germ’ which ignited his enthusiasm for performing once again.  Whilst the rest of the world is glued to the box, presumably watching the likes of reality shows such as the aforementioned ‘X Factor’, which in turn is attempting to make stars of the likes of Diana Vickers, there are hard-working song writers busy producing songs like “When You Kiss Me”, coincidentally written especially for Vickers, who turned it down, presumably on the grounds that it was too damn good!  My preference is always for songs performed by their authors and Amy’s performance of this song was no exception.  The song will also appear on the new album.  For her final song “Always”, again from her No Sudden Moves album, Amy was joined by Henry who provided backing vocals and percussion.  Anyone who has encountered Amy in person will no doubt have wondered how such a huge voice can possibly come from such a small frame.  Nowhere more than on this song does Amy excel in emotive delivery, with a voice that oscillates between sweet whispers and throat-torturing grit.  Henry Priestman has been around for a good while now, mainly known for his work with Yachts in the 1970s and with The Christians in the 1980s, co-writing some of the band’s best known hits such as “Ideal World” and “Born Again”, both of which were included in his set tonight.  Speaking to Henry backstage before his set, the singer-songwriter revealed that Garry Christian recently attended one of his gigs and “didn’t say the songs sounded bad, which I take as a big plus”.  The main bulk of the set though centred round Henry’s remarkable new album The Chronicles of Modern Life, an album made up new songs each focussing on exactly where the song-writer sees himself these days.  Like a throwback to the days of the folk troubadour, Henry tells each story with earnest conviction, even though some deal directly with mid-life resignation.  Old with its “I’m the same age as my father was when I first thought he was old” refrain, is a world away from what he was singing about with Yachts whilst supporting the Sex Pistols in the late 1970s, but ironically the song is just as valid to mid-life as, let’s say “Suffice to Say” was to youth back then.  In his introduction, Henry confessed that “in Amy, you are witnessing an artist at the top of her game, but with me you are witnessing a nob head who can’t sing, whose guitar playing’s crap, who can’t remember the lyrics but luckily has Pete with him”.  His self-depreciating wit is just one of the aspects of Henry Priestman, who you instantly warm to upon meeting him.  Starting with “What You Doin’ With Me”, Henry soon found his pace and seemed to relax into a set that included both “Ideal World” and “Born Again” from The Christians days, together with a selection from the new album.  “It’s Called a Heart”, “The Idiot” and the crowd pleasing rant “No to the Logo”, which had half of the audience checking that the labels on their designer trainers and handbags weren’t showing, proved that Henry continues to write potentially enduring songs.  The album has already produced three download only singles “Grey’s the New Blonde”, “Don’t You Love Me No More” and “He Ain’t Good Enough For You”, each contending for top place on the ‘most radio friendly’ list, and each one winning hands down.  All three songs were included in the set tonight, which culminated in a couple of songs featuring Amy Wadge as she returned to the stage to join both Henry and Pete on “Searching for Angels” and the infectious “The Coolest Dance (Irish Jig)”.  Tonight The Duchess witnessed two outstanding song-writers at the top of their game, despite what Henry says.  Proof that the former Christian is still a valuable asset to contemporary song making is the fact that at 53, he is the oldest artist ever to be signed to the prestigious Island Records label, where he can now happily rub shoulders with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Sugababes, write suitably mature lyrics to his heart’s content and get cracking on Chronicles II.

Angie Palmer | The Duchess, York | 24.09.09

I bumped into Angie Palmer outside The Duchess just as dusk approached on a relatively warm York evening, just as the singer-songwriter was making her way down to the neighbouring Fibbers nightclub, where another gig was about to commence.  “Hope you’re not escaping to another gig” I said as she walked towards me with her companion.  “No, we’re just going to see some friends before they go on, Wreckless Eric’s on downstairs tonight”.  This may be the reason behind my recent rant on why everyone seems to disappear in York whenever anyone of importance is playing.  Perhaps there’s just too much going on at the same time and choices have to be made!  Angie delayed her visit ‘downstairs’ to speak to me for ten minutes whilst the sound of the two support bands filtered throughout the darkened corridors of The Duchess during their respective sound checks.  The Lancaster born singer-songwriter was seemingly relaxed before the gig, wearing tight denim jeans and black waistcoat, as any self-respecting rock chick should, as we sat and discussed everything from Dylan and Debussy to travelling through Europe, playing with a superb bunch of musicians collectively known as The Revelators and most importantly, her current album Meanwhile, As Night Falls.  Later, after two excellent support spots by Suzy Bradley and the Morning After and the fabulously tight Jen Low Band, Angie Palmer walked onto stage with an acoustic guitar, a bunch of well-crafted and easily assessable songs and was flanked by an ensemble of excellent players, all completely in tune with every single move their leader made.  Opening with three consecutive songs from her current album, the Alan Gregson (Cornershop) produced Meanwhile, As Night Falls, Angie soon fell into a relaxed groove during “On the Eve”, “The Fiery Lake” and “After the Lights Have Gone”, all pretty much exactly how they appear on the album.  For the delightful “After the Lights Have Gone”, Angie urged the audience to pull up some comfortable chairs and come a little closer.  A true artist knows instinctively how to make the best out of a not so good situation.  If the room isn’t bursting at the seams, then draw the small audience in, come a little closer, let’s get intimate.  The atmosphere was intimate and the audience did indeed move closer to the band, which consisted of birthday boy Billy Buckley on guitars, Richard Curran on fiddle and mandolin, Ollie Collins on bass and Sophie Hasting on drums.  Revisiting her two previous albums Road (2005) and Tales Of Light and Darkness (2006), with the hard rocking “Fishtails” and the equally powerful “Footprints in the Snow” from the former and the funky “Letters From Home” and “Fool’s Gold” and finally a song which Angie referred to as a ‘rarity’, the love song Michelangelo from the latter, Angie demonstrated a good cross section of songs from her most important period.  Two more songs from the new album were selected for the set including the Johnny Cash inspired rocker “I Hear That Locomotive”, which Angie invited the audience to provide suitable train sounds, which to a York audience shouldn’t be too difficult.  Then the adult version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hunting the Wolf”, introduced in French, produced one of the highlights of the night both in terms of tightness of arrangement, including Billy Buckley’s astonishing sneer of a guitar solo, and in tension building, courtesy of Ollie Collins’ bowed bass and Richard Curran’s demonic fiddle playing.  One of the songs I was most looking forward to hearing live and one that was more than satisfactorily realised tonight.  The final song, which really couldn’t be followed by an encore, was the magnificent “Weeping Wood”, the song that concludes the new album.  I knew it was coming as Angie had told me in advance of the gig that she would be performing it.  “But can you possibly give it the full whack?” I asked before the show.  “We’ll give it as much welly as we can but obviously we can’t bring the full string section, or an organ or a large gong”, Angie cheerfully responded. Judging by the satisfied expression on the faces of each and every member of the audience tonight, I think it was just right.

Eric Taylor | The Maze, Nottingham | 30.09.09

I approached the north side of Nottingham just as dusk approached in the last remaining hours of September.  The roads were grid-locked, apparently due to the 700 year-old annual Goose Fair, where thousands descend on the old city for some seasonal fun at one of the largest travelling fairgrounds in the country, provided for by travelling folk.  I had an appointment with another traveller of a different sort and was beginning to become concerned that if the roads didn’t clear soon, I just might miss that all important window of opportunity to have a chat to one of my musical heroes; so some inevitable steering wheel tapping ensued, together with one or two choice whispered profanities.  As I crawled through the slow moving traffic, listening to Hollywood Pocketknife on the car MP3 player, which competed rather unsuccessfully with the pulsating and pumping rhythms of drum and bass from the Ministry of Noise coming from much bigger speakers in much bigger cars, together with the piercing sirens from emergency vehicles, attempting to negotiate the grid-locked chaos more forcefully than any of us, I finally saw the unassuming frontage of The Maze in the distance on the Mansfield Road, with the now customary gathering of smokers outside in the doorway.  Grabbing my bag containing some recording equipment, my trusty camera and a notebook containing a few preliminary notes scribbled within its pages, I left the car in a highly suspect back street area and walked briskly towards the venue as night fell upon Nottingham town.  James Windsor, one of the towns’ main live music promoters and organiser of tonight’s gig, which comes under the Cosmic American banner, greeted me at the concert room door, moments before the darkened room was opened to the public.  “I have an appointment with Eric” I said as I squeezed into the empty bar, the stage of which was already set up with a single mic stand and adjacent accessory and drinks table, with the now customary black backdrop with the words ‘The Maze’ printed in large white letters together with a maze-shaped logo.  I was led to the backstage area through a series of passages and doorways, understanding perfectly well now why the venue is called The Maze, and then a final creaky door was opened to reveal an unfamiliar seated figure, who I soon discovered to be one Stuart Warburton, a Bury-born driver, road companion and support singer to the main act tonight.  Squeezing into the room behind James, I was soon in the company of the towering figure of the legendary Eric Taylor.  We shook hands and in a deep soft growl of a voice, the Atlanta-born songwriter said “nice to meet ya Allan”.  Dressed in faded blue denim jeans and a loose fitting black Grandad top, with a pair of reading specs dangling over the button up part just below his chin, a chin now obscured by a cool looking grey goatee – always cool on a man of his generation – and finally a black flat cloth cap turned backwards beret-like, hiding his apparent shock of grey hair beneath, the charismatic singer-songwriter settled back into a creaky chair, matching the creaky door I’d just walked through moments before.  The Maze is something of a creaky place, but charming nonetheless. Almost deliberately abandoning my previously scribbled notes, we settled into a conversation about the Eric Taylor story so far.  Returning to the concert bar, I took a seat by the stage and was pleasantly surprised that the lighting was perfect for the single photograph I was hoping to take.  Red lights are an evil conception, an achingly dull pain for any photographer, let alone someone like me, who just wants to get a decent shot to go with the review, yet most venues use them.  Here at The Maze, there were three of four white spots directly above the mic, illuminating the stage perfectly, but not drowning the area with unwanted light.  Here’s a venue thinking about the audience as well as the artist.  Great sound and great lighting.  Stuart Warburton opened with a warm up set, which included songs about emotional battlefields, domestic violence and a fragile heaven, together with an enchanting song set in the disturbing world of unsolved crimes in Mexican border towns, especially in relation to the astonishing amount of murders involving young women.  A good selection of self-penned songs from the voice of Rockabilly outfit The Rhythmaires, which served to do exactly what it said on the box, settle the audience for what was to follow.  After a short break and some last minute seat shuffling, the background music faded to allow our attention to fall upon the stage, which was now occupied by a tall brooding figure, peeking out at the audience from beneath his hand, which stretched out above his brow, with squinting eyes in search of familiar faces and old friends.  One such friend handed Taylor a glass of whiskey, which joined the bottle of water, the glass of red wine and whatever was in the green tea cup that Taylor had brought up on stage with him.  The singer was suitably set up for a relaxed hour or so of songs and stories and at this point, even he hadn’t decided whether we were going to have a break half way through or a straight run through performance.  With some delicate guitar chords, finger-picked to no apparent rhythm, a gentle Texan drawl set the mood for “Carnival Jim and Jean”, with a spoken introduction telling of carneys, that is, fairground people; ‘little midgets and knife throwers, balloon blowers, tiny dogs with pink dresses, all tryin’ to find their way home’.  We were enthralled from the start, knowing full well that we were in the company of a first rate storyteller who knows exactly how to capture the imagination.  Eric Taylor isn’t as prolific as his peers and doesn’t have a couple of dozen albums like Tom Russell, nor does he have the enigmatic reputation of his late friend Townes Van Zandt.  What he does have though is an astonishing repertoire of intelligently written and highly literate story songs that speak of scared circles, of cold nights on the Plains and fighting the Indians, of Dean Moriarty searching for the father he never knew and of brand new companions, however dirty.  “Carnival Jim and Jean” was a good starter with its driving rhythm on guitar and uplifting beat, provided by some rhythmic foot tapping, together with an engaging story of a world we know little about.  Speaking of uplifting tunes and how to get the show going, Taylor admits that the show normally takes a nose-dive from there on in, ‘a dive into the canyon’ as they say.  He’s not the only songwriter with a reputation for sad songs.  In his introduction to his late friend Townes Van Zandt’s song “Highway Kind”, Taylor recalls an incident in the Old Quarter when a woman shouts up from the audience, “Hey Townes, won’t you just play a happy song, just for me?” Townes reportedly responded by saying “these are the happy songs; you don’t wanna hear the sad ones”.  “We’ve always been afraid of people” said Taylor, as he re-tuned his guitar, “and people were afraid of Crazy Horse”, hence the celebration when they finally killed the old chief off.  “Deadwood” handles such historical material with a sensitivity devoid of any trace of sentimentality.  It’s been over twelve years since the writer of this song has actually performed it live, a song which he insists is called just “Deadwood” and not “Deadwood, South Dakota” as his erstwhile spouse Nanci Griffith referred to it on her album One Fair Summer Evening in 1988, explaining that at the time the song was set, there was no State of South Dakota.  The singer confessed that he may be a little rusty, but he went on to play the song brilliantly well and what’s more; he played the song specifically for me, without me having actually asked him to.  A nice intuitive touch I thought.  Half way through the set, Eric checked with James and with the approval of the audience, it was unanimously decided upon that there would be no break.  It would be a shame to lose the atmosphere thus far created and Taylor continued with more of the same, more stories, more songs.  The second half of the set saw the songwriter revisiting some of the songs from his previous albums “Manhattan Mandolin Blues”, “Big Love” and “Ain’t But One Thing Give a Man the Blues” from The Great Divide (2005) and “Dean Moriarty” and “Hemmingway’s Shotgun” from the self-titled Eric Taylor (1995), still criminally hard to get hold of over here, or probably anywhere for that matter.  Earlier in the set “Two Fires” from his classic Resurrect album was given an airing as was the raunchy “Brand New Companion” with its highly sexually charged ‘Dirty Dirty’ boogie originally recorded for his The Great Divide album.  An evening with Eric Taylor is more than just a gig, more than a singer-songwriter playing a handful of great songs, songs we have become so familiar with over the years.  An evening with Eric Taylor is an emotive experience, a little glimpse into a world of carnivals and Kerouac, highways and Hemmingway, bar rooms and Birdland.  A world where even Louis Armstrong has a broken heart.  A worthwhile experience for everybody I would say.

Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | 07.10.09

Earlier this evening I grabbed my notebook and pondered for a while over what exactly I wanted to speak to one of British folk music’s leading figures about.  There’s fifty years to consider here and fortunately for me, those years of brilliant music making have run in tandem with my short stay here on Earth.  Dave Swarbrick joined the ranks of the second folk revival, working alongside such folk giants as Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacCall and Peggy Seeger, just as mum was considering which nursery I should be off-loaded to.  As dad and I deliberated over Geoff Hurst’s controversial third goal in the 1966 World Cup at Wembley, from the comfort of our armchairs, Swarb was already out of the Ian Campbell Folk Group for good and on the road with another giant of British folk music, the young Martin Carthy, together with whom he made some of the most enduring records in the history of British folk song.  By the time Swarb had helped create a brand new genre in music, I was already following him in his footsteps.  No, not by taking up the fiddle, but by being apprenticed as a printer, Swarb’s original vocation.  There really is enough to talk about in this first decade alone thought I, but then why waste this rare opportunity to talk about the ‘most important phone call’ from American record producer Joe Boyd, requesting the fiddler’s assistance on a recording by the young North London upstarts Fairport Convention, that would eventually lead to the beginnings of British Folk Rock?  “I don’t consider it the most important part of my life” Dave confessed tonight.  “Joe Boyd conned me … he said if I joined Fairport I’d only do twelve more gigs in all me life!”  The more I considered, the more there was left to consider.  Putting the music aside, there was always the personal health issues that just might come up in conversation, together with the infamous cock-up at the Daily Telegraph, where the newspaper printed Swarb’s premature obituary, which the fiddler gleefully read upon recovery with the famous response “It’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry”.  Tonight, Dave was happy to discuss this period of his life (and death).  “It was very lucrative” he explained, “I sold signed obituaries for a long time afterwards”.  I decided to abandon any thought of taking notes along with me tonight and therefore, empty handed, I met up with Dave Swarbrick, together with guitarist/singer and fellow Whippersnapper band mate Kevin Dempsey, before they took to the stage in Rotherham. For the fourth consecutive year, the Rotherham Open Arts Festival has employed the services of The Spiegeltent, a hand-hewn pavilion specifically built as a travelling dance hall, bar and entertainment salon, reminiscent of the famous 1930s Marlene Dietrich version, in which she sang “Falling In Love Again”, surrounded by a roomful of mirrors.  This particular Spiegeltent has been erected once again in All Saints Square in the centre of Rotherham for a variety of events during the festival period.  This week, instead of dozens of images of Dietrich, we have reflections of jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, contemporary experimental band Joby Burgess and New Noise, the Kimberworth Male Voice Choir and tonight, the seated figures of Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey.  “It’s like George Osborne’s bedroom” quipped Swarb as he sat down to speak to me before the show.  I have to concede that it was slightly cold in the Spiegeltent tonight, but there again, lest we forget, it is an outdoor tent, not unlike most festival marquees and therefore in October, a coat and possibly some thermal undergarments are very much advised.  On stage, Dave sits Buddah-like, resting the base of his fiddle upon his knee as he explains where all the tunes come from, some old, some ancient, some relatively new.  Illness has plagued the fiddler in recent years but he now seems fit and able and his playing is possibly just as good as ever.  He complains that his memory is going, but manages to remember the names of all the jigs, reels and hornpipes during the two sets.  Kicking off with a set of English jigs, the duo soon warmed the audience through sufficiently enough by alternating pretty much between fiddle tunes and delicate songs, courtesy of Swarb’s trademark fiddling and Dempsey’s soulful singing and dextrous guitar playing.  Dempsey’s choice of traditional songs ranged from “I Know My Love”, sung from the original female perspective to “The Pride of Kildare”, one of the staple songs from Whippersnapper’s repertoire.  Rubbing their hands together simultaneously, the two musicians couldn’t avoid mentioning the temperature.  Swarb remarked “When I left the house I was going to wear a thick shirt … my wife said don’t put that on you’ll be too hot on stage … I’ll kill her”.  Dempsey went on to say “We thought we were playing at the Arts Centre” as he looked around the Spiegeltent in wonder.  “You don’t go camping in October do you?” quipped Dave, going on to conclude “you all deserve Duke of Edinburgh Awards”.  It really wasn’t that bad, but there again it wasn’t me playing complicated yet delicate fiddle tunes up there on stage.  During his introductions, Swarb was as chatty as ever but there’s always this sense that he puts every effort into his speaking voice, little wonder after undergoing a successful double lung transplant.  Although it seems to be something of an effort to talk, his playing and in particular, his ability to hold complicated tunes in his head, is still remarkable.  During the tunes “Golden Cross/Of All Fortunes I Have Miscarried”, Swarb plays each part without the aid of either metronome or tapping foot.  Kevin confessed to me earlier that the duo have had little rehearsal time and may be a little rusty during the show but went on to say, with an air of reassurance, “It’ll be much better tomorrow night and by the next night we’ll be just right”.  On the contrary, the duo played much better than either would allow us to believe.  On the faster tunes such as “Grannie’s Delight/The Man Tiger” and “John Jamieson/I Have a Wife of My Own/The Idle Road”, Swarb is still unequalled as a master fiddle player, whilst on the slower tunes such as “Sweet Alban” and “Boadicea”, his sensitivity is still very much intact.  Dempsey’s choice of songs perfectly suits his inimitable style, fusing jazz chordal structures with soulful vocal delivery.  The American traditional song from the Osark Mountains, “Wicked Polly (No.2)”, sits well alongside English traditional folk songs such as “The Two Constant Lovers” and more contemporary songs such as “The Music Bringer”.  I did manage to speak to Swarb about some of the things I wanted to talk to him about.  Resting his hands upon his cane he talked candidly about his time as an apprentice letterpress printer, about the early folk revival days, about his time with Ian Campbell, Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention and Whippersnapper as well as touching upon his illness and subsequent recovery from the grips of mortality.  I think we should leave the good stuff to his wife Jill, whose eagerly anticipated biography should be along any time soon.

Diana Jones | The Fishpond, Matlock Bath | 08.10.09

Traditionally, the village of Matlock Bath is adorned with colourful lights during the month of October making the already pretty Derwent Gardens and surrounding area even more pretty than usual.  Standing in the shadow of the Heights of Abraham, it’s almost Jimmy Stewart’s Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s seasonal It’s a Wonderful Life movie, but without the snow.  It’s Lapland but without the foreboding chill and it’s Blackpool without the obligatory hen party.  It seemed the perfect setting for the first try-out night for the Nottingham-based Cosmic American promotion team, who are currently rippling out towards the suburbs from their city epicentre in order to bring this brilliant music to the masses.  Although the night was disastrous in terms of numbers, it was positively triumphant in terms of quality, with two outstanding acts to kick-start a new season of live music events under the Cosmic American banner.  We could sit down and talk for hours about the reasons why people choose to avoid venturing out to live gigs these days and our arguments will no doubt venture down familiar roads, such as Credit Crunch Crescent, Spotify Street and the old favourite Apathy Avenue, but it seems that the potential local audience was either unaware or not remotely bothered.  Even the telly addicts amongst us must have caught Jools Holland’s live Later show earlier in the week, where appetites would surely have been whetted as Diana Jones hurried into the spotlight to perform “All God’s Children” in one of the show’s quality, yet all too short, acoustic moments.  Nashville based Diana Jones was a great choice to get things started at the Fishpond, already a thriving music venue, albeit in the process of getting off to a new start after some months of closure.  With some exposure this week on Later as well as her unforgettable concert appearance at the Barbican in January, televised as part of the Folk America season under the title Hollerers, Stompers and Old Time Ramblers along with The Wiyos, CW Stoneking, Cedric Watson and Bijoux Creole and Allison Williams and Chance McCoy and hosted by Seasick Steve, Diana is now getting the recognition in this country that she deserves.  I spoke to Diana this summer about the importance of radio and television exposure and she confessed that her reputation in this country is largely due to Bob Harris.  “He’s the reason that I have a job here” she told me backstage at the Cambridge Festival in August.  Whispering Bob’s role in championing this music is pretty much incalculable as are the endeavours of promoters who jump through hoops to bring these artists to our doorsteps.  Equipped with an acoustic guitar affectionately named Roger and an as yet un-named vintage Gibson tenor, Diana started with “My Beloved”, a song from her My Remembrance of You album of 2006, Diana performed a selection of songs from both this and her subsequent release Better Times Will Come (2009) including the title song and the now very familiar “If I Had A Gun”, co-written by herself together with Rebecca Folsom, Celeste Krenz and Elizabeth Barnez, a line from which forms the title of the new Gretchen Peters/Tom Russell collaborative album One to the Heart, One to the Head.  “It scares the guys a little” Diana informed me in Cambridge, going on to say “it resonates with so many people, men and women, for different reasons”.  The song has subsequently become Diana’s signature song.  Drawing on such distinctive styles of American music including old time, country blues and the mountain music of Tennessee, Diana Jones carries an air of authenticity not unlike Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent, both of whom she is frequently compared to, and nowhere more convincingly than on the unaccompanied “Cold Grey Ground” and “Satan”, which was tonight preceded by the ambiguous admission, “I had a little run in with the Devil last year.”  Anaïs Nin’s suggestion that Blake was cracked and ‘that’s where the light shone through’, was the inspiration behind “Cracked and Broken”, one of Diana’s most beautiful songs, which tonight measured up equally to her performance of the song on the Better Times album.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this song isn’t whisked away to recording studios across the globe to be cut by many a discerning artist sometime soon.  One or two of Diana’s songs have already found such ‘legs’ and have been recorded by other artists such as Joan Baez, who popped “Henry Russell’s Last Words” on her Day After Tomorrow album.  Diana pointed out to me her admiration for the folk troubadour explaining “I’m such a huge fan of hers from so long ago, I’m inspired by her, she got me through lonely nights, she’s just such a staple in my world”.  The heart breaking “Pony”, with its Native American chant coda, provided tonight’s overall performance with probably its defining moment.  It almost made me feel slightly sorry for the aforementioned telly addicts and couch potatoes who missed it all, well almost.  “After The Sparrow”, a new song to finish the night, Diana returned to sing a further three songs for the encore, the requested “Ballad of the Poor Child”, the timely “Better Times Will Come”, which Diana introduced with hopeful optimism, explaining that better times are definitely coming in America, now that they have a President who can speak “more than four words in a row and that can all be found in a dictionary” and finally a brand new song called “The Little Song”, which by all accounts was the song’s public debut, that no one up until now had heard, not even the dog.  Lucky us.  

Stephen Fearing | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 10.08.09

The flags were out once again at the Wheelhouse in Wombwell as part of the Barnsley House Concerts series.  As the red maple leaf fluttered above the wooden cabin, with its cosily decorated interior featuring signed promotional pictures and posters of former guests including the likes of Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden, Corinne West and Doug Cox and Carrie Elkin and Robby Hecht, and that’s just the duos, the room filled once again with a capacity audience keen to be a part of another quality night of acoustic music here in the heart of South Yorkshire.  Canadian singer-songwriter guitarist Stephen Fearing totally missed the fluttering flag as he made his way down to the Wheelhouse from the main house, not once but twice, noticing it later during dinner at the Jones’s.  Hedley Jones, a local music enthusiast with one eye on the local folk scene and the other on what’s coming over from across the pond, likes to make his guests as welcome as the audiences they attract and both of which are rapidly expanding in numbers.  I arrived early and made my way down to the cabin to have a few words with the songwriter before his performance.  Relaxed and talkative, Fearing was happy to talk about his new album The Man Who Married Music, a life on the road and what it’s like to have a Juno on your mantelpiece.  It’s quite right that The Man Who Married Music collection should be released at this time in Stephen Fearing’s life.  Twenty years is a good enough career span to take into account; to look back upon and in a way, reassess.  The songs that make up the collection are intelligent but at the same time instantly accessible and even though a couple of decades in an artist’s career would normally see vast changes in style and attitude, Fearing has remained true to his craft and has maintained a consistency in the high standard of song writing, recording and live performance over the years.  On this, the new retrospective album, many of the songs included sit well alongside one another despite being separated by many years.  Tonight in the intimate setting of the Wheelhouse, Fearing appeared relaxed as he began his set, selecting a handful of songs from the album as well as a number of songs that may well have made up an alternative retrospective CD.  It’s nice when you have so many ‘keepers’ to choose from.  Seated upon a high stool with his acoustic guitar slung across his lap and plugged into an elaborate device, which Fearing confesses, is only there to serve as a tuner, with no further amplification required, the singer songwriter started his first set of the night with one of the new songs included on the new album, “The Big East West”.  Fearing speaks of travelling as if it has always been a part of his life.  “I’ve been travelling since I was very young” he said, recalling his formative years in Canada before moving to Ireland as a child. The song “Born to be a Traveler” was inspired by something his mother said after Fearing invited her on tour with him.  “I get it now” she said “you were born to be a traveller”, a phrase that would not be missed by any songwriter worth his salt.  Speaking of the travelling life as if it makes up the very fabric of his bones, Fearing goes on to point out that this is not only a genetic thing but also a geographical trait that reflects the very nature of being a Canadian musician, applying the Descartian theory, “I tour therefore I am”.  Originally recorded for his regular band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ album Bark, “Born to be a Traveler” sums up life on the road pretty well.  The theme of travelling weaves a thread through much of Fearing’s work and the sense of homesickness is nowhere more prevalent than in “The Longest Road”, a beautifully evocative song from Fearing’s 1993 album Assassin’s Apprentice.  His wanderlust calls out to Canada, just as Joni Mitchell did in her gorgeous “A Case of You” back in the late Sixties.  The song still packs the same punch as it did back the 1990s and recalls the live version to be found on Fearing’s live album So Many Times of 2000, the choice cut for the new compilation.  Fearing is almost apologetic about releasing a best of collection, even after twenty years or so in the music business, comparing such a thing with the likes of David Soul or Bread.  His record company originally wanted the collection to be called Stephen Fearing’s Greatest Hits, but as Fearing rightly pointed out, in order to do this surely you need first of all to have had a hit.  The songwriter tells of how he finally decided upon the song choices for the album, whilst he was in the process of relocating to Halifax, Nova Scotia on the East Coast of Canada from Ontario on the West Coast.  Fearing had a two day drive across country and during that time, he listened to everything he ever recorded and imagined initially that the songs would just stand out.  Unfortunately, all that really came out of that experience was the title song “The Man Who Married Music”, which he stuck with; the rest was up to friends and associates.  Aside from the songs, Fearing is also an accomplished guitar player and tonight he demonstrated the art of finger style guitar playing with a short piece called “Whoville”, short due to the fact that he originally recorded the tune for an album which carried the stipulation that no track should be longer than one minute.  Describing the instrumental piece as a Morris Dance in the style of Dr Seuss and John Philip Sousa, Fearing took command of his instrument and played with the assurance of a seasoned guitar player.  In the second set of the night, Fearing tagged his impressive “James Medley” onto the end of “Dog on a Chain”, which revealed an accomplished playing dexterity, with a medley of well-known ragtime, jazz and blues tunes.  Not known as an overtly political songwriter, Fearing’s “Man of War”, originally from Industrial Lullaby (1997) tackles the troubled days of Northern Ireland but tonight, the edge was softened by a gorgeous coda as the song segued beautifully into John Martyn’s timeless “Don’t Want To Know” in tribute to the late musician.  The so called ‘hurting songs part of the set’, which Fearing explains is all about ‘love gone completely wrong’, included three poignant songs, “Vigil” from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ Kings of Love album, a brand new as yet unrecorded song “Hungry For Love” and “If I Catch You Crying”, a song co-written with Belfast’s Andy White, all showing a more sensitive side of Fearing’s work.  Concluding with the requested “Beguiling Eyes”, probably the songwriter’s most celebrated song and certainly the song most covered by other artists, Fearing brought the evening to a close, with a sublime instrumental version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” sewn into the song midway through, once again confirming Canada’s credentials for providing the world with first rate songwriters.

Eilen Jewell Band | The Maze, Nottingham | 12.10.09

Just when my belief was being challenged by the abundance of poorly attended gigs in my part of the country, my faith in humankind was restored temporarily as the narrow corridor that runs between the front bar and the concert bar to the rear of The Maze in Nottingham began to fill with an assortment of characters, all eager to find a decent seat in the house as Eilen Jewell and members of her fine band sound checked up on stage.  The air grew thin in the narrow cavernous corridor, the walls and ceiling of which were plastered with posters of the venue’s previous triumphs, including the likes of Diana Jones, Martin Simpson, Steve Forbert, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Hayes Carll, Laura Veirs, Nick Harper, The Move and the list goes on; all from quite different musical backgrounds but all defined by their quality.  I was particularly pleased to see such a crowd at the Maze tonight, which made the night even more exciting than it was potentially guaranteed to be.  Boston-based singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell took to the stage with her regular band consisting of Jason Beek (drums), Jerry Miller (guitars) and Johnny Sciascia (upright bass) and appeared to enjoy the banter that such an audience brings with it.  It was guitarist Jerry Miller’s birthday and so a party atmosphere was most definitely on the cards.  With sound checks out of the way and with bums on each and every seat in the house, plus the wall of standing figures at the back, silhouetted by the lights from the bar, I saw my way through to the backstage area and was introduced to Eilen by her drummer Jason Beek, who had guided me through to the backstage area.  Once in the ‘green room’ I was face to face with the young singer-songwriter and set about my routine enquiries just as a series of strange rumbling and gurgling sounds emitted from the buildings heating system, providing a curious soundtrack to the interview that followed.  Tonight’s support was provided by Canadian blues singer and guitarist Rob Lutes, whose set was like a naked flame all set and ready to torch the place.  His assured finger-picking blues style set a mood for the evening and judging by the amount of CDs he managed to shift during the interval, the crowd certainly seemed to approve wholeheartedly.  Starting with “The Only Soul” from his current album Truth & Fiction, Lutes played a hyperactive set featuring Billy Mayhew’s 1930s classic “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” and part of Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot”, played as an introduction to Lutes own “I Knew a Girl”, which was inspired by Johnson’s peculiar ragtime tune.  The tiny figure of Eilen Jewell appeared on stage shortly afterwards, equipped with her regular guitar, the one emblazoned with the slightly faded signatures of her ‘three gals’ on the front, Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams and Mavis Staples.  “We’ve come all the way from Boston just to join you guys tonight, and we’re so glad we did” announced Eilen before the first number.  “We’re so glad you did” came the first of many audience comments and heckles during the show.  Starting with “Sweet Rose”, the band warmed themselves up with a handful of songs from Eilen’s latest album including the title song “Sea of Tears”, “Rain Roll In”, “Fading Memory” and “The Darkest Day”, which Eilen introduced as one of her favourite Loretta Lynn songs.  Eilen has a great stage presence and finds it easy to build a rapport with her audience.  At times the singer tests the water by making fun of the way we speak over here, that the British have a certain way of making a song and dance out of such a simple word as ‘no’.  “You all say neeoouu” she said, seemingly out of curiosity.  The audience also tested the singer by shouting out for songs that Eilen Jewell obviously doesn’t have in her repertoire, such as “Swinging Doors”.  I was flabbergasted when someone retorted “it’s a George Jones song, you should know it”.  Unfazed, the wide eyed singer quipped “I see, I profess my love for you and then you start being demanding”.  Eilen and the band did perform an alternative George Jones song though, just to appease one or two of her more verbally animated fans, “Taggin’ Along” from Eilen’s side project, The Sacred Shakers album.  Responding to several requests from the audience, the band went on to play Eric Andersen’s “Dusty Boxcar Wall” from Eilen’s second album Letters From Sinners and Strangers before launching into one of the highlights of the set.  There was no attempt made to even try to imitate Billie Holiday’s vocal delivery on “Fine and Mellow”, yet Eilen managed to claim the song for herself and delivered a heart stopping-version of the old blues song whilst Jerry Miller’s guitar fills perfectly accompanied the arrangement and the band pitched a moody groove to a momentarily silent audience.  Continuing to fulfil all the requests being called out from the room, the band performed “Back to Dallas” from Eilen’s first album Boundary County preceded by an apology for running out of copies of the debut album.  After the song, during which guitarist Jerry Miller started to grin like a Cheshire cat, Eilen pondered “sometimes I think he’s telling himself little jokes, he’ll be playing and then he’ll start chuckling to himself, it’s the funniest thing”.  “Rich Man’s World” was perfectly timed as Eilen grabbed her harmonica rack for vibrant reading of the song, which also opens her second album.  Concluding with the band’s take on the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates classic “Shakin’ All Over”, the band returned for a final encore of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You”, once again fulfilling the audience’s demand for a Williams song.  I personally could have done with another Jewell original, making the most of the singer-songwriter whilst we have the pleasure of her company here. 

Devon Sproule | The Maze | 17.10.09

There was a strange presence tonight at the Maze as we settled down for what was potentially going to be yet another great night at this popular Nottingham venue.  The conspicuous figure of Chris A Cummings, aka Mantler, resplendent in white suit and cravat, wandered in and out between the backstage and main concert areas as the room filled with a healthy sized audience.  Who is this strange man?  Those who had noticed the posters may have thought that ‘Mantler’ was possibly a local young band, there to gain some useful exposure, but as the slight figure of Virginia-based singer-songwriter Devon Sproule took to the stage to introduce tonight’s support, I imagine everyone’s perceptions of what a support artist at the Maze should be, were probably challenged.  As the stocky figure of Mantler made himself comfortable at his Wurlitzer electric piano and twiddled around with his Rhythm Ace drum machine, programming in precisely the required beat, which shortly afterwards produced the kind of rhythms associated with cocktail lounge wallpaper music (think Raw Sex from French and Saunders), the audience shuffled nervously.  I thought it was a joke at first and that the Maze had inadvertently adopted the comedy fringe roster and was for a second reminded of the early 1970s Mott the Hoople Rock n Roll Circus tour, where the support was none other than the legendary Max Wall.  How wrong.  Once Mantler began to sing it all became clear and we were treated to a short set of intriguing songs with a sound reminiscent of mid-period Steely Dan.  The Toronto based singer-songwriter is the special guest on this, Devon’s current tour and there was no one in the room tonight enjoying this music more than Devon herself and her entourage, who sat enthralled beside the stage.  Towards the end of Mantler’s set, Devon and her band joined him on stage for a final song before a short break.  It only goes to show, you really cannot judge a book by the cover.  Devon Sproule is seemingly never happier than when on stage with her husband singer-songwriter guitarist Paul Curreri.  Why they are not a regular duo I have no idea.  I have seen these two artists on several occasions over the past few years and I’ve always been touched by their closeness on stage.  Once in Manchester, they actually shared the same chair whilst performing a love song.  Tonight, Curreri was happy to take his place as one of the musicians in Devon’s band, together with Ewan Rogers on drums and Andy Whitehead on bass.  With no introduction, Paul Curreri eased the band into the traditional song “Weeping Willow” with some emotive lead guitar motifs, the song originally from arguably Devon’s best album to date Keep Your Silver Shined.  The album was represented by a further couple of songs, both of which would have required a note had they been missing from the set, “Old Virginia Block” and “1340 Chesapeake St.”, as well as the beautiful autobiographical title song itself, one of Devon’s defining moments and on this occasion augmented by Chris Cummings’ harmony vocals and electric piano.  “Stop by Anytime” was also present in the set and it quite possibly could’ve been the reason some of the audience were here tonight, Devon having performed the song on Jools Holland’s Later show a while back.  For anyone familiar with Devon Sproule’s work over the last few years, most of her fifth album Don’t Hurry for Heaven, would more than likely be very familiar.  Most of the songs have been in her live repertoire for a while and some of the songs have been available as recorded demos on the celebrated Valentine’s Duets, which have been available as free downloads via Paul Curreri’s website for a good while, most significantly the title song from 2007 and the couple’s version of Black Uhuru’s “Sponji Reggae” from last year’s Valentine’s Duets compilation.  These recordings are a delightful insight into how this couple works, especially on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People” as well as the recording entitled etc, which is basically a Paul Curreri commentary, accompanying himself on guitar, as Devon makes popcorn, which pops and splutters in the background.  I first heard “Don’t Hurry For Heaven” this way and was pleased to see it appear on Devon’s latest album release, not just on the album but as the title song.  It contains one of Devon’s best lines ‘So if you love me even half as much as you love your old Martin, you should be practicing on me just about every…’, which was conveniently amended tonight to address Curreri’s ‘Tele Reissue’, his guitar of choice.  Devon’s guitar of choice is a vintage 1954 Gibson ES125, the ‘love of my life after my husband’, which she put to good use tonight.  During a brief silence after being called back onstage for an encore, a member of the audience called out ‘time for a “Plea for a Good Night’s Rest?”’ to which Devon and the band willingly concurred.  The song, from Devon’s third album Upstate Songs, a significant album that saw the emergence of a truly original artist after a brief two album outing under the single brand name of ‘Devon’, still remains an audience favourite and was performed beautifully well tonight, augmented by Rogers’ atmospheric percussion and Curreri’s intuitive guitar accompaniment.

Jackie Oates | NCEM, York | 19.10.09

As the autumn nights draw in and darkness fell early upon the city of York, I walked cautiously the short distance between the car park and the National Centre for Early Music, carefully avoiding the fallen leaves on the ground; hazardous little blighters they are. I approached the old church with its looming bell tower, aware that I was once again being watched by an assortment of mythological beasts, the ones carved into the 12th Century Romanesque porch that is, not the early arrivals for the concert I hasten to add and I soon found myself in the warm and inviting foyer of the converted St Margaret’s Church for another in the series of prestigious NCEM concerts organised by the Black Swan Folk Club.  I spoke to organiser Roland Walls in the foyer, who was slightly concerned at the number of ticket sales but still expected a good crowd nonetheless.  Katriona Gilmore was carefully arranging the concessions stall, fanning out copies of the Shadows and Half Light CD upon the table top, whilst avoiding the possibility of upsetting the merchandising bearing the name Jackie Oates, which now includes pretty t shirts as well as the customary CD back catalogue.  The foyer provides an ideal place for social gathering, where friends meet up and re-unite in a spirit of pre-concert enthusiasm.  Many a folk luminary has been encountered in this very room over the years including Stefan Grossman, Tim O’Brien, Robin Williamson, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy and most memorably, the wonderful Nic Jones, who was in attendance the last time Jackie appeared here with her former band Rachel Unthank and the Winterset back in 2006.  Tonight I chatted to old pals Katriona and Jamie, two rising talents of the British folk scene, just prior to them scuttling onstage in order to provide the support for the main concert.  During their set, Jackie watched intently from the back of the hall, seated over the threshold of the ‘green room’ and sipping a hot beverage.  Isn’t it lovely when the main act watches their support and thoroughly enjoys it?  Having said that, it would be difficult not to enjoy a set by this young couple, who can often be seen around the festival circuit, whether they be Kerfuffling or Tiny Tin Lady-ing, or whether they be donning their bright red tunics as part of the Frumptarn Guggenband.  Katriona, pronounced Katrina with a silent ‘o’; take it from me, I have it on very good authority (her mum), and partner Jamie, play their own blend of contemporary folk, which tonight included the tunes “Middle of May/Big Nige”, Katriona’s songs “Suzannah” and “Travelling in Time” as well as Jamie’s “So Long”, together with a traditional song new to the duo’s repertoire, “Nothing At All” and finally “All Along the Barley”; providing a captivating start to the evening.  For Jackie Oates, Day 10 of her current tour started in the little town of Cockermouth on the edge of the Lake District and specifically in the Cumberland Pencil Museum, where her bass player James Budden, an artist therefore a pencil enthusiast, browsed the exhibits with keen interest.  Tonight though, the pencils were back in their box, the canvasses locked away in the cupboard and the instruments were out on the NCEM stage as we settled down for Concert 10 of the band’s current tour.  Sharing centre stage with Jackie tonight was long term musical partner James Dumbelton on guitar, mandolin, shruti and fiddle, flanked by the aforementioned artist/musician James Budden on double bass and finally multi-instrumentalist Mike Cosgrove playing all the rest, including keyboards and accordion.  Although Roland’s initial concerns about ticket sales were probably warranted, all fears were soon dispelled as lots of people turned up unexpectedly to pay on the door, and Roland’s team were soon running in and out of the hall with more chairs just as Jackie’s first set got underway.  Starting with “The Miller and His Three Sons” from the new Hyperboreans album, the band soon settled into the flow of their set, providing the National Centre for Early Music with some of the sweetest sounds since Emily Smith’s appearance there a few months ago.  Jackie and the band performed several songs from the new album as well as a couple from her second album The Violet Hour including the delightful “Wishfulness Waltz”, a song written by her brother Jim Moray, and just the one from her solo debut of 2006, the utterly gorgeous “Lavender’s Blue”, an old folk song popularised by Burl Ives in the 1949 Disney film So Dear to My Heart.  The nursery rhyme has been played about with by many a potential hit seeker over the years but Jackie captures its innocence brilliantly well here, with a simple vocal delivery and steadily building arrangement, pretty much faithful to her recorded version.  Traditional song is where Jackie’s heart is and “Young Leonard” is another in a long line of songs derived from the “Lakes of Shilin”, popularised by Nic Jones a few years ago and more recently by Martin Simpson as “Lakes of Champlain” on his award winning Prodigal Son album.  Jackie’s arrangement once again changes location to that of Marsh Green, ‘a murky pond in Ottery St Mary’ in East Devon, but maintains its engaging narrative and is very much in tune with the concept of an evolving tradition.  As an ardent lover of Cornish music, Jackie recently said during a festival fiddle workshop, that the music of that part of the country is gaining popularity now, largely due to the endeavours of Neil Davey, who she describes as the ‘God of Cornish music’.  Jackie’s passion for this particular strain of Celtic music is almost tangible as the band performed a set of Cornish fiddle tunes tonight, including the same tune that Jackie taught at that very workshop at the Shepley Festival back in May.  After sitting through that workshop as a spectator and hearing that tune being relentlessly dissected into each of its component parts, it was a thrill to finally hear the tune with a full band accompaniment.  Jackie described her BBC Folk Award winning arrangement of “The Lark in the Morning”, from her second solo album as a ‘pastoral idyll’ before performing this beautiful song tonight, advising the audience to avert their eyes from the normally handsome James Dumelton during the performance.  James went on to contort his face throughout the song, vocalising a series of strange Indian mantras, whilst plucking violin strings with one hand and working the droning shruti at the same time with the other.  This I assume is probably closer to the arrangement destined for the next Imagine Village album that Jackie has recently been working on.  The surprise song on the new album is “Birthday”, the old Sugarcubes song written by Bjork.  The song has been given a delicious arrangement, which Jackie and the band simply glide through with no apparent concerns, especially in regard to its almost sinister undertones; of threading worms on a string and keeping spiders in a five-year-old girls pocket, not to mention the idea of sewing ‘birds in her knickers’.  At first the song seems at odds with what you would normally expect from Jackie Oates, but it works tremendously well.  If Bjork’s lyrics weren’t so vividly evocative you would have thought something had been lost in translation.  With the confession “it’s my hidden love of pop music” Jackie sings the lyrics as innocently as the five-year-old they are about.  “It reminds me of my best friend Ben when we were growing up in Stafford” she went on to tell me afterwards.  Taking up the Shruti, a laptop-shaped Indian harmonium, also popularised by Karine Polwart in some of her shows, Jackie sang one of the most heart-achingly sad songs of the night.  “Past Caring”, based on a poem by Henry Lawson, tells of the hardships that women endured in the Australian bush, learned from the singing of Martin Wyndham-Read.  Jackie tells of an ‘eerie silence’ whenever it is performed, and tonight was no exception, you could’ve heard a pin drop.  Saving the best almost until last, the band performed the infectious title song from the new Jim Moray produced Hyperboreans album, written by collaborator Alasdair Roberts.  Describing the subject of the song as ‘mythical people who dwell in Arctic places beyond the Tundra – a bit like the Lake District’, Jackie recited a key line in the song, ‘We’ll go to our unwed bed, daring to make our ardour’ going on to joke “I’d love to say that to someone”.  With Dave Wood’s “May the Kindness” as the final encore, Jackie Oates and her band concluded tonight’s performance and along with it, probably made some good friends here in York.  Having found her voice and her place on the folk music scene with three exceptionally strong solo albums, Jackie Oates can now boast having a tight and engaging live acoustic sound all her own, with a little help from her friends of course, whilst maintaining the integrity of the music she obviously loves.  After the show I found a quiet corner of the main hall to have a few words with Jackie, as the guys from the band, together with the Black Swan crew, began to clear the stage.  Seated before me, the winner of this years’ BBC Horizon Award was clearly pleased with her performance tonight and although ‘giddy’ would be totally the wrong word to use, there was a sense that this young girl would just love to jump up and punch the air, if her normally composed character would allow it.  Smiling throughout, Jackie willingly fell into a casual and informal conversation about the road so far and the different path choices she has negotiated along the way.

The Unthanks | The Duchess, York | 28.10.09

Fresh from their appearance on Jools Holland’s Later Live, the ten-piece version of The Unthanks utilised every bit of the stage when they appeared at the Duchess tonight, in order to showcase their new album Here’s the Tender Coming.  Once on stage, following a short set by regular support duo Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, you sensed that the band had not yet come down from the dizzying heights of appearing on Later the night before with such world class acts as Diana Krall and Stereophonics, along with Elvis Costello, author Nick Hornby and Jools himself.  I had some routine enquiries of my own to ask the key members of the band during the course of the night but was more interested first of all to see how some of the new songs translate into live performance.  Starting with Ewan MacColl’s “Nobody Knew She Was There”, The Unthanks performed just about every song from the new album with just a couple from their previous releases, “Twenty Long Weeks” from debut Cruel Sister and “Felton Lonnin” and “Blackbird” from their celebrated Mercury nominated album The Bairns.  Even those songs were given a fresh makeover, especially Belinda O’Hooley’s “Blackbird”, which appears to have been through the Penguin Café Orchestra’s mangle, coming out the other side every bit as enchanting as “Music for a Found Harmonium” or indeed “Telephone and Rubber Band”.  When I first heard “Because He Was a Bonny Lad” on a pre-release promo, with all its Brian Wilson-like vocal precision, I was worried just how this would transfer to live performance, or whether it would make an appearance in their forthcoming shows at all.  Like water off a duck’s back, the band performed the song as if they’d been doing it live for years.  The introduction of various tuned percussion and the autoharp together with a fine string and horn section not only provides the band’s five-piece core with a new sonic dimension, but also brings a new atmospheric dynamic to the band’s unique sound.  The most notable change in the band was the addition of producer/manager Adrian McNally on stage, who has made the decision to fill the shoes of Stef Connor, who in turn did the same for Belinda O’Hooley almost a couple of years ago.  “It was almost needs must really” Adrian explained, “it wasn’t really the plan coming into the album, I was just filling boots.  I’ve tried to stay off stage for as long as possible because from a creative point of view as soon as you become involved physically your ability to perceive what works and what doesn’t in terms of the overall picture goes out the window because your judgment is clouded by your own insecurities and vanity as a musician in a way that doesn’t affect you as a producer”.  Adrian McNally’s decision to join the band on stage as main keyboard player came after many considerations, one of which must have been how to follow in the footsteps of two highly proficient pianists.  “I’ve always felt that the great thing about what Rachel and Becky do, is the honesty in which they sing and perform and it’s all about the storytelling.  Musically I’ve always tried to reflect that in terms of ego-less performance and that the story and the song takes precedence over any one of us as performers and in some strange way my limitations as a musician almost aids and abets that in terms of always playing second fiddle to the song and to the singers and if my instrument and arrangements aren’t noticed at all, that’s the way I want it”.  Adrian has also made a song writing contribution, providing the band with one of his own songs “Lucky Gilchrist”, which the band confess is now one of their favourites in the live set, a reason maybe that it was also recorded the night before for the Jools Holland programme, which goes out this coming Friday.  “I wrote the song for Rachel” Adrian said, “I wrote it about her friend Gary Gilchrist whose nickname was Lucky Gilchrist who died last year very suddenly, he was around my age actually.  The piece of music I put it to had been kicking around for a little while and it came together extremely quickly really”.  Rachel said that she had written down some of her memories of her friend for Adrian and from this came the song.  “I was petrified the first time I played it to Rachel.  It’s such a sensitive subject”.  The musicianship demonstrated tonight at the Duchess was indeed second to none, especially in the string and brass arrangements on such songs as “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw” and the beautiful Anne Briggs song “Living by the Water”, featuring Lizzy Jones’ delicious flugelhorn solo, reminiscent of some of Robert Wyatt’s most sublime work.  Niopha Keegan is under no illusion how we come to have such great musicianship on the folk scene these days; in her particular case, through the efforts of the Newcastle folk degree course that she, amongst many others, have undertaken.  “If anybody studies music and has constant classes every week on a practical basis and learning about music theory every day for four years you’re going to improve dramatically.  We’re given opportunities to play with some of the best players on the folk and traditional music so we’re very lucky”.  The newest member of the crew is Adrian’s life-long friend Chris Price, who takes care of guitar and bass duties, as well as tinkering with ukulele, dulcitone and marimba and providing backing vocals as well.  Chris was only too pleased to climb on board the Unthank ship.  “I didn’t need asking twice, I was quite willing to do it.  It was a great opportunity to work with some brilliant people and to work with my best friends, and that was good enough for me”.  It would seem a good a time as any to join as the ship appears to be now finally reaching the right ports.  After three or four years of highs and lows, the lows being personnel changes and the highs being such things as the band being nominated for a Mercury Prize, I asked Chris, who has flirted with the music industry in the past, whether for him this is now the real deal.  “I hope so.. I have nothing to fall back on” he joked.  For the two constants in the band, the siblings who embarked on their maiden voyage as a duo, before sailing on three very distinct versions of the Winterset, and now with the five-piece renamed vessel, nothing about them has changed one bit.  “We still sing in the same way as we’ve always done and we still look for songs in the same way” admitted Rachel, “but of course it’s changed dramatically from singing just with Becky to having a ten-piece band and even this tour at the beginning, we were looking around for Stef (Connor) wondering ‘where is she?’  Rachel’s younger sister Becky goes on to say “It’s like the world around us has changed but we haven’t”.  The Unthank sisters have no real need to change and when all’s said and done, why should they?  They are essentially folk singers in the most basic use of the term.  They sing songs from their neck of the woods and in their own very distinct vernacular.  “For us it’s perfectly natural, we grew up on the folk scene and that’s what people do, they sing in their own accents, so coming from where we do there’s no alternative, it doesn’t seem strange to us and though people point it out, it makes perfect sense to us”.  The sound of the band has become much more focused on attention to detail, where every stroke of a marimba (or ‘dinger’ as Rachel likes to refer to it as) or every flurry of the autoharp is essential to the sound of the performance.  The string section that Niopha Keegan has made herself very at home within, gives the band the solid base on which to build, especially on “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw”.  Jo Silveston’s cello on Lal Waterson’s “At First She Starts” provides the most perfect setting for Becky Unthank’s unmistakable and inimitable voice.  Aesthetics have been almost as important as the musical presentation itself throughout the short history of the Unthanks musical career.  Unashamedly girly, the sisters have paid a lot of attention to their stage presentation and have always taken care to make sure their clothes have measured up to their music.  Adrian explains “It’s always such a privilege when anyone comes to see us; there are so many things to do with your time these days from a leisure point of view.  When an audience comes to see you, it doesn’t matter if it’s the back end of nowhere or it’s on Jools Holland you feel a duty and an obligation be your absolute best all the time”.  With an encore of “Betsy Belle”, the hidden music hall song on the new album, with its energetic clogging sequence, to which Rachel jumped off stage to perform, the band closed on the title song, the beautifully evocative “Here’s the Tender Coming”, quite possibly now the bands’ defining song, since it was chosen to be performed live before millions on Jools Holland’s live programme precisely twenty-four hours before this performance.

Vanessa Peters and Manuel Schicchi | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 14.11.09

For the final show in the UK leg of their current tour, Texan singer-songwriter Vanessa Peters and Ice Cream on Mondays guitar player Manuel Schicchi appeared at the Wheelhouse in Wombwell tonight as part of the Barnsley House Concerts series.  Once again the Jones family, Hedley and Lynne together with Hedley’s sister Sue and Rory the dog, invited a small audience into their home for another intimate evening of fine and mellow music.  Originally from Texas, Vanessa lived most of her life in Dallas before moving to Houston and then on to Austin, one of the world’s leading music capitols.  After gravitating to Italy and subsequently returning several times to the little town she had fallen in love with there, Vanessa met a bunch of like-minded souls in 2004 and started making music together.  “I was a student there, almost ten years ago now, and then I started to go back to visit because I liked this little town.  Then one of the years I was visiting I met Manuel and the other two guys that form the band (bassist Juri Deluca and drummer Alberto ‘Gumo’ Serafini) and we all started playing together.  That was in 2004 and since then we’ve been touring and playing together for the last five years, so I use Italy as my home base when I’m in Europe”.  Ice Cream on Mondays was the name of the band and Vanessa was only too happy to join them in order to tour and play with them and together they have gone on to record three albums.  I suggested that being in a band with three Italian male musicians was the unattainable dream of possibly all the women I know, to which she jokingly replied “It’s true, me and three Italian guys is a bit strange but you could say the same for them; it’s three Italian guys and one girl from Texas, for a lot of Italian guys that’s the unattainable dream”.  Completing her UK tour with not one but two consecutive house concerts, the first taking place in York last night and then again in Wombwell tonight, I asked Vanessa about the current appeal of such unique settings, which in all fairness are relatively new in the UK.  “We love house concerts; if we could do a whole tour of just house concerts we would, because ultimately they’re less stressful and they’re more fun.  They’re more how story telling music is meant to be.  Our music is not meant to be a big stage production with lights and dancers, it’s just about the songs”.  The songs were certainly what it was all about tonight and the duo performed much of the new album Sweetheart, Keep Your Chin Up, with an exceptionally gentle touch.  Completely unplugged, Vanessa and Manuel lowered their acoustic volume level to minimum in order for Vanessa’s voice to cut through.  “When I talk I’m a lot louder than when I sing” the singer admitted, even discarding her pick in order to gently brush the strings of her guitar with her slight fingers.  Starting with the opening song from the new album, Vanessa revealed the context of much of the new record, that of Greek Mythology and in particular Odysseus and Penelope from Homer’s classic work of literature.  On “Good News”, one of the winged Sirens is used as the basis of her story telling, as a metaphor for some of our current world conflicts.  “I’m really interested in literature and so I like the idea of taking these old stories and making them modern” Vanessa admitted and at the same time pointing out that the references are not immediately obvious, “If you download the record off itunes and you never look at the lyrics and you never look at the drawings you might never even catch the mythological references because I never actually say this is the Odysseus song or this is the Penelope song, it’s only if you had bought the record that you would know that.  So I try to write songs that could go either way”.  The characters in such literary stories as The Odyssey appeal to Vanessa in as much as she empathises with the protagonists in their yearning to return home.  “I like these characters because these are characters that are not at home and we are never at home anymore, so I identify with the idea of being out to sea and trying to struggle to find your way back”.  To Vanessa touring and being out on the road has an appealing side to it but there is always this nagging desire to return home.  “It is an adventure but at the end of the day you do just want to get home”.  Vanessa tells us that home really is Texas, and despite being constantly reminded that her home town was where they shot Kennedy, the songwriter found empathy when she recently met someone from Lockerbie.  “We sort of laughed together; this really is a weird world”.  Weirder still, for me Dallas represents the place where they shot JR, whose brother apparently had fantastically imaginative dreams that play out for much longer than your usual sleep length, but hey, if the man from Atlantis says it was a dream, then it must’ve been.  With songs like “Austin I Made a Mess” and “Drowning in Amsterdam”, the autobiographical element is apparent in Vanessa’s song writing, but sometimes the lines between fact and fiction are somewhat blurred.  “Some of the songs are totally fiction and some are completely autobiographical and it’s up to everyone just to decide, because I will never tell”.  Dedicating a good part of her life to touring, I wondered when Vanessa manages to fit song writing into her busy schedule.  “If I’m alone I will write on the road.  It’s really hard for me to write when anyone else is around at all, even if it’s my best friend, I want to be totally alone”.  With such personal songs it would appear logical to find one’s own space and to avoid distractions as much as possible.  There’s a big difference between playing solo or in this case in a duo and playing in a full band.  I asked Vanessa if she misses that bass line here or that drum fill there when playing in such a trimmed down version.  “When you play with the band you do have to follow the letter of the law, if there’s a stop coming up you have to stop there because everyone else is going to stop, so the nice thing about the duo is that we are flexible enough that if we want to do something a little bit different with the song we can and it doesn’t stress anybody else out”.  Having said that, Vanessa is always keen to get back with the band eventually.  “When we’ve been playing as the duo for a long time, three or four or five months and then we do have a band show, it’s just really fun it’s really nice to rock out a little bit”.  Vanessa’s popularity has grown, particularly in light of the recent video she made with Schicchi, which was entered in a video contest presided over by singer-songwriter Aimee Mann.  As runners-up with their take on Mann’s single “Freeway”, Vanessa soon found that the hits had rose from 3,000 to 30,000 overnight, eventually exceeding 100,000.  Vanessa is still astonished at the number of hits the video has received.  “It was crazy, I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, it was like is there another zero over there?  I thought oh my God, how is that possible overnight?”  Upon announcing the winners, Mann singled out Vanessa’s video as one of her favourites, adding I would imagine, to the good publicity.  During two sets that our host Hedley Jones described as ‘sublime’, Vanessa and Manuel performed songs from their back catalogue including “Nothing I Should Cry About” from her debut album Sparkler (2003), “Gone” from her first album with the band Thin Thread (2005), “Such Good Actors” and “Fireworks” from her last album Little Films (2006) and a whole bunch from the new album, plus no less than three covers, Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” in the first half and Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” in the second with the old Elvis hit “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You” serving as the final encore and therefore the song that rounded off their last UK date in their current tour, before shooting off to Holland, where they were due to be playing another gig in less than twelve hours’ time.  Another indication of their gruelling tour schedule.

Folk on Sunday | The Regent, Doncaster | 15.11.09

The Regent Hotel is perfectly situated in the centre of Doncaster and provides an ideal setting for a major charity event both in terms of its location and its own musical heritage.  The Hallgate/South Parade junction was heaving with traffic at lunchtime today as motorists slowed down to witness the last few remaining hours in the life of the Gaumont Theatre right next door.  As diggers of various sizes reduced the old place to rubble, the ghost of Lonnie Donegan was no doubt felt by some of the older onlookers, recalling the night the Skiffle King recorded “My Old Man’s a Dustman” live on that very stage in 1960, the recording of which was released as a single and which went on to sell over a million copies.  Then there was the theatre’s relationship with The Beatles who played there no less than three times in 1963 before Beatlemania stormed America.  There was an air of sadness as I watched the bricks fall to the ground heralding the end of an era.  Adjacent to this old theatre is the Regent Hotel, which over the subsequent years has served as temporary accommodation for most of the performers who have appeared on the Gaumont stage in its heyday.  My mother worked at the hotel for a while in the early 1960s and vividly remembers the Beatles stay over.  The Abbey Road Bar in the basement is testament to that special relationship between the family who owns this hotel and the world famous artists who appeared next door.  Today however, the Regent Hotel was playing host to a very different sort of music and for an entirely different purpose.  The destruction and devastation of this neighbouring theatre cannot possibly compare with the awful events that played out in Pakistan four years ago, when an earthquake struck the country, destroying many communities and taking thousands of lives.  Today the local folk community came together to raise the profile of the AHS Foundation charity and to raise funds that will be used in various ongoing endeavours to help those affected by this terrible Earthquake.  The charities’ fundraising co-ordinator Eileen Myles joined me before the concert, where she brought me up to date on the progress of the work being carried out in Noon Bagla, supporting those communities devastated by the Earthquake, with aid for over 12,000 people in Kashmir.  Seated in one of the windows overlooking South Parade, Eileen spoke passionately about the devastation caused and of the inspirational spirit of those affected and of the humility found in the people who are now offering their help and support.  I was keen to find out why Eileen chose the folk genre as the basis for this concert.  “I was brought up with folk; from being twelve years old I’ve been listening to folk music and the thing about people I find, generally people who are involved in folk music do care.  The two things I’m most passionate about in life are providing healthcare for these people in this village of Noon Bagla and Folk Music and so why not combine the two?”  Why not indeed.  The first artist to arrive this afternoon was Clive Gregson.  The running order and start time had been slightly adjusted to accommodate Clive who had another engagement in North Yorkshire later in the evening.  I caught up with him just before his set and found him both relaxed and talkative.  He seemed only too glad to be able to help on this occasion.  I first of all asked him how he feels about charity concerts.  “It’s interesting because down the years, charity events on a local level can be chaotic and very poorly organised and although well intentioned, as functions and musical events they can be quite poor.  I always try and make sure that it’s something I’m interested in and something I’d like to help out with.  I’m always positively inclined, but I always try and make sure it’s going to be reasonably well run and that just because it’s a benefit or charity event, I still think that people are parting with money and they still need to see something that’s worthwhile and good”.  With Hedley Jones at the sound desk and Eileen Myles and her team at the helm, Clive had no such worries today as the whole event went superbly well.  The MC for the today’s event was Jonathan Duffield who introduced each act and kept the audience up to date with various announcements.  Clive Gregson’s most recent CD release is a Best Of covering his solo years and this afternoon he performed some of the songs included in this retrospective album.  A well respected singer-songwriter, Gregson appears equally at home with up-tempo rockers such as Graham Parker’s “Bare Footin’” as he does with soulful ballads such as his own “Touch and Go” and “Home is Where the Heart is” both from his much loved and much missed duo period with Christine Collister.  Having moved to America in the early 1990s and now based in Nashville, Gregson has moved in the right circles, hooking up for a while with Nanci Griffith who recorded Gregson’s “I Love This Town”, which he played this afternoon to an attentive audience.  After consulting with the audience about what they would prefer, a song by either John, Paul or George?  Gregson finished his set with a totally acoustic version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”.  Representing the younger end of the folk scene was Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts who had hot-footed it over from Barnsley Market, where they had been performing during the afternoon, playing for shoppers and providing them with something slightly different to shop to.  Katriona joked that after following Clive Gregson at a festival a couple of years ago, he was becoming ‘consistently the best support act we’ve had’.  Performing songs from their debut album Shadows and Half Light Katriona and Jamie brought to Doncaster their own brand of gentle folk ballads, fiddle tunes and self-penned material such as Jamie’s “So Long” and “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” and Katriona’s heartfelt “Travelling in Time” and a homage to an old Stephen Foster song with “Susannah”.  “It’s really good that so many people are turning out to support such a worthwhile cause” said Katriona after the duo’s set, going on to say “we feel lucky that we’re fortunate enough to be in a position where we can help out”.  Ray Hearne was on hand as ever to lend his support to such a worthwhile cause, contributing the poem he wrote about the Kashmir Earthquake “Dark of Heartness” as a prelude to his set.  Ray told me later how compelled he felt to write something after watching the events unfold on TV.  “What can you do when you’re watching it on the television and you see a thing of such massive proportions as that Kashmir Earthquake?  A lot of people who live in Rotherham near me are from Kashmir, so it hit Rotherham in that sense. People collected and people went over to Kashmir to try and help.  It was such utter devastation and one of the great tragedies was that a lot of it could’ve been prevented, so many buildings fell on people, because they were badly designed, badly constructed, cheap materials.  Many, many people died and they needn’t have done and so that added to the tragedy and what can a writer do?  A writer has got to write and has got to try and find something; but if you keep at it, keep letting it nag at you and you nag back at it, eventually you can shape something sometimes”.   Having released his CD The Wrong Sunshine recently, Ray performed some of the songs this evening including “Manvers Island Bound”, “Melting Shop Chaps” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as well as the beautiful “Song For David”, still an audience favourite.  Jez Lowe ‘dragged a few greatest hits out’ tonight, including “Old Bones”, “Taking on Men” and “Tenterhooks”, and as in the case of all performers today, performing totally free of charge.  Speaking to me after his set tonight, Jez explained “We all try and do our bit for different causes and different charities and things, but this was something very different but obviously very worthwhile and something that Eileen felt very strongly about so she persuaded me, no bother”.  The songs that Jez writes and sings are specific to his County Durham roots and he went on to explain “I was very attracted to start with, with the traditional folk melodies.  The traditional folk thing really never died out in the North East of England, you know my parents sang those folk songs, they didn’t know they were folk songs they were just old songs, so it was really in the blood of the people up there, a bit like it is in Ireland and Scotland with the Geordies.  I really try to emphasise that I’m not trying to write pretend folk songs, they’re actually new contemporary songs, but the style is just the way they come out of me really”.  Rounding off the event was Doncaster entertainer, performer, comedian and songwriter Steve Womack who brought some of his own unique humour to the proceedings, bringing a smile to the faces of everyone who stayed on until the end of the six hour event.  Such is Steve’s wealth of knowledge of popular song, he invites the audience to call out three or four random artists and he performs a medley of songs by those artists, whoever they may be.  Tonight the random choices ranged from The Beatles to Lindisfarne by way of Shirley Bassey, Warren Zevon and Jedwood, oh and it’s a long time since I’ve heard Cliff’s “Summer Holiday” sung so well in a folk club!  We left the Regent close to midnight after a successful few hours of great songs and music, a good deal of fun and the satisfaction of having been involved in raising funds for such a worthwhile cause.  Delivering hope was the message and with the hard work of people like Eileen Myles and the rest of her team at the AHS Foundation, we can rest assured that the message will get through to those who need it most before too long. 

Bob Cheevers | The Tap, Hull | 24.11.09

It was a decidedly chilly Humberside evening when I arrived at the Tap, formerly known as the Tap and Spile, an unassuming high street pub on the corner of Springbank Avenue and Norwood, not far from Hull’s city centre.  Live music can frequently be heard coming from the small stage at this venue, most often on a Tuesday night when open mic sessions take place with regular especially invited guests.  I arrived at the venue quite early, recognising it by the abundance of posters pasted to the windows outside, some of which showed the distinctive profile of tonight’s guest.  Once inside, I found an almost empty bar room, save for the obligatory lone bearded figure seated in a corner, having an early evening beer whilst poring over the discarded sports pages, before calling it a day.  The dimly lit stage in the corner had already been visited by tonight’s guest, judging by the well-travelled instrument cases stacked at the back, the owner of which must have gone off in search of a warm place for a bite to eat.  Shortly afterwards, a slightly windswept Bob Cheevers returned, along with his road companion, the former Cutting Crew bassist Dominic Finlay, who would be providing tonight’s support as well as joining Bob on stage throughout his two sets.  Wearing his trademark floral Nudie shirt, which incorporated brightly coloured embroidered flowers set sharply against a black background and bejewelled in various pieces of turquoise set in silver, the Memphis-born singer-songwriter sat with me in a quiet corner to discuss his new album, the current tour and the story so far, including his formative years in Memphis, his move to California and subsequent drug-infused hippie lifestyle; his gravitation to Nashville 25 years later and finally his recent move to Austin, Texas.  With a familiar deep Southern drawl, Bob talked candidly about all of this before taking to the stage in order to perform two sets of songs covering the various periods of his long career in the music business.  Joining Bob and Dominic on stage was local guitar hero Dave Greaves, who it was alleged had never heard any of these songs before tonight, which if true, proves Dave’s credentials as a first rate pick-up guitarist.  Starting with the bluesy “Texas is an Only Child”, Bob eased us into a first set made up entirely of songs from his new release Tall Texas Tales, an album that successfully chronicles the songwriter’s observations of his newfound home in the Lone Star State.  “I moved to Texas not to be a Texas artist, but to be an artist in Texas” Bob explained.  “I didn’t want them to think I was coming down there trying to be like them, because they’re real protective of their art and their style of music and very satisfyingly so.  I was welcomed with open arms because my music was really refreshing for a lot of people down there, talking about the Old South and the Civil War stuff that I had written so much about”.  Bob was at pains to point out that his infiltration into the Austin scene was more to do with that of being an observer.  “These songs over the last two years of living in Texas are more my view of what Texas life is like through the eyes of a Southern boy from Tennessee.  So on that ground, the Texans will accept that, because I’m not trying to say I’m like you all, I’m trying to say, I’m really not like you guys and this is how I see you guys”.  “Texas is an Only Child” references many of the things we have come to know and love about Texas.  With a nod towards songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt, Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson as well as reminding us of the Alamo, border patrols and ‘keep Austin weird’ bumper stickers, Cheevers leaves us with no doubt of how he sees Texas.  There are however, some moments in Texas history that the natives would rather not be reminded of and interestingly enough, Cheevers was in fact persuaded to change some of his lyrics before the song was submitted to tape.  “The second verse originally was about the Branch Davidians and David Koresh, the FBI and burn ‘em up and Waco, and also about the Kennedy assassination.  When I played the song originally for some of my Texas friends they said “you need to change that second verse” and I said “why?” and they said “we really don’t want to hear about that stuff”.  Although persuaded and not forced, Cheevers did re-write that verse and he told me tonight that he was actually glad that he had done so in the end.  The Stephen Doster produced Tall Texas Tales was recorded in a very short period of time, the whole thing from start to finish coming in at just over a week.  “We had two days of rehearsals, about three hours each day and then went into an analog studio, not a digital studio as we’d done with the last bunch of albums.  We did it old style.  Everything on the record is live to tape, singing and playing.  We spent two days recording ten songs and then spent two more days adding overdubs, string parts and keyboard stuff and then spent four days mixing, so eight days from start to finish”.  The songs are accomplished on record despite the seemingly rushed approach and they transfer to live performance particularly well.  It would have been nice to hear the distinctive Tex-Mex accordion on Luckenbach tonight, which on the record recalls all the sweat and gristle of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band, but Dominic’s bass lines and Dave’s flirting guitar fills brought the feel of central Texas to Hull so well, that you could almost taste the enchiladas.  Several hand-picked songs from the new album featured in the first set tonight, including “Budget Motel” and the intriguing “Turquoise Heart with a West Texas Smile”, bringing a further taste of West Texas to the Humberside audience.  Dedicated to some of the older members of his audience tonight, “Grown Up People” shows a maturity in Bob’s most recent writing.  Some of the grown up people in the audience were possessed of diploma standard heckling skills, especially the woman who insisted on telling the band how good they were between each song.  It all made for an enthusiastic and living atmosphere nevertheless.  By far the strangest song on the album and also included in Bob’s set tonight was “Mushroom Cloud Lil”, the unlikely subject being that of the father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, and his suicidal daughter.  By Bob’s own admission, the songwriter is in possession of a vivid imagination ‘’being a Scorpio only child’ and admits he has no idea where these things come from.  “I’d like to disclaim responsibility for this song”, Bob pleaded during the introduction.  With two more songs from the new album, “Is it Ever Gonna Rain” and “One Good Rib”, Bob took a break from the stage with the band being reminded once again how much the most prominent heckler was enjoying the show.  Bob Cheevers embarked on his musical journey in the 1960s having been born and raised in Tennessee. Emerging from a musical family in Memphis, his mother being a professional musician, Bob spent his formative years in the city immersed in a rich musical heritage.  “My mother was a radio star in the 1920s and 1930s and the radio station was in the basement of the Peabody (Hotel), so she’d go down there every morning before she’d go to work and do her piano playing and singing”.  At the time Bob came along, Memphis was a hotbed for the rising stars that would soon become household names, not just in America but throughout the world.  Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios would frequently be visited by the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ that would influence the young Cheevers and his contemporaries.  But Bob’s musical spirit was somewhat dampened by a mother who was only too aware of all the pitfalls inherent in the music industry.  “My mother really discouraged me in many ways from the music scene because of the heartache that she had gone through and the difficulty that she knew that everybody goes through being in the music business; so rather than encourage me to use my talent, which she knew that I had of being a singer – she also gave me guitar lessons for a little while until my math began to fail, and then she ended those – therefore she discouraged me”.  Bob had to wait until much later for that particular calling to manifest itself during his late teens.  “For me when I was young and when Elvis and those guys blew up in Memphis, it was larger than life and for me it was something that was impossible to go for.  A lot of my friends saw that as an opportunity for them to look at themselves and possibly get into that field but for me it didn’t work that way until I got to College, which was 15 years later.  I borrowed a friend of mine’s guitar and I started writing songs and we had a little band, then people started saying ‘wow, you’re a singer’”.  “I moved to California after college and went to work for Capitol Records and I gave some songs I had written to the lady in their publishing department.  She was playing them one day when an independent record producer was in the office and he heard my voice and said that’s the voice I’ve been looking for.  So this magic thing happened and I got this major label deal.  It all sort of blew up for me in a good way”.  The young Cheevers was drawn to the magnetic pull of pop music during this period and like many a young singer at the time, he saw opportunities in the emerging commercial world of ‘bubblegum’, that is, manufactured pop groups found in the likes of Bobby Sherman and The Monkees.  “The guy who heard my voice at Capitol’s publishing company was a record producer and when he found me he had already found this other group of guys that with his help, formed the group called the Peppermint Trolley Company.  Over the next few years of all of us being under his direction, they had a falling out with him and he reformed the band with me and three other guys.  We went on to continue to make records with him and had more hit records.  We never performed; we did radio stuff, interviews and some TV stuff but we didn’t go on the road and perform, even though we’d had some hit records”.  Having sung with the Peppermint Trolley Company, most notably on the theme song to the hit TV series Love American Style, it didn’t take long before the pull of the stifling world of commercialism turned Bob’s head towards the counter culture, with its well documented experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs and a desire to discover what the songwriter was capable of writing.  “We were a manufactured band and they told us what to sing and what to wear, what to say.  I was happy doing that, I was young and dumb, but then my wife and I started smoking pot.  Remember this was in the 1960s in Southern California, it was called the Summer of Love and we became hippies; we started taking LSD the way everybody in our circle was doing and it profoundly changed my life.  Among the many things it did, it gave me a reason to look inward and to find out what I had to say and talk about and I started writing completely different songs, more from the heart and certainly less about what that producer had wanted me to write about”.  Cheevers didn’t arrive in Nashville until 25 years later.  “My publisher had been pitching me in Nashville as a writer and as an artist, because my songs were much more Country than they were Pop, whereas I had been in the Pop field in California and by then I had gone long away from that.  We moved out of LA, lived on a ranch up in Northern California and I started really writing for myself.  When that happened it was yet another increment of change and they tended to be more Country”.  Tonight at the Tap in Hull, I spoke to a couple of people who had not until now encountered Bob Cheevers and both said the same thing to me afterwards, that Bob reminded them of Willie Nelson.  Bob makes no effort to hide the fact that Nelson is one of his musical heroes.  “Every time I sing somebody says ‘you know who you sound like?’ and now people are saying I look like him, so he’s a hero of mine because of what he’s done with his career and how he’s handled himself as a person.  I know a lot of people who are good friends with him, I haven’t met him yet, and they’re very protective of him.  I think I’ll meet him one of these days but not until he’s ready to have me included in his circle of people, but it may or may not happen.  I’d like for him to do a few of my songs though”.  Willie Nelson may not have recorded one of his songs yet, but Bob has had his moments of success as a songwriter, albeit in a spooky way.  One of his songs, “Big City Gambler”, was reportedly on a pile of songs ready for Elvis to record just before he died.  “I missed the boat on that, but Johnny Cash also recorded a song of mine, so did Waylon Jennings and all three of those guys are dead.  I know it’s a joke, but now people don’t want to record my songs for fear of the death curse”.  The curse was not apparent when out of the blue, Johnny Cash asked Bob to open for him during the Country singer’s very last tour.  “When I was 15 we had a little combo that won a talent show singing a Johnny Cash song, “Big River” was the name of the song, 40 years or however many years later for him to say would you come support my tour, it was like God speaking.  Every night backstage, he was a giant man, it was like he was seven feet tall and he wore this long coat and he was always very nice.  He’d listen to our set and we’d talk about stuff; I told him about winning the talent show and he said ‘that was very nice son’ (laughs)”.  Bob’s second set tonight was made up of songs from his impressive back catalogue including “I Need To Slow Down” and “Memphis Til Monday” from Texas to Tennessee, “Once in a Lifetime Ride” from We Are All Naked, “River Gonna Rise” and “I Saw the King” from Gettysburg to Graceland and “New Forest Rain” and “Plans to Meet in Paris” from Bob’s last album Fiona’s World.  Despite tonight being very much Bob’s gig, he showed just what a generous musician and performer he is by leaving the stage midway through his final set, whilst inviting the brother of guitarist Dave Greaves up to perform a couple of songs.  The brothers sang together on Michael Greaves’ autobiographical “My Heart Will Sing Along” as well as Joe and Audrey Allison’s classic Jim Reeves hit “He’ll Have To Go”, proving that the local Hull music scene has a lot more to offer than tribute bands and karaoke.  Rounding off the night with an older song called “Popsicle Man”, which Bob dedicated to his son, who he described as ‘an astronaut, who’s up there now’, I was left with one of Bob’s favourite sayings, “I don’t know if these stories are true, but they certainly happened to Bob”.

Thea Gilmore | The Duchess, York | 26.11.09

With Halloween and Guy Fawkes night out of the way, we once again find ourselves pondering over exactly when the Festive Season actually begins.  Towns and cities across the nation hire an assortment of b-list celebs to throw the switches at their costly light shows from around mid-November onwards, whilst the predictable TV adverts start sometime in July, a few months after our shopping lists began to be ticked off from around early January time.  Let’s face it, Christmas is almost a year round event.  Joking apart, I’m not entirely sure when the Christmas themed gigs should begin but I must say if they involve songwriters of the stature of Thea Gilmore, they could start in February for my money.  With the release of her new seasonal album Strange Communion at the beginning of November, it was logical to get the current Wintertide tour off the ground as soon as possible in order to fit in all 23 dates before Christmas Eve.  Refusing to use the ‘C’ word this early, the singer-songwriter insisted that the release is in fact a winter-themed album rather than a Christmas record specifically.  After the show I asked the Oxford born songwriter whether a Christmas album was just a natural progression once the covers album Loft Music and the live album Recorded Delivery were now out of the way.  “Oh I don’t know, I personally had to do a Christmas album just because I’m daft about Christmas.  I haven’t got much competition, there’s only Bob Dylan who’s released one this year, so hey”.  Curious to discover why Thea chose this specific period in her career to release a seasonal album I enquired whether motherhood might have had something to do with it and if so, to what extent her song writing might have changed with the responsibility of having a child.  “I remember when I was pregnant, my friend who is also a singer-songwriter, Kathryn Williams, had just had a baby and she said to me the one thing about being a parent is that it doesn’t necessarily change you or your views on things but it makes you think that you were viewing the world in black and white before you had a child and then suddenly colour appears in your vision.  It was a perfect way of putting it.  I don’t think having Egan my son has changed the way I look at things very much but it has heightened everything and made everything much more intense and I’ve got a bit more clarity now”.  Here is a songwriter who actually loves the Festive Season for herself and not just for the kids.  Considering herself a cynical person eleven months of the year, Thea reserves the right to be ‘squishy’ in December and confesses that she makes a special effort to celebrate it and so why not celebrate it with a themed album and tour?  “I love Christmas, I’m a real Christmas freak so it sort of made sense; I had a song that I really wanted to put on an album and so it just made sense to explore ideas and themes of winter and just enjoy my feelings about it as well”.  The song in question was “Midwinter Toast”, which was inspired by a comment made by the radio presenter Janice Long who had said to Thea “I’m so fed up of playing the same old shit on the radio at this time of year; why doesn’t anyone write Christmas songs anymore?”  Rising to the challenge, Thea went on to write “Midwinter Toast” but at the time, had nowhere really to put it, therefore it was never actually recorded.  Tonight at the Duchess, as the stage lights dimmed in anticipation of the main part of the show, after an excellent opening set by Rod Clements (Lindisfarne, Jack the Lad), a recording of Scott Walker crooning a seasonal “Winter Night” segued into some atmosphere-setting jingle bells music as the tall slim figure of Thea Gilmore emerged from the back of the stage.  Standing still before the audience, waiting for the last note of the ‘twinkles’ to fade out, Thea Gilmore greeted her audience with a distinctly chirpy “hello”.  Starting with her own version of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling”, Thea and her band, which consisted of husband Nigel Stonier on guitar, Rod Clements also on guitar and ‘mistress of the four strings’ Fluff on fiddle and tenor guitar, played a seasonal set made up of songs from the new album, with one or two familiar things thrown in for good measure.  The opening song from the new album “Sol Invictus”, features the Liverpool-based choir Sense of Sound, who recently re-joined Thea once again, this time on stage at a concert in Birkenhead.  “It’s actually very difficult singing in front of a choir, leading a choir, not least because there were 20 of them on stage with me and I’m trying to make sure that they all know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it but more than that, it’s an incredibly emotional thing to be part of such a huge group of human voices; to be in the middle and in front of them all and I find it really difficult not to cry when I hear this.  The venue is a very echoey venue anyway and it’s almost church-like and so it’s just incredible and you get this massive wave of emotion coming over you”.  Tonight, Thea sang the hymn-like song unaccompanied, which in a way, was just as haunting as the recorded version.  The two non-original songs on the album were very carefully considered.  “Originally when I thought about making a seasonal album I thought it was going to be half covers and half originals but the originals kept coming.  I started writing them in May and I just didn’t stop really and so it came a much more original album than I thought it was going to be.  The two songs (Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” and Elvis Costello’s “St Stephen’s Day Murders”) I couldn’t leave off.  “St Stephen’s Day Murders” is such a rollicking good laugh and it illustrates a family Christmas so beautifully”.  I suggested that the song bore similarities to “Fairytale of New York”, which Thea was only too willing to concur.  “I think we accentuated that by having a male voice on it as well, we’re doing it as a duet and it just works like that, it’s just fun”.  “The other voice on the song is radio presenter Mark Radcliffe who is known for his appreciation of all things Pogues.  The reason that came about actually does have a connection to “Fairytale of New York” because a couple of years ago he (Radcliffe) asked me to be Kirsty MacColl to his Shane McGowan.  He’s got a band and he was doing a gig around Christmas and so I went and did that and we laughed all the way through it, it was just hilarious.  When I heard “St Stephen’s Day Murders” and knew I wanted to do it, I thought it would be great as a duet.  He was the first person I thought of and I was very lucky that he said yes”.  The single from the album “That’ll Be Christmas”, is as infectious as any classic Christmas song we all know and love and I suggested with lines like ‘Hot wine and a Christmas tree, the Sound of Music and the family, faith, hope and gluttony, that’ll be Christmas’, it’s just everyone’s idea of Christmas these days”.  “It really is; Nigel is a much more positive person than I am, I’m very definitely the pessimist in this relationship.  He put all the nice positive bits in and I was the faith, hope and gluttony girl”.  There were a few exceptions to the seasonal theme of tonight’s concert with a few well-chosen songs from Thea’s back catalogue, “Old Soul” and “Wrong Side” from her Liejacker album, “Mainstream” from Avalanche and “Saviours and All” from Thea’s so called ‘breakthrough’ album Rules for Jokers.  Audience participation was called for in “Oh Come On” encouraging her audience to join in on the contagious refrain by suggesting that Gordon Brown should win the next election ‘oh come on!’ or the fact that Simon Cowell has made a major contribution to music ‘OH COME ON!’ etc.  The participation obviously grew more enthusiastic as the suggestions got more bizarre.  For the encore, Fluff paraded a makeshift dartboard amongst the audience inviting someone to throw a magnetic dart at it.  The board was divided into ten sections, each containing the title of a ‘cheesy’ Christmas song, which Thea promised to sing. Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” was the chosen ditty thanks to York’s chosen Bullseye contestant in the audience.  Christmas is about children, it always has been and it always will be.  As the last of the remaining audience left the building, and as Thea and the band packed away their bits and bobs ready for another long drive through the night, little Egan ran around the dance area, which had just been cleared of chairs.  “Sorry about the noise” Thea laughed as her son ran around, presumably having slept through mum’s set.  “I considered myself to be totally un-maternal and not interested in kids at all and it’s no secret that Egan was a very happy happy surprise and I expected myself to feel hemmed in and locked down but in fact the opposite happened, Egan has just opened my eyes to so much and has just made my life so much richer”.  Thea Gilmore hopes that Strange Communion will be re-visited at this time of year for some time to come and I for one will probably do just that.  It’s just sometimes nice to hang up ones cynical cap, if only for a couple of weeks in December.

Chris Wood | NCEM, York | 30.11.09

A bit of a coup for the Black Swan Folk Club tonight as they staged one of only eleven shows in the maiden tour of Chris Wood’s new project, Handmade Life.  The very thought of putting together a musical combo comprising guitar, trombone, cello and drums was at first slightly disconcerting.  What kind of din would this combination make?  With Chris Wood at the helm however, those initial doubts were soon diminished.  After getting things underway with a couple of solo performances, “The Grand Correction”, which is one of the featured songs on Chris Wood’s new album Handmade Life and “The Cottages Reply” from his previous album Trespasser, Chris introduced his fellow performers to the stage as ‘the best band in the world’.  The band comprised of fellow Imagined Village musicians Andy Gangadeen on Drums and Barney Morse Brown on Cello as well as Robert Jarvis on Trombone.  Speaking after the show, Chris told me “The guys are unbelievable; I wasn’t sure it was going to work, drums, trombone, cello, voice and guitar.  Everyone’s got great ears on them, everyone’s listening like crazy to each other, and it’s just all working, it’s coming together and it sounds gorgeous”.  Chris Wood has become something of a national treasure over the last decade, particularly on the English folk music scene, not least for his voice and his delicate musicianship on both guitar and fiddle but also for his uncompromising political views and honesty on stage.  It has to be said, his popularity has taken far too long to get off the ground really, whilst working on a wealth of notable music projects, collaborating with the likes of Martin Carthy, Andy Cutting and more recently, the beast of a band known as The Imagined Village, the 17-piece multi-cultural revue from which the majority of this current band derives.  The Arts Council contacted Chris with a view to funding a project of his own choice, to which Chris promptly got the ball rolling on Handmade Life.  I asked Chris whether he first came up with the material and then went in search of musicians to perform that material or whether it was the other way around.  “It was something I’d been thinking about for a little while; I’d already done a couple of gigs with Barney and Rob on trombone and cello before, I’d gone to Belgium and done a gig, a double header with Martin Simpson and I thought this is no good two blokes playing guitars, how boring is that?  So I thought I’d let Martin do his thing but I thought what I’d do is change it up a little bit and so I asked Barney and Rob if they’d come”.  Initially, the thought of drums and trombone brought to mind a potential racket over Chris’s particularly sensitive guitar playing but it was surprisingly mellow, with an even distribution of sound throughout the set, largely due to fellow English Acoustic Collective member Rob Harbron’s clever touch at the sound desk.  Chris explained why he chose such an unusual combination for both the album and the tour.  “The reason for those instruments is because a lot of the songs are stories, they’re narratives.  Now, I love harmony, I just adore harmony and I don’t think you can really be sung a story by more than one voice, you can’t really hear a story from several voices, I don’t think you can, some people do but I just don’t.  I knew I wanted harmonies but I wanted to keep the narrative integrity.  So think of it not as trombone and cello but think of it as three voices, and then it works”.  The new album is not officially due for release until March 2010 but Chris has decided to make it available to those who attend these concerts.  “I think it’s incumbent on us to favour the people who actually come out to the gigs.  There’s so many other things that the people tonight could have done, but they didn’t do those, they got off their arses and they came to see a gig and that’s fantastic”.  Chris Wood is enormously proficient in the art of storytelling and over the last few years has managed to do this with his voice alone, that and a very distinctive guitar style reminiscent of Martin Carthy, but the new material is enhanced by some intuitive musicianship and inspiring arrangements, which is largely down to the cohesive playing ability of Chris’s new collaborators.  “They take these songs and they make them incredibly muscular.  When you’re on your own you can do so much but when I finish off as a soloist, these lads pick it up from there and sculpt it.  It’s the same thing but it’s just sort of bigger and deeper and richer.  Don’t ask me how they do it, they’re not playing what I’ve told them to play, that’s the whole point, that was the big agreement at the beginning, they’re not parts, they’re not playing parts that I’ve told them to play, they’re playing what they want to play.  I mean I’m just really relishing not being in control, everyone’s just doing what they want and it’s turned out better than I could possibly have dreamed”.  The best examples of these arrangements are of course in the material from the new album such as “Turtle Soup”, “Caesar”, “My Darling’s Downsized” and “No Honey Tongued Sonnet”, all of which were introduced during the course of two exciting sets tonight.  Utilising these musicians on established arrangements from Chris’s back catalogue was also evident on songs such as “Albion”.  When Chris appears solo these days he has taken to humming the haunting opening section to this song in lieu of a fiddle, or in this case two fiddles.  Drummer Andy Gangadeen took command of the two fiddles tonight to keep the metronomic ticking clock pulsating throughout the performance of the song.  On the traditional songs, Chris pointed out that he is often conscious of the presence of the spirit of his predecessors who perch upon his shoulders when performing such material.  “If you play these songs the same each night, you tend to get a spectral dig in the ribs”.  “Cold Haily Rainy Night”, previously re-invigorated by The Imagined Village with Chris taking the lead, still had the spirit of Martin Carthy watching over his shoulder even though he’s not quite dead, as the present band provided yet another fresh arrangement to this old night visiting song.  Opening the second set, Barney Morse Brown performed “Catherine Wheel”, a clever cello solo incorporating some equally clever EZ sampling foot work, which had heads at the back of the room searching in vain for the other players.  Robert Jarvis’s own party piece came at the end of “Spitfires”, when he did a pretty convincing impression of the fighter aircraft coming in to land, with only the aid of his instrument and an expert trombone embouchure.  “Johnny East” is a song written by Hugh Lupton, no stranger to Wood’s repertoire.  His award winning lyrics to the ‘chip shop song’, “One in a Million”, brought both Wood and Lupton to the attention of a much wider audience when they picked up the BBC Folk Award for best original song in 2005.  Introducing another Lupton song, Chris explained why he loves this writer’s songs so much, “He’s a really lovely writer; when he writes a story or a lyric, you always get a really strong sense of who the story is being told by.  It’s a thing that Phillip Pullman is always going on about, who is telling this story, where are they standing, what are they writing”.  Finishing off with another song from his award winning Trespasser album, “Summerfield Avenue”, Chris and the band, by this time joined by Rob Harbron on concertina, rounded off one of the most inspiring concerts this reviewer has witnessed at the NCEM for a good while, a notion agreed upon by the many who thanked organiser Roland Walls as they left the venue tonight.

Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby | The Rock, Maltby | 04.12.09

There are I imagine, many reasons why you might want to attend a Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby gig.  The standard of musicianship would no doubt be one of them, then there’s the unmistakable tone of Cathryn’s voice, which would be equally relevant.  It may be just the fact that you’ve been lucky enough to have met these two musicians previously and know only too well how warm, friendly and totally approachable they are.  For me, it’s all these things and more.  Even if it’s only the chance to hear the duo perform “Accanoe” live once again, a song that has haunted me from the moment I first heard it; that in itself would make it well worth coming along to one of their gigs for.  Tonight I spoke to Cathryn and Brian backstage as their support for the evening, two multi-talented Doncaster based musicians, Mick Swinson and Stu Palmer, were on stage checking out their sound with club organiser and sound man Rob Shaw.  This duo have been playing together for many years in various combinations, bands and outfits around the Doncaster area, one or two of which I have also been lucky enough to have been involved in.  Tonight, playing a variety of acoustic instruments, some of which were beautifully crafted by Stu, a local luthier, the duo performed a selection of old songs from a repertoire stretching back over nearly four decades.  With songs ranging from “Farewell Lovely Nancy” and “Mountains of Mourne” to Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” (which Mick confessed summed up their career thus far!) and Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”, better known as “Deportee”, Mick and Stu have returned to fine form, after many years of being hidden away from the public eye, playing together for the pure pleasure of playing.  Two friends and musicians doing what they know best.  The audience tonight recognised their intuitive playing and welcomed this revival of timeless songs and the chance of seeing them on stage once again.  One thing we can almost certainly depend on when you attend one of Cathryn and Brian’s gigs, is the regular starter “That Ol’ Guitar”, which is as familiar to their set now as snow is to Eskimos.  Even the slight technical glitch of losing Cathryn’s guitar momentarily couldn’t spoil their performance of this song, which showcases Brian’s familiarity with his fret board from the start.  Filling in with the old Janis Joplin unaccompanied song “Mercedes Benz”, whilst Brian and Rob sorted out the sound problem, the set was resumed with the beautiful “Alice’s Song”, written especially for Brian’s niece.  When once asked to appear in public to help publicise the song, Alice refused on the grounds that this young spirited girl would like to someday be famous for something, but certainly not for being Autistic.  So good is this song, that it has been recorded no less than three times; by Brian on his solo album Black and White, then by the Strawbs, complete with a Robert Kirby (Nick Drake) string arrangement and again now on Cathryn and Brian’s new album Calling All Angels.  Cathryn and Brian come from quite different musical backgrounds, Cathryn from the mountains of Virginia and Brian originally from Northern Ireland but for the most part growing up in and around London.  Brian spent much of his formative years around London’s burgeoning club scene, witnessing first hand some of the musicians who would subsequently go on to become household names.  “When I was a kid there was a club in Hounslow, West London, it was called the Zambezi Club and I saw Rod Stewart’s Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger; Jimi Hendrix, several versions of The Yardbirds, in fact one fantastic Yardbirds thing, and I consider myself really lucky to have seen this, Jimmy Page was playing bass and Jeff Beck was playing guitar and the usual guys, Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith.  It was an absolutely fantastic incarnation of the band”.  “But then I started going to the White Bear in Hounslow, which was run by the Strawberry Hill Boys, which was Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman and every Thursday I used to get my homework done and then run up to the White Bear to watch people like Ralph McTell and Wizz Jones and David Bowie used to come to down”.  Brian spent twenty-six years with the Strawbs with whom he contributed to several albums and numerous live appearances around the world.  It was through his association with some of the members who eventually became Strawbs that he got his first start in the music business.  “I always loved the Strawberry Hill Boys music, songs like “Josephine for Better or for Worse”, that kind of era of song.  I went to Regent Street Polytechnic and I was on the entertainments committee there and there was a lady that I’d seen at the white Bear, Maureen Kennedy-Martin her name was and she had this American guitar player and I thought he was fantastic this bloke, everything I wanted to be.  So I booked her to come to Regent Street Polytechnic with this American guitar player and play and she turned up without him.  A friend of mine, Trevor Wallace his name is, he said “he plays guitar” poking me in the back and pushing me forward and Maureen said “oh really, would you like to play with me?” and that’s how I really started”.  Cathryn and Brian’s set is usually predominantly self-penned material with the odd traditional song thrown in. Cathryn’s version of “Dixie” conjures up the authentic feel of Civil War balladeering much more than Elvis could possibly have done as part of his famed “American Trilogy”.  As a Nashville session singer Cathryn was given the opportunity to blossom as a songwriter in her own right, despite early setbacks in confidence.  “The thing that working in Nashville did for me was that it made me terribly frightened to do my own songs because the quality and calibre of songs I was singing from these great hit songwriters was so exceptional.  I thought mine aren’t anything like that and it took me a while to get out of that mind set of Nashville songs and I still appreciate that three minute movie that they can do so well there, better than anywhere else I think.  But it never was me, artistically”.  The subject matter of some of Cathryn’s songs are specific to her native Virginia, written with a keen eye on the State’s historical heritage, tackling such subjects as slavery in “Mr Jefferson” and the plight of the Native American in the stunning “Accanoe”.  The Pocahontas story when told by a native Virginian comes over as quite different from the tale Walt Disney tells.  “Accanoe” is one of those exceptionally powerful songs that comes from a tradition of material detailing the true history of the Native American as opposed to the much more common romanticised version. Cathryn is one of those rare performers who can convey the spirit of this part of American history, and in this song, provides an authentic chant throughout the chorus.  “The “Accanoe” chant is something that just came to me in a dream”.  Sadly, even though the song was written as a heartfelt commentary of this period of American history, not everyone was keen on the language used in the song, particularly the descendents of the people at the heart of the story.  “I did talk at great length with many different members of the Chickahominy Nation but none of them liked the song” Cathryn explained.  “They didn’t like some of the words that I used; I used a quote from John Donne that said ‘a victory for righteousness the savage’s defeat and it’s such an insult they say, to use the word ‘savage’.  The other thing was ‘sharing the pipe of peace’, ‘never happened’ they said.  For me it was just an image basically to say there was friendship there and they lived in friendship together, I didn’t mean literally that they were passing the peace pipe around, it was too cold, they were inside under bear skins and so forth”.  “We tried to get some of the drum circle from the Chickahominy Nation right there where my daddy lives when they were here in London celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Jamestown, to come and play on “Accanoe”.  They honestly didn’t have the time but also until I was willing to change the word savage, they were not willing to do it”.   It’s a little disconcerting to imagine any song being changed due to the disapproval of the listener.  Wouldn’t it be like asking Monet to remove an offending water lily?  I asked Cathryn if she ever seriously considered changing the lyric at all?  “I tried, but it’s a quote, it’s not something I made up, I wish I had made up something so effective as victory for righteousness this savage’s defeat, but it’s an old old quote and I just thought it so typified exactly what was going on politically at that time.  It was in the hate filled era right after Guy Fawkes and people were really on this crusade to convert the world to Christianity, and some people have never stopped that, but the first target was the new world”.  The song still stands out as one of the most passionately performed songs in Cathryn and Brian’s set and despite the excellent version to be found on the new album, nothing captures the spirit of this well-intentioned song than a live performance of it, which was received by a silenced Rock audience tonight.  Brian opened the second set tonight with a couple of guitar pieces including the sublime “Fingers Crossed”, the title track from his instrumental album.  Such sensitive playing is a world away from Brian’s earlier work with a variety of bands that came along in the Punk era, which we discussed earlier backstage.  “Immediately before I joined Strawbs I was in a band called No Sweat, who were the first signed to Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie record label, we were on the pub circuit around London basically and we could hardly get arrested to be honest because the whole punk scene was there all encompassing.  There was a wonderful band called Meal Ticket who in a different era would’ve been like The Eagles to be honest, they were all fantastic musicians that they just got totally eclipsed by punk music, which killed everything stone dead.  Then of course in came the keyboard era, you know people writing songs with one finger stuck on the keyboard somewhere, so it was difficult times for guitarists”.  “At that time we had three bands running at the same time, Strawbs and then High Society, a sort of Thirties pastiche band.  All the songs were written by John Ford and Richard Hudson and Terry Cassidy, who was The Strawbs tour manager and sound engineer.  We used to dress up and slick our hair back, apart from Huddy who didn’t have any, erm, then concurrently we had The Monks and “Nice Legs, Shame about the Face”, which was a hit.  We made an album which went gold in Canada, a DJ in Toronto picked up on it and off we went, great fun”.  Now a sort of elder statesman of British guitarists, Brian demonstrates a much more delicate approach to guitar playing, which perfectly complements Cathryn’s strong vocal delivery.  The more delicate the song, the more emotionally engaging the performance.  Written especially for ‘wonderful audiences’, “These Dreams” has one of those dreamy melodies, rich in atmosphere and texture, which exemplifies this notion perfectly.  Other highlights of tonight’s set were the title song from the duos last album I Will, a handful of songs from their latest release including “Two Hearts, One Love”, the traditional “Rejected Lover” featuring the voice of Mary Hopkin, Brian’s erstwhile musical partner on the recorded version, as well as the title cut “Calling All Angels”.  Finishing off with a medley featuring “River Deep Mountain High”, “Cottonfields” and the old Bob Wills Western Swing classic “My Window Faces South”, with Brian’s impressive slack key guitar break, the duo performed a final encore of “Genevieve”, bringing a memorable evening to an end.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 06.12.09

Carrie Elkin’s speedy return to the Wheelhouse is testament to her popularity around these parts after her first visit to the venue back in August, that time appearing with Nashville’s Robby Hecht.  Tonight Carrie returned to this popular Barnsley House Concerts venue this time with partner Danny Schmidt, sharing the stage as well as songs from two vary fertile repertoires.  Like her previous appearance in August, it was less about working specifically as a duo and more to do with two artists sharing their individual songs with one another.  The opening set was provided by local singer-songwriter Mike Hughes, whose Dylan influenced “(On My) Way Back Home” recalled the same sort of energy as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” back in the good old days.  Popping in for a fleetingly short set before hot-footing it over to Sheffield for a prior engagement, the young songwriter provided an adrenaline fuelled set of self-penned songs including “Saviour On The Side” and “Friends Again”, the title of which apparently derives from a suggestion made by someone in the audience here at the Wheelhouse during Mike’s last appearance in the Summer.  Mike has been making solo appearances in the area for the last six months following the disbandment of the local band he was involved with.  With a strong desire to explore the storytelling element of acoustic music and performance, embracing the precedent set by the likes of Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt, Mike brought to the Wheelhouse his own brand of stories told with a clear, confident and assured vocal delivery, not unlike Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones, but with the same sort of troubadour spirit as contemporary Americana songwriters such as Ryan Adams and Hayes Carll.  Joining Mike for a couple of songs was Wheelhouse regular Dick Bainbridge blowing some harmonica on the songs “Lost from the Start” and “Sweet Rose Mae”.  Judging by the standard of songs played tonight, the potential for this performer is nothing short of reassuringly positive.  Before tonight’s concert I met up with Danny Schmidt in the comfort of the Wheelhouse, whilst Carrie Elkin wandered around the house in her ‘jimjams’, having inadvertently put all her laundry in the washing machine, taking full advantage of the Jones’s kind hospitality.  I pointed out to Danny that the Wheelhouse has been possessed by the spirit of Carrie’s voice ever since her last appearance there in the summer.  “It’s probably reverberating in the walls” Danny suggested, knowing better than just about anybody the quality and strength of that voice, which projects inexplicably from such a small frame.  That voice kicked off proceedings tonight, a voice that was just a strong as usual despite a recent episode of unexpected illness.  Starting with “Did She Do Her Best”, which appears on Carrie’s current album The Jeopardy of Circumstance the two artists went on to alternate between each other’s songs with two outstanding extended sets.  Danny Schmidt wasn’t born with an acoustic guitar in his hands and discovered acoustic music quite by accident after forays into completely different spheres of music.  I suggested that by the time Austin born Danny came along in the early 1970s, fellow Texan legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe would have been coming to the end of their respective roads.  “I remember their names and I remember seeing Townes’ name all the time in the listings but at the point that I got old enough to be going to shows I wasn’t really into acoustic stuff for quite a while, through my teens.  It wasn’t until I was about twenty that I really got into that stuff.  It was right about the time when guys like Lightnin’ and Mance were passing away and Townes wasn’t there as often, so I never did get to see those guys even though they were playing pretty regularly.  I would love to go back in time and take some of those opportunities”.  “I sort of worked my way back to it because I was a teenager and I was into heavy metal and ‘shredding’ as they say, sort of playing lots of notes really fast up and down the neck and that was the kind of stuff that first interested me and I’d go and see all of Eric’s (Clapton) shows and read as many interviews as I could and I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan too at the time and both those guys were heavily influenced by Hendrix; they talked about him a lot in their interviews and so I looked into Hendrix and got into him and read interviews with him and he talked about who his influences were.  I finally got to Chicago and various guys who had gone electric blues, the first electric guys.  Some of those guys like Muddy Waters bridged that gap between the country acoustic blues; they’d started in that world and had turned it electric and that got me creeping back into the acoustic country blues.  That’s when I discovered Mississippi John Hurt, who just blew my mind, I really loved his stuff and that’s when I got myself an acoustic guitar, I was about twenty, twenty-one.  I didn’t really look back from there.  That kind of stuff turned me on a lot more than the heavy metal stuff”.  That blues influence in Danny’s guitar playing was evident tonight especially in songs such as “Better off Broke” and “Blue Railroad Train”, both of which certainly owe a debt to the old blues masters such as Mississippi John Hurt.  Elaborating on John Hurt’s story, Danny spoke enthusiastically about his musical hero.  “He has an amazing story, he really wasn’t a professional musician for most of his life.  He cut one B-side track when he was in his twenties back in the 1920s, the track he happened to cut was called “Avalon”.  A couple of musicologist students were travelling through Mississippi, just trying to research some esoteric stuff and they went through Avalon, Mississippi and just stopped at the general store and asked around, assuming he was dead and just trying to get any little pieces of the story or insights they could from any of the old timers and the first guy they talked to said “oh yeah, you wanna just go ask him yourself he lives right down the street”.  Such stories are not unusual even though we have come to know these old bluesmen very well through their recordings.  Whilst British blues bands in the 1960s were introducing these old songs to their young audiences, the originators of this music were living in obscurity in the Southern States of America.  Danny Schmidt was fortunate enough to come along at a time when much of this music was much more accessible.  During the Nineties however, Danny grew increasingly disillusioned by the music industry and in particular the business end of it, so much so, that he dropped out of the performing scene altogether for some time.  “I still waver back and forth on how much I want to be doing it.  There’s a few elements to it, one is that I’ve never been that comfortable performing, I’m much more comfortable now than I was early on, it’s not a comfortable thing for me to be up in front of people.  Some people you can just tell, they just open up and blossom and turn on when they’re in front of people, but for me it’s a scary proposition and early on, a terrifying one”.  “I’m good with people one on one or a couple at a time but when you’re the focus of attention it’s kind of nerve wracking but that’s what you have to do to put a song out in the world and that part I enjoy.  I love writing and I love putting the song out there and the only way to do it is to get up there and play it for people and record them.  The other element is just the music business part.  When you start relying on your art for your living it puts a lot of pressure on the art and takes a lot of the fun and passion out of it if you’re not careful it can get out of balance.  That balance for me in my dream world would be ten percent business and ninety percent art and the way it works nowadays in the independent grass roots world, it ends up being ninety percent business and ten percent sitting there with your guitar.  Probably every hour I’m with my guitar I’m on my computer for nine”.  Tonight Danny and Carrie were able to momentarily forget the business end of the music industry and do what they do best, in this case, to share their stories with a small but enthusiastic South Yorkshire audience.  With recent songs like “Obadiah”, “Questions about Angels” and “Been Meaning to Ask”, together with older songs “Berlin” and the Dar Williams song “Iowa”, Carrie delivered another outstanding performance helped along by the occasional guitar fill and harmony vocal courtesy of her partner and soul mate.  Honouring a request, Carrie once again performed a stunning version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, which brought out some pretty nice communal singing from the small shoulder to shoulder gathering.  Community singing is nothing new to Danny Schmidt who spent a good part of his younger days experiencing first hand an alternative way of life in one or two of America’s surviving communes.  “I lived in two different communities, I lived in a place called the East Wind Community in the Ozark Mountains for a year and then I lived at Twin Oaks Community for almost four years and that’s up in Virginia.  I quit college when I was about twenty-one.  I discovered that these communities still existed, they were always a dream.  I had a big group of close friends growing up and just had it in my head from very early on that it would be kind of dreamy to buy a farm somewhere and all live together, have houses very near each other and raise our kids together but I didn’t realise there was anything that resembled that existed still, so when I did discover that I dropped out of school and spent about a year researching some of these communities before going to East Wind.  I was drawn to the self-reliant element, that we’d do a lot of things for ourselves, grow a lot of things for ourselves, build a lot of things for ourselves and maintain a lot of things for ourselves, we still interfaced with the outside economy but it’s just a more connected way to live, things have deeper value”.  Danny became good friends with the young singer-songwriter Devon Sproule at the Twin Oaks Community and later with Paul Curreri, who went on to become Devon’s husband.  It has to be said that Danny and Paul share a similar style of playing and singing. Danny recalls living in the same community as the young singer songwriter and later with both Devon and Paul in Charlottesville.  “I’ve known Devon since she was about twelve, she was a kid when I moved to the community.  I’d just started writing songs and she was just learning guitar and we both decided we both wanted to be songwriters I guess at about the time I left the community, she was only sixteen by the time she left and there was an informal community of musicians in Charlottesville and Paul (Curreri) moved to Charlottesville soon after that and was very quickly incorporated into being close with us”.  Living amongst like-minded people certainly had its benefits in terms of music and performance and Danny would take part in regular music sessions including ‘Neil Young’ nights.  Danny in fact wrote a song called Neil Young which sounds to all intents and purposes just like an authentic Neil Young song and which appears on his Parables and Primes album.  “I don’t play that live anymore.  The concept of the song is that it’s sort of a love song, a cosy afternoon with this sweetie and this Neil Young album going in the background and the guy in the song is fairly well distracted by the music, he’s probably ninety per cent in the music and just ten per cent with the girl.  I always wanted the production on that song to have the Harvest/Harvest Moon vibe in the background with the steel guitar and the harmonica going and so once we were able to create that in the studio the song felt really naked singing it without that”.  Other songs however suit that sort of nakedness such “This Too Shall Pass”, “Dark Eyed Prince” and “Stained Glass”, again from his Parables and Primes album, all of which featured in the set tonight together with older songs such as “McCreary’s Pipes” from his earlier Enjoying the Fall album and “Company of Friends” from his Little Grey Sheep album.  Newer songs from his current Instead the Forest Rose to Sing album were showcased tonight with heartfelt renditions of “Firestorm” and the lighter sing-along “Swing it Down”, proving that much of Danny’s repertoire perfectly complements Carrie’s in a live setting.  I finally asked Danny about the poetic title of the new album.  “It was a late addition to the record, the working title was called “Serpentine Circle”, the song from which the line ‘instead the forest rose to sing’ came from is called “Serpentine Circle of Money” and that was the one that I thought pulled the most threads together for the record but in some conversations with a friend I realised it had a sort of sinister sound to it even though the album doesn’t.  It’s a little bit lighter for me and has a little more playfulness than most of mine, they tend to be sort of heavy and weighty and dark”.  With six albums to his credit, I asked Danny whether he approached each album differently in order to create a different sound and feel for each subsequent album.  “I try to treat each collection of songs in whatever way is most appropriate for them and if that means ending up doing exactly the same kind of production I’ve done on a previous one I’ll do that.  If what the songs are calling for is a much more stripped down approach I’ll end up taking that approach.  I’m not one of those people that writes with a concept for a whole album, it’s more I’ll look over the last batch of songs and themes will grow out of looking back at them more than conceptualising a theme and then writing songs that fit along that line”.  Rounding off tonight’s performance, Danny and Carrie each chose a finisher to conclude what turned out to be a landmark performance at the Wheelhouse, which I imagine will be remembered for a long time.  Danny chose his song “Cleopatra” from his Make it the Right Time album, which has a suitable chorus to finish with.  Danny then suggested that Carrie “leave us with something pretty”, which she duly responded to with a fine unaccompanied “Amazing Grace” admitting that “sometimes it’s hard to leave a space like this”.  She’s not on her own with that thought.

Flossie Malavialle | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 12.12.09

Hedley Jones, the host of the Barnsley House Concerts, which are regularly held at his home in Wombwell, was given the first opportunity to fly the French tricolore above the Wheelhouse tonight, in honour of his French guest; an honour that has up to now been bestowed on predominantly American and Canadian visitors to the venue.  Flossie Malavialle’s debut was well received by an enthusiastic audience made up of friends and fans alike, all who were well aware of Flossie’s exceptionally versatile voice and eclectic taste in songs and songwriters as diverse as the Beatles, Janis Ian and Colum Sands to Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, with the odd Janis Joplin thrown in for good measure.  Speaking to Flossie earlier in the evening I asked the singer about her early influences and what she might have heard around the house in back in Nimes.  “Originally, when I was a kid, it was mainly Classical music because my mum was playing the piano and she had a piano in the house, so she used to play all these beautiful pieces.  When I was about ten or eleven I was given as a Christmas present the Red album by the Beatles The Beatles: 1962-1966, double compilation and I started listening to The Beatles.  I absolutely love their music and became a fan really.  I just love their music so much.  Another Christmas, I was very lucky at Christmas, I got a guitar that all my family paid money towards and started playing the songs that I was singing most of the time, which were the Beatles songs and so that’s how it started”.  With an almost insatiable appetite for songs from just about all imaginable genres, Flossie soon gravitated to the local live music scene in France, joining several bands whose repertoire expansion was necessary entertainment and dancing to.  “I got involved in more music with bands in France and started singing loads of different things, variety mainly, stuff that was played on the radio, because we were there to entertainment people and make them dance, so I had to sing loads of different styles of music, which was a fantastic school really, to develop your ear and understanding of how it worked and singing with other people as well, learning how to sing in harmony”.  Tonight at the Wheelhouse, starting with the Eagles classic “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, Flossie soon had the audience on her side with her infectious personality and diverse repertoire.  The slower tender ballads such as Keith Pearson’s “More Hills to Climb” and Colum Sands’ “The Child Who Asks Why” were augmented by a more rockier bluesier side of Flossie with interpretations of out and out rockers such as Bonnie Raitt’s “The Road’s My Middle Name” and Marilyn Middleton’s raucous “Wild Women”.  It is however with songs of Flossie’s native tongue that make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.  As an ambassador of French song, Flossie delivers fine interpretations of French chanson with songs such as “La Vie En Rose” made famous by Edith Piaf and “Les Feuilles Mortes”, better known to Jazz lovers as “Autumn Leaves”, but adopting the French Yves Montand version and most significantly, Jacques Brel’s haunting “Amsterdam”, which opened Flossie’s second set tonight.  I asked Flossie whether she felt it was something of a struggle to have songs in the French language cross over into the mainstream anglosphere.  “In France we get all the UK charts and all the American charts.  Anything you will hear over here, we have in France as well, but the other way around is not true.  We have our own French singers and bands as well but you never hear them, or very rarely you get to hear them on the UK radio.  I think it’s mainly because French as a language is not maybe as well-known as English.  It’s the international language and everybody has to speak it, it’s a very powerful language as such, but yes it’s true, apart from the older generation of singers like Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel.  People over here would have heard these people and Sacha Distel too, I know they were popular in England, whereas the present French people actually singing now in France, you never get to hear them.  I think the only one who made it was Vanessa Paradis with “Joe Le Taxi” and that’s a song that people remember”.  It was clear tonight at the wheelhouse that the majority of the audience relished in the fact that songs were being sung in the French language and it transpires that this is the attitude of Flossie’s fans up and down the country.  With two albums celebrating the songs of Piaf and Brel, Flossie explains what it means to have these songs accepted in the UK.  “The Flossie Sings Brel album was released in 2007 and that coincided with a show I did at the Darlington Arts Centre, in the theatre, which was all in French with a mixture of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel songs.  I already had an album of Edith Piaf songs, so I decided to record an album of Jacques Brel songs to complement it.  We had to work towards the album so it was ready for the concert.  The concert was a sell-out, which was really in some ways for me absolutely amazing because the whole evening was in French.  The theatre can hold up to 320 people who all came to listen to French music, which was amazing, the power of French music.  It was Piaf and Brel, two well-known names of the music but really I couldn’t believe it.  Even the people of Darlington said they never thought that one day a French woman would actually fill the theatre with French songs”.  It’s not just songs in the French language that appeals to Flossie, who has also recorded songs in English and Spanish.  “I think people like to hear the songs in their original language and what they say to me is, we love it when you sing in French, we don’t understand a thing but it just sounds nice.  It sounds exotic I suppose.  I also do a traditional song in Spanish and I obviously tend to explain what the song is about but people do like to hear the song.  Once they know what it’s about, even if they don’t understand every individual word, they do like to know what the song is about and they enjoy it even more”.  I suggested that it seems to be reminiscent of Opera, where even though much of it is sung in the Italian language, it appears not to confuse the genre’s vast worldwide audience.  “It’s the emotion, that’s what it is and that’s the power of music, it doesn’t matter which language you sing it in, it’s the emotion in the voice and what you can convey through your voice, your instrument basically, that’s what it is”.  Flossie’s sense of humour was not only apparent in her between song patter, but also in one or two of the performance, particularly Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” with Flossie’s delightfully quirky impression of a stoned Janis Joplin.  Currently a very busy travelling singer, Flossie has just completed a successful tour with Show of Hands, which has brought her to a much wider audience.  “I was lucky enough to be chosen by Show of Hands to do their support for their County Towns tour, which started at the end of September and finished last week in Cornwall and so it was absolutely fantastic.  We played in beautiful venues, some of them were like a thousand people in there, some two hundred, but the whole experience was great and the guys (Steve Knightley and Phil Beer) and Miranda Sykes who was playing with them on the tour, are really really fantastic people, lovely and selfless people and I was honoured to be part of this whole adventure”.  Fulfilling her original plan of travelling as much as possible after twelve years of teaching English full time in secondary schools in the South of France, Flossie has said that she would love her music to take her around the world so that she can discover other cultures, languages, foods and music etc.  With another major tour planned for early next year, Flossie is truly spreading her wings.  “I’m flying to France for a holiday, obviously for Christmas with my family and then I’m back for a couple of gigs in the region and beyond in January and then at the end of January there’s a second tour starting, this one with Keith Donnelly and I’m going to be singing his compositions.  We recorded an album of his songs in the middle of the last tour and with this we are going to be doing the support for Fairport Convention on their Wintour, which starts at the end of January and ends on the 6th March, so another adventure”.  Flossie made it clear tonight that the size of her audience makes absolutely no difference to her, whether it’s a 1000 seater in Chichester, a 145 seater in Darlington or a house concert in Wombwell, where you know just about everyone by name.  The numbers don’t matter as long as those in the audience can take something special away with them after a show.  “It’s fantastic if you can do this.  If you can relate to a sentiment in a song then it’s great that you can share that with people.  It’s a whole experience of life in a couple of hours and if people leave the room with a smile on their faces, forget about the credit crunch, what credit crunch, for two hours then you’re somewhere else, dreaming of other things and it’s great if we can do that.  It’s just fantastic to be doing something that you enjoy so much and being able to share it with people who enjoy it as much as you do, what more could you want?  It beats teaching definitely!  Finishing with the Edith Piaf classic “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, better known as “No Regrets” and a final encore of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”, this time more sober than the earlier “Me and Bobby McGee”, Flossie raised her bottle of water, mingled for a while with her audience, then left for a well-deserved return to France to be with her family for the festive season, leaving a satisfied gathering once again at the Wheelhouse.