Live | 2011

Martin Simpson | The Greystones, Sheffield | 19.01.11

With Martin Simpson just returning from a brief visit to LA over the weekend, apparently there for the single purpose of picking up a brand new guitar, which inevitably prompted a spot of sardonic heckling from Mrs Simpson – ‘you don’t have enough?’, Martin Simpson cheerfully rung in the Bright Phoebus New Year with an intimate sell-out show at the Greystones in Sheffield tonight, with one or two surprises along the way.  Martin was noticeably nervous before the show, due in no small part to the fact that tonight’s fund-raiser would not only be attended by the guitarist’s regular army of followers, but some parents and staff from the local Ecclesall Infant School, the school Martin’s young daughter attends.  Alex Burland, a five year-old school chum in the same year as Molly, has cerebral palsy and the funds raised at tonight’s concert will go towards an existing fund sponsored by locals for a potential life-changing operation, currently available in the USA.  The concert therefore had more than the normal atmosphere of warmth and sense of community spirit.  Molly’s Grandad Roy Bailey had also come along to join in the fun.  Opening the show was fellow Bright Phoebus luminary Jon Boden, who also acted as MC for the night, choosing one of Bellowhead’s most popular songs “Fakenham Fair” to kick things off, accompanying himself on concertina.  This was by no means the only surprise of the evening.  Apart from the special guests, which also included ex-pulp guitarist Richard Hawley making a very special appearance, Martin also surprised us with some recent additions to his live set including Bruce Springsteen’s “Brothers Under the Bridge” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” of all things.  Martin is no stranger to the repertoire of Mr Zim, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” appearing on his very first album Golden Vanity in 1976, together with his subsequent versions of “Masters of War”, Highway 61 Revisited and more recently “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which the singer/guitarist also played tonight.  For the prelude to the traditional “In the Pines”, Martin employed the services of a device known as the EBow.  This is no stranger to the modern electric guitarist, a gadget used to good effect by Noel Gallagher on “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, Queen’s Brian May on “Good Company” and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour on “Take It Back”.  The song was rewarded with rapturous applause, which prompted Martin’s comment “oh, you like that kind of thing do you?”  Martin’s father-in-law Roy Bailey was invited up on stage to sing Leon Rosselson’s utterly poignant “Palaces of Gold”, written after the Aberfan disaster of 1966, Martin accompanying the singer with some tastefully rendered bottleneck guitar.  As a prelude to the song Roy reminded everyone of the value of folk songs, that they offer us a different view of events as opposed to those offered by the newspapers.  A lovely moment, which prompted Richard Hawley later to confess that he ‘didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world’ when Roy was singing.  That sentiment probably went for the other hundred or so people in the room tonight as well.  “Kielder Schottische”, one of the instrumentals from Martin’s current album True Stories, demonstrates the guitarist’s technical brilliance, adapting a Northumbrian piccolo tune, already a nightmare to play on that instrument, for the six strings of a guitar.  It’s this sort of dexterity that the guitarist is known for, a reputation that probably deserved Jon Boden’s introduction, referring to tonight’s main attraction as the ‘finest acoustic guitarist in the whole blinking universe’.  Going on to introduce the next song as ‘my greatest hit’, Martin’s tribute to his own father “Never Any Good”, provided another highlight of the evening.  Martin’s aforementioned newly acquired guitar was introduced for a reading of the utterly gorgeous “Air for Maurice Ogg/One More Day/Boots of Spanish Leather” medley in the second half before inviting in turn his special guests to join him on stage.  Martin’s neighbour and former Britpop guitarist Richard Hawley sang a version of the old Lonnie Johnson number “Careless Love”, with Martin accompanying on slide guitar and then by Jon Boden joining Martin on fiddle for the Morris tune “Princess Royal”.  With a final encore of the old Arthur Crudup rocker “Dig Myself a Hole”, Richard Hawley re-joined Martin to round off what turned out to be a predictably superb night.

The Great British Rock and Blues Festival 2011 | Butlins, Skegness | 31.01.11

Once again this famous East Lincolnshire coastal holiday resort has made great use of its facilities during the somewhat un-seasonal winter months, with another exciting music festival celebrating the combined forces of British rock and British blues music. It’s not the first time that Butlins has played host to this festival in Skegness, a winter gathering that has fairly quickly achieved a great reputation and a fervent following, which now draws in a 7,000 strong audience.  The resort provides all the warmth and comfort such a gathering could possibly wish for, especially at this time of year and ensures that all who want to ‘rock out’ (with air guitars plugged in at the ready) or just ‘mellow out’ to some soulful blues, can do so in equal measure.  This weekend the Great British Rock and Blues Festival showcased a varied programme of rock and blues acts, including a number of musicians who have passed through the ranks of such outfits as David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash, Rory Gallagher, even the Rolling Stones, to name drop a few, together with the cream of contemporary rock and blues.   Sensibly dividing the two main stages into rock and blues, The Centre Stage offered a series of quality R&B bands (the original R&B if you please); whilst the Reds stage tentatively challenged the speaker stack capabilities as it showcased one loud rock outfit after the other.  It has to be said, the festival leaned slightly more towards the blues, as the Centre Stage also programmed in afternoon concerts on both Saturday and Sunday, whilst the rock stage catered for lengthy sound checks in order for things to run swimmingly in the evening.  Friday night saw things get off to a good start with the Climax Blues Band who opened proceedings on the blues stage, kicking off with Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, featuring Johnny Pugh’s trademark sax, Lester Hart’s informative guitar and George Glover assured keyboard work.  The band, originally formed in 1969, has historically enjoyed chart success regionally but most famously worldwide in 1973 with the timeless “Couldn’t Get it Right”, which the band performed during their opening set on Friday night.  Simultaneously, North Shields-born rock singer Lorraine Crosby kicked things off on the rock stage next door with an energy driven spectacle, offering something quite different from the blues stage.  Crosby’s voice is known to millions and in particular to Meatloaf fans, albeit under the pseudonym of ‘Mrs Loud’, as the female voice on the multi-million selling album Bat Out of Hell II, most notably on “I Will Do Anything for Love”, despite some imposter appearing in the videos.  Increasing the volume, Crosby clearly enjoyed strutting her stuff whilst two swaying lovelies, who Crosby affectionately referred to as the ‘Sweaty Bettys’, provided a visual treat for the male dominated audience.  With a string of Meatloaf hits, a handful of partner Stuart Emerson’s songs and the one Beatles cover and current single Help, the singer brought a bit of glamour to the opening night.  Back on the Centre Stage, the festival welcomed back Liverpool-born singer Connie Lush who is recognised as arguably the UK’s greatest female blues singers, an entertainer through and through whose pedigree includes working with the Memphis Horns and the Hodges Brothers, Al Green’s backing band.  Sporting a poppy red top hat, the singer brought some cheeky northern banter to the stage, as well as some soulful blues, all of which was eagerly consumed by an appreciative audience.  Back next door and the Heavy Metal Kids delivered a taste of their own specific brand of attitude and punk sensibility, with a lively set featuring new front man, actor John Altman, otherwise known to Eastenders fans as Nasty Nick Cotton.  Altman joined the band last year replacing the late Gary Holton, both of whom had previously worked together in the film version of the Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia.  Dressed in a black ankle-length leather coat, Altman entertained an ‘uncontrollable’ and enthusiastic crowd on the Rock Stage on Friday night, before the Quireboys performed their headliner set.  In the Sixties, the Rolling Stones were described as mere ‘choirboys’ compared with the contemporary band the Pretty Things, the original bad lads of British rock.  Tonight the band turned in an exhilarating R&B set, which included the title song from their seminal rock opera SF Sorrow.  Original members Phil May and Dick Taylor, the original Rolling Stones bassist, coincidentally celebrating his 68th birthday, led a cast of musicians young and old to recreate some of the more blues-based numbers from the band’s forty-eight year career.  On Saturday, the Centre Stage opened with a surprise replacement for the Malchicks who were unable to attend the festival.  At very short notice, fine artist and musician Steve Pablo, who had up until this point been busy selling his paintings in the Skyline Pavilion just outside, jumped on stage armed with a bouzouki and a couple of acoustic guitars and played a suitably laid back opening set.  Despite admitting to being slightly unsettled, Steve performed well and provided a low key set of both rhythmic and melodic songs, embellished with some percussion sampling at his feet.  A nice start to what promised to be a packed day of entertainment.   The Welsh-born Australian guitarist Gwyn Ashton was up next to perform a blistering set aided and abetted by the young drummer Kev Hickman, who between them became, for all intents and purposes, the White Stripes on Blues for the next forty-five minutes.  The Two Man Blues Army provided some of the funkiest guitar of the day, augmented by some excellent sticks work by the young drummer.  Later that evening Hickman was seen backstage with Monsters of British Rock drummer Harry James, who was overheard by this reviewer to say to the young drummer ‘I hear you’re good?’; he heard right.  Fresh from their radio session on the Paul Jones BBC Radio 2 show, Paul Lamb and the Kingsnakes brought a taste of classy R&B to the blues stage. Led by the sharp-dressed North East harmonica player Paul Lamb, the band featured Chad Strentz on guitar, Rod Demick on bass, Paul’s son Ryan ‘Junior’ Lamb on guitar and Mike Thorne on drums, who together played a tightly storming set on Saturday afternoon.  Slack Alice returned to Skegness after first appearing at the festival in 2008 and closed the Saturday afternoon concert on the blues stage.  With gritty rock and blues combined, the band could quite easily have played either stage.  Fronted by founder member Cliff Stocker who commanded the stage throughout, weaving in and out between the sparring partners of Colin Redmond and Chris Preston on guitars, the band played an exciting set of songs culled from a thirty-eight year career, rounding off a perfectly enjoyable afternoon of blues-based concerts.   After a short break, giving the festival goers an opportunity to freshen up and have a bite to eat, the evening concerts began on cue with two bands led by their drummers.  Whilst John Coghlan took to his seat to present some classic hits from his former band Status Quo, including the throbbing “In My Chair”, Taste’s John Wilson made himself comfortable on the blues stage to remind us all of the much-missed Rory Gallagher.  Normally used to playing sprawling two and half hour sets, Wilson together with Albert Mills and Sam Davidson of Northern Ireland’s premier blues outfit, were just about getting into their stride when their forty-five minute slot was up.  The band, well known as being the vehicle for the success of the late Rory Gallagher in the 1960s and early 1970s, brought along a newer revitalised version of Taste, which featured a new repertoire, as well as the obligatory nod to Gallagher’s heyday, with the inclusion of the crowd pleasing classic “Bullfrog blues”.  In December, Sandi Thom made a headlining appearance at the inaugural Great British Folk Festival at this same resort, an appearance which was potentially marred by illness, as the singer came down with a bout of flu hours before her performance.  Soldiering on in good old fashioned ‘the show must go on’ professionalism, her illness being completely camouflaged by her own determination to perform well, Sandi’s appearance here was eagerly anticipated by a packed audience in the Centre Stage on Saturday night.  Playing songs primarily from her most recent album Merchants and Thieves, such as the opener “Maggie McCall”, together with the earlier breakthrough single “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)”, the Aberdeenshire-born singer-songwriter went on to perform with her band a delightful version of Little Willie John’s astonishingly beautiful “Need Your Love So Bad”.   Whilst Sandi Thom emoted in classic Fleetwood Mac style on the blues stage, the Monsters of British Rock were raising the roof next door with an electrifying set bringing together the shared experience of luminaries of such bands as Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash and Thunder.  With Mickey Moody on guitar, Neil Murray on bass, Laurie Wisefield on guitar, Harry James on drums, Michael Bramwell on keyboards the energetic Chris Ousey on vocals, the band collectively encapsulated the spirit of British rock music, spanning four decades of unique music.  Saturday night’s final concert on the blues stage brought with it a touch of class from the blues world with the legendary Herbie Goins.  Working with the likes of BB King, Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland, Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker as well as giants of British blues such as the late Alexis Korner and Dick Heckstall Smith, the 72 year-old Florida-born singer joined the Norman Beaker Band for a thrilling late night set on the Centre Stage.  A showman through and through, Goins commanded the stage as the veteran British bluesman Norman Beaker and his tightly intuitive band gave him the kind of support he fully deserved.  There’s a great sense of community at the Great British Rock and Blues Festival, where between acts the audience can be seen milling around the no man’s land area between the two main stages, where smokers gather offering one another some communal warmth in the otherwise freezing canopy covered open air.  So many people gather here, that some much needed busking wouldn’t go amiss. The Skyline Pavilion is the general meeting place for everyone concerned and is always bustling with activity.  Once the two main stages have called it a day, some late night entertainment is still on offer in Jaks nightclub, where its own programme of events took place over the weekend organised by Blues Matters magazine. Roadhouse provided some jam sessions during the day and such acts as Idle Hands, Elephant Shelf, the Dale Store Band, Green Mac, the Clare Free Band, Delta Ladies and Babajak maintained a quality driven alternative to the main stages throughout the weekend.  On Saturday night, or more accurately Sunday morning, the charismatic Larry Miller performed to literally a packed house, appealing to music lovers of all ages, within the legal requirements of course.  After such an exhilarating and sweat-soaked Saturday night in Jaks nightclub, Sunday morning takes a little easing in.  The one thing that most of the acts like to comment on at the end of their respective sets on either of the three stages is just how good the staff is on site. Credit where credit’s due; the staff work tremendously hard in all the outlets, bars and restaurants, even the security are all smiles and helpful. It all makes for a pleasant experience.  Without labouring the point, I noticed one example of great hospitality in the Yacht Club restaurant for example, where a friend chose just egg and tomatoes at the breakfast buffet and was immediately asked by a member of staff if he was vegetarian.  His plate was soon replenished with veggie sausages.  It’s that sort of attention to detail that makes all the difference.  Sunday afternoon got off to a great start with the Blues Band’s Gary Fletcher, who brought along his own blend of R&B to the blues stage with his own band featuring ex-Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers, Steve Ling on lead guitar and Gary’s son Jack on bass.  For consummate showmanship, we need look no further than Hamsters’ front man Snail’s-Pace Slim, who was on fire throughout a mid-Sunday afternoon set, featuring a handful of Hendrix classics such as “Voodoo Chile” and “Purple Haze”, the odd nod towards ZZ Top, as well as a handful of self-penned material, in a frenzy of licks from his familiar yellow Burnin’ Vermin guitar.  With several smirking Ozzy’s peering out from the guitarist’s shirt, together with a whole menagerie of toy merchandise hamsters, either splatted to a speaker or merrily spinning their clockwork wheels, the band added a sense of humour and fun to the day.  Making a last minute appearance at December’s folk festival, with a stripped down acoustic appearance, Nine Below Zero returned to full blown electric form for their Sunday afternoon appearance on the blues stage.  Fronted by guitarist/singer Dennis Greaves and harp player Mark Feltham, with one of the tightest rhythm sections in the business courtesy of former Rory Gallagher sidemen Gerry McAvoy on bass and Brendan O’Neill on drums, the band maintained the momentum of what was becoming a thrilling afternoon of top quality music on the Centre Stage, which was completed shortly afterwards by a main stage appearance by Roadhouse, the band responsible for some of the fine jamming session in Jaks.  The final home run of the 2011 Great British Rock and Blues Festival on Sunday evening started with a choice of late 1960’s rock and blues.  Whilst Juicy Lucy cranked up the volume on the rock stage, the legendary Ric Lee, original drummer with the equally legendary Ten Years After, flew in especially from Switzerland to join his band, the Blues Project, for this rare appearance at the festival.  Joined by former Savoy Brown luminary Bob Hall on keyboards, the band alternated between Boogie Woogie and Barrelhouse to classic R&B and good old Rock n Roll with equal authority, with the obligatory drum solo somewhere in the middle.  It has to be said that this reviewer chose the relative comfort of the Centre Stage for the most part of the festival, basking in the warmth of British blues, in its many manifestations.  The final night however did provide a moment of nostalgia with the appearance of headliner band Uriah Heep, a band whose albums helped a fifteen year-old forget school homework of an evening back in the day.  The band pulled out all the stops, increased the volume (presumably preparing a couple of thousand eardrums for Girlschool who followed shortly afterwards) with a lively set featuring such classic Heep fare as “Gypsy”, “Bird of Prey” as well as the relatively pastoral “The Wizard”.  This nostalgic trip unfortunately meant completely missing Dr Feelgood on the blues stage, who apparently ripped the place up in style.  With some initial technical problems, Girlschool’s set was delayed slightly before they took to the stage to demonstrate their prowess at making a noise.  Setting the dials to twelve, the all-female band comprising of original members Kim McAuliffe on guitar, Denise Duford on bass and Enid Williams on drums, with ten year veteran Jackie Chambers also on guitar, raised the roof with a selection of songs from their thirty-three year career.  As the curtain remained down during the technical problems, Kim McAuliffe teased the audience by popping her head through the curtain and winking at the audience.  The surprise hit of the festival was King King who played the final concert on the blues stage on Sunday night.  The band provided possibly the high point of the festival with an astonishing version of the Clapton/Cray number “Old Love”, complete with Alan Nimmo’s sublime guitar solo, which arrived quite fittingly very close to the climax of the festival.  The kilted front man brought a delicate touch to the festival, despite a noisy reception during some of the most beautifully soulful guitar playing of the entire weekend.  I’m confidently certain that had King King started the evening’s concert, there would have been a hushed silence throughout “Old Love”, a moment this reviewer will look forward to sharing with the band once again during their forthcoming UK tour.   

Miss Quincy | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 06.02.11

Having feasted upon Miss Quincy’s current album Your Mama Don’t Like Me over the winter months, a thought occurred to me; how will a stripped down version of these songs go down at the Wheelhouse?  Pretty well it transpires.  Miss Quincy is quoted to have said, when referring to the home-made approach she applied to her album, which was recorded in a similar log cabin up in British Columbia during the hostile winter of 2009/2010, that if you listen carefully you can hear ‘the crackling of a wood stove or the swish of a whiskey bottle’.  It was that sort of feeling that came over tonight at the Wheelhouse in Wombwell.  Miss Quincy is the alter-ego of Canadian singer-songwriter Jody Peck, who when suitably attired in cowboy boots and trilby hat, sporting a bright red flower and matching lippy, to go with the ever present and intriguing full forearm tattoo, brings the character of one of her songs to life.  “The Ballad of Miss Quincy” appeared on her first album Miss Quincy and the Ramblers and has subsequently become the singer-songwriter’s charismatic character.  Starting with a new song “Northern Sky”, the title of which derives from the name of this very website I’m flattered to say, Miss Quincy and guitar/banjo maestro Tyler ‘Lefty’ Toews, went on to showcase a couple of sets of songs, largely made up with songs from the new album with a handful of others thrown in.  Alternating between acoustic and electric guitars, apparently chosen randomly as the mood suited, both musicians were characteristically in tune with both one another and the audience alike in no time flat.  “Carmen”, also from the first album, provided the sort of chorus that invited an enthusiastic audience response without too much trouble.  The great blues women of the 1930s feature quite liberally in Miss Quincy’s set, both in terms of homage, with her self-penned “Sing Lady”, dedicated to the first queen of the blues Ma Rainey and the inclusion of the odd blues cover, Memphis Minnie’s “Bad Luck Woman” for example, featuring Miss Quincy’s bluesy harmonica playing.  For the sheer passion in Miss Quincy’s inimitable voice there was no finer moment than when forty pairs of ears awaited the sound of a pin to drop during the astonishingly beautiful “Record Store”, which closed the first set.  The reference in that song to Hank Williams was echoed during the second set, when the duo performed one of the country legend’s most memorable songs, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.  Both musicians brought to Wombwell a sense of fun, the kind of banter that can only be honed from the experience of the road, a road that Miss Quincy is no stranger to.  Some of the characters Miss Quincy meets on that road inevitably find their way into some of her songs and also in the stories she likes to tell in between those songs.  Coming from a cowboy family, Miss Quincy reminded us that dragging a dead horse around is a difficult business, especially when used as a simile for being involved with ‘married men and whiskey’.   Using the Wheelhouse stage as a stomp box, Miss Quincy delivered a stunning version of “Dead Horse”, catching the audience off guard with one of those ‘the song’s not quite finished yet’ moments.  Other songs from the new album included the show stopping “Nobody With You” coupled with “Sweet Jesus Café” as well as a fine reading of the traditional “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” with Tyler’s syncopated banjo accompaniment.  In “Silent Movie”, we are invited to ‘go there’ with Miss Quincy, which we obligingly and quite willingly do, joining her on the tracks as Buster Keaton’s runaway train approaches, to the proverbial drama of the piano accompaniment, or on this occasion, deputised by a couple of guitars.  Returning to the stage for a final encore of Nina Simone’s “Sugar in My Bowl”, Miss Quincy dispelled all my initial fears that I might not engage with her live music as freely as I did her album.  How wrong; it was on equal par if not better. 

Dan Walsh and Will Pound | The Greystones, Sheffield | 16.02.11

Once again Bright Phoebus smiled down on a packed sell-out Greystones audience and certainly not for the very first time.  Dan Walsh and Will Pound, two talented young musicians and specialists in their own chosen fields, that of fine clawhammer style banjo playing and breathtaking harmonica playing respectively, were welcomed with the usual abundance of enthusiasm and gusto awarded to all the artists who visit this popular South Yorkshire venue.  With their self-titled debut album due out in April, the duo brought a taste of their broad repertoire to Sheffield, which included everything from traditional English Morris tunes, Irish and Scots fiddle tunes, Bluegrass, Blues and a fair bit of Arabic music, together with a bunch of self-penned songs.  Tonight Martin Simpson took care of MC duties, which included the obligatory raffle, the parish notices and an opening song, where the singer/guitarist recalled his former life as a resident of New Orleans, drawing upon some of the real life characters he met in the Big Easy with a song from his Righteousness and Humidity album, “Easy Money”.  Walsh and Pound noted that it was written into their contract to follow ‘the most intimidating opening act in the world’, a daunting task at the best of times, but this duo fearlessly took to the stage in order to continue to dazzle and entertain, whilst mixing it up pretty much throughout.  The material ranged from the Delta Blues of Robert Johnson with “Stop Breaking Down”, to the Irish reggae of Horslips with “Wrath of the Rain”, to some pretty complex Arabic music in “CCCs (Curries Cure Colds)” incorporating ‘a multitude of time signatures’.  Once or twice throughout the two sets, one musician would leave the stage for the other to showcase his dexterous playing ability alone with Walsh’s “Dust on the Roses” set and Pound’s arrangement of the old Bampton Morris tune “Old Tom of Oxford”.  When Will Pound is in full flight with either of his chromatic or diatonic harmonicas, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine that this instrument was originally intended as a therapeutic tool to aid his breathing exercises after undergoing open heart surgery, twice.  The fact that he is now one of the country’s leading harmonica players is testament to hard work, dedication and good old fashioned raw talent.  Bright Phoebus regular Roy Bailey kept it in the family so to speak, being introduced by his son-in-law and going on to bring to the evening a good old rousing chorus song, Si Kahn’s “Go to Work on Monday”, which kicked off the second half and soon had the entire room joining in.  Bright Phoebus encourages freedom of speech and there’s always a sense of healthy dissent in some of the between song patter, therefore protest songs never go overlooked or unrewarded at any of these concerts.  Dan Walsh provided a wry look at a couple of subjects close to his heart, Education in “Pointless Greedy Figures” and the Jeremy Kyle Show (of all things) or more specifically the people who sit and watch the thing, in “More About You”, each providing food for thought.  Towards the end of the concert the duo continued to dazzle with their take on the popular Paul Thorn song “Hammer and Nail”, which helped demonstrate the duo’s almost telepathic cohesion, before a final set of tunes for an encore, which unsurprisingly was rewarded with a standing ovation.

King King | Selby Town Hall, Selby | 19.02.11

The walls of Selby Town Hall rattled and rocked tonight to the sound of one of the most exciting blues bands on the scene today.  Led by Alan Nimmo, whose confident vocal and seasoned guitar playing provides the band with its focal point, King King launched into their first set with the opening number from their debut album due out at the end of March.  “Lose Control” set the standard for the rest of the night with two sets of Nimmo/Coulson originals and blues standards, all preceded by a noteworthy scene, where each of the players touched knuckles with their front man, in a gesture of pure musical comradeship.  The night was just about divided into two sets, the Gibson Les Paul set and the Fender Stratocaster set, where Nimmo could demonstrate his musical prowess on both celebrated works of genius.  The band, which also included Lindsay Coulson on bass, Joel White on keyboards and Jamie Little on drums, paid homage to The Fabulous Thunderbirds with a storming version of “Wait on Time” and to John Hiatt with the soulfully beautiful “Feels Like Rain”, providing the night with one of its high points.  The relatively small Town Hall in Selby helped create an intimate atmosphere, where the audience is allowed to feel very much part of the show, whether in the stalls or up in the Gods.  With some friendly banter with some fellow Glaswegians in the wings, Alan Nimmo’s charismatic personality matched his musicianship measure for measure, which helped create a bond with the audience, rewarded by some healthy applause between songs.  Dedicating the Eric Clapton/Robert Cray classic “Old Love” to his big brother Stevie, Alan Nimmo together with the rest of the band, brought the volume level down to almost zero during the guitar solo, with Nimmo playing some highly emotive guitar, eventually turning the dial on his Strat down to nothing, allowing the duty sound tech Jon Chapman a moment to lean over the sound desk and enjoy it with the rest of us.  The fact that those acoustic notes could be heard throughout the venue is testament to the audience’s respect and to the band’s command over musical cohesion.  A thrilling moment.  Showcasing much of the band’s Take My hand album, including “Don’t You Get the Feeling (You’ve Been Had)”, “Heart Without a Soul”, “Broken Heal” and “All Your Life”, together with the title cut, the band also revived “Six in the Morning”, which appeared on the earlier Broken Heal EP. Encouraging some of the female audience to get up and dance, King King launched into a storming rock and roll number “Gravy Train”, featuring White’s superb honky-tonk piano solo, which did the trick.  Closing with a couple of well-chosen covers, Howling Wolf’s “Mr Highway Man”, followed by a final encore of Stevie Wonder’s funky “I Wish”, King King made an exceptional and memorable debut in Selby.


JT and the Clouds | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 20.02.11

Midway through their current UK tour, JT and the Clouds stopped by the Wheelhouse for a short break, staying with their host and tour companion Hedley Jones, who just so happens to have his own stage at the bottom of the family garden, here in the heart of the South Yorkshire Delta.  In this relatively intimate setting, Jeremy ‘JT’ Lindsay, together with Dan Abu-Absi on guitar, Chris Neal on keyboards and Mike Bruno on drums, stripped themselves down to a couple of acoustic sets so to speak, leaving their electric guitars in the van, in order to bring the essence of their often rich and melodic songs to a very appreciative audience in ‘the shed’ tonight.  The Chicago based four-piece band are currently touring their new album Caledonia but tonight also showcased a few songs from JT’s rootsy side project Mountains/Forests under the guise of JT Nero, the singer-songwriter’s solo alter-ego, performing the title song early in the first set tonight.  Other songs from that project due to be released in the UK later this year included “MI Salvador What’s Happenin’”, “Gallup NM”, “North Star” and “Double Helix (Rainbow)”, which closed the first set.  Relaxed and gently spoken, Jeremy Lindsay appeared comfortable and in control, with a gentle guitar style and soulful gruff voice that alternated effortlessly between the throatiness of, let’s say a Rod Stewart, together with the rich falsetto of a Curtis Mayfield.  It’s quite fitting for the kind of songs he writes and nowhere more effectively as in “I Have Heard Words”, a beautifully soulful love song from the current album featuring the sort of keyboard work that turns heads, not unlike that of Billy Preston, courtesy of Chris Neal.  With the uplifting “Fever Dream”, the opening song from the new album, JT managed to cram in so many hooks, any one of them good enough to ensure a hit single in an ideal world, none of which were lost in this stripped down acoustic performance tonight.  Referring to The Wheelhouse as a ‘man cave’, JT struck up a good rapport with the audience from the start, with some gentle between-song banter and a repertoire any performer would die for.  Songs as thoroughly engaging as “Funeral”, the most joyous and fun-filled song to the dear departed this reviewer has ever heard as well as a couple of songs from the earlier Delilah album of 2004, “Prairie Lullaby” and “Scattered Leaves”, subsequently covered by the Be Good Tanyas.  With a crowd pleasing version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, the band headed towards the finishing line, but not before a stunning performance of the title song from the current album, the Neil Young inflected “Caledonia”, which had everyone in the Wheelhouse joining in.  “Til It’s Gone” followed as the intended closer, featuring some excellent guitar from Dan Abu-Absi on the Gibson he borrowed from the host, but finally the band rounded everything off with an encore of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner”, JT and the Clouds leaving their mark on this tiny South Yorkshire venue, where their picture will join the healthy array of talent already pasted upon its walls.  Earlier in the evening, photographer and general good fellah Phil Carter stepped up to the mic to provide a set of well-chosen songs from the pens of a handful of well-established and much acclaimed songwriters from both sides of the pond including Pete Morton, Ralph McTell, Martyn Joseph, Bob Dylan and Ray Hearne.  By his own admission, these songs would normally be shared exclusively between him and the four walls of his bedroom; the audience agreed that these songs were just as fittingly suited to the four walls of the Wheelhouse.  Why should the wardrobe and the chest of drawers have them all to themselves?

Michael Roach | Selby Town Hall, Selby | 26.02.11

Washington DC born ‘songster’ Michael Roach made a return visit to the Selby Town Hall tonight for a couple of sets consisting of a broad range of songs that included several blues standards, a handful of gospel and spiritual songs, a few from Roach’s own pen and one or two nursery rhymes.  Smartly suited and wearing his trademark brown fedora, the seated musician alternated between his Gibson acoustic and prized National Steel, for an evening of songs predominantly from his current album release Innocent Child.  Easing the audience into his opening set with four songs from the new album, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Got the Blues and Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Be a Man”, “What’s the Matter Blues” and “Noah”, the singer’s warmth and relaxed manner soon became apparent.  With an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of African/American music and culture, Roach went on to insist that he is no Bluesman, rather a Songster.  He also contested his status as an academic, preferring to be acknowledged as just an ordinary fellah with an insatiable curiosity.  As is the case of many songsters and bluesmen in the evolving traditions of American folk music, Roach learned a good deal from his elders and in his own particular case, Archie Edwards, John Jackson, John Cephas and Jerry Ricks, all now sadly passed, but with their legacy very much living on in Michael Roach’s music.  Speaking highly of John Cephas in particular, both as a major influence, teacher and friend, Roach went on to pay tribute to him with a heartfelt performance of “Remember Me”, Roach’s composite arrangement of the Swan Silvertones’ “That Cross on Calvary” and the Harmonising Four’s “When Tears are Falling”.  With some enlightening historical anecdotes between songs, Roach dispelled some of the myths surrounding the story of the blues, such as the incorrect notion that the blues began in Africa or indeed in the Mississippi Delta, using simple chronological historical records.  Roach also attempted to demonstrate how some of our modern musical styles derived such as in the case of Bo Diddley, who’s style of playing Roach believes comes directly from the art of ‘hand bone’, the rhythmic slapping of hands on thighs, chest, chops and anywhere else that takes your fancy.  For those in the audience who had come along to hear some real down home blues, they wouldn’t have been disappointed with Roach’s performances of such classics as Sleepy John Estes’ “Brownsville Blues”, Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”, both incorporating the bottleneck style and resonator guitar, together with a faithful version of Son House’s “Death Letter”.  Reminiscent at times of Big Bill Broonzy, Roach paid tribute to his fellow ‘Songster’ with “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and the suggestive “How Do You Want It Done?”, both very much a part of the American folk tradition.  Consistent with Roach’s claim to be a Songster, rather than a Bluesman, the singer went on to perform in a variety of styles such as in the folk blues of “Staggerlee” and “Kassie Jones”, the country blues of Hawkshaw Hawkins’ “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy”, the jazz inflected “Minnie the Moocher”, the spirituals “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Jesus Knows I’m Coming” and even a bunch of nursery rhymes with the audience offering suggestions as Michael proved that every one of them fit snuggly into the same blues tune with an infectious chorus of “Little Boy Blue”.  Finishing with a version of the old American folk song “I Shall Not Be Moved” and a final a cappella version of Mahalia Jackson’s “It Don’t Cost Very Much”, Michael Roach left the stage, once again leaving behind a suitably satisfied Selby audience.

Dead Rock West | The Greystones, Sheffield | 09.03.11

The Backroom of the Greystones pub on the outskirts of Sheffield once again played host to another night of great music, tonight MC’d by both Alex Buchanan and Simon Hughes, two local music enthusiasts who collectively make up Boo Hoo Music Promotions.  This first headliner tour of the UK for Californian band Dead Rock West was marred slightly by an unfortunate and completely unexpected bout of illness, which has put Frank Lee Drennen out of the picture for a few days, forcing the band to cancel at least one show and press upon Frank’s musical partner some additional pressure in order to keep things going and keep things together.  Cindy Wasserman went on tonight to demonstrate her resilience, abiding by the old theatrical rule that the show must go on.  With sheer professionalism and bundles of raw talent, Cindy fronted her band, which was obviously missing one of its integral ingredients, but managed to fill the cracks, gulfs and chasms with some remarkable musicianship.  The band settled themselves into the set with a comfortable selection from Dead Rock West’s debut album Honey and Salt, including “Rocket From the Crypt”, “Don’t Worry About Me”, “Desert Rose” and “All I Know”, before showcasing some of the songs from their stunning follow up Bright Morning Stars due out in April.  The new album’s rootsy surveillance of source material such as Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Ever Change”, the Staples Singers’ “This May Be the Last Time” and the traditional “Ain’t No Grave”, transferred well into live performance, with Cindy Wasserman on particularly good form.  One or two of the songs that would normally appear in the set were left out for obvious reasons such as the beautiful Wings of Angels, a Wasserman/Drennen close harmony song and Frank’s take on the Jesus and Mary Chains’ “God Help Me”.  Incidentally, Frank was by this time upstairs in his sick bed, having just returned from one of Sheffield’s busy hospitals.  One can only assume those words were going through his head as he listened to his band playing without him downstairs.  Joining Cindy were Jack Reynolds on bass, Charlie Mcree on drums and Christopher Hoffee on both electric guitar and National Steel, all chipping in harmonies where presumably Drennen’s would normally go.  Whilst Cindy performed all the songs from the band’s repertoire that wouldn’t miss Drennen’s input too drastically, such as Peter Case’s gorgeous “Beyond the Blues”, there was the slight suspicion that much of the repertoire available to the band was running out towards the end, hence treating the audience to two well-chosen covers to end the night, the Velvet Underground’s “Baby Be Good” and the Gun Club’s “Fire of Love”, both affording the band the opportunity to rock out for the climax of what turned out to be a great night.  Earlier in the evening, local five-piece band Dave Woodcock and the Dead Comedians provided an energetic set of raw Americana, setting the standard for the evening.  With a band consisting of Chris Saunders, whose amazing photographs adorn the walls of the Backroom, on guitar, Richard Hunter on drums, Chris Murphy on piano and guitar and Lee Bradley on bass, Dave Woodcock led his band with some familiar tunes including “Firewater” and “City Lights”, dedicated to Charlie’s Chaplin and Bukowski, as well as some brand new material including “Should I Laugh Now, Or Should I Wait Until It Gets Funny”.  All in all, a pretty good night.   

Rua Macmillan Trio and Ewan Robertson | The Courthouse, Otley | 19.03.11

Greentrax label mates Rua Macmillan and Ewan Robertson embarked on their joint debut UK tour tonight at the Courthouse in the Wharf Valley market town of Otley.  The refurbished nineteenth century magistrates court provided the ideal place to kick off this tour, which featured two Scots musicians known for their work in two successful Scots bands, The Paul McKenna Band and Breabach respectively.  The concert was divided into two sets, one dominated by a selection of well-chosen songs, both traditional and contemporary, whilst the second set was totally instrumental.  In good spirits, the young Carrbridge, Strathspey-born singer/guitarist Ewan Robertson, just 28 yesterday, made his solo debut kicking off with the whaling song “Greenland”, followed by a handful of songs from his debut solo album Some Kind of Beauty, including the album opener “One For The Ditch”, Dave Sudbury’s gorgeous “King of Rome” and Richard Thompson’s classic boy/girl/motorbike/disaster road movie “Vincent Black Lightning”, for which Rua Macmillan was invited up onstage to contribute some flighty fiddle playing.  After a short break, the Rua Macmillan Trio, consisting of Ruairidh Macmillan on fiddle, Bodega’s Tia Files on guitar and Adam Brown on bodhran, brought much of the Tyro album to life with an instrumental set showcasing the trio’s command over traditional music from north of the border.  Starting with “Ooh Pierre!”, the band gently eased themselves into their set, which would boast some remarkably intuitive and dextrous playing throughout.  Whilst Tia and Adam remained seated, Rua dominated the stage with a storming performance, the vibration of which on more than one occasion sent chairs off the stage to the rear and little pedal gadgets off stage to the front.  A powerful and energetic set consisting of various sets of jigs and reels, mostly from the debut album, together with pieces including “George, Donald and Sandy”, “Harv’s” and “Kitchen Criminals”.  Whilst “Traditionally Incorrect”, featuring the tunes “The Ewie Wi’ the Crooked Horn” and “The Chancer” brought Tia Files’ confident guitar playing to the fore, it was Adam Brown’s demonstration of precisely how the Bodhran should be played that had the audience on the edge of their seats, with some virtuoso playing midway through the performance, courtesy of the young Newmarket musician, utilising the self-made instrument to its full potential.  For the final encore, Rua invited Ewan Robertson back to the stage to join the band on fiddle this time, with a final waltz, completing an inspiring evening of music.

The Believers | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 20.03.11

The Kirton in Lindsey Diamond Jubilee Town Hall played host once again to the second in a series of monthly concerts held in this charming market square venue, organised by a bunch of local enthusiasts, eager to welcome exciting musicians to their town.  Craig Aspen and Cyd Frazzini otherwise known as New Orleans-based duo The Believers brought their own special blend of alt country to this sleepy North Lincolnshire town, the appearance of which was welcomed by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.  Performing a couple of sets of songs mainly drawn from The Believers’ back catalogue, featuring a handful from their debut album Row (2002), including the song “Believers”, from which the duo acquired their name and “White Trash Queen”, to a generous selection from their follow up and highly regarded sophomore album Crashyertown (2005), including “Highway Song”, “Good Days”, “Railroad Spikes” and “Shotgun Shells” as well as the title song of course.  With a throw away comment, jokingly referring to their music as ‘shit-kicking music’, Craig and Cyd went on to demonstrate their approach to being a ‘Rock band with a Country problem’ as anything but throw away. With some close harmony singing fused with a hard rocking, albeit acoustic accompaniment, Cyd sticking to her sunburst acoustic throughout whilst Craig alternated between guitar and mandolin, the duo showed off their rich credentials as seasoned performers, Cyd referring to Craig’s mandolin playing as far too psychedelic and untraditional for Nashville.   Guessing that the audience would probably be unaware of much of the material played tonight, the duo included one or two covers, Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, being quite possibly the most recognisable.  Heavily influenced by the collaborative efforts of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Craig and Cyd paid tribute to arguably one of alt-country’s best loved pairings with their take on Boudleaux Bryant’s beautifully timeless “Love Hurts”, which was tagged onto the end of the equally tender “Pour Down”.  With many of the songs taken from the duo’s first couple of albums, songs from the new album Lucky You were kept to a minimum with just the two inclusions, “Your Hurting Ways” and “Higher Ground”, which was played towards the end of the set, one of two songs from the album addressing the unfortunate and catastrophic events in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s most unwelcomed visit to New Orleans in 2005.  With a final encore of the Depeche Mode song “Personal Jesus”, prefaced by the notion that ‘if it’s good enough for Johnny Cash, then it’s good enough for us’, The Believers brought the concert to its climax.  Earlier in the evening, Sleaford-based singer-songwriter Ben Ellis warmed up the audience with a handful of highly original self-penned songs including a plea to a local newsreader to spare us the details of all the horrors we hear on the news in Peter Levy and the one cover, the old Smokey Robinson hit “I Second That Emotion”.

Devon Sproule | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 27.03.11

A bit of a coup for the little Wheelhouse in Wombwell tonight, as Devon Sproule stopped over for a one-off house concert, fresh from her appearance at the Tallinn Music Week in Estonia, which took place over the weekend.  Playing solo, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based singer-songwriter showcased each and every song from her new as yet to be released sixth studio album I Love You, Go Easy due out on general release sometime in May.  Dividing her two sets tonight between the established repertoire in the first half, leaving the brand new songs for the second, Devon eased herself into the first set with the jazz inflected “Let’s Go Out”, gently picking and strumming her prized 1954 f-hole Gibson throughout.  Relaxed enough to ask the audience to shout up any particular song they wished to hear, Devon went on to perform material from her back catalogue and in particular her last two studio albums Keep Your Silver Shined (“Stop By Anytime”, “Keep Your Silver Shined”, “Old Virginia Block”) and Don’t Hurry for Heaven (“Ain’t That the Way”, “Julie”, “Don’t Hurry For Heaven”) as well as a couple of older songs, including the gorgeous “Plea For a Good Night’s Rest” from her Upstate Songs period.  The first of the new songs “The Warning Bell” appeared during the first set, which Devon explained was an updated version of “Hang on the Bell Nellie”, learned from an old song book entitled Rise Up Singing.  This was a brief hint at what was to come in the second half.  With a strong, if sometimes vulnerable voice, never afraid to go for the note that her characteristically frail voice could never actually reach, the singer’s reputation as being a slightly eccentric singer came across loud and clear; but that’s precisely what makes Devon Sproule different, special, interesting and unique.  The only non-original song played in the first half was The Beatles’ “The Night Before”, which Devon prefaced by admitting some self-indulgence, a song previously heard as an instrumental played on many occasion beside husband Paul Curreri.  It was brave of Devon to reveal every song from her forthcoming album one after the other in the second half, particularly in view of the fact that the new songs show a marked shift in direction for the songwriter.  Describing the new material as minimalist, a little simpler and more personal, Devon seems to have dropped the highly melodic song structures for a more stripped-down meditative approach to song writing, highlighting her vulnerability as a singer even more than before.  Despite the first set being for all intents and purposes an overview of her career so far, with some of the singer’s best loved songs, it was the second set that pushed the boundaries, which in turn challenged the senses, with some of the most daring songs of her career thus far.  With song titles such as “I Love You, Go Easy”, “Monk/Monkey” and get this, “The Evening Ghost Crab”, Devon Sproule is all set for the next phase in an already extraordinary career.  The new album is made up entirely of Sproule originals except for “Runs in the Family”, written by Terre Roche and “Body’s in Trouble” by Mary Margaret O’Hara.  Devon also performed “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”, one of the songs from the new ‘folk opera’ Hadestown, written by Anais Mitchell, which retells the Orpheus myth.  Finishing off with something more conventional, the old Nina Simone song “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, Devon certainly left an impression and served up some food for thought.

Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival 2011 | Various Venues, Barnsley | 02.04.11

This weekend, the second annual Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival reached an even wider audience than the first one back in 2010, proving at least two things; that the organisers are getting it right and that the word is getting out there.  The three-day festival was once again held at two venues across town, the Barnsley Civic for the opening night and the Kingstone School for the rest of the weekend. Sixteen main concert events and countless open mic appearances, together with a couple of singaround sessions made up one of the first festivals of the year and one that seems to be gathering enough interest to establish itself as a fixture on the annual festival calendar.   On Friday night, two Devon-based duos appeared at the sell-out concert at the Civic, featuring Show of Hands (okay, technically a trio) and their current tour guests Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. With a dazzling performance, the dobro and the harmonica met the fiddle and the banjo head on in a set that featured a handful of songs from the duo’s current album Live in the Living Room, including updated versions of the O’Carolan tune “Shebeg and Sheemore”, Gillian Welch’s “Wichita” and a stunning harmonica solo based around Sonny Terry’s “I Wanna Boogie” coupled with the old Blind Willie Johnson classic “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”.  Henry’s virtuosity on the harmonica was apparent as he played two simultaneously on “Death and the Lady”, effectively doing the work normally reserved for an accordion, with a little beat boxing thrown in.  One of the highlights of the set was Hannah’s beautiful banjo-accompanied “The Painter”, which featured a confident vocal performance by the young singer.  Show of Hands’ Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, together with Miranda Sykes on double bass, performed a relaxed and it has to be said, flawless set, which included many familiar anthemic songs including “Is There Anything Left in England That’s Not For Sale”, “Country Life”, “Santiago” and “Cousin Jack” as well as some newer songs including “Stop Copying Me”, a song highlighting the perils of social networking and the brand new and highly topical “We’re All In It Together”.  Forging an ongoing reputation as being the archetypal ‘English’ folk band, Show of Hands are never afraid to show their American influences, on Friday including in their set Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown”, Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”.  Miranda Sykes was also left alone on stage to perform a delightful solo version of Kate Rusby’s “Old Man Time”, accompanying herself on bowed double bass in her own inimitable style.  On Saturday morning, the inaugural Seth Lakeman Rising Stars Competition took place in the ‘open mic’ room at the festival, with seven young acts competing for the new trophy that Seth Lakeman was only too happy to sponsor.  With ages ranging from 12 to 19, each act performed two pieces, either songs or tunes, before the three judges, the performers Dave Burland and Kayla Kavanagh as well as Shepley Spring Festival organiser Kate Atkinson.  Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, Jennifer Beadnell and Olivia Clifton, Dylan Brierley, Amy Condrey, Josh Lockwood, Lydia Noble and Mia Symmonds performed in good spirits and gave the three judges something of a task, the outcome being revealed shortly afterwards when it was announced that 13 year-old Dylan Brierley took the overall first place and the trophy, with Amy Condrey taking joint first place in the older category and classical guitarist Josh Lockwood as runner up.  Opening the afternoon concert on the main stage was Barnsley’s own Richard Kitson who performed songs from his debut solo album Home and Dry, including “Robin Hood’s Bay”, “My Love”, “Low Tide” and “Gambling Woman”, together with a tribute to Davy Graham with the timeless finger challenging guitar piece “Anji”.  Nashville-based singer-songwriter Stephanie Lambring has now got herself an impressive day job, in that she works in an office specifically writing songs for BMG, just as in the old Brill Building days.  Some of those songs were performed on Saturday afternoon by one of the most confident young performers working out of Nashville today.  Mixing some of the new songs “I Will” and “You Too” with the more established repertoire such as “Sober”, “Vincent” and “Lonely To Alone”, Stephanie won a few new friends with her distinctive voice and mature song-writing.  Continuing the afternoon’s theme of singer-songwriter based performers, producer and musician Nigel Stonier came out from behind the studio console to perform a handful of his own songs.  Famed for his production work with Thea Gilmore, Fairport Convention and more recently Katy Lied, Nigel launched into his set with “Wild and Beautiful”, going on to perform songs from his current album Notes from Overground including “Whole Lotta Nothin’ Going On” and “Set You Free”.  Perching himself on the edge of the stage, effectively abandoning the sound system, Nigel performed an unplugged version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, which was well received by the audience.  Headlining the afternoon concert on the main stage was Karine Polwart and her trio consisting of brother Steve on guitar and Inge Thomson on everything else.  Karine is without question one of our most treasured songwriters, whose intelligent songs are several notches above the normal standard.  Starting with “Resolution Road” from her debut album Faultlines, Karine went on to perform several of her best loved songs including “Daisy”, “We’re All Leaving”, “River’s Run”, “Sorry”, “Beo” and “This Earthly Spell”, together with her memorable take on the Blue Nile’s “From Rags to Riches”.  Karine finished her set with the optimistic “I’m Gonna Do It All”, which was rewarded with a unanimous call for more, Karine’s trio returning for a final encore of the gorgeous “Follow the Heron”.  Whilst the afternoon concert was taking place on the main stage, other activities were going on elsewhere throughout the school, with Gerry McNeice presiding over an open mic session, which saw some of the festival artists performing informally together with other singers and musicians popping in and out throughout the afternoon.  Lou Marriott also ran a singaround in one of the other classrooms for those who preferred a more laid back session.  Saturday evening’s concert on the main stage began with an appearance by festival patron Dave Burland, fresh from judging the Rising Stars competition, who joked that he accepted the role as he intended to patronise everyone in the place before the evening was over.  Dave’s own star rose in the early 1970s, but his eclectic choice of songs are still remembered and cherished today in this area in particular.  Starting with Richard Thompson’s “Hard Luck Stories”, Dave went on to perform such much loved songs as Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”, the traditional “The Water is Wide” and the old Louis Jordan rocker “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”.  Dave finished his set with the old Lowell George classic “Willin’”, which had everyone singing along in typical Little Feat harmony.  The Devon-based twins Laura and Charlotte Carrivick brought a taste of bluegrass to Barnsley, with songs from the Carrivick Sisters’ Jupiter’s Corner album.  Starting with “Waiting For a Train”, the sisters alternated between guitar, mandolin, dobro and fiddle, for some of the weekend’s most dextrous musicianship.  Mixing Old Time with Bluegrass, the twins played an assured set featuring songs such as “Stars”, “Martha’s Witchalse”, “Garden Girl”, “The William and Emma and Charlotte Dymond”, as well as their take on the Alison Krauss song “Gentle River”.  From the tiny town of Nokomis, in the Saskatchewan province of Canada, Little Miss Higgins together with partner Foy Taylor, brandished their respective electric guitars for some retro-blues, rockabilly and jazz-tinged vaudeville, delivering on cue some of their eagerly anticipated numbers from their most recent album Across the Plains. Starting with “In the Middle of Nowhere”, from their previous Junction City album, the duo stomped out their own brand of blues, making an immediate impression on the unsuspecting Barnsley audience.  With a slight technical hitch, which effectively took guitarist Foy Taylor out of the picture for a few minutes, Little Miss Higgins took up the mantle and soon had the audience in the palm of her hands with the unaccompanied “Gather My Fruit”.  With a particularly good time feel, songs like “The Tornado Song”, “Snowin’ Today: A Lament for Louis Riel” and the infectious “Bargain! Shop Panties”, brought a sense of fun to the evening.  With a last minute name change from the advertised Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams to the simplified The Grand Slambovians, Josiah Longo and his merry band brought some of their famed hillbilly Pink Floyd to Barnsley.  One of the most exciting retro bands on the scene at the moment, the Slambovians notched up yet another successful UK festival appearance, adding another bunch of enthusiasts to their word-of-mouth gathered fanbase with songs such as “Picture” and “The Trans-Slambovian BiPolar Express”.  Sunday afternoon began with a couple of classical guitar pieces played by 12 year-old Josh Lockwood, runner up in the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition, playing impressive note-perfect recitals of “Waltz in E Minor” and “Ausurious Leyanda”.  The overall winner, 13 year-old singer-songwriter Dylan Brierley, went on next to perform a couple of self-penned songs including “My Hero”, a song about Dylan’s mum, just for Mother’s Day.  Sharon King and the Reckless Angels performed a gentle set on Sunday afternoon, with a handful of songs from Sharon’s growing repertoire, including “Lady Tuesday”, “High Times”, and “Shiny Shoes” from Sharon’s current album Reckless Angels.  The seated trio were relaxed throughout their set, which also included “Travelling Ways” and “Josie”.  The legendary Vin Garbutt returned to the Barnsley after a long time away to perform some of his most enduring songs such as “The Turner’s Song”, “The One Legged Beggar”, “Morning Informs” and “Not For the First Time” and sounding just as good as ever.  With his familiar between-song banter, a handful of remarkably poignant songs and the odd whistle tune, Vin’s hour-long set seemed over before it began, testament to the Teeside Bard’s command over engaging with his audience.  Possibly the most eagerly anticipated set of the festival this year was North Georgia’s thoroughly exciting Larkin Poe, with the Lovell Sisters Rebecca and Megan dominating a stage for a set filled with some of the most spirit-lifting bluegrass-inflected music of the weekend.  Starting with the infectious “Long Hard Fall”, Larkin Poe brought to life the music British audiences had only previously known on record over the last twelve months.  Their debut UK tour reveals that Larkin Poe are just as good if not better live than on their four seasonal EPs Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.  Performing favourites “In My Time of Dying”, “Teardrop”, “We Intertwine”, “Sea Song”, “Trance”, “Praying for the Bell” and the soulfully bluesy “Principle of Silver Lining”, the band endeavoured to bring the sleepy afternoon audience out of relaxation mode and up on the dance floor with varying degrees of success.  With Knoxville’s Vince Llagan on bass and Chad Melton on drums, joining siblings Rebecca Lovell on guitar, mandolin and fiddle and Megan Lovell on dobro and lap steel guitar, Larkin Poe demonstrated some remarkable craftsmanship whilst having tremendous fun at the same time.  A memorable performance by any standard.  As Sunday evening approached, the two winners of the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition, Amy Condrey and Dylan Brierley, gave the audience of a taste of what to expect in their future endeavours as artists and performers.  Sam Lakeman, who was at the concert specifically to play with headliner Cara Dillon as part of her band, came on stage to present young Dylan with his trophy, sponsored by his brother Seth.  With a few words of encouragement, Sam handed over the trophy to the proud young performer.  The evening continued with something of a family affair with each of the acts having within its ranks either a Roberts or a Lakeman and in one case both.  Award-winning duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, no strangers to the Kingstone School, delighted the audience with a set of songs and tunes, including “All I’ve Known”, “Suzannah”, “Shepherd” and “Fleetwood Fair”.  With a brilliant performance of “The Badger’s Set”, which was unfortunately brought to an abrupt end seconds before the planned end, by a string breaking on Jamie’s guitar, the duo switched instruments for one of Jamie’s most original songs, “The Bookseller’s Story”.  Keeping it in the family, Jamie’s big sister Kathryn Roberts, who shares the title of festival patron with Dave Burland, took to the stage next with husband Sean Lakeman beside her, in an all too rare duo performance by the ex-Equation band mates.  Opening with “Granite Mill”, the duo demonstrated an intuitive musical empathy with Kathryn occasionally visiting the piano stool for songs such as the stunning “Joe Peel” and the debut of an achingly sad song concerning the miners strike, which had the Kingstone School Hall in complete silence throughout.  Other familiar songs from the Roberts/Lakeman repertoire included “The Red Barn”, “Lord Gregory”, “The Buxom Lass” and “The Whitby Maid”, finishing with the sublime “Jackie’s Song”.  Rounding off the final evening and completing an excellent second Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, it seemed fitting to go out with one of folk music’s most delightful voices, Northern Ireland’s Cara Dillon.  Once again the family connection remained intact with husband Sam Lakeman joining Cara on stage as part of her band for the festival finale.  Starting with “Johnny, Lovely Johnny” from Cara’s current album Hill of Thieves, the band went on to perform such songs as “Johnny Mo Mhile Sor”, “Spencer the Rover”, “The Lass of Glenshee” as well as one or two older songs such as “I Wish You Well” and “Garden Valley” from Cara’s After the Morning period and “Black is the Colour” from her ten-year-old self-titled debut.  With an encore of the aptly titled “The Parting Glass”, Cara Dillon brought a touch of class to the festival, a festival that will no doubt grow in popularity once the word gets out.

Larkin Poe | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 03.04.11

Fresh from their weekend appearance at the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, where the band had the luxury of space on the large Kingstone School Hall stage, Larkin Poe squeezed into the relatively minute Wheelhouse for an intimate evening of fun and music. It came as no surprise then when our host Hedley Jones announced before the second set that tonight’s gig was ‘just unbelievably good’; of course the audience unanimously agreed.  With two sets filled with Larkin Poe originals, which just happens to include some of the most highly melodic songs on the current Americana scene, the band instantly won over the sell-out audience with no problem whatsoever.  Following a nice laid-back set of songs courtesy of Nottingham singer-songwriter Owen Harvey, no stranger to this venue, Larkin Poe took to the space where the stage normally stands, to start their first set with the feel-good and infectiously melodic “Long Hard Fall”, possibly the first song we in the UK heard just over a year ago, being the opening song from their first EP release.  This song alone demonstrated that the band can do justice to the songs live just as well as on record, if not better.  The Lovell siblings Rebecca and Megan, together with Chad Melton on drums and Vince Llagan on bass, went on to play some, if not all, the best songs from each of their seasonal EPs, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter including “The Principle of Silver Lining”, “We Intertwine”, “Teardrop” and “Praying For The Bell”.  With charisma and charm, Rebecca dominated the show, with her infectious personality and uniquely gutsy vocal prowess, whilst Megan, the ‘studious one’, stoically observed with a quiet serenity from the side.  The second set saw the band loosen up with a mixture of Larkin Poe’s more sensitive songs, which Rebecca refers to as ‘low key material’, such as “Free Like a Bird”, “Distance” and the tension-filled “Burglary”.  Towards the end of the set the band played one of Rebecca’s most heartfelt songs about home, simply entitled “My Home”, which has an astonishing bluegrass coda, showcasing the duos’ breathtaking dobro/mandolin sparring credentials, lest we forget these two musicians have a background steeped in bluegrass.  Finishing with an astonishing take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Bleeding Heart”, which gave each of the musicians the space to take on a solo, the band could not possibly be let out of the place without at least a couple of encores, which included the fiddle tune “Big Sciota” and finally the Don Williams song “We’re all the Way”.  By the end of the two sets even the most devoted Larkin Poe fans would have to admit that all the material they know and love had been played.  What more can one ask for at a concert?  Great musicianship, great performances, entertaining between-song banter and all your songs done.  There you go, the perfect gig.

Little Miss Higgins | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 09.04.11

There was a lot in the way of ‘littles’ tonight.  From the little town of Nokomis in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, Little Miss ‘Jolene’ Higgins made her debut at the little Wheelhouse, bringing a taste of vaudeville style entertainment to the popular venue, filling the room with her strong and distinctive jazz-flavoured voice, mixing her own material with classic Memphis Minnie blues songs.  There’s nothing little about that voice though, which dominated the house concert, whilst partner Foy Taylor provided the rhythm guitar and backing vocals throughout.  With vintage guitars in hand and at the ready, Jolene and Foy performed songs from the Little Miss Higgins catalogue, including a selection from her last record Junction City (2007) including “That Train’s a Comin’ Down”, “Velvet Barley Bed”, “In the Middle of Nowhere” and the wonderfully confrontational “Liar Liar”.  Much of the set though centred around Little Miss Higgins’ current album Across the Plains, with arguably some of her best songs to date such as “The Tornado Song”, the unaccompanied “Gather My Fruit”, “Snowin’ Today: Lament for Louis Riel” and the surprise ‘hit’ and live favourite “Bargain! Shop Panties”.  There was also a couple of well-chosen Memphis Minnie songs included, both of which clearly showed Jolene’s roots; “You Ain’t Done Nothing To Me” and “Killer Diller”.  With some entertaining between-song banter with the audience, which centred around Jolene’s Alberta background, her travel exploits and beer, together with an evenly balanced mixture of country-flavoured ballads, juke joint blues numbers, rockabilly stompers and jazz-tinged crooners, Jolene presented a couple of sets that makes her act difficult to categorise.  During the old Bessie Smith blues classic “Me and My Gin”, Jolene requested a shot glass from the bar for some spontaneous bottleneck slide playing.  Not to waste the opportunity, Jolene also requested that the glass be filled with gin.  Andy the barman dutifully handed over a couple of gins, one of which our host Hedley Jones had to ‘feed’ to Foy Taylor, whilst he continued playing his guitar, not missing a beat.  The other one was down Jolene’s neck in one, then explored the neck of her guitar for the remainder of the song.  Finishing with “Romance in the Dark”, a much older song which appeared on Jolene’s debut album Cobbler Shop Sessions (2005),  Little Miss Higgins left both the stage and a lasting impression on the Wombwell audience.  Continuing the theme of all things little, the support came in the form of 14 year-old Mia Symonds, a tiny frame with a massive talent, who performed a handful of songs, including KT Tunstall’s “The Other Side of the World”, Beyonce’s “Smash Into You” and the Jason Mraz hit “I’m Yours”, together with the achingly personal self-penned song “Closer”, extraordinarily mature lyrics for one so young.  I’m certain we’ll hear a lot more from Mia in due course.

Curtis Eller | The Greystones, Sheffield | 23.04.11

You would imagine the task of describing a Curtis Eller gig to be relatively difficult; there’s a lot of strangely eccentric behaviour granted, but in reality, it’s pretty much like describing one of the oldest forms of entertainment, that of a pretty standard song and dance routine, albeit with a slight difference.  Tonight, the Detroit-born, now North Carolina-based showman began his set standing bolt upright on a high backed chair, banjo in hand with the usual silent movie-style attire, vest, waistcoat, baggy trousers and braces (suspenders to Stateside folk) and sneakers, all of which, I’ve had on good authority, is pretty much Eller’s daily costume.  With a healthy mixture of Vaudeville, Music Hall, old time folk, circus clowning and yodelling, as well as being imbued with a punk-acrobat sensibility, Eller grabs your attention from the start, not exclusively through his frenzied stage antics but also through his very distinctive songs.  Whether referencing historical figures from the American Civil War era such as Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis and William Tecumseh Sherman or Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, or even the sporting legend Joe Louis, the songs are instantly recognisable as Curtis Eller’s.  Rather than following any coherent narrative though, these names are used more like paints on a palette with unusual juxtapositions.  However engaging the songs are to the audience, it’s the stage shenanigans that really draw the audiences in.  Eller’s unpredictable behaviour probably comes as much of a surprise to him as it does to the audience, whether it be simply leaving the stage to lean nonchalantly against the pub wall whilst the band continues to play, or maybe exiting through the fire escape and into the car park with the radio mic losing signal after a while, leaving the audience strangely bewildered.  Or perhaps it’s the over-enthusiastic spin on stage, which sees our hero ploughing into the drum kit, then ricocheting off into the double bassist.  Scary stuff, but absolutely part of the Eller experience.  Making several excursions into the audience tonight, either by crawling along the floor begging for a kazoo, or fearlessly negotiating the treacherous table tops, whilst at one point even resting his foot on the head of one unsuspecting young punter, whose decision to attend this gig was perhaps at this point in question, Eller seldom misses a beat on his backless banjo, delivering one song after another, songs about coal mining disasters, circus fires or having just three more minutes with Elvis.  During all this mayhem, we also experience one of the most cherished moments of any Curtis Eller gig, the part of the show where we are all invited to become pigeons for a moment.  “The Last Flight of the Pigeon Club” is not only hilarious in its concept, but strangely beautiful at the same time.  Joined by a British rhythm section, Matthew Rheeston on drums and Bradley Blackwell on upright bass, Eller revisited many of his best known songs such as “Sweatshop Fire”, “Sugar in My Coffin” and “Taking Up Serpents Again”, finishing with a song that the enthusiastic Greystones audience pretty much demanded to be played, the timeless “Buster Keaton”, which brought the evening to a more than satisfactory conclusion.  I wouldn’t like to think what might have happened had this beautiful homage to the silent era not been played.  Someone would’ve had to call the cops I guess, Keystone or otherwise.

Wath Festival 2011 | Montgomery Hall, Wath Upon Dearne | 01.05.11

The May Day bank holiday weekend traditionally brings light and colour to the small South Yorkshire town of Wath upon Dearne and has been doing so for at least thirty-nine years in the form of the annual Wath Festival.  Three days of fun and music may have been the famous Woodstock slogan back in the day, with memorable stage announcements such as ‘some hamburger guy had his hamburger stand burned down last night’, bringing a momentary frown upon proceedings at the iconic 1969 festival in upstate New York.  A similar frown appeared on the faces of the good people of Wath on Friday night when a portaloo was torched in similar fashion down by the War Memorial, damaging part of the stone memorial, the perpetrator seemingly unconcerned about the distress this silly act may have caused the families of our local heroes.  But there’s always one isn’t there?  Just the one glitch then in an otherwise fun-filled, warm and friendly festival, where much of the town was out in support of the festivities throughout the town including a variety of street entertainment, stalls, crafts, face-painting, street theatre, dance displays, stilt walkers together with Moonarooni, the new and exciting audio visual experience down on the Brook Dyke green space.  With various singarounds in the Red Lion and the Sandygate, as well as some fine chorus singing led by Wath Morris in the Rugby Club, together with a whole host of major folk music acts performing at the Montgomery Hall, including The Tannerhill Weavers, Frances Black, Chris Wood and Drever, McCusker, Woomble and Talbot, the weekend had something for everyone.  On Friday night Ray Hearne opened the main concert section of the festival, with a short set of down to earth self-penned songs such as “Things to Say”, diverting our attention from the other main event of the day, towards the more important things in life, that is, good thought-provoking songs for and about ordinary people.  Ray then continued to host the rest of the Friday night concert in his own inimitable way.  The theme of songwriting and storytelling continued throughout Friday evening with a visit from the North East’s favourite son Jez Lowe, making a welcome return to the festival, whose songs seemed to reflect some of the images that adorn the walls of the Montgomery Hall, most notably the one depicting the area’s history of coal mining.  Alternating between his usual guitar, cittern and mandolin, Jez sang a selection of songs from his repertoire including “The Judas Bus”, “Taking on Men” and “Will of the People2.  There’s always something warm and enchanting about an appearance at Wath Festival by festival patron John Tams, who always tries to make himself available during this annual weekend.  With Barry Coope on keyboards, Tam’s gentle approach to communicating with his audience brought the Montgomery Hall to a hushed silence as the Derbyshire songwriter delivered a handful of uplifting songs whilst regaling the audience with some of his random stories, from a chance meeting with Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall outside the Dakota Building in New York to the plight of the Manchester Ramblers.  Friday’s headliner saw the first of this year’s strong Celtic contingent, with one of Ireland’s finest singers, who Nanci Griffith once referred to as the ‘sweetest voice in Ireland’, Frances Black, together with her small band, bringing the sound of Dublin to South Yorkshire with such songs as “The Sky Road”, “Ready For the Storm” and “After the Ball”.  As Wath Morris, Barnsley Samba and Maltby Phoenix Sword Dancers congregated outside Montgomery Hall early on Saturday morning, in order to lead a procession down to the main town square, the sun came out on cue to flood the town with colour. Thomas Tuke’s will was read out twice during the morning, firstly in the town square and then a few moments later in front of the All Saint’s Parish Church doors, whilst 40 dozen bread buns were hoisted up to the lofty bell tower.  The suitably attired Mike the Travelling Minstrel put the Will to song and music as the buns were hurled down upon the masses with hundreds of hands reaching skywards to receive their share of the bread.  Shortly afterwards Rob Shaw took to the Montgomery Hall stage to welcome a handful of quality folk acts to the festival including Charlie Barker and Harriet Bartlett, two songbirds on guitar and accordion respectively, the aptly dressed Bernard Wrigley in Dennis the Menace shirt, who brought an hour of music, song and comedy to the stage and finally a headline appearance from Irish singer-songwriter Kieran Halpin, with a set of the type of songs that actually mean something.  Elsewhere during the afternoon, Lou Marriott presided over the Silver Roots Competition at the Red Lion whilst Wath Morris Team ran their ‘Mostly Chorus’ session at Wath Rugby Club. Bernard Wrigley then returned to the main Montgomery Hall stage to present an evening of music starting with a fine performance by Scarborough’s Anna Shannon.  Chris Wood made his debut at the festival with an engaging performance, with a selection of songs that span his solo career thus far, as well as a handful of songs from his current album Handmade Life, such as “Spitfires”, “My Darling’s Downsized” and “The Grand Correction”.  Another debut for Wath Festival was Paisley’s Tannahill Weavers, a band that has been around for a good 43 years and quite possibly the first band to incorporate the Highland Pipes as an integral instrument, rather than being just a solo instrument.  Roy Gullane led the Weavers through a storming headliner set rounding off Saturday night’s concert.  The sun hung around for Sunday as Wath Festival stalwart Gary Wells introduced Shropshire’s Flaxenby, featuring Sam McLeod’s versatile voice blending folk, rock and jazz influences, together with Chris Buttery’s mandolin and guitar and Andy Jones’s informed fiddle.  The band were also responsible for encouraging the first bit of impromptu dancing in front of the stage, not bad for so early on a Sunday afternoon.  York’s Holly Taymar and partner Chris Bilton returned for their third consecutive visit  to the festival, demonstrating that Wath Festival knows a good thing when it hears it.  Holly’s trademark between song rambling was interspersed as always by a delightful set of songs including “Toes”, “Beautiful Days” and “Keeping Time”.  The combined musical dexterity of Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne, collectively known as Uiscedwr, went on to demonstrate some of their highly rhythmic sounds in a breathtaking set of songs and tunes, featuring Cormac’s outstanding command over a variety of percussion instruments and Anna’s virtuoso fiddle playing, not to mention her remarkable voice.  Returning to Wath once again was Kris Drever, one third of the groundbreaking power trio Lau, the singer/guitarist playing a solo spot, which included a set of songs including Ewan Maccoll’s “Freeborn Man”, Boo Hewerdine’s “Harvest Gypsies” as well as the traditional “Green Grow the Laurel”.  Whilst Holly Tamar ran a ukulele workshop in the St James Room, Charlie Barker hosted the Wath Young Performers Award 2011, with three finalists performing before a panel of judges including radio presenter Dave Eyre, and musicians John McCusker and Kris Drever.  The winners were Luke Hirst and Sarah Smout who went on to open the final evening concert, which also featured a welcome return of Merseyside’s Elbow Jane.  Festival regulars Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby paid another visit to Wath with some of their most cherished songs such as the moving “Alice’s Song”, the superb “That Old Guitar” and finally the showstopping Native American tale of “Accanoe”.  Finally, and bringing the festival weekend to a close, an eagerly anticipated appearance by Kris Drever, John  McCusker, Roddy Woomble and Heidi Talbot, who performed songs from each of the collective’s respective performers, including “Steel and Stone”, “My Secret Is My Silence”, “The Poorest Company” and “Start It All Over Again”, whilst at the same time adding a touch of class to the proceedings.  The thought on a lot of minds I dare say, bearing in mind this was the 39th festival, is how the Wath Team can follow it next year, when the festival will be celebrating its fortieth birthday.  If this year is anything to go by, then the organising committee led by David and Ann Roche, together with Gary Wells and a team of dedicated supporters will no doubt be getting their thinking caps on in order to try and make the next one even better than this year.  It has to be said that each year the festival becomes a harder act to follow.

This Is The Kit | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 13.05.11

The current music scene is awash with inventively created pseudonyms, whether it be the odd Badly Drawn Boy, the occasional Joan as Police Woman or just plain Tensheds, it can be slightly confusing and at times difficult to keep up with who is actually who.  This Is The Kit’s bassist Jesse D Vernon, otherwise known as Morning Star, claims these names are there to make the artists sound more interesting than they actually are.  The current vehicle for Kate Stables’ songs is This Is The Kit, an interchangeable collective, which tonight as always was represented by this enigmatic singer-songwriter, alternating between banjo and guitar, joined by fellow Winchester-born songwriter Rozi Plain, who provided voice and clarinet, the aforementioned Jesse D Vernon on the ‘low end’, Neil Smith on guitar and Jamie Whitbey-Coles on drums.  The band’s appearance at the Town Hall in Kirton in Lindsey tonight was a mellow affair, with songs selected from both of Kate’s albums to date, her 2006 debut Krulle Bol and the more recent Wriggle Out the Restless.  Initially starting her set alone on stage with an earlier song, “Moths” from This Is The Kit’s debut album, Kate soon surrounded herself with the full band in order to perform a handful of extraordinary songs including “White Ash Cut”, “Sometimes the Sea” and “See Here”.  With her banjo harnessed in a small bum-bag type pouch instead of the usual strap, Kate had the audience mesmerised with her almost ethereal style of singing and playing, assisted by fellow Winchester singer Rozi Plain.  With performances of both the band’s current single “Moon” and their forthcoming single release “Earthquake”, reminding us of some of the band’s finest melodies, Kate also performed the delightful “Two Wooden Spoons” featuring some fascinating whistled refrains, worthy of nightingale comparison.  Finishing with the trance-like “Easy Pickins”, Kate and co gently left their mark, appealing to an audience of all ages.  The three-piece version of Morning Star kicked off the night with forty minutes of mellow songs from the pen of Jesse D Vernon.  Having a long time association with This Is The Kit, Vernon opened with the song “Morning Star” for a set that also included “Serious Guy”, “Great Day” and “I Heard Beauty Calling”, together with some intriguing dance routines and inventive slide guitar manouvres.  Sandwiched between both performances, Rozi Plain played her own solo set, introducing some new songs including “Humans”, the single destined for her long awaited follow up album to 2008’s Inside Over Here.  Starting her set with a traditional song from the Northumbrian minstrelsy “Blow The Wind Southerly”, Rozi sang her beautifully laid back songs to a respectfully silent audience with a set that also included such songs as “Let’s Go” and “You Can See My Boat”.  Three fine sets, five musicians and a small but well formed audience once again made for an excellent night in the sleepy side of North Lincolnshire.

The Good Lovelies | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 26.05.11

Discarding their usual strict dress code (ie dresses!) and opting for ‘pants’ on this occasion instead, The Good Lovelies approached the last couple of dates on this their debut UK tour, whilst dazzling everyone present at the Wombwell Wheelhouse with their utterly gorgeous harmony singing, their musicianship and their seemingly unlimited sense of fun.  Reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters (or if you’re into uniforms, the Andrews Sisters), this Toronto-based trio update a much older style of singing, giving it a contemporary edge, but losing none of its beauty along the way.  With Kerri Ough (pronounced ‘O’) on banjo, Sue Passmore on guitar and Caroline Brooks on guitar and mandolin (Kerri and Sue sharing bass duties), the trio brought equal measures of warmth, fun, humour and gorgeous songs to the popular South Yorkshire house concert with two sets of immediately accessible songs from each of the trio’s two available albums.  (There is a third, but that’s a Christmas record and in May, pretty much inappropriate). Selecting songs predominantly from the trio’s current album Let the Rain Fall (2011), the Good Lovelies launched into their first set with “Kiss Me in the Kitchen”, demonstrating from the start just how intuitive and tight their three part harmony singing can be.  Their unforced, laid-back approach to harmony singing often sounds effortless and natural, especially on songs like “Home”, “Best I Know” and their version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Straight Time”, all of which have a lullaby feel to them.  Along with all the new material, the set also included one or two songs from their earlier Juno-winning self-titled debut album including “Sleepwalking”, “Baby I Got My Way” and “Lie Down”, together with one of the trio’s earliest compositions “February Song”, which not only appears on the current album but also the trio’s debut EP Oh My! (2007), featuring Kerri’s delightful glockenspiel accompaniment.  With a voice like a fine red wine, Sue Passmore delivered one of the most beautiful love songs of the night with “Into the Spotlight”, augmented by utterly delicious harmony accompaniment courtesy of the singers on either side of her; goosebumps sort of singing.  Going on to pay homage to the singers who obviously inspire The Good Lovelies, the trio performed an a cappella version of The Boswell Sisters’ “Heebie Jeebies”, adding a distinctive fun side to their repertoire.  With stories about moving house, travelling across Canada with Caroline’s parents, constantly defending one of Canada’s most derided cities, being adopted by their own American ‘Grammy’ or just the occasional ‘banjo joke’, the three women clearly enjoy working together as touring musicians.  Their escort on this particular tour is none other than Rebecca Kemp, an unsung hero in this genre of music, who continues to deliver to the Wheelhouse and other venues around the country some of the most impressive musicians this reviewer has ever seen.  Kempy celebrated her birthday tonight, which all added to the party atmosphere.  With Hedley Jones presenting a cake and having “Happy Birthday” sung to her in extraordinarily good three part harmony is pretty memorable stuff, not just for Kempy but for all of us.  Finishing with a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, reminding us all that underneath all the criminally over-played and nonsensical ‘pop’ versions that have recently been foisted upon us via shows like the X Factor, “Hallelujah” is still one of the most beautiful songs by one of Canada’s most beautiful song writers and in the hands of The Good Lovelies, possibly the prettiest version of all.

Shepley Spring Festival 2011 | Shepley | 28.05.11

Once again as cheerful festival stewards greeted the equally cheerful festival goers descending upon this sleepy West Yorkshire village for the fifth annual Shepley Spring Festival, the seasonal elements made tent erecting an ‘interesting’ prospect to say the least.  At the same time, it helped create a mood of camaraderie amongst the familiar faces, most of whom reacquainted themselves with each other in a spirit of neighbourly community, just as they did last year and the year before that and so on.  As each tent peg was driven into the soft farmland ground, the tower of the lofty Emley Moor transmitting station looked on with informed amusement.  There were no giant balls this year on the showground, which was probably wise in view of the fact that the wind would almost certainly have sent them hurtling down the valley towards the mast and in skittle-like fashion, knocking the smile off its smug little face.  The weather wasn’t going to put anyone off though as more and more people arrived on Friday afternoon.  The weekend would see its fair share of wind and rain for sure, but there would also be spells of sunshine and refreshing evening breezes to make it all very much worthwhile.  It would be brass instruments not brass monkeys that concerned the Frumptarn Guggenband for instance, as they gathered cow-like around the showground, confusing other cows in the process.  The weekend would see a whole variety of colourful dance displays, mummer’s plays and an assortment of musical combos congregating on the showground, bearing equally colourful names such as the Silkstone Greens, White Rose and Black Swan and the like, providing showcase performances for all.  The festival actually started on Thursday night with an opening concert in the Beer Tent, featuring performances from the Jon Strong Band and the Tea Room Preservation Society, especially for the early arrivals; a gentle easing-in to the festival so to speak.  The first event on Friday evening however, was staged at St Paul’s Church just down the lane from the main festival site, where a handful of young performers gathered for a Shepley Springboard concert.  Shepley takes pride in encouraging and supporting young performers of all ages and Friday’s Strings and Things Youth Concert saw acoustic performances by a host of young musicians and singers such as festival regulars Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, as well as a classical recital by the Shelley Guitar Ensemble, some fine singing courtesy of award winning traditional singer Kirsty Bromley, an energetic performance from award winning trio Moore Moss Rutter and finally a debut appearance from nine-piece Folkworks Summer School orchestra Raj Raj Raj led by the charismatic David Gray.  Simultaneous events took place around the village with a ceilidh in the Village Hall featuring Random, a folk club at the Coach House with guests that included Lucy Ward, Lydia Noble, Life and Times and Gavin Davenport and on the main stage, performances by Tyde and Pilgrims’ Way.  The choices are seemingly endless at Shepley prompting the annual perusal of the programme.  You can either sit down on the benches beside the Beer Tent, with pen in hand and carefully circle each of the events you wish to attend, hoping that two or more personal favourites don’t clash, which at times they inevitably do, or you can take your chances and just go where the music takes you; either way, there’s always lots to see.  After the Youth Concert in the church, the Festival Hub beckoned and I found myself drawn to the mountain dulcimer, bouzouki, banjo and melodeon playing of Pete Coe, who with Cyril Tawny’s “On A Monday Morning”, the traditional “Byker Hill” and finishing with a rousing chorus of “Shine On Me”, brought a taste of his own brand of music and song to the Friday night concert, from a seasoned performer.  Following Pete Coe, the nine-piece Scottish ‘supergroup’ Session A9 played a superb set on the main stage, featuring some highly entertaining songs and tunes, together with a memorable rendition of Jackson Browne’s beautiful “These Days”.  Made up of players from such familiar outfits as Capercaillie, Peatbog Faeries, Fiddlers Bid and Blazin’ Fiddles, Session A9 brought a wealth of experience and a rich musical heritage to the fields of Shepley, providing one of the highlights of the opening night.  Whilst the Beer Tent filled to bursting point with thirsty festival patrons, each enjoying at the same time the Little Chicken Band’s frenzied feel-good jazz approach to music, featuring the seemingly authentic Dixieland singing of the surprisingly young Becky Wolff, Scotland’s Skerryvore made a welcome return to the festival on the main stage after their show-stopping performance last year.  Taking to the stage slightly later than advertised, which may unfortunately have prompted the overflow in the Beer Tent, the band went on to perform songs from their current self-titled album, including “Simple Life” and the anthemic “Path to Home”, with a final encore of Dougie MacLean’s sublime “Caledonia”.  On Saturday morning a well-deserved lie-in was pleasantly interrupted by the sound of brass, courtesy of Barnsley’s Frumptarn Guggenband on the festival showground, thumping out their ‘hits’, whilst several other events took place around the village.  With dance workshops, big band workshops and a ‘big sing’ taking place over in the Coach House, a number of local schools congregated in the main Festival Hub for a school’s showcase featuring dozens of young performers, completely up to speed with their respective traditions.  In quick succession, each of the schools took their turn on the big stage, a stage made much bigger when inhabited by such little folk.  During the afternoon over in the Beer Tent, Lancashire-based singer-songwriter and 2010 new Roots finalist Marianne Neary was in full voice with her young trio, performing some of her unique songs including “Blackberry Wine” and “Making Daisy Chains” together with a spellbinding version of the traditional “My Lagen Love”.  There’s always lots of workshops taking place throughout the village and on Saturday lunchtime it was the turn of Pilgrims’ Way singer Lucy Wright, who conducted her Jew’s harp workshop in Cliffe House.  Attracting around fifteen potential Jew’s harp players, one can only imagine the expression on the face of a passing caretaker or festival steward, as they pondered upon what on earth that strange noise could be, coming from the room within this listed Victorian building in the heart of Shepley Village.  Just over the road a little way down the lane, the singing continued in the Village Hall during the afternoon with the Teeside trio The Young’uns, bringing once again a taste of their unique northern humour and rich vocal prowess to the festival.  The afternoon also included performances by Tyde, the Fay Hield Trio, and concluded with a performance by the unique Belshazzar’s Feast.  One of the highlights of Saturday afternoon was the eagerly anticipated launch of Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson’s long awaited debut album Lady Diamond.  As the Cricket Club House filled to bursting point with family, friends, Demon Barbers and fans alike, cheese and cider was served up as several CD sleeves were simultaneously signed by the duo, during which the entire CD was played over the house sound system.  There was an air of excitement leading up to the Saturday night concert on the main stage, where award winning trio Moore Moss Rutter made a welcome return after their success at the 2010 Young Folk Awards.  The trio includes Tom Moore on fiddle, Archie Churchill-Moss on melodeon and local musician Jack Rutter on guitar, who lives ‘just one field away’.  With a set of tunes that included everything from jigs, reels, hornpipes and bourees, with a bit of Handel thrown in, the trio once again won over the Shepley audience, who claimed the trio as their own.  Fresh from their album launch during the afternoon, Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson demonstrated that the songs on Lady Diamond can be performed equally as well live as they performed a selection of songs and tunes from the album, ‘giving it some pastie’ with “Martinmas Time”, “The Ringers of Egloshayle” as well as the album’s title song.  One of the pleasant surprises at this year’s festival was the Québécois quartet Le Vent du Nord, who performed a blistering set midway through Saturday evening in the Festival Hub.  The audience were soon on their feet rejoicing in the party atmosphere created by four charming musicians from the French Canadian province of Quebec, which included a show-stopping piano duet by Nicolas Boulerice and Rejean Brunet.  Headlining Saturday night was award winning Bellowhead who really had their work cut out following such an engaging act as Le Vent du Nord.  Once again Jon Boden’s strange theatrical stage antics and the band’s adrenaline-fuelled performance guaranteed a full and sweaty mosh pit.  A suitably energetic conclusion to Saturday night.  On Sunday morning Oysterband’s John Jones met up with a handful of not so reluctant ramblers to take part in a morning walk from Holmfirth to Shepley across the moors.  The five-mile walk saw every kind of weather, from bright sunshine, to cold winds and heavy rainfall, all in the space of just two hours.  A few familiar musicians turned out to join the enthusiastic rambler during this stage of his ‘Spine of England’ tour including Uiscedwr’s Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne, together with Gavin Davenport and members of John’s current band the Reluctant Ramblers, all of whom later performed during the same concert.  On Sunday afternoon, the young traditional singer Kirsty Bromley took to the main stage with clarinet player Ollie Matthews, who together performed a handful of songs including Utah Phillips’ “Singing Through the Hard Times” and the traditional “Sweet Nightingale”, demonstrating Kirsty’s command over conveying traditional songs.  Singer-songwriter and interpreter of traditional folk songs Louise Jordan went on next to delight the Shepley audience with a handful of graceful songs including the “Lowlands of Holland”, “Silver Dagger” and her own composition “Born to Wander”.  Concluding the afternoon concert was Cheshire’s Pilgrims’ Way, playing their second main stage performance of the weekend.  Once again choosing songs from their soon to be released debut album Wayside Courtesies.  With great musicianship and a distinctive new voice, Pilgrims’ Way won new friends at the festival who in turn lapped up the performance.  Sheffield’s Gavin Davenport opened the late afternoon concert on the main stage with a few songs from his current album Brief Lives, sung in a strong and determined voice accompanying himself on concertina and guitar.  Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne were the special guests of John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers during their main stage set on Sunday afternoon.  The band, whose members had walked to the festival earlier in the morning, were all refreshed and fighting fit for a quality set, which attracted some equally quality dancing from one or two members of the audience.  Concluding the set by leaving the stage from the front, mingling amongst the audience and exiting through the public entrance whilst still playing acoustically, John Jones and his Reluctant Ramblers in effect embarked on the next stage of their peregrinations leaving a lasting mark on their audience in Shepley.  The second album launch of the weekend came with the arrival of the new Lucy Ward CD Adelphi Has to Fly.  Joined by Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow in the Club House, the charismatic Derbyshire singer signed copies of her album, whilst cheese and wine was served up, courtesy of the festival.  There was also a couple of songs thrown in for good measure.  Directly after the album launch, Lucy hot-footed it over to the main stage for one of the most delightful sets of the festival.  Joined once again by Belinda and Heidi, together with bassist Sam Pegg, Lucy performed a wonderful set of songs as the sun descended over Shepley Village for the final time of the weekend.  With songs such as “Alice in the Bacon Box”, “Adelphi” and Mike Waterson’s “A Stitch in Time”, Lucy appeared to come of age both as a performer and potentially one of the future big names in music before our very eyes.  Husband and wife team Nancy Kerr and James Fagan concluded the Sunday night concert following a fine set by one of Ottawa’s favourite vocal groups Finest Kind, who performed an engaging set of songs both familiar and not so familiar in their own inimitable and gentle manner. Heavily pregnant with the couple’s second child, a seated Nancy Kerr along with husband James Fagan was in fine form throughout the set, performing familiar songs such as “Dolerite Skies”, “Dance To Your Daddy” and “Queen of Waters”.  Towards the end of the concert and the festival, local builder, drystone waller and stone mason Will Noble took to the stage for what has become the traditional finale at Shepley Spring Festival, with the unaccompanied singing of the “Holmfirth Anthem”, which soon had the entire audience enthusiastically singing along in unison.  As the last refrain of the “Holmfirth Anthem” dispensed into the night air and the last remaining festival goers prepared for the final fling on the dance floor, I peered down at my well-thumbed programme slightly saddened at some of the events I had to miss, such as patron Roy Bailey’s afternoon tea in the church or Fay Hield’s Saturday afternoon performance or even trying my hand (or feet) at Angela Fawcett’s Irish Dance Workshop.  On the other hand, I could only rejoice in the things I did manage to see and with that in mind, I joined the party that followed.  No festival should go out without a party and this year it was provided by Blackbeard’s Tree Party, a pirate-clad combo, who set out to have the audience dancing in the aisles before the end of the night, achieving just that, bringing another memorable festival to a fun-filled climax.  Well done Shepley and roll on next year.

Gregory Alan Isakov | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 05.06.11

Once again the Town Hall in Kirton in Lindsey played host to another visiting artist from the States, this time the Colorado-based singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, who brought with him his own brand of laid-back atmospheric songs.  Selecting material primarily from his current album This Northern Hemisphere, the Johannesburg-born songwriter performed each song in a distinctively gentle manner, the emphasis centred on creating an atmosphere for each song, helped along by the trademark use of two microphones, one slightly distorting the voice.  The set was augmented by some intuitive electric guitar accompaniment from best friend and touring companion Ramaya Soskin, whose sensitive guitar playing and harmony vocals fleshed out the songs superbly well, bringing to each song just the right amount of embellishment, which suitably enhanced each performance.  With songs from the current album including “Evelyn”, “Virginia May”, “That Moon Song”, “If I Go, I’m Gone” and the soulful “Master and a Hound”, both musicians seemed relaxed and very much at home in the so called ‘Shire’.  The Tolkien reference was emphasised further by the relatively tall Ramaya when referring to Gregory as a Hobbit, whilst adjusting his mic stand to perform a couple of his own songs.  “Oh he likes it” quipped the singer, going on to perform “All in Good Time” and “Heatbreaker”, both from Soskin’s own solo album.  A couple of earlier songs from Gregory’s That Sea, The Gambler period, including “The Stable Song”, “3AM” and the title song, were performed during the course of the night, together with “Second Chances”, a brand new song destined for his forthcoming fifth album.  With an appreciative and respectful audience, a proverbial pin could’ve been heard to drop during each set, that is apart from the noise level being suitably raised at the end of each song, for some enthusiastic and thoroughly deserved applause.  Finishing the night with Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel”, which was dedicated to the humble MC, Gregory Alan Isakov maintained the standard that the Town Hall Live series of concerts have come to expect.

Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival 2011 | Beverley | 19.06.11

Part One: A Note or Two About Beverley..

It doesn’t take visitors long to acclimatise themselves to the sights and sounds of the Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival, whether it be the music coming from the main hall in the Leisure Complex or the various marquees scattered around the festival village, the club rooms, the local pubs, the occasional duelling horns outside the Chango Music stall or just from the camp site, as musicians of all ages break out their instruments for a bit of a play, after the tents are up that is.  It may even be the sound of BBC Radio Humberside coming from a neighbouring tranny (transistor radio if you will) whose presenters would keep the town and surrounding area informed of the festivities via their live outside broadcasts throughout the weekend – although why Friday’s broadcast started with Irene Cara squealing out the infamous Fame theme bewilders me still.  These sonic delights would mingle with the familiar sounds of the area, those sounds that can normally be heard in Beverley all year round; the frequent chimes of the nearby Minster bells for instance, the dulcet tones of which would become a handy alarm clock over the next three days, especially for those who might need to be up on the hour (every hour!), or the passing trains on the Northern Rail line, the drivers of which must have had enormous fun making sure campers were awake, if the bells hadn’t quite done the trick yet.  When headliner Paul Carrack took to the main stage on Friday night with his band, he rather sheepishly pointed out to the audience “we’re not actually a folk band”, to which someone in that audience responded “well this isn’t actually a folk festival!”  I have to agree, this annual festival has developed over the years into something else entirely, a festival with an eclectic agenda, mixing folk, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, Americana and World Music with everything else in between.  Lest we forget, Buzzcocks actually headlined a couple of years ago!  The programme is also peppered with lashings of poetry, comedy and literature events and even for the first time this year, a mini film festival. Something for just about everybody then.  On Friday night the choice of music was as eclectic as it could possibly be with performances by BBC Young Folk Award winners Moore Moss Rutter, Country-flavoured singer-songwriter collective Ahab and Celtic folk instrumentalist Michael McGoldrick in the Concert Marquee, whilst on the main stage York-based Jess Gardham opened with a soulful performance with her own band, including a performance of Bob Marley’s anthemic “No Woman No Cry”, followed by some bluesy song writing, courtesy of Sean Taylor, making the first of several appearances at the festival over the weekend, delighting the audience with tales of Dean Moriarty amongst others, whilst tipping his hat to Richie Havens with a stunning version of “Freedom”, the improvised gospel workout famously etched in the annals of popular music history in the Woodstock film.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Beverley Festival is the late night Wold Top Marquee sessions, which have grown in recent years both in physical size and in popularity.  Leila Slater hosted three consecutive nights of these impromptu sessions, often featuring some of the artists that appeared on the main stages throughout the weekend.  On Friday night Ahab, Henry Priestman, Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Jess Gardham, Sean Taylor and Moore Moss Rutter performed in the packed marquee, which was decked out in all manner of decoration from fabrics to flags, bails to bunting and parachutes to patchwork quilts, whilst the audience stretched out on the settees provided until the early hours.  On Saturday the festival was a hive of activity from mid-morning onwards, with a harmony singing workshop, a melodeon workshop, storytelling with Adrian Spendlow and many children’s activities including face painting (not just for kids, but also for emerging folk singers), whilst the town itself hosted a programme of dance displays throughout the day, all in the spirit of community.  There was also the chance to discover who is actually behind artisic endeavours in this region with the Beverley Arts Trust, Beverley Theatre Company, Fruit, Hull Jazz Festival, Musicport and Pocklington Arts Centre representatives.  Once again the Wold Top music sessions began at midday with Moore Moss Rutter stepping into the breach for opening act Paul Liddell who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to unforseen circumstances, followed by a variety of performers ranging from songwriters Wendy Arrowsmith, Gerry McNeice and Dan Wilde to local duo TWO and the Dan Webster Band amongst others.  Whilst Blackbeard’s Tea Party got everyone up on their feet for a ceilidh in the Concert and Dance Marquee, the Americana Concert in the main hall featured an appearance by Grammy-nominated Jerry Harmon, a native of North Carolina from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose mixture of story-telling and songs brought a taste of authenticity to the afternoon’s programme, which also featured performances by the Jess Gardham Band and Sean Taylor.  The afternoon concert concluded with the much anticipated performance by The Southern Tenant Folk Union, whose blend of Caledonian Bluegrass and Sci-Fi Folk, soon had the audience on the edge of their seats. Gathered around a single microphone as in the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry, the Edinburgh-based band featured songs from their growing repertoire.  Immediately after the Americana Concert, the band hot-footed it over to the Festival Hall for the launch of their new album Pencaitland, which the band performed acoustically in its entirety, before leaping up onto the Festival Village open air stage for a bit of a hoedown.  The headliner for Saturday night was the incomparable Barbara Dickson, who returned to the festival having tested the water last year, where the singer/actress came along to talk about her recently published autobiography, signing copies of ‘A Shirtbox Full of Songs’ and going on to make an unannounced guest appearance with her friend Charlie Dore and her fabulous Hula Valley Orchestra.  Barbara returned this year with her own full band, which included Bad Shepherd Troy Donockley, for a class performance featuring some of her best loved songs selected from a repertoire spanning four decades.  BBC Horizon Award winner Ewan McLennan also appeared at the concert along with the very busy Moore Moss Rutter, once again covering for one of the unavailable artists, this time the legendary Martin Carthy who was unable to attend due to illness.  The Wold Top Marquee provided another late night session, this time welcoming onto the stage Broken Ground, the engaging duo Sea Fret, the astonishingly dextrous jazz-infused quartet 4 Square, the poet Adrian Spendlow and the Southern Tenant Folk Union before the strength of the stage was ruthlessly challenged by the giant All Stars band, featuring over twenty musicians led by Sam Pirt, opening with a song by the delightful Jessica Lawson.  The Minster bells saw Sunday in as the blurry-eyed campers welcomed the arrival of more established artists to the festival including Bellowhead, the Fay Hield Trio, Spiers and Boden and Reg Meuross, together with a variety of World Music acts for the World Goes Local Concert, including The Jody McKenna Band, Dilzar Shanga, The Nile Band and the charismatic Hekima with his Bongo Flava.  Sunday afternoon also saw eagerly anticipated performances by the autoharp-huggin’ Jessica Lawson and local favourite Edwina Hayes, whilst Andy Stones delighted the audience with his take on Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, Moonwalking at the Moonbeams no less.  Other performances included Rebekah Findlay and Circus Envy amongst others.  Reg Meuross first appeared at the festival a couple of years ago, performing alongside Karen Tweed in an almost improvised impromtu set over at the Friary in 2009.  This year Reg appeared on the main bill with two or three appearances during Sunday; first over brunch in the Wold Top Marquee, then back at the Friary running a songwriting workshop, before his main set in the Concert Marquee, where he performed a handful of his best loved songs.  That concert also saw performances by Ewan McLennan and the Whiskey Dogs Hoedown Band, who soon has everyone on their feet for a final chance to take their partners for a barn dance.  The Fay Hield Trio also played a couple of times during the day as did husband Jon Boden, firstly with long-time partner John Spiers in the afternoon concert and finally with Bellowhead, the Sunday night headliners, who attracted the longest queue of the weekend, spilling out of the Leisure Centre foyer and almost out of the gates. Some of the headliner concerts over the weekend would obviously leave festival goers without a seat at the main events, but no matter, the programme always allows for great alternatives.  This reviewer favoured an evening of Cheshire-based rising stars Pilgrims’ Way, the delightfully complex 4 Square and the Folkways Summer School collective Raj Raj Raj, led as always by the ever-smiling David Gray, before the last Wold Top midnight feast of fun, music and late night dance, once again featuring some of the artists who had appeared on other stages throughout the day.  As far as music is concerned, this festival could not have possibly packed more in during the three days.

Part Two: A Word or Two About Beverley.. by Liam Wilkinson

If you dip your ear carefully into the gentle mix of guitar, fiddle, bongo, bodhran and bass that floats like a folky fog over the Beverley Festival Village, you might just catch a few naked words as they expose themselves in dimly lit corners.  A poem here and there, a joke, a story, perhaps a small fragment of a lecture.  You might spot a long-haired, bearded storyteller nestled somewhere between the ethnic drum stall and the crepe stand or spy a stand-up comedian tucking into a sarnie from the hog roast.  Yes, there’s an unplugged and unaccompanied side to the Beverley Festival and, each year, it seems to get better and better.  Hosted by York-based writer and musician Miles Cain, the ‘Poetry & Toast’ sessions presented breakfast-time readings from a handful of local and not-so-local poets. Miles himself read poems from his forthcoming debut collection including the brilliantly alarming “Instructions For Downloading The Human Heart” and the dramatically-paced “Thirty Seconds” – a poem that explores the chaos of time’s passage within our daily lives.  Stuffed generously with delicious imagery and an unmistakable verbal-musicality, Miles’s poems were a very welcome bowl of festival cereal on both mornings.  York’s Oz Hardwick delivered another couple of his usual engaging performances by reading poems from his various collections and speaking about his recently-published study of English misericords – those intriguing little shelves on the undersides of church choir stalls.  In poems such as “The Green Man” and “The Trail of the Fox”, Oz expertly fuses nature, history, mythology and reality together with the touch of a modern-day Beat poet.  His poems, especially when recited by their author, plunge the listener deep into the foliage of their subjects.  Fellow Yorkie Dave Gough was on hand to drag us out of the ethereal mists of Oz’s poems and into a world that slants like a wry grin.  His poem English Summer with its rainy refrain, wet picnic plates and dampened cricket ground is a soggy postcard from an England we all know and love whilst “I’m Turning Into Philip Larkin” perfectly demonstrates Dave’s trademark dry poetic humour.   Amongst the other subjects that causes Dave to pick up his pen are Cresta Orange Juice, the naturist tendencies of William Etty and the link between The Monkees and toilet paper.  Whilst Dave Gough’s poems tip their heads slightly to view their world, Andy Humphrey’s poems poke a pen into their subjects until they roll over.  There’s an abundance of humour in  those poems, but its often tinged with a quiet yet palpable sense of melancholy.  Nick Toczek, however, who is well-known in schools up and down the land for his hilarious children’s poetry and energetic performances, brought a fistful of political performance poems to this year’s Beverley Festival. With their addictive rhythmical patterns and unremitting verbal fireworks, poems such as “Bring Me The Coffin of Nicholas Griffin” and “New York Chant” clearly delighted the appreciative Sunday morning audience.  David Cooke has had a long break from poetry, and we’re all the more lucky for his recent resurfacing and for the emergence of his latest collection, In The Distance (Night Publishing, 2011).  His Irish roots were showing during his performance at Beverley, especially in the poems about his father and grandfather.  “Your two great fists impressed me, for they were pondering chunks of granite, notched carelessly for fingers” he writes in Visiting – a poem about his grandfather that, like most of Cooke’s poems, is crafted with equal amounts of poetic mastery and a vivid, haunting memory.  Renowned British poet Antony Dunn was a welcome addition to this year’s festival line-up and it was a treat to hear him read poems from past collections as well as a selection from his latest publication, Bugs (Carcanet, 2009).  A technical master of his art, Dunn has a magnetic personality that held the crowd just as tightly as any Boden, Dickson or Taylor may have done on the other festival stages this weekend.  As well as poetry readings, storytelling drifted through this year’s festival like a streamer in the wind.  Festival regular Adrian Spendlow expertly handled stories of the fictional variety with his regular storytelling sessions whilst musician Jim Boyes, his wife and folklorist Georgina Boyes and local author Peggy Dunn took care of the non-fiction.  Jim and Georgina Boyes could be found in the Club Room on Saturday, each with their own short talk on their specialised subjects.  Georgina, author of The Imagined Village: Culture, Politics and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993) straightened the crooked picture-frames of the history of song collecting, revealing the truth behind the often exaggerated life and work of Cecil Sharp and highlighting the problem of those all-to-familiar rules and regulations that still exist in various corners of the folk world today.  Jim, armed with his Powerpoint presentation, guitar and a sprawling knowledge of his family history, took us back in time to retrace the footsteps of his grandfather and the great war he fought in Europe whilst Peggy Dunn could be found on Sunday in the ‘Village Hall’ tent where she regaled a small but appreciative crowd in tales of the local hind house that her mother tirelessly ran during the second world war.  For lovers of true stories and British history, Beverley 2011 was not the festival to skip.  Also on a storytelling theme, this year’s festival presented a series of films, kindly projected by the Beverley Film Society.  ‘Morris – A Life With Bells On’ and ‘A Mighty Wind’ were both shown in the Club Room during the festival, as were the Waterson Family films ‘Travelling for a Living’ and ‘The Waterson Family – Live At Hull Truck’, both of which managed to fill the gap left by Martin Carthy who was, sadly, unable to attend this year’s event due to illness.  ‘Travelling for a Living’, in all its grimy, grainy black-and-white, stands as a monument to those early days of The Watersons and has never seemed more impressive than the moment it flickered into life on the big Beverley screen.  Watching a youthful Norma and a cheeky twenty-something Mike was made all the more poignant by the fact that both Watersons have been quite ill of late.  Thank goodness for the time-capsule of film.  This year’s Beverley Festival Comedy Club, once again, refused to disappoint its loyal crowd.  On Saturday evening, the Club presented performances from Welsh pun-master and one-line merchant Noel James, whose often aggressive and unrestrained act managed to split the audience in two before putting it back together again in time for Bernard Wrigley’s set.  Bernard, whose face will be familiar to fans of Phoenix Nights, Dinner Ladies and Emmerdale, returned to Beverley this year with his hot pot of comedy songs, side-splitting short poems and naturally funny bones. As usual, he entertained by mongering plenty of laughs and proving that he’s the only funny man on the folk scene whose voice precisely matches the sound of a bass concertina – an instrument he so expertly demonstrates in his performance.  Beverley Festival reminds us annually that the spoken word is as much a part of the folk scene as its musical sibling.  It does so by offering its stages to writers, storytellers and musicians alike – surely a good enough reason to head to the Humber next year.

The Toy Hearts | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 23.06.11

The Toy Hearts made their Wheelhouse debut tonight bringing a feast of Bluegrass and Western Swing to South Yorkshire, demonstrating in no small measure their impressive ‘chops’, picking their way through several songs from their latest record Femme Fatale, together with one or two older songs and a handful of familiar covers from the world of Country and Bluegrass music.  Fronted by petite sisters Hannah and Sophia Johnson, with dad Stewart on banjo and dobro and the ‘newest’ Toy Heart, John Potter on upright bass, the band managed to fill the packed Wheelhouse with sound using little amplification, just a couple of vocal mics to balance the siblings’ voices, the rest totally acoustic.  Starting with Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling?”, the Birmingham-based quartet demonstrated not only their fabulous tight sibling harmonies but also their command over their astonishing musicianship, particularly Sophia’s eclectic flat-pick guitar playing, encompassing a broad range of influences including the Gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt, to whom she pays tribute to in Montpellier St from the band’s second album When I Cut Loose.  Taking lead vocal throughout, even on some of Sophia’s songs such as “Tequila and High Heels” and “The Girl That You Can’t Fool”, the mandolin-toting Hannah Johnson demonstrated a passionate commitment to performance on both the feisty numbers such as “When I Cut Loose” to the more sensitive songs, “The Captain” for instance, the current single from the new album.  Although Sophia’s intuitive high lonesome vocal harmony is crucial to the Toy Hearts sound, it’s with her dazzling guitar playing that this young performer will be remembered by this audience, alternating between her trusty Martin and her recently acquired Gypsy jazz guitar.  Playing since the age of seven and picking up inspiration from the likes of Clarence White and Tony Rice, the eldest sibling plays with a proficiency far beyond her age, especially on the note perfect “Beaumont Rag”.  With a handful of familiar songs such as Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”, the old Sun Studio period Elvis numbers “When It Rains It Really Pours” and “Trying To Get To You”, Kate MacKenzie’s bluesy Carolina and a couple of Hank Williams classics, “Your Cheating Heart” and “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”, the band showed a mutual respect for their musical forebears, each song delivered with authenticity and flair.  The band also played a couple of much newer country songs such as Ray Lamontagne’s “You Can Bring Me Flowers” and Dan Tyminski’s “Blue Trail of Sorrow”.  Finishing the same way they came in, with another Bill Monroe song “Think Of What You’ve Done”, the Toy Hearts returned for one final encore of “The Texas Blues”, famously recorded by the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.  A fitting conclusion to another memorable night at the Wheelhouse, and with the firm offer of a return to the area for the next Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival.  Hope so.  Providing support for the evening was young Staffordshire-born singer and recent joint winner of the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition held at the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, Amy Condrey, who opened with a handful of songs including Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”, Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”.

Oh My Darling | The Greystones, Sheffield | 28.06.11

It’s been a long time since I last witnessed a standing ovation at a gig and even longer since I joined in with one.  Oh My Darling couldn’t have wished for a better reaction to their UK debut appearance at the Greystones in Sheffield tonight, where the four-piece Canadian Country Roots band headlined a showcase night featuring two other bands, the lively King Courgette and the quaintly named Mother Folkers in support.  Winnipeg’s Oh My Darling comprises Allison De Groot, one of Canada’s leading clawhammer banjo players, Rosalyn Dennett on fiddle, Vanessa Kuzina on guitar and Marie-Josee Dandeneau, otherwise known as ‘MJ’ on upright bass, who collectively brought their charismatic stage presence and musical dexterity to this popular South Yorkshire venue for a ninety-minute set of North American and Canadian roots music.  With a set largely centred around the band’s current album, their first full length release In the Lonesome Hours, including “Caught You Looking”, “Stolen Key” and “Pixou Falls”, together with a couple of their more sensitive songs, “Won’t Need My Shoes (On Heaven’s Door)” for instance, the band were indeed welcomed with open arms as pointed out by Rosalyn from the stage.  The mainly original material was augmented by one or two more familiar songs such as the traditional “Red Rocking Chair”, “Sail Away Ladies” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss”, which the band chose to kick off their set with.  Each member of the band brought their own personality to the stage, Allison, the quiet one, observant, calm, doesn’t miss a trick; MJ, a descendant of Louis Riel’s Metis people, French speaking, has to run a few words past the band for a suitable English equivalent; Rosalyn, the witty one, tiny-framed with a huge personality, amazing fiddle player and then last but certainly not least, Vanessa, wearing her heart on her sleeve, sensitive, unafraid to share her heartache through her delightfully sensitive songs, such as the gorgeous “All the Sweetness”, co-written with friend Sam Baker.  Oh My Darling’s combined stage presence left just as much of an impression as did the music they played.  One of the high points of the concert was the ‘fiddle Sticks’ duet, which featured Vanessa brandishing a pair of knitting needles, which she then rhythmically struck bandmate Rosalyn’s prized violin whilst she played, careful not to damage either the fiddle nor the fiddler player’s hands along the way.  One can imagine where the expression ‘fiddlesticks’ came from, with each strike on the knuckle.  Having said that, I’m certain Rosalyn would have a much more choice Metis expression if that should ever occur!  After the band’s last song, “Love Me Love Me Not”, from the band’s Love Shack EP, Oh My Darling returned to the stage after a lengthy and loud call for more from a now standing audience, performing a couple of newer songs Anna K, also from the Love Shack EP and finally Tom Cochran’s “Life Is A Highway”.  As Oh My Darling near the end of their first European tour with only a handful of UK dates, we can only await with eager anticipation their speedy return.  A thoroughly uplifting experience.

Danny Schmidt | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 04.07.11

Danny Schmidt referred to his eagerly awaited return visit to the Wheelhouse tonight as a ‘homecoming’, largely due to the fact that our host at this little Wombwell venue, Hedley Jones, has spent the last couple of weeks on tour with Danny, serving as his road companion and driver; so tonight was actually a homecoming for the two of them.  Danny’s previous appearance at this popular house concert venue was back in December 2009, that time sharing the concert with partner Carrie Elkin.  Tonight, Danny shared the evening equally with York’s Mark Wynn, who both Danny and Hedley had met in Brighton during the tour, it was an evening of ‘bare and naked’ songs, courtesy of two fine songwriters from either side of the Atlantic.  Starting with “Company of Friends”, dedicating the song to his touring companion, the Austin songwriter went on to perform some of his best known songs during the first half of his set, from “Better Off Broke”, “Firestorm” and “Southland Street” from his last album Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, “Girl Whiskey” and “Blue Railroad Train” from the earlier Enjoying the Fall and a couple from Parables and fables, the infectious “Happy All the Time” and the exquisite “Stained Glass”, probably Danny’s most celebrated song.  It was with the new songs though, recently released on Danny’s seventh album Man of Many Moons that held our interest for the remainder of the set, introducing songs such as “Ragtime Ragtime Blues”, “Two Guitars”, a letter to Paul Curreri in song form and “Know Thy Place”, returning for the one encore, with a fine rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”.  Named as one of the fifty most significant songwriters to have emerged over the last fifty years by the Chicago Tribune, Danny Schmidt’s thoroughly engaging songs resonated with those lucky enough to have attended this full to bursting point house concert.

Kacey Cubero | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 09.07.11

Once again Town Hall Live played host to another quality visiting artist, this time Santa Barbara Blues Society’s Artist of the Year (2006) Kacey Cubero.  Flanked by the young German guitarist Florian Hofer and New Orleans pedal steel maestro Dave Easley, this Southern Californian singer-songwriter made her debut appearance at the Diamond Jubilee Town Hall in Kirton in Lindsey tonight, dressed entirely in black and equipped with a selection of her own self-penned songs, mostly from her current album Fill Your Cup.   Born and raised in Washington DC, Kacey moved to California to make her mark on the burgeoning Americana scene, never resting on any one specific genre of music.  While her first album was made up of blues and jazz numbers, her second Diamond in the Rough (2008) settled on a more country flavoured style.  Kacey’s current album sees the singer flitting from country-tinged toe tappers such as “Feathers in the Wind” to the soulful blues of “Under My Skin” and everything else in between.  Starting with “Set You Free”, a full blown blues workout, the trio settled into a short first set, which also featured the aforementioned “Feather in the Wind”, “Reserve the Right” and “What If I Really Love You?”, each from the new album.  Although the attendance at tonight’s concert was rather disappointing, especially for such a quality artist, Kacey was gracious enough to put in a first rate performance, going on to play some of the other songs from Fill Your Cup including the title song, “Sunday Mornings”, “Two Trains” and “I Want More”.  With support from Bridlington-based singer songwriter Ben Parcell opening with a handful of his own songs, Town Hall Live continues to bring some of the finest musicians to this charming little North Lincolnshire town.

Sarah Jarosz | The Greystones, Sheffield | 17.07.11

It really is encouraging to see any back room of any South Yorkshire pub filled to capacity for the purpose of good music these days and even more encouraging to see audiences arrive well in advance of the advertised start time in order to socialise with friends beforehand and also to nab a good seat.  The popularity of The Greystones is both testament to those who promote good music in this area and also to the standard of the acts they book to play; in fact so good, that I’m seriously considering moving to Sheffield immediately!  Tonight the back room of this pub soon filled up with music lovers eager to see the young (just 20 years old) and extremely talented Sarah Jarosz and her equally young and talented trio consisting of Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and mandolin.  No support tonight, just two sets of songs and tunes from this Austin multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter.  No support necessary methinks.  Sarah’s obvious talents were rewarded with a fine kick-start, by having her first two records produced by Gary Paczosa and released on the renowned bluegrass and Americana label Sugar Hill Records.  With a first set comprising an equal selection of songs from each of those two records, her debut Song Up in Her Head and her follow up Follow Me Down respectively, Sarah soon had the audience spellbound with such songs as “Tell Me True”, “Left Home” and “Shankhill Butchers” from her debut together with her own “Run Away”, Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and the atmospheric self-penned “My Muse” from her most recent release.  Joined on her current album by an array of bluegrass A-listers such as Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Darrell Scott and Chris Thile, Sarah managed to bring the essence of that album to this Sheffield audience with the help of just two musicians, making those absent singers and musicians on the record somehow un-missed.  Sarah’s knowledge of bluegrass and old time music is intriguingly blended with her own sense of the contemporary, mainly carved out of her love of British rock bands such as Radiohead.  During the first set it was revealed that this current tour heralds Nathaniel Smith’s very first trip outside of the States, little wonder when we discover this extraordinarily good musician is but 17 years old.  Later in the second set, Nathaniel was rewarded with possibly the most enthusiastic applause of the night, no less than 32 seconds of it – count it, it’s longer than you think, for his part in Sarah’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate”, which has to be witnessed to be believed; a most excellent performance and quite possibly the crowning moment of the concert.  Along with the two Dylan covers, Sarah paid tribute to a handful of other writers who have each helped shape her distinctive sound with Gillian Welch’s “The Devil Had a Hold on Me”, Tom Waits’ “Come Up to the House” and Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home” together with a couple of Tim O’Brien fiddle tunes, featuring Alex Hargreaves’ fluid fiddle playing.  Allowing her fellow musicians a short break, Sarah started and finished her second set with two solo performances, first the beautiful “Gypsy” from her current album and finally, serving as an encore right at the end of the night, “Little Song”, the song that also closes Sarah’s debut record.  I don’t think there was a single person in The Greystones tonight who wouldn’t have missed their last bus for just one more song.  Superb.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2011 | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | 31.07.11

The one thing we have to be aware of when setting out to write a report on an event the size of the annual Co-operative Cambridge Folk Festival, is that there’s not a cat in Hell’s chance of covering it all, in fact, not even half of it, not even close.  This year the festival added a new fourth stage to the Cherry Hinton site specifically to focus on new and emerging talent.  The aptly named ‘Den’ provided a further thirty-four planned acts to think about, as well as the numerous artists appearing in the open stage slots in the marquee during the course of the weekend.  Relaxing for a moment at the old stump by the Guinness Tent, where a beautiful tree once stood, with a customary pint of the black stuff in one hand and the handsomely designed programme in the other, I soon realised, even at this early stage, that a few considerations had to be… erm, considered and I was reluctantly forced to ‘cherry pick’.  The first couple of cherries to be picked from this year’s crop came in the form of a couple of siblings from Muscle Shoals, Alabama with the family name of Rogers and the stage name of Secret.  Laura and Lydia served an eager audience with something they’ve probably been waiting for since the duo’s breakthrough UK appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny almost eight month ago on New Year’s Eve.  With a set featuring songs by the likes of Skeeter Davis, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, as well as the odd Dire Straits cover, the Secret Sisters gave a memorable performance at the festival with more than just a taste of the music of a different era, together with some of the most delicious harmonies to be heard throughout the weekend.  The main concert stage for the opening night, Stage 2, also saw performances by Dublin’s James Vincent McMorrow and his band, on the eve of their forthcoming headlining US tour, whose set included several songs from McMorrow’s debut album Early in the Morning.  Rounding off the opening night of this year’s festival was none other than Chris Wood, with his usual bunch of thought-provoking songs interspersed with political commentary.  Friday morning stirred to the delights of Brian McNeill’s fiddle workshop in the Club Tent followed by the annual Mojo interview conducted by respected music journalist Colin Irwin, whose guests this year were picked from a line-up of Bellowheaders including Jon Boden, John Spiers, Paul Sartin, Benji Kirkpatrick and Andy Mellon.  Whilst Colin attempted to ask a handful of reasonably sensible questions, the band were in playful mood, which lightened the whole thing up considerably and made it clearly more enjoyable.  Shortly afterwards, it was a hop, skip and a jump over to Stage 2 to find a marquee full of inquisitive guitarists studying at the feet of Newton Faulkner, whose guitar workshop by this time was in full swing. It wasn’t the usual guitar workshop of the John Pearse Hold Down a Chord variety, more an exercise in making the guitar resonate in a whole variety of different ways.  The Main Stage opened for the first time just after noon with a set by Scotland’s Mànran, featuring Battlefield Band’s newest recruit Ewan Henderson on fiddle and pipes and Bodega’s Norrie MacIver providing the songs.  By way of contrast the next band to hit the main stage was the young Louisiana band Feufollet, who brought to Cambridge a taste of their own distinctive blend of Cajun music from their native Lafayette.  The highlight for Friday afternoon was easily Justin Townes Earle, who was predictably good and at the same time predictably strange. Appearing like a young Robert Crumb, complete with bow tie, glasses and Ivy League suit, the songwriter, who is incidentally blessed with the dual responsibility of continuing the Texas songwriting legacy of both his dad Steve Earle and his dad’s best mate Townes Van Zandt, both of whom have made appearances on this very stage over the years, surpassed our expectations tenfold.  There was a moment when Earle expressed concerns that audiences suspected his guitar playing was aided by clever loops or technical gadgetry, which the singer categorically denied, only to go and play something so extraordinarily clever, I began to have my doubts all over again.  Whilst Frank Turner and his band ripped the place apart on the Main Stage, almost apologising for it at the same time, Sean Taylor was gently emoting his way through some of his outstanding repertoire over in The Den.  Housed within an Indian tent, masquerading as a Victorian drawing room, complete with flock wallpaper, grand fireplace, ornate mirror and the usual home comforts, The Den provided a restful sanctuary away from the rest of the hustle-bustle of the festival site.  With songs including “Hold On”, “I Feel Alright” and “Calcutta Grove”, Taylor brought to Cambridge a touch of class to a small but appreciative audience in one of the most chilled out areas of Cherry Hinton.  Likewise, Leddra Chapman performed a handful of dreamy songs from her current album Telling Tales, together with one or two new songs destined for her forthcoming second album.  With a set that included “A Little Easier”, “Tongue-Tied, Broken”, “Fall From Grace”, “Still I Rise” (a new song), Jamie T’s “Sheila” and the lovely “Summer Song”, this time without the obligatory toy piano, Leddra Chapman charmed a Den packed to bursting point with music lovers in various states of repose.  Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts provided the first of the five showcase performances to be seen in the Club Tent over the weekend.  Recently seen by thousands of Fairport Convention fans during the band’s most recent tour, the Barnsley duo were made as welcome to Cambridge as the spicy food, the Guinness and the sunshine, which at this point was but a day away.  Katriona’s informed fiddle and mandolin playing, together with Jamie’s distinctive guitar playing once again hushed the audience to an appreciative silence.  Over on the main stage, Newton Faulkner’s similar guitar technique was put to good use on a handful of self-penned songs from each of the singer/guitarist’s two acclaimed albums as well as a couple of covers thrown in, the predictable “Teardrop” by Massive Attack and the totally unexpected “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  Who would’ve guessed?  The cherry picking continued throughout the weekend with a performance by Robert Cray who brought something special for the blues fans in particular but also for anyone with the remotest interest in American roots music, with a set of soulful blues numbers.  Hard to believe this musician is now in his late 50s; I would have put him down for not a single day over 40. Towards the end of Friday night there was a curious clash in the programme as the Main Stage welcomed the celebrated award winning live band Bellowhead, known for its bold as brass arrangements, whilst over on Stage 2, Edinburgh’s Orkestra del Sol provided some of the best brass sounds around, albeit in an entirely different style, taking in ska, klezmer, calypso and Balkan rhythms along the way.  It couldn’t go unnoticed then that for those who love brass there was the dilemma of which band to go and see, whilst for those who happen to have a chronic aversion to the old labrosones, there was nowhere to hide!  Both bands it has to be said, worked their socks off to provide some great entertainment to finish off the night.  The mornings are relatively quiet around the Cherry Hinton site, with the odd line check taking place, or the sound of an acoustic guitar or squeeze box hovering over the thick humid air.  On Saturday morning the sweet sound of Brian Finnegan’s flute and whistle workshop began mid-morning, whilst the first band on the Main Stage at around lunchtime was The Anxo Lorenzo Band, the King of Galician Pipes apparently, complete with a set of pure white pipes.  Stage 2 meanwhile was given over to the regular annual session, as the Paul McKenna Band joined Brian McNeill along with other appearances by the likes of Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Megan Henwood, members of Mànran, Abigail Washburn and her musical partner Kai Welch, Damien O’Kane and a whole bunch of others.  During Saturday afternoon there was a bee-line to follow in order to catch Devon’s very own Carrivick Sisters as they performed songs from their brand new album From the Fields.  Alternating between guitar and mandolin, fiddle and dobro, Charlotte and Laura brought a taste of their own particular brand of bluegrass to a packed Club Tent audience as part of the Acoustic Routes open mic session.  The Carrivick Sisters seem just as happy to play late night impromptu sessions at various locations around the festival site as they are taking to the main stages.  This is testament to their commitment to their music, which on this new album has been overseen by producer Joe Rusby, who was also at the festival.  Joe’s big sister Kate once again drew the crowds to the Main Stage for the umpteenth time, in order to hear some of the songs from her current record Make the Light.  Joined by an excellent cast of musicians including Damien O’Kane and Julian Sutton, Kate once again made Cambridge her second home with another fine and memorable set.  The other highlights of the day came in the form of performances by the newly re-formed Penguin Cafe, with founder member, the late Simon Jeffres son Arthur at the helm, continuing his father’s work with a brand new line up of the orchestra and Ireland’s Frankie Gavin and De Dannan; two examples of how differently a set of instrumental tunes can be presented.  Richard Thompson returned to Cambridge for a solo set, featuring songs new and old such as “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” for instance, or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and the utterly gorgeous “Persuasion”.  During his outstanding set I was pondering upon all the many people in the world that I could imagine duetting with him.  His son Teddy perhaps? that would be cool, especially on a song like Persuasion.  Chris While maybe? especially if it were to be a Sandy Denny song, although a bit obvious I suppose.  Then how about Kate Rusby? she was still in the house I guess; there again, so too was Richard’s namesake Danny Thompson, who would make an appearance with his old band Pentangle later the same evening.  Well, I could have sat there daydreaming about this until the end of time, carefully thumbing through a virtual who’s who of all the people remotely connected with music.  As Richard and his special guest stepped up to the mic to perform Sandy’s timeless “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, I have to confess, I would never in a million years have come up with Guy Secretan from Green Wing!  But there you go, Richard Thompson can never be accused of being predictable!  Fresh from their stint as Leonard Cohen’s band mates, The Webb Sisters presented their showcase performance over in the Club Tent to a packed house. With strong vocal harmonies and beautiful harp and guitar interaction, Charley and Hattie brought a sense of the ethereal to the festival, or at the very least, in Cohen’s words, the sublime.  It would have been impossible to leave the legendary ‘Pentangle cherry’ on the tree on Saturday night, despite so much other good things going on simultaneously.  Even the poor sound quality didn’t detract from the joy and nostalgia of seeing this band in its original form once again.  The original members, Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, delivered a set of songs that have not changed one bit in over forty years such as their one and only hit “Light Flight”, the dreamy “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the unmistakable 1960s sound of “The House Carpenter”, featuring John Renbourn attempting a challenging half-lotus position in order to play the sitar, with varying degrees of success.  The cherry picking continued with a must-see stripped-down acoustic set, courtesy of Winchester’s Polly and the Billets Doux, featuring the unmistakable voice of Polly Perry, who wore for the occasion a dress full of cherries just ready to be picked.  To a child of the Fifties, the resemblance to Julie Christie, together with a truly original voice and a fun attitude, meant that it was one cherry not to be missed.  I’ll be sending a billet doux to the festival organisers pleading them to book this act for one of the bigger stages next year for sure.  The sun was hot even at 9.30am on Sunday morning, almost guaranteeing the best day of the weekend so far in terms of the weather.  The soaring temperatures and clear skies put smiles on the faces of those already congregated before the Main Stage to hear the Archers omnibus edition, whilst perusing the Sunday supplements. Some late night revellers were still sleeping off Jim Moray’s Silent Ceilidh which ran well into the early hours.  Still, even at this time on a Sunday morning, the Guinness pints were already being pulled.  Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends were over in the Club Tent conducting their well-attended singing workshop, whilst Abigail Washburn prepared for her Main Stage performance, once again alongside musical partner Kai Welch.  One of the things visitors to the Cambridge Folk Festival notice immediately these days, is the varying age range of the audience.  There appears to be no discernible demographic anymore as more and more teenagers come to the festival, which has to be a good thing, together with more and more younger kids as well.  On Sunday afternoon, an area was cordoned off to allow children from various local schools the opportunity to see a special children’s concert on Stage 2, featuring The Spooky Men’s Chorale, one of Australia’s premiere vocal combos.  The sixteen-piece choir, that had already performed their main festival spot on Saturday night, returned to entertain the kids in their own distinctive way.  The marquee was filled to bursting point with hundreds of children as the grownups gathered around the parameters, watching with just as much interest as the kids as the scary men in black worked their magic.  Whilst Missouri’s Nathaniel Rateliff performed in the Club Tent, delivering each song with his distinctly recognisable voice, John Tams prepared the return of Home Service to the Main Stage at Cambridge after a good 25 years.  Recreating that blend of brass, courtesy of Paul Archibald, Roger Williams and Andy Findon and the lead guitar pyrotechnics of Graeme Taylor, John Tams presented a thoughtful and richly orchestrated set, which pleased the audience enormously.  I’m still uncertain whether Rumer’s Sunday afternoon set worked terribly well on the Main Stage, it all seemed a little too laid back, verging on dullness.  Perhaps the thinking behind this inclusion was an attempt to recreate last year’s Pink Martini spot, which worked tremendously well.  For something a little more gutsier, Stage 2 was where the cherries were, this time in the shape of the young Nashville-born singer Caitlin Rose, whose charismatic sassiness could not be hidden behind those big diva shades for too long.  The Den provided possibly the ideal place to showcase a performance by Vermont-born singer/guitarist/banjo player Sam Amidon.  Relaxed and stone-faced, this enigmatic performer delivered his highly original interpretations of old folk tunes in an oft-surreal manner, especially in his guitar solos, which he unashamedly screeched along to occasionally.  Wonderfully eccentric.  With only six hours between stepping off a plane to stepping up onto the Main Stage, a cheerful Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a touch of class to proceedings with a set of familiar songs from a repertoire spanning almost a quarter of a century, including “Stones in the Road” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me”, to some newer material from her current album The Age of Miracles.  One of the unexpected surprises of the evening was the appearance on Stage 2 by the all-female Norwegian band Katzenjammer, who managed to stir up both the adrenaline and testosterone simultaneously.  Arguably the most bizarre band ever to play the festival, there could be little doubt to the band’s infectious sense of fun.  Anne Marit Bergheim, Marianne Sveen, Solveig Heilo and Turid Jørgensen demonstrated their multi-tasking multi-instrumentalist prowess by alternating between all the instruments on stage from banjos and mandolins to huge yellow smiley-faced contrabass Balalaikas, dancing around the stage like Nordic nymphs, giving the photographers at the front the opportunity to become full-on paparazzi for a moment or two, which almost threatened to break out into excitable chaos.  I don’t ever remember that happening at Cambridge with the likes of Dick Gaughan or Leon Rosselson.  Times are certainly a-changing.  With the veritable feast of foto frenzy over, the highlight of the day, if not the entire festival, was Laura Marling’s gorgeous Sunday night set, featuring songs from both albums to date, together with one or two songs from her forthcoming third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, due for release next month. Laura’s previous Stage 2 performance a few years ago saw a vulnerable waif-like teenager, partially lost in an adult world, with only her songs to protect her.  Now a few years on and a good deal of experience behind her, Laura Marling dominated the stage, the audience and the festival.  A pleasure to witness and a suitably memorable finale to one of the better Cambridge Festivals of recent years.

Madfest 2011 | Elsecar Heritage Centre | 03.09.11

There’s certain advantages to being the MC at a small festival, not least the fact that one could be privy to some potential gossip in and around the Green Room, not that there’s much of that going on really.  The imagined glamour of being around a bunch of artists partying at the expense of the festival coffers is wildly exaggerated; you are more likely to stumble upon any number of reclining musicians casually picking grapes from the available complimentary cluster, whilst sipping coffee, or catching forty winks after a long and arduous journey up the M1.  Alternatively, they might just be taking advantage of the golden opportunity to finish off the final chapter of that book they’ve had lying around in their gig bag for the last two months.  Nowadays there’s also the only too familiar appearance backstage of the ever present laptop or iPhone! The Green Room in this instance, located within the Building 21 complex at the Elsecar Heritage Centre in the heart of South Yorkshire was populated by several people on Friday night, including four young musicians from the South having just arrived in the nick of time after negotiating the aforementioned M1 motorway traffic during the notorious Friday afternoon rush hour; one ex-pat Texan guitar virtuoso, reclining in one of the more comfortable chairs, relaxing for a moment in a calm before the storm sort of way.  Then finally, a little later, the room saw the arrival of several slightly older musicians, either blowing into a saxophone or tuning up a guitar or two, whilst the band’s leader scribbled out a well organised set list prior to the exciting opening night concert ahead.  It’s customary for the MC to make a few routine enquiries to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and also to make sure everyone is comfortable with the show times.  It’s all to do with team work and the MC has no greater importance than the steward taking the tickets or the door or the man who makes sure the sound gets to the eager audiences collective ears.  Each plays his or her part in the show.  Then there’s the decision of what exactly to say when introducing a band.  A band such as Ay Ducane for instance, who may or may not be known by everyone in the audience.  The idea is to make it simple for everyone, maybe just a mention of the band’s current location perhaps, or a little note of what the band means to the MC personally.  So this is where I started.  When I first saw London-based Ay Ducane just a little under a year ago, they were just a duo, featuring singer-songwriters Galih Richardson and Francis Newington, perched upon two high chairs with acoustic guitars.  On Friday night, the duo had expanded into a full blown four-piece, all of which helped to flesh out the songs and provide a more exciting sound.  Ay Ducane turned out to be the ideal opener, just as expected by Hedley Jones, the man who booked them.  Once you’ve witnessed a Rodney Branigan performance, you are left wondering where he gets all his energy from.  With the usual complement of tricks, usually incorporating two guitars, a rolled up trouser leg and some juggling skills; it’s important not to overlook the great songs.  Friday night’s high energy performance delighted the audience in Building 21, more than adequately preparing them from an equally energetic performance by the concert headliners.  Rounding off the opening night of the festival was Sheffield-based Boy on a Dolphin, fronted by John Reilly, who dominated the stage with some of the now familiar songs that have earned the band almost cult status, garnering a huge following in this region in particular.  With a set largely based upon Reilly’s own songs, one or two choice covers were thrown into the mix especially to get the audience on their feet, The Who’s “Squeezebox” for instance.  On Saturday morning the husband and wife partnership of Gerry and Ani McNeice were both busy preparing their respective stages for a full programme of events, featuring music and dance acts from far and wide.  Whilst Ani took care of the open mic marquee, which would soon be showcasing some of our familiar local singers and musicians, Gerry McNeice was twiddling with knobs next to the much larger ‘outdoor stage’ in front of the imposing chimney stack of Elsecar’s complex of former industrial buildings.  The Barnsley Music Service Folk Ensemble was first up on stage, with several youngsters already demonstrating their potential as future folk music stars.  Qdos Creates provided the first dance act of the festival, with three young break dancers under the guise of Street Kings, with a brief but impressive performance, before Chris McShane and John Fuller returned to the stage and who managed to start an impromptu ceilidh in front of the stage.  Wakefield singer-songwriter Fran Smith brought some of her own distinctive songs to the concert, either singing unaccompanied or seated at the piano.  Starting with the traditional “Recruited Collier”, Fran performed a confident set, made up of her own songs with one or two well-chosen covers, including Ron Sexmith’s enduring “Secret Heart”.  Having been delayed slightly, The Belles of London City arrived to bring something refreshingly different to the festival; corseted female Morris dancing.  The familiar red and white corsets, one of which was recently seen on the cover of Bellowhead’s current album Hedonism, brought something rarely seen in this predominantly male dominated art form, glamour.  Their performance drew a healthy crowd, including a couple of toddlers who were given white hankies in order to join in the fun.  I was half hoping they would give me a couple of hankies too, but alas.  The Frumptarn Guggenband up until recently have been renowned for their vivid red Beefeater tunics, usually delighting festival crowds with their exuberant performance of instantly recognisable pop and rock tunes that can be heard from a couple of miles away.  With a recent change of costume, even this MC found himself numbered amongst those few individuals who mistook the ensemble’s new image for the coats of a certain breed of Croation dog; 101 to have famously populated one of Disney’s most enduring animated features.  Wrong. I was corrected on numerous occasions throughout the afternoon.  “They’re cows” came the cries from the audience.  Upon closer inspection it did indeed appear that the black splodges actually resemble those of a Friesian cow.  I did however notice during Saturday afternoon, that a passing Dalmatian was showing keen interest in the band.  Obviously he had his suspicions too!  Whilst the Silver Darlings performed their set on the outdoor stage, I managed to slip away for some steam action.  During both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, a steam train left the Rockingham Station adjacent to the Elsecar Festival site for a brief excursion down the track and back, with each journey augmented by a performance from the local folk outfit Treebeard.  With some well-chosen folk songs and pop covers, the four-piece band of minstrels entertained passengers with their versions of well-known songs including the almost prophetic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (it did on Sunday) and David Bowie’s “Heroes”.  The line was originally built to serve Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries and ironworks, so I suppose it was a little like Black Diamond Dogs then?  I don’t know if it was just by sheer chance or deliberate, but the songs finished bang on cue as the train stopped at both ends of the journey, each excursion encouraging lots of waving from folks out walking the dog along the footpaths beside the rolling stock.  With Gerry McNeice performing a gentle set of self-penned songs and the odd cover, Richard Thompson’s brilliant “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for instance, together with one final burst from the Guggenband, the afternoon soon turned into evening just in time for the second main concert of the weekend.  The concert opened with a performance from the exciting traditional five-piece band The Outside Track, featuring musicians from as far and wide as Cape Breton, Vancouver, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland.  With the combined talents of Norah Rendell, Mairi Rankin, Ailie Robertson, Fiona Black and Cillian O’Dalaigh, the band played material from their current album Curious Things Given Wings, setting the standard for the remainder of the evening, with songs such as the traditional “Flash Company” and the band’s arrangement of their own Panic!  It soon became apparent that one class act was just following another during the course of the evening and we had to look no further than the delightful Kathryn Roberts and husband Sean Lakeman for evidence of that.  Performing a set of beautiful traditional and contemporary songs, such as “Granite Mill”, “Huldra” and especially the utterly gorgeous “Ballad of Andy Jacobs”, Kathryn and Sean soon brought the Elsecar audience to a hushed silence for their outstanding set.  Headlining Saturday night was Mercury Prize nominated Turin Brakes whose set was just as well received by their fans who had come along specifically for their performance as well as the general festival goers sticking around for the duration.  With intuitive harmonies and highly melodic songs, the band pulled out much of the material that has been good to them over the last ten years, with ongs from their debut The Optimist LP though to their most recent Outbursts album, providing the Madfest with one of the highlights of the weekend.  One couple were celebrating their fifth wedding anniverary and had asked for a specific Turin Brakes song to be played, as it had been played on their wedding day, to which the band gladly responded.  On Sunday it decided to rain on our parade, heralding in autumn as if right on cue.  Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the Monkey Ukulele Ensemble from taking no less than nineteen ukes from their little cases along with a double bass (one extreme to another), in order to kick things off on the main outdoor stage.  Several dance teams had also gathered in front of the stage to display not only their dancing talents, but also to demonstrate some of that now familiar British spirit.  It was my job to entice people out of the nearby tea rooms in order to watch or listen, until it was fit to return outdoors.  With their familiar red and white hooped tights, the Sheffield-based women’s dance team Lizzie Dripping were the first dancers to demonstrate that rain really doesn’t hurt you.  The rain was probably at its heaviest during Halifax-based Folk on Fire’s performance, the first of two fiddle/guitar duos to appear on the outdoor stage on Sunday afternoon.  A bit of quick thinking from the festival team soon made three gazebo-type marquees appear in front of the stage in order for the audience to keep relatively dry during the rest of the afternoon’s concert.  The weather had somewhat brightened up in time for the first of The Duncan McFarlane Band’s two sets during the afternoon.  The band featuring Anne Brivonese on fiddle, Nick Pepper on drums, Tony Rogerson on bass, Geoff Taylor on guitar and Steve Fairholme on melodeon, who between them brought a good measure of fun to the afternoon, with a tight set of songs, ideal for showcasing the ‘motorbike dance’, courtesy of festival marshals Helen and Alice by the Brambles Tearoom.  Whilst other events took place around the festival site including the Chol Theatre’s Extraordinary Pod, which almost devoured this MC, being rescued just in the nick of time by Kevin Dempsey, whilst Pete Shaw’s open mic concert took place simultaneously throughout the afternoon, together with several stalls and additional events in and around the Heritage Centre.  As the sun eventually broke through the clouds during late Sunday afternoon, the festival saw more dancing, this time in the form of Chesterfield’s Feet First, the longest running UK Appalachian dance team, who brought a very special taste of choreographed clog dancing to proceedings.  Accompanied by their own band of guitar and twin fiddles, Feet First demonstrated some fast steps, high kicks and thoroughly enjoyable dance routines.  One of the final Sunday night concert acts arrived early and took advantage of a free slot that had come available during the afternoon concert.  Kevin Dempsey and Joe Broughton brought a smile to some of those visiting the festival during the afternoon and provided those who had tickets for the evening concert with a taster of what was to come later.  Returning to the stage in the evening, this time in Building 21 for the final concert of the Madfest, Kevin and Joe delighted the audience with their astonishing dexterity on both fiddle and guitar, with each of the musicians bringing a wealth of experience from a collective CV that includes working with The Albion Band and Whippersnapper to The Urban Folk Quartet and Percy Sledge.  If musical dexterity was explored in full during their set, it was song writing we turned to next with an appearance by song writing team Amy Wadge and Pete Riley, who’s new collaborative album Rivers Apart, was launched earlier this year.  Headlining the Sunday evening concert and providing a fitting finale to this year’s Madfest was the incomparable Barbara Dickson whose easy going stage presence and occasional banter with the audience proved to be a success with everyone concerned.  Performing some of her best known material such as “Caravans” and “Answer Me”, alongside well-chosen covers such as The Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” and Boudleaux Bryant’s enduring “Love Hurts”, Barbara also revealed some of the traditional songs and ballads that the singer has recently returned to, such as “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “My Donald”.  With this MCs duties over immediately after introducing Barbara Dickson onto the stage, all that was left for me to do was to sit back and enjoy the finale and reflect here on what turned out to be a most enjoyable little festival.

Spiers & Boden | The Civic Theatre, Doncaster | 20.09.11

It’s been a while since I was able to get to a gig on foot, not counting the five mile walk I did with John Jones and others from Holmfirth to Shepley back in May, but the first on my own doorstep so to speak.  The Civic Theatre in Doncaster has been part of my life since childhood and having the opportunity to see such acts as Spiers & Boden there once again is fantastically encouraging.  Their appearance at the venue tonight was part of the annual Doncaster Hothouse Festival, which was launched back in 2005 and has grown in reputation over the ensuing years, with a concerted effort to prepare for the forthcoming new cultural centre, which promises to continue bringing good music and arts to Doncaster.  Promoting their new ‘best of’ album The Works (2011), John Spiers and Jon Boden delighted a 200-plus audience at the theatre, with a revitalised overview of the duo’s ten-year career as one of the UK’s finest folk duos.  Alternating between a variety of boxes, including a couple of melodeons and English concertina, and fiddle and guitar respectively, augmented by Jon Boden’s trademark stomp box, adding a notable percussive feel to the songs and tunes, the duo revisited some of their older repertoire, recently re-recorded with the help of some notable guests such as Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Martins Carthy and Simpson and Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, to name but a few.  It seems so long ago now since Paul Adams had the good sense to take these two then Oxford-based musicians into his Cumbrian Fellside studio to record their first album Through and Through in 2001, and an awful lot of water has cascaded under the bridge since, with the meteoric rise of Bellowhead and various other collaborations, not least Eliza Carthy’s Ratcatchers.  With all that in mind, it’s refreshing to see the duo return to basics and to the songs that have long been associated with the two musicians.  With some familiar songs and tunes including “Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy”, “Prickle-Eye Bush”, “Horn Fair”, “Three Tunes” and “Captain Ward”, the two musicians each vacated the stage to allow the other a moment or two to deliver something solo, with John choosing the set of tunes he contributed to the Banquet of Boxes compilation, “George Green’s College Hornpipe / Ewan Mac’s Export / Autumn Hornpipe”, while Jon chose a couple of songs from his own solo project Songs From the Floodplain (2010), “A Pilgrim’s Way” and “April Queen”, seamlessly segued with the aid of a nifty capo change.  For those in the audience who might only have previously known the duo through their work with Bellowhead, a well-received encore of “New York Girls” was rewarded with a huge audience response. With the reaction to this concert, Doncaster Hothouse, along with the ongoing endeavours of the annual Doncaster Folk Festival, may well herald in a new phase of good music in Doncaster.  Hope so.

Slaid Cleaves | Henry Boons, Wakefield | 21.09.11

On tour to promote his first official live release Sorrow and Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge (2011), Austin-based Slaid Cleaves created an easy going rapport with the audience tonight at Henry Boons in Wakefield.  Following a lovely, if somewhat short set by York-based Holly Taymar and Chris Bilton, the Maine-born singer-songwriter, surrounded by photographs of some of his country’s jazz greats, performed a couple of relaxed sets of songs covering the bulk of his fourteen-year career thus far. With trademark youthful vocals and contrasting mature life experience, Slaid performed much of the live album, which in turn reflected his five studio albums to date, from his most recent Everything You Love Will be Taken Away (2009); “Hard to Believe”, “Cry”, “Green Mountains of Me” and “Twistin’”, to older songs such as “Quick as Dreams”, “Drinkin’ Days” and “Below” from his Wishbones (2004) period.  With an impressive repertoire of self-penned songs, some written in collaboration with other notable writers such as childhood friend Rod Picott, exemplified in such songs as “Black T Shirt” and the hugely popular “Broke Down”, Slaid referenced another major influence in Woody Guthrie, opening his second set with his interpretation of one of Woody’s dustbowl ballads, “I Ain’t Got No Home”.  Despite being born and raised in the north, Slaid has not only become an honorary Texan, drinking whatever they have in the water down there to become an extraordinarily good songwriter in the Austin tradition, but has also inherited some of that southern blue yodelling, which he demonstrated tonight with a couple of Don Walser songs, “Texas Top Hand” and “Rolling Stone from Texas”.   Half-jokingly referencing the last bus, concerned for those in the audience who might have to walk home, Slaid concluded his second set relatively early with a new song, the optimistic “Go for the Gold” before returning to the stage for a well-deserved encore, which featured an older song from his Broke Down (2000) period, “Key Chain”.  Slaid Cleaves continues his current Autumn UK tour, concluding with a sold out appearance at The Green Note in London on Oct 4.   

Society | Polish Club, Barnsley | 24.09.11

Seven seems to be a pretty good number, even a lucky one to some, deadly to others.  There’s seven wonders of the ancient world, seven deadly sins, not to mention the magnificent seven of course.  Putting the brides and brothers, dwarfs and samurai and the hills of Rome aside for a moment, I must point out that Society only boasts three members, but they have seven most important ingredients; the guitar, the bass, the drums, three voices and one hell of a songwriter.  Tonight all those elements were present and in fine fettle despite the occasional confession from the stage, that their voices might just be slightly shot due to a couple of weeks of ‘belting it out’ at gigs between London and Oban.  Nevertheless, they sounded pretty good from where I was sitting.  Matt Wise, Ben Lancaster and F. Scott Kenny are a trio, whose sound is closer to the mighty Mississippi than the gentle winterbournes of West Sussex, yet they manage to create an authentic southern roots sound, complete with tight three part harmonies and a good deal of intuitive instrumental cohesion.  Performing songs from their debut album Songs from the Brickhouse (2010) as well as their recently released follow up A Crooked Mile (2011), Society blend together a multitude of influences from the British invasion bands of the 1960’s including The Kinks, The Who and The Small Faces to their American counterparts, most notably The Band, who Society most closely resemble, albeit with brand new songs courtesy of Matt Wise.  Matt shies away from any deliberate vocal comparison to Levon Helm, but visually he could easily pass for the drummer’s grandson.  Playing a couple sets of originals including their signature “Fool’s End”, the bluesy “Morning Star”, the soulful “Light of the Morning” and the funky “40 Days” to the jaw-dropping “Knives”, which reduced the room to complete silence, together with the one cover, the Jagger/Richards “Factory Girl” from the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet period, the band seemed to ignore the fact that the numbers were low tonight but it has to be said, it never for one moment felt like an opportunity for a live rehearsal or a band just going through the motions; the band actually played as if the room was bursting at the seams.  The validation of a great band has nothing to do with how much you enjoy a performance, nor has it anything to do with the amount of albums you can fill your shelves with.  It does however have everything to do with this burning desire to actually join them.  I wonder how long it would take BJ Cole to get me up to speed on the pedal steel?

Anna Coogan (with Daniele Fiaschi) | Various Venues | 02.10.11

To promote her latest album release The Wasted Ocean, Vermont-born singer-songwriter Anna Coogan teams up with Italian guitarist Daniele Fiaschi for the start of her current European autumn tour.  With a couple of solo gigs already under her belt, one in Scotland and the second in Ireland, Anna hooked up with the guitarist for the first of their collaborative gigs at the quietly quaint Upper Sheringham Village Hall, on the northern tip of Norfolk on Saturday night.  Having already collaborated together on the new album, with Danny contributing to four of the songs, including “Streamers”, “Blood on the Sails” and “Life in a Peaceful New World”, the two musicians brought some of their symbiotic magic to a small village stage on Saturday night and an even smaller one on in Sheffield on Sunday.  I was invited to join Anna and Danny for the first part of their tour, acting as temporary road manager, making sure the two of them arrived safely at both venues over the weekend.  It was fun to hang out with these two generous musicians, both of whom appeared relaxed as they shared stories, songs and experiences, whilst we headed north from the airport to the seaside town of Sheringham.  Lady GPS was up to her usual mischief, by taking us up a dead end dirt track at one point, but this just added to the fun aspect of touring.  Fortunately, for the entire weekend, the UK was bathed in unseasonal good weather, with Saturday apparently breaking all records for October, which made the experience even more enjoyable.  Performing two sets at the Upper Sheringham Village Hall, the two musicians demonstrated a clear understanding of the material, with Danny repeating some of the playing he did on the album, but also re-arranging for guitar some of the other parts, whether they were originally played on guitar or entirely different instruments, the fiddle part of “Come the Wind, Come the Rain” for instance.  Starting with “Back to the World”, from Anna’s previous album The Nocturnal Among Us (2010), Anna soon found her stride by performing songs from both albums such as “Crooked Sea”, “Coins on Your Eyes” and “So Long Summertime” from the earlier album and “Love Without Strings” and “Come Ashore Love” from the new album.  Anna also performed her version of the old Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as well as the traditional Irish folk song “Rattling Bog”, dedicated to the singer’s sister.  In his native Italy, the Rome-based guitarist is a familiar figure on the rock scene, pretty much used to playing 5,000 seater venues with various pop, rock and indie outfits.  By his own admission, it’s playing with the likes of Anna that really interests Danny, whose emotive textural guitar playing adds atmosphere to the songs.  During Anna’s eight-minute rendition of Phil Ochs’ “The Crucifixion” for instance, Danny creates an eerie musical landscape upon which Anna rests the poignant lyrics, from the whistling of the wind to almost Gregorian chants.  Support for the concert came courtesy of local band The Fifth Watch, with a set of familiar contemporary songs such as John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, Tim O’Brien’s “Forty-Nine Keep on Talkin’” and The Band’s “The Weight”.  From the sun-drenched beaches of north Norfolk, we headed next to a house concert on the outskirts of Sheffield, which was jokingly billed as ‘Paulstock’.  Paul Licence, a local journalist, was so impressed with Anna Coogan’s last appearance in the area back in 2010, when she appeared at the Wombwell Wheelhouse, that he was determined to see her again on his own turf, although I doubt back then he realised it would be in his own front room.  Repeating much of the set from the previous night, with the addition of the requested and highly infectious “Dreaming My Life Away”, Anna and Danny performed a much more intimate concert in Paul’s living room, filled with family, friends and the dog.  Danny once again created some highly atmospheric and spacious guitar accompaniment with a very much turned down amp for the occasion.  Danny later confessed that this was his favourite setting, where he could really bring the volume down to almost nothing in order to convey the required mood for the song.  Anna delivered her songs with an assured confidence and brought back to South Yorkshire, some of that sparkle that made us all warm to her a year ago.  Both performances concluded with Anna’s re-written version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, in memory of the hurricane that devastated her home town recently. A thoroughly enjoyable weekend for Norfolkers and Sheffielders alike.

Sarah MacDougall | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 06.10.11

When I introduced Sarah MacDougall onstage tonight I think I was right in saying ‘once heard, never forgotten’.  I was of course referring to her singing voice, which is distinctly unique.  Tonight saw the now Whitehorse-based singer-songwriter return to the UK for the first time with a trio, comprising famed Juno-winning record producer Bob Hamilton on upright bass and mandolin and regular sideman Tim Tweedale on Weissenborn; you know, that dulcimer-shaped lap slide guitar that helps in no small measure to make Sarah’s sound what it is today.  Town Hall Live staged this, the second concert of her current UK tour, at the Diamond Jubilee Town Hall in rural Kirton in Lindsey, with a couple of sets of songs from both the newly released The Greatest Ones Alive (2011) and her earlier Across the Atlantic (2009).  Relaxed and completely at ease with her newer material, Sarah kicked off with “It’s a Storm (What’s Going On?)”, one of the strongest songs from the new album.  Immediately re-visiting the older material, with the jaunty “Crow’s Lament”, Sarah was determined to mix it up a little, performing a good cross section of songs from her steadily growing repertoire.  The title song from the new record “The Greatest Ones Alive” is a pretty good place to start for any newcomer to Sarah’s music; a highly personal song executed with all the passion and drive of a seasoned performer.  While “Cry Wolf” presents a more playful side to Sarah’s song writing, with both of her band mates joining in on the chorus of wolf calls at the beginning, “I’ve Got Your Back” demonstrates Sarah’s ability to write a good waltz time Country standard.  “Mmm”, also provides the audience with one of the easiest choruses to remember.   Described as ‘two of the most talented musicians in Canada’, Tim Tweedale and Bob Hamilton started the second half with an instrumental duet written by Tweedale, performed on both Weissenborn and mandolin.  Sarah continued to mix new and old with assured performances of “Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes You Win” and one of her most infectious songs, “Ballad of Sherri”, with its distinctly French-sounding chorus.  “Headed for the Hills” is the title song from a much earlier alt-country album, which was nice to hear once again.   Other songs included “Cold Night”, “Song #43”, “Across the Atlantic” and “We’re All Gonna Blow Away”, before finishing with the enduring “Ramblin’”.  For a small but enthusiastic Kirton audience, the trio returned for one final encore, the Bruce Springsteen song “Tougher Than the Rest”, which was treated as a bit of an instrumental workout towards the end and therefore a pretty good choice for a closer.  Stopping off enroute to London and opening the concert tonight was Newcastle-based singer-songwriter Paul Handyside, together with Rob Tickell, another Weissenborn player, who between them played an all too short opening set.  With an opening act this good, it couldn’t fail to be another great night at the town hall.

Rod Picott | The Greystones, Sheffield | 16.10.11

With warning signs all along the M18, declaring that the Woodhead Pass was closed to high-sided vehicles, I instinctively knew we were in for a windy night up at The Greystones in Sheffield, where Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rod Picott was playing a solo gig.  It’s been a while since I last saw Rod and I was eager to hear some of the songs from Rod’s new record Welding Burns in a stripped-down solo acoustic setting.  I was far from disappointed, as this is precisely what we got tonight in one of the most conducive (to music) backrooms in the city.  With fine support sets from local duo Will Barstow and Andy Davison, followed by South Dakota-based singer-songwriter Josh Harty, Picott performed almost all of the new album with one or two older songs from his repertoire thrown in, such as “Getting’ to Me”, “Angels and Acrobats” and “Stray Dogs”.  Introducing himself as ‘the Rod Picott Circus of Misery and Heartbreak’, the New Hampshire-born singer drew on reminiscences of growing up in Maine with childhood friend and fellow songwriter Slaid Cleaves, featuring some of the songs the two have collaborated on, such as “Broke Down”, “Rust Belt Fields” and the title song from the new record “Welding Burns”.  Rod was pretty upbeat between the songs, despite much of the material being less than cheerful.  With the songs on the new record clearly focusing on blue collar America with songs about work, unemployment and small town romance, there were some clearly tender moments, such as on “Little Scar” for instance, a highly personal song from the new album.  Accompanied by his sunburst Gibson, Picott held the audience throughout a dozen or so songs, each demonstrating a man who knows his song well before he starts singing.  After a rocking little finisher, “410” from the new record, Rod returned to the stage for a final song, presumably honouring a request that had just been whispered in his ear by the girl at the bar, closing his set with an older song, “Baby Blue” from his Stray Dogs period.  Top class Americana.

Rita Hosking and Michael Chapman | The Greystones, Sheffield | 17.10.11

When Rita Hosking approached the microphone tonight in the backroom of The Greystones in Sheffield, positioning her blonde Epiphone a couple of inches away from the mic, a buzz permeated through her first song, an irritation I feared would continue throughout the remainder of the set.  My fears were quelled as the sound tech sorted it out immediately, ensuring the set that followed would be delightfully buzz-free.  This is Rita’s second UK tour, which coincides with the release of her fourth album to date.  Much of the set centred around the songs from Burn including “Crash and Burn”, “Indian Giver” and the infectious “Dishes”, probably the best song about washing up since the mild green Fairy liquid ads.  With a set of stripped down to essentials songs interspersed with touching stories about her formative days in the Shasta County mountain area of North Eastern California, where high school was but a two hour bus ride away each day and the one neighbour a couple of miles down the mountain, this slightly built songstress with the strong and instantly recognisable voice, soon settled into her stride, performing her own songs with one or two traditional mountain songs thrown in, including “I Ride an Old Paint” and a short but touching tribute to the late Hazel Dickens.  Rita’s travelling partner for this tour is the legendary guitarist and fully qualified survivor Michael Chapman, the Hunslet-born musician whose early records for Harvest made him just as important as label mate Roy Harper and fellow guitarist John Martyn back in the day.  Relaxed and composed, the guitarist performed a mixture of complex guitar instrumentals, ambient sound poems and songs from his vast repertoire, including “No Song to Sing” from his debut Rainmaker (1969) and the later “That Time of Night”, which according to Chapman is going to be recorded by Lucinda Williams.  Occasionally playing bottleneck style using the ring on the finger of his left hand, Chapman created a delicate atmosphere throughout the room for the duration of his opening set.  Towards the end of the night, Rita invited Michael back up onstage to join her for a handful of songs including “Kitchen Table and Chairs” from her first album Are You Ready? together with a couple from her new record, “My Golden Bull” and “The Coyote”.  The two guitars blended so well together and provided some of the sweetest moments of the concert with Michael playing lead to Rita’s rhythm. Returning for an encore, the two musicians finished with the poignant “Ballad of the Gulf of Mexico”, which was written during Rita’s last visit to this country as the events unfolded on the news.  Hopefully Rita will once again be picking up inspiration, albeit of a less devastating nature, during her current visit to the UK and will be back to share more new songs with us once again next year.  I look forward to it.

Fearing and White | The Greystones, Sheffield | 25.10.11

It really is testament to an artist’s consummate professionalism when a sparse audience is rewarded with such an utterly superb performance.  Some would just go through the motions or at least take the opportunity to rehearse; maybe try out a couple of new ideas, toss in a new half-written song and the like.  Certainly not tonight though.  The Greystones was indeed a little thin on the ground in terms of numbers, despite the venue playing host to songwriters of the stature of Canada’s Stephen Fearing and Northern Ireland’s Andy White.  After a good ten years or so of sporadic writing sessions, the two songwriters were together on stage in order to perform some of the songs recently released on their debut Fearing and White album.  With the instruments on stage creeping dangerously close to out-numbering the audience, the two musicians alternated between a twelve string miniature, a resonator, a couple of electric (semi-acoustic and Gibson SG) guitars, together with Andy’s faithful Epiphone, a version of the Hofner Beatle-bass, during a couple of sets of songs that included exciting versions of “Under the Silver Sky”, “You Can’t Count on Anybody Anymore” and album opener “Say You Will”.  With no additional technical trickery, the duo brought much of the album to a live setting, with the aid of an effects microphone for the set closer “Rockwood” and the earlier “Mothership”, the effect originally captured for the album on toy walkie-talkies!  Performing mainly songs from the collaboration album, the two songwriters brought to the set one or two songs from their own respective solo repertoires such as Stephen’s “The Big East West” and “Black Silk Gown”, whilst Andy threw in “Italian Girls on Mopeds” and a delightfully raw “Turn Up the Temperature on the Machine of Love”, with the additional help of the now familiar stage accessory, the stomp box.  Cheerful throughout, these two friends demonstrated their mutual respect for one anothers material, contributing to each others songs with some intuitive accompaniment.  With a couple of sets of highly melodic songs, such as the gorgeous “Faithful Heart” and the equally tender “If I Catch You Crying”, the duo had some fine off-the-cuff banter between the songs, signifying their enjoyment of being on the road together.  With both Stephen and Andy being on first name terms with everyone in the room, much of the before, between and after-set mingling was relaxed, much in the same mannaer as at the now popular series of house concerts up and down the country; the night had a similar intimate atmosphere.  Whether on or off stage, the two musicians were highly approachable and good fun to be around.  Hopefully, the rest of their current tour will entice people away from their flat screens in order to catch something exceptionally good indeed.

Diana Jones | The Greystones, Sheffield | 01.11.11

Appearing in Sheffield for the very first time, Nashville-based Diana Jones played the third show of her current UK tour in the backroom of the Greystones tonight, before a healthily-sized audience, all eager to hear some of the new songs from her recently released High Atmosphere album.  Trying out her newly acquired 1944 Gibson, notable for the absence of a truss rod due to the shortage of metal during the war effort at the time of manufacture, Diana Jones didn’t disappoint, effortlessly performing such songs as “I Don’t Know”, “Drug for This” and the brooding “I Told the Man” in a single ninety-minute set.  The New York-raised singer-songwriter was relaxed and composed as she re-visited some earlier songs that have since brought her to wider attention, such as the sardonic “If I Had a Gun”, recently covered by Gretchen Peters and the poetic “Henry Russell’s Last Words” recorded by Joan Baez for her Steve Earle produced Day After Tomorrow album.  With an occasional guitar change, swapping the new Gibson for the tiny four-string tenor, which provides that all important rhythmic thump, Diana performed the upbeat mountain song “Poverty”.  For the introduction to the ‘pre-murder’ ballad Sister, Diana revealed that she watches too much television whilst on tour, with an almost congratulatory acknowledgement that the UK has much more ‘informational and educational’ TV, whilst in the States, there’s always “America’s Most Wanted”, which provided the inspiration for the song about Diana’s younger sister.  Diana also confessed during the set that not only is she in high demand as a wedding singer but also as a funeral singer as well, which she eloquently reveals in the song “Funeral Singer”, again from the new album, dedicated to her late cousin Harold Lesher, as is the entire album.  With a set that also featured the one unaccompanied song, the traditional-styled “Cold Grey Ground”, together with one or two older songs such as “Better Times Will Come”, “Willow Tree” and the gorgeous “Cracked and Broken”, Diana returned to the stage for a final encore of “Lover”, satisfied that with a few songs from each of her previous two records My Remembrances of You and Better Times Will Come, together with a generous helping of songs from High Atmosphere and even one newly written song, Diana completed a pretty faultless perfomance.  Supporting the show tonight was Canadian singer-songwriter Gabriel Minnikin who teamed up with the Stoke on Trent-based pedal steel player Chris Hillman (no relation), who provided a sweet counterpoint to Gabriel’s deep and dulcet tones.  Nova Scotia-raised Minnikin performed a handful of self-penned songs from each of his two released albums Hard Feelings (2004) and Wandering Midnight (2006) such as “Where’s My Tea”, “Blackwater Sky” and “Memory Man”, together with a cover of John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves”.  Another highly satisfying night at The Greystones.

Mishaped Pearls | Doncaster Minster | 19.11.11

Doncaster’s Minster Church of St George opened its doors tonight for a concert with a difference, featuring three diverse acts, including a male voice choir, an opera singer/classical guitarist and three members of the much discussed Mishaped Pearls.  The concert, organised by fund-raiser Eileen Myles, whose successful events usually centre around the folk genre, under the banner of Folk Delivering Hope, has taken the bold step of introducing Classical and World music into the realms of her selfless humanitarian endeavours.  The Church stands in the centre of Doncaster, where a mediaeval church once stood for seven centuries, before being destroyed by fire in 1853.  The present building, built to the designs of architect George Gilbert Scott between 1854-1858, made a perfectly conducive venue for the music we heard tonight.  One of the highlights of the evening was an appearance by London-based Mishaped Pearls, albeit in a stripped-down version of the band.  Normally boasting seven members, the three core musicians of Manuela Schuette (mezzo soprano), Ged Flood (guitar) and Naomi Burgoyne (cello/piano), performed a spellbinding acoustic set, featuring songs from both of their albums The Singer and the Poets and their more recent release Le Puy En Velay, successfully capturing the desired atmosphere in such a grand building.  So successful in fact that the table full of cds at the beginning of the evening were gone by the time of the interval, surprising everyone, not least the band.  Manu took centre stage, which was located in the crossing area of the Church, just before the pulpit, from which tonight’s compere, the Revd. Canon Dr Paul Shackerley made the introductions, including a reading of Barack Obama’s Daniel Pearl World Music Day letter.  The singer was flanked by her two fellow musicians for the all too short set, with Naomi making the short excursion from the cello to the grand piano to perform both “L’Aimée de Sappho” and “Benedizione”, both pieces from the group’s debut album.  The three musicians also performed a brand new song destined for their new record, “Creatures of Compromise” and concluded with the beautiful “Le Reveur”.  The concert also featured an impassioned performance by Falkirk-born tenor and Classical guitarist Martin Aelred, who accompanied himself on guitar for one or two songs, having to rely on an orchestral backing track in lieu of an orchestra for the arias.  Although this reviewer is not normally accustomed to listening to “Nessun Dorma” as a rule, I have to say I was totally relaxed in the pews, almost fully reclined, whilst staring up at the impressive stone rafters as Martin reached that all too familiar and passion-fuelled crescendo.  Opening the evening was the local South Yorkshire Police Male Voice Choir, who performed a range of vintage popular songs including “Magic Moments”, “Standing on the Corner” and “Two Little Boys” of all things, to get the concert off to a good start.

JT Nero and Allison Russell | Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey | 25.11.11

For the first time in just a little under twelve months of Town Hall Live’s impressive run of concerts, two returning musicians took to the stage tonight for another outstanding evening of music.  Jeremy Lindsay was the first guest at the Kirton in Lindsey venue earlier in the year when he appeared with his band JT and The Clouds and more recently the delightful Po’ Girl made an appearance with the incomparable Allison Russell. Joining forces for the JT Nero tour, JT and Alli appeared together tonight for a relaxed and intimate performance.  Taking songs from the Mountains/Forests album as a basis for the set, the trio, which also included Texan guitarist Joe Faulhaber, opened with the surrealistic title song from the record, reminding us that there are in fact mountains, forests and even electric seahorses, going on to perform a selection of other familiar songs including “Roll Tide”, “North Star” and “Double Helix” (Rainbow), each garnering an enthusiastic reception.  The album, which is essentially a solo record by Jeremy’s alter ego JT Nero, features not only members of The Clouds but also members of Po’ Girl with particular emphasis on the soulful voice of Allison Russell.  It was entirely fitting then that we were able to hear these songs performed live for the first time by these two distinctive voices.  With a handful of other songs from the current record, “Gallup NM”, “Grey Ghost” and the intriguing “Mi Salvador What’s Happening”, JT and Alli also introduced a selection of newer songs from what will eventually become the couple’s proper debut duo album, the forthcoming Birds of Chicago with “Oh Calcutta” featuring Alli on clarinet, the waltz time “Galaxy Ballroom” and the funky “Trampoline”.  Joining Jeremy and Allison, guitarist Joe Faulhaber alternated between acoustic and electric guitars, providing some tasty accompaniment, adding some almost David Rawlings-type guitar runs to each of the songs, providing the cherry on top.  The atmosphere in the Town hall tonight was slightly polarised with half the audience wanting to party and half the audience wanting a bit of peace and quiet, with a bit of shushing followed by a bit of shushing the shushers.  In hindsight, maybe a suitable compromise would have been to let the kids run around but let them do it in stocking feet?  Having said that, with songs like “Sugar Dumpling” and “Funeral”, the party atmosphere was unavoidable really and the band seemed pretty cool with it all.  Finishing with an encore of “Downpresser Man”, the old Peter Tosh song, JT and Allison brought the evening to a soulful climax.

Larkin Poe | Slaughtered Lamb, London | 29.11.11

Larkin Poe made a welcome return to London tonight with an appearance at the Slaughtered Lamb in the Islington area of the city.  Approaching the end of their three week tour of Europe, the Georgia-based band led by siblings Rebecca and Megan Lovell were in playful mood once again as they delivered a superb set of songs from each of their four ‘season’ EPs of 2010, together with a preview of their yet to be officially released Thick As Thieves EP.   Starting with the bluesy “The Principle of Silver Lining”, the band, which also includes regular drummer Chad Melton and guitarist Rick Lollar, treated the audience to a range of exciting songs from their steadily growing repertoire of self-penned numbers such as “Burglary”, “Trance” and “We Intertwine” together with their infectious cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, before going on to delight their audience further with a handful of newer songs such as “Celebrate”, “Fox”, “Play On”, “Love or Money” and the quirky “On the Fritz”. In an almost unprecedented whirlwind rise in popularity over the last year or so, Rebecca and Megan, who previously toured with older sister Jessica under the name The Lovell Sisters, have transformed their core bluegrass sound to encompass rock and pop elements, which suitably reflects Rebecca Lovell’s outgoing and confident personality, which in turn perfectly serves as a counterpoint to sister Megan’s quiet, almost angelic and temperate nature.  Megan Lovell may be the ‘studious’ one but that doesn’t inhibit her from making some of the most seriously meaty rock riffs on her trademark lap steel one moment, whilst emoting gently on her dobro the next.  Occasionally troubled by a faulty mandolin lead, Rebecca overcame the problem by demonstrating true professionalism, joking around and taking lightly an otherwise frustrating moment, whilst drummer Chad suffered a retreating drum kit midway through his solo in the final number, with the band springing into action in order to hold back the decamping kit, whilst not missing a single beat. With the Lovell sisters’ father in the audience especially for the occasion, together with Chad’s wife Sarah, not to mention the Barnsley branch of the Larkin Poe fan club, formed during the band’s appearance at the Barnsley Festival earlier this year and to which this reviewer is a fully paid up member, there was an inevitable air of celebration tonight.  The two support acts Brooke Parrott and Early Ghost were very much in on the celebrations, contributing in no small part to the success of the evening.  Finishing with their regular bluesy closer, the old Jimi Hendrix number “Bleeding Heart”, the sisters returned for the one encore, a totally acoustic performance of Megan’s gorgeous “Subway Song”.  A superb night.

The Great British Folk Festival 2011 | Butlins, Skegness | 05.12.11

Turned Out Nice Again

On Sunday night, midway through his Centre Stage set, Martyn Joseph jumped off stage and wandered Elvis-like through the crowd, singing without the aid of a microphone, safety net or risk assessment possibly, in order to be united with the Skegness audience who had come along to see him play.  It was probably the defining moment of the festival; a sort of ‘wouldn’t want to be anywhere else’ moment, a moment that was shared amongst the 2000-plus audience.  The festival by this time was preparing for the final home run, the climactic finale to another successful three days of folk music or at least folk roots music at the second annual Great British Folk Festival.  Despite it being a bit cold, it normally is on the east coast of Lincolnshire in December, the weather was much kinder than it was during the inaugural folk festival last December, which was plagued by a veritable tempest of blizzards and snowfall, which resulted in at least one or two of the headliners abandoning any hope of getting through, not to mention some of the audience as well.  This year however, the sold-out festival saw thousands of visitors arrive unhindered by such problems, bringing with them for the most part, an air of seasonal cheer.  Of course there were one or two grumblers, but that comes with the territory I’m afraid.  Who could forget the lone voice interrupting Dave Pegg mid-sentence on Saturday afternoon with the bizarre request to ‘do something about the buzzing’.  I heard no buzzing.  Maybe the owner of the voice mistook the alleged ‘buzzing’ for the almost inaudible whirring of the heating system that was busy keeping us all warm and snug?  For one of the cheapest and most comfortable festivals in the country today, this reviewer found it difficult to complain about anything really.  Friday evening saw the first series of concerts get underway with an energetic set by 3 Daft Monkeys, who opened proceedings on the Centre Stage with a simultaneous performance by Scottish songstress Emily Smith and her band on the Reds Stage right next door.  The geography of the Butlins resort is easy to navigate; two main stages located adjacent to one another, one under the central Skyline Pavilion and the other just a few metres away, providing easy access to both stages.  The two main stages could quite easily have been referred to as the ‘upstairs stage’ and the ‘downstairs stage’, but the festival kept to the Butlins standard with the clearly marked ‘Reds Stage’ and ‘Centre Stage’ to avoid any confusion.  There was also Jaks Nightclub offering open mic sessions during both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  And if that wasn’t enough, there was also one or two impromtu sessions taking place in the Sun and Moon pub.  Plenty then to keep us going for the weekend. With both 3 Daft Monkeys and Emily Smith opening the festival on each of these respective main stages, you sensed that the festival had excelled in their programming, each of these acts providing a good well-balanced choice for everyone.  Lots of energy on one stage and something sublime on the other.  The great thing about this festival is that should you have a taste for both, as this reviewer certainly has, then you could hop between the two and see a bit of both; “Traiveller’s Joy” on one hand and a bit of “Paranoid Big Brother” on the other.  That’s unless you had staked your claim on a chair and dared not budge from it.  While Chumbawamba brought a mixture of humour, folk song and political satire to the Centre Stage, the legendary Ralph McTell delighted the Reds audience with an engaging hour of self-penned songs such as “The First and Last Man”, “Around the Wild Cape Horn” and the timeless “Streets of London”, together with a moving tribute to the late Bert Jansch followed by the challenging for all budding guitarists instrumental “Anji”, which McTell segued into both “Hit the Road Jack” and “Lullaby of Birdland”.  Rounding off Friday night there was a choice between two Celtic flavoured crowd pleasers, Scotland’s Peatbog Faeries on the Centre Stage and Quill on the Reds Stage.  Whilst the Isle of Skye-based Faeries created their distinct Gaelic fusion, incorporating predominant pipes and fiddle together with contemporary beats, the Midlands-based Quill chose just about every chart song ever to have included a mandolin or fiddle with one familiar hit after another from “Moonlight Shadow” and “Roots” to “Copperhead Road” and “Fisherman’s Blues”.  An indubitable party to close the opening night.  With a well-stacked Guardian pile in the newsagents and a well-stocked belly full of breakfast, Saturday morning came along to greet the blurry-eyed.  If the morning sun alone couldn’t bring on the smiles, then the staff most cetainly could.  Wherever you wander throughout the festival, the Butlins staff are there to please, even the security people who at other festivals are usually less approachable.  Saturday afternoon got underway with an open mic session in Jaks nightclub, beginning with a highly charged performance by Suffolk-based singer/guitarist Robert Brown, who performed a confident set, which included songs from his current mini-album Road Dog, together with the traditional ballad “Lord Franklin”, learned directly from Nic Jones himself.  I personally could have done without the percussionist in the audience who clicked and rattled sporadically throughout the set, but I chose to put up with it with a smile.  It didn’t seem to bother Robert so why grumble?  Over on the Centre Stage, Richard Digance returned to the festival to take his place on the very same stage and at precisely the same time as his last appearance a year ago to the day, bringing his usual wit and banter.  There was an unexpected surprise for those attending the open mic session in Jaks on Saturday afternoon, when Chicago’s JT Nero turned up with Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell, together with Texas guitarist Joe Faulhaber, to perform songs from JT’s new record Mountains/Forests.  Arriving almost unexpectedly after their Liverpool gig was cancelled at very short notice, the trio hot-footed it over to Skeggy, where an opportunity to play had arisen.  The good people running the open mic session managed to slot the trio in for a delightful 45 minute set, which was followed by an unprecedented queue at the concessions table, where copies of the album were dealt out like playing cards to keen and enthusiastic fans.  The festival had a very good line up already but these unexpected treats do seem to pop a cherry on top sometimes.  A sell-out Great British festival means some predictable Great British queuing.  The serpentining queues in the Skyline Pavilion before each of the concerts was a necessary evil in order for sound checks to be conducted but fortunately no one had to wait around too long.  This reviewer found it such a good spectator sport to watch the most eager queuers race for their favourite seats as soon as the doors were opened in the spirit of good holiday camp entertainment.  The cider scrumping Wurzels provided much of the entertainment on the Centre Stage during Saturday afternoon, bringing with them recorded intros and outros as any self-respecting cabaret act would.  The music continued on Saturday night with a choice of Merry Hell on the Reds Stage whilst the legendary Steve Gibbons performed a solo set on the Centre Stage.  Despite it being a solo set, Gibbons played a good few rockers that included “That’s Alright Mama”, preceded by an informative Elvis monologue, “Tryin’ to Get to You” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.  The newly re-formed Matthews Southern Comfort, featuring founder member and former Fairport singer Iain Matthews, brought a touch of class to the festival with a superb set of songs new and old, each featuring the quartet’s close harmonies and intuitive musicianship.  The current band, featuring three Dutch musicians BJ Baartmans on guitar, Bart De Win on keyboards and Elly Kellner on acoustic guitar, who also shared lead vocals with Matthews, selected songs from their current album Kind of New as well as re-visiting older songs such as Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, incorporating a new soulful arrangement of the song that brought the band some considerable chart success in 1971.  The final concert for Saturday came in the form of the kwassa kwassa rhythms of Inongo’s very own Kanda Bongo Man, who brought a taste of the Congo to Skeggy.  Sunday’s special afternoon concert on the Centre Stage was almost exclusively given over to Dave Pegg’s Fairport Connections project, which was devised specifically for the Great British Folk Festival.  A capacity audience filled the room as Peggy and guitarist PJ Wright opened the Connections concert with a suitably chosen Richard Thompson song, “Keep Your Distance”.  As cheerful as ever, Peggy not only performed the Fairport classic “Flatback Caper” but also regaled the audience with Fairport anecdotes, such as the time he allegedly hammered a nail in a wall to hang his mandolin upon, which resulted in a hole the size of his head, from where he observed his neighbour Dave Swarbrick performing feats of agility any man would be proud of.  Peggy was joined by Fairport drummer Gerry Conway who as the band’s rhythm section provided support for the handful of guests who followed during the three hour session including some of the songwriters who have either contributed to the band’s repertoire or who have supported the band on tour over the years.  The guests included Anna Ryder, Bob Fox, Anthony John Clark and Steve Tilston.  Anna (or should that be annA?) Ryder (rydeR?) surrounded herself with an array of horns, keyboards and accordion for some of the most quirky yet astonishingly beautiful songs of the session.  A gifted musician, Anna not only plays her instruments well, but also plays more than one at a time.  One forgets that a trumpet and an accordion are in entirely different keys, making the task even more difficult.  Anna stuck around to help Peggy and PJ perform the Red Shoes song “Celtic Moon” written by Carolyn Evans.  Bob Fox is the sort of performer who can have you in fits of laughter one minute and close to tears the next with his own particular brand of storytelling.  Borrowing from Ewan Maccoll both “The Iron Road” and “Champion at Keeping Them Rolling”, Fox is best known for delivering faithful interpretations of songs from his own neck of the woods including “The Waters of Tyne”, which the singer cleverly segues into Jimmy Nail’s powerful Big River and Jez Lowe’s “Greek Lightning”, the only song I know to mention both The Beatles and Demis Roussos in the same verse.  With no rehearsals prior to the afternoon concert, therefore no clear concept to how long these songs would take to perform, time began to run out for the performers even before Steve Tilston took to the stage, therefore, Steve Tilston had to cut his set down by at least a couple of songs due to the over-run.  On form and singing probably better than ever, the singer/guitarist chose one or two songs from his current album The Reckoning including “Weeping Willow” and “Oil and Water”, the song he recently performed on the Jools Holland programme, together with the earlier “The Road When I Was Young”.  The Sunday evening concert on the Centre Stage opened with an atmospheric set by Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle, featuring the jazz fusion stylings of Spencer Cozens on keyboards, Gary Foote on sax and flute and the tight rhythm section of Alan Thomson and Gerry Conway on bass and drums respectively.  Opening with the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair” the band created a new canvas for the older established Pentangle songs to rest including “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the Miles Davis inspired “I’ve Got a Feeling”.  Whether we like to refer to Martyn Joseph as the Welsh Woody Guthrie or not, one thing’s for certain, the singer-songwriter with a similar mission to Bruce Springsteen, can certainly stage a good performance, which has all the power of a rock band in just the one guitar, just the one voice.  With songs such as “Turn Me Tender” and “On My Way”, Joseph’s set ranked amongst the most memorable performances of the weekend.  Once again, the Butlins Great British brand provided a great alternative folk festival experience and more importantly, without a single tent in sight.    

Wish You Were Here

Back in the dark-ages, before my old man had begun stuffing me into his rucksack and taking me to folk festivals, I had enjoyed a string of summer holidays at several British holiday camps. You know the kind of thing – damp little chalets, amusement arcades, knobbly-knee contests and plenty of good, clean, British fun.  My nostrils still retain the olfactory memory of starched bedsheets and cheap-and-cheerful canteen grub, whilst my head cherishes its memories of many a happy summer in a world that is reported to be crumbling like the cliffs beneath those few remaining camps.  Strange, then, to arrive at Butlins, Skegness this weekend and find that the holiday camp is not only alive and well but is also being completely revitalised by the same company whose intent, so the old slogan insists, ‘is all for your delight’.  And what a delight it is to discover that Billy Butlin’s oldest camp is now home to one of our finest festivals of folk.  The Great British Folk Festival, now in its second year, takes over the entire Skegness camp between Friday and Monday, hosting performances from the likes of Seth Lakeman, Chumbawamba, Matthews Southern Comfort, Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and Cara Dillon to name just a few.  Each festival concert is held beneath the gigantic Skyline Pavilion at the centre of the camp, where two sizeable stages presumably give up their late-night discos and kids’ club party dances in favour of the best in live folk music.  Both ‘Reds’ and ‘Centre Stage’ are plush, comfortable nightclubs – a welcome sight for those folkies who might be more accustomed to muddy fields and portable toilets. And then there’s the hospitality.  Who could fault the cheerful, friendly nature of the Butlin’s staff and the warm and comfy apartments that have replaced the pebble-dash chalets of yore?  Even before the music begins, you wonder why you ever bothered hammering in a single tent peg.  Whilst Butlin’s is busy showing us how much it has changed, Ralph McTell wanders onto the stage at Reds on Friday evening to demonstrate how some things never change. Just as us campers are making ourselves at home, Ralph takes us on a brief journey through his life story, bundling us all into the back of his exquisite, sincere songwriting and driving us off into the hazy distance.  At the end of a year that has seen the departure of too many of our most cherished singer-songwriters, it’s a  welcome pleasure to stand in the wings as Ralph performs to a bunch of cosy folkies, embracing their glasses of Butlins True Delight.  Over on Centre Stage, Chumbawamba are injecting the catchy melody of “Add Me” into the ears of another roomful of appreciative festival goers.  Mixing their brand of comedy, politics, and traditional folk with oodles of spine-tingling harmonies, Chumbawamba once again manage to craft  a family reunion out of their large audience. Shortly after inviting ‘anyone who fancies it’ to jump on stage and sing a Johnny Cash song, you get the feeling that those thousands of people sitting around you are old friends and, before the first night of the festival is over, you understand the thinking behind the name of this ‘Great British Folk Festival’.  Shortly after a hearty breakfast in the Yacht Club and a nice frothy coffee under the canvas of the pavilion, it’s time to hit Centre Stage for a set from Richard Digance – a familiar face to folk fans and Countdown devotees alike.  Even before he’s reached the mic stand, singer-songwriter and funny-man Digance is already prompting a belly-laugh epidemic with a few digs at the sound-man.  The jibes soon give way to a selection of songs that go from side-splitting to tear-jerking at the turn of a chord.  “I’ve Won the Lottery” is a singalong celebration of getting your own back on your boss, Jobs addresses the baffling concept of Peter Andre and Katie Price whilst his memorial song to the Christmas truce of 1914 provides the festival with one of its most beautiful and memorable anthems.  A little later, Centre Stage is overwhelmed by the distinct aroma of fermented apples when The Wurzels dish up an outrageously funny yet slick and impressive set.  A couple of decades have passed since these West Country superstars last topped the charts and, whilst it might be easy these days to dismiss the band as mere novelty, their performance in Skeggy this weekend proves otherwise.  Like a good swig from a scrumpy jug, each song insists that the entire room dances and sings along as if their prize bullock depended upon it.  One might be inclined to blame the cider, but the programme does indeed state that Matthews Southern Comfort, Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and various artists connected with Fairport Convention are to perform sometime over the next twenty-four hours.   And what a treat it is to see such folk legends as Ian Matthews and Jacqui McShee take to the stage on Saturday and Sunday night whilst Bob Fox, Steve Tilston, Anthony John Clarke, Anna Ryder and PJ Wright perform as part of a Fairport-themed showcase on Sunday afternoon, each performing a selection of songs from their personal repertoire before being joined by Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway to demonstrate their particular Fairport connection.  Matthews’s Saturday evening set is a mesmerising affair comprising new and old songs from a man whose voice and vitality are very much untouched by the decades that have passed since he joined Fairport in 1967.  Similarly, Jacqui McShee sounds cooler and more relevant than anything the X Factor might be churning out on the telly this weekend.  As the Sunday evening concert draws to an end, I’m reminded of the final nights of all those happy home-grown childhood holidays.  The red coats might not be waving goodbye to us tonight, but as the Dylan Project strum their final chord and The Magic Tombolinos attempt to replace the roof they just blew off, this happy camper can’t help feeling that he doesn’t really want to leave.