Live | 2017

Normafest 2017 | Whitby Pavilion, Whitby | 07.01.17

A blanket of thick fog hovered above the meandering hillside road leading down to Whitby on Friday afternoon, giving the cliff top’s ancient Abbey an eerie atmosphere that its reputation very much deserves.  The hazy Gothic silhouette majestically peered through the mist as the little seaside town came into focus.  There was the slightest drizzle, but nothing compared to the expected cold at this time of year.  The town was recovering from its New Year’s celebrations with Christmas trees still evident in windows along the narrow streets and Santas loitered regardless upon local rooftops.  Whitby appeared to be resting between busy seasons as friends approached from far and wide for a rather special family reunion.  The celebrations began with a low-key, low-volume, yet highly informal chat with Martin Carthy, one of the principal players of this weekend’s family gathering, conducted by Hardeep Singh Kohli, whose casual manner was echoed in the cheerful demeanour of his interviewee.  As the TV chef prepared a finger buffet of sorts, the legendary singer recalled some of the notable events during his long and illustrious life and career on the road and at one point suggested that his daughter Eliza should locate the nearest fiddle for an impromptu duet.  Performing totally acoustic from beside the makeshift kitchen table, Martin and Eliza performed one or two familiar songs, at one point struggling to remember all the lyrics to “Dominion of the Sword”, skipping seamlessly into a fiery instrumental break instead, until a thoughtful audience member delivered the words via the Internet on his smartphone.  It was whilst Martin and Eliza played these songs, that a whisper began to circulate the pavilion that Norma Waterson, matriarch of this festival, would not be attending due to ill health.  Later in the evening both Eliza and Martin would deliver a heartfelt message from the main stage, with apologies for Norma’s absence, emphasising that if it was at all possible for her to be there, she would have been there.  After some smooth relaxing sounds in the cafe area, courtesy of DJ Dolphin Boy, the writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton introduced Stick in the Wheel, whose startling interpretations of traditional songs such as “Bows of London”, “Hard Times of Old England” and “Poor Old Horse”, brought an entirely new emphasis to these well-trodden stories, with their no-nonsense approach.  Shortly afterwards, a musicians’ session got underway with Sam Sweeney, Saul Rose and David Delarre at the helm, joined by several musicians, including fiddle player and harpist Rachel Newton, relaxing before her standout appearance on Saturday afternoon with the Furrow Collective.  In the main concert hall next door, the stage was set for the main course of the evening, featuring the Waterson Family and Peggy Seeger.  Saul Rose was first up with a short opening set of songs and tunes, interspersed with one or two memories of first meeting the Waterson/Carthy clan.  Shortly afterwards, the multi-generational family band formed a line that spanned the entire stage with Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Neill MacColl, Emily Portman, Lauren McCormick, Davoc Brady and Jim Causley, together with Watersons Marry, Anne, Erin and Ella, for a celebration of superlative songs and music.  If “Some Old Salty” elicited a modest reaction from the audience, then the rousing “Bright Phoebus” brought the best out of the Normafest crowd, both songs in celebration of Norma’s siblings Lal and Mike respectively.  Marry Waterson, Lal’s daughter, bore an uncanny resemblance to her mum both in voice and stance, whilst Mike Waterson’s widow Anne assumed the matriarch role with remarkable effect.  Concluding Friday night’s concert, folk stalwart Peggy Seeger was eager to take to the stage, offering a few jokes as she awaited her allotted show time.  “I just don’t like seeing you waiting around doing nothing” she declared.  Firstly accompanied by Eliza Carthy and then her son Neill MacColl, the New York-born singer and activist alternated between banjo, guitar, piano and autoharp, whilst drawing from a broad repertoire, with the obligatory Donald Trump song receiving quite predictably the loudest applause of the set.  It wasn’t about politics though, it was about celebrating the life and work of Norma Waterson, whose repertoire ran wide and varied and more so in her absence.  Long gone are the days when it was considered crucial to sing songs only from one’s own particular neck of the woods.  During Peggy’s set, Neill sang “Freight Train”, which was preceded by Neill’s reminiscences of the days of the famed Singer’s Club once run by his parents.  “I lived in a house with an Englishman who pretended to be a Scotsman and an American mother, so I can sing what the fuck I like!”  The North Sea at midnight on Friday night was like a millpond, with no breeze coming off the coastline.  The chimes rang out in a whisper over the harbour as visitors returned to their respective hostelries.  The drizzle was no longer a problem on Saturday morning as the town once again came to life, with one or two gathering in the Pavilion café and bar to peruse the morning papers. Saturday lunchtime saw a matinee screening of the early 1970s Alan Plater film Land of Green Ginger, originally shown on television as part of the Play for Today series back in 1973 and featuring an engaging performance by the young Gwen Taylor, later of Duty Free, Heartbeat and Coronation Street.  The play also featured a soundtrack of Watersons songs, the quartet themselves appearing midway through in a familiar folk club setting, looking every bit 1970s in the period when Bernie Vickers was the resident ‘outsider’.  Saturday at times felt like a Sunday for some reason, it had that lazy Sunday feel and especially when writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton shared some valuable memories of first meeting Norma Waterson from the main stage.  Reading his richly anecdotal and thoroughly heartfelt essay Looking for Norma, it seemed all the more poignant reading it in Norma’s absence and I dare say Ian would’ve been slightly more nervous had Norma been listening in the wings.  With the action shifting further up coast, as far as Scotland, the fascinating documentary film, Where You Are Meant to Be, featuring and narrated by ‘cult-pop raconteur’ Aidan Moffat, brought to our senses the magnificent voice of Sheila Stewart, with both archive and recent footage of the 79 year-old balladeer.  Despite an unambiguous ‘language’ warning delivered by Joanie Crump in her introduction, there was no warning at all declared prior to the scene where the singer merrily skinned a rabbit whilst crooning her brilliant song “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”.  As darkness descended upon the North Sea coastline, the eagerly anticipated set by The Furrow Collective came and went in a flash.  The songs, together with their inspired arrangements, made for compelling listening, each song showcasing the combined talents of Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton.  Both delicate and bold, the songs were magical in their delivery, taking the audience to other places completely.  The last of the three films to be shown in the theatre over the weekend was Derrick Knight’s highly evocative mid-Sixties documentary film centred around the Watersons at home and on the road.  Travelling for a Living is a crucial film for anyone with even the slightest interest in Norma Waterson and her family.  There’s something touching about seeing the young Norma, together with Mike and Lal and the fourth member and original ‘outsider’ of the group John Harrison, in what could be described as a companion piece to A Hard Day’s Night; two very different takes on musicians on the road, from two different coastlines in the industrial North of England.  After getting used to the fact that Norma wasn’t going to be at the festival, more disappointing news came early on Saturday evening as it was announced that special guest Richard Hawley was no longer able to play also due to illness.  The night continued regardless with an opening set by Dublin-based band Lankum (formerly Lynched).  Having won the hearts of the Musicport audience back in October, the quartet soon rose to the top of the Normafest wish list and Eliza couldn’t wait to get up to join the band during their encore with the rousing sea shanty Billy O’Shea.  It was a good choice and the band played a superb set, immediately bringing the evening to life with a variety of songs and tunes from the old country.  Attired in a vivid blood red dress and with one of her daughters by her side, a tearful Eliza Carthy opened the Gift Big Band’s set with Loudon Wainwright’s affectionate lullaby “Dreaming”, a song written especially for Norma, whilst the slightly reduced band stepped up to the mark to deliver a stella performance, each musician pulling out all the stops by way of compensation for the missing component parts.  Joined by her dad, together with Neill MacColl and Marry Waterson, the band performed a variety of songs in a variety of styles such as “Fred Astaire”, “Al Bowlley’s in Heaven”, “Ukulele Lady/(If Paradise is) Half as Nice”, “Grace Darling” and Richard Thompson’s bleak but beautiful “God Loves a Drunk”.  One of the features on the main stage throughout the weekend was the presence of a golden fairground horse, which at times dominated the stage. During the Gift Big Band’s concluding set, the carousel horse provided a resting place for a certain little ones’ sleepy head, which was a lovely poignant image to behold.  If Norma was too unwell to appear, then why not let her daughter and her granddaughter take centre stage in her absence?  And so there we have it, the Waterson Family legacy continues on into the future and long may it continue.

Great British Rock and Blues Festival 2017 | Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness | 27.01.17

It’s almost as if the New Year is quite incapable of getting itself off the ground; that is until it’s been kick-started with a shot of heavy duty rock and roll and a spoonful of down home rhythm and blues.  The quiet seaside town of Skegness once again played host to the latest in a long running series of music festivals under the ‘Great British’ banner, forcing the sleepy North Sea shoreline awake.  As the beach shook to the vibrations of familiar rock guitar licks and the Skyline Pavilion shuddered to wailing blues harp solos, the Butlins resort once again welcomed in 2017 with the Great British Rock and Blues Festival.  Kicking off this year’s festival were Scottish blues rockers GT’s Boo’s Band, a four-piece powerhouse of a group that managed to quickly warm up the Introducing Stage on a chilly Friday afternoon.  Led by guitarist John Boos and vocalist Greig Taylor, the band performed songs from Steak House, their 2013 debut, as well as their eponymous follow up which was released last year.  Having been praised by such British institutions as Paul Jones and Bev Bevan, the Tom Walker Trio delivered a performance of shimmering power-blues to a notably impressed crowd on Friday afternoon.  Brummy bluesman Walker’s ferociously slick playing and passionate vocals are those of a seasoned player but one that, remarkably, hasn’t yet reached his twenty-second birthday.  With a repertoire that moves fluently from face-wrinkling hard blues to heartfelt soul, the trio prompted an appreciative crowd to select them as a headliner for next year’s festival.  Whilst talent and charisma were plentiful at this year’s festival, few acts engaged their audience in the way that Leeds City Stompers did on Friday evening.  The Yorkshire-based trio led us down a winding path of rockabilly, blues and jazz from the first half of the twentieth century, never ruffling their razor-sharp suits as they injected equal amounts of fun and dexterity into such numbers as Blind Blake’s “Wabash Rag” and Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”.  Using the traditional instruments of a street corner jug band, including washboard, double bass, resonator guitar and even a kazoo, the trio brought a touch of authenticity to the proceedings, especially during the folk song John Henry which was stunningly imparted via the impressive vocals of the trio’s drummer, Jack Amblin.  The Stompers concluded their set with the traditional “Mama Don’t Allow”, a song which showcased the impressive prowess of each of the three musicians with solos that almost ripped holes in the arena’s canvas ceiling.  The six piece Southampton based combo Backwater Roll exposed the sharp edge of the blues on Friday evening.  Led by the gritty vocals and harmonica of Miff Smith, with piercing guitar solos by Deano Matthias, the band brought both energy and dignity to the Introducing Stage with a set that treated the blues with the respect it deserves.  After impressing last year’s festival goers on the Introducing Stage, the young four-piece blues rockers Sugarman Sam & the Voodoo Men opened Centre Stage with an uncompromising dose of hard-hitting blues rock.  “My education was the record store” sang Sam during “(Blues) My Shining Light” – a song which recounts the history of Sam’s musical journey – before taking us on a tour of the styles this fine young bluesman has mastered since the age of thirteen.  From “Some Kind of Voodoo”, with its deliciously swampy rhythm and stunning piano solo from Paul McCormick, to the strutting new song, this was a performance that laid a steady foundation for the rest of the festival and proved that the blues is safe in the hands of a new generation.  One of the most magnetic performances of the festival came courtesy of the Giles Robson Band.  Thanks to the band’s harmonica-wielding leader, a performer who manages to plunder the blues for the very essence of its stories, the four-piece band wove a thoroughly engaging show that incorporated readings of classic songs such as “Sarah Lee” and “Give Me Some of That Good Stuff” as well as a lesson in the history of the blues harmonica.  “You cannot be a blues harmonica player,” insisted Robson, “without a steam locomotive impersonation in your repertoire” and, true to his word, a thundering harmonica solo ensued, leaving the crowd even more breathless than Robson himself.  The Reds stage was pretty much the domain of the blues harp for the duration with guest appearances by such legendary players as Magic Dick, James Harman and Billy Branch.  Despite a few technical hitches and broken strings, the Friday night performance from Florida-born slide guitarist Eric Sardinas and Big Motor garnered a great reaction as well an encore from the intrigued Centre Stage crowd.  Decked in feathers, chains and a top hat, the born showman Sardinas slid his way through his back catalogue with all the highly watchable curiosity of a Stephen Tyler/Captain Beefheart hybrid, before plummeting from the stage into a heap of hair-braids and peacock feathers at the feet of this very reviewer.  A little bit of elder-statesmen wisdom was delivered to the festival courtesy of Snafu, the British R&B band that burst onto the scene with their eponymous debut album in 1973.  Led by seated vocalist Bobby Harrison, Snafu concluded the evening schedule with choice selections including a tasty rendering of the Allman Brothers song “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”, a highlight from Snafu’s 1975 album All Funked Up.  Whilst The Texas Flood returned to the festival after winning one of the heats on the Introducing Stage last year, the well-respected British blues guitarist and singer Martin Harley proved, on Saturday afternoon, that, when it comes to the blues, just the one foot will do.  Harley hobbled on stage courtesy of a pair of crutches, stating “that’s what you get for wrestling alligators”.  Martin’s consistently mesmerising set of stunning acoustic blues songs was interspersed with engagingly comical patter, including stories from the time he worked as a pancake chef at an Australian nunnery and a dream he had in which Alan Titchmarsh came to the British bluesman and declared “consistency is the last stronghold of the unimaginative”, a philosophy which has since inspired this fine musician to keep each set fresh and engaging.  With a weeping Weissenborn and mellow Gibson acoustic, Harley haunted the musical territories or Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Tom Waits as well as reducing the festival goers to complete silence during his self-penned masterpiece “Cardboard King”.  Whilst the eight-piece blues rockers Nine Below Zero turned the heat up in Reds, another eight-piece band was running its engine on Centre Stage.  Helen Hardy is perhaps best known as a member of folk rock band Cold River Lady, but this weekend she brought her own band to Skegness, as well as a leopard skin top and thigh high boots, for a sassy performance which included a fine version of Family’s “Burlesque”, written by Helen’s co-musician of thirty years Roger Chapman.  When it comes to British rhythm and blues, Nine Below Zero have been leading the pack since they established themselves as Stan’s Blues Band in 1977.  Forty years later, this no-nonsense eight-piece band drew an excited crowd to Reds for one of the festival’s most imposing performances.  Led by the raw and punchy harmonica of Mark Feltham and backed by the buxom brass of saxophonist Chris Rand and trumpeter Paul Jordanous, this much loved combo thundered through an energetic set which included taut renditions of “Señor Soul’s Don’t Lay Your Funky Trip On Me” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Homework”.   Tony Underwood’s slicing telecaster, piped through a gorgeous Vox amp, made everyone sit up and listen on Saturday afternoon as Hornsea trio The Alligators opened the Introducing Stage. Songs such as Blues Trader, featuring some impressively ornate lead breaks from Underwood, and the swampy New Hesitation Blues with its “ch-ch-cheesy cha-cha-cha ending” hit all the right notes as the festival glided comfortably into its second day.  Although introduced with the wrong name, the Matt Edwards Trio sliced into their late afternoon session with headstrong poise and one of the crunchiest lead guitars of the weekend.  There’s a mix of rawness and mellowness in Matt Edwards’s voice that succeeds in bashing a blues song into perfect shape with what seems like little effort.  “Under a Leash” from Matt’s 2011 album Follow the Plan sounded superb as did “Don’t Need You Anymore” from the British bluesman’s latest release Four Berry Jam.  And although Matt’s wah-wah peddle had let him down during the previous evening’s gig in Milton Keynes, it held out in Skegness for a delicious rendering of the Hendrix classic “Who Knows”.  The young five-piece band Southbound had the crowd on their side from the start of their Saturday afternoon performance thanks to the Robert Cray-esque vocals of Tom Ford and Elliot Stout’s gutsy SG.  The band performed self-penned songs from their eponymous EP and earned themselves a place on next year’s list of headliners.  This year’s festival boasted a range of first-rate vocalists but it was the voice of Nottingham’s Amy Eftekhari that lulled everyone into a bewitched state on Saturday afternoon.  With a set of pipes to rival some of Europe’s grandest church organs, Amy treated us to versions of such diverse songs as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Your Red Wagon”, John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me” and Eva Cassidy’s arrangement of the classic “Over the Rainbow”, each accompanied by the exquisite fingerpicking of Elliot Coombs.  London-based blues n’ roll outfit Bourbon Street Revival closed the Introducing Stage on Saturday evening with a punchy big band sound.  The eight-piece band included a bold brass section, the roaring harmonica of Steve Buckerfield and charismatic vocals of Marcus Foster, with self-penned songs such as “Absolution” and “Feel My Time Slipping Away” laying a keen groove for the dancers amongst us.  Louisiana blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball brought a generous portion of class to Reds on Saturday evening.  Sitting cross-legged at her piano with a quintet of slick musicians around her, including the stunning Austin-based guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer who provided outstanding vocals on “Barking up the Wrong Tree”, the legendary American artist performed a packed set of infectious rock n’ roll and New Orleans shuffles.  The rest of the set list was, however, cast into shadow by the band’s heartfelt reading of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” which included a heart breaking sax solo from Thad Scott.  If former guitarist with The Who (yes, it’s true) Steve ‘Boltz’ Bolton claimed to have survived the band during his set with his new band Dead Man’s Corner, then the same could be said for the next familiar ‘face’ to grace the Centre Stage.  Kenney Jones has provided a steady beat on many a classic record over the years, especially as drummer with the Small Faces and, after the death of Keith Moon, The Who.  Those are his sticks on the Small Faces songs “Itchycoo Park”, “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” and “All or Nothing”.  For this year’s festival, Kenney brought along his all-star band which included singer Robert Hart, keyboardist Mark Read and the outstanding young guitarist Johnson Jay who provided blazing renditions of familiar solos on such songs as Free’s “All Right Now”, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.  After a superb set by Moreland and Arbuckle, who clearly won over the audience on the Reds Stage, Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer, introduced onto the stage Toronzo Cannon who delivered an authentic set of chugging Chicago blues songs with his creamy white Strat and soaring vocals.  With shimmering versions of Mrs.  From Mississippi and Bad Contract, Cannon proved that years of listening to and studying the likes of Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater and Lil’ Ed Williams have paid off.  Forty six years have passed since hard rockers Leaf Hound released their debut album Growers of Mushrooms, which has since been voted by Q magazine as the number one most collectible rock album of all time.  With one original member remaining, the band took to Centre Stage late on Saturday night for a chest-pounding set of new and classic songs.  Peter French, dressed in a lavish silk jacket and looking considerably younger than his years, was in fine voice on songs such as “Nickels and Dimes” and “Stop, Look and Listen”.  And despite being the most sensibly dressed of the four-piece outfit, bassist Peter Herbert was easily the wildest of the bunch, hurling himself across the stage unceasingly throughout.  It’s getting harder and harder to find blues legends, these days, given that we’ve already passed the genre’s centenary.  A few authentic bluesmen, however, can still be found behind their guitars, doing what they do best and Lil’ Jimmy Reed is, without question, one of them.  At 77 years of age, the Louisiana bluesman can still wrangle a set of slick blues numbers including Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Johnny Moore’s “How Blue Can You Get”.  With fresh licks from a ripened stalwart, Reed’s set was nothing short of a gift to all those present.  Rumours of the fine set promised by The Rainbreakers spread like wildfire through the Butlins Holiday Camp over the weekend and, on Sunday afternoon, all our hopes were satisfied as the four-piece blues rockers performed an emotive set on Centre Stage.  With an effortlessly expressive lead guitar that was, at times, reminiscent of the diminished moans of David Gilmour, the band proved their mettle when it came to tightly-bound, soulful blues.  Most impressive, however, was the building drum solo at the climax of “On My Knees”, which whipped the audience into elation.  Dave Kelly and Paul Jones have woven a fine golden thread through the British blues scene for many years, lugging their pared down performances from gig to gig with great dignity and warmth.  The duo, who would later perform at the festival as part of The Blues Band, entertained the afternoon crowd with a set of songs that showcased Kelly’s deft fingerpicking and Jones’s spirited vocals.  It was in Paul’s stupefying harmonica blasts, however, that there was a sense of mass leaning-in amongst the engaged crowd, especially in “Noah Lewis Blues”, a song about the fate of Paul’s favourite early blues harmonica player.  “My name is Popa Chubby, what’s your name?” was the warm way in which American musician Popa Chubby addressed his audience before blowing the place to pieces with his raw brand of hard blues.  With songs such as “Working Class Blues” and John Mayall’s “Looking Back”, this uncompromising bluesman, big in both stature and voice, led his band through a set of balls-to-the-wall blues with an easy-going magnetism throughout.  There’s an attractive honesty to Zoe Green that gave her set on the Introducing Stage a touch of infectious credibility.  “I get through them fast” the Birmingham-based singer admitted, letting on that many of the self-penned blues songs were inspired by a long line of ex-boyfriends.  Going to the Grave was one of the love-gone-bad songs that made Green’s set of sensual blues seductive from the get-go.  The Lol Goodman Band are a tour-de-force when it comes to power balladry and their Skeggy set was a highlight for those of us who like their blues meaty and smothered in molten Hammond organ.  Despite their expansive and energetic style throughout, it was, perhaps, the slower and sincere “I Live My Life with the Blues”, released recently as a single that caught the band at their very best.  The same could be said for the highly entertaining Greg Coulson, whose engaging set won him and his band a place on one of the main stages next year, the other two places claimed by the Tom Walker Trio on Friday and Southbound on Saturday.  The Bristol-based vocalist Elles Bailey is one of those singers that possesses a vocal quality that is somewhat difficult to describe.  Few vocalists present such a hard task for a reviewer, but the attractive rasp in Bailey’s voice, coupled with her spirited stage presence, made for a very beguiling concert indeed. Backed by a tight band, Elles delivered a performance which demanded close listening, especially with such songs as the atmospheric “Wildfires” and the gospel-infused Perfect Storm which was inspired by a visit to Muscle Shoals where, so Elles says, “music is colour-blind”.  This young artist’s material, garnered from her EPs Who am I to Me and The Elberton Sessions, shows enormous potential and there was a feeling, throughout, that we were witnessing the first flickering of a long and fruitful career.  Laurence Jones and his band have all the frenetic energy you’d expect from a group so deeply entrenched in their music.  Laurence is a masterful guitarist and passionate vocalist, not to mention a proficient crafter of impassioned lyrics and daring riffs.  “Stop Moving the House”, inspired by a friend’s experience with the effects of alcohol, was one of the highlights of Laurence’s 2015 album What’s it Gonna Be and went down a storm at this year’s festival as did the album’s title track which provided a thumping conclusion to a slick and confident show.  But it was perhaps the song Evil, complete with Jones’s scratchy guitar and a blustery organ from Bennett Holland, that made the biggest impact.  This was all in stark contrast to David Knopfler who once again could hardly be heard due to his insistence of playing not at eleven, but at minus eleven, just as he did at the Great British Folk Festival in December.  If Laurence Jones successfully made a noise on the Centre Stage on Sunday night, then his namesake Paul Jones and the rest of the Blues Band worked up the audience on the Reds stage, blowing some fine harp once again, that stage culminating in a closing performance by Jamie Williams and the Roots Collective.  But the grand finale of the Great British Rock and Blues Festival belonged to the Centre Stage with two outstanding performances.  One of the most alluringly smoky voices in contemporary blues filled this stage on Sunday evening as Joanne Shaw Taylor and her band stormed through a set of blues rock juggernauts and spine-tingling ballads.  Hot off the success of her top 20 album Wild, Joanne confidently planted her flag as one of our most treasured blues talents with performances of album highlights such as “Nothin’ to Lose”, “Dyin’ to Know” and the dreamy “Wild is the Wind” which Joanne dedicated to David Bowie.  It wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn that this sizzling guitarist was born with a Gibson around her neck. Indeed, the music and, more specifically, the heart-draining guitar riffs seem to be a deep and essential part of this young artist’s very self.  The song “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” has surely entered the same realm as “Yesterday”, “Over the Rainbow” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, its climbing acoustic guitar intro being instantly recognisable to anyone with a pair of ears.  And so it was a moment of thorough nourishment to see the song’s composer, Steve Harley stride out on stage for a crowd-pleasing set of familiar melodies.  And it wasn’t just the song that earns him a comfortable pension that made us smile.  Indeed, “All in a Life’s Work”, “Judy Teen”, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Mr Soft” each made welcome appearances, thanks to a voice which hasn’t altered in over forty years.  That being said, there was something incredibly tender and sweetly melancholy about Harley’s performance, especially during moments when he mentioned the pride of being a grandfather and how deeply the recent death of his hero Leonard Cohen affected him.  And after almost an hour, just when we thought we’d heard it all, this much loved and highly respected singer songwriter and his band gave an impassioned performance of the wonderful “Sebastian” before sending us home on that aforementioned, familiar hit.

Coven | The Greystones, Sheffield | 02.03.17

You get a certain sense of place whenever you attend a gig at the Greystones, home to fine music for literally decades and wearing its Sheffieldness very definitely upon its sleeve.  Male dominated black and white portraits proudly hang from the walls in the bar; Michael Palin, Paul Carrack, Richard Hawley and Cockers Jarvis and Joe respectively, spokespersons for entirely different generations, each keeping an eye on their beloved Steel City.  The long queue had already reached the far end of the bar by the time I arrived at the venue, a queue made up predominantly of women of a wide demographic and rightly so.  Three years ago, the three acts collectively known as Coven – O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie – gravitated towards one another specifically to celebrate International Women’s Day, so it’s perfectly natural to find women forming the majority of the audience tonight.  In the queue, the hugs were liberally shared as friends gathered for the second of two consecutive sold-out shows, repeating the success of the previous year’s two-night run at The Greystones.  Once everyone had taken their seats, the house lights dimmed and the six women took to the Backroom stage for the second time in just 24 hours and received some rapturous applause.  By all accounts the previous night was relatively subdued, albeit with an attentive audience presumably keen to hear every single syllable of every single word in every single song, but tonight there was a sense of joy and excited anticipation as Grace Petrie picked up her guitar and took centre stage for the first of three solo songs.  Part self-proclaimed feminist lesbian protest singer, part folksy Artful Dodger, with a clear desire to pick your brains rather than to ‘pick a pocket or two’, Grace sees things and that’s for sure.  What’s more, she can’t wait to tell you precisely what she sees.  Pleading with the audience to ‘stop the clocks and open up your ears’, “Emily Davison Blues” provided the evening with the proverbial raised bar, which gave the remainder of the evening a lot to live up to.  If Grace’s self-depreciating wit is very much evident in “Nobody Knows That I’m a Fraud”, then her gentle humour is furthermore present and correct in the delightfully poetic “Ivy”, the touching story of the imminent arrival of her own niece, suspending her own birth until after Dolly Parton’s celebrated Glastonbury set!  It’s a hoot of an idea.  From an excellent solo performance we next turn to the force that is O’Hooley and Tidow, whose anthemic “Made in England”, set out its agenda from the start; a bold conversation on the ease in which bigotry tends to hang around our society quite unwelcomed, certainly not welcomed by those at the Greystones tonight.  The communal punching of the air on the final note could not have been more poignant.  The “we love you” call from the audience confirmed that they were on Belinda and Heidi’s side from the start.  The duo continued with a couple of other songs from their current album Shadows, the gentle “Blanket”, which showcases Belinda and Heidi’s unique vocal blend and “The Pixie”, a lovely tale about Daisy Dakin, one of our early female Morris dancers.  An engaging soloist, followed by a much revered duo, the only place to turn at this point in the show would be to the trio consisting of Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew, otherwise known as Lady Maisery who introduced some of their classy arrangements to the party, together with some nimble footwork courtesy of Hannah, opening their portion of the first set with “Portland Town”, followed by “Diggers Song” and finally Hazel’s “Order and Chaos”, all of which were cheerfully welcomed by the audience.  Closing the first set, the collective colluded on “Bread and Roses”, the first song of the night from Coven’s brand new EP Unholy Choir, a taste of what would follow in the second set.  The second set looked more closely at the songs from Coven’s initial release, but not before Lady Maisery’s reading of Richard Farina’s “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”, learned from the singing of Sandy Denny, which in turn introduced Rowan’s highly effectual banjo/sitar, a now familiar part of the singer’s musical armoury.  This together with Hannah’s hand claps and Hazel’s harp arpeggios, gave the song a trance-like ethereal feel.  After the trio’s reading of Sidney Carter’s “The Crow on the Cradle”, the six women turned to the enduring influence of the one and only Kate Bush, with “This Woman’s Work”, a vocal workout led by Hannah James and culminating in some of the most uplifting harmonies of the evening.  Other highlights of tonight’s extraordinary performance included Grace’s humdinger of an anthem “If There’s a Fire in Your Heart” with the infectious refrain ‘it only needs to be a candle’ and Belinda and Heidi’s Beryl, complete with Heidi’s hilarious mime of Beryl on her bike with Rowan, one of the ‘Bezzarettes’ offering the occasion ringing of a cyclist’s bell.  Towards the end of the show, the Collective performed “Coil and Spring”, the startlingly honest opening song on the EP, that tackles further bigotry in organised religion, originally heard on O’Hooley and Tidow’s 2014 album The Hum.  There was a lot of love at the Greystones tonight, a tangible force created by open minded individuals and a space free from the distractions of the almost unrecognisable world outside.  If songs can heal then the Backroom tonight became a sanctuary for the battle-scarred.  As the final notes of “Coil and Spring” faded and the six women took their bows, the audience lifted the roof with their appreciation.  After some foot-stomping demands for more, the women returned for their deserved encore, choosing the late Maggie Roche’s sensitive “Quitting Time” as a suitable closer, followed by an entirely acoustic “Never Turning Back”, with each of the six women standing shoulder to shoulder, heads aloft, facing their audience and rounding off not one, but two highly successful and thoroughly rewarding evenings at The Greystones.

Moonbeams March Weekend 2017 | The Bell Hotel, Driffield | 04.03.17

Driffield was a little on the soggy side by the time the rush hour traffic subsided ready for the Moonbeams March Weekend to commence.  Singer-songwriter and musician Kaia Kater, a late addition to this year’s line-up, strolled through the Bell Hotel lobby, banjo case in hand as people arrived from all around undeterred by the weather.  Spirits were high despite the rain and the Wold Top beer began to flow as coats dried on the backs of chairs.  The Town Hall was aglow with tall candles as Kaia wandered around the stage, tuning her banjo strings and getting a feel for the place.  Prior to MC Andy Atkinson’s fine introduction, Kaia could be seen sitting side stage, plucking her banjo, relaxed and ready to go; the place had that sort of relaxed feel from the start.  The Canadian has been recently touring with Kris Drever, who played his own first set simultaneously on the Maple Room stage and it seemed something of a no-brainer to have her along for the ride, as she introduced most of the audience to such songs as “Southern Girl”, “Little Pink”, “Paradise Fell” and “Saint Elizabeth” for the first time.  This was the very start of this year’s annual Moonbeams March Weekend, sometimes referred to as the Moonbeams Winter Gathering, which has been running for a good few years now.  By Saturday night, Moonbeams organiser Leila Cooper astonished the audience whilst delivering her thank yous on the main stage by announcing that this would be the very last winter gathering.  Anyone who knows Leila will be aware of the level of commitment and dedication she has shown over the years and will probably be aware of the different roles she plays as a festival organiser and artist’s agent and now that she is a proud grandparent, everyone will undoubtedly understand her decision to call this aspect of her multitude of tasks to a halt.  Friday night’s concerts alone would mark the end of this particular era in style as the new three-piece experimental acoustic roots band Stillhouse took to the stage to showcase a handful of songs destined for their debut EP release next month.  With the now familiar Moonbeams logo forming the backdrop to the Town Hall stage, the young band dazzled the audience with their fine arrangements on guitar, double bass and notable Polly Bolton’s infectious mandolin playing.  Opening their set with a Strokes song, “Heart in a Cage”, the trio played an all too short set, leaving the audience calling for more, whilst the Maple Room hosted performances by festival regulars Andy Stones and Edwina Hayes.  Kris Drever has been a Moonbeams favourite since the start and this weekend he made his fourth appearance at the festival, once again bringing a touch of class to proceedings.  Familiar songs such as “The Call and the Answer” and “Harvest Gypsies”, mixed with newer material like the tender “When We Roll in the Morning” and the title song from his latest release “If Wishes Were Horses”.  Having played two sets, Kris would demonstrate his agility by joining in the late night session long after The Nick Rooke Band had finished their Friday night closing set, joining Driffield locals including singer-songwriter Edwina Hayes amongst others.  Saturday morning came as a shock to most of those who braved the five-hour late night session in the bar, preferring the light to go away and the head to stop throbbing, whilst others wandered up and down Market Place, nipping in and out of the charity shops or taking advantage of The Bell Hotel’s breakfast facilities.  The East Riding Dialect Society presented some poetry readings, each demonstrating the vibrant use of language, specific to these parts.  This was probably the most relaxed hour of the weekend, which also gave an indication that regional tongues are very much alive and well, not just here in Driffield, but throughout the country.  Gathering themselves around a single microphone, Pete and Polly Bolton brought a taste of old time music to the weekend, drawing from Pete’s encyclopaedic knowledge of American folk song including the traditional “The Cuckoo” as well as one or two contemporary songs from the pens of Bob Dylan “Blind Willie McTell”, Steve Earle “My Old Friend the Blues” and Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927”.  Singing together for practically a lifetime (Polly’s), this father and daughter team demonstrated their musical empathy, a match made from flesh and blood.  The Sam Kelly Trio travelled up from Penzance on Friday night for their afternoon set, with Sam pointing out that the trek was all the more gruelling having already been in Yorkshire just the day before.  No matter, the young trio performed a couple of sets throughout Saturday and were still on form at midnight, when they joined the late night session.  Joined by Jamie Francis on banjo and Evan Carson on percussion, Sam performed a thoroughly enjoyable set on the main stage, once again confirming his credentials as a deserved recipient of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards prestigious Horizon Award last year.  Bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening finale concerts, session musicians of all ages gathered in the bar to partake in a ‘sore fingers’ extravaganza, featuring such musicians as Pete and Polly Bolton, Stew Tindale, John Yeaman and Brian Swinton as well as a couple of very young performers on mandolin and ukulele respectively.  Meanwhile craft workshops were taking place between the main bar and the Town Hall, courtesy of Wom-Bling Arts, where tote bag and shopper bags were being crafted on old hand wound sewing machines.  Plenty to keep everyone occupied between concerts.  Saturday night started pretty much where the afternoon concert left off with the second appearance of the day by Richard Digance, who closed the afternoon concert in the Town Hall and then opened the evening concert once again in the Maple Room.  The popular entertainer and festival favourite provided a set littered with nostalgic references, easily recognisable to people of a certain age, from John Lennon singing “Twist and Shout” to snake belts, Lady Penelope and various assorted confectionery items.  Some of those items were delivered to him by hand as he stood there on stage, which seemed to throw him momentarily.  Rarely has Richard Digance been lost for words on stage as he placed the items in the sound hole of his guitar “for later”.  Saxophone legend Snake Davis also switched stages by evening time, on this occasion opening the Town Hall concert after word had spread around about just how good his afternoon set had been, when he shared the stage with one of our finest jazz singers, Helen Watson.  Sharing some fine musical memories with the singer, who accompanied herself on guitar, Davis was on fine form as an accompanist on a range of instruments from the saxophone family as well as flute on such songs as “Mystery Train”, “Is That All There Is?” and an astonishing reading of the old Jimi Hendrix classic “The Wind Cries Mary”.  Former Seahorses front man Chris Helme played a relatively laid back set by mid-evening, performing such familiar fare as The Seahorses’ “Blinded by the Sun”, The Faces’ “Ooh La La” and The Doors’ “Five to One” featuring the epic line ‘No One Gets Out of Here Alive’ dedicated to ‘The Orange One’, as well as a couple of more recent songs destined for his forthcoming album, “Sailing Home” and “Closer Now”, which Chris dedicated to his mum who was sitting in the audience. Balancing his set to appeal to most of the audience, whilst delivering some of the finest vocal performances of the weekend, Chris was urged by MC Andy Atkinson to do just the one request, a song that the festival is named after, “Moonbeams”, which he was only too pleased to do.  After Edwina Hayes’ final performance on the Maple Room stage, overseen by MC Martin Peirson with sound courtesy of Wee Dog Sound’s Ani McNeice, everyone congregated as one big family under the Town Hall roof for the final set of the weekend, which was left in the more than capable hands of the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, whose members were on their usual fine form.  Although Leila’s revelation prior to this final concert set was delivered with a tinge of sadness as she thanked one and all for their help, assistance and continued enthusiasm, the weekend actually ended on a much more cheerful note as news of other forthcoming Moonbeams events were announced, not least the main summer gathering up on the Wolds in July, which this year features such acts as Seth Lakeman, Skippinish, Hope and Social, Holy Moly and the Crackers and many more. Earlier in the evening, Richard Digance articulated precisely why Moonbeams works so well, and that coming from a well-seasoned festival performer, when he said that “Moonbeams is all about friendship”, and this really is what we can all take from it, time and time again, whether that’s in the summer, the winter or spread across the seasons.

Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 26.03.17

When Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough planned their current UK tour I was slightly disappointed that their dates didn’t include any gigs in the Yorkshire area, yet just as I was considering venturing far and wide to see the duo, it came as an unexpected surprise when I discovered that my old mate Hedley Jones was going to be the duo’s UK tour manager and that he was considering staging a house concert at his place on Mothering Sunday.  The Nashville-based duo have been working together since the Rose of Jericho days, back in 2011, when Will, a noted and well-respected musician, became an important part of Brigitte’s music.  It’s only recently though that the two have begun worked closely on their joint song writing, which has proved highly successful on Brigitte’s last album Savannah Road and the duo’s first album in both names Mockingbird Soul.  Moving the clocks on for British Summertime ensured a little more light as Wheelhouse regulars gathered at the bottom of the garden for what promised to be a memorable night.  During his introduction, Hedley calculated that this would be the 100th house concert and would possibly be one of the best so far, having already witnessed what Brigitte and Will are capable of at the duo’s first two shows.  Starting with “Everything”, the album opener, the duo demonstrated from the start the rich quality of their harmony singing, both voices seemingly made for one another; they refer to it ‘acoustic soul music’, which pretty much sums it up.  Throughout their opening set, the duo focused on the new album continuing with “Broken Fences”, utilising the DADGAD tuning “for you Yorkshire Folkies”.  The ‘love bunker’ proved to be a relaxing space for the duo, who both found their stride almost immediately as well as their easy-going interaction with their close-up and personal audience.  Thanking Hedley for raising the American flag outside the cabin, Brigitte felt she also should apologise for recent events in her homeland’s history, with Will’s tongue-in-cheek promise to “burn it later”.  Dedicating “Running Around” to Taj Mahal, the duo launched into some ferocious finger-picking with this bluesy ragtime number, which was swiftly followed by “Honey Bee”, a delightfully sprightly ragtime number, demonstrating the duo’s mutual love of early blues and jazz recordings by the likes of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.  Brigitte went on to claim that her husband liked her singing that particular song, to which Will quipped “do you have a little outfit?”  Towards the end of the first set the duo’s surprise inclusion of Robin Williamson’s “October Song”, brought a sense of immediate recognition and was a most welcomed song in the set.  The performance, which included the now familiar Incredible String Band-like guitar introduction, which for me, could have gone on for much longer, demonstrated the duo’s flair for arrangement.  After a short break, which included once again some fine culinary delights courtesy of Lynne Jones up on the decking, the duo continued with their second set, this time focusing on some of the songs from their own respective solo back catalogues.  The Mardi Gras influenced “Wash and Fold”, with its Bo Diddley groove was dedicated to Lowell George, much to the approval of Dave Burland, who was sitting right there on the front row, with a further dedication to the late Allen Toussaint.  Other name check references during the set were that of Lightnin’ Hopkins, with Will demonstrating the flatted fifth on “Three Angels”, apparently the Devil’s chord, and JJ Cale, the influence behind the opening riff of “Mud Bottom”, featuring some fine bottleneck playing by Will, which in effect transported the little cabin in Wombwell to the deep south of Alabama.  “It gets too hot before morning time” said the lyric and the sweat had already begun to form on Will’s brow.  “Worker”, the first song Brigitte and Will collaborated on from the Savannah Road period, evokes the days of slavery in the southern cotton fields of Alabama, which was performed with delicate precision, whilst Will’s “I Can Hear Your Voice”, a moving song about his own ailing father, brought on all the emotions that go with the subject of dementia.  Lifting the spirits, “I Don’t Like It”, was played in tribute to the late Chuck Berry, which on this occasion was slightly modified to incorporate some of Berry’s familiar riffs.  Finishing with a couple of Hank Williams songs, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “You Win Again”, the duo returned for a final song, with Will de-tuning his guitar to that of a double bass for an improvised take on “Rainy Day”.  So there we go, 100 house concerts at this cosy little South Yorkshire acoustic music venue and one that we shall all remember for a long time.  Great songs, great people and an outstanding performance.  

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker | The Basement Bar, York | 19.04.17

It seems quite a while ago since I last attended a gig at the Basement Bar in York, in fact it probably is.  The bar, situated beneath one of the city’s most popular cinema theatres, has a cavernous feel about it, with its blacked-out decor and basic and sparse layout.  The strips of yellow/black hazard warning tape have now disappeared from the stage area giving it a much less dangerous feel.  By the time I arrived, taking a slurp of coffee in the upstairs bar before descending the staircase, Flora the support act was at least one song into her set.  Having seen Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker on numerous occasions and in varying types of venue, it’s difficult to ascertain precisely what an ideal space is for this duo to play.  Outdoor festivals, indoor church halls, Cecil Sharp House or a Bedouin tent in Cambridge, each seem to be suitable in their own way.  The basement of a York cinema is as good a place as any as long as there’s a sound tech with a good ear for acoustic music and an audience prepared to be quiet through each song.  This was pretty much the score tonight, marred only by the clumsy bar staff who clattered away as if in a primary school canteen.  Starting with “The Birds”, one of the duo’s regular openers from an earlier period in the duo’s career, Josienne’s confident vocal together with Ben’s empathetic guitar playing immediately set the mood for the next couple of hours.  Once the opener was out of the way, the duo were quick to start on the material from their current album Overnight, with “Something Familiar”, a gentle and reflective song, which also accompanies a beautifully shot promo video now available online.  One of the most notable aspects of the duo’s stage craft is that Ben remains quiet throughout, whilst Josienne handles all the introductions in her own sardonic manner, with touches of humour and the occasional confrontational expletive, just in case there are any old guard folkies in the audience, who prefer pretty floral dresses and their girls to behave themselves.  Josienne is not likely to conform to any of that any time soon.  Josienne’s humour plays a big part in the duo’s performances yet despite this, the singer claims that the humour is based around just one joke, and that one joke is based on how miserable these songs are.  This is clearly untrue as her quick witted ad libs and jokey asides testify, for instance when the guy in an American football shirt got up to go to the bar after she announced that Ben was about to introduce a drum machine.  “Oh the drum machine’s a step too far? Okay, fair enough… I assumed it would be somebody older than you… he likes his music acoustic, he likes his sport hard..!”  Priceless.  Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind” demonstrates perfectly the borders Josienne and Ben’s music crosses.  Whether it’s contemporary Americana or traditional English ballads, or for that matter the classical music of Elgar, the duo take fair command of each style and make it their own.  “Banks of the Sweet Primroses” could not be more beautifully rendered, a song chosen by the duo when they appeared before thousands at the BBC Folk Awards in Cardiff a couple of years ago.  Other highlights of tonight’s show included Josienne’s “Silverline” and “The Tangled Tree”, both of which rub shoulders well with Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay” and Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me”.  I suppose the most surprising moment of the set came towards the end when Ben sat an electric bass over his knee, switched on the aforementioned drum machine, whilst Josienne struck a striking Sonny Rollins pose and played tenor sax.  If I’d strayed into this basement unaware of what was happening, I swear it would have been one of those David Lynch dream sequence moments, and should a little man come dancing by talking backwards, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.  Concluding the set with Jackson C Frank’s tender “Milk and Honey”, the duo were persuaded by much applause to return for one final encore, which on this occasion just happened to be Nina Simone’s beautiful 1959 jazz ballad “For All We Know”.  A fine way to end a fine night indeed.

Al Stewart | Sheffield City Hall | 26.04.17

When I first saw the notices for Al Stewart’s latest tour, Back to the Bedsit, I made the assumption that the Scots-born singer-songwriter would be revisiting his debut 1967 LP Bedsitter Images in full, or if not in full, then perhaps at least half of the material from it would be included.  Driving down the M18 tonight I was clearly excited at the prospect of this and began to ponder how three musicians, however well prepared, would tackle some of those complex arrangements that made the album so memorable.  Well, it’s happened before and I’m sure it will happen again, I got it all fantastically wrong and tonight the album was represented by only two songs, “Bedsitter Images” and “Clifton in the Rain”.  If any album from Stewart’s back catalogue was being celebrated tonight, it was probably the 1976 LP Year of the Cat, which was remembered by the inclusion of no less than seven songs; after all it was Al Stewart’s best selling album to date.  Another assumption I made (there’s a pattern developing here), although in all fairness I could swear I saw it advertised as such, was that the concert was to actually take place in the Ballroom deep beneath the City Hall complex and not the assumed Memorial Hall tucked away at the back of the main hall, which has the feel of a stuffy lecture theatre rather than a concert hall.  So on that score, I was pretty relieved.  Spacious and grand, the Ballroom’s seating area, flanked by several large imposing pillars, soon filled to capacity as Dave Nachmanoff took to the stage to open the show.  Nachmanoff, the diminutive singer-songwriter originally from North Virginia, now based in California, gave himself a grand introduction “Ladies and gentlemen, from Davis, California, please welcome Dr Dave Nachmanoff” before launching into the first of three solo songs, “I’m Just Not That Guy”.  Nachmanoff’s short set served as a warm-up for the main event, as the singer enthusiastically urged the audience to think of tonight as a Saturday night rather than the midweek.  The songwriter continued by recalling the day he met Elizabeth Cotton at the age of ten in his song “Kindred Spirits”, with its finger-picked “Freight Train” coda, before finishing his solo spot with another self-penned song “Fragile Thing”.  With equal enthusiasm to his own introduction, Nachmanoff introduced his long standing friend, whereupon Al Stewart took his rightful position centre stage.  The stage set was sparsely decorated with a plain black backdrop, which emphasised further the whiteness of Stewart’s already spotless open-collared shirt. Fresh from his appearance at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where he picked up one of the two Lifetime Achievement Awards (the other one going to Ry Cooder), Al seemed relaxed and fairly casual about his return to the Sheffield venue.  Rather than the folk/rock troubadour of yore, the 71 year-old Stewart looked for all intents and purposes like he might have just popped out from a corporate boardroom to cool off, before going back into the meeting to make some important decisions.  Close your eyes though and the sound of the 20 year-old folk troubadour returned as if those years hadn’t passed.  Opening with “House of Clocks”, a comparatively recent song, the voice was immediately recognisable as the man who gave us some of the most memorable songs of the bedsit era.  Accompanied by some of Nachmanoff more frantic Spanish guitar fills, Stewart strummed through one fine song after the other, including “Bedsitter Images” and “In Brooklyn”, from the Love Chronicles album.  Between the songs, Stewart regaled the audience with anecdotal stories, casually dropping such names as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who he once roadied for whilst lost in New York City, together with Marvin Prestwyck, the assumed name of Richard Thompson, who appeared with the rest of Fairport Convention, again on the Love Chronicles album.  With no less than nineteen studio albums under his belt, Stewart’s broad repertoire was kept pretty much to the earlier days, hence the Back to the Bedsit reference.  It was Al himself who introduced to the stage his old buddy and second guest guitarist of the evening, Tim Renwick, as the man behind many of the albums in the early days and also the guitarist from the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, whose instantly recognisable guitar style brought back memories of those early days.  With three songs from the Year of the Cat period on the bounce, “Flying Sorcery”, “Sand in Your Shoes” and “On The Border”, Stewart concluded the first set with the title song from his 1978 album Time Passages, comparing the opening few bars of the song to The Who’s “Substitute”.  The second set began with more solo songs courtesy of Dave Nachmanoff, including “Midnight Sea”, “All Too Human” and finally “Temptation”, before Stewart returned with the folksy “Clifton in the Rain”, one of the most charming songs from the Bedsitter era, whilst citing Bert Jansch as a major influence at the time in his introduction.  The brief “Small Fruit Song” was tagged on to the end almost as a coda, which featured some fine guitar accompaniment courtesy of Nachmanoff.  More Year of the Cat songs were to follow one after the other, “One Stage Before”, “Midas Shadow” and “Broadway Hotel”, a romantic song which saw Stewart inviting the audience to get up close and personal for the duration, before delighting this particular reviewer at least with a reading of “Old Admirals” from his Past, Present and Future set.  Bravely tackling the twenty words per second “Soho (Needless to Say)”, Stewart ventured into uneasy territory yet pulled it off relatively easily with the aid of Nachmanoff, who was there with a safety net should he need it.  Stewart returned one final time to his platinum album Year of the Cat with the title song, the only number tonight to receive an applause during the intro.  It was also slightly surprising to hear a couple of improvised snippets of “Hall of the Mountain King” and Syd Barrett’s iconic “Interstellar Overdrive” included in the songs’ coda.  Al reminded the audience that his guitarist once toured with that particular band glancing over at Renwick and pointing out that “he’s still got the Pink Floyd tour bag”.  After thunderous applause and heavily applied stomping feet, the three musicians returned to deliver the one final encore song, “Carol” from the Modern Times period, which “gives the guitar players the chance of a bit of a workout”.  Despite arriving at the venue fully expecting a return to Bedsitter Images, I left satisfied that I had joined and taken part in a fully realised wander down Memory Lane, packed with memorable and timeless songs from one of the noted legends of our time.

Bob Dylan | Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham | 05.05.17

It’s been a good while since I last attended an arena gig, preferring much smaller venues which appear to be better suited to music.  These days if you want to see your heroes and idols, then the crush of an arena is quite possibly your only real option.  I shouldn’t really complain about the fact that there was no steady gradient down to the stage, it clearly stated on the ticket that the stalls were spread out over a flat level surface, it’s an ice skating rink after all, but the cramped conditions, including the rows of chairs that made an allowance for bums, torsos and heads but not arms or legs, left a lot to be desired.  Moans and groans aside, both the sound and the lighting were excellent and at just under two hours, the length of the concert was just about right for this event.  The other thing about arena gigs is that you tend to make a weekend of it rather than just treat it as a flying visit.  You tend to buy the programme, t shirt and the kitchen sink as well.  Bob Dylan happens to be one of those iconic figures in popular music who will always draw a crowd even if that crowd would actually prefer to see him to do something else, like talk for instance, or play the guitar, neither of which he did tonight.  Bob is predictably unpredictable and you never know what you’re going to get.  Yet seeing Dylan do precisely what he wants to do, is really all we can expect.  Later, after the show, a busker from Prague stood outside the arena and proceeded to entertain the crowds as they left the arena with a list of familiar Dylan songs performed in the way they were originally intended, same words and the same melodies.  One or two observers were overheard to say “this is better than what we’ve just heard”, which of course is nonsense.  What we witnessed earlier was an artist going about his business, performing songs from a repertoire that traverses almost 60 years, revisiting, re-imagining and rejuvenating the songs to reflect a 76 year-old’s perspective on a life’s work.  If Dylan were to perform the songs the way he did in 1966, it would have been only slightly better than a tribute act.  Smartly dressed and donning a white Telescope hat with a black band, Dylan emerged onstage after a short strummed guitar piece and launched into the opening song “Things Have Changed”.  The autumnal backdrop, lit by seven huge supertrouper spotlights, gave the impression that presentation was more important than Dylan actually lets on.  It’s all about presentation, even down to the attitude, the sneer, the Oscar on stage with him.  The audience was treated to the interchangeable second song, “To Ramona”, which on other occasions on this tour might have been “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”.  It could also have been mistaken for “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, with its familiar lilting guitar intro.  Bob Dylan had two stage positions tonight, which he would alternate between throughout the show, three if you count both standing and sitting at the piano.  The other position would be to the left of the stage, standing upright utilising a rather stilted Rod Stewart-style microphone stand manoeuvre, which at one point became slightly more animated, almost rock and roll if you will.  This is where much of the crooning would occur on such songs as “Melancholy Mood”, “Stormy Weather”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Autumn Leaves”, if you like that sort of thing.  “Highway 61 Revisited” however saw Dylan return to form with a belter of a delivery, with a band that seemed as together as possible, featuring in no particular order, Tony Garnier on both electric and upright bass, Donnie Herron on pedal steel and violin, Stu Kimball on electric and acoustic guitar, George Recili on drums and Charlie Sexton on lead guitar.  For those in the audience wishing for something of the old Dylan, they need look no further than the mid-set appearance of “Tangled Up in Blue”, which on this occasion was not so much slowed down as re-paced, allowing for spaces between the lines of the verses, which was achieved whilst losing none of the song’s power.  “Desolation Row” was also selected for an airing, which was also well received by the fans.  Although such old songs made a welcome appearance in the set, the more recent songs left the greatest impression, the songs that appear somewhere between the Great Bob Dylan Songbook and the Great American Songbook, “Pay in Blood”, “Love Sick” and “Duquesne Whistle”, for instance, each of which demonstrated Dylan’s continued affiliation with the art of songwriting, despite abandoning it over the last three album releases in favour of Sinatra-type covers.  Dylan refrained from any verbal connection with the audience other than through the songs of course and seldom exchanged anything other than a nod or a wink with members of his band, who were equally as restrained throughout the two-hour set.  I imagined a furrowed brow beneath the brim of his fedora, which incidentally was rarely removed during the concert, perhaps once or twice in order to run his fingers through his enduring wiry locks and then more permanently during the final bow at the end of the night.  When I say bow, I mean to say that he and his band members gathered at the front of the stage and remaining upright and just peered out at the audience as if they were witnessing the funeral service of a ruthless dictator; stiff, impersonal, non-committal, yet fully expected.  After finishing with the song that Dylan’s career was founded upon, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, revised from five decades past and cleverly disguised as a slow country crooner, the band left the stage for a fair period of time, accompanied by sustained applause, Dylan and his band eventually returning for the final song, a rather faithful reading of the ever powerful and sneering “Ballad of a Thin Man”, which served as a perfect finisher on this occasion.

The Unthanks – How the Wild Wind Blows | City Varieties, Leeds | 11.05.17

This evening the city of Leeds was enjoying that all too familiar period which follows the fading of a sunny springtime afternoon, where those heading out for the evening – some bound for the local arena to see Iron Maiden – dodged and wavered around others heading home from work.  A musician played his lonely tune on a blue violin outside the Louis Vuitton store on Briggate, a sound that jarred with The Supremes’ “Love Child” filtering out from the Starbucks house system across the road.  The familiar arched sign of the City Varieties Music Hall straddled the narrow street as the sold out venue greeted the first arrivals for the opening night of the band’s two consecutive shows.  As always, the atmosphere before the show was filled with anticipation, assisted in no small part by the quaint stage set, which took on the mantle of an English country drawing room, complete with seven standard lamps, four table lamps a couple of wicker garden chairs and a few vases of flowers mingling with decanters of water (or could that be gin?) as the spirit of Molly Drake loomed in the ether.  I think we’re all agreed that our fascination with the songs and poems of Nick Drake’s mum started after Joe Boyd passed around a dusty old cassette tape of Molly singing a selection of her own ‘Noel Cowardish’ compositions, specifically “Love Isn’t a Right”, sharing his astonishment at just how similar the two voices sounded.  Once seen, it’s difficult to erase the expressions upon the faces of those who heard Molly’s voice for the first time, their reactions filmed for the 1999 documentary A Stranger Among Us.  It seems likely that Adrian McNally and the two Unthank siblings may have seen this film and had also been taken by the singer’s delicate songs and fragile delivery as were the rest of us.  However, it was with Molly’s posthumous self-titled album release that really caught their imagination.  Made up of songs that were never intended to be heard outside the family home, the album prompted the idea of basing the fourth instalment of The Unthanks’ ‘Diversions’ series around some of this extraordinary material.  Added to this came the grand idea of asking Nick Drake’s actress sister Gabrielle to read some of their mum’s poetry for the album, which was nothing short of inspired.  Listening to the new arrangements of these old songs alongside the originals, which were first recorded by Molly’s husband at their home in the 1950s, shows an enormous level of artistic respect and musical appreciation, something that was also apparent in the band’s previous themed projects, The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, The Unthanks with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band and the most recent Songs from the Shipyards.  There’s an innocence ingrained within these songs which seems to have been passed through the family genes, to her ill-fated son and now through to The Unthanks, who by their closeness to the material and their newfound links with the Drake family and estate, have managed to bring the essence of the work to life once again; songs that are now reaching a new audience altogether.  One cannot help but wonder what Molly – or for that matter Nick – might have thought of all this, a question that no doubt ran through the mind of Adrian McNally when he was arranging the music, a picture of Molly propped upon his piano in the studio throughout the recording process.  What we do know, is that the family survivor Gabrielle not only gave her blessing to the project but also read the poetry herself with all the confidence and composure of the actor that she is.  The show was divided into two parts tonight, How the Wind Blows part I and part II and featured the five core members of The Unthanks, Adrian McNally, Rachel and Becky Unthank, Niopha Keegan and Chris Price with the addition of Leeds musician Faye MacCalman, recruited due to the fact that the clarinet was Molly’s favourite instrument and also “to get the average age of band down a bit”.  Attired in contrasting dresses of matching green, both Rachel and Becky were first seated as Molly’s voice filled the hall after some initial words spoken by Gabrielle, then both rose to deliver Molly’s words with conviction, tenderness and empathy.  “What Can a Song Do To You?”, a question the Unthank siblings have probably asked themselves many times throughout their lives, seemed to be the perfect opener.  Twin slides were projected onto the backdrop throughout the show, the audience becoming increasingly aware of who this extraordinary middle-class woman was, a woman born over a hundred years ago in Rangoon, Burma, who just happened to be the mother of Nick Drake, the tortured genius of song who left this world far too early in the mid-1970s.  It wasn’t until after another couple of songs and poems, including “I Remember”, “Woods in May” and the haunting “How Wild the Wind Blows”, that the performers addressed the audience for the first time.  “If you’ve come to see Iron Maiden, you’re in the wrong place” Adrian announced breaking the bleak and melancholic atmosphere at last.  “Bring your daughters to the slaughter Becky” suggested Rachel, teasing her sister who was confused by what her sister and brother-in-law were talking about.  “Happiness” and “Set Me Free” followed the short fun-filled interlude, two songs imbued with Molly’s homely sensibilities from the simple joys of life to the desire to liberate oneself from the chains and trappings of ordinary life.  Gabrielle recited Molly’s powerful words over the instrumental section, which provided us with one of the most poignant moments of the performance.  Utterly beautiful.  “Little Weaver Bird” closed the first half before a short break, a song recently ‘tried out’ at the Unthank’s annual series of singing weekends up in Northumberland, featuring some fine fiddle accompaniment courtesy of Niopha Keegan and led along by Chris Price’s driving double bass.  Off came Adrian’s jacket for the second half of the show, taking his seat once again at the grand piano to perform “The First Day”, which began with some brooding atmospherics, courtesy of Chris’s slide and Faye’s skittering clarinet, giving the composition the feel of a cold and misty morning.  In response to Nick Drake’s soulful “Poor Boy”, Molly wrote “Poor Mum”, which Rachel and Becky sang a cappella, a self-probing song concerning Molly’s own maternal issues.  Throughout the show, a small team co-ordinated the lights, sound effects and touching visuals, for the most part family portraits of Molly through various stages of her life and at the end one or two home movie film clips, portraying ordinary family events.  Dedicating “Do You Ever Remember” to his soon to be 70 father, who was incidentally also in the audience, Adrian seemed slightly more relaxed as the band headed for the home straight.  This is not easy music, despite the melodies and lyrics sounding fairly simple.  Creating the right mood and context takes focus and skill and The Unthanks achieved both tonight.  Such songs as “Soft Shelled Crabs”, “The Road to the Stars” and “Never Pine for the Old Love”, together with the poems “The Shell” and “The Two Worlds”, further exemplified Molly’s mastery of words and melody, all of which the audience greeted in silence.  Performing the one song not composed by Molly Drake, Becky revisited Nick’s song “Riverman”, which originally appeared on Rachel Unthank and the Winterset’s debut album Cruel Sister back in 2005.  Dedicated to a friend who the band recently lost, “Riverman” remains one of the most haunting and ethereal songs in the combined repertoires of both Nick and The Unthanks.  Once again the arrangement called for an unaccompanied first verse, followed by a sparse piano accompanied second verse, before the song opened up like a flower, which was a beautiful inclusion to the second set.  Having appeared in various guises – and numbers – over the years, from including string and brass sections to full-blown brass bands and orchestras, the six-piece version seemed perfectly formed for this particular project.  Finishing with one final Molly Drake song, “Dream Your Dreams”, the notion kind of summed up the band’s ethos, that despite all of the negativity and uncertainty in the world today, we can always dream our dreams.. and it took a woman who none of us ever knew to tell us that.

Shepley Spring Festival 2017 | Shepley Village | 21.05.17

The first thing that comes to mind whenever I return to Shepley is the clear memory of the previous festival, together with lingering memories of festivals prior to that.  Then there’s the steadily fading memory of the village cricket field, the former festival site just over the road from the present one.  This weekend I thought of those things as the festival prepared to celebrate its tenth year, very much noticing also the things that tend not to change as well.  The steady incline up Marsh Lane for instance, leading from the Black Bull pub at the bottom of the hill up to the Festival Village by way of St Paul’s Parish Church and the neighbouring Village Hall, together with the uneven pavement at the corner of the cottage next to the Farmer’s Boy pub, where last year I accidentally stumbled, effectively treating myself to a blue ankle and a limp to go with it – and I hadn’t had a single drop, honest Guv.  Then there’s the ever impressive panoramic views of the verdant meadows of Denby Dale, with their familiar dry stone walls, the tireless work of such stonemasons as the Noble family, whose presence at this festival is just as reliable as the changing spells in the weather.  This is the Shepley Spring Festival and no matter what the weather, the atmosphere can always be relied upon, together with the high standard of music and entertainment for festival goers of all ages.  Although the festival got under way mid-Friday afternoon in the Village Hall, the music apparently began the previous evening with a warm up concert in the festival bar with the Ale Marys, a relatively local band, entertaining a crowd of early arrivals and hard-working festival staff, relaxing after their mammoth task of erecting marquees, stalls and fairground rides in time for the official opening on Friday afternoon.  Those fairground rides stood still, glistening with raindrops as I made my way across the field, enjoying the occasional hug and greeting which were conducted through brightly coloured shiny Kagools.  In fairer weather, there’s usually a buzz going around the festival site by Friday afternoon but this year the drizzle added a sort of melancholy air as early arrivals headed down to the much drier refuge of the Village Hall, just in time for the opening concert.  The concert opened with a few words from Dave Eyre, who presided over proceedings, introducing first of all the North East-based trio Night Fall, whose relaxed set featured some of the songs included on the trio’s debut EP, including “Radcliffe Highway”, “All Amongst the Barley” and “Robin Hood and the Peddler”, each featuring the confident voice of Kate Locksley, previously seen on this stage with her regular a cappella quartet The Tea Cups a few years ago, together with Dave Wood on guitar and Kevin Lees on fiddle.  The vibrant song and dance outfit Stepling followed with their own brand of percussive dance moves, showcasing the nifty footwork of Toby Bennett, whilst the concert prepared for the debut appearance (anywhere) by a band led by the Wiltshire-born, now Sheffield-based singer, Rosie Hood.  Joining Rosie onstage were Ollie King on accordion and banjo, Emma Smith on double bass and Nicola Beazley on fiddle, whose delicate arrangements perfectly supported the traditional songs performed.  It wasn’t the best attended opening Friday on record, which may have had something to do with the soggy weather, but by late afternoon it had cheered up sufficiently for people to mill around the bar area and conduct their annual catch-up.  Rosie and her band concluded the afternoon concert in the Village Hall and then hot-footed it over to the main stage to kick off the evening concert, this time presided over by local folk hero and radio presenter Sam Hindley.  Fourth Moon delighted the audience with an instrumental workout, the band’s concertina maestro Mohsen Amini having played at the festival previously in his other outfit Talisk, this being Fourth Moon’s first appearance in England.  By way of contrast, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow returned to the festival with an engaging set of self-penned songs, interspersed with thier own brand of gentle humour, whilst the Friday evening concert was dominated by the highly innovative Moulettes, who provided an energy-fuelled set of highly original material, fronted by the charismatic Hannah Miller on cello and the equally charismatic singer and guitarist Raevennan Husbandes.  Getting around to see everything at Shepley, as with most outdoor festivals with more than one stage, is nigh on impossible, even with a car, a nosey nature, an access all areas pass and no intention of spending more than ten minutes in the bar.  It was still difficult to see everything, but quite easy to see everything I wanted to see.  Returning to the village on Saturday morning after a good night’s kip, I noticed the sun was shining down on the village from the top of the hillside above Shepley, suitable weather then for morning Café et Gateau in the company of Flossie Malavialle, who fielded questions from the incomparable Dave Eyre.  With sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows of the Church, Flossie talked about her early life in the South of France, her family life, her early musical influences, through to her eventual move to the UK and the pursuit of living a fairly simple life.  Performing the old Lennon McCartney song “Let It Be” in a church at 10.30am on a Saturday morning seemed right somehow.  Closing with Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, Flossie left us all feeling rather refreshed and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon.  As the Horwich Prize Medal and Five Rivers Morris Teams brought some of their respective traditions to the Cliffe House car park, a small group of singers heralded in the afternoon with both traditional and contemporary songs, hosted by the traditional folk trio 3Jays in the Coach House.  Saturday also saw several notable performances on the main stage with both Night Fall and Stepling appearing once again, together with the Teeside-born, now Cambridge-based duo Megson, who played their main stage set, followed by a family show in the bar, aimed at a much younger audience.  By mid-afternoon, a fair crowd had gathered in the pews of the church for festival patron Roy Bailey’s hour-long set, accompanied once again by regular collaborator and good pal, Marc Block.  It has become something of a tradition to find Roy at the Festival during this time slot, where his infectious warmth and humility is always something very much to behold.  As Roy brought his set to a close, a set that included one or two songs for the younger members of the audience, local songwriter Roger Davies opened the afternoon concert in the Village Hall with a selection of self-penned songs on subjects quite familiar to this particular area of the country.  The young Hertfordshire-based singer songwriter Kelly Oliver followed with a short set featuring a handful of her own self-penned songs, concluding with a fine version of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”, reminding me once again to tell people who continue to dislike Dylan, to just listen to “Boots of Spanish Leather” again.  Progressive Bluegrass trio Stillhouse made their festival debut with a fine set of intricate melodies and mature musicianship, featuing Jonny Neaves’ highly personal songs, Polly Bolton’s dexterous mandolin playing and Texan Matthew Mefford’s driving double bass.  Then to conclude, having started the day in church, Flossie Malavialle went on to headline the afternoon concert with a fine set, her song selections interspersed with plenty of her own indiosyncratic humour.  As the sun set on a fine Shepley Saturday evening, the main concert saw the Aldyn Duo kick off with a couple of tunes, followed by Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, whose blend of Norwegian, Swedish and Scots fiddle tunes brought with them some fine Scandinavian musicianship.  Kelly Oliver returned for her second set of the weekend, this time on the main stage, making it look easy, especially for a young solo performer, who sang many of her own songs along with a fine interpretation of the “Lakes of Ponchartrain”.  If only one band is remembered from Shepley 2017 it will probably be East Pointers, a trio of fine young musicians from Prince Edward Island, Canada, featuring banjo player Koady Chaisson, fiddle player Tim Chaisson and guitarist Jake Charron, whose highly charged set effectively made them the sweethearts of the festival.  I would sympathise with any band that had to follow East Pointers, but Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band are an exception, a band that dominate the stage wherever they perform, with their daring showmanship and tight musicality.  Theatrical, almost acrobatic, thoroughly engaging, these otherwise mild-mannered musicians slap on the war paint and give the audience precisely what they want, a seventy-five minute full-on energy-driven extravaganza; if Bellowhead did what they did on real ale, then this band do it on Red Bull and caffeine, or at least that’s how it seems.  On Sunday morning, festival organiser and familiar face to all Shepley visitors, Nikki Hampson, was up bright and early to introduce the three Nordic Fiddlers Bloc musicians for an informal ‘meet the band’ session in the Village Hall, where they discussed their music, whilst playing a selection of tunes and answering questions from the floor.  I was fortunate to catch a little bit of the relaxed session, which drew a fair sized crowd before popping down to the Coach House, to find Pippa Noble singing one or two traditional songs with a voice that once heard, you have difficulty getting it out of your head, as if you would ever want to.  As the afternoon concert got underway, the audience settled into their seats for performances by singer songwriters Jack Patchett and later Nova Scotia’s Mo Kenney, whose set concluded with a rather tastefully rendered “Five Years” from Bowie’s classic Ziggy Stardust period.  Duncan McFarlane was having none of it though, leaping from the stage towards the end of his band’s set, literally dragging members of the audience up on their feet to dance along with dancing Dave, a regular festival face.  Down the road in the church, a small audience gathered for the annual festival interview conducted once again by Dave Eyre, whose interviewees this year were Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson, the well established a cappella trio who are currently in the process of dismantling their popular outfit, slightly jaded after twenty-five years together.  Having launched their new album earlier in the day, the trio Moirai headlined the afternoon concert in the Village Hall with Jo Freya on all manner of woodwind instruments, Melanie Biggs on accordion and Sarah Matthews on fiddle, with all three singing.  Completing another excellent afternoon concert, which also saw performances by The Bromleys, Kelly Oliver and Mo Kenney, Moirai performed some of the songs from the album Here and Now, including the opening song “Dust If You Must”.  When Sunday evening draws near at Shepley, the emphasis is focused solely on the main marquee as the final concert approaches.  The Village Hall and Church close their doors as does the Coach House, with just a handful of people left in the bar, whilst everybody else fills the main marquee for the home run.  This year the five-piece instrumental tour de force Ímar kicked off the closing concert with their own brand of traditional Celtic music mixing their respective Irish, Scots and Manx backgrounds to create something new and vibrant, based on much older material.  Tim Edey followed with an astonishing set of songs and tunes accompanying himself on both guitar and melodeon and occasionally both at the same time by way of a loop pedal.  Tim Edey also happens to be one of the nicest, most approachable people on this or any other music scene; a truly lovely man and a pleasure to be around.  Closing the concert, headliners Coope Boyes and Simpson brought to the party a set of a cappella songs that soon had everyone in the marquee singing along, before the traditional conclusion, which saw Nikki Hampson deliver her impassioned acknowledgements and thank you’s.  Concluding with Will Noble’s reading of the traditional “Pratty Flowers”, sometimes referred to as “The Holmfirth Anthem”, complete with a clearly audible Coope, Boyes and Simpson accompaniment side stage, helped along by the backstage crew, the festival reached a fine conclusion.

Foghorn Stringband/Evie Ladin and Keith Terry | The Greystones, Sheffield | 26.05.17

The Greystones took full advantage of what seemed like the early arrival of summer tonight, at the very beginning of what looked like a hot Spring Bank Holiday weekend ahead.  Families spilled out into the beer garden in front of the pub, which on a clear day such as this, overlooks the city from its high vantage point.  Whilst pizzas were being served by the more than capable Nether Edge Wood Fired Pizza Company, the bar staff dealt with the sudden influx of visitors with a raging thirst to match their insatiable appetite for great American Old Time music.  Inside, the final preparations were being made for tonight’s double bill featuring the Foghorn Stringband and their pals Evie Ladin and Keith Terry.  A banjo rested on top of a bar table onstage whilst no less than two upright basses reclined in familiar pre-gig mode, ready for action.  Doors were flung open to let some air in as every seat in the house was busy being taken leaving standing room only; and did I mention how hot it was?  There always seems to be an atmosphere of pure joy before a Bluegrass or Old Time music gig and tonight was no exception.  After an introduction by True North Music’s Maria Wallace, the California-based duo Evie Ladin and Keith Terry were greeted with a thunderous Sheffield welcome as they not so much walked but danced onto the stage.  The duo’s talents were immediately evident as the two demonstrated some fine percussive step dancing and syncopated body slapping, performing “Jump Back”, after which Evie commented “it’s hotter in Sheffield tonight than it is in California!”  A multi-talented singer, songwriter, clawhammer banjo player and step-dancer, Evie brings to the stage her love of Appalachian music and dance, with such songs as “I Love My Honey”, “Down to the Door” and the jazz-infused “Have It All”, with a vocal coda that features the clever mash-up of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always What You Want”, Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want It” and Badfinger’s “Come and Get It”.  Keith Terry, as well as playing upright bass and a home-made five-tone harmonica that he found in a junk shop, has a penchant for slapping anything that comes to hand, from the cajon to his own torso by way of his legs, feet and cheeks, and is also no mean spoons player to boot.  As the set progresses you get the distinct impression that this is how they spend their evenings at home, in fact Evie spoke of her father’s influence, supplying his family with “great friends and good music” whilst singing Carter Family songs at home from an early age, such as Honey Lou, which the duo sang tonight.  With songs and stories from the Appalachians, together with no small measure of warmth and humour, and the occasional irreverent comment from her partner – after Evie described singing “Precious Days” at two close family memorials, he quipped “niche markets”, which drew a gasp from the audience – the duo’s set came and went all too quickly, leaving the audience wanting more.  Described as coming from all four corners of the USA, the Foghorn Stringband took to the stage, opening with a fiddle tune that soon had the entire audience clapping along, creating an immediate rapport with Sheffield.  “Innocent Road” followed immediately after, with each of the musicians offering their own vital contribution to this tight and highly infectious music, from the fiddle and mandolin leads, courtesy of Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind and Caleb Klauder respectively, to the all important rhythm of the guitar and upright bass, courtesy of Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry.  Specialising in a wide range of traditional American musical styles, from old time Appalachian fiddle tunes to Bluegrass and Honky Tonk foot stompers to Louisiana Cajun, such as Nadine’s convincing “Sud De La Louisiana”, the band’s skilful playing is the focal point of every performance; you just know that when either of these musicians step up to the resonator microphone, three on this occasion, the fireworks are guaranteed.  It’s not just the top drawer musicianship though, it’s the harmony voices, which are convincingly raw, especially on Reeb and Nadine’s take on “Ain’t Got Time To Stop and Tarry”, together with their unique a cappella version of Cathy Jordan’s beautiful “What Will We Do?”  Other highlights of the set were “Fall on My Knees” which Caleb described as ‘Hillbilly Haiku’, and the band’s reading of “Only the Lonely”, not to be confused with the Roy Orbison hit of the same name.  Finishing with the traditional “Sitting on Top of the World”, the band invited Evie and Keith back onstage to join them for the encore, “All the Good Times”, which everyone in the audience joined in with, creating a wonderful community spirit for these times.  The Greystones was the closest to a Southern States honky tonk tonight with some of the best music heard there in a good while, Andy Seward confirming that it was the best gig he’d attended in ages when I bumped into him after the show.  The sweltering heat added to the atmosphere, on a night we won’t forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

Richard Dawson | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 09.06.17

There seems to be a buzz at the moment surrounding North East singer-songwriter Richard Dawson’s latest album release Peasant, which is receiving major media attention, a four-page feature in the July edition of Uncut magazine no less and his song “Ogre” being included on the covermount CD.  Tonight this rather unassuming and mildly shambolic character ambled onstage at the Howard Assembly Room, flanked by his five-piece band featuring Angharad Davies on violin, Dawn Bothwell and Sally Pilkington on chorus vocals, each dressed in black with the splash of colour in the ash leaf branches hanging from their necks, together with Matthew Baty on drums and Johnny Hedley on bass, both of the band Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs and both in black but ditching the botanical decoration.  Dawson looked for all intents and purposes as if he could have left his fruit and veg delivery lorry outside in the street, wearing a rather ‘lived-in’ denim jacket and patchwork tweed baseball cap perched upon his head, both of which would soon be discarded as the set proceeded.  Opening with a confident reading of the seventeenth century ballad “A Parents Address to His First Born Son on the Day of His Birth”, performed a cappella with some ethereal hums from the chorus singers, Dawson flexed his vocal muscles to great effect.  Picking up a newly acquired mahogany Sigma miniature acoustic, which still had the label hanging from its neck, Dawson revealed that his bassist had recently put his foot through his other guitar. “It’s not a nightmare Johnny, accidents happen, accidents happen” he reassured his band mate.  The new guitar, tuned down to an even lower register to that of Martin Carthy, and at times reminiscent of Joseph Spence’s ‘slack key’ style, was put through it’s paces on “Soldier” and in particular “Weaver”, which followed, being one of the most exciting and theatrical performances of the night.  There’s more rough edges to Richard Dawson than the bark of a three hundred year old oak, yet it all seems right somehow.  Dawson claimed that it’s a momentous time for him personally, with all the recent exposure and radio interviews and such like, which he admitted he’s not at all used to.  Evidently pretty used to criticism by now though, Dawson took time to fiddle with his smartphone to read extracts from some of the more venomous criticism in his growing collection, such as “He sounds like a very amateur or very drunk guitar player, whose vocal ability is even less honed than his guitar playing ability and his lyrics are incomprehensible”.  Once again returning to unaccompanied fare, Dawson chose the traditional “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, citing Mike Waterson as the source, with a clear and utterly passionate reading of the song.  Why the chap in the third row decided to get up halfway through the performance is beyond me; perhaps to replenish his glass, take a pee or to have a good cry, it’s anyone’s guess really.  With bewilderment, I reach hopefully for a reasonable excuse, that he was a doctor responding to his pager.  There’s been talk of a similarity between Dawson and Robert Wyatt and I guess this pertains to the high octave vocals that Dawson strives for occasionally.  This is most apparent on “Beggar”, one of Dawson’s strongest songs in terms of originality and daring.  Whereas those particular notes identify Wyatt’s fragility, by contrast in Dawson’s case they demonstrate his strength.  This is also where some of those rough edges and cracks appear the clearest, but as Leonard Cohen famously pointed out, this is where the light comes in.  Earlier someone called for “Ogre”, which Dawson deliberately misheard as Ocre, and offered the opening verse of a song from his imagined ‘Salad’ album – “It’s so hard to get the greens every day, I just don’t like them.”  In order to draw breath, Dawson once again returned to his collection of bad reviews.  After reading a review which compared Dawson to Roy Harper’s Stormcock period, one reviewer wrote: “if Harper had lost both hands in a freak industrial accident, being forced to play his 12 string guitar with his feet.. etc” I think we started to get the picture.  The anthemic Ogre, which wouldn’t really be out of place on Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels soundtrack, was received with just rewards.  Highly theatrical, sinewy, noisy and heart-thumpingly exciting, the performance couldn’t have been further from the earlier Mike Waterson song, yet both seem to fit together so perfectly in the same set.  Closing with “The Vile Stuff”, from the earlier Nothing Important album, the almost Neanderthal stomper of a performance saw Dawson at his most animated, testing the strength of the boards with an electrifying performance of fire and passion.  During Dawson’s acknowledgements, the singer mentioned that it was a real honour to be on the road with supporting singer/musician Afework Nigussie.  Accompanying himself on a traditional one-string bowed instrument, the Masenko, a hollow square or diamond-shaped box, with decorative lathed wooden neck and cruciform cross piece used to tune the single string, the Ethiopian musician encouraged the audience to clap along to some of his songs, which they dutifully did.  Dressed in traditional costume, the musician brought to Leeds a sense of his own ancestry in six engaging indigenous songs, effectively putting the cherry on top of a really quite excellent and unusual night.

Vieux Farka Touré | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 15.06.17

The last couple of times I’ve driven out of Leeds after a gig, I’ve found myself negotiating the late night backstreets of West Yorkshire at the approach of the witching hour, in search of vaguely familiar signs pointing towards home.  This is due to the M62 eastbound being closed as part of the Highways Department’s ‘dig up the road for congested traffic’ scheme, which always starts far too early in the evening if you ask me.  Why they choose to give concert and theatre goers not even the slightest chance of vacating their town – let’s say by midnight as a reasonable hour – before getting their blue rimmed tin mugs out, I’ll never know.  Tonight I planned ahead and worked out an early escape route just in case.  Aside from this small irritation, I actually find Leeds rather pleasing by early evening, which is when I usually arrive in town, always giving myself plenty of time to pick up my ticket and find a quiet coffee bar to relax for half an hour before treating myself to some good music.  There’s something slightly cosmopolitan about the bars that spill out onto the streets along New Briggate, where friends gather before their respective shows.  The astroturf-covered tables and artificial roses that embellish the enclosed seating area in front of The Brotherhood, whose entrance is flanked by two rather large tennis racquets, provides the plein air pre-gig espresso that I’m always in search of.  A short distance up the street, I see the steps up to the Grand Theatre, strewn with a curious mix of Vieux Farka Touré aficionados and Abba fans mingling freely as they anticipate a good old sing along to the main auditorium’s performance of Mamma Mia! I imagined for a second, a confused mixed-up world where the two factions reversed roles, with the audience cheerfully joining in on all Vieux Farka Touré’s songs. I dared ponder this notion no further as showtime for both approached, although as it turned out, the Malian guitarist did actively encourage audience participation later in the concert.  It doesn’t actually seem all that long ago since Vieux Farka Touré was last in town, that time also with his trio, albeit an entirely different one.  On that occasion, a little over a year ago, I had a centre balcony seat where the sound was astonishing.  Taking a seat directly above the sound desk almost guarantees the best sound in the house, second only to sitting at the desk itself.  Tonight, I was a lot closer to the action, in fact I could only have been closer had I been sat upon the guitarist’s knee.  From this vantage point I had access to the secrets of Vieux’s playing style.  All the work comes from an overactive index finger, with a plastic finger pick attached, together with an equally busy thumb.  This is where Farka Toure’s distinctive style lies, whether he’s playing a semi-acoustic guitar on the traditional sounding tunes such as Bonheur and Ni Negaba, both from his latest album release Samba, or on his trusty blue electric on the more bluesy numbers.  The left hand is equally important of course, yet the driving force is right there on the right.  Frequently referred to as the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’, Vieux Farka Touré adds to this myth making process by presenting his music in a similar trio format to the Experience, on this tour flanked by Mamadou Kone on drums and calabash and Valery Assouan on five-string bass.  The 35 year-old guitarist is constantly aware of his audience throughout the 90 minute show, his eyes alert and fixed as his attention vacillates between what his fingers are doing to what his audience is doing.  Clearly enjoying every minute, a feeling shared by ‘Valess’ his permanently smiling bassist, who between them engage in some infectious choreography, the guitarist dominating the stage as Mamadou empathises with his informed and driving rhythms.  Paying tribute to his late father, the legendary blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Vieux performed Ali to a spellbound Leeds audience.  There’s always a sense of ‘Ali’ in the music his son makes, yet there’s also a greater sense that the songs are infused with an updated and contemporary feel, especially on the current material included in the set, which is often peppered with other World influences such as Reggae and Latin American grooves.  Playing for 90 minutes with no support, the guitarist encouraged those in the stalls to join those on the balcony who were already up on their feet.  Gesturing with both hands for the audience to rise, Vieux’s powers of persuasion worked their magic and the hall was soon visibly alive with motion and joy as the music became instantly more vibrant and rhythmically colourful.  We’ve seen this time and again at the Howard Assembly Room, and it really does show the venue at its best. I guess this is how all music should be.  To close, the musicians returned to the stage after lengthy applause to finish as they started, with the more traditional sound of the semi-acoustic guitar and tapping calabash.  A suitable conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable gig.

Beverley Folk Festival 2017 | Beverley Racecourse, Beverley | 18.06.17

Before making my way to the Racecourse itself on Friday afternoon, I deliberately took the alternative route at the Walkington junction and headed straight towards Beverley itself as if magnetically drawn to the imposing Minster, which stands majestically on the outskirts of town.  Even the steadily building rush hour traffic couldn’t keep me away, although I will point out that despite my passion for great works of ecclesiastical architecture, it wasn’t the actual Minster I was interested in on this occasion, but rather the equally majestic – in my books at any rate – Minster Records, a hive for the discerning vinyl record fan.  The sun was hot, the skies were blue and I had the sudden urge to bury my face in treasures immeasurable.  Shortly afterwards, with a copy of Kathryn Tickell’s On Kielder Side tucked under my arm, I had a quick wander around the festival village, which revealed that not much has really changed since the last time I visited the Beverley Folk Festival.  There’s the usual craft stalls, the food outlets, the large food marquee and the kid’s area including a couple of fairground rides, yet the main stages appear to have taken on a more circus-like feel, with the stripy Big Top and the Little Big Top marquees, both of which could be seen for miles across Westwood pastures, where cattle and sheep freely roamed throughout the weekend.  And what’s this?  The Atom?  Where the heck is the Wold Top Marquee?  It’s true that we British can be a fairly fickle lot at times, especially when it comes to beer and the great British weather.  Twenty-four hours of burning hot sun and we cry ‘drought’ in unison – or sometimes in harmony – and then reach for the factor 15.  I raise my hand and confess to being a guilty party when it comes to this and feel no compunction in describing the heat at this year’s event as ‘far too hot’ to say the least.  Not the festival’s fault at all, the responsibility landing squarely at the feet of Mother Nature herself.  Okay, I acknowledge that we don’t get much of this so we should indeed rejoice deliriously, but when faces of artists are pouring with sweat even during the slow ballads, then you know something’s amiss.  Personally, I could’ve done with a slightly more moderate temperature along with the occasional cool breeze, which I believe would have created a less lethargic, less flat atmosphere.  More dancing was required, more movement, more energy, that’s what a festival should always have.  One of the hottest spots in Beverley over the weekend was right there in the town centre, where on Saturday morning a gathering of traditional dancers congregated, which was enjoyed by festival goers and Beverley shoppers alike, each standing beneath awnings of the local shops.  The high street festivities were vibrant and rich in colour, due in no small part to the sunshine, but also to the town’s apparent community spirit.  I didn’t detect one single histrionic shrug or negative melodramatic gesture from the locals all of whom stopped to watch as the procession passed by beneath banners spanning the narrow streets advertising the festival.  Before the parade, we had already witnessed a rather pleasant opening night at the main festival village site situated across town in the middle of the racecourse.  On Friday night, the largest of those marquees saw performances by Jon Boden, who had managed to untangle himself from the dangling fiddles that had illustrated his promotional material for several months prior, Heidi Talbot, whose beautiful Irish vernacular and distinctive voice rejoiced in song from the same stage a little earlier in the evening, together with the ‘progressive acoustic’ trio Stillhouse, who opened proceedings on the main stage, with a set of original songs from the pen of Jonny Neaves, whilst Polly Bolton danced and swayed with her curvy mandolin.  Elsewhere on Friday evening, namely on the Little Big Top stage, we saw solo sets by two Yorkshire-based performers, York-based Alex Golisti and Bradford-based Bella Gaffney, a young singer songwriter, who treated the audience to her own rendition of the traditional “Gallows Pole”, famously performed by Leadbelly then claimed by Led Zeppelin as their own.  Polly Bolton joined her family on stage for a performance of even older songs as The Whiskey Dogs returned as festival regulars.  It has to be said though, that the night was pretty much owned by Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, whose performance effectively woke up the audience from their Friday evening slumber, shaking the tent poles and heralding in the festival proper.  Heidi Talbot joined Sam and the lads as a bunch of younger audience members formed a line in front of the stage, swaying, swooning, swimming in sweat.  Throughout the weekend, I took in what I could, which in all honesty was treated in the same manner as when visiting an art gallery, popping in and out of each of the marquees, concert rooms and workshop spaces, taking a brief glimpse here and there and soaking up the overall atmosphere, rather than making myself comfortable for the duration of a full set – although Saturday night’s performance by LAU was an exception.  One or two remarked that LAU are like Marmite, you either love them or hate them.  I’m a bit like that too; I love LAU and I hate Marmite.  Over the last few years the festival has supported the genre we now reluctantly refer to as Americana and this year was no exception with two concerts labouring under that banner.  From both sides of the Atlantic, American roots were explored by such acts as North Carolina’s Underhill Rose, Guildford’s Jonas and Jane and Cheshire’s Jaywalkers.  The two concerts also saw appearances by banjo maestro Dan Walsh, Helen Chambers, Jessica Lawson (with Phil Simpson), Lauren Housley and Pete and Polly Bolton, concluding with a main stage performance by the rather colourful band, The Ale Marys, led by Gerry McNeice, whose pink guitar matched Ani’s familiar hair colour, as they treated the audience to some good old country twang.  Throughout the weekend the newly named Atom Stage, formerly the Wold Top Marquee, saw its usual multi-purpose activity, which included the afternoon Moonbeams showcases, featuring a host of invited guests, including the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, which concluded with the entire town of Otley on stage, the young singer-songwriter Brodie Milner, looking more Ryan Adams than previously, and Nick Hall who at one point was joined by Union Jill’s Helen Taylor for an airing of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”.  The marquee was also home to the evening Area 2 showcases, presided over by Sam Pirt and Dave Gray, who introduced some of the newer names to the party, including Ben Cook, Fiona Lee, Mina Budworth and Tilly Moses as well as being used for the traditional late night sessions introduced by Leila Cooper, featured some of the artists appearing elsewhere on the bill for some rather informal and impromptu after hours performances.  Often at festivals like this, it’s impossible to capture more than a fraction of it, as so much happens simultaneously.  Referring back to my rather weak art gallery analogy, it leaves me with the only option available to me that is to relay just a flavour of what I found rather appealing over the weekend.  LAU’s ‘mad professor’ antics at the beginning of their extraordinary set on Saturday night; Gren Bartley’s highly melodic and gorgeous songs on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by his trio featuring Sarah Smout and Kath Ord; Daoiri Farrell joining Reg Meuross on stage on Sunday afternoon to perform “England Green and England Grey” and “Dragonfly”, which I haven’t heard for ages; chatting with Eliza Carthy as she headed towards the main stage to ‘wake dad up’ in time for their Sunday evening set; listening to Eddi Reader’s extraordinary voice on Sunday night, surrounded by a bunch of stella musicians, including a heavily bearded and almost unrecognisable Boo Hewerdine; having a chat with the legendary Michael Chapman over a cup of tea on a lazy Sunday morning as the church bells rang; sipping tea from a china cup and munching on lemon cake as I reflected on LAU’s Saturday night set, with Hinba still ringing in my ears; being privy to five rather good performers of song – Daoiri Farrell, Reg Meuross, Kelly Oliver, Rachel Croft and Edwina Hayes – at Saturday afternoon’s Song Circle; hearing Kathryn Roberts’ beautiful voice once again as husband Sean Lakeman accompanied her with familial empathy; and did I mention bumping into Damien O’Kane, Alan Johnson, Dan Webster, Henry Priestman, Ewan McLellan, Sam Carter, Jim Moray, the Yan Tan Tether girls and photographer pals Phil, Pete and Robbi etc. whilst having way more than my fair share of ice-cream?  That’s Beverley for another year.

Moonbeams Festival 2017 | Wold Top Brewery, Hunmanby | 08.07.17

There are one or two events on the summer festival calendar that just seem to go above and beyond the call of duty, not only staging excellent programmes of concerts over the course of a couple of days, together with providing comfortable surroundings and first class amenities – the toilets here play classical music and there’s nothing quite like doing your business and performing your ablutions to the strains of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major of a morning – but also go that one step further by welcoming you along as a member of their extended family.  Moonbeams is one such festival, which is very much a family affair, where everyone is given the opportunity to share something very special whilst in isolation from the rest of the world high upon the rolling meadows of the Yorkshire Wolds.  Driving along these narrow winding lanes, I feel a sense of escape; maybe the escape from the dreary day job, or the escape from the concerns of everyday life, or possibly just the timely escape from the dreadful ongoing conveyor belt of one bad world news story after another.  Moonbeams provides this annual weekend sanctuary and organiser Leila Cooper and her dedicated team work tirelessly to ensure that your escape is very much worth your while.  The sun was slothfully dithering by the time I immersed myself in the midst of the Yorkshire countryside on Friday afternoon, which showed evidence of recent rainfall, and one or two clouds overhead threatening an imminent return, but for the most part it was a pleasant Moonbeams day.  There’s no obvious sign of the festival site until you’re actually moments away from the gates, as you climb the hill following a series of hand-painted Moonbeams signs.  Once the familiar multi-coloured flags come into view, the striped hues of which contrast starkly with the miles of verdant landscape spreading out in all directions, then you instinctively know that the fun is about to begin.  If the Yorkshire Wolds were not quite ‘rocking’ by the time I arrived at the Brewery on Friday afternoon, then they were certainly ‘rolling’, and for as far as the eye can see.  Moments later, the familiar power chords of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” could be heard coming from the vicinity of the main Big Top marquee, as Gary Stewart’s Band sound checked, hinting at what was about to follow an hour or so later, with the band’s delivery of another iconic moment in the history of popular music, Paul Simon’s Graceland.  Picking up the familiar Moonbeams golden microphone in order to introduce the Nick Rooke Band on the Garden Stage, whose rogue folk foot-tappers suitably warmed up those who had gathered early, Leila opened the festival.  “Let’s Pirate it up” suggested the Barnsley Bard as he regaled the audience once again with the story of Jericho Wales, one of two pirates clearly evident around the festival village over the weekend. Shortly afterwards, the remainder of the opening night belonged to the main stage concerts, with acts including Blair Dunlop along with his band, who opened proceedings with an assured set, effectively raising the bar for the rest of the weekend’s artists that followed.  Closing the main stage concert on Friday night was the Celtic wizardry of Skippinish, whose prominent bagpipes and accordion rang out across the Wolds well into the Summer night, but sandwiched in between was the eagerly anticipated set by the Gary Stewart Band, who once again paid homage to Paul Simon’s ground-breaking 1986 album Graceland with all the panache and dedication of seasoned world musicians.  Introduced by the main stage compere Andy Atkinson, whose engaging personality makes him a very much established part of the Moonbeams family, the seven-piece band worked their way through the album with detailed precision.  After the opening song, “The Boy in the Bubble”, promptly followed by the title song, I thought it was high time I put down my camera and picked up my dancing shoes (both left feet I hasten to add).  First though, a visit to the bar.  Whilst waiting in the small queue at Peter’s Bar, I casually scanned the immediate surroundings and noticed that everybody, whether they were standing alone, chatting in pairs or revelling in larger groups, were mouthing along in unison to the opening lyrics of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” as Gary Stewart confidently delivered them from the stage.  The first magical moment of this year’s Moonbeams Festival.  Towards the end of the set, “You Can Call Me Al” brought the crowd to their feet, everyone momentarily hooked into the delusion that we were listening to the real thing, which on the basis of this performance, was actually as close as it gets.  Finishing with a couple of earlier Paul Simon songs, “Duncan” and “Mrs Robinson”, Gary and the band could rest easy, that they came, they saw and they very much delivered.  On Saturday morning, the weather was infinitely kinder than Friday as it formed a blanket of sunlight over the Wolds, serving to embellish the relaxed atmosphere of the Yoga session in the picturesque English Country Garden adjacent to the Garden Stage marquee, as well as providing perfect conditions for those who had gathered for the annual ramble.  If any voice could provide a suitable soundtrack for these pastoral pursuits, then it would be that of Edwina Hayes, whose bedside manner and gentle warmth was greeted with communal smiles from those gathered for the first concert of the day.  I imagine it must be fantastically rewarding for any festival promoter to see a finely-tuned programme of events unfold with such ease and Saturday must have been seen as something of a roaring success.  With such a diverse line up, Saturday seeing first rate performances by the excellent trio Stillhouse, the enduring musical partnership of Chris While and Julie Matthews, who provided two of the most moving songs of the weekend with Julie’s refugee crisis song “Are We Human?” together with a song from last year’s Songs of Child Migration project, “Pinjarra Dreams”, their empathetic voices dovetailed in close harmony throughout the set.  Then there was the hugely entertaining poems and rhymes of Les Barker and the confident musicianship of the Damien O’Kane Band, who between the three musicians, brought in both songs and tunes the distinct sound of Ireland to the sleepy Wolds of Yorkshire.  “Yorkshire people are almost as nice as Irish people” declared the singer, guitarist and banjo player, who should know, being married to one of Yorkshire’s best loved daughters.  Talisk continued to demonstrate that they too, along with Blair Dunlop, Stillhouse and Damien O’Kane, were ready to prove that the trio format is all you really need to fill a marquee with a complete and vibrant sound.  As Karin Grandal-Park and Karl Robins entertained the Garden Stage audience, their set became the last seated concert in that particular marquee, as chairs were removed to make room for the much anticipated performance by the truly remarkable Holy Moly and the Crackers, who brought the house down with their highly enjoyable set.  Conrad Bird and Ruth Patterson’s charismatic stage presence, along with their individual vocal talents and confident musicianship, were matched measure for measure by their highly watchable onstage chemistry.  In fact, such was their appeal that a return to the main stage at Moonbeams 2018 is very definitely on the cards.  As the rich flavours and aromas of several food options hovered in the air on Saturday night, illuminated by a rich golden glow upon the horizon, festival headliner Seth Lakeman prepared for his hour-long main stage solo appearance.  Seth’s instantly recognisable voice and fiddle style, augmented by a no-nonsense pulsating kick drum beat, seemed to suggest a one man band in action as the Devon-born musician performed both new material and old favourites alike.  Meanwhile, things were about to round up on the Garden Stage as another trio took to the stage in the form of a slightly more mature outfit.  The Alligators, whose hard rocking blues created a steamy atmosphere in the marquee, highlighted the great sound that had been maintained throughout the weekend, courtesy of Gerry and Ani’s ever reliable Wee Dog Sound system.  Concluding the main stage concert was an appearance by Hope and Social, featuring three musicians who had already previously dazzled the audience during Friday night’s successful Graceland performance, Gary Stewart this time leaving the spotlight in order to occupy the drummer’s seat once again.  The band’s trademark blue holiday camp blazers were worn by each member of the popular Leeds-based band as well as at least one younger fan in the audience, as little Lottie, who was perched upon the safety barrier at the front of the stage, was lifted into the spotlight by singer Simon Wainwright, providing us with another magical Moonbeams moment, not only for Lottie herself, but for everyone who were there to witness.  For those with an insatiable appetite for music – or those afflicted with chronic insomnia – the music continued well into the night with informal acoustic performances from one or two guests who had already performed on the main stages, together with a handful of other performers, such as Iona Lane and Dogfinger Steve.  Sadly, as in the case of most family reunions, the Moonbeams Festival had to come to an end, concluding on a note of sadness, with an eulogy for one very much absent member of the Moonbeams family, Tim Wall, delivered by an almost tearful Leila Cooper, the only note of sadness in an otherwise joyous weekend of fun, music and friendship.

Underneath the Stars 2017 | Cannon Hall Farm, Cawthorne, Barnsley | 23.07.17

Anyone vaguely familiar with the summer festival season will know only too well of the routines we go through, routines most of us take for granted.  It usually goes something like this: we arrive on site as early as possible on the first day, we then exchange our virtual tickets for physical wristbands, then familiarise ourselves with the site, what’s new, what’s the same, what’s positively weird and what’s positively wonderful, then we settle down with a nice Americano (or our first pint of the day) whilst thumbing through our recently purchased programme, devouring its contents in order to work out some sort of coherent plan for the weekend ahead.  Does this just about sum it up, or is it just me?  The Underneath the Stars programme quaintly entitled ‘Field Notes’ is a handsome little thing, which will live in our back pockets for the duration, making frequent appearances throughout the weekend.  It fills in all the gaps and makes sure we’re all on the same page so to speak.  On Friday, I followed this routine to the letter, arriving at page 34 before the fine Americano (and slice of cake) had settled.  The first appointment being the Little Lights Stage at precisely 1.40pm for my very first encounter with Bristol’s Yola Carter, whose country-inflected soulful music was perfectly timed to bring the fourth Underneath the Stars Festival to life once again.  One of the joys of the Underneath the Stars Festival is that the two main stages run alternately, therefore there’s little chance of missing any of the concerts, no highly frustrating clashes and ample time for stretching ones legs between acts.  The other important thing is that the festival is equally kind to children as it is to adults with plenty going on throughout the weekend.  The natural bowl, which gives the festival village its character, is awash with colour from the moment you enter the site, from the two main stages housed within two large marquees on the hill, down to the dedicated children’s area where there’s plenty of room to play, to join in with various workshops, crafts and side shows, including the highly engaging How I Hacked My Way Into Space show and Pif-Paf’s Seed show, both of which attracted huge crowds over the weekend.  Kate Rusby made her first appearance of the weekend on the main Planets Stage where she was interviewed by childhood friend Sally Smith, who at short notice replaced the popular Welsh actress Ruth Jones who was unfortunately forced to pull out due to a family bereavement.  As it turned out, the interview worked even better that expected due to the fact that Sally had plenty of childhood closet doors to open, whereupon skeletons of all descriptions flooded out.  The interview was peppered with one or two songs, such as “Awkward Annie”, “Village Green Preservation Society” and the song this festival is named after Underneath the Stars.  The most poignant moment though was when the Rusby family (mum, dad and elder sister Emma) joined Kate for the concluding a cappella song.  Friday saw a variety of acts such as John Tams and Barry Coope, whose mixture of folk ballads, social commentary and Music Hall was embellished further by a touch of Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, albeit reinterpreted in a fine Derbyshire dialect.  The American guitar and banjo wizard Tony Furtado’s first set of the weekend saw him duet with singer songwriter in her own right Stephanie Schneiderman, then Edward II’s reggae-infused take on the British Folk Songbook brought to the festival some fine fusion music to dance to.  Electronics-led singer songwriter Hannah Peel provided a more contemporary feel by mid evening before headliner Newton Faulkner took to the Planets Stage delivering a Stella performance, whose solo reading of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a complete hoot.  Rounding things off on Friday night was Bristol-based Sheelanagig, whose multi-influential music and mayhem from around Europe saw people very much on their feet.  One of the most charming moments of the festival was the Saturday lunchtime main stage appearance by the Barnsley Youth Choir who managed to draw a tear or two and not just from the parents.  Everyone seemed to be thoroughly engaged in this wonderful concert, the largest ensemble to perform on the Planets Stage over the weekend, with almost a hundred young singers and a small orchestra entertaining a huge crowd with an assortment of songs.  Joined onstage by Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane for the old bluegrass favourite “The Soul of Man”, the choir received a rapturous response, MC Andy Atkinson quite rightly exclaiming that the performance was indeed “glorious, emotional and such a joy”.   With fair weather throughout Saturday, together with one or two minor showers, the fun continued both on and off stage with a series of concerts featuring a wide range of musical styles from Old Time fiddle favourites courtesy of the A&E Oldtime Stringband, a fine mix of blues, country and swing tunes from David Broad, some ethereal harmony singing from Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, whose rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” perfectly emphasised the duo’s close and intimate stage craft and a wonderfully entertaining set by Barnsley’s own Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, which at one point featured Scott Doonican crowd surfing all the way to the bar.  Damien O’Kane and Tony Furtado also appeared on the Planets Stage during the afternoon.  Saturday night saw the arrival on stage of singer songwriter Lucy Rose, whose delicate songs and gentle delivery, reminiscent of Laura Marling, commanded the attention of a respectful audience.  “Come on, let’s see your hands” needed no further prompting as the singer performed some of her most recent songs together with one or two older and familiar favourites. “I’m such a Diva..” said the singer, “..but can the light guy shine as much light on the band as me, they are the greatest band in the world and I don’t want it to be all about me”.  Other performances on Saturday included Show of Hands, Imar and the Destroyers.  Sunday morning began with the usual Tai Chi for those up early enough to join in.  If the gentle arts didn’t quite wake campers from their slumber, then the percussion workshop certainly did, a veritable battle cry audible across the surrounding meadows.  David Gibb entertained both kids and adults alike from the Little Lights stage, not an easy task when most of the kids activities were over on the other side of the site, but hardly a problem for this charismatic performer.  Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock were keen to showcase some of the songs from their forthcoming album due out soon, each featuring Marry’s distinctive Waterson family voice along with David’s highly adventurous and idiosyncratic guitar playing with plenty of inventive foot pedal work and atmospheric samples to boot.  There’s no question that you can enjoy the Underneath the Stars Festival by flitting between the two main stages all weekend but there’s so much more going on to satisfy the senses, whether they be sight, sound, smell or taste.  The Sun Grazers area provided food and drink that was really second to none with plenty of choice and the Craft Village covered a wide and varied agenda.  There was even a dry stone walling workshop with Lydia Noble at the helm.  Chris McShane held a ukulele workshop each day, inviting people of all ages to pick up an instrument and join in some of the most colourful sessions of the weekend.  Dance workshops also took place covering both the swing era and traditional clogging.  The music continued throughout Sunday with Kitty Macfarlane, who performed beautifully on the Little Lights stage, with some of the songs from her debut EP Tide and Time, accompanied by Sam Kelly (complete with ‘Elsa’ tattoo’d cheeks) along with members of the Lost Boys, Jamie Francis and Toby Shaer.  Along with Kitty’s own songs, the singer was keen to pay tribute to Anne Briggs with a fine reading of “Go Your Way”.  Other highlights from the festival included Roddy Woomble performing “My Secret is My Silence”, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys’ “Sultans of Swing”, Cousin Pearl performing some authentic bluegrass in the Workshop Tent and Californian singer songwriter, now a resident of Manchester Jesca Hoop, whose reading of “Pegasi” was one of the most attention grabbing moments of the festival.  Utterly beautiful.  From West to the East we travelled in an instant as the dazzling Raghu Dixit took to the Planets Stage with his band, who brought the stage to life with an outstanding set, encouraging the audience to rise to their feet, which at one point even bore witness to this reviewer pogo-ing deliriously at the back.  Meanwhile on the other stage, the newly formed Glasgow-based Kinnaris Quintet brought some of their own fine arrangements for guitar, mandolin and three fiddles to the festival, bringing their own dextrous playing ability to the party.  Shortly afterwards, the stage was prepared for Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, who would effectively see the festival to its conclusion, with the band’s leader breaking not one but two guitar strings on the way.  It was however shortly before this that our host Kate Rusby would take to the stage for her much anticipated annual set.  Introduced by comedian Jason Manford, who had been spotted several times over the weekend, evidently out for a relaxing couple of days with his family, but also to perform an important role of introducing the festival’s leading lady, who went on to delight her audience with such familiar fare as “Benjamin Bowmaneer”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “Life in a Paper Boat” and “Awkward Annie”, together with some instrumental tunes by ‘the boys’ led by husband Damien O’Kane on tenor banjo.  Once again, the poignant moment of the set came towards the end when the entire Rusby family took to the stage to celebrate Kate’s 25 years of touring, with a huge cake presented to her by her two nephews.  With the stage filled with special people looking out at their own special and much loved audience, I stuffed my well-thumbed, and by this time fairly dog-eared programme, into my back pocket for the final time and headed for the final set of the weekend featuring Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, pretty much convinced that this is one of the finest family festivals in the country.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2017 | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | 30.07.17

Loudon Wainwright III probably harbours only the vaguest memories of the first time he appeared on the bill at his own very first Cambridge Folk Festival back in 1974, when he played to a much smaller audience and from a much smaller stage, which probably overlooked picket fences and camp tents of identical shapes, sizes and colours – green or khaki – your choice!  Shirley Collins evidently holds even fewer memories of her first visit to the festival almost ten years earlier, way back in 1965, the very first festival in fact, where she shared a bill with the likes of The Watersons, Peggy Seeger and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  When I sit and ponder all of the Cambridge Folk Festivals I’ve attended since my first in 1989, there’s always a sense each time of having experienced and enjoyed just one of several thousand, if not millions, of possible festivals I could have had; with so much going on, the permutations are endless.  So, with this in mind, camera in hand and with a ‘walkabout’ spirit, let me run past you the festival I chose for myself this year, without going into what I had for breakfast, what I was wearing or how much coffee I consumed in 168 hours.  I’ve always taken an interest in the almost subliminal changes that may have occurred since my last visit to the festival.  The only major changes I can recall over the last 25 years or so have been the switching position of the Stage 2 marquee with the concessions tent, the arrival of TV screens on either side of Stage1, the introduction of cash deposits on plastic glasses (oh how we miss the plastic glass mountain which kept the kids busy) and the arrival of the Den.  This year, the removal of an entire section of the Cherry Hinton campsite, presumably to make room for people to stretch their legs, together with the twisting around of the main bar, came as a bit of a shock rather than a surprise; a little like visiting Piccadilly Circus and finding Eros mysteriously pointing his arrow the other way – strange for a regular, but hardly noticeable to newcomers.  The other change this year was the inexplicable re-sizing of the traditional A6 programme to A5, previously so handy to pop in one’s back pocket.  Well they say a change is as good as a rest but some things don’t change and with four main stages and various other side attractions, including street theatre acts, the odd workshop and a multitude of surprises scattered over the four days, including the ever-present storyteller John Row, his beard being as reliable as the Archers omnibus edition, seeing everything is very much out of the question.  These days catching just a fraction of what’s going on is a much more achievable goal.  Coven for instance, I missed in favour of She Drew the Gun.  Then Martin Simpson, who I didn’t see once, choosing instead to ponder over the phenomena that is Jake Bugg.  The young girl leaning on the safety barrier on Sunday night, trembling with excitement and with a visible tear falling down her temporarily tattooed cheek just five minutes before the Nottingham-born singer took to the stage, kind of suggested that I might possibly be at the wrong gig.  Martin Simpson was but a couple of hundred yards away and I found myself in alien territory but curiously transfixed.  The weather was pretty fine this year with one or two showers, but fortunately no other lightning bolts to speak of.  I aimed to commence my own personal Cambridge journey on Thursday by stopping by The Den, which I find increasingly the most interesting stage of the festival.  This is where we are most likely to find the great artists of the future in their embryonic stage.  Chloe Leigh was already onstage, bravely taking one of the opening slots in the initial open mic session and very good she was too, as were most, if not all, of the artists appearing on that stage.  Thursday’s largest stage as always was Stage 2, with a line-up that included The Furrow Collective, introduced incidentally by this year’s guest curator Jon Boden, the popular Mawkin, singer songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Scots power trio Talisk, whilst Midnight Skyracer, a new all-female bluegrass quintet made up of Leanne Thorose, Tabitha Agnew, Laura Carrivick, Charlotte Carrivick and Eleanor Wilkie won over the audience in the Club Stage for what could possibly have been the band’s biggest show yet.  Finally on Thursday night, Daoiri Farrell performed a superb set also in the Club Tent, a performance of Stage 1 standard actually, which recalled the halcyon days of Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, both Cambridge stalwarts and in Daoiri’s case, all rolled up into one.  Friday for all intents and purposes was ‘Ladies Day’ with well over twenty acts of predominantly female personnel across four stages.  Colin Irwin took his regular hot seat on the Club Tent stage to fire routine questions at Shirley Collins, whose recent return to the stage came as a big surprise to many.  Her candour was charming, especially her iconoclastic memories of such figures as Ewan Maccoll, who evidently wasn’t her favourite bloke, as well as fond memories of Alan Lomax and Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Five minutes into the interview, the 12-piece all female a cappella shanty group She Shanties opened proceedings on Stage 1 with some strong Watersons-like vocal workouts, which resounded across the festival site heralding in the first ever gender concentrated Cambridge event.  Each of the four stages saw a stream of acts from the cookie ukulele pop of Amelia “I play my dad’s record collection” Coburn to the Indigo Girls, by way of some highly enjoyable performances in between.  If the Worry Dolls, Ward Thomas and Wildwood Kin handled the country side of things more than adequately, then Rachel Newton, The Rheingans Sisters and Shirley Collins represented the traditional and contemporary folk aspect to the letter, each providing very different aspects of the music from their particular areas.  Other highlights for Friday included the soulful blues of Amythyst Kiah, the indie sensibilities and rock poetry of She Drew the Gun and for my money, the set of the weekend by Irish singer songwriter Lisa Hannigan, whose ethereal songs and gentle delivery enchanted the main stage audience for the duration.  “We’ve been punting today and got to Grantchester” the singer boasted.  During the set, Lisa was joined by two members of her band for a fine a cappella reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem Anahorish.  Saturday soon returned to normal with the return of male artists to the stage throughout the day with appearances by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, LAU, Fantastic Negrito, Skerryvore, Moxie, Mawkin and the highly animated CC Smugglers, all of whom delivered excellent sets during the day and well into the night.  In the morning Sky Arts commandeered The Den with their cameras for the first time and predictably many couldn’t get past the walkie-talkies on the door.  It was a little bit like going to church on the week that Songs of Praise are filming.  No matter, I turned on my heels and headed for the Festival Session, Brian McNeill’s annual bash on Stage 2, where for three hours, the Scots musician encouraged collaboration with a whole host of singers and musicians appearing elsewhere on the bill, this year including CC Smugglers, Mawkin and Roxanne de Bastion amongst others.  If anything might be considered an institution at the Cambridge Folk Festival, it’s this.  During the afternoon, Stage 1 saw the arrival of Fantastic Negrito, whose brash showmanship, which marries shades of Prince with a blast of blues, divided the audience in Marmite fashion.  Alternatively, the much anticipated Orchestra of Syrian Musicians’ set was both classy and musically adventurous, with each musician in formal dress, a world away from the muddy conclusion to the day when the rain came.  By late afternoon the audience was treated to a couple of back to back sets featuring the very best of Irish music with County Kerry’s Beoga and County Clare’s Sharon Shannon, each performing their own brand of Irish traditional and contemporary music with a touch of predictable Penguin Cafe Orchestra thrown in.  Replacing the originally planned grief and healing Liv On collaboration between Olivia Newton John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls stepped into the breach with a blistering set at one point honouring Olivia with a generous rendition of “You’re the One That I Want” to the delight of much of the audience and the bemusement of hardcore Frank fans.  The showmanship, energy and attack of any Frank Turner gig is a sure fire winner, this included.  My heart went out to the Isle of Tiree’s Skerryvore who had to follow as the rain poured.  By Sunday, it became obvious that several underlined acts in my well-thumbed programme had been inadvertently missed due to being unexpectedly transfixed to other sets.  A more achievable list was compiled for the final day, with Jon Cleary highlighted out of a love for the music of New Orleans, Jake Bugg out of pure curiosity, Daphne’s Flight out of an unfulfilled need and Loudon Wainwright III out of long term fan obligation.  This festival favourite was joined by old friends David Mansfield and Chaim Tannenbaum, the three seated together throughout, largely due to Loudon’s recent operation, resulting in the temporary use of a walking aid, which the singer joked about; “When I usually play, I play with myself” he said, “sorry, it’s the tablets”.  The set was packed with Wainwright favourites such as “Swimming Song”, “School Days” and “Cardboard Boxes”, with a brief but impassioned tribute to the late Joan Woollard, widow of the man who first brought Loudon to the festival in the first place, Ken Woollard.  The highlight of the set was Loudon’s reading of the late Michael Marra song “Hermless”, which still brings a tear.  Shortly after the set, Operations Director Neil Jones delivered the message we had all been waiting for, the announcement of the 2018 guest curator, which was revealed as Rhiannon Giddens, and a wise choice in my opinion.  With further performances by Lewis and Leigh, Jake Isaac, The Eskies, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party and Oysterband, Sunday concluded with the hugely popular Hayseed Dixie.  Personally, I prefer a gentler conclusion to a very busy and eventful festival, relaxing in the Club Tent with my feet up side stage as Daphne took her final flight of the weekend, bubbles and all.  With singers of this quality, Chris While, Julie Matthews, Christine Collister, Helen Watson and Melanie Harrold, it seemed to be the ideal place to be as the festival reached its conclusion with multi-coloured Pride flags waving, just in case anyone present might still be afflicted with chronic bigotry.  Daphne’s Flight’s set was incidentally matched measure for measure by their hilarious soundcheck, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  Enjoying a final pint of Guinness in the bar, totalling about five over the entire weekend (I take this job far too seriously), as security rolled down the marquee flaps before the Hayseed Dixie crowd realised they’d missed the last pint, I pondered upon all the other journeys I could have taken over the weekend.  Should I have gone to see Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings instead of Lau?  I don’t think so.  Did a few more moments of Shirley Collins really warrant missing Cara Dillon?  Not sure.  Shirley Collins’ set just might be that all important event that could be remembered as a once in a lifetime moment, a little like the Nic Jones set a few years back.  I concluded that with each festival journey we take, the results bring their own rewards and whatever we miss this time, we’ll catch up with next.  Was it the best Cambridge Folk Festival ever?  No. Was it worth the walkabout?  Oh yes, I think so.

Richard Thompson | Sheffield City Hall | 25.10.17

Distracted by the news of the death of Fats Domino, the real ‘King of Rock n Roll’ according to Elvis Presley, I wasn’t aware, as I took a leisurely sip of ‘Starry Night’ in the Frog and Parrot on Division Street, half listening to the strains of Johnny and the Hurricanes’ “Red River Rock” dribbling out of the jukebox, that Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker had already started their opening set on stage at the nearby City Hall.  It was one of those ‘is it a 7.30pm start or 7.30pm doors?’ moments, which in all fairness, I should have checked beforehand.  Noticing the tiny figures up on stage, whilst peeking through the auditorium portholes, the pair illuminated brightly against a huge black backdrop, I made a quiet entrance through the side doors and occupied the nearest available seat, just in time to catch the last two and a half songs.  The latter half of the set included Josienne’s self-probing tour diary “Chicago”, which chronicles the duo’s first visit to the US, essentially to kick start ‘phase one’ in their pursuit of world domination.  The set closed with a rather beautiful and faithful reading of Nick Drake’s entrancing “Time Has Told Me”, which if memory serves me correctly, originally featured a young Richard Thompson on guitar back in 1969.  These purveyors of misery and melancholy performed confidently on this big stage, standing or sitting in the case of Ben Walker, a fair distance beneath the City Hall’s ornate ceiling.  By way of contrast, the last time I saw the duo, which was at the City Screen’s Basement Bar in York, their heads were almost touching the ceiling, indicating just how far Josienne and Ben’s star has risen in their tenure as darlings of the British folk scene.  Despite the contrasting scale of each of these two venues, the duo performed in precisely the same manner on both occasions, as if they were playing in some suburban front parlour, just the sort of thing to settle a Richard Thompson audience down in time for the main event.  Richard Thompson is pretty used to Sheffield City Hall, having played the venue several times before, including an early appearance with his former band Fairport Convention back in 1969, or was it 1970?  Thompson wasn’t too clear on the details.  Strolling onto the stage from the right and attired in obligatory bohemian beret and sawn off denim jacket, fashioned to suggested a possible extra from the set of Sons of Anarchy Season 8, an image that would come in handy later, with the appearance in the set of the ultimate MC anthem “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the singer/guitarist took his rightful place centre stage with little further embellishment.  Occasionally playful, Thompson seemed to know his audience well, inviting them to become his band momentarily, for a blistering performance of “Tear Stained Letter”, with the audience split into three groups; the harmony chorus to his right, the saxophone section to his left and the drummers up in the Gods.  Acoustic throughout and equipped with an archetypal singer/guitarist aesthetic, Thompson delivered some of his best loved songs right on cue, such as a highly impassioned “Beeswing” and a gorgeous reading of “Dimming of the Day” before offering a heartfelt tribute to his former bandmate Sandy Denny, returning to the timeless “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, which for my money at least, in the absence of the late Sandy, would have benefited enormously had Josienne Clarke been invited up on stage to join him; she was in the building after all, and she does occasionally provide an exemplary take on the iconic song on a good night, or on any night for that matter.  Generous with his own repertoire however, Thompson included recently revived and revitalised acoustic arrangements of songs not normally included in his set, due in part to the release of his latest album Acoustic Rarities.  “What is a rarity?” Thompson enquired rhetorically.  In this case, the definition appears to point towards self-penned originals not previously recorded by Thompson, or if they had been previously recorded, then possibly by different singers.  Songs like “Push and Shove” and “They Tore the Hippodrome Down”, each injected with Thompson’s distinctive guitar style, as well as more familiar fare, such as Thompson’s biggest ‘hit’ to date, “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight”, together with the bleak “God Loves a Drunk” and the sublime “Persuasion”.  With no less than four songs furnishing the encore, including an audience request for “I Feel So Good” and the familiar Cropredy anthem “Meet on the Ledge”, Thompson concluded with “Read About Love”, the fifth song of the night from the Rumor and Sigh set, leaving the Sheffield audience pleading for even more, knowing perfectly well that they had already been treated to enough to keep them more than satisfied.  Until the next time then.

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 16.11.17

Amongst the rich array of percussion instruments that dominated the right hand side of the stage tonight, was a Heath Robinson contraption consisting of a horizontal tube hovering above a white transparent plastic storage box, which would later provide not only the sound effect of water, but the actual thing itself.  Through holes in the tube’s underside flowed droplets of water glistening in the stage lights, bringing the essence of falling water that would dominate tonight’s performance; a performance delivered by three outstanding world class and deeply conscientious musicians.  The audience’s attention was drawn to the three silhouetted figures as they emerged from the darkness, each attired in predominantly white dashikis, as they walked across the stage to their respective places, hands clasped as if in prayer.  Seckou Keita’s recent collaboration with the Welsh classical harpist Catrin Finch was still very much in mind, their kora and harp conversations resonating still.  The anticipation of a further collaboration, this time Keita’s kora enjoying a similar conversation with Omar Sosa’s Steinway, was as eager as any in recent years.  The Cuban-born composer, bandleader and jazz pianist brought much more than the extent of his astonishing musicianship to Leeds tonight; he brought the spirit of inspirational and youthful joy, despite his 57 years, echoed throughout by Seckou’s highly infectious smile.  With Omar’s numerous keys and Seckou’s forty-four strings, his now familiar twin-necked instrument being for all intents and purposes the ‘Jimmy Page’ version of koras, the two musicians were joined by the Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, who brought to the party an incalculable array of percussion instruments, treating each of the compositions to his own trademark polyrhythmic inventiveness and energy, which would prove to be completely in tune with Omar and Seckou’s musical sparring throughout.  Seckou’s rapid flurries and flourishes dovetailed remarkably with Omar’s Latin dance rhythms, each of the musicians clearly enjoying the ride.  Once or twice throughout the ninety minute performance, the two would exchange satisfied glances, Seckou leaning over his instrument as Omar reclined almost horizontally upon his piano stool.  Occasionally the two musicians would contribute further to Gustavo’s varied range of percussion, added to the driving rhythms, with Seckou’s talking drum and Omar’s rattling bean bags attached to each of his ankles, a sort of Cuban Morris accessory if you will, not to mention the moment when Omar almost climbed into the Steinway to add further percussive strokes to the piano strings.  Speaking rarely during the performance, a clear ecological message was delivered by Omar, a meditation on the importance of the planet we all inhabit, its welfare and preservation, concluding with a thank you rather than a plea, as if he knew the audience was already on board the green train, which they probably are.  Transparent water once again symbolised the planet’s mortality, food for thought in these wasteful of times.  ‘Exquisite’ is probably an understated term for the beautiful music recently heard on the Transparent Water album, yet a term easily applied once again to this mostly instrumental performance, scattered with one or two vocal contributions from all three musicians, most notably Seckou’s lead. Some of the most atmospheric moments were those that featured Gustavo’s spoken passages, set against the kora and piano pieces, whilst the more vibrant and animated moments came with all three dancing centre stage, encouraging the Leeds audience to join in.  A most excellent night and a reminder to keep that water transparent and to use it sensibly.  It won’t last forever.