Live | 2021

Brooks Williams | Cast Theatre, Doncaster | 04.03.21

I’ve always considered it odd, if not nigh on impossible, to review a live gig if you’re not actually there, yet in these wildly extraordinary times, this is precisely the way it goes.  Under normal circumstances, just prior to a show, there would be the mandatory swift beer at the bar, a chat to one or two familiar faces in the foyer and perhaps a brief perusal over items at the concessions stall as we await the final call for showtime.  Then there would be the awkward search for the seat that matches the number on your ticket, which occasionally involves climbing over an elderly couple on the end row seats or scaling the east face of the large gentleman in seat number 26, who has already taken off his shoes and stretched out his legs as if he were on a beach in the Algarve.  Not tonight though, as I take a leisurely stroll from my kitchen to the PC, with a freshly brewed coffee in hand, then immediately settle in front of the wide screen, flanked by two purposeful speakers, positioned for best effect, I await the arrival of the Georgia-born singer and guitarist Brooks Williams, who is probably still backstage at the Cast Theatre in Doncaster’s deserted town centre, just four miles from where I am sitting, awaiting his curtain call.  Brooks has been to Doncaster before on numerous occasions and I’ve been fortunate enough to catch his performances at both the Regent Hotel and at the Ukrainian Centre, home of the Roots Music Club, either on his own as a soloist or with Boo Hewerdine in the guise of State of the Union.  Tonight though, Brooks is very much on his own, armed with a couple of guitars, which as we wait, are positioned centre stage before a backdrop of deep red curtains.  Just prior to the live stream, I familiarise myself with a bunch of online videos that Brooks recently made with a handful of respected musicians, including Rab Noakes, Christine Collister, Katie Spencer and Aaron Catlow; not a bad support show it has to be said.  Unfortunately, the initial live stream wasn’t as successful as planned, which Brooks was completely unaware of, prompting a mixed reception from the fans who watched online, ranging between empathetic understanding, that these are exceptional times and things can go wrong, to anger and frustration from those eager to see Brooks on stage.  Despite carrying on regardless as backstage staff scurried around in an attempt to fix the problem, the minutes counted down at a terrific rate, with the online event collapsing into mini disaster territory.  Nevertheless, through the efforts of the staff at Cast Theatre, a glitch-free recording was uploaded just a few days after and redistributed to original ticket holders, who could then enjoy the set once again in the comfort of their own armchair and this time, with great sound and with the added ability to stop proceedings half way through to replenish their respective beverages without missing a single note.  Brooks looks completely relaxed onstage, which was filmed from two angles, opening with “Frank Delandry”, a song he claims to be his most requested.  ‘If I had a greatest hit, this would be it’ he says.  The curious thing about this concert is that it could easily have been filmed in one of the smaller spaces, but in true showbiz fashion, Brooks was given the entire main auditorium to play with, which gives the performance a sense of priority.  We tend to imagine the applause, which is reduced to just a ripple from the handful of theatre staff present, who attempt to bring atmosphere to what is obviously a fine performance.   “Get out your hankies’ says Brooks as a prelude to one of the set’s great performances, just before launching into the old Paul Metsers song “Farewell to the Gold”, a song lifted from Nic Jones’ seminal Penguin Eggs album, which Brooks claims to have left him ‘gobsmacked’ upon first hearing it.  Planted firmly into a pair of cowboy boots, with his long grey locks positioned as if blowing on the prairie, Brooks continues with “King of California”, bringing the spirit and expanse of his homeland to this very much locked down South Yorkshire venue.  Later in the hour-long performance, Brooks transforms his acoustic guitar into a workable banjo for the old fiddle tune “Elk River Blues”, which provides a warm interlude midway through the show.  With further mention of such musicians as Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt, Brooks was only too happy to pay tribute to one of his all time heroes, who would’ve been celebrating his birthday, with a bluesy reading of Watson’s timeless “Sitting on Top of the World”.  Concluding with the Joni Mitchell inspired “Faint at Heart”, a new song to his repertoire, together with a little rock ‘n roll number in the form of “Jump That Train”, Brooks was relieved of his customary encore duties, as he headed back southward, either by road or rail.  As a long time reviewer of live music, which has been majorly disrupted by current events, evident in this being the first Northern Sky live review since March 2020, I came to it with trepidation, believing such events cannot possibly recreate the unique quality of a live performance, but I’m pleasantly surprised.  After the initial glitches with the streaming, I found the concert in the end, to be most enjoyable and with a desire to see more such concerts, and to see Brooks once again in person as soon as this nightmare is over.   

Frank Carline | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | 15.09.21

The eagerly anticipated new season at the Roots Music Club has been a long time coming, a good eighteen months in fact since Bronwynne Brent played a hasty final gig before heading home unexpectedly at the outbreak of the dreaded virus who’s name we won’t mention.  The Mississippi singer was forced to cancel the rest of her tour in the process, at a time affected by uncertainty and fear, with none of us really knowing what was just around the corner.  Tonight though, we managed to put the past behind us as soon as the doors at the Ukrainian Centre were re-opened, the stage dusted down, the  lights checked, the beer barrels changed and the sound system checked, albeit in its new place, effectively bringing things back to order at one of Doncaster’s premiere acoustic music venues.  With these familiar surroundings, comes a familiar face, a face that was last seen on this stage a good twenty months ago, battered black and blue after a nasty cycling accident, an episode referenced in the stage props tonight.  Local singer, songwriter and guitar player Frank Carline surrounded himself with the contents of his shed, the name of the art installation that stands as a reminder of some of the important things in life, from the blue road bike behind him, with an amplifier attached to rack above the rear wheel, a self portrait propped upon an easel to his left and no less than three acoustic guitars to his right, each of which would come in useful over the next couple of hours. 

Almost completely recovered and rehabilitated from his accident, Frank took to his centre stage stool, wearing a bandana, which replaced the obligatory pork pie hat, a sawn-off denim jacket straight from the wardrobe of Sons of Anarchy, while sporting an impressive goatee, and launched into “Brand New Automobile”, both familiarising himself with his surroundings once again and seemingly enjoying every minute of it.  It’s not difficult to take a liking to Frank Carline, whose good-natured attitude people instantly warm to.  He doesn’t disappear into a back room or make himself aloof to his audience but rather mingles among friends.  To be honest, many in the audience tonight were in fact his friends, a loyal following that has followed him around for decades.  Perhaps Frank is best known for his treatment of the blues, especially when paying homage to such heroes as Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, turning in a fine reading of Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”, complete with bottleneck slide.  It’s not just the blues though that keeps Frank’s music alive, he also puts pen to paper with some fine songs of his own, often reminding himself of his own background, of listening to the Irish music found in his mother’s record collection, such as those by The Dubliners; “Don’t Think I’ll Get Over It” evokes some of these early memories.  Towards the end of the night, Frank invites Stuart Palmer up on stage with him, the singer/guitarist who opened the night a couple of hours earlier, with a handful of songs such as Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the late Greg Trooper’s “They Call Me Hank”.  For tonight’s finale Frank and Stuart performed a couple of songs that included “Goodnight-Loving Trail”, which served as a fine conclusion to an enjoyable opening night at the Roots Music Club and a great start to the new season.

Eddi Reader | CAST, Doncaster | 16.09.21

The first thing you might notice about Eddi Reader as she walks on stage is just how generous she is as a performer, introducing each member of her small band by name before a single note is struck.  These musicians join her for a ninety-minute set, almost huddled centre stage, each musician right there by her side, a notion of being very much in the moment and very much in the now.  Who cares about yesterday or indeed tomorrow?  This is all about the moment and Eddi is with us all the way.  Moments earlier, Findlay Napier could be seen in the foyer looking after a bunch of pre-signed goodies at the concessions stand, then steps up on stage to open the show with one or two brand new songs from his forthcoming album It Is What It Is, together with a few older favourites such as “Young Goths in the Necropolis”, “Eddie Banjo” and “Hedy Lamarr”.  Findlay settles the audience with his warm humour, easy going nature and intelligent songs, and even throws in the old favourite “Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice”, perhaps the best known song of the lot, especially to those of us who remember Hamish Imlach with some considerable fondness.  Eddi and her band are keeping their distance before and after the show, just to be on the safe side, so the singer is keen for the audience to know that the next ninety-minutes is all that matters and effectively invites us into her parlour for some familiar songs, both old and new, peppered with lashings of friendly banter, which we are made to feel we are all very much a part of.  Moving across the stage from left to right we find Alan Kelly on accordion,  Kevin Maguire on bass, husband John Douglas on ukulele and guitar and finally, her old pal Boo Hewerdine also on guitar as the show begins with “Hummingbird”, which finds the singer in fine voice, even after eighteen months away from the stage.  Dressed as if she has just been chasing butterflies in a nearby field, Eddi’s floral dress and sun hat brings just as much warmth to the theatre as does her vocal pyrotechnics and Scots humour, something the audience immediately takes to.  When enquiring whether or not Boo can remember the arrangement to “Kiteflyer’s Hill” an enthusiastic voice from the audience shouts “We do”.  It’s almost as if there’s no set list tonight as Eddi goes from one song to another, “My Home Town” and “Fairground Attraction” to “Baby’s Boat” and the Robert Burns favourite “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” and then into an almost impromptu “As Time Goes By”, as if the thought of singing the famous Casablanca song had only just moments before occurred to the singer.  When I describe Eddi as a generous performer, I mean the fact that she thinks nothing of stepping aside to let Boo sing one of the best songs of the night, the enduring “Patience of Angels”, a top forty hit for Eddi back in the mid 1990s.  It is Boo’s song after all, but a less generous artist would just take the spotlight for herself.  The hits continue with the obligatory “Perfect”, not only a number one hit in the UK, but a top ten hit in at least a dozen countries back in the late 1980s.  Despite the lockdown and such a long time away from the stage, Eddi has no problem reaching the high notes that she is famous for, her multi-octave range giving even the late Minnie Ripperton a run for her money, and in at least one instance the singer quips “Oops, too high!” after almost failing to reach one of those impossible notes, but only almost.  The showpiece of any Eddi Reader concert though, is the lead up to the concluding “Moon River”, which sees the singer taking us all on an engaging wander down Memory Lane.  As the spotlight focuses on the singer centre stage, emphasising the imaginary cigarette moving between hands, imaginary ash flicked into an equally imaginary ashtray, we are taken back to the family parties that Eddi experienced in her formative years, of family get-togethers with relatives in various stages of inebriation taking the spotlight in the front room of the family home, culminating in Eddi’s own mother, taking to the spotlight to deliver her coy rendering of the old Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer song, presumably after seeing it performed by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  It’s a fine homage to days gone by, where songs were the best means of communication, fondly remembered by this remarkable singer.  It’s a moment that affected me the first time I witnessed it a few years ago, then again for a second time a few years later and once again tonight.  A superb concert with one of the best singers around.

The Hunch | The Roots Music Club, Doncaster | 24.09.21

The Hunch might appear to come across as just four mates with a shared appreciation of good old rock and pop music, fearlessly blending genres and styles, while keeping their feet firmly to the ground, but what they offer is something joyful and rewarding, to the extent that you never know what to expect next.  Where else would you come across a set list that traverses the winding roads between Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel, Santana, Vin Garbutt and Bing Crosby with such seamless continuity?  The North East Folk stalwart Mick Doonan takes centre stage tonight, seated right beside his old pal Bob Thomas, both sharing the lead voice duties and each flanked by keyboard player Tony Bacon and guitarist Chris Hanks, both an integral part of the whole.  Difficult to categorise, but easy to understand, The Hunch are both entertaining and musically tight at the same time, bringing together touches of Rock and Pop, Americana and Country, the Blues and Latin Music, with some of Mick’s own Irish roots, The Hunch find some common ground with everything they touch, inviting the audience to enjoy the ride.  Moving seamlessly into Latin American territory, Mick leads the Roots audience in some slightly challenging chorus singing during their reading of Santana’s  “Corazón Espinado” – ‘Ah-ah-ah, corazón espinado, Cómo duele, me duele la mar, Ah-ah-ah, cómo me duele el amor..’  Easy peasy.  If some of the songs have an easy-going sing-a-long quality, one or two are there simply to fully enjoy and appreciate, such as Mark Knopfler’s “Why Worry”, with Tony Bacon putting each of the keyboard notes in their correct place, which almost send a shiver, even to one who doesn’t have much time for Dire Straits.  Tony also steps up to the mark with his accordion, notably on Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” and Richard Thompson’s “Tearstained Letter”, both joyfully executed tonight.  Opening the show, the local musician Peet Jackson surprised the audience with a splendid performance that included such songs as Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic”, Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” and the old Men at Work hit “Down Under”, together with one or two self-penned songs, including “Too Soft for Leaving and Not Hard Enough for Love”.  Another entertaining night at the Roots Club.

Robyn Hitchcock | The Greystones, Sheffield | 29.09.21

Dusk descends upon Sheffield just as I trundle along the M18, which is an early indication that Autumn is approaching at some speed.  It’s been a good nineteen months since my last visit to the Greystones, when the Irish singer-songwriter John Blek became one of the last visitors to the venue before the world received its most unwelcomed visitor in some decades.  It’s a mixture of both good news and bad as people arrive for perhaps their first live music experience for over eighteen months.  The good news is that the venue has installed a brand new PA system in the Backroom, though the bad news is that it’s not quite working yet.  After every effort to locate and rectify an irritating buzz, evidently an early post-lockdown gremlin at work, though it was soon evident that time was of the essence and tonight’s main guest Robyn Hitchcock, himself concerned about the time, suggests a move in the general direction of a Plan B and decides to go sonically naked, so to speak, ditching the new PA system fresh out of its packaging and go acoustic instead.  The room is in fact borderline acoustic/PA, depending upon the act and since Hitchcock is in possession of a striking nasal timbre, it’s a case of let’s go for it with a simple shrug of the shoulders.  Kicking off the night is the singer-songwriter Jessica Lee Morgan, along with her partner in crime Christian Thomas on acoustic bass.  It’s just as easy to fall in love with this young singer as it was her mother some fifty-three years earlier, when she first appeared on Opportunity Knocks singing a Paul McCartney song way back in 1968.  Those were indeed the days for Mary Hopkin and now her daughter Jessica is following in those mighty footsteps, her father Tony Visconti who also produced Jessica’s debut album.  Tonight Jessica performs a handful of songs from her growing repertoire, including “Packing Up”, a song of the road, something the singer is becoming very much accustomed to, having already clocked up a couple of thousand miles on this tour alone.  Wearing a green floral shirt and a head of silver white hair anyone in their sixties would be grateful for, Robyn Hitchcock soon makes the stage his own, uncluttered by microphone stands, though the monitors provide some slight enhancement of sound.  The familiar voice cuts through, not just over an unplugged acoustic guitar, but also the electric, once it comes into play, initially for “I Often Dream of Trains” and then on everything thereafter, with an almost predictable ‘Judas’ call from the audience, Robyn’s voice remaining the dominant force throughout.  The Syd Barratt influenced “Trains”, reminds us once again that English place names in songs can be equally as sexy as their American counterparts, with Basingstoke and Reading being a case in point.  The packed house remains respectfully silent during the performances, the only real interruption being a glass hitting the floor near the closed bar after the opening line to “Up To Our Nex”, the crash emphasized further by the silence, which is immediately followed by the lyric ‘so right’, delivered by the singer, with an expression that suggests a mixture of fear and concern.  I’m almost sure that Robyn changes the lyric to ‘so mad’ just for the occasion.  The first few songs cover an extensive period of time in terms of where they come from in Robyn’s extensive canon, including “Tonight” from his Soft Boys years, “Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom” and the evocative “1974” from both the Respect and A Star From Bram albums respectively, culminating in “Cynthia Mask” before he turns to the electric guitar, for “Trains”, “Chinese Bones”,  “Acid Bird” and “Up To Our Nex”.  The singer then invites both Jessica and Chris to the stage again to join him for one or two songs, earlier numbers, “Queen of Eyes” and “Brenda’s Iron Sledge”, with some pretty snazzy guitar effects, ‘like a jellyfish trying to get out of a greenhouse’ a playful Robyn quips, now fully in control.  Generous almost to a fault, Robyn delivers a handful of songs for the encore, asking the audience for song suggestions, to which they hurl a plethora of titles from the singer’s prolific back catalogue.  Settling on “Airscape” from the Element of Light period, Robyn finally knocks it on the head, leaving the audience visibly and audibly satisfied, even I dare say, the bloke at the bar who makes the entire audience aware that he has no intention of missing his train, which he probably often dreams about… when he’s alone.

Liam Ó Maonlaí | The Greystones, Sheffield | 05.10.21

“It’s been ages since I last saw you Liam” I tentatively pointed out upon entering the Green Room, situated up a short flight of stairs at The Greystones in Sheffield, a room that has no doubt served as a retreat between sets for many a familiar face over the years and a room that has also seen little action more recently due to you know what.  John Willis, the tour manager, introduces me to the singer after a riveting couple of sets downstairs in The Backroom, the suitably named concert space on the ground floor of the pub.  “I’m sure it was at the Cambridge Folk Festival”, I continued, knowing full well that it was.  “Oh” said Liam, rising from a low sofa, a friendly hand held out for me to shake, “that would have been 1997”, a flash of memory momentarily crossing a heavily bearded face, beads of sweat steadily evaporating upon his brow.  “I remember that gig so well.. Jackson Browne was sitting in the wings watching us”.  Steve Earle might have also been milling around backstage, the Texan troubadour’s set being the one immediately prior to the Hothouse Flowers’ appearance on the main stage.  This is the sort of memory that most of us would probably like to keep, if only to share with people every once in a while. 

Liam Ó Maonlaí is a good twenty-four years older now, yet his charisma is still intact, together with his warm, friendly and accommodating nature, very much evident as he approaches the piano stool a couple of hours earlier.  He wears glasses for the first number, one moment his mouth close to the microphone, the next almost touching the keys, then occasionally it all gets flipped back in an ecstatic gesture, causing his long wavy Robert Plant-like locks to fly in all directions, suitably enhancing his obvious rock star credentials.  Liam rejects this image immediately by milling around in the main bar prior to the show, meeting old friends who are out just to see him.  “Why a solo tour of Northern England?” I enquire.  “Oh, the idea was just suggested to me at a festival recently and I thought, why not?” he says, as he reaches for a glass of water on the coffee table between us.  The band that opens the show, a trio made up of Jane Stockdale, Chris Bartram and Sarah Dean, collectively known as White Sail, suitably warm up the audience with a handful of self-penned songs that includes “Beautiful World”, “Sailing on the Blue” and “Spring”, together with a reading of the traditional “She Moves Through The Fair”.  Flautist Jacquelyn Hynes is beckoned to the stage at strategic points to add some of her distinctive flute playing. 

There’s the shortest of breaks before our main guest appears, positioning himself at the piano centre stage, radiating movie star quality charisma.  After the first number, Liam lifts the glasses from his face, holds them up to the light and with the simplest flick of the wrist, tosses them over his shoulder, surplus to requirements for the rest of the set.  His eyes are hidden, not so much by the glare of the spotlight, but by a natural squint, not unlike that of a young Jeff Bridges circa the Thunderbolt and Lightfoot years.  While adjusting the microphone stand over the top of the piano, the singer peers out into the darkness, seemingly weighing up his audience, then in a playful gesture, guns down the entire front row Sid Vicious-like, motioning the weapon from side to side like a scene from The Great Escape.  “Can you imagine?” he askes, going on to admit, “I’d probably turn it on myself afterwards”.

Movies are also the subject of one of the earlier numbers in the set, a hit for his band Hothouse Flowers back in the day.  ‘Do you go to the movies..’ the singer enquires, ‘..find a friend in a film, holding hands with the heroes, fall in love with the heroine?’  It’s something we all do, something we can relate to.  The thought suddenly crosses my mind that some of the fans of the mid-eighties Dublin band might not necessarily fully appreciate the extended song cycle that soon follows, a medley that encompasses Gospel, Blues, Soul and the Gaelic tongue, but there again, those fans have probably grown in the same manner as Liam, to fully appreciate the soulfulness of this highly atmospheric performance.  “Better Days Ahead” is still there for the older fans, as well as “Christchurch Bells”, but in between there’s an occasional whistle tune, notably “The Gold Ring”, then there’s one or two covers, including surprisingly, the old Johnny Nash hit “I Can See Clearly Now”, together with the almost obligatory Dylan song, “Is Your Love in Vain” on this occasion. 

Throughout the two sets, each of the White Sail musicians are invited up to join Liam in various combinations; some harp here, a little trumpet there, one or two beats of the djembe and the occasional flute flurry courtesy of Jacquelyn Hynes, whose Pre-Raphaelite locks echo those of the singer we’ve all come to hear.  The Sheffield show is the fourth stop on Liam’s current tour, a tour that appears to be revitalising and reconfirming Liam Ó Maonlaí’s credentials as a first rate and thoroughly engaging performer.

Jack Rutter | The Roots Music Club, Doncaster | 08.10.21

It takes Jack Rutter merely a few seconds to settle into his set at the Roots Music Club tonight as the Shepley-born folk singer delivers his first solo indoor gig in almost two years, pretty much since the time of his club debut.  With two sets predominately consisting of traditional ballads, Jack finds space in the set for one or two covers, notably Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” and Dwight Yoakum’s Country-flavoured “It Won’t Hurt”, bringing a mixture of post-Genesis Prog/Pop and West Coast Hillbilly to the Doncaster venue.  Despite the sparsely populated room tonight, due in no small part to the ongoing ‘easing back to some sort of normal’ scenario, which we all know is going to take some time, the atmosphere is still one of positivity and determination.  One or two of the club regulars were also absent due to unforeseen circumstances, family commitments and other completely viable causes, but also went out of their way to send in their apologies.  The support act was also forced to cancel, though club regular Ian Mather stepped in like the trooper he is, to help get the night off to a good start.

Jack pulls most of his set list from his two albums, Hills (2017) and Gold of Scar and Shale (2019), opening with “The Lancashire Liar”, while accompanying himself on a bouzouki that couldn’t sound better.  ‘It took a long time to get it to sound like that’ the singer later admitted, a sound presumably enhanced by one or two handy inbuilt audio devices.  Continuing with “The Bilberry Moors”, the singer was on his way to marking the Ukrainian Centre in Doncaster as his own territory for the evening.  Having worked extensively in the power folk trio Moore Moss Rutter, as well as within Seth Lakeman’s band, Jack’s highly rhythmic guitar/bouzouki technique is so well rehearsed it is never brought into question.  If the quality of his playing appears to be straight off a duck’s back, then the singer chooses to challenge himself with one or two newer numbers that require more attention due to the multitude of words that are packed into the lyrics, notably “Small Northern Town”, which kicks off the second set. 

Though completely at home with the traditional fare, such as “A Dalesman’s Litany”, “Fair Janet and Young James” and “Hey John Barleycorn”, the contemporary material seems to fit in well with the bulk of the set, even while delivering such lyrics as ‘Today I had another bout with sorrow, You know this time I almost won, If this bottle would just hold out ’til tomorrow, I know that I’d have sorrow on the run’, resisting that all important Bakersfield twang or indeed the white Stetson and matching rhinestone encrusted suit.  Confident with both accompanied and unaccompanied songs, Jack enjoys the silence around the room during his reading of the traditional “Down by the Derwent Side”, an unaccompanied ‘North-Countrie’ song the singer learned from Frank Kidson.  We probably forget just how hard it is to deliver a convincing a cappella song, but Jack does it with some authority.  Concluding with a fine sing-a-long staple, “Ranzo”, the Roots Club enjoyed another fine night of acoustic music by one of the nicest musicians on the scene at the moment.

Leveret | The Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 12.10.21

Access to the Howard Assembly Room has up to now been achievable through the Opera North entrance on New Briggate, where visitors have always climbed the imposing staircase, rubbing shoulders with opera-goers and possibly not realising quite how high up in the building this intimate venue actually is.  Now that the venue has its own entrance a little further along the street, there’s a clear indication of just how elevated the room is upon entering the newly renovated atrium, which clearly shows the three levels, the Assembly Room being right at the very top.  It’s an impressive transformation and the staff seem only too pleased to welcome customers in and to show them around.  The last time I visited the venue was for its closing party back in February 2019, where we raised a glass in celebration of the venue’s tenth year.  Two and a half years later and the venue reopens its doors with an impressive programme of events, the best news being that the actual room remains unchanged, adhering to the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Tonight, the folk trio Leveret are the main guests, with Sam Sweeney on both violin and viola, Rob Harbron on concertina and Andy Cutting on a shed load of melodeons.  Clearly pleased to be out and about performing their delicate music in front of live audiences once again, this exclusively instrumental trio plays gentle and atmospheric music based on dance tunes, which appears to come over as a sort of folk version of chamber music.  Chamber folk perhaps?  So cleverly intertwined and dovetailed these arrangements are, it’s often difficult to pick out one specific instrument, each cleverly disguising each other’s presence in both unison and sumptious harmony.  Each performance is unique, the three musicians often surprising one another with the way their improvised music follows unexpected twists and turns along the road.  ‘If you were to come to see us in Manchester tomorrow night’ says Sam Sweeney, clearly enjoying the moment, ‘it will be an entirely different set’.  The three musicians seem relaxed as they arrange themselves in a small semi circle, almost huddled together, with each keeping their eyes on the other’s fingers.  Thirty fingers are constantly at work, yet there’s a calming ambiance with each of the tunes they play, or indeed sets of tunes, usually in pairs and curiously, three tunes together on just the one occasion, “Byron’s/Lady Grey/Brakes”.   They claim to know seventy-three tunes, eighteen of which come out to play tonight, from the opener “Hessian Camp” through to the final set a couple of hours later, “Rain on the Woodpile/Terminus”, before returning to their seats for the one encore, “Cotilion”, a relatively new tune in their repertoire.

There’s a sense of total relaxation after a Leveret gig, where the trance-like tunes continue to reverberate well into the night.  There’s little point reaching for the car stereo on the M62 as I trundle homeward, with such tunes as “Two Nights at Chieveley”, “Henry Blogg”, “Lola Flexen” and both Nelson’s “Hornpipe” and “Maggot” respectively, still whirling around my head, each mile whizzing past at a moderate speed.  Lovely to have the Howard Assembly Room back and as conducive to good music as it ever was.  Here’s to the next ten years.

Musicport | Whitby Pavilion, Whitby | 22.10.21-24.10.21

The one thing that all live music events have in common, whether it’s a major league outdoor rock concert, a living legend’s twilight appearance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, or perhaps a classical symphony performed within the hallowed walls of the Royal Albert Hall, or maybe even an unaccompanied octogenarian warbling away about whale fishermen in the upstairs room of a Suffolk pub, they all form a special artist/audience connection, otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.  Musicport is all about making those special connections, whether they occur on the large stage in the Pavilion’s main hall or on the quieter traditional theatre stage down the corridor, or then again it might be on the colourful and slightly more intimate floral-decked Perfumed Garden stage below.  Those unique connections might even occur outside on the funky double-decker bus or indeed in one of the plush rooms in the nearby Royal Hotel, an imposing building that dominates the corner of the North Terrace, overlooking the famous whalebone archway on the West Cliff.  There’s every reason on earth to celebrate those connections this weekend at the Musicport festival, probably more so than at any other time in its twenty-one year history, especially in light of Jim and Sue McLaughlin’s decision to retire from this particular aspect of their busy lives.

Musicport began back in 2000 and has become an integral part of the music scene, both locally and much further afield, hence the festival’s strapline Local Regional International, each year providing a rich and varied programme of events that has seen appearances by such notable acts as Buena Vista Social Club, Afro Celt Sound System, Osibisa, Misty in Roots, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Los de Abajo, Rachid Taha, Toumani Diabate, Nitin Sawhney, Hugh Masekela, The Imagined Village, Tamikrest, Sona Jobarteh, Lo’Jo and the compelling Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, a hugely popular duo chosen to headline the final Sunday night concert this year.  For the first time since the opening of the event on Friday night, the main hall is brought to complete silence out of respect for the duo, whose ethereal music wins the hearts of all present.  There are tears for the duo’s moving performance, but tears also for the final roll call, which follows shortly afterwards, as the stage fills with all those responsible for putting this landmark show together, tears that continue through the final words spoken by both Jim and Sue, which includes a special message in memory of the late Pete Holden, one of the festival’s key players, whose absence has left a gaping chasm.  The moving tribute echoes some of the sentiments delivered from the same stage a couple of days earlier, when festival regulars Jo Freya and Paul Armfield performed a couple of songs to kick off the event, especially for their friend, with the Lal Waterson song “Migrating Bird” and the Clash number “Stay Free”, Pete having once served as a roadie for the band.  Pete’s younger brother Chris is in attendance and no doubt feels the warmth as do the rest of us who are fortunate to have known him.

It is the perfect beginning and end to a slightly less than perfect festival, due in no small part to the ongoing Covid dilemma, where one or two acts are forced to drop out through no fault of their own, though their absence is quickly smoothed over by some canny reshuffling of the programme.  The festival brings one or two surprises, such as the return of Rory McLeod, who plays an impromptu set in the Perfumed Garden, treating his audience to a handful of oldies, such as “Huge Sky”, “Baksheesh Dance” and “Shirley’s Her Name”, his harmonica doing the work of many; now there’s an artist/audience connection right there.  There’s also an opening appearance on the main stage by the Congolese soukous musician Kanda Bongo Man and his band, which is a welcomed replacement for The Baghdaddies, an outfit that had itself already been booked as a replacement act, causing one or two additional headaches for the organisers, who appear to embody those proverbial ducks on water, their little legs flapping away while looking relatively calm from the waist up.  For the most part though, the festival goes according to plan, with some astonishingly remarkable performances from each of the stages.

The highlights on the main stage this weekend include the Cypriot trio Monsieur Doumani, whose psychedelic riffs take their traditional instruments to places their forebears never dreamed possible, together with a spellbinding performance by Galway’s famed daughter Mary Coughlan, who concludes a fine set with a moving take on the Chicken Shack staple “I’d Rather Go Blind”, which once again triggers all the right emotions.  Then there’s a Sunday morning wake up call courtesy of the ever vibrant Le Vent du Nord, whose foot stomping Quebecois music could very well have caused one or two ripples as far away as  Robin Hood’s Bay.  Other highlights are witnessed at the other end of the pavilion, as compere Dave Boardman introduces one exceptional act after another, including Lady Nade, who as a prelude to her set declares ‘they tried to put me in a box’, which receives a fair ripple from the audience, determined to keep this bright new Bristol-based singer well out of any such box.  Then there’s a spellbinding set by the musically gifted Ciderhouse Rebellion, who along with poet Jessie Summerhayes, the fiddler’s daughter, keep the audience glued to their seats throughout.  The Leeds-based Kinaara fuse the sounds of the Punjab with traditional British folk songs, creating engaging versions of such folk staples as “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Blackwaterside”.

In other areas and at other times, there’s intimate moments like for instance Paul Dilworth’s Gong Bath, where those present ‘bathe’ in the meditative vibrations of sound, as gently struck percussion instruments share the sonic space of the Perfumed Garden with several hearts beating slowly.  This is surely the antithesis of the two most energetic sets of the weekend, the Bristol-based rapper, poet and musician Dizraeli, who covers the entire stage with movement, while delivering some highly distinctive Hip Hop variations before an almost startled audience, together with the sweaty New Orleans-fused voodoo of Tankus the Henge, whose charismatic frontman Jaz Delorean endeavours to make Freddie Mercury look like the tour bus driver.  Ian Clayton has a word or two with guitarist/producer Justin Adams, fresh from the previous night’s performance with Les Triaboliques and just ahead of his stunning duo set with violinist Mauro Durante, originally planned for the Perfumed Garden stage but promoted to the main stage due to the aforementioned programme reshuffle.  During the conversation, the two talk about music from the perspective of a much respected musician and a much read music enthusiast, touching on several aspects of both of their lives.  For someone who considers himself a vinyl freak, the writer and record shop enthusiast Garth Cartwright struck a few chords when delivering his talk on why record shops are so important, quoting from a couple of his own publications, Going for a Song and the handsomely illustrated London’s Record Shops.

So, after several dozen coffees consumed, much music absorbed and much fun had, the celebrations continued well into the night, with echoes of Cleveland Watkiss and his Great Jamaican Songbook buzzing around my head, resonances of the acoustic sounds of Muzsikas and Himmerland and the new folk explorations of the Joshua Burnell Band still lingering on, the almost divine voice of Ríoghnach Connolly, whose tonsils negotiate jazz just as well as they do the folk songs of her mother tongue, to the stomping roots rock of The Men They Couldn’t Hang leaving their indelible mark, together with dozens of other worthy contenders far too many to mention here, including all the DJs who kept the music coming whenever there was a gap, Musicport finally came to an end.  The party probably continued well into the night as I crossed the moors homeward bound, with the final notes of Catrin Finch’s harp strings and Seckou Keita’s skittering Kora arpeggios ringing in my ears.  Could this really be the end of Musicport?  It was a sad thought.  Whether the festival continues under new management remains to be seen, but it goes without saying that there will be some rather hefty shoes to fill, that’s for sure.

Bella Gaffney | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | 12.11.21

Bella Gaffney returns to the Roots Music Club stage tonight for a solo performance, having already played here before with her band The Magpies, who made their last appearance well before lockdown.  Bella has a clear memory of the weird dolls looking down at her from their glass case on the wall to the side of the stage, like a sort of Ukrainian version of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, poised to deliver their critical wisdom from above.  The traditional dolls were removed recently for the purpose of a timely splash of paint and whether this is temporary or permanent remains to be seen.  If the dolls do occasionally freak out the performers on this stage, then their absence this time around may just put this week’s special guest at ease, enough to see her through two rather excellent sets.  Opening with “Seven Black Roses”, complete with some of John Martyn’s challenging key-changing guitar pyrotechnics, of which this musician admits are not up to the standard of her musical hero’s quite yet, although pretty impressive nonetheless, Bella settles into her opening set with some confidence.  The high standard of Bella’s guitar playing is evident from the start, with an informed background in various styles from Country and Bluegrass to British folk, bluesy licks and good old rock and roll; it’s one of the things that stands out most in any of Bella’s performances, just how good her guitar playing is.   With a mixture of self-penned songs, together with one or two traditional adaptations, notably “Little Musgrave” and the old folk blues standard “Gallows Pole”, apparently learned from a Led Zeppelin record, presumably the same psychedelically-bound LP from which most of us first heard it, together with a handful of choice covers that includes Steve Tilston’s show-stopper “Slip Jigs and Reels” and as an encore, Jez Lowe’s timeless “Old Bones”, Bella keeps the set list suitably spiced up.  If Bella’s guitar playing is top notch, then her command over the five-string banjo is also more than suitably realised, with a highly rhythmic clawhammer style, which suits her own songwriting, the style serving as the backbone to such songs as “No More Tears”, “Blood in the Air” and “Won’t You Come and Stand By Me”.  On one occasion, Bella leaves her instruments unattended momentarily to open the second set with an unaccompanied Steve Goodman song, “The Ballad of Penny Evans”, a song that made its first outing a good fifty years ago on one of Goodman’s early albums.  Inviting the audience to participate in some choice chorus singing to a variety of school grade levels, Bella has no problem enticing a few ‘fine fine fine’ and ‘more more more’ refrains with pleasing results.  Towards the end of the second set, Bella treats the Roots audience to some inventive two-handed guitar tapping on “Heaven Knows”, once again revealing a playful attitude towards her considerable musical prowess.  Earlier in the evening, Ian Mather and Dave Allison open with a handful of songs concluding with a warm tribute to the late Barry Coope with a fine reading of the John Tams song “Only Remembered”, a song that Barry would have performed hundreds of times with its author over the years and for which Barry will now be remembered.