NORTHERN SKY VAULTS RADIO SHOW
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.
Kat Danser | One Eye Open | Album Review | Black Hen Music | 01.03.21
Just the mention of both New Orleans and Cuba in the same sentence brings on involuntary bodily movements, which start at the shoulders and soon find their way down to the feet. Kat Danser pitches things just right from the start on her new album One Eye Open, with a brassy intro that invites us to the dance, while at the same time effectively setting out her stall; that she is ‘a lover, an all nighter, the fuel in a butane lighter’, which comes over loud and clear in her confident vocal delivery. Backing up this confidence are a bunch of musicians who appear to relish in the party atmosphere, albeit from an unfortunate distance, the album having been produced in lockdown. The late night blues vibe of “Lonely and the Dragon”, sounds for all it’s social distanced perseverance, a tightly knit band effort, with ghostly organ and guitar interplay, both electric and acoustic, courtesy of Kevin McKendree and Steve Dawson respectively, with an empathetic horn section and the informed rhythm section of Gary Craig and Jeremy Holmes, who hold things together perfectly. Kat takes giant strides between genres, notably midway through the album, where she jumps from the gospel tones of Rhiannon Giddens on “Get Right Church” to the sheer post punk Patti Smithness of “One Eye Closed”, which not only sound like they belong to completely different albums, but could also be delivered by two completely different singers. If “One Eye Closed” might be a little out of Kat’s comfort zone, then her take on Gus Cannon’s “Bring It With You When You Come”, places her right there in the middle of it and wrapped in a blanket to boot, a performance that doesn’t only echo the popular songs of the 1920s, but also plays to the same homage bracket as Ry Cooder’s mid 1970s Jazz album. We need albums like One Eye Open, especially numbers like “Frenchman Street Shake” and “MI Corazon”, if only to remind us that life is good, despite the frequency of seismic interruptions.
John Blek | Digressions 2 Grounded | Album Review | We Are Rats Recordings | 01.03.21
One of the few refreshing aspects of the state we currently find ourselves in, is the manner in which some of our artists address their own predicament, when the most valued element of their craft is in fact missing, the people that is, who occupy the seats in front of them. John Blek is currently at home, isolated and I suppose, grounded. When children are grounded for their minor infringements, they have the choice to either sulk or lick their proverbial wounds and become highly creative. For Digressions #2 – Grounded, the Cork singer songwriter is very much engaged in the latter, much the same as he was last year, with the release of the first in this series. Here we have ten new songs, delivered with his familiar gently picked acoustic guitar accompaniment and occasional banjo, with one or two complimentary electronic instruments, something new to John’s body of work. There’s a sense that these embellishments are John’s companions in these lonely times, which both enhance the sound and provide new and exciting textures to the norm, despite the additional help from multi-instrumentalist Brian Casey, and both Davie Ryan and Peter O’Sullivan providing some of the beats. Even the instrumental piece “Walk On” benefits from its ‘Penguin Cafe’ treatment, while the spoken word “My Father’s Son” is a kind of update on Kipling’s ultra famous poem If. John promises further additions to the Digressions series, which will include live recordings and conceptual pieces, each in further pursuit of new musical goals. A positive note of optimism then, in these increasingly troubled times.
Janet Simpson | Safe Distance | Album Review | Cornelius Chapel | 01.03.21
The name Janet Simpson probably doesn’t jump out at us quite as readily as, let’s say, Lucinda Williams or indeed Rosanne Cash, though this is probably more due to the fact that this singer songwriter seldom releases solo material under her own name, but is rather more familiar to us through such projects as Delicate Cutters, Teen Getaway, Wooden Wand, the World War IV and Timber, the duo she formed with fellow Birmingham, Alabama musician Will Stewart. It’s over twenty years since Janet Simpson’s debut album and Safe Distance perhaps comes along at the right time. Opening with “Nashville Girls”, which asserts from the start that Janet is no ordinary country tinseltown girl, but something else entirely. We could start with such songs as “Awe and Wonder”, “Ain’t Nobody looking” and “Black Turns Blue”, each of which demonstrate her sensitivity as much as “Nashville Girls” shows us her playfulness. “Reno” then turns our attention to Janet’s ballsy assertiveness, with a stomping performance, each guitar chord a steadily beating heart, each chorus a road back to the bottle. The jaunty title song is a vibrant statement in waltz time, again one that demonstrates Janet’s assured command over her material, much the same as with the radio friendly “I’m Wrong”, a possible single perhaps? Concluding with the thoughtful questioning of “Wrecked”, which leaves us perhaps wanting more of the same.
Luke Concannon | Ecstatic Bird in the Burning | Album Review | The Movement | 01.03.21
The main focus here is on the former Nizlopi front man’s confident voice, which comes over with some determination on each of the ten songs. There’s an immediate desire to join in on the call and response of the opening number “Absolument”, which seems to invite your involvement. It’s guaranteed to nudge your groove and get your shoulders moving, even if your on the top deck of the number 32. Ed Sheeran is a fan we’re told midway through “Doing Nothing”, which actually shows in the megastar’s subsequent output. Concannon had his own moment in the spotlight with the Marmite release “JCB Song”, a good fifteen years ago now, in which we of a certain age were reminded of Bruce Lee movies and the A Team from our youth. Ecstatic Bird in the Burning is Concannon’s second solo album, following his debut eight years ago Give It All (2013). Written on Anais Mitchell’s farm, the songs are both honest and personal, with some tender moments such as “Feel You in My Arms”, which features some spine tingling harmonies courtesy of Stephanie Hollenberg and Hannah Meloy. There’s also a moment of stripped down splendour, with an a cappella “Denial”, a possible throwback to his Irish roots. Closing with a brief political blow out, completely removed from the rest of the album’s tender love letter, Concannon goes all Billy Bragg on us, providing his future gigs with something the audience will delight in joining in with.
Eamon O’Leary | The Silver Sun | Album Review | Reveal | 01.03.21
Originally from Dublin, this New York-based singer songwriter appears to create a similar beguiling vibe to that of his contemporaries Sam Amadon and Bonnie Prince Billy, with an almost uniformly relaxed, almost whispered vocal and gently picked guitar throughout. Once the pump organ intro to the opening song “The Living Stream” begins, played by co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis, it takes little time to dissolve into an almost ethereal feather light feel, especially on “Bernadette”, a song from which the album draws its title, which as O’Leary states, could quite easily have been ‘Signal Fires’, although, there’s also a case for ‘A Tremble in the Night’, which could have likewise been a contender. Lyrically, it doesn’t stop there, with a wealth of key lines peppered throughout the nine songs, each enhanced further by Elsie Leavy’s empathetic, almost ghost-like complimentary voice. Recorded in Brooklyn, The Silver Sun is a Sunday morning record, served best by an open window, with the flickering sun filtering through the trees.
Mari Joyce | Dear Moon | Album Review | Self Release | 01.03.21
Dear Moon is a rather fine debut from the Norwich-based singer songwriter Mari Joyce, whose ethereal voice and restrained delivery make for rewarding results. Written in a wooden hut by the river Yare in Norfolk, the eleven songs are rich in both texture and atmosphere, each one treated to uncluttered accompaniment, courtesy of Alex Hobbs on cello, Alex Patterson on violin, Iestyn Griffith on percussion with singer Johanna Herron providing an essential additional vocal, which seems to melt in with Mari’s. Enclosed in a sleeve designed by Alex Patterson’s fellow conspirator Christina Alden, who also designed Alden, Patterson and Dashwood’s three albums, Dear Moon features songs that are upon first hearing, fine examples of how to write, arrange and deliver songs that simply entrance, certainly “Blue Moon Brother”, “Home” and the title song, but the rest too. No difficulty in recommending.
John Renbourn Group | A Maid in Bremen | Album Review | MiG Music | 01.03.21
It’s always a delight to discover newly unearthed recordings from practically anything involving any of the five prongs that make up the Pentangle family, whether that’s rare Bert Jansch concerts, the odd Danny Thompson collaboration, anything associated with John Renbourn’s guitar playing and chiefly, anything featuring the highly distinctive voice of Jacqui McShee, perhaps the main feature of this new release. Recorded on St Valentine’s Day in 1978, the John Renbourn Group were sounding very much the successor of the Pentangle, albeit with a move towards eastern influences, especially in the songs that focus on her voice. The recording, lifted from a radio broadcast of a live performance in Roemer, Bremen, does include one or two scrappy performances, notably “To Glastonbury”, which sounds either under rehearsed or far too ambitious, and indeed the band’s crack at the blues, with both “Turn Your Money Green” and “Kokomo Blues”, sounding a little weak and failing really to ignite, even with the relentless flute warbling and the clearly out of place tabla. The tabla is very much more suited to the experimental side of Renbourn’s playing, notably the sprawling instrumental “Sidi Brahim”, which has its moments. Where the set really excels though, is in the traditional fare, such as “I Am a Maid That’s Deep in Love”, “The Maid on the Shore” and especially “Cruel Sister”, for which Jacqui invites the audience to join in each refrain, which fortunately they don’t, or if they do, it’s thankfully inaudible. Concluding with one of the most beautiful melodies in all of folk music, if not music in general, “Will of Winsbury” sees Jacqui at her best, backed by some delicate guitar playing and this time, a slightly more restrained flute.
Peter James Millson | Selected Works | Album Review | Reveal | 01.03.21
Essentially a ‘best of’ collection that effectively covers the story so far as the title succinctly suggests. Selected from three of the Bridport-based singer songwriter’s previous albums, though curiously nothing from his debut Sweet the Love That Meets Return, the songs serve as a suitable primer for those not yet familiar his work or indeed those earlier records, five from The Red Café (2016), a couple from Mobile (2017) and three from his most recent album Low-Key (2019). Lyrically sound, the songs are both suitably crafted and accomplished, each of which gives us a sense of the scope of Millson’s achievements thus far. Two new songs are also included in the collection, the optimistic feelgood folk pop of “In The Real World” and the utterly gorgeous “Here”, ‘If you took away the seasons and gave me only winter, there would still be summer in my heart’, a moment of reflection, where time appears to stand still. Selected Works, if nothing else, prepares us for what’s in store, a songwriter with more to say I have no doubt.
Adjiri Odametey | Ekonklo | Album Review | Africmelo | 01.03.21
The soothing and often meditative sound of Adjiri Odametey’s voice alone renders this album irresistible, together with the multi-instrumentalist’s musical arrangements of seemingly simple, yet compelling songs. Born and raised in Accra, Ghana and having ties with such groups as the Pan African Orchestra and the Ghana Dance Ballet, this musician brings a taste of his Ghanaian roots to the fore, with a crisp and clean guitar sound, which compliments his velvet vocal delivery on such songs as “Akootse”, “Kaafu” and “Oyaa”. By way of embellishing these arrangements further, Adjiri further employs the use of the more traditional African instruments, including the Mbira, the Kalimba and the Kora, each of which has the effect of sprinkling rich textures over the songs throughout, giving Ekonklo an ever deepening warmth. The rhythmic patterns that permeate “Religion” appear to enhance the song’s message, while at the same time conveying a powerful trance-like quality that is both dreamlike and enchanting, the longest track on the album but oddly enough, appearing like the shortest. Emmanuel Okai plays bass guitar and Kwesi Asare provides drums, while Nii Odai Mensah adds percussion. On a couple of tracks, Sosu Kante steps in with some Balaphone and Ngoni touches. Lovely.
n a couple of tracks, Sosu Kante steps in with some Balaphone and Ngoni touches. Lovely.
Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne | Rakes and Misfits | Album Review | Grimdon Records | 15.03.21
Rakes & Misfits comes four years after Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s debut solo album Outway Songster and finds the young singer once again accompanied by a growing collection of concertinas and melodeons, but not necessarily all at the same time. As one third of the folk trio Granny’s Attic, Cohen has further developed his appreciation of English traditional folk song and folk tunes, who includes several such songs here, notably “The Jolly Highwayman” and “Strawberry Lane”, a derivative of the “Elfin Knight” ballad. The entire album has been recorded live from the floor as it were, with no overdubs, giving it an overall live feel throughout. It really does sound as if he’s in the room there with you. One of Cohen’s new adventures is in his own developing song writing credentials, evident in such songs as “Tom King” and “Countryman in Birmingham”, both of which are delivered in a style that fits in perfectly with the rest of the material on the album, an album of songs that look at some of the characters who don’t necessarily toe the line or conform to the norms of their day.
Adam Beattie | Somewhere Round the Bend | Album Review | Self Release | 15.03.21
Known for his recent work with PicaPica, the Scots singer songwriter takes centre stage with his new album Somewhere Round the Bend, as both producer and multi-instrumentalist, while taking care of most of the parts himself with the help of a select few. When PicaPica released their debut album on Rough Trade Records, all eyes and ears appeared to be on the two lead singers Josienne Clarke and Samantha Whates, but what of the seated figure to the side? A dark horse among us. Discovering Adam Beattie’s music has been a revelation, an artist clearly in command of his own art, which he approaches with a gentle cracked vocal and a clear understanding of melody and song structure. Taking his early jazz, blues, country and traditional folk influences as a starting point, Adam gives his stories an almost cinematic treatment, in some cases reminiscent of Sergio Leone or Wim Wenders movies, the landscapes becoming more vivid upon each listen. “Stripped to the Bone” for instance, which uses as a backdrop to the refugee crisis, the Temple of Zeus, a powerful and dominating visual force. There again, Adam can take a simple almost burlesque musical theme for the short burst of “Grottammare” as a prelude for the tender “Sickle Red Moon”, for which Adam borrows his Chet Baker influence to good effect. Delving further into the songs on this album requires a spoiler alert, just like the movies. Perhaps it would be better to just check this one out and enjoy the journey.
Magpie Arc | EP3 | Collective Perspective | 15.03.21
The third in a series of three EPs that serve as an introduction to The Magpie Arc, a five-piece Sheffield/Edinburgh band made up of Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Adam Holmes, Tom A Wright and Alex Hunter. Once again an EP that comes with its surprises, notably a fine reworking of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”, with Adam taking the lead, accompanied by Nancy’s Cajun-style fiddle and Martin’s searing electric guitar. It’s Folk Rock with a refreshing new angle, revealing to us once again a band that really needs to be seen live at our (and their) earliest convenience. The most refreshing thing about The Magpie Arc is that it sets out as a new band and not as a project, something that has become a little bit twee now, much in the same way as the ‘concept album’ became the nail in the coffin for the Prog era. Back to basics, back to proper ‘worked in’ music and back to developing a style without all the pretense of a funded ‘project’. The four-track EP also features a new Nancy Kerr song “Greenswell”, reminiscent in style of Fairport’s Liege and Lief era, notably “The Deserter”, together with a new reading of Dick Gaughan’s “What You Do With What You’ve Got”, with Martin reminding us once again of his late father-in-law Roy Bailey’s fine repertoire.
Ninebarrow | A Pocket Full of Acorns | Album Review | Winding Track | 15.03.21
I really shouldn’t be surprised at the quality of this album, having heard all the duo’s back catalogue and having caught one or two of their festival sets over the last few years, but in a strange way I am. This is a superb record, which is a demonstration of two musicians at their very best. The fourth album by Dorset’s Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere, otherwise known as Ninebarrow, is released in exceptional times, yet the quality of the arrangements and the delivery is exceptional. “Under the Fence”, a derivative of the traditional “Cold Haily Windy Night” is both dramatic and atmospheric as it draws our attention to not only the duo’s dove-tailed voices and instrumental prowess, but also to their hand picked collaborators, Evan Carson on percussion, Lee Mackenzie on cello and John Parker on double bass. If “Come January” had been released in 1970, it would probably have been considered for Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album, to sit comfortably alongside Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “The Boxer”, if that’s not being over complimentary. Jon and Jay have a similar vocal communication, which is never taken for granted. The assurance of the voices on the opening song is followed by a more fragile vocal that introduces “Nestledown”, which is both affecting and tender, evoking the fragility of the Dartford Warbler, which the song is a tribute to. The well known “John Barleycorn” is treated to a fine unaccompanied intro, which with the assistance of Jon’s reed organ, maintains a hymnal quality throughout. To top it all, Jon and Jay include a restrained shanty towards the end, “Farewell Shanty”, which will no doubt please those relishing in the sudden enthusiasm for such things, followed by “Sailor’s All”, which brings this remarkable album to a fine conclusion.
SomeRiseSomeFall | No Simple Highway | Album Review | Fitzz | 15.03.21
Led by project director Michael Fitzgerald, the SomeRiseSomeFall project sets out to assist organisations to help those facing mental health and other challenges. What better way than to involve music and songs of a sensitive nature, to find, rework and re-imagine some of the finest songs around, with the help of an impressive collective of young Irish musicians. No Simple Highway features some surprising results, as these singers breath new life into songs that might otherwise have escaped our notice, Anna Mitchell’s beautiful reading of both Country Joe McDonald’s mid-60s “Thought Dream” and Roy Wood’s mid-70s “The Rain Came Down On Everything” for example, assured performances both. John Blek chooses a more faithful route for Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, which sounds like it could’ve been performed at an all-nighter at Les Cousins in 1965. Other songs given the SomeRiseSomeFall treatment include Joanna Newsom’s “Swansea” interpreted by Kevin Herron, albeit via a Bombay Bicycle Club arrangement, The Milk Carton Kids’ sublime “Years Gone By”, delivered by Dylan Howe and a fine interpretation of the old Grateful Dead number “Stella Blue” by Marlene Enright, as you imagine her perform in a smoky Belgian bar, leaning against an upright piano, illuminated by a single light from above. These songs are guaranteed to take you somewhere else, and probably somewhere special.
Daphne’s Flight | On Arrival | Album Review | Fat Cat | 15.03.21
It was at the 1995 Cambridge Folk Festival when Daphne first took flight, with five extraordinary women joining forces to pool their equally extraordinary voices and their songwriting chops, all of which would be captured shortly afterwards on their self-titled debut album. Those five women, Chris While, Julie Matthews, Melanie Harrold, Christine Collister and Helen Watson would spend the subsequent twenty-odd years working on their own solo, duo and band careers, coming together once again in 2017 for their follow up album Knows Time, Knows Change and a mandatory live album the year after. Now we see the arrival of a third studio album, which features ten original songs from the pens of these five women. There’s the highly inventive “Turn the Microphones Off”, a scream in the dark for these times, with the ever perceptive Helen Watson delivering a message that really should be heeded. Christine Collister flexes her muscular soul-drenched vocal cords all over her own smouldering “You Got Me Going”, which evokes a mixture of Sister Rosetta and Aretha all rolled into one. Julie Matthews, no stranger to a good melody and fine poetry, brings us “Be Amelia”, which tips a hat in gratitude to those extraordinary women from our past, while long time musical partner Chris While brings Charlie Dore into the frame, for the co-written “Saturday With Mr Rameer”, which includes one of those spine-tingling melodies that stays with us. Melanie Harrold draws the sisterhood together in “This Woman Today”, an anthem that could be taken to church, where rafters would be raised with ease. All the right ingredients are here, songs with a point to them, injected with humour and soul and delivered in voices that mean business. With the fearless Dave Bowie Jr adding double bass to an otherwise exclusively female pool of talent, On Arrival has certainly arrived, and not a moment too soon.
Katie Spencer | Hurt in Your Heart | EP Review | Self Release | 15.03.21
Over the past few years, Katie Spencer has found that healthy collaboration with others has been the key to her meteoric advancement as a singer and musician in her own right, the singer songwriter having been seen working with both Danny Thompson and the late Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Rory Gallagher drummer Ted McKenna, while taking those influences seriously. For her new EP, Katie pays tribute to the late John Martyn with three mid-period songs and this time with the help of two of the musicians who have worked with Martyn during his long and successful career, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and Spencer Cozens on piano and synth. The Hurt in Your Heart EP captures the spirit of John Martyn, not so much the late Sixties folk singer, or the playful joker, nor indeed the hard drinking tough guy, but the essence of the soulful performer he could often be. With a couple of songs from Martyn’s late Seventies One World period, “Couldn’t Love You More” and “Small Hours”, together with the title song from his slightly later Grace and Danger album, Katie captures the feel of Martyn’s most sublime work perfectly.
important and therefore will make a valuable addition to your bookshelf.
Book Review | Luca Chino Ferrari | Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies | November Books | 25.02.21
More of a scrapbook than a rock biography and seemingly devoid of any serious editing, judging by the amount of missing or incorrectly spelled words and the occasional faux pas (weren’t the indecisive ‘vultures’ in The Jungle Book and not Dumbo as stated? but that’s me being far too picky for my own good). This collection of writings, poems, lyrics and interviews, gathered together in one volume gives us an insight into the mind of Glen Sweeney, leader and driving force behind one of the most unusual and clearly out of step bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies looks at the Third Ear Band’s origins from the early ‘underground’ bands Giant Sun Trolley and Hydrogen Jukebox, through to the various revisits by subsequent combos in the band’s post heyday years. Some of the bitterness that lurks behind each phase of the band’s existence creeps in through the interviews, conducted between 1996 and 2019 with various ex-members of the band, together with one or two of the key protagonists involved in the band’s colourful story. We find evidence of this when reading between the lines as well as when reading the actual lines themselves, most prominently through the account of founder member, the late oboist Paul Minns, who makes his feelings known with little ambiguity, notably when he refers to his former band mate as both the ‘founder and the destroyer’ of the band and Al Stewart as bordering on the ‘saccharine’ and being ‘as musically interesting as cardboard’. We get the feeling that the members of the Third Ear Band were at loggerheads with themselves, with the authorities and with their peers alike. In one or two cases, you imagine that the author and one time manager of the band, is having to prize information out of his interviewees with a crowbar, Sweeney’s former muse Carolyn Looker for instance, whose almost monosyllabic responses reveal little. With the author following a different set of principles that that of a regular band biographer, we find much repetition in the interviews and writings, therefore many of the band’s key moments are revisited time and again throughout the book, such as the band’s notable turning point, when they had their equipment nicked, which resulted in the band becoming a totally acoustic band. There’s only so many times you can go over that incident, although later in the book there’s a suggestion that it might have been a deliberate ‘in-house’ job. The book includes around fifty illustrations, including photographs of the band, posters, flyers and ads, together with a section on Glen Sweeney’s playful soundbites. There’s also a detailed discography and an extensive day-by-day chronology, which provides a useful timeline of events, especially for serious students of the underground movement of the period. The main bonus for Third Ear Band fans though, is the accompanying six-track CD, which features the pieces that would have made up The Dragon Wakes, the band’s legendary and previously unreleased third album which would have followed Alchemy, Air Earth Fire Water and the Third Ear Band’s Music From Macbeth, the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s film version of the Scottish play, had the record company not dumped them.
mann beside the likes of Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell in that long line of true greats.
John Van Der Kiste | Roy Wood: The Move, Wizzard and Beyond | Book Review | Self-published | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.03.21
Back when I was an obsessed pre-teen Beatles fan, certain that no other song in the world would ever capture the unadulterated joy of “Penny Lane”, my dad asked if I’d ever heard anything by The Move. When he realised that I hadn’t, he immediately ushered me towards the nearest record player and introduced me to “Blackberry Way”. It was, just as my old man had anticipated, a revelation. Here was a song that was equally jubilant and haunting and made every hair on my body stand to attention. And whose, prey tell, was this unique and exciting voice? Naturally, I gobbled down everything The Move had released, including that evergreen anthem of the Summer of Love, “Flowers in the Rain”, the playfully arresting “Fire Brigade”, the powerhouse that is “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”, the melodically astounding “Chinatown” and blissfully jangly “Tonight”. My favourite to this very day, however, is the captivating and whimsical “Curly”, a song which never fails to lift my spirits, even in the middle of a pandemic. John Van Der Kiste’s biography of the man who wrote all those cherished songs was always going to be a delight to read, but I didn’t expect it to be so well-written and absorbing. Indeed, it’s all too easy to overlook the plethora of self-published music biographies that float around the Amazon listings, given that so many of them are little more than extensions of fan blogs or, worse, misguided adventures in vanity publishing. Van Der Kiste’s book is neither. From page one, it’s clear that the book is a labour of love by a devoted fan of Roy Wood and, fortunately, one who resists the temptation to flesh the content out with needless incidental detail and speculation. What you get with Roy Wood: The Move, Wizzard and Beyond is a no-frills celebration of a musician and songwriter who should maintain his seat alongside Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Graham Nash in the long line of national treasures. The book provides an engaging overview of Roy’s childhood, during which the future member of ELO was brought up on a healthy diet of Rossini and Tchaikovsky, and recounts the moment he first heard Hank Marvin’s guitar which “sounded like it had been dipped in Dettol”. This life-altering sound bestowed an obsession with the guitar upon a young Roy and it eventually led to the forming of several bands. It was with The Nightriders, later to become The Idle Race, that he got his first writing credit and where he met Jeff Lynne. It was also here that the typically very quiet and reserved Roy adopted his penchant for the flamboyant clothing and wild hair and beard styles that would come to define The Move and Wizzard. Tracing Roy’s voyage through The Move, ELO and WIzzard, Van Der Kiste reveals the highs and lows of late sixties and early seventies pop, with some eyebrow-raising tales of backstage disagreements and on-stage rows, mostly due to the usual collision of egos. But Wood seems to maintain a sense of balance and modesty throughout whilst his fellow bandmates fight over who gets the brightest spotlight. Indeed, as the fame and fortune of the sixties and seventies fades away and Roy embarks upon a quieter, though not entirely fruitless final two decades of the century, the reader acquires a clear sense that this legendary songwriter and astounding performer has come away with his marbles and dignity intact. And whilst he still doesn’t claim a penny in royalties for “Flowers in the Rain”, due to a prank that upset Harold Wilson, Roy continues to enjoy his legacy as the man who wrote some of the most enchanting songs ever committed to tape.
Flick the Dust Off | Third Ear Band | Alchemy | Harvest SHVL 756 | 1969
At a time when such bands as Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and The Edgar Broughton Band were furnishing EMI’s specially created Harvest label with music for the growing progressive rock market, the label was also unafraid to take one or two risks, introducing such outfits as The Battered Ornaments, Tea and Symphony, Quatermass and from the folk community, Shirley and Dolly Collins and Roy Harper, not to mention the highly uncertain output of a solo Syd Barrett. Perhaps the most unusual of all the outfits on the Harvest roster was the Third Ear Band, whose trance-like acoustic medieavel music was immediately at odds with everything else that was going on at the time. The instruments alone would bring on a nose bleed to those very much accustomed to the more electric sounds of Ummagumma, Deep Purple in Rock and Wasa Wasa for instance, with the oboe, recorder, cello, violin and hand drums being the order of a Third Ear Band day. I picked up a second hand copy of this album shortly after its original release in 1969, which I found languishing in the window of Ken’s Swap Shop on St Sepulchre Gate West in Doncaster, which could have been an unwanted gift or a Michael Chapman fan’s error of judgement. ‘But it’s on the Harvest label?’ During their tenure as a regular outfit on the underground scene, the band would garner some wider attention after appearing at a series of Hyde Park concerts, playing on the same bills as The Rolling Stones, Blind Faith and King Crimson. The band would find further success, albeit limited, when they scored the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s blood curdling Macbeth in 1971, who actually also appeared in the film as minstrels in the gallery. Jethro Tull were probably busy. It was the cover artwork that drew my initial attention, which seemed to fit in with my then obsession with Dennis Wheatley novels and morbid curiosity of all things Aleister Crowley, something I was pleased to grow out of by the time I reached seventeen. “Stone Circle” is probably my favourite track from this completely unusual instrumental album.
O’HOOLEY & TIDOW